A week in Goa

Having finished the Golden Triangle tour I headed by taxi to Delhi International airport to catch a flight to Goa. I was looking forward to the relaxation of a week in warmer and sunnier climes by the sea.

Gaining entry to an airport in India is an experience. I had to provide proof of my flight before being allowed into the departure hall. The flight down to Goa was with a low-cost Indian carrier called Spicejet. It was a really good flight and I enjoyed the Indian meal that I paid for on the plane.

On arrival at Goa International Airport I visited a booth to arrange the onward transfer to my hotel in Calangute. The taxi journey took around an hour and I was able to have a good conversation with the taxi driver despite his relatively limited English. I had not done much research about Goa before I travelled here. I was aware that there had been a Portugese influence and that it was famous for being part of the hippie trail. On the journey we passed a number of beautiful churches. I ascertained that there is a high proportion of Christians in Goa which included my taxi driver. We also passed a large sports stadium near the capital, Panjin, and my driver informed me that Portugal were participating in a tournament there. The Lusofonia games were taking place. They are a Commonwealth Games type competition for countries which are Portugese speaking or have a Portugese background. Taking part in addition to India and Portugal were countries such as Sri Lanka, Angola, Brazil, Macau and Mozambique. For the record India headed the final medal table with Portugal second and Macau third.

I spent the first couple of days in Goa either relaxing by the pool or down on the nearby beach. Calangute beach is a wide sandy beach containing beach bar after beach bar. The beach bars are happy for you to use one of their sun beds as long as you buy food or drink from them. My hotel, The Resort Terra Paraiso, was lovely. They served excellent food and the staff were really friendly and welcoming. One unexpected bonus was the “towel art” that greeted me on my return to the room most days. The piece de resistance was presented on my last day. A crocodile made out of towels and pillows!

Boats on Calangute beach. Note the crosses.

Boats on Calangute beach. Note the crosses.

Calangute beach

Calangute beach

View from my sunbed on Calangute beach

View from my sunbed on Calangute beach

Beach bar on calangute beach

Beach bar on calangute beach

The pool at Resort Terra Paraiso

The pool at Resort Terra Paraiso

Imaginative use of towels and pillows!

Imaginative use of towels and pillows!

After a couple of days I began to get bored of my beach bum existence. One thing this trip has confirmed is that I am not really someone who enjoys spending hours laying on a sunbed.

On day 3 I went for a wander to the St Alex church in Calangute. It wasn’t open but its a lovely looking church from the outside. I was intrigued to see the names of the gravestones, such as D’Souza and Fernandes, indicating Goa’s Portugese heritage. I walked into the centre of Calangute passing numerous bars, restaurants, souvenir and fruit, veg and spice stalls.

St Alex church in Calangute

St Alex church in Calangute

Calangute street scene

Calangute street scene

I was becoming increasingly keen to explore more of Goa and learn of it’s history. A further catalyst for spending more time away from the hotel came on day 3 when a group of BrIrish holidaymakers arrived in my hotel. They were from Sheffield and with their excessive drinking and swearing made the pool begin to resemble the Jeremy Kyle show. Food and drink in Goa is incredibly cheap. A good curry, naan bread and rice costs about £4 and a pint of beer is 70p. This seems to have attracted holiday makers looking for a cheap location in good temperatures at this time of the year. Whilst I was in Goa the night time temperature never fell below 20 degrees and the daytime highs were from 32 degrees to 35 degrees. Pretty perfect really. In addition to British holidaymakers there are lots of Russian tourists in Goa. I guess it’s not too far from Russia to this part of India. So Goa does have the feel of being a bit like the “Costa del India”.

To enable me to explore Goa I needed transport. Outside the hotel were a number of taxi drivers very keen to do business. I entered discussions with one of them. I showed him where I wanted to visit. He threw in an extra idea of a spice plantation. So after some negotiation we had agreed a price and some places for me to visit. Essentially I would have the driver with me from 9am to late afternoon for the sum of £25. Bargain!

So at 9am on Day 4 I got into my driver Sam’s taxi and we headed off to Panjim the capital of Goa. The capital’s Indian name is Panaji but it is still widely referred to by its Portugese name of Panjim. It’s a lovely small town and illustrates Goa’s prosperity compared to the rest of India. Goa is India’s richest state with a GDP per capita 2.5 times the Indian average. It definitely feels more prosperous than the India I saw on the Golden Triangle tour. I saw much nicer accommodation and fewer examples of extreme poverty although it does exist. Panjim is a lovely town with a majestic cathedral, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which dates from 1540. I enjoyed walking through the streets and found a small park. Panjim has a more tranquil and less chaotic feel than places such as Delhi or Jaipur. I had been told before I came to Goa that it is not like the real India and I can see why it has that reputation.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception

The Church of the Immaculate Conception

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Park in Panjin

Park in Panjim

My next stop was Old Goa which I decided to visit mainly because it’s name suggested it may be interesting and also because on my map it seemed to contain lots of interesting old churches. Old Goa was a city which acted as the capital of Portugese India from the 16th century until the 18th century when it was abandoned due to plague. What remains is a UNESCO World Heritage site which contains a number of churches affiliated to various congregations. The churches include the Se Cathedral (the seat of the Archbishop of Goa), the church of St. Francis of Assisi and most notably the Basilica of Bom Jesus which contains the relics of Saint Francis Xavier. He was a Portugese Roman Catholic who undertook missionary work in Portugese India and other parts of Asia. The number of impressive churches and cathedrals here in such close proximity is staggering. I visited the Archaelogical Museum which on the top floor contains portraits of the Portugese Governors and Viceroys who ruled here for the 450 year period until 1961. The number of paintings was immense and they had names such as Dom Garcia de Noronha and Dom Duarte de Meneses. Portuguese rule over this part of India ended in 1961, 14 years after India gained independence from Britain in 1947. On gaining independence India requested that Portugese territories on the Indian subcontinent be ceded to India. Portugal refused to negotiate about Goa and their other Indian enclaves. In December 1961 India undertook military action to annex Goa, Daman and Diu into the Indian Union. The hostilities lasted two days and loss of life was relatively limited. Today the most obvious sign of Goa’s Portugese past are the churches. Other Portugese influences that I noted were cashew nuts which are readily available and introduced by the Portugese. There are Portguese influenced dishes on menus such as Vindaloo. This was derived from the Portugese dish “Carne de vinha d’alhos”.

Church of St Francis of Assisi

Church of St Francis of Assisi

Se Cathedral

Se Cathedral

Basilica de Bom Jesus

Basilica de Bom Jesus

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Next stop on day 4 was the Spice Plantation which my taxi driver, Sam, was very keen to take me to. I am sure he was on commission! It was an enjoyable visit with our guide showing us a number of spices growing in the wild and there opportunities to taste or sniff. The most memorable moment was at the end when a guy who the guide called “Tarzan” scaled a coconut tree and then bent the trunk to enable him to move to the adjacent tree. The entrance to the plantation was over a wooden platform over water with excellent views to either side. On the way back across the platform there was a snake swimming through the water.

"Tarzan"

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“Tarzan”

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The last stop of the day was not part of the original plan. Sam was very keen to take me to a shop. I told him I wasn’t interested in shopping but he told me that each time he takes a customer to this shop he gets a stamp on a card and after 100 stamps he gets a new uniform. So as I would be doing him a favour I agreed to go. Of course as it turned out the shop was full of souvenirs, clothes and furniture and I was attended to by a very nice chap who seemed to be the best salesman in India. I emerged from the shop laden down with souvenirs.

It had been a really good day and I enjoyed having a driver to take me around. The following day I had arranged with Sam for him to take me to a quiet beach. Sam was not there at the agreed time as it turned out he was not working that day as “his neighbour had expired”. Another driver took me to the beach at Morgim which was north of Calangute across an estuary. It was a lovely quiet beach. I was taken to the beach through the Goldeneye restaurant where I had lunch. At one point during the day I noticed an Indian family (mother and 3 kids) walking past with poles and ropes. I thought this a little odd but went back to reading my book. The next thing I knew they had erected this and there was a tightrope act going on. Amazing!

Morgim beach

Morgim beach

Tightrope act

Tightrope act

The view from the restaurant

The view from the restaurant

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The following day Sam took me back to Old Goa which was the starting point for a crocodile trip up the Cumbarjua Canal. Our guide was quick to point out that there was no guarantee that we would actually see any crocs as the tide was up and they would be in the water rather than being laid on the banks. As it turned out we did actually see a couple of crocodiles in the water close to the banks in this mangrove habitat. We also saw a number of bird species such as purple heron, kingfisher, kite, sea eagle and egret. It was a very pleasant way to spend a morning.

A croc!

A croc!

A wake of red kites

A wake of red kites

Crocodile hunting

Crocodile hunting

Fishing for crabs

Fishing for crabs

So this trip brought to an end my week in Goa. It had been enjoyable particularly when I got out and about and started to explore and learn about its past.

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Another majestic church between Panjin and Calangute

The end of the Golden Triangle tour

After two fantastic days in Jaipur it was time to leave there and make our way back to Delhi.

It was a long journey taking around 6 hours. Like most of the bus trip round Northern India I found the journey back up to Delhi absolutely fascinating. At the Jaipur end the road wasn’t great, pretty bumpy, and we passed through busy villages and towns where the road sides were absolutely packed with lorries. This was a major trunk road for the Indian haulage industry. On the journey I saw camels being used for transport and close to Jaipur monkeys were commonplace.

Some of the sights from India’s roads are not necessarily easy viewing. On numerous occasions when passing a village I observed locals washing by a water pump. Presumably the pump was having to be shared by a number of people in the village. I wondered what toilet facilities and living conditions were like in those villages. Litter is a problem. It’s everywhere within towns and cities. In the week I had in India I only saw one refuse truck. That was on a motorway with rubbish piled high and litter blowing off the top. I did see wheelie bins and the like but they were often overflowing. Sadly towards Delhi on this journey I did see people sifting through rubbish in a refuse dump. It’s quite common to see men peeing at the side of roads. But what toilet facilities are there for motorists? It is also quite common to see people, mainly men, spitting. This is often to do with the practice of chewing paan. Paan is a stimulating and psychoactive preparation of betel leaf combined with areca nut and/or cured tobacco. Many of the buildings you see at the side of the road, used for trading, are pretty basic constructed from brick and cement. It’s common to see the chimneys of brick kilns scattered through the countryside and numerous advertisements for different cement brands.

After a stop for lunch we were getting close to Delhi. A sunny day turned foggy – or was it smog? We passed industrial parks full of manufacturing businesses. We passed a Harley Davidson manufacturing plant and there were numerous Japanese companies represented.

India is a country of contrasts. Extreme poverty seems all around but there are examples of wealth and real economic advances in areas such as IT and manufacturing.

We arrived back at the Grand Park Inn in Delhi in the mid afternoon. This did give time to potentially do further sightseeing. However the following day was when Republic Day celebrations were taking place and a number of roads and tourist attractions were closed so I decided to stay in the hotel for the rest of the afternoon.

In the evening we went out for our last meal as a group. Like the first night in Delhi, Yash led us through the streets of Karol Bagh to our restaurant. I found the walk much more relaxing than that first night and I think this is due to the fact that I had got used to the frenetic nature of the big cities. It had been a fantastic week. None of the worries I had at the start of the week had been realised. My stomach had been fine and I had felt safe and secure. I had been travelling with a great group of people and in Yash, our CEO from G Adventures, we had an exceptional group leader. He had a real presence about him which helped everything run smoothly and some of the added extras were real delights – eg the cookery lesson and the trip round the village at Abaneri. He is one of the coolest dudes I have ever met!

It was a fantastic meal and I enjoyed the best Indian dish I have ever had in my life. It is called Chicken Lababdar. I have never seen it in the UK but in India it’s a real delicacy with tongue tingling spices and also containing butter, onions, cream and tomatoes. Yum!!

Recipe for chicken lababdar

I saw this on the side of a truck and am inclined to agree!

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Recipe for chicken lababdar

My dish looked something like this....

My dish looked something like this….

After the meal we returned to the hotel and enjoyed the last room party of the week. I crawled into bed at around 2am… I had an amazing time doing the Golden Triangle. An experience I will never forget. I felt there was so much to see and in some ways we had just scratched the surface. I feel I must return to India to see more.

 

Delhi to Agra

Day 2 of my Indian adventure started with a quick breakfast of coffee and toast. We checked out of our Delhi hotel and awaited our transport. It consisted of a 20 seater bus with driver and helper. With bags loaded into the bus – I remembered to tip this time! – we set off into old Delhi.

Our first stop was Jama Masjid (the great mosque) built in 1656 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It took 5,000 workmen six years to build and is the largest mosque in India. The huge square courtyard can accommodate up to 20,000 for occasions such as Friday prayers. It was a foggy day in Delhi so we declined the opportunity to climb the minaret. This is supposed to give great views of the city but with the fog there wouldn’t have been much to see. We removed shoes whilst entering the mosque. This to be a common theme over the next few days and it was common for our shoes to be “minded” by someone in exchange for a tip.

In the courtyard of the biggest Mosque in India

In the courtyard of the biggest Mosque in India

The Jama Masjid

The Jama Masjid

After leaving the mosque we walked through the streets of Old Delhi heading for Chandni Chowk one of India’s most vibrant centres of commerce and religious activity. It was early in the morning and many shops had not yet opened. The usual opening time is 10am. I paused at a stall where an Indian gentleman had just ordered breakfast. We stood aghast at a street where electrical cables hung above us in a chaotic spaghetti of danger.

Breakfast in Old Delhi

Breakfast in Old Delhi

Check out the electrical cables!

Check out the electrical cables!

Having reached Chandni Chowk we visited a Sikh temple. The Sikh holy site of Gurdwara SisGanj stands at the site where the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded in 1675 on the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb for refusing to accept Islam. To enter the temple we had to remove shoes and socks and wear headscarves. We sat in silence for a few minutes watching Sikhs at worship.

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Inside the Sikh temple

We watched lunch preparations underway in the temple kitchens. Some of the girls helped with making chapatis. Apparently lunch is provided free to the worshippers within the temple.

Now that's a big pan!

Now that’s a big pan!

Making chapatis

Making chapatis

After leaving the temple we retraced our steps back to the Jama Masjid where the bus was waiting. Many of the shops which were shut when we passed earlier were now trading. There were lots of jewelry shops with no doubt many bargains to be had.

It was now time to leave Delhi as we had a 5 hour journey ahead of us to reach Agra which is around 210km south of Delhi. It was a good journey with most of the road being a relatively new toll motorway. We passed a number of new residential and office developments in the Noida area. One of the places we passed was the Indian Formula 1 circuit at Buddh. Much of the scenery along the way was agricultural. North India is very green at this time of year. There were many workers out in the fields and little sign of mechanisation.

Having made good time to reach Agra we visited the Itmad-Ud-Daulash tomb which is also known as the Baby Taj. It was built by Empress Noor Jahan, the beloved wife of Prince Saleem’or Jahangir, in the memory of her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who was the Prime-Minister of the Mughal Court. The Baby Taj was started in 1622 and took 6 years to build. It is if particular interest as it is a forerunner of the Taj Mahal and many of the designs within it are also present within the Taj. The tomb is a combination of white marble, coloured mosaic, stone inlay and lattice work. I found it absolutely captivating and loved the symmetry of the design. It was a wonderful way to spend time at the end of a long journey. Compared to the fog (or smog?) in Delhi it was clear in Agra.

The baby Taj

The baby Taj

Sandstone entrance gate at the Baby Taj

Sandstone entrance gate at the Baby Taj

Me at the Baby Taj

Me at the Baby Taj

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After leaving the Baby Taj we headed for our hotel. We got stuck in a traffic jam on the way. Traffic coming on the opposite direction moved onto our side of the road to try and avoid the gridlock. It was absolutely fascinating watching from the bus. Tuk tuks rammed full with an improbable number of people. I saw a family of five (mum, dad and 3 kids) on a motor bike! The young girls on our bus got plenty of attention from a number of the Indian guys stuck in the traffic jam. Eventually the traffic started to move and we got to our hotel.

Family on a motorbike. Mum head away behind Dad for this shot

Family on a motorbike. Mum hid away behind Dad for this shot

A very full Tuk Tuk

A very full Tuk Tuk

In the evening we went out to a local restaurant and enjoyed a meal sat outside. There were a number of Indian weddings going on in Agra. It’s peak season for weddings there. We saw a wedding procession go past involving a marching band and the groom.

After getting back to the hotel I had a drink in the bar but then retired to my room. Tomorrow was an early start and I was going to see the Taj Mahal!

Arrival in India

Coming to India was the part of my trip that I was most excited about but this also came with worries. Would I catch Delhi belly? How would I adjust to such a different culture? What about my security and could I overcome language barriers? People say that coming to India can be a real shock when you first visit. So to alleviate these concerns I am here on an organised tour to the “Golden Triangle” run by G Adventures.

On arrival at Delhi Airport I was met by a young Indian guy as part of the pre-booked transfer. He was a splendid chap who was studying at university in Delhi and earning some extra income by undertaking airport transfers. He didn’t drive the taxi but helped the driver navigate the way to the hotel. It was Sunday afternoon and so the traffic was much lighter than normal. I saw a game of cricket in progress on a patch of rough ground on the way.

After around half an hour I arrived at the hotel in the Karol Bagh area of the city. The Hotel Grand Park Inn was tucked away on a busy side street. It was immediately apparent that this hotel was different from others that I had stayed in whilst I have been away. I was asked to complete details within a very grand and big registration book that seemed to have been in use forever.  No sign of the usual computerisation that you would generally see. A number of guys milling around in the reception area were very keen to help with my luggage. My twin room was clean but basic. It was apparent from what the guy who showed me to my room said that hot water was not always available. I arrived around 2pm and there was to be a group welcome meeting at 6pm. I decided not to venture out of the hotel in the meantime. I headed up to the rooftop terrace to see what lunch may be available. I ordered a butter chicken, naan and rice to be washed down by a kingfisher beer. It turned out that beer was not on the drinks menu but was procured and paid for separately directly to one of the guys I saw in reception earlier. I think he had a little sideline in profiting from selling alcohol in the hotel. The butter chicken was delicious. I was soon joined by Tor-Bjorn who was another member of the tour group. Tor-Bjorn, a Swedish speaker, came from a small Finnish Island and had worked for the Birka cruise line for over 20 years. Tor-Bjorn is a lovely guy and I enjoyed his company throughout the course of the week. After lunch I chilled in my room and watched tv. After expressing interest in a game of cricket showing on the tv in reception, one of the hotel guys came up and found it for me on my room tv. I was amused to see the hotel rules displayed on the door of my room and I took particular note of rule number 6 (see below).

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At 6pm I met the rest of the group and our Indian CEO (Chief Experience Officer) Yash. There were 12 in our group altogether. As well as Tor-Bjorn and I, there were 4 English girls Amy, Amy, Vicky and Holly. 3 Aussie girls from Adelaide – Prue, Susie and Carrie. A couple from Derbyshire, Dave and Emilie. Last but not least was Paulette who is originally from Belgium but now lives in Canada. I was delighted that over half the group consisted of women in their 20’s!

Yash did an introduction and spoke about the plans for the rest of the week. He talked about India and some of the differences from what we may be used to. Some of the things that stuck with me were:-

– although India may appear chaotic. – it is “organised chaos”

– there is very much a tipping culture – so tips are expected for helping with bags, tour guides, drivers, in addition to bills for meals etc. I realised at this point that I had totally failed to appreciate this and had not tipped the car transfer man, the bag helper or the tv tuner!

– G Adventures believed in sustainable tourism so we would be using local companies rather than multinationals. Eg locally owned hotels.

– the best advice that Yash provided was how it was best to adjust expectations about some of the ways that things work in India in comparison to what you may be used to. eg standards in hotels. He reiterated that all the hotels that we stayed in would be clean, and they were, but perhaps some of the things you take for granted may not be there. That explained the hot water issue earlier. This advice was really useful and really helped me during the week.

With introductions and welcomes out of the way we headed out of the hotel for dinner. Yash led us through the bustling streets of Karol Bagh for around 15 minutes until we found the tranquil oasis of a restaurant and we enjoyed an excellent meal.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel and retired to our rooms. The noise outside was something else and the main contributor was car horns. Indian drivers love to use them. Normally a “watch out” warning for other drivers. The noise abated at around 10pm and I managed a decent nights sleep feeling excited about what was to lay in store for the rest of the week.

Interesting name for travel company seen on way back to our Delhi hotel

Interesting name for travel company seen on way back to our Delhi hotel