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Panjim, Goa. What Happened to the Carnival?

Sunset at the river

Our Stay in Goa’s Capital City

We arrived at Panjim to our pre-booked hotel and were not very impressed. The room had an excellent view but inside it was finished in 4 different types of vinyl; a different variety on the floors, walls, ceilings and doors. It was not the worst room we’ve had by far but the staff were miserable, other guests had woken us up before 7am knocking for their friends at the wrong door and the coffee was terrible so we set about looking for an apartment ASAP.

View from the hotel, Panjim municipal gardens
On the second day, after trying the Internet, the newspapers and talking to a few random people, we saw a handwritten notice for an apartment to rent on a daily or weekly basis. We phoned and it was way out of our budget but the owner had a guest house to show us… He picked us up and took us to his end of the city which was the very old Portuguese part, Neugi Nagar. He showed us a large room with a fridge and a sofa, two bathrooms and a massive balcony and we shook on moving in the next day.
Fruit stall

Carnival Preparations

Saturday was the day of the big carnival, the biggest festival in Goa and the reason we had decided to come to Panjim. As Gregory, the guesthouse owner and our new guide to all things carnival, took us and our stuff to his place to move in he explained that he could give us some special VIP tickets for the carnival (with seats and shade) and tickets for the ‘Red and Black’ Ball as he was friends with the president of the ‘club’. We sorted ourselves out and before long it was time to start walking into the city centre to claim our VIP seats.

We knew that Gregory had the honour of pulling a float made by the football team he coached and we had seen a glimpse of it when we arrived but seeing it up close was a real treat. The float had been made by ‘the boys’ (about 15 young men from about 11-20ish I guessed) in just two weeks with no professional help. (the festival had only just got the go ahead then as this is election time) It was made mostly of polystyrene, carved and spray painted with some bits of bubble-wrap, old foam and material here and there.

As we waited for Gregory with Goldie (more on him later) to be available to ask for the tickets he came over and offered us a lift into town in the open top jeep that was pulling the float. We could not say no so we watched all the last minute preparations and waited in the hot sun watching all the vehicles being decorated. There was a truck that was being loaded for over an hour with massive speakers which was to follow the float, a mobile generator they had hired to power the speakers which was like a mini truck, Gregory’s jeep and the float itself.

At the time the float was supposed to be in the city centre at the start point we found ourselves outside the mechanics up the road for some last minute welding to the jeep. No one had thought about how the float and jeep would be attached before this point, and the welding was done by a much harassed guy while we were still in the jeep (v poor health and safety) while there was another float also desperate for some last minute welding. With all welding done, decorations to all vehicles complete (including a massive mask on the jeep which meant Gregory could not see where he was going and I had to move into the passenger seat to be his eyes) king and queen installed and some face paint daubed on our faces we started our slow journey into the city centre.

Our mini parade was accompanied by some of the younger boys carrying very long wooden poles with a cross piece at the top which we soon saw were for lifting any overhanging telephone and electricity wires(!) out of the path of the oncoming float. Mums on scooters and the boys who had made the float walking alongside made up the rest of the party. Everyone concerned had a massive smile (including us) and everyone we passed had a wave and a grin.

As we came to the main road into town we had to stop for some time because of the traffic flowing in. There were so many people flocking to the carnival that the road was a sight to see. The buses passed so packed that I doubt Henry and I would have even attempted to try and get on them; elbows and faces crammed into every possible space against the glass. Scooters too, came more fully loaded than we’ve seen them. A family of three or four on a scooter is not an uncommon sight anywhere we’ve been in India but we saw fives and sixes headed into town, and several times three or four adults on a scooter or motorbike.

It was as we were making our way down the main road into the centre that news started to reach us about a tragedy. We kept going but after another 20 minutes or so (covering less than half a mile) the traffic flow changed direction and scooters and busses and cars were all flowing towards us. The carnival had been cancelled. The sad facts were that a bus with school children and teachers had gone into a river and all had been killed. The state was in mourning and the carnival cancelled.

Well, I think the boys took it far better than I would have expected. They had not even been able to fire up the truck full of speakers and now the loud music was banned. They were all a little gutted but not angry at all that all their hard work would not be displayed and the party of the year was off. We pulled over to the side of the road and many people came to take photographs of the float. Eventually we excused ourselves and headed into the fast emptying city to find some dinner.

Goldie and the Eagle

The rest of our stay at Gregory’s was noteworthy for two reasons: Goldie and the baby eagle. Goldie was Gregory’s ‘houseboy’. He was at least 65, if not older, and had been with the family a long time. He seemed to do everything around the house and guesthouse and was shouted for by the family and the other guests throughout the 3 storey house. We could not bring ourselves to shout for him so would wait until he struggled up the stairs on another mission before asking for our coffees.

Henry with Goldie outside the guesthouse

The baby eagle was in a cage on the first day we arrived with 3 baby chicks (given as a parting gift to the family by an Italian man who’d stayed.) It looked sad and sometimes a bit dead and we were told it was taken from the nest (under what circumstances we don’t know) and was being hand fed by Goldie and would be trained as an adult. On the second day the chicks had been moved to another cage as he was pecking at them and he seemed a bit more lively. When we returned that night the door of the cage was open. I shut it and Henry told Goldie who was most distressed that someone had wanted his bird to escape. It would not have survived in the wild at this stage so there was little we could do. On another wild animal related note, Gregory told us about a crocodile he once had as a pet who came out of the pond one monsoon and was killed by his neighbours. I don’t think he was very happy that we sympathised with the neighbours feeling’s about seeing a crocodile loose in the city. Pet crocodiles and birds of prey are really no big deal, it seems.

Neugi Nagar and Old Panjim

We stayed in Panjim for a few days after the carnival and did a lot of exploring on foot. The old areas of the city got us snapping away like crazy and we clocked up well over 10,000 steps each day.
A temple on a hill
By the way, the story of the bus full of school children does not end there. It was a major news and gossip item for days. Officially, there were 4 children and 3 adults on the bus, as well as the driver and conductor. The driver and conductor got off the bus before it rolled into the water and tried to run away. They were later arrested. Most people believe that there were far more children than that on the bus and that it was a major political coverup due to the elections. The news coverage showed the dead bodies of the children being pulled out of the water 4 hours after the accident and the newspapers had pictures of the open coffins at the funeral. It was far more explicit than the UK media. All of the carnivals were cancelled (Panjim is the first of 4 cities to host it) and the investigation into the crash continues…
Panjim, Goa: 16th – 21st February 2012

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