Belgaum, Goa and the Retreat House at Baga
21.09.1964 - 25.09.1964
Today was spent on a bus from Aurangabad to Poona. Completely uneventful. We reached Poona at 5 pm and went to Nuruddin’s place for the night. He took us to dinner. Gandhi Rd. seems to be about the best kept business section of Poona.
Spent a most comfortable night, and Nuruddin’s father drove us out to the Belgaum Rd. after breakfast. We got a lift in an Ambassador after about 40 minutes. Two Indians taking their employer's car all the way to Madras. They had two boxer dogs in the back, which we nursed, one each, and on the way down mine was suddenly sick all over me and my pack. I then insisted that Ade and I swap dogs (foolishly), and an hour later the other one did the same thing. What a bloody mess! The country on the way down did not vary much. A few small villages, a few larger towns, rice fields, mountains, rivers, and some cane fields. Carts and lorries also cluttered up the road. We got to Belgaum about 5 pm and went to the bus station to book a seat on the bus to Goa next day. We took a rickshaw to St. Paul’s High School, run by the Jesuits, and managed to wangle a bed in the sick room for the night. A black bearded priest was terribly suspicious and I could have kicked him. He went to get the Director when we asked if he wanted to see our passports. Dinner will be about eight, and then bed.
We left St Paul’s School, in order to catch the 11 o’clock bus to Goa. A Father Irineu took us to the bus stand, and turned out to be a really decent old bloke.
He had travelled a lot himself, and although I could not make out what he was talking about much of the time, he kept me fascinated for an hour, until the bus came. He told us to approach the Jesuits in Old Goa, using his name and also said we could stay at a Retreat House at Baga, of which he is the Director. He seemed keen for us to do this. The bus left, but returned after a few hundred yards with a broken mainspring. At 12 instead of 11 we finally left Belgaum for Goa in a different bus. After a really rough and perilous ride through the mountains, we reached Old Goa at 5 pm. Old Goa consists of a cathedral and three huge old churches, which are being repaired for the Eucharistic Congress in November, during which the body of St. Francis Xavier will be exposed here in Goa. The Jesuits here gave us a room for the night in a disused novitiate which is also being repaired. It is a huge place, and with hardly a soul living here it has a rather eerie atmosphere about it. It adjoins the church where the body of St. Francis lies. They gave us a bed, but could not give us food. Ade was feeling ill so he went to bed, and I went down the road with one of the supervisors to find something to eat. I ended up in one of the palm branch huts of the local villagers, who agreed to prepare me two omelettes. One of the many who lived there could speak a little English, and raved on about one thing and another: cousin’s brother in the army, five children, very poor man. When I paid up, I was given a glass of home distilled liquor, as potent as any I had ever tasted. I was also given a native cigarette. Not too bad. It was quite an experience, but I was glad to leave. The man took me back to the novitiate and I went up to my room. This is a wonderfully restful place, and I wish I could stay a week and just do some reading and thinking, and sink into the surroundings. But there seems no prospect of getting a meal here, so I guess we will move into Panjim tomorrow.
The Jesuits have been in India for almost 470 years, since their co-founder and pioneering missionary Francis Xavier landed in the then Portuguese colony of Goa in 1542. The legendary ‘Apostle of the Indies’ died in 1552, aged 46, on a voyage to China, but twelve months later his body was returned to Goa, and all but an arm and a few of his toes have remained there ever since. Enshrined for the last 400 years in the baroque Basilica of Bom Jesus, what's left of the Saint is kept in a glass and silver casket high above a side altar, where it is venerated by thousands of pilgrims annually. Attached to the famous Basilica, and pre-dating it by about 15 years, is the Professed House of the Jesuits, built in 1585. This old seminary was the ‘disused novitiate’ where we spent our first night in Goa, in rooms overlooking the forecourt of the Basilica. It seems strange to think that less than a week after our chance encounter with the two Jesuits on a road outside Poona, we found ourselves knocking on the door of the Society at one of their most sacred sites.
The Indian army had liberated Goa from Portuguese colonial rule in 1961, and by 1964 the new order seemed to be well established. However, when the Eucharistic Congress was scheduled for November/December 1964 in Bombay, and involved a visit by Pope Paul VI, Roman Catholic Portugal was not amused, as political tensions between the two countries were still running high. The extensive restoration of the huge complex of churches and other religious buildings in the heart of the old Goan capital must have been a strategic public relations exercise on the part of the Indian Government, who were paying for much of the restoration.
Zooming in on the satellite view of Old Goa I can see what an impressive complex of churches large and small it is, and it reawakens vivid memories of being taken across from the Professed House to the immense Se Cathedral, also known as Saint Catherine’s Cathedral, to see the restoration in progress there. We entered this cavernous building, one of the largest churches in Asia, and were confronted by a mountain of bamboo scaffolding, filling the nave and rising to the distant ceiling, upon which an ant-like army of painters, plasterers, and other craftsmen were labouring away at the decay of centuries, repairing flaking surfaces and crumbling mouldings and limewashing everything whiter than white.
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We are staying at too many priestly places. It is good to get free accommodation and meals, but the religious façade is difficult to keep up without feeling hypocritical, and besides, I feel somewhat restricted by the atmosphere they create. I don’t want to make a habit of the system.
So far from home, and so much further to go yet. I am travelling in India, yet sometimes I feel a closeness to home, whenever the countryside is comparable to, similar to, that of Australia. A month today I have been away, and all that Australia presented to me, excepting my family, has slipped well into the past, and much has been almost obscured. Only the present seems to exist, and even that not too tangibly. I feel I shall be alright now as long as my finances hold out. I am accustomed to travelling and nothing now seems too difficult to approach in this regard. I am also beginning to feel a confidence in my ability to tackle career problems, though I am completely out of touch with anything in that line. I can only let the future bring what it will. At present it is impossible to predict what will happen in the next hour even, and for the next eight months, I am content to leave it that way.
At Baga - 2nd month begins - We walked out of the door of the house in Old Goa and within 30 sec. had stopped a car which took us into Panjim to the office of Mr. Tamba, our contact ex- Mr. Ramdas. No luck with him, so we decided to spend the night at the Retreat House Father Irineu had mentioned, at Baga. At the tourist bureau we saw the name Huggins on the register, as an Australian. We called at the Hotel Riviera to see him and he turned out to be a passenger from the Galileo. We talked a while and he offered us lunch, which needless to say we accepted. Western style, with a beer. Afternoon we walked about, not much to see, and then by ferry & taxi managed to reach the Retreat House, which was empty. What a bloody mess. A door was open so we left our packs. No food! We went to a nearby house and told our story. The chap there said there was a cook who belonged to the Retreat House, but he must be in town. Someone went to look for the cook. Three fat ladies in the house next to the man said they could give us food. They thought we were priests or brothers. When I said grace out loud (what a stupid thing to do) they were convinced. The cook had come, all apologies, he too thought we were priests and asked me if I wished to say Mass in the morning. No? OK Brother. That was it, so I let it go. We had a good meal and wanted to get to bed, so after the cook had finally got round to saying goodnight, which took quite a time, (he had finally realized that we were not priests or brothers) we turned out the lamps and went to sleep.
I awoke at sunrise
What a really excellent place we have come across. It is set high on a promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean. It is like being at sea again. The sky, the sea and now the roar as it meets the land.
A beautiful beach, really golden, coconut palms and a native village. Fishing boats on the sand and fishermen preparing their nets. A cool ocean breeze, peace and quiet save for the sea. A retreat indeed. One could sit here and write a book, undisturbed. The setting is superb. A home here would be wonderful. The Retreat House is disturbing only in its partly corroded state and the preference for rather childish holy pictures. There are no priests at least, but a feeling of artificial spirituality still pervades. The scene here is beautiful, but it has not really moved me. I don’t know why. Perhaps this type of appreciation is being dulled by saturation. Career wise, I thought this morning that it is good to recall the past, to live entirely in the present, not regard the future except to say that when I reach London, I must take a further step up, not down by returning home. Start from scratch in the theatre again with the true path decided. Until then, settle all other drives in these next eight months.
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We swam today, watched the semi-naked, G stringed natives haul in their nets, washed all our dirty clothes, wrote letters, sat around, and generally felt refreshed for travelling once again.
It is hard to reconcile the crowded, overly exploited tourist destination this part of Goa has become today with the unspoiled paradise we discovered when we made our way out to Fr. Irineu’s Retreat House at Baga nearly 50 years ago.
We waded across the tidal narrows at the opening to the Baga River, climbed the jungle path to the improbable looking building perched high on the point facing the Arabian Sea, and from there looked back onto a pristine tropical scene of golden sands fringed with coconut palms, punctuated only by traditional outrigger fishing boats and thatched village huts discreetly placed among the trees. It was perfection.
I am amazed to find that the Retreat House is still standing there in all its splendid isolation, looking well maintained and serving the same function, but the satellite reveals that instead of a fishing village it now overlooks a highly developed resort town, with hundreds of sun lounges and umbrellas dotting a beachfront lined with bars, restaurants and all the other gaudy commercial infrastructure of a package-tour holiday playground, Indian style. Was it always inevitable that this would happen?
It seems to me that the major events that have shaped Goa’s destiny have all had to do with arrivals - the arrival of the Portuguese colonists, the arrival of Francis Xavier and the Jesuits, the arrival of the Indian army, and then the arrival of the hippies, followed by the arrival of the tourists.
The arrival of the hippies - that took place in 1965, or at least the vanguard, led by a famous character called Eight Finger Eddie, arrived then and settled at Anjuna Beach on the other side of the headland. The words ‘cheap’ and ‘paradise’ got around, and during the late sixties and early seventies a trickle turned into a torrent and the beaches of North Goa became the must go dance party hangout at the end of the trail, for every nomadic spiritual and alternative lifestyle seeker who had made it to India. Some, like Eddie, who died in October 2010, aged 85, never left and watched the culture they had established there grow exponentially and then evolve as economic opportunism weighed in and generations changed. The party never stopped, but before long a different type of dancer had turned up, one with money, and the Baga and Calangute side of the headland became the tourist mecca that it is today.
All I know about the hippie era in Goa is what I am reading on the internet. I wasn’t there then. I was there before then. In fact, I was there just before then, September 64, only months before Eddie and the gang turned up. I truly wish I had bumped into them. If I had, I too might never have left. On the other hand, I was at the beginning of a journey, not the end, and I was purposed on a career as an actor, in London if possible. So I only stayed a couple of days, and can’t be blamed for anything that happened later to the glorious beaches of North Goa. We discovered and enjoyed a perfect paradise, and we left it in the same pristine condition that we found it.