No two places in India are the same. As I totter off the plane, this fact hits me at the same time as the full blast humidity of Goa.
Skins are swarthier. The air clung to my skin with vapour. Goa is about an hour from Bangalore, which makes it nearer to the equator. It still wasn’t VERY busy – certainly nothing like the Mumbai madness depicted in Slumdog Millionaire – but there were definitely more people milling about. More Western garb, less traditional wear. Girls baring legs in short dresses.
As I step out to the open, I see a brown-toothed guy carrying the placard with my name in big bold letters: Mr Alex Wong Lee Yun. It’s a representative from my beach resort, which is providing airport pickup.
On the way back to the hotel, I wonder, how could I ever think that a country with 29 states, over a thousand languages, and 1.3 billion people could be homogenous? Sure, the motorbike helmet ad on the back of a bus reminds me of the national love affair with wordplay: “Why flirt with fate, make helmets your mate.” But Goa couldn’t be more different from Bangalore.
As my car hurtles violently along tarred and dirt roads that are impossible to tell apart because they seem to merge into each other, I notice that the landscape is dotted with an unusually high concentration of Christian shrines and churches. Snatches of history lessons come back to me now: owing to Portuguese rule which isolated it from the rest of India for 451 years, Goa’s culture and architecture is shaped by its 65% Hindu and 24% Catholic population. And unlike most Indian cities, Goans mostly live in the villages and travel to work, so their villages have lots of character.
Truly, the Goan landscape is a riot of colour. There isn’t a single drab gray building in sight. Instead, purple and neon green walled cottages, topped by balconies lined with rows of potted plants, and brick-red tiled roofs, set off a canvas of green palms and ripening rice-fields. There are more cows than cars too, I note with amusement the lazy herds draped nonchalantly across the middle of the road like sheikhs on divans. For the entire half-hour journey, my eyes are dilated and my nose pressed to the window, drinking in Goa’s vibrant greens and rusty reds.
Since I’m only meeting my Goan friend the next day, I decide to avail myself of the free city tour that Kenilworth Resort has arranged for all its guests. I leave my bags at the check-in counter and hop on the tour bus, which is parked at the entrance.
Our first pit stop is a Shri Manguesh Temple in Ponda. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this 400-year-old edifice is interesting because it exhibits the mixture of architectural styles that typifies the region’s temples. There’s evidence of Christian influence in the octagonal tower above the sanctum, the pillared facade of the white seven-storey deepastambha (lamp tower) at the entrance, and the balustrade design around the roof, while the domed roofs indicate a Muslim influence. Outside the temple, you can buy flowers from roadside vendors, who showcase their wares under colourful umbrellas, and snack stalls – I eventually succumb to a masala flavoured pack of potato chips from Lays. Salty like heck, but scrumptious.
Next up is Old Goa, the former colonial capital of the city. Full of history, it’s home to some scenic churches and convents, and today we’re visiting The Basilica of Bom Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The biggest church in Goa, the building itself is gorgeous: an elaborate late-Renaissance structure, fronted by a facade combining elements of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian design.
But the more important reason is, it contains the tomb and mortal remains of St Francis Xavier, the priest responsible for spreading Christianity to the Far East. As we get off the bus, I try to figure out why the name is so familiar. Hey, didn’t he make a pit stop in my country between 1545 – 1546? I remember with a start. We even have a school in Penang, and a church in Melaka and Penang, named after him. In that moment of recollection, this Malaysian feels closer to India than ever.
St Francis Xavier died in Shangchun Island, but his body was moved to Goa in 1622 where it was installed in its current mausoleum. The remains of his mortal self, which are kept in a well-clad casket, flanked by gilt stars and bronze plaques that depict scenes from the saint’s life, are said to preserve his powers of healing. Apparently, the sides of the casket were originally encrusted with precious stones but they have been picked off over the centuries …
Ready for a change of pace, the next item on our itinerary sounds right up my alley.
“I’m going for Royal River Cruise over the Mandovi river!” I text my Goan friend excitedly. “Sounds so grand! Is it a lot of fun?”
To my surprise, his reply is not what I’d call enthusiastic. “It’s ok, but they’ve now turned the whole thing into some Bollywood show which I don’t like.”
I get what he means when we arrive at the pier, where I see crowds for the first time since I’ve reached Goa. I follow a long queue to board the riverboat…which doesn’t look remotely royal. Unless you consider an old ferry with rows of rusty chairs between a crude stage and a food counter at the back peddling chicken lollipop, covered flimsily by plastic flaps, royal.
My heart sinks, but I tell myself to keep an open mind. After all, I love Bollywood films more than some Indians I know, so I might surprise myself.
Because I spent longer than I should milling at the back of the boat ogling at the snacks, all the seats have already filled up by the time I’m done. I end up in the front row, next to the booming loudspeakers that nearly deafen me.
The show begins with a young man strolling onto stage and announcing that there will be traditional Goan dances followed by activities that would be enhanced by audience participation.
Though not terribly well-coordinated, the dancers put on an entertaining show – frantic, colourful, jaunty – but little do I know, the real show is just beginning.
When the mc opens the stage for audience participation, immediately several guys get up and race to the stage. The small stage is rapidly transformed into a mass of writhing, gyrating male bodies. I am transfixed. This would NEVER happen in Malaysia.
Then in a twist so twisted I never see it coming, I hear a voice behind me ask in perfect MANDARIN, “Where are you from?”
I turn around in shock.
The Mandarin-speaking voice belongs to a pretty young woman who is unmistakably Indian. Noting my confusion, she tells me she is the wife of an Indian-born steel businessman who has now settled down in Taiwan. She points to a smiling chap several rows behind who waves at us. After so many years abroad, they not only speak better Mandarin than Indian, they feel more at home in China and Taiwan. “We find this,” the hubby says, pointing to the stage, “quite scary!”
We chat a short while more before I return to my seat, where a wild rave party is going at full swing on stage. Young boys, old men, young men, you name it. When a particularly enthusiastic young man starts unbuttoning his shirt, I resign myself to the inevitable and decide to just enjoy the eye candy…
Back on the tour bus, the husband of an Indian couple in the next seat asks, “So did you enjoy the show?”
The Royal Cruise Show is crazy, wild, no-holds-barred. Depending on your personal taste, it’s something you’d find wildly entertaining – or utterly horrifying. I know exactly which side my bread is buttered.
“Yes,” I say with an emphatic nod. “Are all Indian men that uninhibited?”
“Not just men. Dance is in our blood.” He darts a glance at the pretty lady sitting next to him, who smiles back lovingly. “My wife and I, when we hear a little music, the feet start moving.”
“Same here,” I say feelingly.
I’m ready for Day 2 now. Bring it on, Goa. ☺