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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Magical Mystery Tour

Magnificent Monsoon in Goa

High up on a cliff that overlooks the confluence of the Tiracol River with the Arabian Sea, five friends sat on a parapet of the Tiracol Fort, stupefied by the tableau on view from Goa’s northernmost outpost. The river defines the border with Maharashtra. As genius naval strategists, the Portuguese occupied this fort in 1746 to complete the battery of defenses they set up at the mouth of all of Goa’s major rivers, especially in the northern part.

They had the southern Malabar Coast covered and with the capture of Tiracol, they had an early-warning vantage point on the Konkan Coast. They need not have bothered because the Maratha and other kingdoms on the West Coast did not have much of a navy. As such they had clear sailing all the way up to Daman, just north of Bombay and Diu, much further north on the coastline of Saurashtra.

The five friends, Gautam and Rita, Yogi (of the Motwane family whose historic public address systems, Chicago Radio, broadcast the nationalist message of Gandhi and other leaders of the freedom movement), Estelle and your Goa-besotted correspondent, sat on the battlement sipping beer. We were not that concerned about Portuguese naval strategy. We just sat transfixed at the Monsoon magic on display. We watched the giant whitecaps of the choppy brown sea attack the shores of the Casuarina-lined Querim Beach across the river and gaped at the black buildup of storm clouds as they drifted threateningly ashore from the storm-tossed sea.

Then, as the rain came pelting down and clouds of mystery poured confusion on the ground, we watched the beach and the river disappear from sight; a curtain of water descended to obscure our vision.

It was like a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra raised exponentially to the nth degree. Our ears were filled with the wail of the whistling wind, the staccato rhythm of the falling rain, the crash of the waves and the tympani of raindrops falling on our heads; our eyes were blinded with sheets of monstrous rain and jags of lightning in the sky. Behold, I thought to myself, the menacing majesty of Nature!

Our experience at Tiracol was a stunning counterpoint to an afternoon we spent on the island of Divar, just a 15-minute drive and a five-minute ferry ride from Panjim, Goa’s capital. The island is a haven with less than 3000 inhabitants, within eyesight of the capital. For those who have been on Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts in the US, it will appear familiar, if poorer.

It is a huge island with mangroves and swamps and lush paddy fields. The only link it has to the mainland and therefore to the world is a ferry that operates all day until midnight. With impressive villas and pretty cottages, the island is a dream. You can walk or bicycle around the place with no care for traffic.

The jewel in Divar’s crown is the hilltop church, which is being restored to its pristine grandeur and offers from its balconies and its foreground, sweeping views of the Mandovi River and the villages that line its banks and the hills in the distance.

The story goes that the church once had a bell donated by the master of a sinking ship that sailed up the Mandovi and made it to Divar. He survived and in thanksgiving presented his ship’s bell to the island's church. The bell sadly was too loud and shattered the windows of the church and nearby houses. So it was moved to the Se Cathedral in Old Goa, across from the famous Bom Jesus Church that houses the remains of St Francis Xavier.

As we wandered the island, we came upon the Devaaya Resort that occupies nearly five acres on its northeastern tip. We thought we might stop there to have a drink and refresh ourselves but were refused entry. When we asked why, no explanation was forthcoming. This led us to conclude it was a shady place built by outsiders in league with Goa’s famously corrupt politicians.

No wonder that Goans are up in arms against outsiders and their development projects in their haven. Clearly, the developers of this resort had the clout to override any objections the local people of Divar may have had. Its secretive exclusivity is a blot on the bucolic island. Many questions need to be asked about the place.

Aside of that glitch, our sojourn in Goa was hugely satisfying. At Cavala, a resort on Baga Beach, we rocked to music of the 1960s and 1970s. They serve superb food and the two nights we were there, it was standing room only. In the midst of a thunderous monsoon, Cavala had more people than most restaurants anywhere in India. And they were local as well as from Bombay, Delhi and foreign shores. The band played the Beatles, The Stones, Clapton, Jethro Tull, Chuck Berry and on and on. We thought we were in heaven.

Goa rocks in the Monsoon.

copyright rajiv desai 2008