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Go to Goa

It’s the oldest trick in the book. You finally clear customs, cases safely in hand, head through the airport doors and in the ensuing melee, a little man grabs for your luggage and tells you to come with him.

‘No thank you, I’ll carry my own.’
‘No, I carry, you come with Somak, I carry.’
‘No thank you.’
‘Yes, yes.’
‘Oh, okay then.’

Sounds genuine. Too tired to argue anyway. Four short strides later you’re at your transfer bus and there’s a determined hand awaiting a tip before it goes to collar the next mug. He even tells you what to give him.

‘£2 coin, give me £2 coin.’ He’s well aware you’re not allowed to bring currency into the country.

‘On your bike, you can have a quid.’ Look of disdain and off he scuttles.

 It’s that moment when you realise you’ve let the situation get beyond your control that always gets me. ‘Damn, I’ve let him do it for me, I owe him.’ I suppose the trick is not to let anyone do anything for you. But that can get quite tiring when everyone wants to ‘help’. Apart from anything else, it’s become a way of life, a structured way of earning a living and I suppose it’s one way of dispersing the wealth – if only in the smallest of ways.

Goa bears few of the hallmarks of the India I had seen seven years previously. Excitably busy, yes, but calm, friendly and trustworthy in a way I had only felt possible in the hills of Northeast India. A far cry from the desperation of Delhi, the harassment of Agra and from the suffocating closeness of Varanasi.

That’s no Sardine

Of course the advantage of going back with money is that even the most expensive options are well within budget and your grand hotel will afford you the sort of refuge you feel you have earned from a day in the hubbub. In order not to completely sell out our backpacker roots, we at least refused hotel taxis and travelled by rickshaw and bus instead; we at least turned down Somak-organised trips of fancy (does anyone still go on those over-priced, crass charades?) and found our own way to plantations and temples; and we at least earned our belly-ache stripes by eating in some of the less hygienic but genuinely local, local restaurants.

Our hotel pool looked invitingly over the Arabian Sea, neatly buried in a small suburb of the Goan capital, Panaji. Invitingly that is until you saw the colour of the water. Whoever gave the green light to the noisy, iron ore-carrying cargo tugs, which begin their daily shuttles from north to south at about 10am – happily dumping red sediment as they go – has much to answer for.

Taxi Mister?

The murkiness of the Arabian Sea which engulfs Goa’s coastline is mere background detail, however, when held up alongside the attractions of India’s smallest state. There are the miles of white sand which seem to peak in beauty at the northern and southernmost points of the region; the spice plantations which offer you a humbling lesson in the origin and cultivation of spice; the cashew nut factories which boast the machinery of a bygone era and a workforce literally earning the peanuts they are working with; one of India’s highest waterfalls, several nature reserves, and a string of excitable markets which cheerily test your powers of refusal to the full.

And when considering the attractions which make a visit complete, we must surely not forget the locals who exude calm and confidence when talking and bartering; who appear happier in their rickshaws than our hierarchy seem in their Rollses – one guy told us how his friend had completed the fairytale move from Goa to London only to return a year later because despite the wealth and despite the advances, no one seemed to be genuinely happy – and the peaceful mix of religions which from the majority Hindus to the minority Muslims, displays nothing of the friction of other parts of India and beyond. Indeed, it was remarkable to hear that the Hindus and Christians even help celebrate each other’s festivals as a mark of respect to their fellow man.

Market Day in Tourist Goa

What’s more, you’ll find your hosts educated and informative, fiercely proud of their Portuguese ancestry and despite the huge influx of western tourism, rigidly determined not to let Goa become scornful and manipulative of its guests. In return, the westerners show the sort of respect to their hosts which we have now become accustomed not to see on our own fair island. This, I might add, seemed in stark contrast to the Indian tourists who – whenever we watched them, at least – were dismissive, rude and unashamedly arrogant of their wealth.

So go to Goa. Charge around in rickshaws, wade through the markets, haggle smilingly for everything and when the night falls but the temperature remains, and if your eating habits permit, treasure every mouthful of freshly-caught fish. You’ll soon find that what you thought was a tiger prawn is actually a shrimp and what you imagined was a lobster, is actually a tiger prawn. And as for the lobsters…

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