December is a rather strange affair in Goa. The laid-back land finds itself invaded by an overzealous tribe of tourists, all of whom seem to have received the same memo, which states that if the end of the year is not spent clicking selfies on the beaches of Goa, then you might as well give up your FB check-in bragging rights for life.
In fact, you know it's December in Goa when there is a nip in the air, the roads along the open fields are bathed in mist and just when you are enjoying the moment with that song on the radio as a background score, a furious honk from a tourist vehicle that zips by without a care for others, acts as a rude wake-up call. Having lived in, and loved, this bubble of serenity, which has been my home for over a year now, I will trade some of the better-kept secrets of Goa to you in exchange of a promise. Don't be that obnoxious tourist (Or a 'bhingta', a derogatory word used by locals to refer to ill-mannered tourists) this holiday season. If you want to experience the quieter parts of Goa, away from the madness of music festivals, strobe lights and scores of tight-underwear wearing uncles at the beach, then read on.
Island-hopping: No, we are not talking about the beach kind. In a Goa beyond the beaches, exist the beautiful river islands, connected to the mainland mainly through ferries. These island villages are charmingly stuck in a time warp: paddy fields and coconut trees as far as eyes can see, tiled-roof houses with poultry and children running in and out of the porches and time languorously taking a siesta.
Experience this at the Santo Estevao (or the anglicised, St Estevam) Island, Chorao Island and Divar Island. These interconnected islands located in the river network are accessible by ferries (free for humans and bikes, around Rs 10 for cars) from the village of Ribandar (5 km from Panjim) or from the Old Goa ferry point (around 10 km from Panjim).
While you can enjoy the gorgeous panoramas of the riverside from the hillock on St Estevam Island, which is home to a Christ the King statue (brought from Rome in 1926) and an ancient Portuguese fort, on the densely forested Divar Island, you can experience typical Goan village life, beautiful Goan homes and a whole lot of time to stand and stare.
The Portuguese fort atop the St Estevam hillock (L), A typical Goan house with mother-of-pearl shell windows (C), Birds in flight at the Carambolim Lake (R)
Bird-watching: Get into the Goan spirit of sossegado by spending a lazy day, doing nothing but watching the beautiful birds that inhabit the Carambolim Lake, situated less than a kilometre from the Old Goa church circle. The lake with floating vegetation attracts purple moorhens, pintails, waterfowls, egrets and a lot of migratory birds.
Even if you are not a bird enthusiast, the sight of them soaring across the surface of the lake, which has lush fields on one side and a quaint little railway station on the other, is worth it. Another option for bird watching is the island of Chorao, a ferry ride away from Ribandar, where the dense mangrove swamps are protected as part of the Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, home to hundreds of varieties of birds and other wildlife.
House-spotting: If you like lazy strolls, the quaint alleys of Loutolim (the birthplace of cartoonist, Mario Miranda) in South Goa, is where you should be at. The magnificent Portuguese-style mansions in this village, some over 300 years old, will take your breath away. As you walk along, admire the mother-of pearl shell windows, sprawling gardens, inviting balcãos (Large outdoor verandahs) and an air of old world magic that will give you a serious case of house-envy.
Note: Don't invade the locals' privacy by clicking pictures of their homes. Admire the architecture, but respect their space. If you stay away from the beaches, a whole lot of Goa deserves to be explored, from dams, forts and natural springs to ancient temples and hidden churches. But no Goan wants to see these places turn into commercial traps. So, befriend the locals who can trust you enough and you might just coerce some hidden gems out of them.
Priya Ramachandran is a freelance writer and an avid traveller based in Goa. You can find her travelogues on happyfeet.us