Getting to Goa has always been a dream.
Goa, a little piece of Portugal plopped down on the Indian subcontinent, a redolent compost of cultures mellowed like fine crusted port to offer the life and fire of India tamed by the grace and gentility of old Catholic Europe.
Ah, the beaches. The best in India, most of them undeveloped, golden-white strands edged by dunes and tickled by sloppy surf.
Now the time has come to go to Goa. The boat that will take me there from Bombay is a big one with three decks. I choose the middle level -- second class -- and arrive early enough to stake a claim to a section of wooden bench in readiness for the night. The scene on deck is a time warp, a flash back to the '60s, with a full panoply of hoary earth gypsies, dewy-eyed students fresh out of first-year college, a video team from Japan, two elderly ladies in horsy tweeds and brogues and the inevitable group of Germans, bronze-bodied and bored.
The water moves slow as syrup, slammed into submission by the heat. Lukewarm soft drinks are offered at outrageous prices; the smell of curry wafts up from the lower deck.
Suddenly, the whistles and bells and hoots begin and we are off, wallowing out into the Arabian Sea. Everyone on deck is talking excitedly, like children on a day outing from school; fishy breezes blow in; someone starts up with a guitar. All we need is a chorus of "Kumbaya" or "This Land" and we'll be back in the heydays of Seeger and Baez and Dylan and Beatlemania and Kerouac and flowers in our hair and love in the air and hardly a care -- anywhere.
At dawn, Panaji is pure Graham Greene. Sprawled laconically along the banks of the Mandovi River, the capital of Goa presents a shadowy, moss-flecked facade to the newcomer. Parts of a collapsed bridge across the river peep out of the slow rosy-red waters; a ferry now provides access to the other side, the only way north to the 20-mile stretches of old hippie beaches.
But behind the sultry river frontage, Panaji possesses colonial charm: small parks and squares with parasol shade under banyan trees and palms; swaths of jacorandas, flowering bahuinia and gulmohars (with fire-bright red blossoms) softening the sharp edges of the newer construction. And in the center, the oh-so-Portuguese triple white towers of the Church of the Immaculate Conception rise up over the city, atop an elaborate staircase of carved white stone. Behind the church is the old town of clustered yellow and ocher stucco houses with white trim, verandas and red pantile roofs. Narrow cobbled alleys wind up around a steep hill; flights of worn steps lead higher to once-elaborate mansions, now a little unkempt, yet still utterly Portuguese in flavor.
But I am in search of beaches, and am lucky enough to find a guide with his own car and a benevolent attitude about daily rates. Angelo Fernandes is blithe-spirited anddevoted to his little Rhode Island-sized country of a million or so inhabitants -- and seemingly as ready for adventure as I.
I explain that I'm not particularly interested in the resorts or in the hippie beaches up north, that I want to see Goa as it was before the '60s -- the real Goa. Maybe the south?
"But nobody goes there."
"Good. Then that's where we're going."
The little church at Sancoale, a few miles south of Panaji, is the epitome of Goan grace and architectural sensitivity: a tiny white confection, set in a small bay against a hill of eucalyptus and palms. Frangipani and flowering bougainvillea provide flecks of color that make the delicately pinnacled exterior appear even whiter.
Now, however, it's time to eat.
It is a modest beach-side place; we are the only customers -- a bad sign -- and sit at a window table overlooking the ocean. My fears, it turns out, are utterly unfounded.
Two little palate-cleansing bowls of spicy seafood broth known as tomyupkung and a plate of steamed mussels in a garlic, cumin and wine sauce appear within minutes of our arrival, along with two loaves of crusty Portuguese bread. Another appetizer follows in a couple of minutes -- this time delicate slices of home-smoked mackerel wrapped in little pouches of palm leaves. Then, with hardly a pause, come slivers of perfectly cooked suckling pig.
Even Angelo seems surprised by the speed of delivery. We consider asking them to slow things down a little, but whoever is creating these magnificent dishes back in the kitchen is well and truly on a roll. We decide to let him be and just enjoy his handiwork.
The chef is tireless. Tiny crisp-crusted vegetable samosas redolent with familiar Indian spices are followed by slices of apa de camarao, a sort of pie with a golden rice crust over a succulent mix of whole prawns cooked in coconut milk. Then a slight pause before the main dish -- pomfret recheiado -- a whole fish filled with a rich pungent stuffing of sour red masala and grilled until the skin crackles like cornflakes when you cut it.
It's simply too much. But whoever is working back there hasn't finished with us. Small bowls of vegetable vindaloo are accompanied by tiny crushed rice and lentil pancakes. Then out comes a masala of miniature pink crabs in a sauce brimming with coriander, flecks of chili peppers, cumin and garam masala. All this washed down with capitos of heavy Goan red wine, a little like young port but far more pungent.
Finally, Angelo staggers to the kitchen and returns with the chef.
She can't be much more than a teenager, dark-eyed and golden-skinned, blushing a little and carrying a round dish of something resembling cre`me caramel. Angelo is grinning like a gibbon.
"This is bebinca," he says. "She can make bebinca! This takes hours of work. It's eggs, coconut milk, sugar ... what else?"
The girl whispers something in a voice that sounds like a spring breeze.
"I don't know how to say in English. Special spices -- a special mix. Every cook makes a different mix. This is a very traditional Goan dish -- but very, very difficult to make."
The girl blushes, places the dish on the table and scampers back to the kitchen.
The bebinca is superb -- light as a cloud, a melt-in-the-mouth creation that leaves the palate sweetened and refreshed. And the bill? A ridiculously small amount, hardly more than you'd pay at a roadside hamburger joint back home.
It's the green you notice at first, particularly the bright sparkling green of the rice paddies between the palms and eucalyptus -- and the lacquered leaves of the cashew trees and the frilly fronds of bamboo. Everywhere you look is green, receding into turquoise as the land rises to the jungled hills along Goa's eastern border. And peeping coyly through the plantations are the shuttered windows of the old Portuguese farms, mansions and occasional stately palaces, mostly single-storied and set in gardens of flowering bushes.
Village market stalls brim with fresh fruit -- coconuts, bananas, jack-fruit, papaya, pineapples, chickoo, custard apples and mangoes. And every community, no matter how small, has its own feni distillery, producing the arrack-like liquor that is the lifeblood of Goa. Coconut feni is the most popular -- but I prefer the cashew.
Feni and fry-heat sun, however, don't mix. A few samples in a village near Margao leaves me an unusually passive passenger for most of the afternoon.
My awakening comes rather abruptly. Our windows are down to catch the cooling breezes as Angelo drives through the narrow streets of a nondescript village north of Chaudi. Suddenly the windshield is awash in colored water -- bright splashes of blue and red as little bags burst on the glass. Then they are coming through the side windows. A red one bursts on Angelo's forehead and he looks as though he has been shot at point-blank range. I open my mouth to laugh and receive a blue one in mid-chest, which explodes with a pop, spraying my clothes, my notebooks, the inside of the windshield. More follow. We are awash in blue and red.
"It's holi -- it's the Shigmo Festival," Angelo explains, between giggles. "I forget."
We have reached the edge of the village. Our attackers are back down the road, roaring with laughter, waving their masks and colorful cloaks and beating drums. Angelo can't decide whether to be angry or join in the fun.
"You!" he giggles. "You're all blue!"
"And you, my friend, are very red -- and blue."
"I should have remembered." He is still giggling.
"What's it all about?"
"It's spring. February is the beginning of spring. People sprinkle each other with packets of colored powder -- they're supposed to be flower colors. Spring flowers. Sometimes they mix the powder with water. It's okay. It washes away."
I look in the mirror. My beard, nose and cheeks are bright blue, not to mention most of my clothes.
Angelo is nearly hysterical looking at me.
"You are a crazy man!"
I look down. In my lap is a little bag of blue dye, unexploded.
"Angelo, look at yourself in the mirror."
He turns to the mirror. I can't resist.
Thwack! I burst the bag on top of his wind-blown hair and the blue water explodes down his neck, around his eyes and runs in rivulets down the red dye already coating his face. Now he is purple!
"Two crazy men now!"
The inside of the car is dripping with the stuff, and we can't stop laughing.
"Happy spring!" Angelo bellows.
Goa is a little weary of its image as a cheap haven for "freaks" and potheads. Beach signs issue strict warnings: Don't Dabble in Drugs It is a Social Evil and Crime Punishable with 10-30 years in prison Beware of the Menace!
Up north, at Anjuna, Baga and Calangute, even Mandrem and Arambol beaches, you'll still find remnants of the flower-power days -- defiant "freaks," mellowed monks, overlanders, gypsies, poets, guitar-pickers, seers, searchers, artists, punks -- dancing and philosophizing under the light of the great silver Goan moon. Maybe one day I'll go and play hippie-for-a-day or a week. But not this time.
I want seamless days for a while -- no distractions, no diversions. Just me and the sea and the frangipani and a glass of feni and maybe some prawns and fresh fruit picked from wild trees by the beach ...
At Palolem, way to the south near the border with the state of Karnataka, I find my paradise -- a true "pocket of singular languor." This is the Goa I came looking for. The Goa before the world-wanderers and truth-seekers arrived. An arc of sparkling sand on a bay no more than a mile wide, bound on the northern edge by a jungle-covered headland that keeps the water calm. A village of simple palm fronds and bamboo homes set under the palm trees; a tiny taverna with its own feni-shed, and with a plain room where I can stay for a dollar a day; a young girl who cooks the best banana pancakes I have ever tasted and makes fresh curry sauce every day, carefully mixing it out of little cotton bags of hand-pounded spices...
Angelo has to return to Panaji. He says I'll have no problem getting back up north when I am ready. I am sorry to see him go, but delighted to be here, alone, not a part of anything and yet a part of everything.
Maybe I'll write a bit. Maybe take some photographs or sketch. Maybe read a little.
Or maybe not ...
The days define their own rhythms. Time seems unimportant. Plans will be remade. Later.
David Yeadon is author and illustrator of many travel books, including "New York's Nooks and Crannies" (Scribner's) and "New York: The Best Places" (Harper and Row). He is currently at work on "Wild Places -- A Journey Around the Earth" for Harper and Row.