In Goa you don’t talk in terms of years; you don’t say, ‘last year’, ‘next year’, ‘this year’. Instead you say, ‘last season’, ‘next season’, ‘this season’. You say, “How was it this season?” and, “What are you doing next season?” The Season, running from October to April. The Season, in capital letters. It’s where people make (and lose) their money. It’s where tourists, travellers and revellers spend it.
Then there’s Off Season. When everything shuts down, when the tourists drift away and the travellers go north. Think of it as hibernation. Think of Goa as a bear, storing up fat for months and then crawling into a cave to sleep.
And most of Off Season is occupied, like an invading army, by the monsoon. The skies become dark, and the fields and jungles become green, and there’s water everywhere. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the ocean and the sky. Some places stay open, of course, and people still like to come, and it’s still very beautiful. But it’s not the same as the Season.
And then between these two periods there’s this neglected little time, the time we’re in now, in May. It’s Off Season but not yet raining. It’s still the Season, but it’s almost dead. The shop fronts have fallen off, like dead branches from the palm trees, revealing the villages behind. It’s very hot. Too hot, maybe. The heat brings silence where nothing stirs but the cicadas, whirring metallic from the undergrowth. If you live here, and avoid the season, and your AC doesn’t work properly, and the mechanic keeps saying “tomorrow, tomorrow”, it’s a good time to take a holiday from your life.
So we rent a villa in Anjuna. Then we invite some friends from Delhi to join us. They book their tickets in half an hour.
We arrive at the villa, called Zayo, hidden away on the quiet back road between Anjuna and Baga Creek, on Friday afternoon. From outside there’s a large white wall covered in flowers, and two big blue gates leading in. You can’t see anything more, but you already think you’d like to live there. Through the gates there’s a well-tended garden, flowering creepers all over, and then the villa, which is both traditionally Goan and modern at the same time. Far too many villas forsake the traditional, trying to be too modern. They end up being ugly, but this is just right. Inside, it opens up into an indoor courtyard. There’s a gap in the roof, looking down onto a small indoor garden, letting the breeze in, cooling the marble floor beneath our feet. Antique furniture is scattered around — a writing table, a drinks cabinet, a linen cupboard, planters chairs. The kitchen, around the corner, part of the open plan, has a solid table in the middle. In the bedrooms there are big beds with white linen. It’s cool and peaceful here. We search out the pool.
The sun is out, and then it’s not. The clouds come rolling in, sometimes dark, sometimes a blanket of dull white. Then the sun again, very hot. Somewhere thunder rumbles. Villagers, who may have been selling T-shirts a few weeks ago, amble along the dirt track that cuts alongside the property. From the pool you can make out their shapes, through the bamboo screens covered in flowers. Standing above the pool you can see nothing but fields, buffaloes grazing, wood smoke rising from a small fire. Absolute silence, aside from the cicadas. Then the splash of water in the pool. Yes, the pool. Without the pool the heat would be intolerable. I’m already in love with the pool.
The friends from Delhi arrive, tired and hot, happy all the same. They put their bags down, they get a drink, they get in the pool. We warn them there’s not much to do. Perfect, they say, they don’t want to do anything anyway. It’s just as well, since everything is closed.
“What about the Saturday Night Market?”
“It’s closed until next season.”
“It closed last week.”
“That closed too.”
Where to go eat then, if almost everything is closed? One option is the capital, Panjim, indifferent to the tourist trade. So we go to Panjim, to Horseshoe in Fontainhas, the old Portuguese quarter. I’ve written about Horseshoe before. Vasco, the chef and owner, comes out of the kitchen and shakes our hands. He predicts, correctly, my husband’s dish — pork feijoada — and talks our friends through the menu. We order cocktails, then slowly eat our way through half of the menu, catching up on each other’s lives all the while. Local families eat around us. The food, Goan-Portuguese village food, elevated to art, is as good as ever. We talk and eat for a long time and by the time we get the cheque we’re the only ones there. We drive home. No parties, no late night bars. We have our own villa for that.
It’s still very hot when we get in. We get another drink and swim in the pool, floating on our backs, looking up at the stars and the palms bending over us like the necks of curious dinosaurs. Later, exhausted, the AC in the room is very nice. So are the crisp white sheets.
We had some plans for the next day but they vanished. We had planned to go to the beach at dawn but everyone slept in. We wake up to find it rained overnight. Not big rain, but rain all the same. The sweet smell is still in the air. I step outside in my bare feet and smell the damp earth rising. It rains again, suddenly, for a minute or so, and then the rain stops and the heat rolls back in. We have tea and biscuits, send the guy who comes with the villa out to get fresh Goan bread. Soon we end up back in the pool. What else to do? We play Frisbee and bat and ball, dive in and climb out and dive in again. Then we start to think about, you know, what to do with the rest of the day and, eventually, a lot later, we end up driving the short distance to Shore Bar on Anjuna beach. Ten, 15, 20 years ago it was a big part of the rave culture, but that’s gone now. Now Shore Bar is something more sedate, more upmarket, but still famous and friendly and cool and, importantly, still open.
We sit on the big bed-tables and watch the waves crash in. Very soon the waves will be too dangerous to swim. Now a lone surfer waits on his board for a big one. We order food and juice and sit and wait and watch. We’re not quite sure what we’re waiting for. We’re not waiting for anything then, just watching. Heat, sea, waves, a little conversation, but not much. Mostly we drift in and out of our private thoughts. There’s a beautiful desolation to the beach that doesn’t exist in the season. The beach sellers have gone, the garbage has gone, the crowds have gone. There’s that expectation of the coming rain, the knowledge that everything will be washed away, all the noise and chaos and partying. We play carrom. We eat some more. After a few hours, we move again, back to the car. The frog that had been sitting inside the well near the car is still there. We go back to the villa, jump in the pool.
It’s a hypnotic, narcotic heat. Cold water and hot air, bat and ball in the pool, beer, rum, Pimms and lemonade. A growing cloudy head like the now cloudy sky. There are wood fires again, wood smoke drifting over our heads again. The feeling that it might rain any moment. The sun again. Somehow, without warning, the evening comes. The lights go on around the pool, the first drifts of cool air mix in. We get hungry. We don’t want to eat out, so we order in. Italian food. Real Italian food made by a real Italian named Sarjano — ex-chef to Osho, a long time ago — birth name Carlo Silvestre. Remember the Italian guy from the Milano biscuit adverts with Hrithik Roshan? Well, that’s Sarjano, straddling the divide between Osho and Hrithik Roshan. He cooks the best Italian food in India, better than any five-star hotel. He delivers to your home too.
So we order the food, make a few more cocktails, and then head back into the pool. Inside the villa the air cools down. We shower and change and the food arrives: gnocchi and ravioli and lasagne and aubergine parmigiano, followed by lemon gelato, chocolate crêpes and tiramisu. More drinks, a general feeling of satisfaction, music played very loud. Then a game of Pictionary that descends into loud ridiculous laughter, deep into the night.
The next morning there’s a hangover, another aborted trip to the beach. The buffaloes still stand in the field, the birds on their backs. Some chickens run around the bamboo fencing. The cicadas click like electricity. After a morning swim, now a religious observation, I go across the road to get a scooter. Everyone here has a scooter to rent, and now the scooter is cheap. It’s a buyer’s market now. And that’s another reason to come.
We take the bike and car to the beach. It’s cooler on the bike, weaving along the empty roads with the breeze. On the beach it’s much too hot, so we throw ourselves into the ocean, and the waves come crashing down from above and throw us back toward the shore and we have to fight our way out again, bracing ourselves, inching further forward, planting our feet into the sand, rushing forward before the next wave, diving under it before it breaks, coming up further out, bobbing up and down, the ocean floor somewhere down below. The surfer sits on his board. It’s as if he hasn’t moved at all. Then he catches a wave and rides it in and some day-trippers, men roaming the beach together in shirts and trousers, watch him, amazed. We swim for half an hour, battered this way and that, riding the waves, building up an appetite. Then we go back up to Shore Bar to eat eggs and drink coffee and later to have salad and sandwiches and seafood and chips and beer. Hours later, when we leave, nothing has changed. The surfer still sits on the waves. The frog is still in the well.
Driving back to the villa, the locals are leaving church and the road is full of people dressed in their Sunday best. It could be the 1950s. We drive slowly through the happy crowds, stop to get some cold drinks from a little shop, go back to the pool and stay there for the next few hours. It’s Sunday afternoon already and no one is quite sure how that happened.
Still, our friends say, this was just what was needed, the simplicity. Reluctantly they go to the airport, back to Delhi. We go home too, back to the faulty AC, thinking that in this day and age, with infinite choice, when we’re all so busy, it’s nice, once in a while, to do absolutely nothing at all. And it’s even better if you do it in a villa with a pool.