A Christmas adventure, in six parts
There are a few ways that you can tell it’s Christmas in Porvorim, Goa. Simple paper lantern stars hang on the front verandah of most homes and businesses, much like the Hindus’ Diwali lanterns. The local Sainik Cooperative store around the corner is selling packages of kalkals, bebinca and other homemade Christmas sweets on a poker table in front of their store. Families on motorbikes ride by with Santa hats instead of baseball caps. And Elvis Presley croons “Blue Christmas” at the Cinamon Cafe, where our driver has brought John, Melissa and myself for an “American breakfast” to start our Christmas day.
Melissa from London, Ontario and John from Washington, D.C. arrived in Goa a few days ago and we were to relieved to discover that – in spite of never having met and having a tenuous connection to Aloysius’s house in Defence Colony – we could have a fun and memorable Christmas together.
Like myself, Melissa is a Canadian of Goan ancestry who has come here for the first time to connect with her roots. Her father taught Aloysius Hindi and her family’s ancestral home in Moira is just down the street from mine in Nachinola. Her friend John is also a first-timer to India, but an experienced traveller. Both have day jobs as mechanical engineers, but John brought with him a Chrome bag full of camera and sound equipment (including his brand new Canon 5D Mark II). He’s an avid cyclist, but shoots and writes on automotive culture as a freelancer, which we thought was funny, considering I shoot and write on bicycle culture.
Part 1: Bacon and Kashmir
I brought John and Melissa to this cafe because I knew we would have good coffee, bacon, and a patio-view of Candolim’s main drag. We’d been talking about it for a few days and decided it would be the perfect way to start off a Christmas Day spree. Melissa had made a few phone calls and booked Nilesh and his taxi van for the entire day for 1,400 rupees ($32 US).
Nilesh waited in the shade of a banyan tree while we ate breakfast and wandered the nearby shops of Acron Arcade. It’s the kind of Western-style air-conditioned shopping complex I usually avoid, except I’d discovered that they sold high-quality, reasonably-priced clothing such as linen dresses from Auroville.
“Do you want to see the Fort?” I asked John and Melissa. Sure, they said. It marked the southern end of the beach strip and was relatively close by so Nilesh continued along the main Candolim road. He tried to persuade us to stop at a Kashmir store (“very nice, my friends, I have a coupon”), which I thought was strange considering Aloysius was a regular customer and assured me that we would not be given the usual tourist runaround.
We turned up a curved steep hill to the Fort Aguada. On a previous visit by bicycle I’d been most impressed by the Portuguese-built fort’s moat. Built 396 years ago entirely of red laterite rock, Fort Aguada was named after a number of mountain-top springs that provided fresh drinking water to ships arriving in Goa after a long sea voyage.
John and Melissa had spent the last of their rupees at a coconut water vendor near the Fort’s entrance so we climbed into the van and agreed an ATM stop was necessary. “Nilesh,” I called to the front, “We need an ATM in town, please.”
“I’m not Nilesh,” he said with a trace of irritation, “I’m Atche, Nilesh’s friend.” Embarrassed, I apologized and mentally counted the number of times that day that I’d mistaken him for Aloysius’s usual driver. I’d actually driven with Nilesh a number of times when Aloysius was in town, and I’d sat close to him for several hours at a jazz-fusion concert in Campal. This also explained why he wanted to introduce us to his Kashmir friends.
He followed the Mandovi River eastwards through the villages of Nehrul, Verem, Reis Magos and Betim. We’d agreed that a visit to a spice plantation would be a nice idea and Atche told us his brother recommended Tropical Spice Plantation – one of several “eco-friendly” spice farms in the hilly Ponda area southeast of Panjim.
Part 2: No ATM, and not Nilesh!
An hour later we drove up a lushly forested village road and into the parking lot of the plantation. Every single vehicle in the almost-full parking lot was a white tourist vehicle with a yellow tourist license plate. There were no tour buses, but there was a mournful-looking elephant saddled next to a platform.
The dirt lot sloped down to a wide stone staircase and then down to a across a picturesque lagoon via a floating foot bridge. On the other side we bowed our heads so staff in red t-shirts could welcome us with fresh flower garlands, and one of them, Shandi, introduced himself as our guide and described our program over hot lemongrass tea. In a few minutes he would lead us through a small section of the plantation’s 300 acres. We’d stop and see, smell and taste the plants that produced India’s most popular cooking spices, and then we’d be served hot lunch and fresh-brewed FENI, all for 300 rupees a person.
John, Melissa and I nodded our heads. Sounded good. “Just one thing,” John added, “Where’s the ATM?” Shandi looked at him blankly.
“You know,” continued John, “For cash? We don’t have any cash.”
“No cash?” asked Shandi. He looked over at Atche who stepped forward. “No cash?” Atche echoed, “Why did you not say?”
“We did,” I said, “Remember? Coming down from the Fort I said, ‘Nilesh we need an ATM’ and you said ‘I’m not Nilesh, I’m Atche’” Shandi and Atche looked at each other and walked to a corner of the hospitality area. John, Melissa and I continued sipping our lemongrass tea. After a minute or so Shandi returned without Atche.
“Okay,” he said, “How much do you have?” We all emptied our pockets. I had a 500 rupee bill for emergencies and a few tens and twenties. John and Melissa still had nothing. Shandi turned and returned to Atche, then both came back to our table.
“Okay,” he said again, “You pay 450 rupees, and he -” Shandi motioned to our taxi driver, “- he pay 450 rupees. You pay him, yes?” We looked at Atche and he looked struck. He’d have to pay half the bill for our little foray out of his own pocket. We nodded our heads. Of course we’ll pay Atche, we were a team now.
Part 3: No culture in Goa?
The betel tree is tall, straight and hollow, like a bamboo. The one we stood under was more than two storeys high, and was swinging back and forth. One of the spice plantation pickers was up there, hanging onto the trunk beneath a clump of round betel fruits.
“Look up, see the monkey man!” encouraged Shandi. Our group of eight tilted our heads back and watched the slim tree climber coax the swaying trunk with one hand, reach out to another tree, grab it, and lightly jump from one betel trunk to another, then another.
The climber gave a whoop, then plummeted down the trunk in a free fall. We clapped, then allowed ourselves to be led to a long plank table looking over the lagoon. A pair of blue and red kingfishers perched on a nearby bough. Ron and Camilla, an American and his Indian-origin wife took it in with us. Ron asked me how long I was in Goa for and I told him six months total.
“Six months!” he said incredulously, “What will you do in Goa for six whole months?” He reminded me of the backpacker I’d met in Thailand who – when I told him I’d be cycling the country for three months – asked if that wasn’t an awfully long time to spend in just one country?
I explained that I had family history in Goa, that I’d spent a lot of money to get here, and that I now wanted to invest some time in the community as a writer.
“Have you noticed there’s no community theatre here?” asked Ron.
I looked at him, not understanding. “No community theatre?” I’d just dropped by Kala Academy with John and Melissa a couple of days ago and was astounded by the number of Konkani plays and performances that they had scheduled for the next few months. I passed the info on to Ron.
“Oh, I meant in English,” he emphasized. At that point I feared that Ron was one of those travellers who sees himself as the expert of where ever he is, after three days. “So if you’re here for a while, have you met any ex-pats to hang out with?” he asked.
It’s true that I’d hoped to join up with some people who’d come from other places and made Goa their new home. I’d only just met Stanley and Marion from New York who’d rented a suite in Candolim for six months. They seemed nice, but that was new and I wasn’t sure how that would go.
“Uh, no, not really,” I offered. Ron was aghast. “You don’t have any friends in Goa?”
“Yes, I do…” I replied. It was Ron’s turn to look like he didn’t understand. “…They’re Goan… you know, Indian.”
Ron and Camilla were travelling independently and seemed to have a genuine interest in India, but I didn’t follow Ron’s line of thinking. We finished our lunch and left them at the edge of the parking lot, where Ron was suggesting an elephant ride to his wife.
Part 4: Seven on a balcony
On the way back we stopped in Old Goa long enough to visit the 16th century Basilica of Bom Jesus Cathedral and photograph its impressive entryway in the reddening afternoon light. Melissa – like myself – came from a Roman Catholic upbringing and rushed to view the enshrined remains of St. Francis Xavier, Goa’s patron saint. I stayed at the entrance and watched John’s capture vignettes of the church’s artifacts with his new camera.
My tote bag beeped twice, paused, and then beeped again. Intrigued, I dug my hand in and rooted for the source of this unfamiliar sound. It was my new mobile phone, and Marion was on the line wondering what we were up to. I told her we were in Old Goa, but were headed back towards Candolim for some sunset cocktails on the beach if she and Stanley would like to join us.
“We’ve just come from the beach,” she said, “And we’ve got a couple of friends from France who are staying with us, but you’re welcome to come by our place for a visit instead.” I ran the idea past John and Melissa and they were game, so I directed Atche to the couple’s timeshare hotel and he parked the van by the side of the main tourist road.
I’d been there once before so warned John and Melissa that they might want to avert their gaze if the sight of oversized Russian package tourists lounging half-naked by the pool disturbed them. The staff were gingerly stepping around the loungers to set-up a poolside dinner service.
“Hello!” said Stanley when he opened the third floor door of their apartment. “Marion’s on the phone…” he motioned to his wife, who was speaking French into a microphone plugged into her laptop, “Come on out to the balcony.” Their apartment was a clean, comfortable, slightly western version of an Indian flat, and its main room balcony looked out over a treed laneway.
Melissa ran down to the pool bar to order some bottles of cold beer, and returned with a waiter in who was expertly carrying three large bottles on a tray.
“Hey,” she shrugged when we teased her on the royal treatment, “He offered to bring them up so I thought, why not?” Soon after the bottles were poured and opened, Marion’s French visitors arrived and we quickly learned that she knew them through her time in Paris as a language instructor. She’d grown up in Mumbai, but with a skill at languages and a passion for travel, she’d visited and worked in a number of countries. She’d met Stanley, a real estate lawyer, in New York’s Central Park and decided to stay.
Twenty years later they were splitting their time between New Jersey and India, and the couple had been returning to this Goan apartment for several years. I’d met them only a few days earlier when I complimented Stanley on his Indian-style running shoes on the Mandovi River ferry. We’d chatted and discovered we were all in the area for six months, and promised to get together again.
Today seemed a perfect occasion: with the addition of Marion’s two friends who, it turned out, had just returned from the very same spice plantation that we’d been to, there were seven of us squeezed into the tiny balcony for easy, amicable Christmas Day conversation. An hour turned into two and Melissa reminded us that Atche was still waiting for us down on the street.
Stanley told me he and Marion would be heading out for a few weeks’ regional travel the next day, so we parted with hugs and they promised to call and share their adventures when they’d returned. After cheek kisses all around and good wishes, the three of us walked down the stairs and past the pool. Marion had told us that the resort was putting on a Christmas dinner and dance for only 200 rupees ($4.50 CAD) that we were welcome to join, but I’d told them we had plans for “Camroon Kingdom” later that evening.
Part 5: Prepare for Camroon Kingdom
By seven o’clock Atche had delivered us back to the house in Porvorim and we’d paid him his full amount. “Meet us back here at 9?” asked John, peering into the window.
Atche shook his head. “Nilesh,” he said, and drove off. I wondered if we’d been awful customers, or if Atche was simply handing the evening portion of the day off to his co-worker.
“Well, I thought we were a team,” joked John. We cleaned up, rested and prepared for the extravaganza that would complete our Christmas festivities.
Earlier in the week I’d sighted a banner near the Sainik Store where Melissa was buying bebinca. “Christmas Ball at Camroon Kingdom,” it read. “December 25 – 9pm to 12pm – 35+ couples – Goan dinner and dance – waltz, cha-cha, foxtrot – live Goan, Portuguese and oldies music – formal attire – Bastora.” Because I’d ridden that area a couple of weeks ago, I happened to know that the village of Bastora was less than twenty minutes away by vehicle.
“Look!” I called over to John and Melissa and pointed to the sign, “Live Goan music and food in a Goan village for a Goan Christmas night! What’s there not to like?!” They read the “35+” age restriction and looked doubtful, but said they’d give it a shot if it wasn’t too expensive.
I jotted the number down and dialled it as soon as we were back at the house. Cameron, one of the organizers said the cover price included entry, food, drinks and prizes. “Great!” I said, “How much?”
“A thousand rupees,” Cameron responded. “That’s per couple – it’s a couples’ dance.”
“But I’m a ‘single,’” I said mournfully. “Does that mean I can’t come?” Cameron assured me that I’d be welcome for 500 rupees, of course, and reminded me to pass the word that it was formal attire.
I passed the message on to John and Melissa and they agreed to give it a try. The night of the 25th, we were washed and rested, but wondering how we would rustle up some “formal” attire. I had a dressy kumeez and black pants I’d bought in Mumbai, and Melissa had a long linen skirt, but both travellers had only packed beach sandals and running shoes and were feeling a little hesitant about their footwear.
“These running shoes will have to do,” said John of his trail runners, “But I’m not dancing.” I think we all imagined a dance hall of pressed tuxedos and sweeping ball gowns turning their heads and gasping when we arrived in our quick-dry travellers’ togs.
“It’ll be fine,” I tried to reassure them. “I’m sure they won’t turn us and our 1,500 rupees away.”
The three of us must have looked very odd, staring at our shoes, when my backyard neighbour John Eric Gomes tapped on the door to share Christmas greetings. We ushered him in and Melissa assembled a candy dish of Goan sweets that she’d been stockpiling for such an occasion. John Eric was a retired naval officer and regular contributor to Goa’s daily and monthly publications. He’d been kind enough to invite me to some social events, introduce me to an editor and help research Internet connections, and now he seemed to not have any plans for Christmas evening.
He looked doubtful as I described and invited him to the Christmas Ball in Bastora; but his face brightened immediately when I mentioned the live music and dance floor.
“Do you know how to foxtrot?” I asked John Eric, already knowing the answer. Did he?! He described that in his day, he’d won dance competition awards. “Ah, if I was twenty years younger,” tsked-tsked the retiree.
“Well, John,” I started, “You would really do me a favour if you’d come, because I’m going with these two,” I motioned over to John and Melissa in their running shoes, “And I don’t have a dance partner.” John looked at them, looked at me and stood up.
“What the heck!” he said, “I’ll do it! Give me a minute to get changed and I’ll be right back.”
When Nilesh arrived at 9pm sharp to take us to “Camroon Kingdom,” he was greeted by three visitors in semi-casual traveller’s attire; and one older gentleman in a sharply pressed shirt, trousers, shined shoes and a hint of cologne.
Part 6: “Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus, Happy Birthday to You”
Our jaws dropped when Nilesh positioned the taxi van at the venue’s entrance. Without having talked about it, we’d each thought that we’d be stepping through the door of a little community hall with a buffet table at one end, a DJ at the other, a small band on the stage and a bit of tinsel hanging from the ceiling. That’s what you’d expect where we came from.
But this was Camroon Kingdom and when Goans throw a Christmas Ball, they go Big.
We stepped out of the taxi and stood under a lit archway of ribbons and balloons. Four gentlemen in tuxedos took our money, handed us ticket vouchers, directed us to the open-air table area and encouraged us to visit the bar. We followed a sloping red carpet to a depiction of a frozen pond with snowmen and toboggans. It was nestled in a grove of coconut trees that were generously illuminated with miles of white lights and green water jugs lit from inside to imitate coconuts. Turning to the left, we crossed a dance floor the size of a half-skating rink. A full complement of band equipment waited on the immense stage, and across the dance floor, about a hundred tables were meticulously dressed in white linen. The chairs were also draped in white, each with a red bow tied around its back, like at a wedding.
In fact, the whole scenario felt more like a wedding than a Christmas event. Contrary to the “35+” and “formal attire” requests, multi-generational families spread themselves over several tables in their Sunday suits and dresses. Girls raced around tables in velveteen dresses and patent leather shoes, and young women navigated the grass in high heels and mini-dresses. The men – most of them – moved between the tables and the bar in black pants and jackets.
We sat halfway between the dance floor and the serving area and immediately tiny glasses of sweet white wine and plates of treats appeared on our table. I offered to help John fetch drinks from the bar and joined the men who were already there.
“Do you have any red wine?” They shook their heads. “White wine?” They held up tiny glasses of the same sweet wine that was on the table. “Kingfisher beer?” No, just the cheaper Belo. “Juice?” They shock their heads again. “What do you have?”
The bar had rum, vodka, feni and brandy. There were no juice mixers, but you could add Pepsi, Sprite, or soda water. I ordered a brandy and soda for myself, and let John deal with his and Melissa’s refreshments. John Eric didn’t drink, but he was eyeing the dance floor. The band had picked up their instruments and – after a few standards – had broken into a cha-cha rhythm.
“This is a Cha-Cha,” he said authoritatively. “Would you care to dance?” My mother had taught me the cha-cha many decades ago, so I felt that I could make a decent go of it. I didn’t count on John Eric literally dancing circles around me. While I woodenly counted out each “one-two-cha-cha-cha” to myself, John Eric floated and twirled around me. It was like I was the guy ice skater in the black leotard anchoring his light-as-air partner in satin and chiffon.
John Eric was so good in fact that the other John, the photographer, turned on the HD video functionality of his out-of-the-box Canon 5D Mark II and caught it all on tape.
“Check this out!” John the photographer exclaimed a few songs later when I’d begged a break from John Eric the dancer. I think he was trying to show me the playback capacity of his camera, but all I saw was a dark-haired woman in an orange kumeez awkwardly shifting from foot to foot while her feather-footed partner basically owned the dance floor.
John Eric managed to persuade Melissa to give the floor a spin and I sat with John and discussed photography. We kept checking over to the serving area for our promised buffet dinner, but by 11:30pm the tables were still bare of food.
“This is ridiculous,” muttered John Eric between turns on the dance floor. “They’re probably not serving the food because they’re afraid people will leave after they eat.” And in fact, the event organizers were enticing dancers to stay on the floor with prizes for increasingly generous categories that had nothing to do with dancing.
“Tallest person on the dance floor! Happiest-looking person on the dance floor! Most angelic person on the dance floor!” Every hour or so they also led the crowd in a chorus of the birthday song: “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday Baby Jesus, happy birthday to youuuuuuuu!”
Emboldened by hunger or possibly the endorphins of his rediscovered dance moves, John Eric pulled me up with him to the organizer on the microphone and demanded that they serve dinner. He reassured us it would be soon and sure enough, when I glanced over some time later, John and Melissa had sneakily entrenched themselves in the just-opened buffet table line-up.
It was midnight, and we were finally eating dinner. When we were finished, we stood up and wove our way around the tables, across the dance floor and towards the exit. Did John Eric give the smooth surface a lingering look as we stepped on it for the last time?
There wasn’t much traffic on the NH17 back into Porvorim, but we did find ourselves behind a sports utility vehicle that signaled a left turn, then steered right from the driving lane to the passing lane, bumped into the median, drifted back to the driving lane and abruptly stopped across the shoulder. Nilesh was experienced enough to have kept a good distance away from the drunk driver but it felt scary anyways.
A few years ago I celebrated Christmas day with a Mexican chef and a Harley Davidson mechanic in a hurricane-blown palapa restaurant in southern Baja, Mexico. Two years ago I dined on roast chicken and crisp white wine at a New Zealand family’s table adorned with a Christmas wreath and bottles of suntan lotion. Last year I shared a mountain cabin in northern British Columbia’s with twelve skiiers from an outdoors club.
This year it was Christmas in Porvorim, Goa with new friends, helpful drivers, and inspiring neighbours. We were far from our friends and families at home, yet we were able to connect and share with those around us. Rather than go on a Christmas shopping spree, we gave and received what was at hand: good ideas, good company, and good-heartedness.