Oh gosh, where should I begin? It all started with an unpleasant, sleepless, triple-flight overnight journey that would render us practically catatonic for arrival. We left beautiful Vadoo island and took the speedboat to Hulhule, the island where Male International airport was located. We arrived at the airport without a hitch, but unfortunately our “free” ride to our airport hotel on Hulhumale (just the other side of Hulhule island) never showed up. Why did we even need an airport hotel? The unfortunate thing was that we weren’t flying out until 2:45am. Rather than sit in the tiny, non-air-conditioned airport for 10 hours or wander around the city of Male (which would require another speedboat ride) with all our luggage in tow, we opted to stay at the Ripple Beach Inn in Hulhumale, a brand new, modern hotel right on the beach, 10 minutes away from the airport. It sounded like the perfect plan, until our shuttle didn’t appear. The porter from the Adaaran was very helpful though. He phoned the Ripple Beach Inn and told them that we were waiting. They sent a car – an hour and a half later. Actually they sent a “representative” first, who couldn’t have been more than 16 years old. He arrived within 45 minutes, but he had no car with him and he couldn’t speak English. All he kept saying was, “The car is coming”, to which I thought to myself, “Coming? How the hell did YOU get here then?” I was totally confused. He kept running in and out of the airport. At one point, he disappeared for 20 minutes. Neither Raf nor I knew what the hell was going on. Finally, after another 20 minutes of him bouncing in and out of the airport, he pointed frantically to a White taxi that was pulling in. That was our ride. I turned to Raf and said, “Yup, it’s starting already…….” Even though he’d never been to India before, he knew exactly what I meant.
It took the driver about 15 minutes to get us to the hotel, which was on the north side of this long island. Hulhumale is largely an undeveloped island with a small airport, but there are grand plans to develop this island (and to expand the airport) to relieve the congestion on Male. Most of the inhabitants in the Maldives live on Male, and overcrowding has become a problem. They started to build on Hulhumale already and plan to have the island be fully inhabited within the next 8 years. The drive to our hotel therefore was less than scenic, filled with sights of cinderblocks and garbage mounds, construction materials and half erected buildings. We arrived at the hotel around 5pm, just when the sun was starting to set. We could make out the palm tree fringed beach area, which we were told, was man-made. We found out later that the beach was aptly name, “Artificial Beach”. There were many little guesthouses along the way, but no food options – no cafes, bars, or restaurants. The hotel was tiny too. It was cute, clean, modern, and new, but the restaurant they had on premises was not open. “Oh, you will have to tell us in advance so we can open for you”. Just for us??? That was weird. I guess they don’t get enough business there to keep it open continually. It’s understandable considering everybody goes there for the same reason as us – purely for transit only. Rarely do guests stay longer than 1 night. Heck, we weren’t even going to be there for 8 hour. The girl at the front desk seemed disappointed to hear that we were departing the same night.
She apologized for the wait at the airport and explained that they were only allowed to use one taxi service for pick-ups to and from the airport, and that the taxi company had a very limited amount of cars. Then she had someone show us to our room, which was on the first floor, behind the reception desk. We stepped into a narrow hallway no wider than 3 feet, and slid open our glass door. Inside was the tiniest, darkest room I had ever seen! Now I have stayed in ridiculously tiny rooms in Paris and Italy before, but this was award-winning. The full size bed was right up against the wall, and in between the all-in one dresser/desk and armoire was about 1.5 feet of floor space. We could barely open the armoire doors, and when we put our luggage inside, we couldn’t close them. The room could not have been more than 9 feet wide. The bathroom was at the end of this floor, in between the bed and dresser/desk. It had a sink, toilet, and a hand held shower stuck to the wall with no shower tray or curtain, so basically the entire bathroom was the shower. That was fine, except all we got for amenities were a half-used mini bottle of shampoo and a half used mini soap. Having said that, the room was pretty well appointed. There was very quiet air-conditioning, a flat screen TV on the wall in front of the bed, with all the Indian cable channels one could ever dream of. “Indian Idol” was interesting to watch. I didn’t even know that existed! On the dresser/desk were two bottles of water, a coffee maker and mugs, a box of tissues, and even a universal outlet plug. We had just about everything we needed in our little capsule hotel.
Exploring the surrounding areas was out of the question now. It was getting dark, and we knew we had to take a nap before our triple threat flight. There would be no sleeping tonight. We figured it would be best to eat first, and then nap until about midnight, so we went to the front desk to ask the girl about restaurants. She suggested one that was about 2 blocks away, so we went. The path leading to the restaurant consisted of dirt, garbage and rocks. There weren’t any proper streets or sidewalks. This place was really a work in progress. However, once we hit that next block, we saw some lights from a few grocery stores. Of course all the stores that were open and all the people that were outside were men. This was still a Muslim country. I felt all eyes upon me, the lone female in the crowd.
We landed in front of the one restaurant the girl at the front desk recommended. Outside, there were huge green signs picturing what lookedlike fast food items. Raf and I looked at each other, unsure of whether or not we should try it. We peeked inside and were relieved to find some women eating. We went in.
The place had absolutely no atmosphere. It was just a square room decorated in Pistachio Green and Red, with a couple of cheesy paintings on the wall. They didn’t even have a sign outside with the restaurant’s name, but the name “Redhin” was on their menu. The menu turned out to be pretty impressive. They served a mix of Asian dishes from Indonesia, Thailand, India, and even burgers, pizza and chicken. It wasn’t just fast food after all. We both opted to try the Nasi Lemak, Indonesia’s signature rice dish, since we hadn’t had Indonesian food in a long time. When it came out, it just looked like fried rice with chili sauce mixed in, and a fried egg on top. It was garnished with prawn chips. Even though it wasn’t the Nasi Lemak we were used to (white rice with several mini side dishes to mix together , including deep fried mini whole fish), it was still pretty gosh-darned tasty. The carbs would also help us sleep, we were hoping. We ate every last grain of rice, paid the reasonable price (about US$16 including 2 fresh watermelon juices), and went back to the hotel.
We tried to sleep for 4-5 hours, but kept tossing and turning in our little bed. Finally when midnight hit, our alarm-clock went off. We’d slept for only about an hour, two at the most. We quickly showered and got ready to go. Our shuttle was due to pick us up at 12:45am. Unlike earlier in the day, this time the shuttle was there, right on time. We got to the airport without a hitch, thanked the guy, and proceeded to the check-in counter.
Well actually, we had to FIND the international check-in area first. Arrows pointed us in one direction, when the area was in another direction. Raf and I just looked at one another in disbelief. When we got to the counter, the woman told us that the flight was leaving at 1:40am, not 2:45am. Well, it would have been nice if someone informed us! Email, text, phone call – anything would have been appreciated. Thanks for nothing, Sri Lankan Airlines. It was now 1am. The woman at the counter could not check us all the way through to Goa either because our connecting flights were on a different airline. “Just go to the transfer desk in Colombo. It will take you 5 minutes.” Yeah, right. She quickly checked us in and we hightailed it to the gate, getting guards and security people to allow us to cut the lines. Talk about stress! We made it onto the plane with 2 minutes to spare. The doors closed behind us and we were on our way.
While aboard the plane, they managed to serve us a meal for our one-hour flight. We weren’t really planning on eating again at 2am, but we got a hot sandwich and a juice box anyway. I felt like I was in kindergarten. After we were done with our sandwiches, the flight attendant served us tea and coffee, offering little sugar packets and mini-milk cups. I was not sure if we were over-tired or just punch drunk, but we burst out laughing uncontrollably when we read the label on the mini-milk. It read, “Tastes Like Fresh Milk”, but for some reason, we found that to be the single funniest thing we had ever seen in our entire lives. Really? FRESH milk? As opposed to what??? That was the most absurd thing I’d ever read on a milk label. Well of course now I had to try it. I stirred some into my tea, and lo and behold – it DID taste like fresh milk!! WOW! We cracked up again. Oh it’s starting already, I thought again to myself.
As soon as we landed, around 2:45am, we went over to the transfer desk to get our Jet Airways boarding cards, since we were still in transit. There was one person at the counter, doing everything from answering phones to helping customers and filling out paperwork. He looked absolutely frazzled, the poor guy. Two other women joined him at the counter, but they were doing something else. They didn’t offer anyone assistance. After waiting 25 minutes for our turn, we asked him for our boarding cards. He didn’t have a printer at the counter, so he told us that he had to go back downstairs to the check-in counter to retrieve them. We followed him out, but he turned on his heel and said, “You don’t have to come with me.” Whaaatt?? “Dude, you have our passports in your hand. Of COURSE we do!” I replied. Well, I didn’t actually say, “Dude”, but I wanted to. “No, it is not necessary. Just stay here. I will be back in 5 minutes.” What is up with this country and “5 minutes??” Raf and I remained upstairs at the transfer desk, not feeling very good about the whole situation. Some random stranger had just taken off with our passports. What if we never see him again? Isn’t this a breach of security? No other airport in the world would do this. We might as well have just gone straight downstairs and checked ourselves in. It probably would have been easier. A half an hour passed before he came back. We were sweating it out, knowing that boarding was in 10 minutes and we were way over on the other side of the airport in a different terminal. Talk about inefficiency. We had a two-hour layover and still ended up running. It was crazy! He handed our boarding cards and we took off running down the airport to catch our flight, which had just started boarding. This is just way too much action for me at 5am!
Our flight from Colombo to Chennai was another 1 hour flight. How painful. Why couldn’t we just get a direct flight from the Maldives to Goa? We got another mini-meal, this time it was hot food with rice…..and of course another juice box. How do they do this for hour-long flights? The flight itself was uneventful, but when we got to Chennai, I thought we were going to go off the deep end. Because we were transferring from Chennai to Goa (both in India), we followed the “transit passengers” signs and went straight to security instead of going back down to check-in, which made sense. As we put our bags through security and got felt up by the guards (women are checked in a private room by a female security person), they handed us a number that coordinated to our bags. When I handed my card back to the person after my bags went through, he refused to give them to me, pointing angrily at them. He didn’t speak any English, and he seemed frustrated that I didn’t speak Hindi, or whatever dialect he spoke. He then pointed to another passenger’s bag, which had a Jet Airways tag on it. Apparently this passenger went through check-in and received his tags then. We however, did not. He needed to stamp the tags as “proof” that they went through a security check. I had to explain to him that we went straight through via “transit” because we already had boarding passes. He seemed stumped, but still annoyed. Hey buddy, I can’t help it if your system is flawed. He then pointed to one of the gates. I assumed that we could get tags there, so I ran over and grabbed a bunch. We quickly wrapped the tags around our bags, and he happily stamped everything we owned. Seriously, who thought of this time waster? There is just no logic or point to this exercise.
After our fun security check, we had a 5-hour layover at the world’s ugliest and most boring airport gate. We couldn’t really sleep. There was no place to lay our heads. The seats at the gate were filthy – sticky, stained, dusty, with layers of crud in the corners or used napkins and candy wrappers stuck in between. We found the best ones and sat down on the edge the seat, careful not to touch anything. We tried leaning on each other to take a nap, but it was much too uncomfortable. We tried reading but our eyes were tired. We walked around but there was no place to go. We tried buying snacks but we were full and the food at the snack bar looked unappetizing. The roach in the corner that Raf spotted didn’t help either. I thought maybe we could go to the nearby Trident Hotel for breakfast, but the idea of going thru immigration and security again just for a meal that we weren’t even hungry for made us change our minds instantly. Looked like we were stuck there for 5 hours, like it or not.
After intermittently nodding off and watching the clock tick away for 4 hours, we got antsy. We just had to take a walk. They had finally posted our gate and to our shock and surprise, the gate was
downstairs! Downstairs?? There’s a downstairs?? There were no signs leading to a downstairs. We found a staircase in the corner and went. Well weren’t we shocked to find another bustling floor full of passengers, vendors, and about 6 more gates! To add insult to injury, there was a very nice looking spa on the first floor where we could have gotten massages for very reasonable prices! That really made me sad. Raf and I browsed around a little more and just before boarding, he decided that he was hungry. We went over to “The Cookie Man”, which was next door to the “Kocaine” women’s clothing shop and he got a muffin…..with a tiny pink plastic spoon shoved into it. Now I don’t know about him or anyone else, but I have NEVER ever eaten a muffin with a spoon before. Hmmm……It was not just starting, but it has officially started. And by “it”, I mean all the lunacy, wackiness, and nonsensical, illogical nuttiness that makes India one of my favorite yet most maddening countries to visit.
We made reservations to stay at a very reasonably priced and highly rated guesthouse called the Bougainvillea in Candolim, which was a quieter, less commercial section of Goa. We were not interested in full moon raves or hanging out with the hippies, so this was the perfect location. I contacted the guesthouse the day before to arrange for a car to pick us up, which they confirmed. When we touched down in Goa, there was no car, no driver, no placard. Hmmm…….this was the last thing we needed after our 24 hour flight. We went over to a “pay phone”, and by pay phone I mean a little room where a person dials a rotary phone for you and charges you by the minute for a call. Hey, there are a billion people in India. That’s one ingenious way to create jobs. I called the Bougainvillea to let them know that our ride did not show up. “Oh no, he is there! Where are you coming out of?” I told the person on the other end that we just came from Chennai, so it should be the domestic terminal (even though there were no signs). “Oh, he is waiting for you at the International terminal.” And with that, the phone cut off. We ran over to what we assumed was the international terminal, and once again, nothing. We called her back and she said, “Oh he went over to the domestic terminal to look for you.” So we ran back to the first place we came out of and still nothing. Finally, we asked the phone booth girl what terminal we were in. “This is the international terminal.” Really??? Since when is a Chennai-to-Goa flight international? Ugh! We ran back to the other terminal. We finally found our driver, a big, dark brute of a guy holding the placard down by his thigh. Nice place for it. He flashed it tentatively at us along with an “Oh please God let this be you…” kind of look. We acknowledged it and was so relieved. He led us to the parking lot and had us wait until he brought his car around to us, which was no easy feat considering the disorganized mayhem that plagues every Indian airport. It was a mob scene with cars everywhere, going in every which direction. We finally spotted him, got in, and off we went. We were at the Bougainvillea within a half hour.
Goa is a very unique place in India with an interesting history. Because it was under Portuguese rule for over 400 years, their food, architecture, religion, and even their language is heavily influenced by the Portuguese. Everybody in Goa has a Christian name. Our driver’s name was Mario. Yes, Mario. He was a big Indian guy, but he was a jovial teddy bear who spoke fluent English. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was the owner’s regular driver, and he would become our driver for the next few days.
Upon our arrival at the Bougainvillea, which was a beautiful Portuguese styled building with a gorgeous landscaped garden, the owner, Lourenco Silviera, greeted us. Before we left for India, I thought for sure that Lourenco was a Portuguese man. I thought wrong. He was 100% Indian through and through. He was a dapper man, dressed in a crisp striped dress shirt with French cuffs and chino pants, with his cell phone perpetually in tow. He gave us a room on the ground floor, with our own private garden and hammock. The room was huge and spotless, with a separate living room, giant armoire, large, well stocked refrigerator, free wi-fi, cable TV and air conditioning. The only thing jarring was the choice of upholstery and fabric patterns. It looked like a fabric store exploded in there. I dismissed it as “eclectic” and was just happy to be in one place for a few days.
After we finished unpacking, around 6:30, the sun had already set. The sun sets around 6pm at that time of year, so we found Lourenco to ask him about dinner options. He recommended a few and told us how to walk into town (which was very easy). We wanted to explore but were so hungry and beat that we stopped at the first nice place we saw, a lovely restaurant called the Susse Café. This was probably the most expensive restaurant in town, but at that point we didn’t care. It looked modern and really pretty, set up on a little hill, with steps and outside dining. Mini lights adorned all the trees around the nicely landscaped garden. They showed us the menu and sure enough, the prices were more than double the regular Goan pricing. The menu looked great, so we ordered. Raf got a spicy red fish curry dish and I got something called Chicken Chakuti, which was local to Goa. I had never heard of it, but it sounded great – Tender chicken breast cooked in a cilantro sauce with bell peppers. I love cilantro! We supplemented with some sautéed broccoli with garlic chips, because we hadn’t seen broccoli in ages! We were so excited to be able to get vegetables!
While waiting for our food to be prepared, the owner came by and introduced herself. She was a beautiful, very elegant light skinned Indian woman in her early fifties. We chatted for a bit and found out that she and her Hungarian husband decided to move back to India to retire, after living and working abroad in London, New York and Singapore for the last 30 years. This was where she was from originally, so they decided to settle in Goa and open a restaurant, because they were tired of the corporate world. Whoa! They were us! The other wild thing was – she used to live on the Upper East Side, directly across the park from where we used to live. It was indeed a small world. I felt right then and there as if we were SUPPOSED to pick this restaurant and meet her. It was eerie yet comforting at the same time. No wonder the restaurant was so chic. They were influenced by all the places they used to live in. She did lament about the difficulty of restaurant ownership though, but they were not the usual issues that we would have to deal with. She said they had major problems with the most basic necessities, like the water supply and the electricity, things that one would normally take for granted in a western society. And with that, the electricity went out. The music stopped, it got dark, and she excused herself. We saw first hand what she meant. We were grateful that we didn’t have to deal with any of that. It was going to be hard enough running a restaurant without having the electricity go out or the water supply turning bad every day.
The food finally arrived after the generator kicked in and it looked amazing. It also smelled intoxicating. I couldn’t wait to dig in. Both of our dishes came with flavored rice and vegetables on the side. The broccoli was cooked to perfection, and the garlic chips were nice and crispy. My chicken was to die for. It was juicy, tender, and so flavorful and aromatic. The one aspect that Raf and I really appreciate about Indian food is the complexity of all the spices. They call it “masala” which just means “mixture”. Their curries are always blends of at least 10 different spices, which makes this one of the most tricky cuisines to master, flavor-wise. I was done with my dish and wanted more. Raf loved his too. His fish was flaky, moist and just spicy enough without setting his tongue on fire. It was an awesome meal, and for a mere US$16 per person, I would say we made a fantastic choice for our first evening in Goa. If this place was any indication of how our next few of days were going to play out, we would be golden. We thanked them for making our first night in Goa so pleasant, and walked back to our guesthouse, perfectly satisfied – and ready for bed.
The next morning, after a quick jog along Sinquerim Beach, we sat down to breakfast in the garden, which was lovely yet uneventful. We had a basic breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast, with tea and some fruit. To our surprise, breakfast was not included in the price of our room, but it was very reasonable. We wanted to make the most of our short stay in Goa, so we quickly ate and went to find Lourenco to help us plan. Since Goa is so huge, it really needed to be explored by car. We were hoping to be able to rent motorbikes, but he highly recommended against it, warning us of roadside accidents. I had been to India many times and understood what he was talking about. When it comes to crazy driving, India should win a Gold medal. We thought about it for a split second and decided that it would be safer with Mario, so he arranged to have him take us sightseeing for half a day. He would show us the capital, Panaji, Old Goa, and the famous Sahakari Spice Plantation (as seen on Anthony Bourdain’s show, “No Reservations”), which were all about an hour away. Mario picked us up at 11am on the dot and we were on our way. While on the road, Raf was amazed by all the cows. He decided to make a game out of it and count all of them to see how many he could spot in one day.
Or first stop was Panaji. It was a bustling city full of shops, shops and more shops. This is definitely the commerce center of Goa. There were hundreds of boats docked at the pier, all with cargo shipments coming and going. At the center of town, up on a small hill was a gorgeous and imposing White Church with a zig-zag staircase.
Everything else paled in comparison. This was definitely the focal point of the city. There were merchants on the streets selling fruit, taxis and tuk-tuks zipping by, small restaurants and stores everywhere, and a big hotel nearby. Raf and I noticed all the names of the shops and restaurants. They were all either Christian names or Portuguese names. We really didn’t feel like we were in India at all – except when we saw the occasional tuk-tuk pass us by. We didn’t stay long in Panaji. Going to a busy city was the last thing we wanted to do, so after just a few minutes of walking around, we were ready to go. The next stop, the spice plantation, was what we really wanted to visit. We got there about 45 minutes later, and were just floored by the natural beauty. After purchasing out tickets (which was about US $8 and included lunch), we crossed a footbridge along the river.
It was quite picturesque. There were even elephants at the plantation, and for a fee that was
twice the price of admission, one could take a ride and bathe with one of them, and get sprayed by his trunk. Ew. No thanks. Let us at the spices!
There were quite a few people there, so we had to wait until the English speaking guide was done with her previous group. They adorned us with leis (fresh flower necklaces) and fed us tea and baby bananas while we waited. After 15 minutes, our guide was ready to take us around. It was quite interactive and educational.
We learned that bay leaves came from the same trees that cinnamon bark comes from. That was news to both of us! We played with the leaves of the “Touch Me Not” plant (aka magnolia), which closed when one touched them, only to reopen 7 minutes later. We watched “Tarzan”, the local coconut tree climber climb two trees, jumping from one to another. We stopped and smelled the basil. It was touristy, but pretty entertaining, as we went from plant to plant, learning about its medicinal uses and health benefits. After our 45 minute tour was over, they set up an impressive buffet lunch for us. It was like a thali set, with rice, 3-4 different types of vegetables, chicken curry, lentils, papadam and pickles. The spread was huge and greatly varied. I could have eaten two plates full but restrained myself.
After our lunch was over, it was time to go. Mario waited patiently in the parking lot for us and took us to Old Goa next. Because of an upcoming festival, the police limited the parking there so there was none to be had. After driving us around and around for a bit, we gave up. He took us to a nearby Hindu temple instead. It wasn’t on the itinerary, so we had no idea where we were going. When we arrived, he pointed and said “Temple is down the road. Go check it out.” Following his orders, we got out and walked.
It must have been a popular place to visit, because the entire road with lined with vendors selling touristy souvenirs and floral “offerings” for the gods. There were also a bunch of naughty cows wandering the streets, eating everything in sight and stealing whole packages of food from the street vendors. By the end of the day, Raf’s cow count was at 91.
We returned to the guesthouse around 5pm, and thanked Mario for taking us around. It was still a little early, so we decided to go back to Sinquerim Beach and explore Fort Aguada, which were the ruins of an old Portuguese fort at the end of the Beach. There was a lot of action around there, with boaters, parasailers, and crowds locals and tourists walking around. The sun would be setting in an hour, so this was the perfect time to check it out, when it wasn’t sweltering. We explored the fort and watched the sunset, but we were getting hungry.
We decided to grab dinner at Santa Lucia, which was a restaurant owned by Lourenco’s sister. The restaurant didn’t sound very Indian, but Lourenco told us that they had very good Sorpatel and Goan Fish Curry, two local dishes that we really wanted to try. We got off the beach and made a bee-line to Santa Lucia. It was a small restaurant with all outdoor seating. We didn’t get to meet Lourenco’s sister, but we were still looked after very well. We knew exactly what we wanted, and added a few other things to try, like their yellow dal, garlic naan and Chicken Tikka Masala (my personal fave). The rice we ordered was cumin scented, very perfumey and a delicious accompaniment to all the dishes that we ordered. Sorpatel is a local dish made of pork and a complex bevy of spices, typically served during celebrations. The Goan fish curry is also a classic dish, made with coconut milk instead of cow’s milk. This is Rafael’s favorite Indian dish, and one of the few he can eat. Yellow dal is also dairy-free. It is the southern version, much lighter, made with yellow lentils as opposed to the northern India version with black lentils, kidney beans and heavy cream.
It was a scrumptious feast that cost us a whopping $21, almost half the price we paid the night before. We waddled home, walking past the Susse Café, but they were closed that evening. What a fantastic and full first day we had there. We were determined to make the next day equally as interesting.
The next morning, after breakfast, we asked Lourenco to recommend a good place for Ayurvedic massage. Our necks and backs had been aching for days from carrying our heavy backpacks all over Asia. We needed an Ayurvedic treatment, stat! Ayurveda is “The Science of Life”, an ancient Indian medical system that focuses on 3 different constitutions called “doshas” (Vata, Pitta, Kapha) and the ways one must eat and move in order to keep his/her dosha balanced. It is a fascinating form of eastern medicine, and a sound way to keep one healthy. Most people are a combination of 2 different doshas, and sometimes even all 3. Once at an Ayurvedic spa in Bali, Raf and I both had Shirodara treatments. Shirodara an ancient form of relaxation where one lays on a table and has warm aromatic oils drip on his/her forehead for anywhere between 20-45 minutes. That was our only experience with Ayurveda so we wanted to explore it further. Goa was the perfect place to do that, and Lourenco was the perfect person to ask. What we didn’t want to do was go to any random little shack in town that called themselves an Ayurvedic center. Just as we thought, he knew the best place in Goa. There was a major Ayurvedic clinic and holistic treatment center in Saligao, the next town over. It was large, professional and well known. They even had week and month-long programs for patients who needed a major health overhaul. This sounded like the perfect place. He even offered to drive us there, and then arrange to have Mario pick us up when we were done. He called to set up the appointment and got his Red Suzuki. It sounded like the perfect plan……
The drive there took about 20 minutes. When we arrived, we immediately noticed how big and institutional it was. It was a tallish building with a good sized parking lot and security guards. Lourenco took us into reception and told us that Mario would be there at 2pm. It was only 11:45. That gave us ample time for one of their 2-hour package treatments that included Shirodara (again), a 4-hand massage, a foot massage and a head and neck massage, with sauna treatment and herbal drinks. It sounded like heaven. The girl at the front desk didn’t really speak English too well, but she and Lourenco spoke for a minute, and then he left. After that, she kept referring to him as our “driver”. I told her on 3 separate occasions that he was the owner of the guesthouse we were staying at, but she kept referring to him as the driver. I have no idea why. She quickly calculated how much we owed for the treatments, added in the tax, and had us pay up front for everything. That was strange. I’ve never paid up front for a massage treatment before but figured that was the clinic’s policy, so we did. At about US $80 per person, we figured that it was a bargain for all those treatments anyway. She took our money and had us wait about 10 minutes for our massage therapists. I would be getting two women, and Raf would be getting two men. Uh-oh! He has never had a male massage therapist before, let alone two. The woman at the front desk said he was not allowed to have female massage therapists. I quickly shot him a look. I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable, but he sighed said it was fine. What choice did he have at this point?
In came our therapists, and off we went, to separate treatment rooms. Mine was on the ground floor at the end of an open courtyard area where other therapists, patients and workmen were hanging around outside of the other treatment rooms and the shower rooms. It wasn’t your typical quiet, zen spa setting, that was for sure. Raf disappeared up the stairs in the center of the courtyard, so I had no idea what his treatment room was like. I just figured it was the same as mine. The two tiny Indian women did not speak any English, but they led me into a small, hot, dark room with a leather lined wood massage table and a large, strange looking box-like contraption in the corner. They were standing about 3 inches away from me, one on either side while I faced the table. The first one gestured to me with her hands for me to disrobe. Okay, I thought. It would be standard procedure. I will disrobe and climb onto the table face down, underneath a blanket after they left the room. Nope. They remained right there, 3 inches away from me. I exaggerate not. There is no sense of personal space in India to begin with, but this was beyond ridiculous. I disrobed completely, tossing my clothes onto a nearby chair as they watched, unmoving from their original spots. I never knew that it was possible to feel more naked than I actually was, but now I could say it was. To make matters worse, lying on top of the massage table was a very strange, two foot long, tapered papyrus paper with a string going across one end. The second girl picked it up and gestured for me to put it on. What?!?!? How??? I just looked at her. She figured I was clueless and wrapped the paper panty around me, which was probably worse. How can you feel violated without even being touched? Have a complete stranger wrap a paper loincloth on you while staring you down, that’s how! I felt like an African bushman. Still, I could only imagine what was going on in Raf’s treatment room. I winced at the thought two men wrapping a paper banana hammock around my poor husband’s manhood. Oh dear.
After “diapering” me in the paper thong, the women directed me to the leather table, where I laid face up instead of down. They did not line the table with anything. There was no towel, no pillow, nothing. It was just me, almost buck naked, on a bare leather table. The women then poured oil all over me like they were dressing a salad and proceeded to “buff my skin” starting from the legs up. There was one therapist working my left side, and one on the right. They tried to do synchronized movements, but didn’t quite succeed. One was much more heavy handed than the other, and the other one kept losing her place. I wondered if she was new. They briskly massaged every part of me from the neck down for about 45 minutes, occasionally getting their fingers caught in my little loincloth. I kept my eyes shut the entire time, because I couldn’t crawl into a hole. They did not work on my neck, shoulders, back, or feet, my problem areas. “Oh please stop rubbing my belly”, I kept thinking to myself. Finally, they stopped. I was a greasy, shiny mess. They put a thin towel to cover me and shifted me to the top end of the table, where they set up the Shirodara bowl. Oh great, more oil. I laid there for what felt like an eternity as the warm, slimy oil dripped onto my “third eye” for another 45 minutes. Is this the Indian version of Chinese water torture??? Raf and I loved our sexy Shirodara experience in Bali, but here in this hot sticky room where two women just worked me over like a large ball of pizza dough, I was feeling less than relaxed. After the oil ran completely out of the bowl, they motioned me to sit up and get off the table onto a stool – without my ‘security blanket’ towel. I slipped and almost broke my ankle because of all the oil on my feet. Can I sue people here? As I sat there, slumped over in defeat, one of them poured more oil on my head and gave me a mini head and neck massage. My hair was now as greasy as the rest of me. Great. She pounded on my upper back and motioned for me to get into the big square wooden box. Inside the box were a wooden stool and a tube. The tube was connected to a pressure pot that was sitting on a hotplate on the table in front of me. She turned the hotplate on and closed the box on me, exposing only my head. I felt like a medieval prisoner at the stocks, awaiting decapitation. They sat across from me, staring at me for 10 minutes while I slowly dehydrated inside. Every now and then one of them would ask me, “Okay?” What was I supposed to say? “No you crazy bitches. Get me outta here!!” That was what I was thinking. I just nodded and smiled pathetically. Talk about uncomfortable – I was greasy, groggy, dehydrated, and dripping sweat in this weird contraption with two women staring at me. They finally freed me from the sweat box and pointed to my clothes. “Finished.”, one of them said. What??? Are you kidding me?? I was covered in oil. They didn’t even wipe me down. There was no way in hell I was putting my clothes back on at this point. I would have to throw them away when I got back! I pointed to the greasy towel that was laying on top of the sweatbox and said, “Shower?” “Shower?”, she said. “Yes, I want to shower!” They wrapped me in my grease-laden towel and walked me, barefoot, with crazy hair, through the courtyard, while other therapists and workmen stared at me. They directed me to a dark little cell with a shower spigot and a half used bar of soap. In the middle of my shower, there was a knock on the door. One of the therapists returned with a tiny pack of shampoo – at least that was what I hoped it was. Everything was written in Hindi. I took my chances and washed the grease out of my hair and off my body, but dried off with the same greasy towel they gave me. I wrapped myself back in it and walked outside, back through the courtyard, past all the ogling workmen. Ugh, when will this ordeal be over? I returned to the hot, dark little room where the two therapists sat, watching me get dressed. India is a country of starers. People there stare. They mean no harm, but that’s just what they do. I’ve always hated that one aspect about India in general, and this situation was so intense that I had to get out of there, stat! I mean, staring at someone from a distance is bad enough. Staring at someone from 6 inches away was more than I could take. I thought of poor Raf. If he had the same experience as me, for sure he must have been just dying up there. As soon as I got dressed, I went back over to reception and sat there, waiting for him. He emerged and descended down the stairs slowly, wearing a greasy tee-shirt and shorts. His face was shiny and his hair was disheveled. He was semi-smiling, but not in a good way. “Uh oh. Didn’t you shower?” “Uh, noooo. I didn’t know you could.” Poor guy. He must have felt so uncomfortable!
Mario showed up a few minutes later, which was right about the time Rafael realized that they never gave us our “herbal drinks” that was included in the package. I went up to the woman at reception and she looked at me like I had 3 heads. She understood English perfectly when she was taking all our money at the beginning, but all of the sudden she turned into Helen Keller. She had NO idea what I was talking about. I had to grab the brochure and show her what it said in Black and White. She said, “Oooh. Wait a moment.” With that, she made a quick phone call and within 5 minutes, two little cups of cammomile tea showed up on a tray. Really? Herbal tea? They made it sound like it was some kind of special medicianal concoction. I can get my own cup of cmamomile tea anywhere. Now poor Mario had to sit there and wait while we drank our tea. He asked us if it was good. We lied and said, “Sure.”
On our way home, Raf and I compared notes in the back of Mario’s car. His experience was exactly the same as mine, except his was marginally worse. During his time in the big ol’ sweat box, one of the male therapists sat on a stool, literally two inches from his sweaty face, leaning his elbows on top of the box. He stared at him, tilted his head, smiled and started making small talk. “So….how you liking your treatment? How many days you stay in India?” Huh??? Ew! Shut up! …….and get away from me! At least that was what he was thinking. That part of “the treatment” was far worse than mine. At least my therapists sat 3 feet away and didn’t talk to me while they stared. To say that this was a memorable experience would be an understatement……and not in a good way. When we returned from our humiliating experience, Lourenco asked us how it was. Again, we lied and said it was good. Raf ran back to the room and showered immediately, trying to wash all his greasy shame away. The funny thing was, when we were leaving the clinic, the receptionist actually asked us if we wanted to try the weeklong detox package. I could only imagine what this would be like for 7 days straight. No friggin’ way! I’ll keep my toxins, thanks. And of course you’ll quickly notice that there are no photos of the place. Yeah, for good reason.
By now it was 2:30pm. We were starving, so we ran back into town and went to the first place we found, which happened to be a place called the Curry House. We were the only customers there. I guess 2:30 is an odd time to have lunch, but heck, they were open, so we went in. It was an all outdoor dining spot that overlooked the main street. We found a table that had a good vantage point for people looking, but the tablecloths were filthy and stained with grease and dirt. Nice. We moved to another table but it had the same problem. We gave up and just sat there, waiting and waiting until the waiter decided to give us menus. We ordered another Goan Fish Curry, another Chicken Tikka Masala (just to compare to the previous night’s meal), and a Biriyani, India’s answer to fried rice. We also got Aloo Gobi because we just had to get some veggies in us somehow. The food took forever to come. We must have waited a half hour. In that time, we entertained ourselves by watching the cows walk down the street and the resident dog clean himself. It was a slooow afternoon. Right before we were about to pass out from hunger, our food arrived. The fish and chicken looked normal, but we had never seen Aloo Gobi (cauliflower and potatoes) cooked the way they did it before. It had a heavy, spicy reddish brown curry sauce all over it. That was something new. The biriyani impressed the heck out of Raf. It was a vegetable biriyani, so the colorful rice was topped with sautéed shallots, Raf’s favorite condiment. Buried inside the rice was a creamy, flavorful stew of mixed vegetables. What a nice surprise! It tasted divine too. They certainly don’t make biriyani like this back home! We stuffed ourselves, deciding that this place had even better food than the previous nights. We picked it randomly, but even with the dirty tablecloths, this place was a winner.
It was already late in the afternoon by the time we finished lunch, so we decided to walk along the beach and hang out until sunset. There were several beach shacks there so if we did get hungry later on in the evening, we could just walk over. We hung out on the beach for the rest of the afternoon, trying to catch the last of the sun’s rays before it set. It was a fairly quiet beach, but there was still some people watching to be had. There were folks walking along the water, little kids jumping waves, guys getting ready to go boating – all your typical beach scenes. However, while the sun was setting, something unique came on the scene. A family of cows walked right in front of the sunset! There they were, all 4 of them, walking along the water’s edge like they were supposed to be there. Only in India could you see something like this. What a spectacular sighting. I grabbed my camera and immediately began shooting. That alone made our trip to Goa worthwhile.
As they walked away, we decided to follow them. So did everyone else on the beach. It was funny, but even the local Indian people seemed amazed. Don’t they see this every day? Everyone was snapping photos of them as if they were movie stars on the red carpet. Eventually they started to make their way off the beach, walking off into the moonlight. Wow. What an afternoon!
Well, by now it was pitch black out on the beach. The only lights we had were from the distant beach shacks and the occasional fishing boat that would pass by. We walked to the nearest shack and plopped ourselves down to get a drink and listen to the surf. They were playing loud, clubby music, but there were only two other people at the bar. We got our menus and ordered some drinks, but around a half hour later, we decided to get a light dinner too. We were still full from lunch, but knew that if we didn’t eat something now, we would regret it in the middle of the night. Raf loved the biriyani from lunch so much that he wanted to get it again for dinner.
To switch it up a bit, we got shrimp piri-piri instead of fish curry. Piri-piri is a type of chili pepper – tiny in size, but it supposedly packs a wallop. We saw it at the plantation and thought it would be nice to try it in a dish. The last thing we got was some more yellow dal, our favorite legume. The shrimp piri-piri had a sweetness to it and wasn’t all that spicy, which was a relief for my taste buds. The lentils were standard fare. It seems that almost everybody in Goa uses the same yellow dal recipe, but the biriyani was disappointing for Raf. It was just rice, very plain, with some sliced raw tomatoes thrown on top. I think he was expecting a repeat
performance from lunch, with sautéed shallots again. It didn’t taste bad though. The meal was probably the least impressive out of all the ones we had in Goa, but considering the makeshift beach shack kitchen that it came out of, it was pretty remarkable fare. Still, this wasn’t going to be our last meal in India. We had an afternoon flight to Dubai the next day, so we had breakfast and lunch to tantalize our palates before we left.
Our final day was sad one. We were just settling into the Bougainvillea. Most guests stay for at least 3 weeks to a month. We were there for only 3 days and were definitely not ready to go. We tried to make the most of our final morning by going to the beach. Check out was at 10, so we did, right after breakfast. They told us that they had a room for us to shower in when we returned from the beach. We went for a couple of hours and came back, quickly showered, changed, and sat down for our final Goan meal. For the past 3 days, Freddie was our waiter, taking our breakfast orders every day. We had no idea that he was a chef also. He made the most incredible lunch for us. We ordered our lunch dishes at breakfast so he could go to the market and get all the ingredients as fresh as possible. He made a fabulous Goan fish curry with fresh caught Red Snapper, Chicken Chakuti with fresh cilantro and the most tender chicken ever, and a proper Aloo Gobi without all that brown sauce. The cauliflower was tender and perfectly spiced, as were the potatoes.
It was the perfect ending to a near perfect visit to Goa. I say near perfect because of……….well, you know. Let’s just say we will never get another Ayurvedic massage as long as we live. We thanked Freddie for his delicious meal and settled our bill with Lourenco’s wonderful assistant Agnelo. Lourenco was out, so Agnelo called his cell for us so we could at least say goodbye over the phone. I read a lot of reviews about the place, and ugly room décor aside, it really did feel like we were staying with a caring family. It was hard to leave, but after our long goodbyes, we hopped back into Mario’s car for the last time…….Dubai here we come!