Beating the heat in North Goa

Image of a green classic car in Goa

It’s Sunday morning in Assagao and I can’t wait to head down the street to a little place called “Villa Blanche” and its famed brunch. I had signed up the day before to reserve our seats. Despite the 96 degree heat (and 99 percent humidity), Villa Blanche seems cool and comfortable with only a few small fans.

A young man quickly comes for our drink order. Eric has the Ayurvedic Cooler and I have the fresh Ginger Lemonade. We then steal away to the buffet.

The proprietor of Villa Blanche tells us she is going back to Germany next week, though she is Italian (and of couse speaks perfect English as well). The buffet includes recipes from her German grandmother, her half-year home of Goa, Italy, and oddly America.

More than anything, the brunch items created a perfect American 4th of July picnic: potato salad (American-style, popular all over Goa), coleslaw, muffins, brownies, and even deviled eggs (labeled “American mustard eggs”)! With a flag on the wall or a stuffed bald eagle I would have been very confused about my current location (more so than usual …). The constant fireworks going off in the neighborhood didn’t help.

On that subject: Firecrackers seem to go off all the time in India. The Catholic chuches in Old Goa even had a sign posted “Do not light fireworks inside.”

I quickly filled up on the delicious fare at Villa Blanche. To work it off, we hopped on our rented scooter (250 rupee per day, about $5) and headed to Little Vagator beach — recommended by our host at Casa Tres Amigos. Sadly, we were so haraunged by agressive vendors (including not one but two women who pulled at my leg hair and suggested removal tecniques at various prices) at Vagator, we all but ran back to our scooter.

Over the bridge, we found the “Russian” beach of Morgim. It was much more low-key. Most of the oversized unfriendly faced Russians looked like they had spent the better part of a month convalescing on their beach chairs. Most likely waiting out the Siberian winter. I wasn’t prepared to wait it out with them. I bought a Frisbee and we moved on again.

After crossing back over the bridge, Eric was flagged down and fined for not having a motorcyle permit. We had heard that in a situation like this, the cop will just take whatever cash is in your possession. Eric had 1,500 rupees and so that was the fine. At least we were wearing helmets (mandatory on that highway alone).

So minus a few rupees, we headed back to our hotel to cool off in the pool — so much easier than the beach in the end.

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Saturday Night Market in Assagao

Image of Night Market in Assagao

Night markets are a big tourist attraction in a lot of places in Asia, and I’ve heard from many travellers who enjoy market shopping, however I am not one of them.

So when our hotel (more a group of thatched huts than a hotel) was loading up a Jeep for the Saturday night market in Assagao, we were encouraged to join. With nothing else to do, we piled in.

Walking through the market is never much fun for Eric and I because we can’t buy anything. For one: we’re on a budget and for two: we have to carry whatever we buy on our already tired and creaking backs. So we trudge through the market with chins in our chests trying not to look at anything. Not the best way to enjoy a market! But if you look at anything people run over and start putting products in your face and quoting prices and then you’ve just got to say no in the end.

Even with our heads down we could tell we had arrived at the food. Now we had money to spend. Eric found the beer tent and I found a lamb kebab. It turned out to be mostly ineditable, but it was exciting to have familiar food in my hands after so long.

There was a large stage where we found some seats and the real show began. A rockin’ band played Elton John, The Police, and a few Hindi songs. The dance floor filled with crowds of impossibly skinny young men, arms in the air, hips pounding, along with two Russian toddlers and their nanny.

At one point the dancers formed a long conga line and all donned their motorcycle helmets. Then snaked around the dancefloor gyrating wildly; I think it was to a great cover of “Summer of 69.”

The best part of the night was the requests. An enthusiastic older gentleman was emcee for the night. Before each song he would shout something like, “This one goes to Ali in Iran who absolutely MUST hear some Queen!”

He often got very angry at their crowd for their lack of involvement or enthusiasm. Seeing the dance floor was all dudes he exclaimed, “Last I looked I thought we had some women in this country! I will buy beers for the next five women who come to the dancefloor.” of course, this had little chance if success as the only thing women in India do less of (in public) than dance is drink, at least from what I’ve seen. During Holi in Udaipur they all hid in their homes, coming out only on upper floors with giant buckets of water to pour on Eric and I. But that’s another story.

Now, the band has changed and the crowd and dancers have turned on the new band. Like in Thailand (Pattaya and Chang Mai), the opener always seems to be the best band. Maybe to draw people in from the street. We decide to call it a night and take an overpriced taxi back to our casa. The other couples had just returned as well. The market maybe just needs a better second band.

Octopussytown

When a Hollywood film is shot “on location”, it sometimes leaves the locals with a legacy, even a fixation on their moment of limelight. Growing up in Napa, California, we could only claim a couple of scenes from Howard the Duck, but this was still enough to warrant a shout out each time we drove past the “restaurant” on the Carneros Highway. Similarly, Astoria on the Oregon Coast will forever self-identify with the Goonies. This is hardly an American phenomena. The guides at Angkor Wat in Cambodia all knew at least two words in English: “Tomb Raider”. Udaipur, the City of Lakes in the southern part of Rajasthan, has institutionalized their nostalgia for the racy, pun-riddled, cold war schlock action extravaganza, Octopussy.

I remember seeing Octopussy with my father in 1983, parental discretion exercised in the usual manner (he took me to see Zardoz, after all). This was James Bond in his Roger Moore incarnation, running about and sexing it up in India as he pursued nymph-like jewel thieves and nuke-wielding Russian madmen. Though never mentioned by name in the film, Udaipur was selected to represent India in general, and this town certainly has a wealth of Indian showpieces. Prominently featured in Octopussy are Udaipur’s magnificent Venice-esque waterfront and dreamlike Lake Palace, teeming bazaars with absurd cow-and-rickshaw choked traffic congestion, and the dramatic mountaintop Monsoon Palace perched on a bare and jagged ridge overlooking the city. This is romantic India of a caliber that Hollywood could not hope to recreate artificially, and thus the town caught a sliver of international exposure that, almost thirty years later, the inhabitants still cling to.

At some point in the indeterminate past, a local entrepreneur began screening the film at their restaurant as a lure for tourists in search of familiar, comforting, mindless entertainment. The idea evidently caught on, and the movie is now run nightly at scores of rooftop cafés. Though the signage for “Octopussy Show” can be unwittingly reminiscent of those for “Ping Pong Show” in Thai red light districts, these are wholesome establishments full of washed and weary young Westerners looking for a little cultural anchor amidst the swirling Indian commotion below. In a sense, navigating Udaipur’s narrow lanes and tightly coiled backstreets was, for me at least, assisted in no small part by the ordered sequence of Octopussy venues.

What struck us most about “India” as it was portrayed in the movie was how little things had changed, at least in Udaipur. All the grand and noteworthy monuments aside, this town was stuck in the 80’s, parts of it in the 1880’s. The street fashion had not changed perceptibly from Octopussy to the present day, though this is not really news in the land of turbans and saris. The tuk-tuks looked identical, down to the black and yellow color scheme. Indeed, the same rickshaws on screen may very well still be operation today. The garland baskets and fruit carts and even the incidental advertisements plastered on stucco walls held a timelessness that is baffling. Udaipur is Udiapur, and that’s that.

We watched it twice, happily reclining on broad bed-like cushions that ran along the outer edge of the rooftop patio. On the second viewing, our waiter kindly translated a key phrase uttered in the local tongue during one of the many fight sequences in the film. Bond had judo-flipped one of the bad guys onto a bed of nails, and the baba whose bed it was shouted “Get out of my bed!” incredulously at the would-be assassin. We got the joke! Ha ha.

The beer we sipped was dubiously legal to serve, or so we learned from our ever helpful waiter. He cheerfully explained that our proximity to the massive Jain temple across the street prevented the business from securing a formal liquor license. The beer still appeared on our receipt, but we were enjoined with a literal wink to consider it “juice” as the waiter neatly placed our empty bottles over a low wall onto the neighbor’s roof. The Jain temple, theatrically lit up in the gathering dusk, loomed above us as an unmistakable reminder: Octopussy was all around us.