Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Singing in the rain for Sao Joao

Lift your spirits with this celebration of life

According to Christian tradition, more than 2000 years ago, St John the Baptist gave a little leap for joy in his mother’s womb when she heard a greeting from Mary, who had just become pregnant with Jesus Christ. His mother Elizabeth would scarce imagine that a strange recreation of this event would become a major part of his birthday celebrations in a tiny state on the western coast of India.
Tourists might be mildly surprised to walk through villages across Goa on June 24 to the sound of raucous singing and young men jumping into wells. The Catholic feast of São João (or ‘St John’ in Portuguese) is one of the most awaited celebrations of the monsoon season. At no other event can one splash old aunties and uncles with cold water from the well, run amok on the village roads in the pouring rain singing famous Konkani songs and get away  with it.
Villages in north Goa put a little more vigour into the festivities compared to those in the south. Across Anjuna, Assagao, Calangute, Chapora and Siolim, preparations for local entertainment programmes get underway at least a week to 10 days before the feast. What started as a local celebration has now spiralled into organised chaos, with nightclubs joining in the fun.
Throughout the month of June, pre São João events send cash registers ringing with one of the last big parties before Independence Day in August.
While some simply spruce up a regular party with the ‘São João’ – or corrupted Spanish- Portuguese mix ‘San João’ – tag, others open up their swimming pools and throw in some foam to get with the spirit of the celebration. Whichever one you show up at, generally married with suffixes like ‘bash’ or ‘shuffle’, you’re bound to have a good time.

But despite the high society revelry, the real festivities are the ones you see in villages – where boys and men wear headgear called ‘copels’ made of fresh leaves and seasonal flowers, knock back a drink or two, and distribute juicy fruit and traditional sweets to all who visit. Carlton Carvalho recalled the celebrations being much the same as they were when he was a child 20 years ago. “I used to go with the entourage through Fatorda, all of them without shirts, wearing copels woven at home. At each house they visited, they would jump in the well, and the residents would give them a drink. It was fun watching them jump into the well and then climb out of it.”
Residents keep their wells at the ready, removing meshes or covers and laying out a thick rope to help revellers out of the dank darkness. Heritage lover Sanjeev V Sardessai suggests that many of these traditions have very useful beginnings. “The custom of jumping into wells would ensure that the people’s main sources of water remained clean. No one would jump into a dirty well. Back in the day, it was their way of protecting the resources,” he said.
Not long after the prayer at the local cross or chapel, a motley group of men, young and old, make the rounds of homes in the village, playing local traditional instruments like the ghumot (an earthen vessel with one of two openings covered with the skin of a monitor lizard) and the kansallem (cymbals).
To join in the fun, you can sing along to local Konkani songs, many made popular by Goan singers over the years. Tradition dictates that ‘Viva San João’, a composition by Siolim tiatrist C Alvares, be sung with much gusto as it invites revellers to have a drink as they might not get any the next day.
It appears many take the strain “Choll-re, pie-re, tum illo ghe-re. Falean kain mevonam” pretty seriously. And all too often tragedy strikes. Not a year goes by without at least one case of drowning or near fatality. Emergency services, including ambulance teams, fire brigades and the police, are  generally on hand to avert such situations, while priests sound warnings against excessive drinking and misbehaviour. It’s hard to stay away from the fun though. Some villages, such as Candolim and Loutolim, organise a boat parade or ‘sangodd’ in which beautifully decorated boats are sailed down the nearest river to the sound of a brass band and folk songs. Villagers come out in support wearing vibrant costumes and chanting “Viva San João, viva San João”.

In Siolim, the celebrations are taken to new heights with the Traditional Boat Festival. A custom followed over hundreds of years involved residents of Chapora, Anjuna, Vagator and other nearby villages sailing their canoes up the creek, garlanding the cross with a whispered prayer and returning. It soon developed into a parade of colourful floats, following which just over two decades ago, a cultural committee got things a little more organised. “We host the parade and give out prizes for the best decorated boat. Later in the evening we hold an entertainment programme with cultural songs, tiatrs, folk dances and even fireworks at the end of the show,” said Sylvester Fernandes, president of the San João Traditional Boat Festival Committee.
Thousands of people throng the banks of the creek, spilling onto the roads, to watch the line up of innovatively decorated boats – from mermaids and crocodiles to wells and swans. Coveted cash prizes for the boat parade winners, spot prizes and famous entertainers including Francis de Tuem, Laurie and Luis Bachchan keep the  visitors coming back year after year, including some from the south. In some villages, the uninitiated might notice a bunch of revellers smacking thick hard stems of coconut palms on the ground. This symbolises an aversion for Judas, who betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver. Often, a stuffed effigy of Judas, not unlike Old Father Time, is carried about before being set on fire.
The feast of São João is also an important time for newlyweds. Known as ‘javoiache fest’ or feast of the sons-inlaw, it’s a time for families to show off the men their daughters have married. “According to this tradition, a recently married man visits his wife’s village. He is adorned with a copel of fresh leaves and flowers and joins in the celebration of jumping into the village wells,” explained historian Maria Lourdes Bravo da Costa.
At each home in which a wedding was celebrated in the last year, the daughters offer ‘dalis’ or a platter of seasonal fruit such as mangoes, pineapples and jackfruit fresh off the trees while the sons-in-law hand out that most favoured Goan beverage – a shot of feni – to keep the spirits up and the cold away.
Sardessai, who promotes the forum Hands-On Historians, believes that this tradition was connected with procreation. “Seasonal fruit provide vitamins and minerals that we might lack during that time of the year. Sons-in-law were given local fruit so they remain healthy and were able to provide a grandchild to the family. It’s a celebration of life!”
Many youngsters are now either too busy to follow traditions or find them too time consuming. It is heartening to watch those who continue to follow them, for as much as the nightclubs might call, it is the joyous manifestation of faith, the comfort of culture and joie de vivre typical to Goa that is bound to keep the São João tradition alive.

First published in Goa Streets

Monday, June 2, 2014

48 Hours In Panjim

Somewhere along the way you suddenly find yourself with two days to spare and the feeling that you really don’t want to do your chores. Kick off the mundane and don’t settle for reruns of Breaking Bad and How I Met Your Mother. Instead, get out and rediscover those memories of skipping class for hot samosas, pedaling furiously down back lanes or sneaking off with a teenage crush to a quiet spot. This time, we’ve picked Panjim.

Day 1:
Kick it off with some puri bhaji at Café Tato in the beating heart of the city. Everyone’s got their favourite spot for bhaji, but with Tato’s you can’t really go wrong. Follow it up with a plate of mirchi bhajis. As one of the city’s oldest and most popular cafés, you’re sure to spot someone familiar.
Take a walk around Panjim – you don’t have to go too far to browse through the stores. You would agree that the shopping here is far from the best, but you never know what new belt or random t-shirt with a quote about feni might catch your eye.
You could either walk down 18th June Road and enjoy the bustle under tree-lined streets, or weave your way through Fontainhas and São Tomé. It is evident the early fathers didn’t spare much thought for the traffic of the future and the cramped lanes in Panjim’s Latin quarter could make walking a slight hazard. But frankly, it’s quite worth it.
You’ll find some interesting curios at the Velha Goa Galeria to add to your collection, and the walk up to the Maruti Temple provides a neat view of life below. Cycling around these streets is even more enjoyable as it lets you cover greater distances without missing out.
Stop at the General Post Office and send some snail mail to a long-forgotten friend.

The perfect start to an afternoon could only be in the centre of Fontainhas with some delicious home cooking at Viva Panjim. It’s best to sit inside on a hot afternoon, particularly when you’re not too keen on having a local whiz by on his bike inches from the al fresco seating. The food here is reasonably priced and unpretentious, and will bring back dozens of memories of the times you have shared with friends and family. If you’re lucky, they might still have a tipple or two of this year’s urak.
Spending the day off at home in Goa is made fulfilling with an afternoon siesta. If you live close to the city, sneak home for an afternoon kip. If not, head to Miramar beach and you’re sure to nod off under one of those palm fronds. Catching up on reading at the beach makes for a delightful way to spend the afternoon alone.

When the heat has dissipated a little, it’s time to bring out your swimmers and hit the beach. Make the most of the closing of the summer, taking the short drive to Vainguinim beach at Cidade de Goa in Dona Paula for a few hours of wading in the shallows.
You could join in a game of football, should some of the locals be kicking one about. Or let out your inner child and build a sand castle or sculpture. The sinking sun steeps the myriad faces of stress out across the darkening sea and there’s nothing like a swell dinner to make the rest of it magically disappear.
Panjim’s latest entrant on the bistro circuit is not one to miss. Black Sheep Bistro has made the cut and raised the bar with some fine twists on Goan classics and a nice selection of spirits and wines to go along. It’s open for dinner, and keeps it home grown by using only locally sourced ingredients. So you might want to take a rain check on that beef roulade craving since most of our buffalo meat comes from out of Goa.
Dinner done with, hop across only a furlong away to Café Mojo for some groovy tunes and a few drinks. If you’re looking for somewhere a little less cramped, Butter in Patto has a little more elbow room.

Day 2:
You certainly cannot be expected to wake up bright and early after a night on the town. But for those of you who are supernatural and do hit the road running, take a walk on Miramar beach, or by the fields – the last of them anyway – in Taleigao.
If you’d like to get reacquainted with a higher power, a visit to the chapel at Raj Bhavan in Dona Paula is a beautiful way to start the day. Even if you do forget to register your car number in advance, there’s a lovely look-out spot close to the entrance of the Governor’s Palace where you can soak up some energy.
The Goa Marriott Resort and Spa lays out a lovely brunch on Sundays, the ideal way to squeeze out any remnants of a hangover. You could also opt for the much more reasonably priced offerings at Not Just Omlettes on 18th June Road.

A good brunch could either perk up your spirits or slow you down. For a case of the former, pop into the gaming arcade at Caculo Mall in St Ines and unleash your bowling skills at the alley, drive like a maniac in the bumper cars or try your luck at pinball.
To cure a case of the latter, you could catch up on some reading at Kala Academy or under the shade of the trees in the Campal garden. There could be an interesting play or tiatr being staged at Kala Academy, so you can buy a last-minute ticket and enjoy a bit of Goan entertainment.

As evening jogs on, take a slow walk down the Panjim promenade. Look closely at the heritage buildings as you pass by – the old Goa Medical College, the State Bank of India building, old Secretariat – and visually wipe out the present. Imagine life in black and white when residents mostly walked and the annoying sound of today’s vehicle horns were replaced by the chirping of birds.
Close the evening with a ride on the ferry across the Mandovi River to the rooftop tables at Terry’s. There’s not a sight more beautiful than the twinkling lights of a city you have called home, served alongside the wash of the river down below and some fresh catch from the sea.

First published in Goa Streets