Elaine’s brother and nephew live in a tumbledown colonial-era pile in with an overgrown garden and several stray cats in the middle of Margao. It was the middle of the night when we arrived to a chorus of local dogs, and we crashed out on mattresses on the floor of the spare room, to be feasted on by mosquitoes until dawn. We had a busy day ahead, helping Elaine (or at least keeping her company) while she ran a bunch of errands in preparation for her wedding at the end of March and since she lives in Mumbai and her fiancé in Romania, she was short of time. The first stop was the local church. Several hundred years of Portuguese colonisation up until 1961 has left its mark and Goa is a majority Catholic state with customs which are very different from the rest of the country. Church buildings do usually seem to have their own national flavour though and I was interested to see what this would be. Unfortunately in this case though, the doors were locked. While Elaine met with a priest in an adjacent building, Aakriti and I sat on the steps for half an hour, being scrutinised by passersby and an officious-looking dog before heading back to meet with Elaine’s mother and go into town. My cheapie phone having died on the beach the day before, we stopped into a phone store and I forked out for a Samsung (actually way cheaper than what I would have paid in England), then Aakriti and I were tasked with sourcing material for the bridesmaids’ and flower girls’ dresses on a street with about fifteen material shops.
After half an hour we returned with about thirty samples and prices, as well as a string of little Goan chorizo sausages wrapped in newspaper, which Aaki planned to take with her back to Mumbai. This done, we dropped Elaine’s mum at home and we went off for lunch. I had been on a strictly vegetarian diet since I got to India (partly to give myself better chances of avoiding stomach troubles, and partly because I have no idea as to the provenance of meat here in terms of animal welfare) but since I was here, and Elaine was so enthusiastic about Goan fish and meat cuisine, I decided to let myself off for a couple of days. The girls had been talking about one restaurant in particular for a couple of days as being absolutely amazing, and it turned out that is where we were heading. As we drove along, Elaine asked me if I had brought with me a change of clothes for the restaurant. I certainly had not and had not been aware of any such need, but looking down at my dusty, sandaled feet, linen beach shorts and scruffy t-shirt I had to admit to myself that I was not exactly dressed for dinner.
“There’s a dress code?”
“Yes, Dave! Of course! This place is the nicest, most popular restaurant in South Goa! We were really lucky to get reservations!”
“But you didn’t say anything!”
“Well I just assumed you knew. I did think it was a bit strange too that you were wearing those clothes this morning when we were going to a church…I thought maybe you had a change of clothes with you.”
“Er…no. No I don’t. Sorry.” I looked back at Aaki and she shrugged.
“It’s a really nice restaurant. Maybe they’ll let you in because you are with us, and you’re a white boy.”
“What do I need to be wearing?”
“A shirt? Shoes? Long trousers anyway you’ll definitely need.”
“Ok, well I don’t have any of those things. Is there anywhere nearby I could maybe buy some trousers and a shirt?”
Elaine shrugged. There was some conferring, then she called her Goan flatmate in Mumbai. “Matt doesn’t have anything to wear to the restaurant. Do you know is there anywhere nearby we could buy him something? No? Do you think they’ll let him in as he is? In hippy-style beach shorts? He’s wearing a t-shirt, yes, and sandals. We can try at least, no? Well there’s nothing else we can do is there. Yes, I know. It is disappointing. Okay. Thanks anyway. Bye.”
“There’s nowhere, Dave. Well, we’ll go there anyway. They might let us in.”
I could sense her disappointment. Aaki’s too, and we drove along gloomily for a short time while Elaine went through all of the amazing food which none of us would now be able to eat because of my bedraggled appearance. I was not entirely willing to accept responsibility for this turn of events, but I was starting to feel bad anyway. Down a long road by palm-fringed freshwater lakes, we parked up and Elaine scrutinised my appearance again. “Put your sunglasses on and straighten your t-shirt. Hmm. Well you’re quite good-looking; we might be able to convince them. Let’s just go and try.” She did not sound remotely convinced.
We got out of the car and walked along a little way, stopping outside an open-fronted dive on Assolna Jetty called the Seamens’ Nest Family Restaurant and Bar. An awning was suspended over a couple of rows of plastic tables and chairs with little napkin dispensers and empty bottles of Kingfisher lager.
“Are you ready, Dave? This is the posh place!”
The realisation that I had been played took a few moments to settle in, since they had both played their little deception with such commitment.
“Did you really think we would eat in some super-expensive place? We would never do that, Dave!”
Once the penny dropped I had to admit that on closer inspection neither of them were particularly well-dressed – Aakriti particularly, since she was wearing a t-shirt with a cartoon image of the Beatles (which I hadn’t noticed under her flowing scarf). I tried to protest that I couldn’t have known what the custom was and that maybe ladies were not expected to dress up in the same way, but it was weak and I had to admit it; they had done me up like a kipper. “We played you, Dave. Not for the first time, and not for the last.”
I swear they both looked smarter than this when we were in the car…
We found a table overlooking the river and sat down to order. Elaine ordered Mussels, two or three kinds of fish in different sauces, and a couple of meat dishes too – it was all delicious. Possibly the best food I’ve had in India so far, in fact, and washed down with a couple of bottles of Kings beer; Goan brewed and much nicer than the ubiquitous Kingfisher. I also tried Fenni, which is a local spirit made from fermented coconut or cashew. It sounded good. It wasn’t.
We whiled away a couple of hours there, before driving back to Elaine’s mum’s house for coffee and then after an unsuccessful visit to a notary’s office in town we headed to the coast for sunset and then dinner at another hidden local gem called Durigo, before heading back to sleep.
Aakriti and Elaine were flying to Mumbai in the morning and I had a trilogy of bus rides back up to Arambol. It was lovely to have a chance to see something of Goan life away from the buzz of the tourist sites, and I had mixed feelings about returning to Arambol now that the festival was over, but I figured I would just stay for maybe two days before going to Hampi, and we had plans to see each other again in Mumbai before Elaine’s wedding in March, so all was well.