On this first day of 2010, we travel all the way to India, with Leela Cyd. Currently on a nine-month journey through India, Vietnam and Turkey with her husband David, Leela has spent the last four months based in the city of Panjim in Goa. Enchanted by its Portuguese influences and the food, she takes us on a tour of this gorgeous place. Don’t miss Leela’s blog, full of great recipes and observations from life on the road.
GOA’S GORGEOUS PANJIM
Panaji in Goa, locally called by its old name “Panjim,” is a city of pastels, picturesque decaying mansions, delicious Indian sweets, old men speaking Portuguese, and whizzing “scooties” (mopeds and scooters). The last vestiges of Iberian colonialism can be felt strongly here. The city’s customs, daily schedule, infrastructure and food reflect the 500 years or so of Portuguese occupation. It was only in 1961 that Goa was annexed by India. That said, Panjim is still India – with loud streets, betel-nut chewing, bustling markets, wild Hindu festivals such as Divali, extravagant colors, intense smells (burning trash and fish galore) and that sustained kinetic chaos that seems to be under-current of anywhere India.
While the beaches of Goa are bumping 90s American rock and crowded shoulder to shoulder with tourists from Russia, Israel, UK and the US, Panjim, located inland on the Mandovi River, is most often skipped by the charter groups and beach-bums. The romance of the city lies very much in the fact it’s not oversaturated with tourists. It’s a working place with folks just doing their thing. I recommend it over the beach shack, “visit my shop, promise!?” aggressive vendors in a heartbeat.
While living in Panjim, we’ve adjusted to the heat and the rhythm of the day – everything closes here from 1 or 2pm until about 4pm. We found simple activities to be the most fun. Taking the bus into town, for example, one can pay 5 rupees (10 US cents) and hear every sound possible made by a human being. The bus driver and conductor work in tandem. They whistle, tss tss (sounds like shooing away a dirty stray dog), hoot, click, yelp, giggle and whisper in a cacophony of sounds to direct the flow of traffic and payment within the bus. I did not even know these sounds existed outside of a tropical rainforest. If aimed at a passenger in the US, the sounds would be taken as pretty offensive, let alone be used in an everyday vocabulary of transport. It doesn’t matter where the bus is going; just get on and take note at the miracles of human behavior.
Another Panjim experience that cannot be missed is a trip to the local produce/flower market. In a covered building at the center of town, tropical fruits and vegetables await, with many other delights for all of your senses. A few scenes to be had here on any given day: teenage village girls selling sweet potatoes while chatting on their cell phones; various squatting/seated positions that would break my back in a matter of minutes; flowers adorning buns that perfume the air with already a million and one smells; Santosh, the sweetest spice vendor on earth, explaining each item in his stand with the enthusiasm of someone selling rare paintings or antique diamonds; floors with bananas and papayas spilled out in one even layer, forcing the buyer to wade through the high tide of fruits to pick her prize – a gloriously orange papaya. . . The list goes on and on.
After shopping and strolling, you’ll be doing yourself a favor to pop into Kamat Hotel (they use ‘restaurant’ and ‘hotel’ interchangeably in India), catty-corner to the central Panjim Church, and dig into a masala dosa and mango lassi. For about US$1.50, I can sit down to one of the simplest and tastiest meals of my life. Picture a thin, savory, fermented semolina pancake (crispier and larger than a crepe, but in the same family) stuffed with turmeric-laced mild potato filling. Rip off a piece of the dosa, stack a little potato on top and dunk in the traditional coconut chutney (milky and mellow), dry coconut chutney (ask for this, they never just bring it to you) and tomato-y sambar (a thin and spicy soup). Washed down with the luxurious mango drink, the meal makes perfect flavor profile: sweet, salty, simple, soulful and satisfying – I never tire of it.
Eating, shopping and no-doubt a hard-earned siesta will bring us right to around 4pm, the perfect time for a swim. Steer clear of the fancy hotels and their US$10.00 pool use fee and head to the Panjim Gymkhana. For this dip, you’ll need to come prepared with the following: a swim cap (if you have hair longer than an inch); Speedo-style trunks for men; a conservative one piece for the ladies; copies of photo ids; passport photos; towels; 30 rupees per person; and, if you get a strict ticket man, a doctor’s note stating you’re healthy enough for the pool. It’s a lesson in Indian bureaucracy but, believe me, it’s worth it.
The Panjim Gymkhana Pool is Olympic in size, with several smaller pools for splashing and five diving boards. At sunset, as we plunge through the humidity into the depths from the high-dive, we catch the view of the pink Mondovi River. It’s a surreal and downright divine experience. My American identity transforms into a mermaid every time we go to swim – that is, until a teenage boy asks me about my favorite action films. Undoubtedly, my husband and I converse the most with this population; the teenage boys, unabashed and delightful, love us. One cute guy with a nose plug told us he enjoyed science as his favorite subject, stating, “The universe is beautifully unfolding.” Between the conversation, views, turquoise dives, transcendent nature of water, triumph of getting in (having all our forms, finally!) and refreshing coolness – it’s an afternoon hard to top.
The swaying coconut trees, tropical breezes, UNESCO-protected neighborhoods, temples, markets, tailors, surrounding villages and towns, churches and restaurants… there’s much more to savor about Panjim. I’ve given a few ideas, but perhaps it’s best to just come here, enjoy a cashew feni (strong local liquor) and lime soda cocktail and do as the young man in the pool mused – let Panjim and its universe beautifully unfold.
IF YOU GO
October through January is the coolest and mildest time of year. Still, remember that this is a tropical place: 80–85 degrees with 85% humidity every day!
Stay: Hotel Fontainhas at the heart of Fontianhas heritage district, with affordable rooms and lovely owners. It’s across from Panjim Inn.
Eat: Hotel Kamat, near Panaji Church and Municipal Gardens (0832-2426116). Open every day 9am–10pm.
Swim: Panjim Gymkhana Pool, Campal Panaji. Open 6:30am–10:30am & 3pm–7pm, every day except Mondays; closed several local holidays. Call ahead to ask about holidays at 0832–2225818.
Shop: Municipal Market, Althino, Panaji. Open every day 8am–9pm.