Chasing The Wild Through The Quiet Villages Of Goa

A road trip across Goa throws up many surprises
Heavy rain clouds over Chorla Ghat
Heavy rain clouds over Chorla Ghat

It's five in the morning and someone's playing a trumpet under my bed. If it weren't five in the morning, the swaying Latin tune would probably sound good. I lie in bed and let the tune drift in and out of a haze of sleep and Arlem beer, till in a final crescendo the trumpet asserts its petulant existence.

It's a cool, dark morning in Panjim. Having groped my way to the window, I peer out, half expecting to see a flurry of twirling skirts and tuxedoed men dancing a lively Corridinho through the narrow lanes. All I can see, however, is a three-man band playing outside the neighbouring house.

Across the road, in the dim light of the street lamps, sits an elderly gentleman looking at the proceedings -- his wife sits smiling on a stool. Between them sits a dog, paws outstretched, picking flies from the cobblestone pavement. The gentleman turns to his wife and says something. She smiles.

The andante changes to an allegro, and the old man and his wife resume their positions. I rub my eyes in disbelief. And then, as suddenly as it had started, the music stops. The shuffle of feet and the murmur of voices fades away, leaving me wide awake, puzzled, anticipating a week of early mornings and surprises.

A mangrove-lined river
A mangrove-lined river

The cool of the early morning has turned to a muggy warmth as my hired 4WD Gypsy is ferried across the Mandovi to the Chorao Island jetty. A strong breeze blows along the river, sending ripples from the water into the mangroves that line the shores. A regular crowd of commuters gossips and reads the daily newspaper on the ferry, while the ticket collector weaves his way through the bikes and the three-wheelers, nodding acknowledgement and greeting passengers.

Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary

Uday Mandrekar, who is going to take us into the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, on the western corner of the island, is waiting anxiously at the jetty. "Follow me," he says, hopping onto his bike. I fumble with the gears of my relic Gypsy, as he disappears down the road. A couple of sputters later, it revs to life, its antediluvian frame rattling with the effort.

Paddy fields hemmed by coconut trees line the road that cuts across Chorao island to Orando, a sleepy Konkani village of green and pink cement houses, with pillared balconies. Mandrekar's wooden canoe is tucked away in a bend in the river.

As we push off the banks, an adjutant stork takes flight, and heads into the mangroves. A cacophony of birdcalls rises from a cluster of karanj trees on the island. We weave our way through a gap in the trees, through dense overhangs that dip into the waters. Pond herons and cormorants potter along the few sandbanks, while a darter, its body submerged, snakes its way through a creek. The canoe glides over the water, swaying gently as we shift to have a better look around. "I could take you further in." says Uday, as we head back to Orando, "but the tide's going out and we'll probably have to spend the day inside".

The Nossa Senhora de Saude church near Bicholim
The Nossa Senhora de Saude church near Bicholim

Chorla Ghat

Chorla Ghat lies at the junction of Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra. It's on the other side of the state, but won't take more than a few hours to get to. The single-lane road cuts straight across Chorao island. It's warm outside, but that doesn't really bother me, with the wind in my hair, a powerful jeep in hand and the Ghats on the horizon, I coast along, whistling rag-tag bits of country tunes, kicking up the dust as my attention strays from the road.

Near Bicholim, we pass by the derelict church of Nossa Senhora de Saude. The grand old structure is sorely in need of a dose of paint. Plaster flakes off its walls, the grass in the compound is overgrown, and pigeons nest in the recesses of its baroque exterior. It's quite a contrast to the burnished white churches I had seen along the shore. "Maybe it's not in use," I think to myself. But a sign on the door informing parishioners of the Sunday mass indicates otherwise.

As we move inland, the changes become more apparent. There are fewer churches, and the bikini-clad women on scooters have long disappeared. Mile by passing mile, the novas conquistas or the new conquests (territories ruled by the Portuguese but administered by local Hindu talukdars) slough off the grandeur and distinct Catholicism of the velhas conquistas or the old conquests (coastal territories ruled directly by the Portuguese).

Quiet Konkani villages recessed in groves of coconut trees and cashew plantations pass by. Inflections change, chicken xacuti (and gobi manchurian) replaces pork vindaloo, and turns in the road hint at the Ghats that lie ahead. But the roads remain empty as always, the villages as deserted, and the bars as plentiful. Susegado, that famous Goan sense of ease or laziness, which translates into a long afternoon siesta, moves slowly, like the shadow of a giant cat crouching over the land, following us, and blanketing all differences in a shared somnolence.


It's dark by the time we arrive at Wildernest, a beautiful resort nestled on a hillside halfway up the road to Chorla Ghat. The raised wooden cottages merge with the moist-deciduous forests of the Ghats. Creepers and branches brush the weathered floorboards of the open balcony and, as the sun sets, the lights of Panjim flicker on at the horizon. Soon, a wave of lights sweeps down the shoreline. The entire stretch of party beaches, stretching from Anjuna up north to Aguada down south comes to life. Up here, the only sound to be heard is the scraping of branches, and the haunting whistle of a spotted owlet.

I am up again at five, and by six we are hiking through the Ghats to a waterfall a few kilometres away. The early morning haze lifts gradually, revealing hills and serried ridges that peter out into the plains. Half an hour down the trail, we turn a corner and literally walk into a cloud of butterflies. Hundreds of blue tiger butterflies rise up in an iridescent cloud as I stand rooted to the spot, their wings catching the first rays of dawn.

"They're here every morning," says Ramesh, the chief naturalist, by way of explanation. I stand silently, as the endless flutter of blue falls around me, settling on one branch, rising up from another in endless eddies. I am still in a daze as Ramesh picks a green vine snake off a branch and hands it to me. The slender figure wraps itself around my arm, its soft skin cool to the touch. I bring it close to my face, and for a moment I think I can see it look at me in astonishment.

Morjim Beach

"The best beach to go fishing is Morjim," says Nirmal Kulkarni, pointing to a beach in north Goa on the map, as I sit in the restaurant at Wildernest, meditating over the morning's hike. It's far off my track, and involves a long detour, but I have made up my mind as soon as he said it. By noon, I am on the move. The road feels like an old friend. We pass through dense forest where overhangs let in narrow shafts of light, and the odd motorcycle whizzes by. As the gears grind, and the old jalopy heaves, I slip back into a familiar tune.

That night I walk through the pale sands of Morjim beach. There isn't a light on the horizon, where land ends a thin ribbon of moonlight dances on the breaking surf. The rising tide roars, coming closer with every surge. At two in the morning, as the tide reaches its peak, I make my way to the far end of the beach. Even as I walk, I can see silhouettes of boats slipping stealthily into the waters.

A fishing boat on Morjim beach
A fishing boat on Morjim beachWikimedia Commons

Pradeep Halankar and his crew are waiting for us, and as soon as we are on board, they push the boat into the dark waters. There's a second's silence before the on-board engine roars to life. Then we plunge into the waves, the spray flies over me as I sit wedged into the bow of the wooden boat which crests and plunges with the heaving waters. The shore recedes, till the lights are distant dots on the horizon.

An hour out to sea, the engine is turned off. In the same symphonic flourish one of the boatmen takes the oars and begins paddling, while the other two begin heaving the net into the water. As the last of the net falls away, an open kerosene lamp attached to a bamboo pole is lit. An arc of similar lamps is coming alive further out at sea. In the sooty yellow light of the flickering lamp, I can see Pradeep and his companions wrapping themselves up. Soon they are asleep. The waves slap against the sides of the boat, and the gentle rocking of the boat lulls me to sleep.

At five in the morning, I wake up to a commotion. The men are hauling the nets in. Ream after ream is dumped into the boat, entangled mackerel (bangada) come up in one tug, an eel in another, and a small shark a little later, as the sea throws up its creatures. Thump, heave, thump, heave and the scrape of the net against the sides of the boat...the rhythm is repeated till the last of the net is drawn in. As he starts the motor, Pradeep turns to make sure that I haven't fallen off the boat. I smile tiredly back at him. Then we are slicing through the waters once again. As the first rays of sunlight peep over hills off Morjim creek, a line of mechanised trawlers sets out from the neighbouring jetty. Looking back I can see a hundred trawlers in a neat line making their way out, dark shapes suspended over a vast sea of gold.

A bride-to-be and her flower girls wait outside a church ahead of the wedding
A bride-to-be and her flower girls wait outside a church ahead of the wedding

In Mollem

By now the days have taken on a pattern, and as I make my way across Goa, from Morjim towards the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary at Mollem and onward to Cotigao, images cascade into one another. Lorina Fernandes sits outside the church of Our Lady of Lourdes at Valpoi with two purple flower girls, sipping coke, waiting for her husband-to-be to arrive. A herd of bison stares out from the bushes as we drive along the dirt track into the dense cane forests of the sanctuary plumes of smoke pour out of the Gypsy as it teeters up a particularly bad stretch of track. Plantations of vanilla, cardamom and nutmeg are tucked deep into the forested greens of Neturlim and always in the background, the inexorable grinding of gears, wobble of the road, and the happy hum of the engine.

"Cotigao is the smallest sanctuary in Goa, but it's got some of the best forests," says Paresh Parab, the sanctuary ranger, enthusiastically, as we walk through the multi-storeyed forests of this sanctuary, on the southeastern fringe of Goa. A pied hornbill flies through the canopy, its distinctive beak outlined in the light. Through the corner of my eye I catch a fleeting glimpse of the rust-brown shape of a giant flying squirrel, as it flows down one branch, across a gap, onto the next tree. As we leave, I stop to listen to a bewildering array of raucous cries. "That's the racket-tailed drongo," whispers Paresh, "they're excellent mimics".

It's my last day in Goa, and we are back near the coast, headed towards Panjim. The country roads are quiet, and every once in a while as we climb the hills near Galgibaga beach, I look in the rear view mirror, at 270 degrees of sea stretching as far as the eye can see. Sea, hill and the Konkani douceur of Goa Dourada comes together at the Cabo de Rama fort, the ramparts give way to cliffs lined with coconut trees that lean over the water, a row of fishing boats comes in with the day's catch, and the gentle hills of the Western Ghats stretch out behind me as a Konkani hymn rises unexpectedly from the chapel within the fort.

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