I am leaning over the brass deck rail of the Konkan Shakti, facing the bright, late-morning Indian sun. The steamer is rocking gently in the Mandovi River. If it headed left, we could go deep into India. Instead, we'll soon be moving out to the open water, a half dozen miles from shore in the Arabian Sea. And for some 375 miles, all day under the sun, all night under the stars, we will travel north until we reach Bombay.
The departure of the Mogul Line's ship -- "Shakti" means strength and "Konkan" refers to the region we're about to leave -- has slipped several hours behind schedule. Something about the weather, or maybe not; it's hard to tell. But finally our leaving appears to be imminent, and the dockside mood is an unmistakably Indian mix of frenzied cacophony and languid nonchalance.
Khaki-clad porters scurry on and off the steamer, seeming to carry the same bundles each time. Crew members polish brass fixtures. Sidewalk vendors hawk soft drinks and snacks, as they do anywhere there's a sidewalk in India. Passengers amble or scramble aboard, the deck-class crowds bearing bedrolls and cheap Indian cigarettes, the cabin-class few bearing sunscreen and fresh fruit.
I'm feeling fine, here on the rail. I've been settled in my cabin by Guido, a small and peppy management student with a passion for old rock 'n' roll who has been showing me around for a few days. And I've met Alice, a middle-aged schoolteacher who immediately poured me a feni-and-Limca: cashew liquor and lemon-lime soda.
Old rock 'n' roll? Cashew liquor? These things are not quite typically Indian, and with good reason: This is Goa.
"Goa is different," says R.K. Bhandi, who runs the government tourist office here in the Goan capital of Panaji (also called Panjim), "but it's not far from India."
Actually, it's a lot closer than "not far." It's right on the southwestern coast of the Indian mainland, a tropical jewel in the dry administrative guise of a "union territory." (Goa is not a state; its political classification as a union territory is much like the District of Columbia's.) But Goans like to keep a figurative distance, and the distinction is clear immediately: It's what Bhandi calls "that Portuguese touch."
Far more than a touch, really, for Goa was a Portuguese colony for 451 years, from 1510 to 1961. The Portuguese influence is everywhere: in the churches and festivals, the Iberian dash in the curries and stews, the bits of Portuguese conversation from old men at Panaji cafe's, the vivid patchwork of Christian women's flowered dresses and Hindu women's saris, the fact that "Fernandez" is such a common surname that it's abbreviated "Fdz." And, for better or worse -- as a result of adding longstanding Western influence to Goa's world-class beauty -- beach resort development that is decades ahead of anywhere else along India's thousands of miles of seacoast.
One can get to and from Goa in a number of ways, including frequent air connections (easy from Delhi and especially Bombay, and they give that special kick of suddenly entering a tropical clime), by train or bus, or by car either along the coast (a difficult trip, I'm told) or through the inland mountains known as the Western Ghats.
The steamer trip, though, is special and relaxing -- and anyone who has visited the subcontinent can testify that relaxing travel in India is a thing to be much cherished. The steamer is also quite a bargain: The rock-bottom (for location, comfort and price) lower deck, where folks spread out on the floor for the 22-hour trip, costs about $5; the pinnacle of Mogul Line luxury, the owner's cabin, runs about $30. Steamer trips are available six days a week, October through May -- they're suspended during the summer, when monsoon rain and winds rule the coast.
Don't expect opulence; the Konkan Shakti is not the QEII. While the 20 cabins are comfortable and well-kept, with teak fixtures, individual sinks and a couple of fans, the mattresses are pretty thin and a roach or two might be along for the cruise. But with a beautiful day and a breathtakingly starry night, why spend much time in the cabin anyway?
There's more fun to be had lounging around the deck. Maybe it was just luck, but my fellow cabin passengers -- people like Melusine, a French novelist who lives in Athens, and Denise, a Swiss secretary who has spent solitary months on islands that most of us have never heard of -- were truly friendly and interesting. Most of the Indian passengers were on the lower decks; but there were a few above, including, of course, Alice, with her cashew liquor.
And then there was Capt. Mulla. Capt. A.I. Mulla, with his white bermuda shorts and his knee socks, his shiny black shoes and his epaulets, has been a Mogul Line skipper for 18 years and calls it "a good job." It's much calmer now, he says, than back in the late '60s and early '70s, when Goa was a must stop for those on a sun-and-drugs world tour and the Mogul Line caught its share of flotsam.
"Two or three times foreigners tried to jump overboard," Mulla says. One Swedish fellow, he recalls, made it, was rescued and tried again. And then there was the woman -- Mulla remembers this one well -- who "removed her clothes and ran around the ship. The Indians wouldn't catch her," so she was finally subdued by some unembarrassed Westerners.
Nothing nearly so startling happened on my voyage. It was utterly peaceful (if, as Mulla pointed out, a bit choppy), with lazy hours in the sun, drifting from talk to book to doze and back again . . . stops at towns like Devgarh, Vijayadurg, Musakazi, Jaigad, where crew members rowed dinghies to shore to pick up new passengers . . . invigorating moments alone on the deck in the middle of the mid-sea night.
One thing to watch out for aboard the Mogul Line is the food. I'd been forewarned by Guido and brought my own, as did many other passengers. We shared, bought tea and soft drinks on board, and did just fine.
By late morning, the Konkan Shakti pulls into Bombay, where 10 million people live and the noise never stops (and there's plenty of good food). It slides by freighters, tankers, military craft; by rag pickers, luxury high-rises and an atomic research center. The Gateway of India -- seen at the beginning of "The Jewel in the Crown" episodes -- looms monumentally. There's a glimpse of the island of the Elephanta Caves (a seven-mile ferry ride from the Gateway), site of enormous 7th-century statues carved out of caves in honor of Shiva.
Bombay's an exciting city, India's most cosmopolitan, but it can be overwhelming. If you find it to be so, stick around the terminus and take the next Mogul Line steamer back to Goa.
Goa has been discovered for some time now, but it's not yet spoiled. The counterculture's legions began their influx in the '60s; the counterculture's diehards still hang out in the outlying beach communities. More conventional types have also found that one can do worse than to spend a month of one's life in a brightly painted, palm-shaded Goan beach house, tooling from place to place on a rented motor scooter.
For many visitors, though -- including me, for the second time around -- Goa is a short but most welcome break. India is splendid and fascinating but often trying, and Goa doesn't make you try at all. Goa's a place for the weary to kick back; to stay at resorts, such as the Fort Aguada or the Cidade de Goa, that offer everything from fresh giant prawns to windsurfing lessons; to get tanned and relaxed (except for the monsoon months of June to September, Goa invites continually with sunny days and pleasant nights, temperatures ranging from the low 70s to about 90). It's also a good place to watch Indian honeymooners hold hands on the beach -- as most never dare to do on, say, the streets of New Delhi -- and to watch Indian "holiday makers" (the British left behind that word for vacationers) watch the Western visitors, especially the nude Western visitors who favor beaches some distance from the luxury resorts.
It's worth venturing out in Goa, whether to sample the tantalizingly named beaches -- Calangute, Baga, Anjuna, Vagator, Colva, Majorda -- or to visit what remains of the grandeur that made someone back in Vasco da Gama's day say that "whoever has seen Goa, need not see Lisbon." For that, spend a half day or so in Old Goa (Goa Velha) just a few miles inland from Panaji by hired car and driver (self-drive rental cars are not available anywhere in India), bus, motor scooter -- or boat, through the Viceregal Arch.
While the commercial greatness of Old Goa is merely a memory, the religious significance is very much alive. The focal point is the cool, high-ceilinged, 16th-century Basilica of Bom Jesus, where the remains of St. Francis Xavier are entombed -- and displayed every decade in an exposition that draws scores of thousands of faithful. (The last exposition began in 1984 and ended earlier this year.) The huge -- 5,000 capacity -- white Se' Cathedral, just across from the basilica, is one of several other churches that make Goa an enduring pilgrimage point for Catholics.
Goa's million-plus population, however, has more Hindus than Christians (plus about 3 percent Moslems). Continue on a few miles from Old Goa's stately churches to see the contrast of the Hindus' 400-year-old Manguesh Temple. It's colorfully decorated inside and out, from the paintings at the shrine dedicated to Shiva to the old women in bright cotton saris who are poised at the entrance selling garlands, coconuts and starfruit.
On beyond the beaches and religious edifices, head south about 20 miles from Panaji to Margao, a commercial town that has both a Portuguese ambiance and a park named after the Aga Khan. Margao is near Colva, arguably Goa's loveliest beach, and from Colva there's a delightful back-roads way to return to Panaji, with shady rural lanes that wind past little houses. It has virtually no traffic -- although we did occasionally have to yield road space to families of pigs or chickens.
The Friday market at Mapusa (about seven miles north of Panaji and pronounced Mopsa) sells a variety of crafts and the ingredients -- spices and vegetables, fish and sausages, and always cashews -- used in Goan cooking.
Goan cuisine is distinctive and often wonderful. Sometimes it's delicious simplicity: I've rarely had anything that tasted as good as the fresh grilled prawns, each as big as my hand, that I ate one balmy evening at the outdoor restaurant at the Cidade de Goa. Often, though, the dishes are great me'langes, and the larger hotels have buffets that offer some of everything.
So does a restaurant called O Coqueiro (The Coconut Tree) in Porvorim, a few miles inland but quite convenient to the Fort Aguada Beach Resort. O Coqueiro just might be the most unaffectedly casual good restaurant in all of India. Guido and I sat in wicker chairs on a thatch-roofed veranda with whirring ceiling fans; our waiter wore a "Mission: Impossible" T-shirt; Stevie Wonder and Culture Club tapes played in the background. Guido -- with the indifference of the local -- made do with vegetable fritters and two bowls of fudge ripple ice cream, but I went to town on the buffet. The Prawns Balchao (in a spicy onion sauce) and the Squid Chili Fry were terrific, and even if ox brain cutlets or shark with chili sauce don't appeal, there's enough good food there to make it well worth -- yes -- $5.
Goans have real gastronomic pride, even disdain, which is why Guido -- fritters and fudge ripple aside -- made sure I was well stocked with box lunches and bags of cashews before I boarded the Konkan Shakti. "They just have Indian food," he sniffed, "and not very good." I sampled to make sure, and he was right -- but the trip is worth packing food for.