Girl-on-a-Cycle

Pedal powering through Gorgeous Goa

In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig hit the nail on the head when he said that the view through a car window is just more TV and you are a passive observer. Whereas on a cycle the pleasure is becoming a part of the scene you are travelling through, and it is just beautiful.

TEXT & PICS: MOHUA SEN

I still remember the first time I cycled in Goa. I moved here to take a sabbatical from the frenetic life of a television professional, and cycling seemed to be a great way to reclaim some of the health and lose some of the fat that I had accrued on the way. It was more than five years ago, but I remember it as clearly as if it was yesterday. Maybe I took a small tumble, but so what? I was hooked! The good roads, the glorious blue sea! Maybe I sneaked a beer while I recuperated and rested my sore derriere, but hey – it’s Goa! In retrospect, I am so happy that I overcame my subsequent trepidation and the dire warnings of all around me and got back on the cycle regularly. As they say, persistence pays. And a few more tumbles and scrapes later I am now part of a vibrant and ever-increasing cycling community.

Cycling in Goa is not about the destination, it is all about enjoying the journey. Explore places at the end of that enticing little road, give in to impulse and turn off the beaten path, willing to be surprised by what awaits, feast your eyes on the endlessly gorgeous and varied landscape.

Stop at the little tea stall or “gaado” tucked away in some village. This is a Goa that reveals herself only to those willing to put their butts on the saddle and pedal for the sheer joy of it.

Madgaon in South Goa is my base and so most of my rides are in and around the Salcette region. Part of moving to Goa and living in Salcette is learning that Salcette is the same as Xaxtii and that the ‘X’ in any word in Goa is pronounced with the ‘sh’ sound. (You know, like our favorite local food Xacutii?) Part of cycling in Salcette is also discovering that there is a lot of hilly terrain that sneaks up on the novice cyclist. If you’re a novice, be prepared to walk up slopes with your cycle in tow!) Xaxtii means sixty-six and it refers to the original sixty-six settlements established by the community of Saraswat Brahmin families who migrated from North India and settled here. And really, who can blame them for stopping short here? Centuries later and with all the modernization that has taken place, it is still breathtakingly beautiful! When the Portuguese came here, they could not pronounce Xaxtii and thus the word Salcette was born.

Choosing a cycling route to feature for my first story turns out to be difficult. I am spoiled for choice. Should it be some rolling hills, should it be a scenic river ride or should I towards the beaches head? I finally decide to let my cycle decide, and she points me towards the picturesque and historic village of Chandor. It is early on a Sunday morning and as we cycle through the village roads, what really hits you is the soundtrack. The sun is not quite up, and the absence of the electrical and mechanical hum of civilization, the stretches of rolling open terrain combine to create a quiet that allows you to hear the waking sounds of a hundred different birds (the locals are still not really up!). We come out of a stretch of houses and automatically our feet slow down on the pedals, as before us over a hill we see the glow of the rising sun appearing and disappearing in through the clouds morning as though he too is still making up his mind on whether he should rise. We turn a corner and stop short! Ahead is a sight that reminds me why I overcome my natural aversion to waking early ….

In that early morning stillness, the distant sound of the church organ and the choir singing floats over the water. This sublime sound follows us all the way, ebbing and swelling as one church choir hands us over to the next. Now we are in Curtorim, and across this stretch of lake you see the beautiful St. Alex’s Church in the distance. Interestingly, this lake is not always a lake. During paddy season, it gives way to paddy cultivation. Come November and December, the lake is filled via an irrigation canal and is ready to support an innovative and somewhat famous floating ‘crib’ – the depiction of the birth of Christ that is a ubiquitous feature across all of Salcette in the Christmas season.

We spot an interesting looking by-road and go back a little way to explore it. Bummer, it peters out into a mud track across some fields. We don’t have the correct cycles for off-roading, so we take the photo-op and back to the beaten path we go…

As we cycle through picturesque Macasana, a village that delights the eyes with its quaint traditional houses interspersed with some fancy new bungalows, all nestled in green, we pass the Macasana lake dotted with hundreds of migratory birds.

We cycle past the beautiful Macazana church, where once again the sounds of the faithful’s voices raised in song provide a melodious background track. I stand next to a local bar and restaurant called Senhor Frog, and take pictures of the church. Only in Goa could you have a bar called Senhor Frog, and a local Goan friend tells me that the owner is probably called Bebo or Bebe, which in Konkani means frog. It may or may not be true, but it is a fun little tidbit of local language and culture.

Getting to the next village of Chandor, our nostrils are assailed by the aroma of the breakfast of Goan champions – The bhaji pao. A wholesome hot breakfast that is a spicy gravy dish made with dried green peas mixed with a dry potato curry and served with pao, the local Goan bread. When you cycle through Goa, this is one thing you discover – the best local breakfast places everywhere! In fact sometimes the ride seems to be nothing more than an excuse to reach a favourite breakfast place!

Suitably fortified with the bhaji pao and a cup of tea under our belts, we set off to climb the Chandor monte, a short but stiff climb that is not for the fainthearted, and leads you to the Chapel of Our Lady of Piety. Constructed on a hill about half a kilometre from and facing the main Chandor Church, the chapel, like many of the churches and chapels in the region were constructed during the early years of Portuguese settlement, and dates back to the year 1748.

Locals tell me that it used to be a heritage structure that was unfortunately demolished some years back to make way for a larger, more modern building I think to myself that it is a pity. A breather to enjoy the breath-taking 360° view, while the clackety-clack of the wheels of a passing train provides a restful soundtrack and we are off again.

We cycle down the hill and hit the road near the famous and oft-featured heritage Menezes- Braganza home, and home built in the 1600s and still maintained and occupied by the 8th generation of the family today. The house features in almost every guidebook to South Goa and has often featured in Bollywood movies. What strikes me as we stop to try take a pic is the sheer length of the frontage. There is no way to get the entire house into one frame. The house is divided into two, apparently each half being owned by a different brother, and starkly different in their look and maintenance – the left side is lovingly maintained and is obviously lived in while the right is dilapidated to the point of being derelict. It feels like even the trees on the right side are dead, and makes you reflect on the price of preserving history.

A few hundred meters ahead we get to the main church at Chandor – The Nossa Senhora de Belem Church which is located at a crossroad and is the center of the village. Chandor is the Portuguese word for Chandrapur, an ancient city which dates back to the 3rd or 4th Century and was the capital city of successive dynasties till the 11th Century when Muslim invaders forced the ruling Kadambas to flee. The church was built on the ruins of an old temple, and in fact some structures on the left seem to pre-date the church.

At the crossroads we debate whether we should turn right and go through some gorgeous open fields and the chance of spotting a hot air balloon, or just turn back. We have already covered about 16 kilometers at an easy pace, stopping to take photographs, and we figure that with the sun coming up, we should head back home. That’s the wonderful thing about cycling – you can cover reasonable distances and enjoy the journey in 4-D – sight, sound, smell and heart.

Cycling home we realize that so many of the photographs we have taken and the route we have almost sub-consciously taken involves church edifices. Salcette is about Churches, and every few hundred meters you are sure to cross either a church, a chapel or a cross (a khuris as the locals call it). Remember, I said at the very beginning that cycling in Goa is all about the journey and never about the destination! So we make a snap decision and decide to take a little detour to showcase the church where it all began – The Rachol Church. We cycle about 5 kilometers to the village of Rachol and its picturesque church that boasts of an absolutely spectacular altar.

The Rachol Church is situated on the banks of the Zuari river and is close to the local ferry that takes you to Shiroda. The story that I first heard from the priest at Rachol Church and subsequently read about is that when the Portuguese helped King Krishnadeva Raya against Adil Shah of Bijapur, he gifted the Fort of Rachol to the Portuguese. The very first Church in South Goa to be constructed by the Portuguese was within this fort in 1556. The fort unfortunately does not exist anymore except for one arched doorway that leads to the village of Rachol, but the church still stands, beautiful and pristine, a lasting symbol of when Xaxtii began becoming Salcette.

By now the sun is beating down quite strongly and we make our way home, a little sulkily because from Rachol to home is all uphill, a factor we did not take into account when we made our little detour. As all of us in Goa who cycle know, what goes down must come up! So we put our heads down and pedal homewards where we reward ourselves with a hearty (second) breakfast and an ice cold beer, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow is another day, another ride and another opportunity to burn off that beer.

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Author: Mohua Sen
Storyteller, creative fanatic, wordsmith.

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