This summer, in Goa, we had what my exacting teenaged daughter described as “the best family holiday we’ve taken”. Since she is not given to the rhapsodic, it was a statement that didn’t reveal the minutes and hours of intense happiness: of dark skies that made the light heavy or luminous or pretty; the sudden dramatic cloudburst; greener than usual trees; food you’re grateful you’re alive to eat; a family of four that feels made for each other.
Some part of our days, we spent at a B&B in a Portuguese mansion in North Goa, notable for its high ceilings, massive wooden doors, warm hospitality and a shoe-eating dog. Old friends were close at hand and it was all very jolly. Then it was time for Champakali.
This was my second visit. I first came in January this year, singly, on assignment from OT. I returned in June, with my husband and children, as a paying guest and friend of Champakali.
We tumbled out of the car that ferried us to Velha Goa in the rain, virtually into the arms of all the remembered people. They were all there, waiting with umbrellas—Gokul, Matthieu, Baijo, Usha, Vicky, Nitish. Champakali’s whitewashed walls glistened as sheets of rain washed them down before disappearing into the red earth. I was a keen guide, eager to escort my husband to the second welcome: the view, through the entrance, out to the patio, over sloping lawns and swaying trees to end at Carambolim lake in the near distance. This picture has a stunning frame, of teak doors contrasting with small sea-green cement floor tiles edged by warm Jaisalmer stone. On my first visit, I nearly missed the picture for the frame, so dazzled was I by those tiles.
Fifteen minutes into our arrival, however, my somewhat proprietorial attitude was shaken when my husband said to Gokul, “Too much service!” That young man of extreme charm, son of the remarkable woman behind Champakali (on whom, more later), had been showing us around. Named Teak, this villa is one of two near-identical three-bedroom structures that constitute Champakali (the other is Banyan, named for a magnificent old tree abutting it).
The living room is connected through a covered but wall- less passageway to the kind of kitchen I wish my own home had. The ground floor has one room, called Tota. The occupant was a German gentleman who looked up from the book he was reading outdoors to smile at us. He looked at home. We were on the first floor: my husband and I in Kabootar; the children in Kauwa. Gokul was still showing us around—the safe, meals, water as we might prefer—assuring us that we only had to name it. It was just a bit formal and posh.
(Some backstory required here for our attitude to posh: we’re not really into it. Posh, as in things that merely cost money. Obviously, a gorgeous antique one-lakh kilim is still a gorgeous antique kilim but our idea of a romantic meal out, say, is to visit Delhi’s Andhra Bhawan Canteen together without the kids.)
I understood my husband’s discomfort. Our rooms were large, every exquisite item had an interesting provenance, producing an effect that no interior designer could achieve. The embroidered throw came from Thailand, when adwoman Bindu Sethi (yes, please meet the lady now) was posted in Bangkok; another owes to her childhood in Kashmir; the bits and pieces of pottery placed here and there from her extensive travels; the red-and-pink table mats she picked up as export rejects from Crate & Barrel; the old dhurries; the green of the key-ring to our room that perfectly matched the tiles. I hadn’t noticed but my husband did: even the wires that connected our bedside lamp were neatly, discreetly, perfectly coiled. Champakali was too, too gorgeous.
We were still smiling, though, not least because my daughter, the budding aesthete, was quietly delighting in all this thoughtfulness and my son was whooping because he could kick his football around on the crabgrass lawns. She was pleased with the teatime bruschetta (“almost as good as yours, Mama”), he because the cold coffee, which he had requested “a bit more sweet”, was “much better than yours, Mama”. I went off to nurse my slight dismay with a cigarette—and the French press coffee Baijo was quick to produce—on one of the two balconies that flanked our room. A dip in the pool with the children, followed by a reportedly very satisfactory massage, a couple of whiskies with me, a grilled sh dinner in the fairy-lit gazebo—a quite mellow man went to bed that night.
But true love only struck around breakfast. And not because the aloo-poori had been prettified with scattered peas and carrot shavings. How to give sensitive Gokul the ‘honest feedback’ he repeatedly requested? We decided to risk shattering him, he took it on the chin, said something about staff changes and calmly asked what we’d like for lunch. Our friends were to join us and we agreed on a ‘simple’ menu of chicken korma, pulao, dal, bharwa bhindi, roti and raita. It would be fine, said Gokul. And it was very fine indeed. We all ate vast quantities, again in the gazebo with rain falling delicately. Dessert was a superb apple crumble served with artisanal vanilla ice cream. The next morning’s aloo-poori was fine too!
Love seems to occur in the space between attractiveness and mutual understanding, a bit like the tiny white owers that spring up in the interstices between beguilingly arranged tiles. It happen in responsiveness. I’d recognised it in the plastic MUJI toiletry bottles that replaced the smart glass ones I had nearly smashed on my earlier visit. It was evident in ‘too much service’ quickly, invisibly, scaled down. In the swiftly improved aloo-poori. In the Nutella crêpes Mathieu persuaded my son to eat, which earned the startled man a hug from a fussy but grateful child. The umbrellas Baijo pressed on us when we set off for the beautiful Chapel of Mount Mary.
There’s no beach here. But there’s birdwatching on a cruise to the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. There’s no shopping, but Panjim is just a short drive away. There’s no TV, but you won’t need it. There’s no room service, but you won’t want it. What you will want, if you’re anything like us, is to come right back to a Goa you’ve never known before.