As we entered the Orange room, something jumped from the door onto the wall. Shocked, I realised that it was a frog, even if a rather beautiful one. It was blue, and only slightly slimy. In fact had I not seen it jump, I would have thought it was some kind of toy that vendors sell at the bridge on Dadar station. I didn’t have to scream. Bennita Ganesh, our host, came in to check after us and, on seeing the frog, had it removed. “Had the girls been around they would have done it eagerly,” she added.
Our stay at Arco Iris — an over 200 year-old Portugese home — had begun, and as I settled into my bed and tried to figure how high the ceiling was (easily 20 feet), I realised that this Goa trip was going to be different. And just to put you at rest, that was the first and only non-human I saw in my room.
Bennita and her husband Ganesh are the two most unlikely hosts of Arco Iris, which is located in the Curtorim area of south Goa. They are essentially finance professionals and had, until a few years ago, lived the corporate life in Bangalore. “We were thinking of getting a holiday home in Goa,” says Bennita, who grew up in a village near Curtorim. They bought Arco in 2007 — but that wasn’t the name of the house then. “It just had a number, 1384. When my daughter saw the house she called it a rainbow city, which is why we named the house Arco Iris, which means rainbow in Portugese,” says Bennita, as we sit on the balcao — a typical Portugese balcony with seats where guests can be entertained. This is also where you will find Bennita and Ganesh in the morning, as they sip their morning tea and read their papers.
In May 2009, the family made the shift from Bangalore to Goa. “My elder daughter was not keeping well and Bangalore’s polluted air made it worse. Since we had a house in Goa, we thought we could make the shift. The place is well connected with an airport and a railway station and we found a good school where the girls now study. Also, Ganesh could work from home. So moving here seemed like a good option.
“Later, we thought we’d convert the house into a homestay. We set up a website and have had a steady stream of guests since Nov 2009,” adds Bennita.
Labour of love
House number 1384 was in poor shape when the couple bought it. The family that owned it previously hadn’t lived in it for over 40 years, and everything from the roof to the porch was giving way. The couple wanted to restore the house and keep the original Portuguese layout intact.
Finding the right contractor and getting the work done took a lot of time and effort, and several flights from Bangalore to Goa. “Not knowing anything about architecture, we read up a lot (some of these books are lying in the living room, which is large enough to fit in an entire Mumbai house) and contacted others in Mumbai who had done similar work in their homes.”
Bit by bit, the house rose from the dust. There were some changes though.
The wooden beams used as pillars in the balcao were shifted to the mini-courtyard and pillars were crafted out of laterite — which is a common local material — as replacement. Additionally, the kitchen and bathrooms (originally mud structures) were outside the house, separated from the living quarters by a wall, which also covered the entire courtyard. This wall was broken down and the kitchen was cemented and extended. Another room was added. An extra wing came up where bathrooms were constructed. Bennita says the house had neither plumbing nor electrical fittings. “We had to arrange for everything.”
Effort was made to ensure that the house retained as much of its identity as possible. Thus, the front door has its original latch, and the laterite wall of the Blue room, which belongs to the couple’s two daughters — Trusha and Trikaya — has not been completely painted over. One of the doors from the courtyard wall has been converted into a dining table where guests are served typical Goan food, cooked by the staff who are all locals.
Chandor and around
One of the best things about living at Arco — besides the family’s pet labrador Feni who will lick you clean if you’d let her and then shed all over you — is its location. There is the well-kept lawn — the house is situated on a 1.5-acre property — that you can either admire from afar or give in to. There’s also a lake at walking distance. The river Zuari flows right behind the house, and a walk through the lanes that led to the river made us wonder if we had ever known Goa at all. A local who we crossed twice — once on the way to Zurai and once on the way back — smiled at and wished us ‘good morning’.
The history buffs that we were, Bennita suggested quite a few places for us to visit — the first being Braganza Mansion. At 450, this is one of Goa’s oldest houses and was built by one of its richest families — as the Ming Dynasty vases, the crystal chandeliers and the vast collection of antique furniture reveals.
Though the families still live there, they are open to giving visitors a tour and explain the history of the house. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures because earlier some visitors had replicated the furniture and sold them as antiques belonging to the Braganza house.
But, if you do want to take pictures go across to the Fernandes House, also in Chandor, Rajeev will gladly take you around the house. The house has two wings. The house, originally a Hindu structure, was built over 500 years ago. As the family, which was a warrior clan, converted to Christianity, some of the layout changed. This happened 200 years ago. The house’s Hindu past is still visible.
If you are not scared of bats, ask to be shown the secret passage that leads from a wooden changing room to a basement under the house. There was another passage that apparently led to the river from the basement of this house but that has been walled up. Both Braganza Mansion and the Fernandes House have gun holes for defence against attackers. Times were not always peaceful here.
We then headed for lunch at Flames restaurant where the friendly owner treated us to some salacious local gossip, adding to our cultural knowledge of Goa.
In the beginning, we weren’t very convinced about the concept of a homestay. It would be weird to live with a family that you don’t even know, we thought. But, if you are homestay virgins, Arco is a good first experience. Bennita and Ganesh are warm hosts and provide everything you want — from arranging for a cab for your trips to giving you suggestions about where to eat and what places to visit — without interfering. And you don’t have to worry about returning late either. They will open the door for you and, Bennita promises, “I won’t call and tell your mom.”
Partings are never easy. As we left Arco, we took pictures of the house to keep and cherish. We bid farewell to the family that had so patiently hosted us and charted out our itineraries. We also bid farewell to the turtle in the well, a gift to the family from a friend. And of course, Feni.