Fish Story

I ate a whole fish, skin and all.

After about 24 hours of traveling I finally made it to Goa. I’m staying at Colva Beach, which is in Southern Goa and apparently less of a party town than some of the areas to the north.

Quite frankly the idea of coming all the way to India and being surrounded by partying Euroteens just didn’t appeal to me, so I opted for Colva Beach. This area also seems to be popular with Indian tourists.

Anyone who’s ever been to Panama City, Florida and stayed at the west end of the beach knows pretty much what this area is like. For you west coast folks think Rosarita Beach in Mexico. From Hawaii and Florida to Mexico or India tropical beach towns are all more or less the same, thatched roofs abound, chaise lounges and bars with twinkling Christmas lights are tucked between coconut palms, outrigger fishing boats, everything and everyone is relaxed and friendly.

Orange Blossom Special

But before I say much about Goa itself I wanted to tell a word or two about trains because until Tuesday I had never actually ridden on a train. The first train I took from Ernakulam to Mangalore was overnight and first class. Strangely enough first class was cheaper than 2nd sleeper, I guess because of the lack of air conditioning, but with the ceiling fans and open windows there was plenty of circulating air to keep cool. The second train from Mangalore to Margao, Goa I opted for regular sleeper class. The main difference between first class and regular sleeper seems to be the amount of padding on the seats. And regular sleeper is a little more crowded, but still quite comfortable.

There is also chair class, but it doesn’t seem practical with the amount of luggage I’m carrying. I enjoyed traveling by train; I didn’t sleep much, but that was more me than the train. I spent most of my time by the open door watching the Indian countryside whirl by in a kaleidoscope of greens and reds and then flashes of purple and blue and white whenever we passed through a town. I saw quite a number of a very eagle or hawk-like birds, not unlike a bald eagle from the states, but with the white extending further down its body. Whatever it is, crows certainly seem to hate it; I saw whole flocks trying to attack these hawks or eagles with very little success.

The other entertainment of an India train is listening to the calls of “chai garam” (hot tea I think) from the venders continually marching up and down the aisles. Traveling by train in India is sort of like being on a moving smorgasbord. One can get everything from biryanis to dosas to a fried dough concoctions, not unlike an American doughnut but not sweet, to of course chai, which in India is just tea, not the chai you get at Starbucks, though that is available as well.

The second train passed by the massive 17m high Gomtateshvara statue in Karnataka, which was beautifully lit up on the horizon, though too far for pictures. I arrived in Margao, Goa at about 9:30pm roughly 26 hours after I left Fort Cochin. I very nearly missed the station because the signs for the station were labeled Madgaon, rather than Margao. Almost every other station I went through the name was simply the name of the town and I’m still not sure if Madgaon is simply another name or Margao or if they changed the name recently—India loves to change names. Luckily I got off and didn’t end up going all the way to Mumbai.

I took a cab from Margao to Colva Beach and dragged the poor cabbie through three different hotels that were all full before I gave up and let him take me to an overpriced place that was nice, but really not much more than you get at the cheaper places. Except. Except this place had hot water which was nice for shaving. I have learned to do the cold water shave and it isn’t as bad as it sounds, but obviously hot water is better.

The Sleepy Strange

The next day I moved across the street to a place called the Joema Tourist Home which is structurally not unlike the little compound I used to live in Athens, GA. When I arrived the owner told me that there was a room available, but not until evening. I said fine I’ll take it and went to go get my bag and have some breakfast. When I returned two hours later he apparently had given up on me and rented the room to someone else. But he said he felt bad about the mix-up and offered me his son’s room in the main house. Because it’s very crowded around here and I wanted to stay on the cheap I took him up on the offer and spent the night with his family, who were very nice and accommodating.

His younger son was working on a silk painting of the Madonna and Child next to Shiva, a coupling that is not uncommon in India. He was a very talented painter, with fantastic attention to detail, especially in the faces. The eyes were exactly as I think of the Virgin Mary’s, flat and lifeless, but with an excruciating depth behind them that makes you feel as if you are falling into a pool of blackness.

The next morning I went to a travel agent and booked a flight from Goa to Ahmedabad and a train from Ahmedabad to Udaipur. I had intended to travel all of that by train, but I’m starting to feel like I’m running out of time and I really want to see Rajasthan so I went for the flights, which ended up being only about $40 more than the trains and saves me about 48 hours of travel time, sadly I will miss Mumbai (Bombay). After taking care of the travel details and moving my stuff into the new, private room I headed down to the beach for a swim.

A Salty Salute

The Arabian Sea is very warm and the sand sucks at your feet when you walk, schools of tiny fish dart and disappear into each receding wave. The sand is a kind of silt which must come from rivers up the coast as no ocean is capable of grinding out sand this fine.

In the morning the water is nearly glassy and a fairly decent swell brings waves with maybe two foot backs, big enough to ride for a little ways though the beach slopes so slowly one can walk out at least 200 meters and be only waist deep (which makes body surfing tricky); I have seen men in the afternoon walk to the fishing boats moored quite a ways off the shore. They use a single outrigger fishing boat here and everyday many of them lie unused on the beach, painted in dazzling, almost garish hues, of blue and green and orange with blue plastic tarps to cover the nets lying in the stern of each boat. When the breeze kicks up in the afternoon — keeping the mosquitoes and sand fleas and countless other bugs at bay — the tarps on the unused boats luff up and you can see the brightly colored orange and red buoys of the nets lying beneath. It’s a nice reminder that Colva is not just tourism, at least some of the residents still earn their living by fishing.

For about two a kilometers in either direction of the main beach the shoreline is dotted with thatched roof huts selling drinks and various foods, a couple of them even offer tandoori, though the ovens never seem to be on when I ask, but I can’t say I blame them as the midday heat combined with a tandoor oven would be miserable. The main appeal of these huts seems to be that, provided you purchase something from them, you may lie on their chaise lounges and, more importantly, they keep an eye on you things while you go swimming. I would like to say they also keep the countless girls selling jewelry and sarongs and fruit and every other portable, saleable item you can imagine from pestering you, but unfortunately they do not.

In the evenings the whole town seems to turn up to watch the sunset and have an evening swim. They are remarkable sunsets, more pink and purple than I have ever seen anywhere else and the colors mirror on the glossy wet sand, making you feel like you’re standing in a great purple and pink pool of light.

I spent that first afternoon staring out at the ocean, watching the light reflect off it and create rippling textures that moved as surges of water and light, not unlike the way sunlight glitters in a stained glass window, which was undoubtedly (to my mind anyway) inspired by someone staring at the sea. And the substance of glass was, perhaps not coincidentally, right beneath my feet; I enjoy the possible symmetry of some ancestor melting the shoreline to capture the undulation and glitter he or she saw out on the sea.

It’s A Sight To Behold

The Joema Tourist home is sort of one part hotel, one part residence and one part farm. Pigs and chickens scratch at the dirt and root in the bushes below my window and on the way to the beach there are several cows that consider the field you pass through more theirs than yours. It would be nice to imagine that leopards and even tigers might lurk in the bushes, but like everywhere else in the world, the big cats have long since been driven out and retreated up to the hills where they hide in the few nature preserves and national parks of India. Still, I do get to feel a bit like I am living in the forest on a little farm with all the animals, including the extremely annoying rooster who starts in at about six AM.

blurry image of me walking back to my guest house in the evening photographed by luxagraf
This blurry image accidentally captured exactly what my evening walk home felt like.

The food in Goa is more what we from the States think of as Indian Food, though, as my waiter some nights ago explained, this sort of food is actually only one region of India—Punjab—where a lot of people were displaced and apparently resettled in America. But Goa is enough to the north that one can find spectacular tandoori dishes, the best I’ve ever had, and wonderful naan and biryanis. The specialty here in Goa is, naturally enough, fish. I spent all day on the beach watching the fishermen out in their boats so I thought it only appropriate that I actually eat some of the local catch.

Last night I trekked down the road to what everyone claims is the best, though not the cheapest, restaurant for fish. And I didn’t want just a fish curry or some bits of fish with other things, no, I wanted a whole fish like I have seen some people eating when I walked by. So I asked and did receive. They first brought out a platter of whole raw fish for me to choose from. There was a mackerel, a red snapper and something that looked like what I call a sunfish, but may have other names. It’s a flattish fish sort of like a halibut but not that flat and I don’t think it swims sideway like a Halibut. Whatever the case that’s what I picked.

When it finally arrived the fish was about the size of your standard American dinner plate and surrounded on one side by saffron rice and the other by steamed cauliflower with beans, carrots and peas. The entire concoction was covered in a mildly spicy, thick, brownish garlic sauce. Picking the meat off the bones was quite a project, but rewarding once you got the buttery sweet taste in your mouth. It was the best meal so far and yes it was expensive, but it was worth it. And no I didn’t pick my teeth with the remaining bones.


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