Panjim, capital of Goa and Unfolding Beauty
Panaji, Goa, locally called by its old name “Panjim,” is a city of pastels, picturesque decaying mansions, delicious Indian sweets, old men speaking Portuguese, and whizzing “scooties” (mopeds and scooters). The last vestiges of Iberian colonialism can be felt strongly here – as the city’s customs, daily schedule, infrastructure and food reflect the 500 years or so of Portuguese occupation (1961 is the year Goa was annexed by India). With that said, Panjim is still India – with loud streets, betel-nut chewing, bustling markets, wild Hindu Festivals such as Divali, extravagant colors, intense smells (burning trash and fish galore) and that sustained kinetic chaos that seems to be under-current of anywhere India.
While the beaches of Goa are bumping 90s American rock and crowded shoulder to shoulder with tourists from Russia, Israel, UK and the US, Panjim is inland, located on the Mandovi River and is most often skipped by the charter groups and beach-bums. This is a good thing! The romance of the city is very much in the fact that it’s not oversaturated with tourists and is a working city with folks just doing their thing. I recommend it over the beach shack, “visit my shop, promise!?” aggressive vendors in a heartbeat.
While living in Panjim, we’ve adjusted to the heat, rhythm of the day – everything closes here from 1 or 2 until about 4—and found simple activities to be the most fun. Taking the bus into town, for example, one can pay 5 rupees (10 cents US) and hear every sound possible made by a human being. The bus driver and conductor work in tandem. They whistle, tss tss (sounds like shooing away a dirty stray dog), hoot, clicking noise, yelp, giggle and whisper in a cacophony of sounds to direct the flow of traffic and payment within the bus – these are sounds I did not know existed outside of a tropical rainforest and would be taken as pretty offensive if aimed at a passenger in the US, let alone be used in an everyday vocabulary of transport. It doesn’t matter where the bus is going, just get on and take note at the miracles of human behavior!
Another Panjim experience that cannot be missed is a trip to the local produce/flower market. In a covered building in the center of town, beautiful tropical fruits and vegetables await you, with many other delights for all of your senses. A few scenes to be had here on any given day: teenage village girls selling sweet potatoes on their cell phones, various squatting/seated positions that would break my back in a matter of minutes, flowers adorning buns, perfuming air that already has a million and one smells, Santosh, the sweetest spice vendor on earth, explaining each item in his stand with the reverie and enthusiasm of someone selling rare paintings or antique diamonds, floors with bananas and papayas spilled out in one even layer – forcing the buyer to wade through the high tide of fruits to pick her prize—a gloriously orange papaya. . . the list goes on and on. It’s the best market ever; I’m just flat out saying it.
After shopping, and strolling, you’ll be doing yourself a favor to pop into Kamat Hotel (they use ‘restaurant’ and ‘hotel’ interchangeably in India), catty-corner to the central Panjim Church, and dig into a masala dosa and mango lassi. For about 1.50 US, I can sit down to one of the simplest and tastiest meals of my life. Picture a thin, savory, fermented semolina pancake (crispier and larger than a crepe, but in the same family) stuffed with turmeric-laced mild potato filling. Rip off a piece of the dosa, stack a little potato on top and dunk in the traditional coconut chutney (milky and mellow), dry coconut chutney (ask for this, they never just bring it to you) and tomoatoey sambar (a thin and spicy soup)…. Washed down with the luxurious mango drink, the meal makes perfect flavor profile: sweet, salty, simple, soulful and satisfying – I never tire of it.
Eating, shopping and no-doubt a hard-earned siesta will bring us right to around 4 pm, the perfect time for a swim. Steer clear of the fancy hotels and their $10.00 pool use fee and head to the Panjim Gymkhana. You’ll need to come prepared for this dip with the following: a swim cap (if you have hair longer than an inch), Speedo-style trunks for men, a conservative one piece for the ladies, copies of photo ids, passport photos, towels, 30 rupees per person and, if you get a strict ticket man, a doctor’s note stating you’re healthy enough for the pool. It’s a lesson in Indian beaurocracy but believe me, it’s WORTH IT! The Panjim Gymkhana Pool is Olympic in size, has several smaller pools for splashing and 5 diving boards. At sunset, as we plunge through the humidity into the depths from the high-dive, we catch the view of the pink Mondovi river. It’s a surreal and downright divine experience. My American identity transforms into a mermaid every time we go to swim– that is, until a teenage boy asks me about my favorite action films. Undoubtedly, my husband and I converse the most with this population (the teenage boys love us and are unabashed and delightful). One cute guy with a nose plug told us he enjoyed science as his favorite subject, stating, “the universe is beautifully unfolding.” Between the conversation, views, turquoise dives, transcendent nature of water, triumph of getting in (having all our forms, finally!) and refreshing coolness – it’s an afternoon hard to top.
The swaying coconut trees, tropical breezes, Unesco Heritage Site preserved neighborhoods, temples, markets, tailors, surrounding villages and towns, churches and restaurants – there’s much more to savor about Panjim – I’ve given a few ideas, but perhaps it’s best to just come here, enjoy a cashew feni (local STRONG liquor) and lime soda cocktail and do as the young man in the pool mused – let Panjim and its universe beautifully unfold.
If you go:
October- January are coolest, mildest times of year (still 80-85 degrees with 85% humidity everyday though! Remember, this is a tropical place.)
Stay: Hotel Fontainhas, heart of Fontianhas heritage district, affordable rooms and lovely owners
(across from Panjim Inn, Panaji)
Eat: Hotel Kamat, near Panaji Church and Municipal Gardens, 0832-2426116 open everyday 9am-10pm
Swim: Panjim Gymkhana Pool, Campal Panaji, open 6:30 am – 10:30 am and 3 pm – 7pm, everyday except Mondays – and closed several local holidays, call or ask about holidays before going 0832 – 2225818
Shop: Municipal Market, Althino, Panaji – open everyday, 8 am- 9pm