GOA is one of the best places I have ever been too. It is rich in beauty in both scenery and in the people you are honoured with meeting.
After an amazing flight we landed in Goa. They have a system at the airport where by you pay for your taxi up front – a nice touch especially when there is a language barrier. However, the taxi driver refused to leave us until we gave him a tip despite telling him numerous times that we had little money due to the fact you cannot take money in or out of Goa and therefore have to get your currency once in the country.
Despite this minor hiccup the journey was one of terrifying measures and absolute food for the eyes. Initially i assumed our taxi drivers car horn was broken or that he was blasting out a secret Morse code but it soon became apparent that it is obligatory to constantly beep your horn in India for no apparent reason, well bar the very good reason of hurtling round a blind bend whilst over taking a bus, which happened often. Once this custom was taken in and once the blood started rushing back to my white knuckles I started to take in the scenery as we passed through village after village which were true treasures to behold.
Calangute, despite having only been there 20 years, is buzzing with restaurants, shops, bars and shanty villages. When we first stepped out of the hotel we landed in a haze of sand smoke, sacred cows, mopeds, restaurateurs, street food sellers, shop owners and mosquitos. This all whirled around us whilst we stared at the beach clearly designed to be paradise but to get there was a maze of obstacles and intrusions. I have to admit on the first night I was somewhat apprehensive. So we decided to head for a near by restaurant raised up on a balcony over overlooking the sea one way and back on the busy square another. It was like being above a paradox. A sleepy paradise on acid.
Cows are sacred. They are everywhere. In the streets, on the beach I am surprised there wasn’t one sharing our room. The people love them, they give them food and water, they give them right of way on the roads and generally they do exactly as they please. I can only assume they are the happiest cows on the planet.
Dogs on the other hand I can only guess hate it. They are skinny, hagged and hot. The male dogs are pretty much begging to be neutered, with their balls dragging around on the floor behind them like some hazardous item to be stepped on or run over. I decided to adopted a dog on the beach one day, she was pregnant, skittish and in desperate need of drink and shade. It took me an afternoon to cox her underneath my bed and even longer to get her to drink out of the make-shift well I had made using my digging skills and an empty crisp packet but in the end her gentle lapping of the cool water was a relief to both of us. Dogs seem like vermin wandering around with no owners of homes opposed to how we prize them as pets.
There is rule in Goa, eat outside but be prepared to be eaten! Goa used to be a Portuguese colony so the food is rather mixed but out of this world. Most restaurants look like they have been created for a ‘how not to’ health and safety video but then a lot of India is like that. For example how they sleep next to the
run ways in airports, or how our bus casually trolled down the runway to be met by the bright light of a plane, how in the middle of the Mumbai airport their is a motorway, how everyone overtakes on blind bends assured in the fact their horn blowing will see them through. I can only assume that in an insurance claim its ‘he who has the loudest horn wins’. However despite these facts not once did we get ill from food, get hit by that plane or see a single car crash. Its complete chaos in complete harmony.
Vegetarian dishes are big in Goa but then so is fish. Don’t expect to see your normal dishes on these menus, in fact don’t always expect a translated menu, but that is all part of the fun. One thing that is a shame is that when we asked for the food spicy they tended not to do this to strengths that we would have liked. obviously far too many westerners complaining and refusing to pay for food has spoilt this for others. The naive few, such as the lady on the plane who enquired as to whether there was any food that wasn’t ‘Indian’ available when en route for Mumbai. I can only assume she expects to find a local spar there and plenty of ‘English’ pubs to quench her thirst for ‘culture’ and that she endured numerous nose bleeds from venturing beyond her local village and comfort zone.
A favourite restaurant we discovered was the Tree Top. Amazing food, cooked hot if desired and unusual. The biggest thing to note in Goa is how damn cheap the food is, you actually feel guilty eating it. Not being able to choose a course each we ordered three starters, three mains and drank our body weight in Gin and Tonic and Kingfisher the bill came to £5.00. We of course left a hefty tip and ate there often.
Once you are used to Calangute it doesn’t take long to really notice the poverty. Not that you are blind to it from the off just more once you have come down from the initial shock of moped predators, pedestrians not having right of way and the constant badgering, your eyes are more open to how vulnerable the place is, how little the people have and how beautifully innocent, stripped down and cut back everything is. No need for immaterial things, they have everything they want… happiness…. in the most part.
I have never met people who have so little that actually have so much. It is hugely taken for granted what we have here in the UK and in fact I am unsure that it makes our lives that much richer. Yes quality of life is one thing and of course access to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention is a human given right. I am talking more about tv’s, Xbox’s, fashionable brands and the other materialistic, unnecessary luxuries that we have all grown accustomed too. These things may provide some cloaked escapism, zoning out and relaxation but not happiness.
I never met one person in Goa that complained, moaned or even gave any sight of being unhappy. It was the most humbling of experiences and one I hope to never forget. It wasn’t just the place, weather and cheap drinks that makes me want to go back… it’s the people.
Even at our hotel the owners made us feel at home, invited us to his daughters birthday and surprised us with cake for our own birthday celebration. There were people who lived in the hotel that they purpose-built apartments for so that they didn’t have to stay in rooms. A true utopia that people didn’t want to leave.
Not one to shy away from taking on a country’s culture I got a henna tattoo done in preparation for donning a sari. The girl who I asked to do this took me back to her ‘house’ as the police tend to take money off people who work the beaches, in particular women as women generally do not work in Goa. Her house consisted of plastic sheeting, leaves and not very much else. Here I met her daughter Lexi and she told me of how she had conceived her through rape.
In this part of the world if you have a child out of wed-lock you are tarnished and are destined to always be alone. She talked of when she had been pregnant with Lexi how people threw rocks at her. Once again she was pregnant through rape. She knew for now she was safe, due to the fact she wasnt showing, but that in a few months she would endure the same hardship. The dark underbelly of poor education, poverty and religion is a real eye opener when you come face to face with the outside world. I mean outside as in outside your usual holiday realm. Despite all of this she wasn’t complaining merely explaining.
The education around safe sex in India is a large basket of free condoms on the beach with some quip about ‘AIDS’ however many of these people wouldn’t be able to read, let alone have been educated in safe sex or the potential risks, so it is doubtful they would have known what these were for.
This is the sad and very real side of India. Despite my wishes this didn’t go on, how sorry I felt for these families, I was grateful to have had my eyes opened to it and honroured she felt she could tell me her story.
Many of the shops in Calangute are western which is a massive shame as again this is clearly what the locals think we want, and embarrassingly, i imagine for some it is. The place is filled with Russians smoking the local hash with lots of young girls on their arms. Many of which buy up the restaurants and bars there so in some areas the feel is more European than Indian and this isnt always a welcome presence amongst the locals.
Despite the western influence within the clothing stops I persisted with my desire to adopt the local vibe. I enquired as to where i could buy a sari, and despite my complete naivety assuming you could ‘buy off the rail’, I was pleased to find out otherwise and was advised by a local tailor to go to Mapusa, a local town, to get material and a sari especially made.
This was an experience in itself. Mapusa was much bigger than Calangute and had a lovely, albeit mental, inner walled market. This had every stall you could imagine, with narrow walk ways which were plagued with mopeds beeping you out-of-the-way. However, this didnt detract from the smells and magical atmosphere this small market had created. Although this was an experience I was glad I tried, it was one which pushed claustrophobic boundaries, personal space requirements and attention span. I felt like I was being constantly spun by wild horses whilst trying to balance on the tight rope. It was like being in a drugged haze and being part of fear and loathing in India. Alas I found my material amongst this obscure landscape and headed back to the comfort of Calangute. Not something I would have believed I would have said had you asked me on day one!
I took the material back to Calangute as rather than go with the big time city boys I decided to have the local tailor be the creator of my cultural wonder.
I had the option of going for an easy to wear sari but I declined this offer, made through drawings and charades, and went for the more authentic option. The tailor measured me from behind a curtain which was both awkward and entertaining. I felt like I was being measured by a 1960’s curtain octopus.
Not only do women as a general rule not work in this part of India but generally it is frowned upon to touch another mans woman or any woman unless she is yours. This is a rule not adhered to by all men, for example the ones that liked to try to stroke my ‘white’ and therefore in their eyes affluent, skin in the sea. Never the less this was a rule adopted by most.
In this part of India, and I am sure others, they have an obsession with white skin. You are often complimented on your skin, something I have never had before, well note in the same context, or try to touch you and every other advert on the TV is for skin bleaching cream. One advert showed an artist painting a woman and he blotched her face making her look like she had skin that wasnt ‘flawless’. However, this woman started to use skin bleaching cream and over the days the artist started painting her more beautiful and in the end included an engagement ring that she didn’t bear…. an awful smack in the face on what emphasis is put on being more western here.
Their beauty exceeds ours both in their features and in their hearts but to them white skin is like some kind of proverbial brand. It makes my want of a pair of awful Kicker boots in my teens seem hellishly trivial – which of course it was at the time, all for some popularity struggle that really I didn’t want nor care for, yet there I was begging my mother with no money and convincing her that they were a necessity. In the other spectrum here I was being faced with people believing that bleaching their skin will provide them with a better life. I am glad to say the Kickers were the only thing I ever tried to ‘fit in’ by wearing as I soon learnt i was much happier wearing something different to the ‘sheep’. I hope eventually in the same tones they will realise their true beauty.
Anyway, I digress. So my wonderful tailor made me a sari fit for an Indian Godess and I loved it. Had no idea how to put it on, never the less I loved it. So I wore make up to suit and a bindi and walked out to the bar. What I was greeted with astounded me. People got up from their chairs, walked out of their shops clapping cheering, shouting ‘my god a white girl in a sari’. I was both ecstatic and ashamed all in one foul swoop – was my wearing of this sari a blatant sign that no other nationalities took on and dived right into the local culture? The reaction of the locals would make one think so. Taxi drivers refused to take money off us until we absolutely insisted, the local club took us from the back of the line and insisted we go in for free, free drinks were pushed our way as locals grinned and beamed at me with a gratitude I couldn’t quite understand. I can only hope that more people have done this since. What a very unexpected reaction to something I was willing to do and in my eyes was a must.
In this part of India, as a symbol of friendship men hold hands or walk with their arms around each other – depending on how good a friend they are will be shown in which way they do this. Initially, we thought we had landed in the gay capital, but upon further investigation was told this is a pecking order. Men at bars will stand hand in hand with their best friend rather than their wife. The oddest version of this was seeing two armed guards in the airport who laughed at us for being under a blanket yet were walking through hand-in-hand whilst donning huge guns – this is by no means a euphemism. I am in now way against gay relationships – I think this was more of an odd sight due to the fact they were on duty and therefore in the UK this would be seen as unprofessional. We are clearly too prude!
One of the best sights i saw was an elephant just standing road side with the most amazing chalked designs down its fact and trunk. A gentleman standing with the elephant offered me to go and say hello. Well, as stupid as it sounds, it was massive and I don’t think I expected it to be quite so big but what a wonderful experience to be so close to one out in the open. A true magnificent beast. Disappointingly this was the one day I didn’t take my camera to the beach.
Calangute is a place of randomness from the beautiful paradise beach, obscure mosques and churches, all to be viewed through a constant stream of cows and mopeds. It is a place that will forever be held in my heart and one I hope to revisit. It isn’t for the faint-hearted but those who go will be rewarded with an experience that will melt their hearts forever.