Mumbai, Goa, Pune (India)

September 2010

Why would anyone go to Goa in monsoons beats most people.

Are you most people?

A full-blown family vacation had been due for quite a while when we decided to visit my uncle in Pune in early September. My brother and I took a week off from office and began searching for what we could include in our Pune trip. When you search for “monsoon tourism” destinations in India, the first few places on the list are all around the Mumbai-Pune belt. These include Matheran, Lonavla/Khandala, Bhandardhara, Malshej Ghat and Mahabaleshwar. Outside this zone, the other monsoon destinations include Konkan, Western Ghats and the Malabar coast, which roughly translates to Goa and Kerala.

This made life easy for us – we drew up a circuit to cover the whole Mumbai-Pune zone. The map looked somewhat like this (approx. distances from Mumbai):

The only fixtures on the itinerary till now were:

Reach Mumbai on Sunday morning by train from Delhi, and,
Fly back from Pune to Delhi next Sunday.

Everything in between was open. We had not finalized how we were going to travel to our selected places, and where we were to lodge. This is one luxury you enjoy in off-season – too much pre-booking is not required.

Two hours before the train’s departure as we were finalizing the places to stay at Matheran, Bhandardhara et al, Mom expressed her wish to go to Goa as she’d never been there before. Suddenly the idea of visiting the half-dozen destinations which we had shortlisted started appearing tacky to us – Goa is just an overnight train journey from Mumbai/Pune and has the sea. We chucked our destination map and decided for Goa.

The train journey from Delhi to Mumbai was enjoyable. Rajdhani train stops at just 4-odd places on this 1500 km route, and they keep on bringing stuff to eat all the time.

We reached Mumbai Central station at 8am (this station is different from Mumbai CST aka Mumbai VT which is 8-10km from Mumbai Central). We got our train tickets to Goa for the same night through one of the travel agents lurking around at the station’s reservation counter. He said he’ll use some VIP quota option to help us beat the waiting list of passengers and will charge Rs. 300 per person for this ‘favor’. We agreed but did not get our seat confirmation right away even after paying the chap – he asked us to wait till the boarding chart is prepared 2 hours before departure. We were annoyed and asked him to reverse the deal – he hadn’t told us anything about having to wait for the confirmation. But he was adamant that he’ll get us the seats. There was precious little we could do but to take his word and wait till evening.

We had the day at our disposal in Mumbai, so after breakfast at the unique McDonalds-Rajdhani combo counter at the Mumbai Central station, we headed out to Gateway of India. (Now in case you are unaware, this latter Rajdhani is a very famous restaurant chain serving Indian food. It has nothing to do with Rajdhani the train, except for the common name.)

Situated on the edge of the sea, the aptly named Gateway of India is a sight to behold, what with the majestic Taj Mahal hotel located right across the road. It is hard to imagine that this place was the site of the unfortunate Mumbai terror attacks just a couple of years back.

We decided to take a regular ferry (catamaran) to the Elephanta Island from the jetty at the Gateway of India. This one-hour ferry ride was an absolute pleasure. The ferries have a capacity of over 50 people; the lower deck is covered while the upper deck is open to the sky. They charge Rs. 10 extra to let you climb to the upper deck. It rained heavily for some part of our ride and everyone came to the lower deck during that time.

I saw countless ships – some of them the largest I’ve ever seen – happily anchored at a distance from the shore. I wondered how the Coast Guard kept an eye on the activities of all of them, the sea-route being so notorious for smuggling activity.

The Elephanta Caves were great. It takes a bit of an effort to climb to the caves from where the ferries are docked. The whole ascending path is lined with souvenir shops and a couple of eating places. I bought some carved stone elephant souvenirs to mark my visit to the Elephanta Caves. The basic concept of the caves is that they’ve been carved out of a single rock, including the pillars and the sculptures of Lord Shiva. The sculptures all stand defaced today; it is said that the Portuguese colonialists did it.

We spent a couple of hours at the overcast Elephanta Island and ate roasted corn which was surprisingly sweet. I wasn’t getting any mobile signal there and was getting edgy to know if the tonight’s tickets to Goa had been confirmed. I let out a sigh of relief as I checked the Indian Railways website on my mobile on nearing the Gateway of India shore and found our seats confirmed. The agent hadn’t lied after all.

We did a vintage Victoria chariot ride from the Gateway of India to Colaba market. We munched on the famous Bombay bhel-puri (crispy puffed rice garnished with ultra-spicy sauces, chillies and onions) and grabbed some quick dinner before heading back to the train station to board our 11pm night train to Goa. This time, it was the Mumbai CST station which is known for its Victorian architecture.

The night journey to Goa was peaceful and we woke up to the beautiful lush-green surroundings which the Konkan railway runs through. Madgaon is the biggest train station of Goa, but we de-boarded a bit before that at Thivim, which is up north of Madgaon and hence nearer to the North Goa beach of Calangute where we had planned to lodge. This was deja-vu as I had done the same drill three years back when I visited Goa with friends in Christmas.

We took a taxi from Thivim to Calangute. There’s a big pre-paid taxi stand outside the Thivim station, though we opted for a taxi outside the pre-paid union as this guy was willing to get us to Calangute cheaper. Maruti Omni van is the most common type of taxi in Goa.

During the half-hour long drive to Calangute, we saw more shades of green than we had ever seen before. It was as if the vegetation was celebrating every drop of rain that fell from the sky. Occasionally we saw paddy fields and small ponds along the way, overflowing with water. The dark gray road meandered through the greenery and we wished the drive never ends. Soon we arrived at the familiar-looking market of Calangute. At this very moment my colleagues in Delhi were arriving at their familiar-looking office desks. Gosh, did I ever have a better start to a Monday morning!

A friend of the brother-in-law of a friend of my father (whew) owns a hotel adjacent to the Calangute beach. This was the place we were to lodge at. There were very few tourists and the hotels had slashed their prices by more than half, and we got an even higher discount owing to our acquaintance. The hotel had a swimming pool too, so my brother could finally learn swimming.

Over the next three days we visited many beaches beyond Calangute – Baga, Anjuna, Vargator, Candolim, and Miramar. The first four are within 10-15 km of Calangute while Miramar is down south, in the capital Panjim.

Calangute: ‘Natural’ is a very famous ice cream brand of Mumbai. Their ice creams are creamy in the true sense and contain real fruit pulp. I rued having missed in Mumbai. But lo behold! I was elated to find out that they’ve opened a parlor right on the Calangute beach, one minute away from where we were staying. Add that to the list of reasons why you should stay at Calangute when you visit Goa.

Baga: We walked down in the rain from Calangute to Baga with our umbrellas. The rains in Goa are funny and fully tropical in character – they’ll happen all of a sudden with shattering intensity, and then stop as suddenly, like someone just shut down the hose.

Baga’s highlight was the prawn-curry rice I had at Britto’s restaurant which overlooks the sea. The serving was huge and I had a bloated tummy for the rest of the day.

Anjuna: Anjuna’s famous Wednesday flea-market was closed for the monsoons. We were told it opens around October. We visited the rocky side of the beach instead of the sandy one.

Vargator: Vargator was unique in its own sense. It features a high cliff from where you have to climb down to reach the sea level. It isn’t exactly rock climbing; there are smooth tracks that lead down to the shore. This beach was my personal favorite on this trip, though you get bored after an hour or so.

Candolim: Candolim is where the Aguada Fort is. This fort is strategically built as it is open to the sea from three sides. Goa’s Taj hotel resort is located on this beach, and my idol Vijay Mallya has a villa, called the Kingfisher Villa, next to it. There was a rusting, old ship docked at this beach which our driver told us had been there for the last 10 years, polluting the beach. The next day this stuff was in newspapers – the court had asked the government to remove the ship from the beach.

Miramar: Miramar beach, strictly not to be confused with the one in Florida, is a different sort of beach located in Panjim. It is more like the Juhu beach in Mumbai. I didn’t like it much after all that I’d seen.

For friends back home, we bought some, rather a lot of cashews, which are Goa’s specialty. Fenny, a hard drink made from fermented cashews, is more famous than the cashew itself. I hate its taste and we did not buy any.

There is one thing you should NOT try at Goa. I’m not talking about weed. Do not take the “river-cruise” on the Mandovi river in Panjim. Our driver who had more or less become our guide, suggested the river-cruise to us and we bought the tickets. Several companies operate such cruises and they sell tickets at cashew and wine shops throughout Goa. During high season in December, these tickets sell for a premium. The idea is that they put you on a boat, then dock a little distance away in the middle of the river, and start playing loud music to which you are supposed to groove for an hour. Only, the music tends to get on your nerves and they serve preposterous amounts of diesel fumes for free, from which you have no escape – you’re in the middle of the river, remember? They also show some “traditional Goan performances” which is actually a real shady, cheap show on the lower deck. You can escape to the open-air upper deck but can’t sit there. We realized what we had gotten into in the first ten minutes of waiting before the boat set off. We called off the adventure and de-boarded. It took a lot of water and fresh air to wash diesel fumes down our throat. Our ferry ride to the Elephanta Islands was a trillion times better.

With our mixed bag of experiences, which were all excellent apart from the river-cruise, we bid adieu to Goa and boarded the overnight train to Pune the tickets for which I got booked through a local travel agent, through the same drill as in Mumbai but with greater amount of trust this time.

The remaining two days of our trip were more of a family affair. My uncle is an astronomer and before Pune he lived in Nainital at the UP State Observatory campus. Several of my summer vacations as a kid have been spent there gazing at the Moon’s craters, Mars’ surface and Saturn’s rings through huge telescopes. He’s now working on theories of the formation of the universe – the Big Bang and related whiz stuff – at the University of Pune. He showed us around his office complex and it looked more like a space museum. They’ve grown carpet grass on the roofs where they have cocktail parties.

We went to the Laxmi Road market for some purchasing the old folks had to do. The market reminds you of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, minus the fabulous eateries of the latter. The Ganpati festival was about to begin in Pune and the streets were heavily crowded. The fervor with which Maharashtrians celebrate Ganpati is outstanding. I also found some time to visit a good friend who lives in Nigdi, which is to Pune as Gurgaon is to Delhi.

We flew back to Delhi on Sunday noon – this was the only pre-planned thing we’d done since arriving in Mumbai one week back.

Do I think we should have done the more monsoon-famous Matheran, Lonavla etc. as planned originally in place of Goa? Naah!! Goa is at its natural best in monsoons, and it is neither as crowded as in December nor as deserted as people say it would be in this season. I’ve seen Goa at Christmas, and I’ve now seen Goa in monsoons. I can’t really say which one is better – it’s apples and oranges.

Some approximate costs:

Delhi to Mumbai train (Rajdhani): Rs. 1800 per person
Gateway of India to Elephanta Islands ferry: Rs. 150 per person (return trip)
Mumbai to Goa train: Rs. 1500 per person
Thivim to Calangute taxi: Rs. 300
Monsoon hotel rates in Goa: Rs. 1500-2000 per room (with swimming pool, non-5-star)
Beer can in Goa, 500ml: Rs. 38 (Rs. 70 in Delhi!)
Goa day taxi, 80 km limit: Rs. 1000
Goa river-cruise: Rs. 150 per person
Calangute to Vasco da Gama taxi: Rs. 700
Goa to Pune train: Rs. 1000 per person
Pune to Delhi flight: Rs. 4000 per person