Diu - How Diu do?

Sun, sand and surf... the 33 per cent proportions are vital in this traditional rejuvenation recipe. But what if you up the Sol, knock the froth and add the baked, treeless soil of the Velavadar national park area? You get the perfect weather to not ride to Diu – or anywhere else, really.
Hindsight uses a Hubble telescope, but the eyes of my common sense had been put out with a fireplace poker when setting out. Now, standing beside my Yamaha Enticer on a sizzling, black-as-buck tarmac broadband, not a cloud in the wide pale sky over summer Saurashtra, too sweaty under my helmet and jacket to not seek evaporation yet too wary of heatstroke to bare all, I felt like a sheet of sun-dried lime on a terrace. The sight of a partially-scavenged camel carcass lying a little away from the roadside didn’t exactly help either. At this point in the calendar, Gujarat was dry as Brit wit, and nobody was amused. 

230 km further to Diu; hallucinations of crashing waves, icy beers and snoozing right through hot afternoons spotted my vision, and I could well imagine its appeal to vacationing Gujaratis. I continued on at an eyeball-singeing 75 kph, past stark salt farms with their bounty of giant vanilla-softies (think cool, think cool), and some random tea stalls shaded against the 45° heat. The towns of Bhavnagar, Talaja and Mahuva were tempting stopovers, but at each spot the sun was closer to the horizon; I settled for water or soft drinks, and decided to push on.A little over five sapping hours later, feeling a bit like the boar that Obelix is always scrunching at the end of each adventure, I was basking in the skimpy passing shade of the branched palm trees (something I confess I’ve never seen before) and sunset-orange flame-of-the-forests lining the B-road from Una to the Diu UT border. A couple of border sentries, presumably mainly to prevent thirsty Gujaratis running out with the forbidden brew, were content to also rustle in the slight evening breeze.

I punted the Enticer through Goghla, the bit of Diu UT that’s on the mainland, past rows of neat if gaudily coloured small bungalows, then bobbing fishing boats and piles of netting and briny ocean smell, over a long narrow bridge and finally, to blessed Diu. I could imagine the exultant cry of ‘land ahoy!’ from the first Parsis landing here after fleeing Persia, or a 16th century Portuguese sailor returning to the colony.Before the Portuguese got their grabby hands on it in 1535, however, Diu was ruled by Sultan Bahadur Shah, with background support from the Ottoman Turks. Recognising its strategic importance as a port and naval base, the Ports caught Shah at a weak moment (post a Mughal attack) then held on to this dot of land, along with Daman and Goa, all through Indian independence and the end of imperialism, until they were finally evicted in 1961. The ‘liberation’ by the Indian army involved the deaths of seven Rajput soldiers and an apparently needless bombing of the Nagoa airstrip by the IAF, when, in all likelihood, a bit of strong diplomacy with a greying and distant colonial power would have done the trick. 

I checked into the sole suite at the Hotel Pensao Biera Mar (Thought Beer Sea? why not...), a whitewashed, former Portuguese villa with high beamed ceilings, sea-theme paintings and old, stuffy furniture – wonderful atmosphere. Now I’m not a suite person, but an immediate discount brought the price down to sensible, and yes it had an air-con. Call me soft, I’d correct that to melting. Inexplicably, my Lonely Planet India guidebook had a rather unenthusiastic review of the PBM, and I wondered why; nothing else in Diu Town had as much character. The throngs of Qualis/Sumo Gujarati families in the Pensao and neighbouring hotels probably didn’t give a rat’s posterior for the LP anyway, and backpacking westerners were not to be seen. 

I chilled out on the rooftop restaurant that evening, bare feet up on another chair, 30-buck quart in hand and fried fish on fork, idly watching the odd trawler go by, lamp burning, bow gently parting waters that resembled all schooldom’s Bril Royal Blue. Besides salt, fishing, tourism and booze are the backbone of Diu’s economy, and here I was, combining all three. The string of lights over the bridge and mainland coast reminded me of Mumbai’s Marine Drive but I daresay that buzzing artery sees more cars in a week than this road has in a decade. “Lazy days and hazy nights” was how a German travel site had summed up Diu. Prost!

The sun, in a pre-emptive manoeuvre, had risen high enough to cut off my escape routes when I puttered out the next morning. Sprawling, high-windowed colonial bungalows housed the Diu administrative machinery, the odd cannon or two on the lawns, and turning into the small winding streets, all was quiet. Inside the jumbles of traditionally colourwashed houses, so many Rubik’s cubes, I fancied I smelt vinegar-doused seafood and heard the swish of floral frocks. But outside, hardly a cyclist or two. I figured that the energetic must be at the vegetable or fish markets, the others at the bars.The tourists, for their part, were doing the rounds, and I too joined them for a while. Not all the 56,736 square metres of Nuno da Cunha’s massive fort are great shakes or in great shape after over four and a half centuries, but the fairytale-castle entrance, yawning moat, the landing pier protected by the St George bastion (built separately by one Manuo de Suiza de Sepuiveda) and ramparts with intact cannon certainly deserve more conservation effort. I could picture all these joining the crumbling interior walls and collapsed underground passages and water reservoirs soon enough, wallowing in the self-pity of decay. What Khwaja Safar’s army attempted in 1546, graffiti-etching tourists, uninterested or unable officials and merciless erosion have pulled off today. Dust to dust, I guess; what broken symbols of our mighty Space Age civilization will 2500 AD see?

St Thomas’ Church not far away looked like a similarly-dressed sibling, daubed with the flaking paint of disuse, a family-run hotel above, a seedy bar portside, and inside, a dim museum of Catholic wooden statues – all the disciples, some miscellaneous saints, the Virgin Mary, and of course, Christ himself. You could almost see the ‘they know not what they do’ in his wooden eyes. In contrast, St Paul’s, a great big baroque church, still functions to this day, its pews varnished, its walls clean and depicting the stages of Jesus’ crucifixion, its altar scented with worship. Half the building was a school, and the list of names on a family-visit project schedule could have been straight off a Lisbon census. Almeida, D’Mello, D’Souza... whose multi-great-granpa fired those fort cannons?

At four in the evening, after having put a cool roof between the zenith of the sun and myself, I took the Enticer westwards, down a smooth, wide road past Fudam village with its towering church, to the long crescent of Nagoa beach. The seabreeze bore a comfortable sloth, and I sat on my bike eating sticky palm-fruit, watching people rush into the water (women fully clothed of course), take camel or jetski rides, snack, coochie-coo, all the general beach-things. Some fishermen pushed little boats out to sea,tricolours fluttering identification to watchful Pakistani patrols further out.

A few minutes away, I came across a Sea Shell Museum, and decided to have a look. 1900 types of shells, it declared – ‘1st museum of its kind in India’! Capt Fulbaria, a smiling tanned gent with a grey french-beard, explained that it was his private collection from four decades of travel as a mariner, and each abalone, conch, sea-fan, paper nautilus, sea-horse, starfish or coral bore a little footnote of origin, from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, the coasts of Africa and the Pacific islands, and Diu itself. From the size of a matchhead to a torso,glistening with mother-of-pearl or just nostalgia, carefully preserved shells and specimens lay in their glass cases and jars, voiced-over by Capt Fulbaria. The son of a local fisherman, he spoke of Portuguese rule and teenage days along quiet beaches, fondly turning the crackling pages of his mind’s photo-album.

It was nearly dark as I reached the fishing village of Vanakbara, at Diu island’s west end,with its yard of towering trawlers being built or repaired – large beached wooden whales enveloped in the sounds of hammering and planing. A team of men working on one of the ships offered me a look, and I clumsily climbed a fifteen-foot ladder with too few rungs and too many cockroaches, boarding the ship like an arthritic pirate to the encouraging cries of some agile kids who scampered up after me. The pungent, whipping wind slapped at dozens of mast-flags, the sticky residue of countless catches grasped at the soles of my shoes. From up here, the setting sun illuminated endless waters, and Portugal was way over the horizon.

Diu island, all 39 sq km and 40,000 inhabitants of it, lies off the southern coast of Gujarat, separated from Daman (its Union Territory sibling) by the Gulf of Kambhat. After the hot, dry flatlands of Saurashtra, the former Portuguese colony is a pocket of cultural,geographical and gastronomic relief. A teensy little tip: the best season to go is September-March/April.

From Mumbai, Diu is 870 km, or two riding days, away. One exhaust-smoky day down the four-laned NH8 (except for the Surat-Manor leg which still sees zillion-truck diversions) takes you 410 km to Vadodara, while the next will arc you 460 km of bare and burning SH6/NH8E, across and down the edge of the mainland via Tarapur, Pipli, Dholera, Bhavnagar and Talaja, to Diu. If you’re coming from the north, the Ahmedabad route is more direct, as well as 65 km shorter than the Vadodara leg. Take the fast NH8A to Bagodara, and then 8E through Dholera and so on. Overall, the route is very well-surfaced and full-throttle fast, though there was an awful 35-odd km stretch approaching Una, from where you branch off for the 15 km to Diu.

Diu’s an interesting place, with more than just ethanol on offer. The Portuguese have left behind a legacy of grand churches, fortifications, a maze of colourful bylanes and bustling markets in Diu Town and, of course, siesta culture. The neighbouring village of Fudam has the church of Our Lady of Redemption. At the other end of the island (just 15 km) is the fishing hamlet of Vanakbara. If it’s beaches you seek, Nagoa, Sunset Point and Gomptimata are scenic enough, though crowded. Also check out the Sea Shell Museum near Nagoa airport (entry Rs 10).Accommodation in Diu Town is centred around Fort Road/Bundar Chowk (turn left after coming over the bridge from Goghla on the mainland). 

We think the best option is the Hotel Pensao Biera Mar (Tel: 02875-52342), a converted villa with a rooftop restaurant and elegant rooms/suites for Rs 1000/1200 (which you can straightaway bat down 40 per cent, at least).Next to it are a few more sterile hotels, like Hotel Alishan (Tel: 52340), with tariffs ranging from Rs 300 to 800, and an internet cafe and attached bar. Shoestring bikers could also check out the Sao Tome Retiro (Rs 200/250) above St Thomas Church – it’s seen better days and could certainly see better interior decor, but the views alone are worth the price.Out of Diu Town, acco options include Ganga Sagar Guest House off Nagoa beach, or Suzlon Beach Hotel in Goghla.