Goa.

Goa.

Growing up in Australia, there is something about camping and tents that is (sort of) engrained in my DNA.  I can remember making Dad help us pitch his old army tent on the lawn of our childhood home and after twenty minutes of ‘sleeping’, my sister and I would run scared witless into the house to the comfort of our real beds- away from the screeches of possums and the hooting of owls.  I can’t say that I spent long holidays camping in rugged places and travelling with a caravan from beachside town to beachside town- but there are memories of overflowing houses and tents being pitched on seafront lawns, the freedom of sleeping under the stars in a swag on the edge of country racetracks, and a year at school with a focus on outward bound, where we slept under the groaning arms of snow gums at the top of the stunning peaks of the Victorian High Country. 

Planning this trip to India has been nothing short of enjoyable, and from the heigh ceilings and beautiful bay windows in the hangover from the Raj that is the Imperial Hotel in Delhi, to the chic and simple tent structures made on the sand framed by banana leaves and tropical palms (and from where I write this on Turtle Beach in North Goa), I have met some incredible characters, witnessed some mind blowing situations and most of all, continued to be connected by the neverending bushtelegraph that operates throughout this enormous and overwhelming country.  

After two nights in the madness that is Bombay, we were so excited to land in Goa- a place I’d hardly dreamed of ever visiting, but one that I’m so grateful that I’ve found.  We made our way out of a pretty frantic airport filled mostly with extremely white people boasting Viking heritage and accents belonging to the British Midlands or the south of Ireland, skipped the taxi queue and spoke with a man running the tourist office with just three fingers on each hand and an assistant named Sanjay.  Sanjay took us to a car waiting out the front and with that we were off- bound for Vivenda dos Palhacos in the south of Goa, and a place we were to call home for the next two days.  

I found Vivenda in the Travel section of the Gardian last year, and just knew we’d love it.  Framed by overhanging palm trees and situated down a narrow dirt track off the main road on Majorda beach, we were dropped at the most peaceful Portuguese villa lived in and styled by a beautiful English woman named Charlotte, and her brother Simon.  The main bar where we were sent upon arrival (and where all the business is done) was made from the back tray of an old Tata lorry and still has the original painted instruction seen on the back of all Indian trucks ‘horn please’.  Sipping fresh lime soda and taking in the furnishings, the neat piles of books, the high ceilings, the shuttered windows that remained open at all times and the photos that adorned the walls- many of which dated back to Charlotte and Simons grandparents time living in India during the Raj- I was completely taken aback by the detail, the colours and the themes restored and kept, and so in keeping with the Portuguese history so embedded in  this incredible part of India.

Two magical days were spent at Vivenda and the hospitality was warm as the green cool waters of the house pool were freezing and the perfect treat at the end of a long day exploring the red dirt beach tracks alongside Majorda beach- dodging house chickens, pigs, dogs, children, scooters, cars and a huge bus named Shane.

Charlotte was the perfect host and her team of people who helped with the day to day running of the house were so beautiful- this is a place to which I will most certainly return.  

One afternoon after a delicious Margherita in the courtyard, I organised a massage with a woman recommended in the bible that sits on the bedside table of each room and filled with local recommendations.  Sarjit was strong as she was tiny, and she pummelled my legs, my back and my head, removing all of the fluid from my hugely swollen ankles that had suffered greatly from the shock that is arriving in 30 degree heat after a  freezing cold winter in Paris.

‘Mamamia,’ Sanjit cried as she pulled me up and sat me on the edge of the bed before taking me through a breathing routine – Madam and her diet of croissants, baguettes, curry, dal, naan, gin and tonics and Margheritas, almost broke Sarjits back, but never in my life had I felt more alive and healthy and I am pleased to say that my ankles now have bones again.

We were sad to leave Vivenda, but excited to arrive in North Goa last night after weaving along tiny roads dotted with Christian churches and amazing Portuguese architecture.  We had a brief stop at an Indian/Portuguese restaurant followed by a stop at an incredible boutique recomended by Charlotte (when in Panjim, please visit Sachas Store), before arriving  at Paros, a tiny village of tent structures built on the sands of Turtle Beach and one of the most beautiful places I’ve stayed in my life.  Alex, a handsome  Frenchman and his wife have lived in India for over 15 years and they divide their time between Delhi and Goa and the detail here is chic and simple, and so totally (seemingly) effortless featuring white awnings dotted through clean sand and green tropical foliage- it is so very French.

Whilst Paros is totally different to my time spent in a tent as a child, I am loving life with a fully functioning bathroom, a split system that spews freezing cold air out the door to a beautiful dark wood veranda – as my newly thin ankles and I look out to the Arabian Sea, I can hardly imagine ever wanting to leave.  

It is so simple here, and this is the most perfect end to an amazing eight weeks which I will never forget.

Getting to Goa.

Getting to Goa.

We didn’t see Joanna again after that one night where we listened to her speak in ‘that’ voice reserved for Pats – every sentence was littered with a ‘yah’ and she clearly wasn’t hiding, wearing a beautiful fuchsia blouse and with lips painted in big bold red.  Exit stage left Joanna, and enter stage right, Junior and as I sit in a magical guesthouse in Goa typing this post I am trying madly to recall each and every wonderful piece of our stay at the Taj Palace overlooking the magnificent Gateway to India and the Arabian Sea, in the wild and rich city that is Mumbai.

‘Welcome to BOM-bay,’ Junior shouted down the phone ‘join me tomorrow night at the Harbour Bar and then do come to the Breeders Cup on Saturday… can you hear me?’, ‘yes, I can hear you just fine,’ I responded, giving Tor the raised eyebrow signal ‘you’re going to love this,’. He shouted goodbye and with that we ordered another gin and tonic – life in Bombay was going to be fun.

Friday morning we woke (after a slight kerfuffle the night before with a Faulty Towers moment taking place at check in, where the madams were assumed to be a happily married couple with one of the madams continually being called Sir) and breakfast was had under the wonderful colonial awnings that frame the pool at the Taj Palace; stunning garden furniture was filled with big fat American bottoms and ceiling fans did a whirly gig as the Indian men strutted around with huge pots of coffee all while displaying big white teeth behind perfect smiles. We had organised a guide to come and meet us early with a trip to a slum community taking place in the morning, and a tour of a Bollywood studio in the afternoon.
A young boy named Vishant met us at the hotel with another man who was a bit older and a bit bossier (Indian men never step out alone), and we were told Vishant would be with us for the morning.  

Vishant was kind and determined, and he chatted the whole way in the car explaining all of the very British buildings and architecture and how they came to be – ‘Victoria, our number one train station in Mumbai is named after you, Victoria Terminal but fondly known as VT (pronounced veetee),’ we both smiled and gave a quiet nod Queen Victoria as we passed the most magnificent building not dissimilar to Saint Pancras station in London. Mumbai is so absolutely incredible and completely different to Delhi, where we felt like locals and whizzed around in tuk tuks, but the throwback to British reign is deeply felt in Mumbai (in a different way), and evident through the most insane architecture.  

We spent two hours weaving through a slum with Vishant and an even younger sidekick talking us through each area (commercial and then residential), taking in all the different industries they work in, from recycling plastic, to melting aluminium to tanning leather to making terracotta pots- everyone has a purpose and there was no one lying around. We learnt so much from Vishant and sitting in a small chai stall in the midst of it all, listening to him laugh as he chatted to the men drinking their second chai for the day- suddenly everything seemed to just line up.

Vishant left us with our driver, who wove through cows and women and chickens and goats and children and cars, before the most enormous man threw himself into the car. Stifling giggles in the back, we nudged each other and tried to look straight ahead. Sunil was larger than life and larger than the car itself. He took us to SJ Studios via a fabulous roadside cafe where we feasted on Thali (a selection of small Indian dishes, mopped up with chapati). He was so bossy and so different to Vishant, but he knew his stuff and barged through studio doors taking photos of us the whole way through. We watched a medical drama being filmed and then took part in a Bollywood dancing routine. Sadly, we weren’t offered a gig but we had a magical time and had a full time job on our hands telling Sunil that we really needed to get home- he wanted to stay by our sides forever.

Junior, true to his word, was sitting waiting for us in the Harbour Bar in our hotel and after he charmingly chatted and threw his hands in the air, taunted the waiters and introduced us to the whole room (who he didn’t actually know), plied us with Bombay Blazers- a cocktail of guava, gin and vermouth lit up with a match and drunk with a smoky essence. At one stage, a tray of drinks fell off the bar and made an almighty smash! ‘Oh Christ, Joanna just took a turn in the kitchen,’ he said before continuing on with his story. We had the most hysterical night with Junior, who grew up in India but studied in the UK and now lives between the two countries with his wife and daughter. We had met his sister in Delhi the week before and she put us onto him straight away.

The following day (yesterday), was spent watching the races at the Breeders Cup at the South India Turf Club, where Junior swanned around in a delightful white linen suit and introduced us to every horse breeder on the continent (or so it seemed). He has a box in the wonderful old colonial grandstand and we sat in rattan chairs under wobbling ceiling fans as the horses took to the track and women in saris walked around with spades filling in the holes in the turf at the end of each race.

‘Dilip couldn’t make it today,’ Junior told us over lunch, ‘but he will take you to a magnificent evening with the stars tonight,’ he finished. Tor had told Junior she’d worked in television the night before at our first meeting, and with that, he was on the phone to Dilip Thile, a charming and handsome Indian film and television star who Junior somehow knows (he seems to know everyone). Last night, exhausted and partially beside ourselves after too many Bombay Blazers the night before and a full day of racing with Junior, we hopped into a taxi and made the hour long journey across town to the Taj Lands End- a magnificent hotel with a sweeping private lawn and palm trees dancing up above. We spent two hours with Dilip, who introduced us to every screenwriter, producer, star and diva from Bollywood and waiters gathered around him, desperate for a selfie. Tor and I drank Moët as beautiful women swanned around in high Indian fashion and people followed the entourages of amazing people through the garden, under a perfect Bombay sky.

This morning we caught a flight to Goa and arrived here at the Vivenda dos Palhacos – a beautiful old Portuguese villa owned and run by an English brother and sister duo. We were sent straight to the bar, which is made of an old Tata lorry tray, and served fresh lemon juice and soda whilst our room was prepared. A south Goan curry of prawns and the fluffiest of rice was enjoyed on an old oak dining room table, under more ceiling fans and surrounded by walls filled with books and brilliant photos taken during a bygone era.  
As we sit in the garden drinking masala tea under a clear Goan sky, we are loving reflecting on all the characters who have joined us on this trip, and those who have brought us here.

Pats.

Pats.

I love the nuances of characters and people watching – traveling provides serious fodder for this love.  

Whether it be Dr Heisse, the tropical diseases specialist in Boulevard Saint Michel, or Nadine in the apartment upstairs, these were two of my favourites from Paris. And, in Delhi, there were almost too many to describe but I suppose I could start with Amit who made an excellent gin and tonic after long days of jumping in and out of auto tuk tuks (our carriage of choice); Pipal the doorman who wore more ceremonial dress than the guy that invented it; the auto driver who drove us home from the funniest dinner in Hauz Khas (which started as lunch on Tors’ first day)- the wind literally blowing our hair back as he screamed past the presidential estate singing a made up song about discos; the multiple thousands of staff at the Imperial who were around every corner and made the Madams lives so happy with their comments and unfailing willingness to help us.  

We are convinced that there is a bush telegraph on high alert operating throughout this country – the coincidences are just brilliant and not for one second have we ever felt alone.  

Quite literally.

Today we sadly said goodbye to the Imperial Hotel, which we both agree is the most wonderful place in the world and one we were so happy and grateful to call home for five days. When we phoned through to reception this morning and asked for help with our bags, the concierge asked with genuine concern in his voice ‘madam, what is wrong with them,’ as if they were pacing the room having an anxiety attack.

We spent yesterday in an auto whooshing through the city, stopping off at the beautiful Humayans Tomb, followed by the Red Fort and then a wonderful lunch deep in Old Delhi at the fabulous Karim’s which served lunch on plastic plates and Coca Cola out of paper cups. We were full of ghee and dal and glee as we marched up the steps through gate two of the stunning Jama Masjid at around four o’clock.  

Following this beautiful moment amongst pigeons and prayer, we made our way in a tuk tuk to the Spice Market in the depths of Chandi Chowk in the northern part of the old city. Sneezing and rasping through mountains of chilli and piles of hessian sacks laden with every spice known to man, we were eventually tipped off about the most wonderful dirty old staircase that took us to the top of the market and into a world probably not seen by too many very white madams. The stares and the stairs were remarkable and once at the top we enjoyed sweeping views of the old city through the late afternoon haze, as children played below on one side, and old men worshipped in an ancient mosque to the other.

We were so fortunate in Delhi to meet some of the most wonderful people, with Tuesday night being no exception where, after an introduction from home we were hosted at the Delhi Gymkhana Club by a true gentleman with a penchant for mutton sandwiches and whisky and joined by his jovial brother and his very glamorous wife. The two of us have laughed until we have cried, and cried until we have laughed and there is nothing more special in the world right now than the time we are having in this magnificent country.

This afternoon we arrived in the wild city that is Mumbai- the streets are even busier, the traffic choked within an inch of its life and the architecture just superb. I am so excited for what the next few days hold, but first up we are joining the brother of our fabulous Tuesday night hosts, for a drink at the Harbour Bar tomorrow night before he takes us to the Bombay Cup on Saturday.

As we sipped a gin and tonic under a balmy Bombay dusk this evening, we were delighted (speaking of characters) to find Joanna Lumley sitting and holding court on the table beside us. Tor looked at me and said ‘Pin, I need to tell you something,’ and as we thigh slapped around the corner out of sight of our childhood hero, we came to one conclusion- nothing can prepare you for the surprises that India continues to deliver.
Pictured:  our taxi form the airport today, with Shiva emblazoned on its back with our suitcases on the roof.