Tag Archives: Goa

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 12: Goa)

Nov. 17-22, 2011

Goa: the India-Portugal Connection, and the End of my trip

Goa – about 600 miles south of Mumbai on the west coast of India and about 15 degrees north of the equator  (approximately the same latitude as the Caribbean, by the way) – is a popular tropical tourist destination with two different personalities. I experienced the first for two days, and the second for three, and I’m glad I didn’t do it the other way around. Doing it the other way around would have been like starting our tour of India in Goa and ending up in Delhi, which all of us agreed would have been a trek in the wrong direction: we’d have reached more challenging and less familiar (less Western) environments at a time when we were tired from travelling, and less patient.

The first Goa I encountered was at the crowded major beach towns of Calangute and Baga. They were hot, rough-edged, garbage-littered, packed with bars, shops and hawkers (of drugs as well as t-shirts, from what I understood, although for some reason none of the drug-purveyors seemed to think I would be interested). This is party town, and I think this area must also be the tattoo-parlour-capital of the universe, although who might have the nerve to get a tattoo in India is beyond me. The streets here are tricky to navigate, thanks to speeding motorcycles and taxis, and the normally droll Rough Guide cautions readers about the state’s “notoriously corrupt traffic cops.”

We were told that Western women and even men are wise not to walk on the main beaches at night, even in groups. During the day Westerners who stroll down the crowded garbage- (and who-knows-what-else-) strewn sand toward the bath-warm Arabian Sea are pestered at every step to rent a motorboat, have a picture taken, go kite-sailing. “Please, lady. You will like.”

On the Other Hand

The other Goa is a relaxed, quiet resort area, hilly and green with bursts of bright colour from huge banks of flowers, and splendid ocean views. There we found reasonably priced accommodations that extended to luxury standards, friendly and hard-working people (fishing and mining are big industries here, along with tourism), and all kinds of delicious Goan food.

Local taxi drivers and hotel staff are eager to point out that Goa should not be judged on the basis of the main beach areas, which they say have fallen under the influence of unsavoury and greedy types from other parts of India and other countries, particularly Russia. They say that there are lovely deserted beaches away from the more populated areas, and that even a few kilometers inland from the beaches, peace and harmony prevail.

I found this to be true.

The State of Goa

Goa is not a city, as I had thought until I got there: it is a state. There are 28 states in India, plus seven union territories, and during my three weeks in India I visited four states: Uttar Pradesh (where Agra is located); Rajasthan (Jaipur, Pushkar, Udaipur and Ranakpur); Maharashtra (Mumbai); and Goa. Delhi is a union territory.

Goa was occupied by the Portuguese in the 1500s, and Portugal continued to run the show until Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent in troops to “liberate” the state in 1961. Thanks to the influence of the Portuguese arm of the Roman Catholic Church, more than one quarter of the population here is Christian (compare to about 2.3% for India as a whole). The colonial influence is visible in the design and architecture of many of the homes and commercial buildings, and particularly in the baroque facades in the churches in the town of Old Goa.

When Portugal’s fortunes fell, there was a lot of unrest in Goa, and it continued from the 1800s until Independence. During this time, the state built up its relationships with other countries, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Goa is almost inaccessible by land, and all of this close contact with other nations helps to explain why its culture is so different from that of other parts of India. Its food is different too: Goan food is generally hotter (i.e., spicier) than that of the North, but no less diverse and tasty. The world-famous “vindaloo” originated here, and one of the best Goan dishes is fish curry.

The water's great – once you get to it!

Goa has been a tourist destination, particularly for the British, for centuries. During the late 1960s and 1970s, the state was inundated with hippies from all over the world; ever since, officials have been working to eradicate its reputation as the perfect place for young stoned Westerners to gather on the beach to witness the miracles that occur there almost every day, such as sunsets. Now, an estimated two million visitors of all ages come to Goa annually, particularly from Europe and Russia (although the taxi drivers said the number of tourists was down considerably this year, no doubt because of Europe’s economic problems.)

On the Beach

After a one-hour flight from Mumbai, our group arrived in Goa for our last two days together. We stayed at the Hotel Alor in Calangute, another basic but secure and friendly hotel. (The first photo in this blog post was taken from my balcony there, facing west toward the sea.) Many of our group members did spend these final days “on the beach”: sipping drinks under beach umbrellas during the day, going bar-hopping at night, taking yoga classes, having manicures, and just generally recovering from the crazy travel schedule of the previous fifteen days.

I had decided to stay in Goa an additional three days so I spent some time checking out alternative accommodation, sorting out flight changes, and cancelling the hotel in Mumbai that I had previously booked. Now relieved of the Albatross, I also attempted to do a bit of shopping before I returned to Canada.

Our group had two wonderful last dinners together in Goa and we parted with many hugs on the morning of November 19. About half of us stuck around the area for a few days after the tour ended – most moving to other beaches. At the suggestion of Mark, a travelling companion who was also going there, three of us went ten or fifteen minutes farther south to Nagoa, away from the water, to the beautiful resort of Presa di Goa.

Lazy Days

At the Presa di Goa, especially compared to all of our previous accommodation in India, I’d have felt as though I were staying at the Ritz even if I had not been upgraded to a larger room due to some minor renovations. Presa di Goa is a restored country house that has been furnished in antiques in the Portuguese style. It features manicured gardens, swaying palm trees, a stone swimming pool, a spectacular range of meals prepared with talent and artistry (available as room service or outside, at the thatch-roofed dining pavilion), a four-postered bed with lots of pillows and clean sheets, a balcony with a table and wi-fi reception, newspapers delivered to the door each morning, and water that was clean enough to drink right from the tap. Although, of course, I didn’t. All this for about Cdn $60/night (excluding meals, which were also very reasonable).

Lunch, at Presa di Goa

I sank onto a lounge chair beside the pool with a book, and decided I didn’t ever want to move again.

Churches and Spices

Despite our reluctance to stir, the three of us who were staying at the resort did rouse ourselves enough one day to take a couple of tours, since we knew we’d likely never get another chance. The first was to Old Goa, where St. Francis Xavier founded a Jesuit Mission in 1542, and where he is entombed.

Thanks to the religious leaders of the Portuguese occupation, for more than 200 years the Inquisition wreaked havoc on Goa, during which time many Hindu temples were destroyed, and all faiths aside from Catholicism were banned. When the Portuguese left, many beautiful churches (not to mention a lot of Christians, and families who’d renamed themselves “D’Sousa,” “Rodrigues,” “Carvalho,” etc.) remained, and several of the old churches have been preserved. We could have spent days just touring the churches of old Goa, but the pool at the Presa di Goa called to us.

On the way back to Nagoa, Naj and I popped into the Sahakari Spice Farm near Ponda for a tasty lunch and a most interesting tour of a plantation that grows a lot of things I’d only ever seen before in tiny bottles on a spice rack – including allspice, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, vanilla, nutmeg, turmeric, and pepper.

Mary and Naj do lunch at the spice farm. Photo: Najla Chatila

Bananas, guava, papaya, mango and pineapple, as well as betelnut and coconut palms are also cultivated there. I understand that the plantation is a haven for many species of birds (84, the brochure says) and I know that there is at least one major spider there because I took a photo of it, as well as a family of elephants.

I spent the final two days of my trip resting up for the return flight to Mumbai, Brussels and Toronto, reading and relaxing, eating and swimming, and resolving that whenever I go anywhere again, I will always again seek out all the adventures I can find, but then I will again also try to spend two days at the end of my trip in quietness and comfort.

There couldn’t have been a better way to conclude my (first) trip to India.


Link to more photos from Goa:

I will be writing a couple more wrap-up posts to summarize some random thoughts about my trip to India that didn’t seem to fit into any one of the posts so far, but this basically concludes the travelogue. Thanks for following along. 🙂

Into India (1)

India has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. When I was given the  incredible opportunity a few months ago to choose the “trip of a lifetime,”  it didn’t take me long to commit to India for my destination. I have now booked a ten-day, small-group excursion in November that begins in Delhi and tours northern India for several days, then takes an overnight train to Mumbai for a quick look at that city before winding down on a beach in Goa.

I know that to say “I am fascinated by India” is simplistic, and sounds naïve. India is not a single thing—it is a blend of cultures, religions, economies, perspectives—and I also know that many of the things it is are likely to repel rather than appeal to me. I realize that India is nothing an outsider like myself can even begin to understand.

Maybe it is my perception of the impossibility of defining the subcontinent that attracts me to it. “I am fascinated by India” is a very different kind of statement than is “I am fascinated by Belgium,” or “I am fascinated by Kenya,” or even (to choose a larger geographical space) “I am fascinated by Australia.”

Being fascinated by India is like being fascinated by garam masala: I have no idea what it’s made of, and even if I did, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be all that familiar with the constituent parts; the mystery of the parts as well as of the whole is a lot of what makes it appealing. I know that India can be a dangerous place to go, and its dark side may be part of the attraction too. It ain’t Switzerland, and I know it.

All in all, I am beside myself with excitement at the prospect of going there.

It has become my goal to conquer in advance as much I can learn about India from books and other media – to gain intellectually what I can before I face the country emotionally and physically. What I already know about India’s cultures and its history I have learned primarily from novels (by Salman Rushdie, Vikram Shandra, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, E.M. Forster, and several others) and films (Deepa Mehta and Satyajit Ray, for example), but I have never made any attempt before to gather these bits of knowledge together into any kind of historical framework. After consulting several sources, I decided to start by reading India: A History by John Keay.

So far I have read the introduction and first chapter, and already I have learned some fascinating stuff:

  • Despite evidence left behind since at least 2000 BC by several highly evolved civilizations in the geographical territory encompassing what we now call India (and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, etc), no one set the history of the area down in writing until about 1200 AD;
  • The story of the flood that is found in both Christian and Jewish scripture may have come from a inundation that entirely wiped out the Sumerian city of Shuruppak, possibly around 3000 BC and/or from another flood or series of floods around 2000 BC that submerged the highly productive and sophisticated Harappan civilization, an agriculture-based society in the region of the Indus river basin;
  • While the Harappan civilization left no written record of its existence, it did leave a legacy of artifacts and ruins that have been uncovered since 1920 in a wide swath extending (in terms of current-day geographical reference points) more than 1800 miles from the southern shores of Pakistan, down the coast of the Arabian Sea towards Mumbai, and west beyond the city of New Delhi;
  • The first and most extensive archeological evidence of the Harappans is located north of Karachi at Mohenjo-Daro. Although this civilization left no written record that can yet be deciphered, it was evidently a sophisticated culture that used imprinted soapstone seals for trade, and created figurines, pottery, tools and jewelry from precious metals such as bronze and silver, and other materials like lapis lazuli and soapstone. Their buildings, including homes, granaries and public buildings, were constructed from brick;
  • The Harappans are conjectured to have been the first civilization in the world to have planned their cities, woven cotton, and used wheeled transportation;
  • Incredibly, at the same time as the Harappan civilization evolved and then disappeared without (apparently) leaving a single written word describing its existence, another whole civilization, the Aryan, was also flourishing, possibly in the same geographical areas and at approximately the same time. The Aryans, by contrast to the Harappans, have been thoroughly described in Sanskrit in the Vedas; also by contrast, there is no physical evidence that they existed.

It appears that the second chapter of India: A History will focus on this Aryan contribution. I’ve been hearing about Sanskrit since I took a course in English etymology in university, and I am looking forward to learning more.