A Wet Week in Goa

A romantic adventurer obsessed with monsoons visits India during the deluge.

Each year, early in June, the tourists who flock to Goa’s beaches are chased away by darkening skies, roughening seas, winds that bend the coconut trees, and, finally, a deluge of quite remarkable weight and mass. For the locals, though, the arrival of the monsoon is a time of rejoicing. It cools the air, scours the land, and washes away months of summer grime. Goa turns green again.

I am a monsoon buff who, down the years, has experienced no fewer than five. It’s my favorite Indian season, and this lovely stretch of winding, well-watered Indian coast is the best place to enjoy it. In August 2008, I spent a week there.


At the Aashyana Lakhanpal, a large, homely villa with cottages adjoining, I found myself the only guest. Outside my room, an exuberant tropical garden offered direct access to Candolim beach, now deserted and sporting a red warning flag. The waves were high and sharp, with an undertow savage enough to rattle the shingle.

The evening was hot and sticky, but, during dinner—kingfish curry served on the veranda—a sudden current of deliciously cool air was followed by the sound, infinitely soothing, of rain falling on palm fronds.

Listening, I reminded myself that I was somewhere in the middle of a weather system driven by temperature differences over land and sea. In summer, hot terrestrial air expands and rises while cool oceanic air, drawn in to replace it, picks up water en route, then drops it over India. There are two splashy, aqueous arms—one flowing up the west coast past Goa, the other flowing up the east coast—both making for the northeastern village of Cherrapunji, recognized for years as the wettest place on earth (in 1861, 86 feet of rain fell) and as the spot where the monsoon reaches its tumultuous climax.


Ashwin Tombat, editor of the Herald (“The Voice of Goa,” says its masthead slogan, “since 1900”) occupies a third-floor office in Panjim, Goa’s rackety, traffic-choked riverside capital. A lean, bespectacled, crisply spoken 49-year-old, he had, before entering journalism, been a left-wing student activist, a barefoot doctor, and a director of Mumbai street theater.

Was there, I asked, a political dimension to the monsoon?

“Goodness, yes! Remember that fifty-five percent of India’s population are farmers. If the monsoon fails, it diminishes their purchasing power, and that isn’t good for the economy. A poor monsoon can, no question, be a tipping factor in an election.”

I said a finance minister in Delhi once remarked that every one of his budgets had largely been a gamble on rain. He shrugged. “It’s hard to think of any aspect of Indian life that isn’t affected.”

Mr. Tombat owns a yacht, a 21-footer (in which he teaches local kids to sail), but, like Goa’s fishermen, must remain shore-bound during the monsoon.

“From 15 June to 15 August, they even close Panjim port,” he explained. “When the Portuguese first showed up here in 1510, a local sultan drove them off again. The admiral, Alfonso de Albuquerque, tried to put back to sea but couldn’t because of the monsoon westerlies. So, for a couple of months, they sat out in the harbor, eating rats, leather, anything that came to hand. Eventually the people of Taleigao village took pity and sent meat and grain; later the grateful Portuguese gave them the privilege of harvesting the first corn. They still do it. Navidades—it’s a monsoon festival, an important one, and it happens on Thursday. You should go.”

Outside again, dodging swarms of yammering motor scooters, I recalled once witnessing another Goan monsoon festival, the Feast of St. John. To celebrate the filling of the wells, groups of young village men wearing laurel crowns and pie-eyed on coconut feni—the high-octane liquor of the monsoon—staggered around behind brass bands, jumping into each well twice. (São João, allegedly, jumped twice in his mother’s womb.)


My old friend Mario Cabral, Goa’s leading man of letters, lives on Divar, an island in the Mandovi River reached by a battered little ferry that lands you among the mangroves. “We’ve done enough damage to nature,” he said over tea, “for the rains to go completely wrong,” and urged me to call on J. P. Singh, Goa’s chief secretary. Mr. Singh, tall and youthful, expressed concern at the topographical effects of the monsoon. “The cyclonic winds and turbulence in the sea are causing serious erosion. We have oceanographers surveying the coastline to assess the damage and we are erecting special anti-erosion devices—concrete tripods—along the most vulnerable stretches.” His attitude toward the rains was essentially practical. “They have a flushing effect, washing away the dust, also filling the dams. And, of course, the coolness is pleasant.”


Was there, I wondered, such a thing as Goan monsoon cuisine?

At Panjim’s Hotel Mandovi, I arranged to meet the chef, Agnello d’Souza, a small, soft-spoken, balding man with neat features and an exuberant Edwardian mustache. He laughed when I posed the question. “Of course! At the Mandovi, we even have monsoon food festivals.”

“And what’s on the menu?”

“Well, fish, of course. And since the boats can’t go out during the rains, we buy ours in advance, sun-dry them, then put them in airtight tins with a few mango leaves to absorb the oxygen; dried fish are a monsoon staple. So are wild mushrooms from the forest, which I like to cook with xacuti, a Goan favorite (it’s chicken curry, actually, made with grated coconut, chiles, spices, and tamarind pulp). Lady’s fingers—or okra—are a monsoon vegetable. Also snake gourds (about a meter long), taukilo and terem, both leafy and growing wild during the rains. Pippri is the monsoon cucumber, tender and juicy, best eaten with a little salt. They’re found on the slopes of hills; people sell them by the roadside. Mash melons also grow wild; they have pinkish flesh and are very sweet—a farmers’ treat. And roasted jackfruit seeds are a monsoon delicacy.”

I asked Mr. d’Souza to give me a typical monsoon lunch. It began with a fragrant, spicy xacuti, followed by a Goan pork vindaloo. “If there is a festival in a Catholic village during the rains, that is what they will serve.” Next came a fried sun-dried ladyfish, then a curry of sun-dried prawns served with Goa’s heavy-grained red rice and khate-khate. “Khate-khate is a Hindu dish containing such vegetables as carrots, beans, snake gourds, white radishes and red pumpkin—also pumpkin flowers.” For pudding, I had wonderful Goan pancakes filled with coconut jaggery, and over coffee I learned about a Goan monsoon pickle called molho, featuring mullet or clams and eaten cold. “From this,” he said, “you get the distinctive flavor of the rains.”


The harvest festival began at St. Michael’s church in Taleigao. Built by the Portuguese more than 200 years ago, it had a square tower and newly whitewashed, fortress-thick walls. Its well-tended state pointed to a loyal and supportive congregation, many of whom, on this quiet, overcast Thursday morning, were present in their Sunday best. Indeed, a couple of hundred spilled out into the courtyard, joining in the prayers and hymns that came drifting through the main door. As I arrived, a little girl emerged from beneath a tamarind tree and shyly pinned a paper flower to my shirt.

When the service ended, loud, discordant music signaled the arrival of the band: two trumpeters, two drummers, and an elderly man playing a saxophone wrapped in rainproof plastic sheeting (holes had been cut at either end).

Acolytes in white surplices and red cloaks took up station behind them—four bearing a jasmine-draped statuette of the Archangel Michael, sword aloft, ready to vanquish Satan. Next, the priest appeared with two anxious altar girls carrying his train. At once the bystanders hurried to form a procession, many of them well-turned-out women who, though facing a long walk through mud, wore party dresses and high-heeled shoes.

It began to rain.

Few of us, surprisingly, had brought umbrellas; nobody, though, seemed concerned. Our path lay along an earth dike set between large, semi-flooded fields, in which half a dozen water buffalo wallowed. They were partially hidden by a crop that grew with extraordinary vigor and luxuriance.

“Pardon me,” I said to a plain-looking woman with two startlingly pretty teenage daughters. “But what is that stuff?”

“It’s grass,” she said.


“Our farmers have become lazy; these days they just want to sell their land to developers.” She asked where I was from.


“You know Putney?”


The daughters turned and smiled. They had cousins there. (I even knew the street.) The rain stopped. After a kilometer’s stroll, we reached the half acre that contained the corn. A smartly besuited man clasping a shiny silver sickle stepped in and, almost up to his knees in water, cut a few ears, then stepped back. Another man claimed the sickle and followed. They were direct descendents, I learned, of the families who took food out to Alfonso de Albuquerque.

The priest went next, his altar girls holding his train out of the wet, followed by a woman in a blue sari. The band struck up and the procession re-formed, halting just once more, at a tiny chapel with a rusting tin roof (where a hymn was sung). “Tomorrow,” my friend said, “the corn goes to Old Goa for a Mass. Then, at the Old Secretariat building, it will be presented to the governor general.”

Later, an illegal harvest festival bullfight featuring two buffalo and held before a large crowd—many of them laying bets—was stopped by police.


It rained during my last night at the Aashyana Lakhanpal. After breakfast, I walked in the dripping garden and found squadrons of dragonflies patrolling the puddles. I’d enjoyed my time here, eaten well, and been entertained by a glimpse of the guest list. Among the Brits who turn up each February are the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, the Marquess and Marchioness of Douro (he’s the Duke of Wellington’s son), Lord and Lady Irwin (his great-grandfather was a Viceroy of India), and Christopher Balfour, a former chairman at Christie’s. But for my last 48 hours in Goa, now craving company, I opted for a busy resort hotel.

In Mumbai, I’d seen a promotional video saying, “When the heavens open up, families get closer.” It was for the Leela Kempinski, at Goa’s southern tip, so that’s where I went, joining families who, in the Indian way, felt incredibly romantic about rain but were drawn also by cut-price monsoon rates. The hotel’s 75 acres boasted a beach, a 12-hole golf course, gorgeous gardens, and a spa with an Ayruvedic clinic. Dr. Arun Aravind, the personable young medic in charge, emphasized the importance of the monsoon in his work. “It’s the best time for administering rejuvenation therapy,” he said. “Over sixty percent of my patients have problems that are stress-related.” Toxins are removed from the body by purging, vomiting, and sweating, and from the head by nasal infusions that flush the sinuses. He also prescribes baths and massages with medicated oils. “The rains come after a dry, hot summer when we crave water. Then, as nature gives it to us, the body, and the balance of the doshas, are affected in a way that, quite simply, is beneficial.”


During my stay at the Kempinski, I met some nice people, learned a Hindi greeting from angelic-looking ten-year-old twins named Prakesh and Dimple, discovered later (from a shocked old Jaipur couple on whom I tried it) that it was, in fact, a bloodcurdling oath, joined a gang of fathers and sons for an informal cricket match, and became friendly with a whisky-drinking Delhi bookseller who had known Graham Greene.

The monsoon was a subject everyone had an opinion on. Most were pessimistic, many worrying about impending water shortages and inadequate “rain harvesting.” I certainly hadn’t experienced, this time, the roaring inch-a-minute precipitation that left the air fluid and fizzing (and, left you, if you got caught in it, half-blinded, half-drowned, and utterly elated). But in fairness, this being August, the cycle was now nearing its end—though still hinting, periodically, at the dreamy colors and haunting fragrances that, in season, gave this beautiful, tranquil, endlessly interesting corner of India its particular magic.

Alexander Frater was chief travel correspondent for The Observer, and has written for numerous other publications, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. Two of his books, Beyond the Blue Horizon and Chasing the Monsoon (both international bestsellers) were made into major BBC television films. He lives in London.

Subscribe to Gourmet