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Saturday, 01 July 2017

Panjim, India & its Phases

Written by Richard Taylor
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“Panjim is just a city,” said the man in Mapusa. “No beaches.”

Good enough for me. Having already deluded myself with Pune, that ‘university town,’ a phrase that evoked mom ‘n pop bookstores and students lolling on campus knolls under the old oak tree – I’d failed to factor in the host nation. Pune was an Indian university town (recall Apu graduating from ‘Calcutta Tech,’ first in his class of seven million) and after that bit of chaos, I wasn’t going to be fooled now by this shilling for beach front, especially beachfronts as famous as Goa’s. I would stay in the quiet capital, make a day trip to the shore, stumble about the glistening knobbled heap of sun screened bodies and declare “Okay, I’ve seen it.”

Besides, I’d paid the full fare from Pune to Panjim and it rankled to jump the bus prematurely. We’d had a hair raising night circling the Ghat range hairpins and having sat up front under the full ‘aircon’ blast, I was gelid by morning (in the hotels one could dial it up again once the eager desk staff had cranked it to the polar regions). We’d parked at dawn near an office complex and I sat on the curb and thawed, surrounded by a crescent moon of cabbies, murmuring “taxi sir,” awaiting the decision.

Goa itself was pretty, there was a fair bit of choice regarding lodging and I felt better and better, outsmarting the beach crowd. My hotel room floor was elevated on the window side, the single step to this platform illuminated by lights under the trim; to prevent tripping I supposed, or facilitate cabaret.

They held a festival here for St. Francis Xavier, but according to the calendar I’d missed it by three days. It had intrigued me as a curiosity – they move his bones about but I knew what festivals could mean in India and wasn’t overly fussed that it had passed me by. So Panjim was quiet, eerily so, shutting down almost completely after dark, unnerving after weeks of bursting din from Ahmedabad to Pune (India bursts at you, that’s what it does). Still, it’s what I’d been looking for and by that evening I’d collapsed on a bench and was admiring Panjim’s major landmark, the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. It was lit up now. It had been lit up this morning in dazzling white, reflecting the sun in the blue sky. They’d built it for the seadogs centuries ago, those sailing in from Lisbon when Goa was Portugal’s colony.

That history was still evident. On the next day’s walk, I found plenty of Da Silvas and De Souzas on the shops and a main drag called Avenida Dom Joao Castro, running along the mouth of the Mandovi. The street paralleled the river’s tree lined promenade and after Mumbai’s Marine Drive, that famous but charmless stretch of concrete, braced between sea and the unbuffered honking madness of an Indian megacity, Panjim’s modest shady promenade was a very nice place to sit.

It’s a fairly recent capital, Panjim. By 1843, the old one had silted up and the upstart town seemed a better bet (its Marathi name, Panaji, meant ‘land that does not flood’). A substantial tide swells the Mandovi but it was out now, so women were traversing the slimy rock and sand, picking out seaweed and shelled critters, while the city dogs barked and gamboled, chasing the sea birds for fun. No seagulls in the chase though. I hadn’t seen gulls in India, even at port cities. In Mumbai they’d been displaced by pigeons, in Panjim by crows and their raucous caws were the only things cracking the city silence.

An old gentleman stopped by my bench to say hello and chat.

“I have a daughter in Canada,” he said.

I’d met several in India with daughters in Canada, or sons, or cousins. He inquired about Canada, I about Panjim. He told me of the Secretariat, once a summer home of a sultan, or some such. It was nearby along the Avenida, apparently the city’s oldest building.

“You have seen Old Goa?” he asked.

“Not yet.”

Old Goa had once been the capital, before silt and plague had got to it. I’d assumed it was walking distance, misread the street signs and by mid afternoon was wandering vacant parking lots on Panjim’s east side. Deflated, I sought solace and found it in the lovely quarter called Fontainhas, Panjim’s ‘old Goa,’ with brightly hued homes adorning the slopes of Altinho Hill, reflected in the canal branching off the Mandovi. It was a beautiful walk – a beautiful climb much of it, stone steps snaking about pastel walls and lush green bush and bird cages. The upkeep looked regular – bold blue and mustard yellow predominated, although after monsoon season any ‘colorwashed’ shade of the palette was acceptable except white, reserved for churches.

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On the way back to the hotel I stopped and bought bananas. There were mass bunches hanging from the frame of the kiosk, all very green.

“Don’t eat them yet,” said the vendor.

I took a nap or tried to. Outside my window the crows were extremely angry and loud.

By the next morning India had returned to Panjim. The steps of the white church were mobbed, the square jammed with stalls and tents, the vendors doing a brisk sale in pots, pans and flower garlands.

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“St. Francis Xavier festival,” I was told.

“Ah. A movable feast.”

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This seemed a good time to get out of town and visit Old Goa. But would it be? Old Goa with more Renaissance churches than anywhere in the world outside Rome? They’d be part of this festival, indeed central to it. Somewhere though, the crowds would surely dissipate, among the cobbled nooks and crannies of the old city. I’d try for that.

The bus was slow getting out. The roundabout near the station was clogged with cars, a backup for miles, revelers arriving for St. Francis’ bones.

Old Goa as it turned out, was a misleading tag, like ‘university town.’ It had looked impressive from the highway, lofty spires and massive edifices topping up the horizon. But that view too was misleading, for the cathedrals loomed splendidly in splendid isolation, connected by roads with no filling between them but trees and kiosks. This was not Old Portugal, quaint shops and red roof tiles and azulejo mosaic. The crowds were here certainly, thick jostling crowds, and the mood was festive, with long patient lineups up for the cathedral ceremonies. There were lots of guards too where the buses parked, by the main entrance, guards along the roads and on watchtowers. Lots of guns. This was India too these days.

A pretty young roadside vendor sold me a bag of peanuts, gave me an extra handful and smiled. I munched my peanuts and pushed through the crowds to where the parishioners, hawkers and golden trinkets started to peter out. Now there were a few children playing and shouting hello. Now there was another road, wending beyond the trees. There was a hint of normalcy to it. A town perhaps? A sort of old Goa? The road was cordoned off though, so I was left to my surmises.

The following day I was in Mapusa. It was my Beach Day. With the tourist map in hand I walked through Mapusa and out of it. Outskirts. Bare road. Bush and wildflowers. Butterflies. Bare-chested party people on rented motorbikes. The occasional crumbling church. Two hours later, the sparkle of sea. Vagator Beach from the signs. Sparse crowd. A red Sea King, some locals bathers. Sage green hills backstopping the sand and surf. Palm trees. A postcard beach.

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Over the rocks was another beach, more built up and touristy with tourists and their usual accoutrements: Booze, tank tops, army fatigues, myriad tattoos. It could have been any beach in the world, but for one thing. The bovines were back. India was here too. They’d been absent from Panjim. Now there were fifteen or twenty longhorns, sunning themselves near the rocks. They preferred the tourist side, with its beer and party crowd. The cows of Goa are hip.

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Back in Panjim the festivities continued into the night, the crowds unabated, their parked scooters lining the roadside in a tight interlocking weave, so that crossing the street, always an adventure, was even dodgier, seeking a breach in this barrier while skirting the cars and motorbikes. Our Lady’s church was lit up still, now in bursts of fireworks and flares. There were tourists now, draped in garlands, eating ice cream. Back at the hotel there were knocks on my door and rattling of the door handle and guffaws in the hallway outside. Panjim was a full fledged party town with trimmings.

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Sometimes the shills know best.

On the other hand, my green bananas were ready for eating.

©Richard Taylor


Last modified on Friday, 30 June 2017