08 February 2009


Sean and I are in Panaji, the capital of Goa. Its away from the beach - a tiny little seaside town and a delight to meander around – kind of like a tidy Mediterranean fishing village plunked down in messy, splashy Mother India. Goa is the perfect antidote to a) Sean's hectic work schedule in Mumbai that is thankfully over and b) the craziness of the rest of this country. I feel....calm. And relaxed. And like I don't really care what we do tomorrow or the next day, as long as we remain in this blessed state, Goa.

Blessed, I suppose, is an apt term. Goa is a small pocket of beaches, farm land and rolling hills on the West Coast of India (the Konkan coast) that was once the prized jewel in the crown of Imperial Portugal and still remains heavily influenced by its colonial past. So, less multi-armed Vishnus and a lot more thorn-crowned Jesuses and pious open chested Marys. I have always loved Catholic iconography (writes the girl whose next tattoo will be a sacred heart) and here it is definitely bizarre, almost Mexican in its gaudiness, but with a healthy dollop of desi masala thrown in. Marigold garlands drape crucifix altars in nearly every yard, and bindis are painted on the foreheads of devoutly Christian women. Hinduism, the faith 82% of Indians practice, is a far second to Catholicism in Goa, and in a country of 1.1 billion that makes it an interesting anomaly -it feels like a different country entirely.

Religion is not the only mark that the Southern Europeans were here – the architecture is completely Portuguese – whitewashed cathedrals, terra cotta tiled roofs, and sherbert coloured mansions lined up along cobble stone streets in the cities, sand roads near the beaches. Restaurants hawk luscious seafood xiacutis and vindaloos, dense Goan bread and even amazing Western food (I guess the Portuguese were better teachers than the British in the culinary arts – who would have guessed?) Alcohol is not only widely available (sometimes a problem in India – some entire towns are dry, and even the entire state of Gujarat) but dirt cheap – more than two thirds cheaper than anywhere else on the subcontinent.So Sean is happy.....and drunk.

Goans have a totally different mindframe than the rest of India – almost an “Island time” feel that must be due to the proximity to the beach. I mean, taxis still rip us off terribly if we let them, touts harass us and women still dreadlock their childrens hair to send them begging, but for some reason it seems less exasperating. That might, of course, be due to the proliferation of cheap beer.....

I had a fascination with the TV series “Lonely Planet” when I was a teenager (it has since changed names multiple times, to Globe Trekker and Pilot Guides, which is weird.) It was a very nineties show – world beat techno played over scenes of then-happening offbeat travel destinations – Ibiza, Vietnam, Kathmandu, Prague and....Goa. It was the first time that I had ever realized that out there, just out there - a plane ticket away, entire enclaves of blissed out hippies, freaks and rebels lived lives I hadn't even dreamed of. Lives where you could completely kiss society goodbye, dance all night long and be free to be the unique, crazy and creative person you were meant to be, with an exotic backdrop of palm trees, white sand and unimaginably cheap food and accommodation. I honed in on Goa and for years it was a pipe dream, and even though now I am ten years older and immeasurably wiser, I still had a secret douchey need to spend time in Goa.

And so we have just come from 5 nights in Anjuna, one of the dozen or so touristy beach communities, and so far it is the one I like best (we still have a few more to try out after Panaji.) In the morning, if I get up on time, I listen for the squeaky-toy sounding horns of the fish wallas – men with coolers full of fish strapped to their bikes – and watch Mary, the owner of our guesthouse, purchase the fish she'll need for the day and then toss one to her suddenly present yowling cat (who has a worse attitude than Kevin, if you can believe it.) Then we head for a HUGE amazing breakfast at Martha's, served in the garden of her heritage house, where I have pomegranite juice and eat a cheese, stewed tomato and avocado omelette. We slowly walk to the beach, lay around for 5 hours and then eat supper, drink drinks and head to bed. Nothing more. Nothing complicated. I was speaking to a friend, and she said that she met people who meant to stay here for a week and stayed for a month. I can see that happening really, really easily.

Most people here get around on scooters or motorbikes, and so on our first full day here, we rented one, despite neither of us having any experience whatsoever other than riding on the backs of them as someone else drives. I had to sit and wait at a restaurant while Sean zoomed off on the back of the owner's bike to a nearby garage. I assumed that they would give him a bit of a lesson and make sure that he was competent, and I sat and patiently waited, expecting Sean and the owner to return at the same time. 5 minutes went by, and the owner re-appeared, assuring me Sean was just behind him. Ten more minutes went by and worried, I went looking for him – only to see a tiny dot in the distance going half the speed of anyone else, veering out of the way of goats and cows. As he approached, I could see that he was shaken, but he motioned for me to get on. Whiteknuckling down the bumpy and narrow street, he explained that they just handed him the keys and he had moments to figure it out for himself. I didn't think too much of it and I just thought it must be really easy, until I tried to ride the bike later that day and it took me 20 minutes to even be able to ride around a parking lot. Despite Sean's superhumanly quick proficiency, we returned the bike the next day and decided that walking was better for our health anyways. Yesterday a local woman was walking down the road near us. She looked us up and down and said “No bike?” When I explained that we weren't good on them, she nodded. “Many tourists break. Better you walk.”

I can't explain why Goa is so enjoyable. It shouldn't be – the beach is mediocre and shitty hippies and even shittier hippies are everywhere, yet it is. We can't decide if it is because we're happy to not be in frenetic, dirty, mad INDIA India and we'd be disappointed if we had flown 11 hours to be here (like all of the European package vacationers) or if it is genuinely a magical place. The cows wandering up and down the beaches, the black volcanic rock outcroppings studding the coast, the friendly dogs digging in the sand, the brightly sari-ed women selling fruit and snacks, the FOOD – maybe it is magic.

Goa is far from the most hip place to be now – that era ended in 1974ish, with a brief resurgence during the rave culture of the nineties. The trance music sucks and the freaks are of a lesser quality than they were in the 70's. But please email us in 2 weeks to make sure we aren't still here.....


Sam said...

Loved this read...thanks.

SC said...

I enjoyed reading this post! Having close ties to Goa, I cannot agree with your observations more! :)

Jason Bourne said...

Nice to read that you had a totally different experience here in Goa.

Leanne said...

Hehe...I've just discovered your blog and am loving it, having spent a year in India many years ago, and months in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos in the past few years.

The funny thing is you took a break from the bustling Mumbai by hitting Goa...while (in another post) snottily dismissing Sihanoukville in Cambodia.

I did the reverse, avoided Goa and its hippies and excess while in India, but in Cambodia needed a break from the harshness of Phnom Penh, and spent a lovely 4 days or so by the beach in Snooky. (No, I'm not a teen chav; I was 40 and on my honeymoon at the time)

Let's do a deal: I'll go to Goa next year in India when I go back, and you check out Sihanoukville, before it becomes over-developed like Koh Samui. There really are some lovely stretches of beach, and places peaceful older travellers can enjoy :)