Starting from Bangalore and traversing the highways flanked by lush trees, the journey led through the misty landscapes of Coorg, adorned with coffee plants and colonial architecture, before arriving at the coastal beauty of Bekal in Kerala. Continuing onward, the road trip, orchestrated by Cougar Motorsports, unfolded with remarkable events and auspicious encounters, guiding us to the historic city of Gokarna and then onward to the renowned destination of Goa. Throughout the journey, the Defender 110s provided the epitome of comfort with their luxurious interiors, impressive engineering, and spacious seating, seamlessly navigating through the varied terrain from the rolling hills of Coorg to the sandy shores of Bekal, the bustling pilgrimage sites of Gokarna, and finally weaving through the narrow alleys of Goa to reach our ultimate destination in Varca. On Day 4 of the Konkan experience, the idyllic Goan locales mesmerised us with its laidback lifestyle and various lessons on history and heritage.
As the first light of dawn kissed the horizon, I was woken up by the incessant chirrups of the birds outside my room in the bushes and langurs exhibiting their acrobatics on the parapets of our room. Not willing to waste even a second of the charming day that lay ahead, I freshened up and set out for the beach through the bricked lanes of the property that took you through a jungle where peacocks gingered about and a hum of other birds remained suspended in the air.
In a moment, I was out at the Om Beach, where everything came into full view in the light of the day, unlike the previous night when only the lights lingered and disappeared into darkness as the night took over. I walked along the sands to reach the Dolphin Cafe in search of a coffee. Inside, only a man was found sleeping on a cot covered in a blanket up till his head. Hesitant to wake him up and afraid I was much too early by the local clock, I found myself slipping out.
Walking ahead for a bit, I reached the Om Shanti Cafe. Two men, who seemed to be friends and the owners of the place, were in the state of wakefulness and preparing coffee for the day. I asked the person at the counter for a cup and he obliged. Facing the sea where the sun shone tenderly, I took small sips of my coffee—a nearly perfect South Indian filter kaapi.
Soon I was back at SwaSwara and we gathered on the grass for a rejuvenating yoga session, guided by the gentle wisdom of our instructor. With each stretch and breath, we felt a profound connection to the earth beneath our feet and the vast expanse of sky above, setting the tone for a day of tranquillity and exploration.
Following our practice, we ventured towards breakfast, pausing to admire the morning spectacle as sunlight danced upon the waves. From the comfort of cheesy omelette and fresh orange juice, we watched the world awaken, as the beach came alive with the footprints of joggers and the laughter of children at play. With hearts nourished and bodies invigorated, we were ready to embark on the first thing on the list for the day. While my fellow travellers embarked on a pilgrimage to the Mahabaleshwar Temple, a revered site dating back to the 4th century, I had to stay back at the property to get some work done. The travellers promised me pictures of the place and along with their experiences.
Back in my room, I worked a little followed byd a bath and waited for my friends to return so we could head for lunch and then onwards to Goa. Soon they were back and I was given a cotton shirt which they got outside the precincts of the temple. We savoured a light lunch, enjoying the flavours of pumpkin, freshly baked bread, and locally sourced delicacies. Energised and enthused, we bid farewell to Gokarna, setting our sights on the next chapter of our journey—the sun-kissed shores of Varca, Goa.
Goa is only a short drive from Gokarna. As we started nearing the old Portuguese town, we saw many foreigners and locals alike on the road on rented bikes speeding through the highway to their temporary abodes in the city. Crossing old, idyllic houses, we reached our destination, the Zuri White Sands that lay nestled just beside a beach. We were treated by welcoming refreshments, the traditional Marathi Kokum drink. Once checked into our rooms, we explored the gardens, pools, vegetation and the beach around the property quickly and got ready for the invitation we had from a local feni distiller.
"What is feni?," asked Hansel Vaz, the geologist-distiller from the Fazenda Cazulo family of Goa and the person behind Cazulo feni, to everyone in attendance. The question was not easy to answer, as good as asking, “What is matter?,” or “What is grass?” Feni is synonymous with Goa, as taadi (toddy) might be with Bihar or vodka with Russia. The question symbolically set the mood for what was to come ahead: a rather enlightening lesson in the production, origins and consumption of feni.
Feni is a velvety and extremely potent drink, you may find it similar to vodka or soju, the Korean drink. It is made by double distilling the cashew apple fruit. Vaz, who is also popular as the Feni Doctor locally, took us on a heritage ride into the onset of feni. The drink has been a pride and part of Goan culture for 400 years. Though feni was originally made only out of coconut that is abundantly present in Goa, the colonisers introduced the novelty of cashews and things took a new form. The name "feni" is derived from Sanskrit word "phena" which means froth, or foam. It is owing to the bubbles that form when the liquor is shaken up. However, the learned Feni Doctor was also quick to point out the similarities between the Portuguese and Sanskrit language. "We speak Portuguese everyday," he explained.
The best part about feni is it doesn't give you a hangover. During the lockdown, the Doctor recalled, "the sale of Limca in Goa shot up; it was due to the increased consumption of feni." While many different types of feni drinks exist, namely Cashew Feni, Coconut Feni and Dukshiri Feni, only one of these has a Geographical Indication (GI) tag that was given to it in 2009. It is, nonetheless, a heritage drink. The drink is made by crushing cashew apples and fermenting the juice in a pot buried underground. Some of Vaz’s pots had been crushed under a tree that fell victim to strong winds, he remarked sadly as people do on the death of their pets. After three rounds of distillation, feni is produced. The alcohol content of feni is about 43 to 45 per cent, however, it is not the only property. The drink also has medicinal properties that help with tooth problems, gum issues, swelling, mouth ulcers, coughs, colds, constipation and wound healing, among others.
The Cazulo family, along with other Goans, have long been dedicated enjoyers of feni. “I love feni, my mother who is old loves feni, my wife loves feni and possibly my eight year old child, if he tries, will surely love it,” Vaz remarked laughingly as he guided us to his feni cellar, which is Goa’s (or maybe even the world’s) only feni cellar. As soon as I entered the huge low-lit hall full of huge glass tumblers and vials and test tubes, I pointed out to the Feni Doctor how closely it resembled the potions class lab from Harry Potter – a remark in which he took great pleasure.
Inside, we witnessed a long table with a platter full of fruits and nuts and chocolates. "People usually find feni unbearable to drink, it's because they drink it wrong," Vaz told us. We took our seats and took turns with the Cashew Feni, Coconut Feni and Dukshiri Feni, pairing them with the best suited accompaniment that Vaz guided us towards. The lesson in pairing up the drink with its best suited accompaniment proved also to be a great game. Following the pairing up session, we came out and indulged in a ceremony of filling up a tumble with feni that will go into the cellar and which we could taste in a matter of a few years, promised Vaz. As the session ended, we headed for dinner that included the best of the Goan dishes which the Doctor was kind and hospitable enough to have prepared for us.
Towards the end of the evening when the night had taken over, we bid Vaz our heartfelt goodbyes and thanked him for the engaging class on feni. He gifted little vials of Cashew Feni to each of us before we hopped on our Defenders 110s to find our way through the sleepy streets of Varca. On our way back, Anil drove and we talked about our personal favourite highlights of the evening. At a traffic signal, where people waited patiently for the train to cross, no honking, no stepping the line, Anil, who had travelled far and wide in the country on similar road trips, appreciated the civic sense and road etiquette he found only on the Goan streets. Back in the room, I sheltered the little vial in my bag and intended to share it with my friends in Delhi. In my bed, I ruminated over the great evening that had just unfolded; I tried to conjure up what Goa might have once looked like not so long ago during its Portuguese era, the remnants of which are still strongly felt and celebrated across the coastal haven. I was excited to explore Goa in the light of the day that lay ahead and fell asleep in no time.