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My Trip to Goa

You wouldn’t think there is either a global recession or an off-season in Goa, crossing the Mandovi in a chartered mini-bus. The vehicle, after all, is just one in a snaking line of several used by hotels to ferry guests to and from the airport. Since I was last here in the land of sun and sand (less sand, more sun now, by the looks of it) almost a decade ago, the hotel scene has, of course, exploded in the state. Charming and charmingly-named boutique hotels rub shoulders with the bigger properties, of which the most notable addition this summer has been the latest Taj, a business hotel, in Panjim. We don’t know whether that one is getting any of the conference crowd — as yet—but eager holiday-makers from all parts of India are descending on to the other five-star leisure venues.

On the Spicejet flight to Dabolim, an excited casino first-timer from Delhi has been warned of the obvious “dangers” of Betting by his more worldly-wise neighbour. And there are excited children, sharing tubs of popcorn (because, of course, this is a no-frills flight where a pack of 15 roasted, salted cashews can cost Rs 50, a chicken sandwich Rs 100, prompting mommies to pack picnic lunches and snacks for the time onboard) who are telling each other — across the aisle — in awed voices that they will be staying at the Zuri White Sands or such, their tongues stumbling over unfamiliar pronunciations or, perhaps, just the promised magic of an exotic vacation.

Most of the two- and three-star properties, holiday abodes for much of the foreign crowd in Goa that hasn’t come in at all this year, post the Mumbai attacks, are closed. And it is the Indian, domestic travelers who are driving the market lured by the awesome discounts and value packages on offer. We, of instance, have chosen to stay at that old faithful, the Fort Aguada Beach Resort in Candolim, within the precincts of an old Portugese fort. In the evenings, we can see a furious sea, swelled by the monsoons — that have already arrived in Goa, so no need to the local farmers to pray to Saint Anthony, the worker of miracles — lashing out at the old walls and it is with renewed wonder that I witness the miracle of man-made work withstanding the furies of nature.

The plan has been to stay put in the resort for all of four days, not venture out at all, make full use of the swimming pool and sea-facing restaurant, privileges earned by paying up the Rs 21,000 package price—all meals inclusive. But after the first meal where we eat a “fish nihari” amongst other things, we do a quick rethink. With travelers from Delhi and Mumbai — uneasy in their beach shorts and skirts, but also those who seem more at home in sequined wedding-type sarees, synthetic salwar kameezes, and, in one instance, even a nightie in the coffee shop— having flooded the place, Goan food in Goa has been the first casualty. At our resort, there are sandwiches and hotdogs, five-star staples, and many versions of paneer, bhindi and dal, non-veg curries, but the buffet on our first day only serves up an unappetizing-looking chicken xacuti that, perhaps, the chef has figured out, can be safely fed to north-Indians from fowl-land.

The memory of some fabulous, fiery seafood eaten indiscriminately in beach shacks 10 years ago, takes us to Calangute that evening. Alas, the monsoon and the Scarlett murder case have together meant that most shacks are closed. In Goa, in the aftermath of that horrific and headlines-grabbing case about a year ago, only registered shacks are now allowed to operate on the beaches. But we hardly dare go into even the two we find open that evening. For one, the beach is filthy: plastic and pint bottles lie strewn around, and that’s really the “best” of the waste. Scavenging packs of dogs are on the hunt amidst the, excuse the expression, sea of humanity that foolishly ventures into the waves at high tide—despite repeated warnings to the contrary by the coast guard. In 10 years, the idyllic beach of my imagination has turned into a small-town circus. And a particularly sad one.

Treading the edge of water at dusk, a couple of days before Christmas, at the tail-end of 2000, I had known real fear. I was just a little high on the sweet, fizzy Goan wine that used to be available everywhere quite freely and cheaply (now it’s just Sula, Grover’s and ND wines from Nashik and, of course, Kingfisher all around) and walking on the edge of the sea in pitch dark, alone, almost felt like walking the borders of life. It’s just as well, no one can ever experience that feeling again, at least not at Calungute, where there is now no question of solitude—or the feeling of being free.

The “Save Goa” people should really save its beaches. Even the one outside the Taj in north Goa, now a shrunk bar of sand than a beach really, is ill-maintained. But that is hardly the only thing that seems to have changed in the space of a decade. Indeed, the entire character of the place has changed so that it now resembles Chennai or any other metropolis down south—given its weather– instead of the free-spirited, distinctive destination it used to be. Calangute now has a Calangute mall; there are branches of the Oxford book store, of the Republic of Noodles, Barista and Café Coffee Day outlets, and even a made-to-look ancient miniature copy of the Meenakshi Temple that I noticed being constructed. The quaint pastry shops, the “Belo” wine stores where you could have a cheap beer of two sitting out on plastic tables and chairs by a quiet road, and even the sporty, unafraid women on motorbikes have gone missing.

At Calangute, a Sai bhajan plays from an establishment outside the beach—I joke not. And people, for most part, have covered up. Salwar kameezes, the most unflattering of Indian garments, have made an appearance, and there are girls in skinny, cheap jeans on the beach, unmindful of the discomfort of soaking wet-denims-full of sand on the beach. Shorts, forget bikinis (this, after all, is the beach where Protima Bedi infamously streaked) are conspicuous by their absence. And, no you wouldn’t want to be a young single woman here any more. Goa has been shackled, at last.

Which is why when we found Souza Lobo, the beach-side restaurant that has been here since 1930, open, we said a silent prayer of thanks. We devour a plate of fleshy crabs, fried in butter and garlic, that has just cost us Rs 150, and move on to the masala prawns, calamari and finally a true blue Goa prawn curry with fluffy white rice. At least something of the old Goa magic endures.

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One Response to “My Trip to Goa”

  1. rodin56 says:

    Nice blog. I love traveling and will check out your blog in detail. Thanks for dropping by at my blog. And no I do not know too many non vegetarian recipes. The site was started as a collection of recipes for my elder one and got me interested in cooking! And I am a vegetarian, and cook non veg occasionally for the children.