Goa Beyond its Beaches

The coastal state’s rural qualities fortunately remain intact. Assagao is a case in point.  
Goa Beyond its Beaches 3
Villagers in Goa are adept at manoeuvring two-wheelers through heavy downpours.

Assagao in north Goa has come a long way. Once it was a hamlet of marigold growers who’d walk to Mapusa, the nearest market town, to sell their flowers. Tired from carrying their wares, they’d stop at old missionary-built shrine-like resting spots marked by wells nearby. These are still around to remind you this is fulacho gav, the village of flowers, surrounded by hills 26 feet above the Arabian Sea, which laps nearby.

Watching over the village is Saint Cajetan, whose church was built by Goa’s Portuguese rulers in the 17th century. The queue for this church, sitting serenely atop a hill, does not wind through streets, the mass does not last all day and there is no feast—just some stalls and music on August 7, the saint’s birthday. When you ask if the view from St. Cajetan’s hill is nice, you’re directed to Milagres (Our Lady of Miracles Church) in Badem instead.

Away from the beaches, Goa’s rural qualities fortunately remain intact. The locals are accustomed to the crowds of tipsy tourists. “We never call them drunks—we call them high-spirited,” says Shailesh Dias who runs Casa de Aluizio, a B & B, from his 250-year-old family bungalow. Shailesh’s father had seven siblings, most of whom took the cloth, and the two who remained single didn’t care to have any children. The premises are ably managed by Dharma, a quiet, pretty Nepalese woman.

The nearby Villa Blanche Bistro warns you at the entrance: “No Wi-Fi” and “No Stupid Questions.” With a confusingly French name, it serves delicious German food from an exquisite old bungalow. It is typical of the famously fetching homes that the Goans returning from Portuguese colonies built, giving rise to the indigenous Indo-Portuguese style of building, a pastiche whose pomp has aged gracefully. They are now seeing a rapid increase of tasteful, if bittersweet, revampings.

A cheery Goan farmer (left) takes a break from ploughing his paddy patch; Panoramic views of paddy fields can also be enjoyed while savouring a fish thali (right) at Vinayak Family Restaurant.

A cheery Goan farmer (left) takes a break from ploughing his paddy patch; Panoramic views of paddy fields can also be enjoyed while savouring a fish thali (right) at Vinayak Family Restaurant.

Not far away from Villa Blanche is another 250-year-old bungalow which survives as the Hotel Astoria, set up by Edwin Fonseca who made his riches in Africa and returned to Goa in the 1950s. The patrao (Portuguese for owner) occupies the study while his sons take turns to run the restaurant, kitchen and bar. They have one cook and a relative, Hoshi, whose large, kind eyes and Quasimodo hunch make him seem like a very attentive listener when taking an order.

There are no intrusions such as Wi-Fi in the hotel’s rooms. You might spend your time at the restaurant, which overlooks a strip of garden off the Anjuna-Mapusa Road, to spot butterflies as big as hummingbirds and hummingbirds as tiny as butterflies. One rainy evening, when all creatures—arboreal and not—retreated, a discussion led to Mr. Fonseca insisting that there was such a thing as a good feni, and that I try it.

Mixing with Limca did not improve this tincture-like cashew or palm spirit. It is neither nutty, nor pungent, nor mild, nor aromatic—just sodden. So unlike Goans themselves who, like a good whisky, are warm and laid-back or, like a crisp cerveja, cool and conducive to fun. The chirping birds, up before the sun, wake you up. The excited twitter of a troop of langurs is followed by the alpha’s call. They hang on the trees and roofs, exotic black faces, silver blonde fur and long, elegant tails, peering from heights.

A heritage villa on the Anjuna-Mapusa Road (bottom) houses two Goan hotspots—Gunpowder Restaurant and People Tree Design Studio; Felix Gomes and his partner Beatriz Contreras (top) outside their NGO, Live Happy-Happy Home.

A heritage villa on the Anjuna-Mapusa Road (bottom) houses two Goan hotspots—Gunpowder Restaurant and People Tree Design Studio; Felix Gomes and his partner Beatriz Contreras (top) outside their NGO, Live Happy-Happy Home.

The patrao’s wife, Mrs. Eida Fonseca, knocks at the door and walks back downstairs to not seem like she is prying. She is holding a seenkh broom in one hand; she wears a grey bob, an A-line skirt and a loose sleeveless top—traditional ladies’ casuals in Goa. Across the courtyard, she says in a Konkan lilt, “I wanted to see who was playing such beautiful music.” This is the reaction to Dinah Washington’s “The Swingin’ Miss D.” Quincy Jones’ arrangement echoing across the stone courtyard makes sweeping dead leaves away—her morning chore—cheery, perhaps. Unasked, she brings me nutmeg from her garden and the phone number of her son, who worked for the regional press, if I needed any help.

Assagao is rapidly becoming the suburb for folk who are too chic to actually live in the suburbs. A house can cost you anything between Rs80 lakhs and Rs10 crores, and Salman Khan and Kiran Rao are reportedly scouting for property. Malavika Tiwari has had an architect visit old Goan houses and build her one here. A handsome and strange Parsi boy, recent tenant in these parts, that look perpetually like flotsam, calls the Anjuna-Mapusa Road, Sunset Boulevard.

Model-turned-businesswoman Carol Gracias moved to Assagao with her French husband to run a three-suite B & B called Botanique. They have had near full occupancy even in off-season. A petit déjeuner is laid out in a lounge by a Christmas tree-shaped pool—homemade cake, eggs, muesli, fresh juice and fresh coffee for Rs280. They always have time for Goa’s wanderers, and a fledgling vegetable patch and yoga lawn.

Old Goan families and the fashionable set of newcomers are trying to make it work as residents together. The urban lot, many with children, is here to get away from the city to pause, to work, to rebuild relationships—including with nature. Children can go to a school that follows the self-organised learning environment (SOLE) method. The newbs have no complaints other than about the day-long power cuts and poor availability of staff or handymen. Felly, or Felix Gomes, who runs the NGO Live Happy worries, though. He has a garbage collection, separation and disposal service and says of the roughly 3,000 homes in Assagao, only about 200 have their garbage collected. The rest burn or dump it in the woods.

Most city expatriates’ non-gardens, untended patches with potential, reveal their ineptitude for nature though they come seeking it. The soil is mostly fertile but pebbly in many areas where it is a bane for gardeners. Unless it is fallow, the land is capable of Edenic produce, as permaculturist Peter Fernandes’ prolific food forest proves. Everything here is edible, including the toadstools, honeycombs, medicinal plants and the ants.

Assagao has many early risers, from walkers ambling down palm tree-flanked pathways (right) to langurs (left) on Villa Blanche Bistro's rooftop.

Assagao has many early risers, from walkers ambling down palm tree-flanked pathways (right) to langurs (left) on Villa Blanche Bistro’s rooftop.

The last time I ate an ant was when I was about three. Its pincers dug into my tongue until they didn’t. This time, an unfortunate weaver ant’s formic acid sac, the abdomen, is snipped off with a Swiss knife by the gardener. It looks like a tiny piece of caviar, orangish, and bursts like a lime vesicle. But I also taste passion fruit, Calamansi lime, paan leaf with honey and gongura (roselle) leaf from this forest-garden. The jumble of wholesome vegetation, butterflies and bees is an inspiration. Peter wants more people to grow their own food, reduce dependency on the commercial food chain and eat more healthily.

These pastorals carry on separately from the foreign tourists who arrive like a Tartar horde at peace time in October and stay until March. The rates at hotels go up. There are now fewer Europeans and Brits coming to Goa—the Indians and Russians are filling up the B & Bs instead.

And where there is a paradise, there are large realtors and earth movers levelling hills for new constructions. Yet, this is not a place where the affluent show up like Mumbai kids at the beach to get drunk. They wait to grow up a little. They learn to live with power cuts when trees collide with electricity cables, the green light on the Wi-Fi router forever a-flicker.

After nearly four months of rain, which made everything feel neither hot nor cool, August’s sunlight takes the lukewarmth out of things. This solarium of continuous emerald interrupted by bursts of bloom and brightness induces a forgetfulness. Time, U.S. poet Vijay Seshadri said, though endless, is also short. But in Goa, it feels like it might be the other way around.

  • Divya Guha was a business journalist. Currently in Kolkata, she is writing a book chronicling her adventures. She has written for Mint, Open, BBC, The Wire, and Scroll, among other publications.

  • Matthew Parker is an English photographer living between India and Portugal. He made a home in Assagao for seven years, and is currently based in Lisbon.

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