We took an overnight bus ride from Hampi to the coastal state of Goa. It was jam packed with travelers headed to the beach for the holidays and offered little rest thanks to a group of raucous Israelis singing, playing guitar and coughing loudly in the back of the bus.
Our first stop was Panaji, a charming Portuguese port town that left us utterly confused on arrival. Where were the cows (and accompanying cow patties) clogging every city artery? And what happened to the noisy tuk tuks belching choking smoke from their exhausts? And wait – what is this? An honest to goodness, bona fide sidewalk? One with enough room to actually walk on? And how about the pictures of Jesus tacked onto every other pastel colored building? Had our bus taken a mysterious detour to another country, say somewhere in the Mediterranean? This was a new side of India that was a far cry from the one we had gotten to know in the North.
Although we relished the thrill of being somewhere exotic and ancient and dreamlike that we got from being in Varanasi, Rajasthan or Hampi, it was a nice treat to be somewhere that seemed just a teeny bit more familiar. We went to the movies. We hid from the seething sun, drinking lattes in the air conditioned comfort of the Café Coffee Day. We ate delicious seafood dinners – not just Indian, but Thai, Chinese and Portuguese too. We read the Economist. We bought tickets for a late night music festival.
Panaji proved to be a great place to unwind and recharge for a spell, and the perfect place to spend Christmas. It’s home to a beautiful white cathedral, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, perched high on a hill, and its steps were often crowded with various Santa Clause imposters tossing out candy and posing for pictures with children. The homes and guest houses were decorated with lights and paper stars, and carols piped through the feeble sound systems of stores and restaurants.
A few kilometers from Panaji is Old Goa, the original seat of the Portuguese empire in India. It’s now a World Heritage Site and home to a collection of old churches, some in pristine condition and others in ruins. The real draw for the faithful is the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which houses the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa. St. Francis Xavier is credited with spreading Catholicism to the East, but his true claim to fame may be that upon his death on an island near China his body appeared to be impervious to the decay that afflicts most human corpses. It was deemed a miracle and his remains (or at least what is left of them today) are on display in the church. Indians crowded toward the coffin to gawk and say a prayer.
Panaji is not without its Hindu roots as well, as evidenced by the beautiful temple on the east side of the hill that splits the city down the middle. But, standing proudly in a light salmon colored sheath, it too could not escape the influence of the Mediterranean people who once called this place home. Another great example of the great diversity of influence that makes India such a fascinating place to visit.