The Konkan Express train chugged down India’s west coast, from Mumbai to Goa, overnight, cradling us side-to-side as we slept. By day the four of us sat in a little compartment on maroon, padded benches, and by night the walls of the compartment folded up into three tiers of surprisingly comfortable bunk beds
We woke up the next morning to the sound of the train’s hired tea man walking up and down the aisles, advertising, “Chai! Chai! Garam chai! Chai!” in a voice turned robotic from years of announcing. The chai was delicious, and afterwards we all took turns hanging out the open train door, enjoying the hot breeze, and taking in our first glimpses of Goa’s lush scenery and its stunning network of blue, backwater mirrors, speckled with egrets standing proud in their white, feather suits.
During our taxi drive into Goa proper the air smelled like flowers, and in the evening Kyle and I ventured out for an evening in Panjim, the old, Portuguese part of town. Goa was emancipated from the Portuguese even more recently than the rest of India was from the British, and the streets in Panjim almost seemed to transport us to Portugal itself. The European-looking lanes were narrow and winding, lined by tall, white-washed, stucco houses topped with red, terracotta tile roofs. The ambiance was warm and the lighting at night seemed to colour everything golden. We came across a team of artists, working together on gigantic paper mache sculptures of gods, humans, and animals. They were putting together a float to celebrate, with the city, Holi, Easter, and Carnivale, combined – and outward reflection of Goa’s multi-religious openness.
That evening marked the beginning of our South Indian seafood extravaganza, starting with fresh, garlic prawns, as well as Goan soup, which apparently tasted just like Grandma Jackson’s famous, homemade chicken-noodle, and giant Kingfisher beers that cost only $1.
We all spent the next day at Anjuna Beach. Paradise. We passed the hours admiring the white sand and sapphire blue ocean from the luxury of umbrella-covered beach recliners. The fee to stay was, once every hour or so, to spend a dollar on delicious, fresh-squeezed pineapple juice, or an avocado shake, or a banana lassi, or a fresh lime soda (sweet), or another giant Kingfisher beer. In between drinks, we would take a dip in the warm waves and then, with our eyes closed, enjoy that tickling feeling of salty drips sun-drying off of our skin.
Our final day in Goa was a whistle-stop tour. We first admired two colonial cathedrals, constructed, strangely, across the street from one another. One of the, Bom Jesus, houses the mysteriously still-intact body of Saint Francis Xavier, himself (minus his big toe, bitten off by a particularly devout, or hungry, pilgrim). The next stop was the spice plantation. Two trained elephants greeted us there, followed by a posse of playful monkeys, and then our bubbly tour guide, Puja. Puja showed us the origins of black pepper, green cardamom, red chillies, cashew nuts, pineapples, cinnamon, allspice leaves, cloves, and betel nuts, and at the end of the tour, cooled us off by pouring a cup of shockingly cold spring water down our spines, and then warmed us back up by giving us a shot glass of caju feni, a mouth-puckering hard liquor brewed from cashew apples. Finally, we visited a very odd, ‘fully automated’ museum, where flashing lights and fanfare and a disembodied voice guided us through scenarios recreated in plastic of ancient Goan village life, including ancient Goan village breastfeeding.(The Three Musketeers of the spice plantation.)
(PJ, about to enjoy pav bhaji, a famous Goan dish.)
Goa had it all: Europe’s quaintness and history, India’s charm and quirkiness, Hawaii’s beaches and luxury, Asia’s affordability and surprises, and, well, Goa’s cuisine!
This time it was the Karavalli Express that took us, thirteen hours down the coast, from Goa to Fort Cochin, Kerala. Though Mumbai was fabulous and Goa was fantastic, it was Kerala that stole the show for all of us. The relaxed, seaside town offered experiences and flavours that we will not soon forget.
One morning, in the cool air of six a.m., we joined a team of dhoti-wearing fishermen on their manually operated Chinese fishing net. All together we yelled a call and response of, “hey jalla!”, as we yanked down on gigantic, weighted ropes that hauled up, on the other end of the colossal contraption, the net holding the night’s catches.
We relished in an afternoon of relaxing on a perfectly pristine beach, hiding in the shade of bamboo shelters and swimming in the Arabian sea, so warm that it didn’t much cool you down from the sweltering 35C heat.
At every given chance, the four of us rested in a popular art café, surrounded by modern sculptures and tropical gardens, to drink strong, French-pressed coffee and to savour enormous pieces of moist, rich chocolate cake, drowning in milk chocolate mixed with sweetened condensed milk.t(PJ and Mom sweltering in Kochi’s 35C heat, in the church where the famous explorer Vasco Da Gama was first buried.)
One evening we watched, in an old, wooden theatre, scenes from the fabulous, traditional Kathakali dance. Actors applied their own makeup on stage, using chemical colour-explosions of mineral-rich stones and coconut oil. They appeared afterwards on stage in full costume – skirts six feet in diameter, headdresses two feet above their crowns, and thick, rope hair down to their ankles – showing off mind-blowing skills in fine-tuned dance storytelling. We saw Bhima, the story’s hero, defeat his greedy, evil, murderous foe, Baka, in a sword-wielding and dramatic, for lack of a better phrase, ‘dance off’. It takes Kathakali dancers a full six years to train; it was an unbelievable performance.
Throughout our stay, we also continued our fabulous fish feasting at an array of charming restaurants, enjoying prawns in a rich, creamy coconut curry gravy; whole, fried pomfret each bite both spicy-crispy and juicy-tender; Portuguese-style king prawns that must have been five inches long if you stretched them out; curly calamari fresh from the sea (their bones littered the beaches!); and even a marlot with big, kissy lips and cartoon-looking googly eyes, who we hand-selected from a fresh fish market and carried to a restaurant for delectable garlic and lemon grilling.
We took the opportunity to explore Jew Town, Kochi’s Jewish community, where we enjoyed comparing the minute details in the nearly identical, hand-painted, blue and white Chinese tiles that lined the synagogue floor. Above us hung dozens of unique, sepia-toned, candle chandeliers, imported from Belgium. On our way back, we enjoyed ginger tea (too spicy!), a fresh ginger soda (too bitter!), and ginger ice cream (just right!).
And what fun we had on our bamboo-thatched houseboat cruise that took us, all day and all night, through the peaceful, Keralan backwaters. It was just us four, plus our captain, the second in command, and a chef, who delighted us with banana fritters and carrot-coconut salad whenever we felt hungry. We hid in the boat’s shade from the beating sun and simply soaked up the stunning scenery – fluorescent green grass dancing along the shore, the perfect reflection of palm trees in the glass-like channels, little houses painted in surprising shades of pink, blue, and purple, and even the occasional iridescent blue kingfisher bird flitting about.
Kerala was perfect. Even our Fort Cochin homestay host had been so thoughtful, not only to feed us the most gigantic breakfast known to humankind (complete with fresh-squeezed, pulpy watermelon juice), but also to design for our room a giant, four-foot long pair of bright red, upholstered lips – modeled after Ms. Jolie’s, herself – and mount them at the head of our big, squishy bed.(Resident kitties.)
Beyond our amazing time and the amazing food, the friendliness of Keralans cannot be matched, convincing us that Kerala is simply the best place to be. It really is. Everywhere we went we were met with smiles, amazing service, gentle inquisitiveness, and instant friendships, from our homestay host, Patrick, to our autorickshaw driver, Abbas, to the afternoon fisherman, Nelson, to the cappuccino guy in the Kochi airport, Suresh.
When the four of us returned to Kochi airport on March 18th – Kyle and I destined for Sri Lanka, Mom and PJ destined for Delhi – I was not ready to leave. I was not ready to leave Kerala and I was not ready to leave my family. Our time together in South India sped by far too quickly. Travelling together was fun and tough and rewarding and memorable; I feel so lucky to have had the chance. I will remember our trip always with fondness and I look forward to both reminiscing and returning.