Travel Writings


From dubious associations with the wretchedness of Kula Shaker’s upper-class-twit, neo-psychedelic posturing, to the more well-informed, finger-to-the-pulse shrewd social comment of Alabama 3’s ‘Ain’t Goin’ To Goa’, the small, sun-drenched province on the western coast of India, about 400 miles south of Mumbai on the Arabian Sea, has received a bad press in recent years.

It’s a great pity, however, that this delightful state has developed such a reputation for louche living, since there is much more to it than clapped-out hippie hangovers and package holiday-makers. Granted, depending on whether you travel via London or Manchester, you’ll encounter more than a fair share of flower children with beads in their braided hair, or brickies with #1 blade shaven heads, but don’t let that deter you: you don’t have to go where they’re going.









Goa divides neatly into a north/south axis, best punctuated by the modest state capital of Panaji. An administrative rather than commercial hub, with narrow streets twisting through its old quarter, it is remarkably Mediterranean feeling. Well, Goa was a Portuguese colony until independence in 1961, which makes it (along with southern state Kerela) the easiest place on the sub-continent for a westerner to navigate socially.

North of Panaji lies the package tourist hell of Calangute, and you really might as well be on the Costa del Sol. Further north still are the beach towns of Baga, Anjuna, Vagator and Chapora, and this is where most of the three day rave parties in the jungle you’ll have heard about take place – or used to take place, as police have become somewhat stricter in recent times about issues like noise pollution and drug use, albeit out of necessity rather than choice. Local opinions about hopped-up, decadent foreigners vary, usually according to whether or not whoever you’re talking to works servicing the tourist industry or not; and while being a policeman is a government job with a pension, police salaries are low, and many have bought their jobs anyway, so corruption is rife. Suffice it to say, if you thought Italy – or Ireland – was bad, just try Goa, where bribery is a way of life, essential to the smooth working of the economy. It is not unknown for police to try busting a foreigner on a rented scooter for having no license, and there have even been cases of drugs planted on innocent parties – situations which the offering of some baksheesh is more likely to resolve than indignant bureaucratic wrangling. Or you could just try pretending to be a dumb foreigner.

So, the greasing of palms insures that all-nighters still happen, if you want to hunt around more clandestinely for them, but local residential pressure exercises a corresponding system of checks and balances. There’s simply not as much of it around as there used to be. Further north still is the quieter, chill-out zone of Arambol, where it’s still possible to pick up a whiff of something mildly intoxicating, among the beads and flowers.

But if a real laid-back experience is what you’re after, then south of Panaji is the place to stay, with its endless miles of tranquil, sparsely populated beaches, straight out of a glossy Sunday travel supplement. Colva has changed a lot since its days as a sleepy fishing village, but if you’ve been to north Goa you’ll be surprised at the low-key rate of development. It’s the peaceful yet bustling atmosphere that has made it popular with the older crowd of European holidaymakers and expats, and week-ending Indian families alike, keen to avoid the vulgarity of Calangute. The market area and road leading to the main beach is busy and lined with souvenir stalls, restaurants and mid-range hotels, but walk or cycle a mile or two in either direction – preferably along the beach – and you’ll find parched farmland, coconut groves and the morning’s fish catch drying in the sun.

Benaulim, where we were based, is only about a mile south of Colva, but seems a world away, being much more peacefully rural, the beach even cleaner and less crowded. Essentially, the further south you go from here on in, the quieter it gets, until you get to Palolem. The stretch between Benaulim and Betul is home to Goa’s five star hotels, popular with weekending bankers from Mumbai, but you don’t have to stay in the Taj Exotica or The Ramada Inn to use the beaches. Comfortable basic accommodation can be had for as little as 300 rupees (€5) a night for a double room, while a 700 rupee (€12) outlay will secure a balcony and guarded front gate – and that’s high season rates. Yes, Goa is cheap, and your main holiday expense will be your airfare. After that, it’s sumptuous four-course meals in beach shacks or well-maintained restaurants in the villages, for as little as €10 a head. Face it, you’ll spend more for a jaunt to the Canaries, which is the closest short haul destination where you’ll get mid-winter sun, than on coming to paradise. And paradise is the crescent-shaped, palm-fringed Palolem, which may get busy with an influx for New Year’s Eve, but otherwise rightly deserves its reputation as perhaps Goa’s most idyllic, unspoilt beach.

Not that basking on beaches is all there is to do. While there, we managed a variety of day trips, including one to Old Goa, the city founded by Adil Shah in the first decade of the 16th century, and colonized by the Portuguese as the "Rome of the East", which once rivalled the splendour of Lisbon. Today, all that remains are the still active Se Cathedral, the Chapel of St. Catherine, and the Basilica of Bom Jesu, which houses the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier, the 16th-century Jesuit missionary. Feeling ecumenical, we then visited several of the impressive Hindu temples scattered among the hills surrounding Ponda, where we were welcomed at all ceremonies. You could then take in a tour of a spice plantation, and afterwards have a delicious lunch of half-a-dozen local dishes produced on the farm. Also worth a look are the superb colonial mansions in Chandor, which give you a peek into the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Portuguese settlers during the height of their fortunes. Ironically, a son of one of these houses, Luis de Menezes, was a leading light in the Goan independence movement, who subsequently had to flee the family home, and the country, after it was achieved.

It’s best to go anytime between October and March, although accommodation prices rocket up during the Christmas/New Year period. The monsoons last from early June to late September, if torrential rain and no beach culture don’t bother you. Goans are, in general, the most relaxed and friendly of people. To further indulge in national stereotypes, they like the Brits – for their plain dealing – and they like the Irish more – for their humour. The Germans they find too stringently inflexible, and don’t mention the Russian invasion. Laws were recently passed which prevent all foreigners from owning property, since developers from the former Soviet Union bought up vast tracts of land and starting throwing up apartment blocks without planning permission, much to the disgust of eco-conscious younger Goans.

As regards getting there and back in one piece, a final few words of warning to the wise. Goa’s only airport, Dabolim, a small military base, is chaos at the best of times. British charter outfit, Monarch Airlines, exercise a monopoly on direct flights to there from western Europe. Unfortunately, their customer care policies seem to have been derived from Nazi concentration camps. Delays of an hour or two are routine, due to an aging fleet forever developing faults, and on our return journey this time we were subjected to the unimaginable ordeal of a 31 hour. Instead of arriving back in Dublin on Saturday evening, we finally got in on Monday afternoon. Such distress makes you wonder why you’ve taken a de-stressing break in the first place, if the journey home undoes all the good that has been gained. Better to fly Air India, or any other major international carrier, to Mumbai, and then change to Jet, Kingfisher, or some other domestic Indian airline for the short one-hour trip to Goa. Or you could complete your journey by bus or train. It may seem like extra hassle, but worth it in the long run. You could even take in the sights of Mumbai for a day or two, before heading south to party, or further south again to chill.

See you there, next Christmas.

First published in Magill magazine, Issue 2, 2008










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