Saturday, January 18, 2014

India- Part 3- Goa and Kerala's Beaches!

We'd heard the hype about Goa and wanted to check it out for ourselves so we said our goodbyes to Rajasthan and flew into Goa several days before Christmas.  Our first stop was Panjim (also called Panaji), near Old Goa.  It was hot, steamy and had a distinctive Portuguese flair.  As we had hoped, Christmas was also the air.  South India has a higher number of Christians than elsewhere in India, in part based on Portuguese and Dutch occupation in the 17th Century.  The city was decorated with Santas and Christmas trees while festive music flowed from inns and parades.  I was surprised and touched by how much I enjoyed experiencing these holiday icons- it definitely made me feel more connected to the holiday that family and friends were celebrating at home.  

We spent our first day exploring our local area in Panjim.  There is a stunning Baroque era church in the town center called Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception which is one of the oldest churches in Goa.  Unfortunately, it wasn't open - not that that stopped me from trying to go in.  Apparently, churches of this caliber have security guards...  Photo from the outside only will have to suffice.

From there, we wandered toward the river and found Fontainhas, the historic Portuguese quarter of the city where we found a fantastic Porteguese Bistro that we visited both nights that we were in the area. They even had a nativity scene which made me love it all the more.   

After exploring Panjim, we set out to see Old Goa which was just a half-hour bus ride away.  We both felt like we were a million miles away from India.  There were enormous churches which were built by the Portuguese in the 17th century.  Old Goa has numerous churches, including the largest in Asia- the Se Cathedral as well as the UNESCO World Heritage listed, Basilica of Bom Jesus.  

Basilica of Bom Jesus

The heat was uncomfortable, so we spent a good while relaxing in the shade at the bank of the Mandovi River- at the original entrance of the city, marked by Viceroy's Arch.  Built in 1599, the arch commemorates the explorer, Vasco de Gama's Christian infiltration of the area.  The close up of the Arch's statue shows Vasco de Gama triumphantly standing on the native Indian.  Awkward.

After we had spent a couple of days seeing the historical sites, it was time to hit the beach.  We were off to Mandrem Beach in North Goa for our one week holiday vacation from our travels.  We needed a break from our travels as well as the general intensity of India.  The goal was to be somewhere where life was easy, where we could walk any place we needed to go, where we could spend our days lazing about the beach reading the stack of used books we had purchased/traded just for this lazy occasion and most importantly, we needed several days where we didn't need to research or book anything for our travels.  It had been months since we had a day off, much less a week.  

Our hotel was on a little dirt road, only a short walk on a sandy path to Mandrem Beach- which is a long, quiet, undeveloped beach with only a few rustic restaurants scattered along the beach's edge.  The water was clean (or at least lacked the usual trash we'd seen elsewhere), cool and a welcoming respite from the hot Indian sun.  

We spent the week bobbing up and down in the perfect waves of the nearly empty beach, eating seafood curry and relaxing with our books.  

From Goa, we flew to Kerala on 28 Dec.  The taxi arrived on time- just before 5 am.  Since we hadn't left the beach, we had missed the amazing Christmas light displays within the local community.  Thankfully, they were all still up and brightly lit in the early morning hours.

This next bit is pulled from my travel journal about our flight experience to Kerala- 
What should have been an easy flight to the southern state of Kerala was anything but that.  We arrived at the domestic terminal for our flight to Kerala but were told to go to the International terminal.  Understanding that there is rarely a sensible reason for things in India- we nod and drag our sleep-deprived selves to the other terminal.  Our concern increases ten-fold as we join the back of the huge line.  After cursing our situation, we hear the English words "Air India" stand out from the Hindi that the staff person is speaking to the line of travelers.  The passengers on our domestic flight were being pulled from the international passengers.  We are shuffled to the front of the line for our security check and somehow still manage to check in for our flight on time.  We had a long layover in Channai- thankfully- because we were also flown into the International terminal.  There were no signs for baggage claim and for some reason our entire flight was heading towards Immigration.  We again shrug and followed- we had hours until our next flight, plenty of time to run in circles, if need be.  None of it made sense and the lines for Immigration were already exceedingly long, so we asked the security officer what to do.  He said that there was line on the far right for the domestic passengers who arrived within the International terminal (as if it happened often).  From what we could tell, there was only a line for diplomats and just as we were about to stop and ask again- I saw people funneling to the right of the diplomat arrival line.  There was no counter or sign and apparently all we had to do was wave our boarding passes at the counter.  Relieved that we had so much time before our next flight, I still found myself astounded that we had to go through another security check before we grabbed our bags to leave the airport.  Who cares what's in your bag as you're leaving the airport?  India, that's who.  It was hot and muggy outside as we started to walk to the Domestic terminal to check in for our next flight.  Once we got there and made our way to the front of the waiting line- we learned that we were once again flying out of the International Terminal.  By the time we walk back, I'm caked with sweat and have blue dye running down my legs from my new dress.  Upon re-entering the terminal, we're told that once we enter, we can't leave again.  That was fine until after entering, we see that there's very limited food and chairs and we still have a 7 hour wait.  We spent a good deal of that time contemplating why we remain frustrated in country that we've been in for more than a month- knowing full well that nothing makes sense and we need to just let things go.  Yet, I found myself craving more order, rational thought, and reliable information...  It's clear that I'm not ever going to give in to accept the chaos or laugh when I want to scream, as I've been told to do when traveling in India.  While I've come a long way- I still expect more.  Instead, I do an Indian head wobble and suggest to Nate we go to Switzerland next...

Ahhh, yes, we do eventually arrive in Kerala.  Oh, but wait, let me back up.  The holidays in both Goa and Kerala are expensive.  There's High Season which is 3-4x the low season cost, which falls in Dec-Jan in the popular tourist spots, like, ummm, Goa and Kerala.  But, then there's "Peak Season" which includes Christmas and New Years Eve plus a week on both ends.  This happened to be exactly when we were there; we had hit Christmas in Goa and New Years Eve in Varkala.  The increased costs were uncomfortable to stomach on our budget- but we had heard good things about Varkala, so decided to splurge at a place called Rendezvous Beach Resort.  For a small fortune ($65/night not including taxes), we would bring in the New Year with a pool, yoga classes, a spa and a coffee shop on site.  It made the cost seem more palatable, so we were especially pained to find out on arrival that Rendezvous has none of the advertised extras- other than the pool.  When I enquired, I was told that there was a spa down the street, yoga at another hotel nearby and well, I didn't even bother to ask about the coffee shop.  Another lesson in patience and realistic expectations perhaps?  

But we did enjoy that pool!

Varkala's beaches are much rougher than those at Mandrem, so much so, that we didn't even get into the water.  We spent our days walking the beaches and eating amazing seafood.

We had a few more days before our flight to Sri Lanka- so we travelled north to Alleppey (a.k.a. Alappuzha)- where street spice vendors and riverboats-for-hire are plentiful.  

It's possible to rent a live-aboard boat for 24-hours which includes meals for between $80-100 a person (again, that might be peak-season costs).  We, instead, chose to hop on a boat for a several-hour tour of the canals for around $8.  It was relaxing to watch the local people and wildlife happen around us- as we slowly glided through the waterways.  

It was a great finale to our 1 1/2 month adventure in India.  Next, we are traveling to Sri Lanka for a quick 2-week tour before heading to Cambodia.  

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