description: On the glossy pages of holiday brochures Goa is
everyones idea of a idyllic sun-drenched paradise; palm fringed beaches
of endless white sand facing on to the Arabian Sea, plenty of sun,
fishing boats silhouetted against glorious sunsets, welcoming people
and cheap booze. The main towns of Margao (formerly Modgaon), Panaji
(formerly Panjim) and Mapusa have a distinctly mediterranean feel,
due in part to the profusion of picturesque buildings with their weathered
paint and rusting decorative balconies, left over from Goa's long
history as a Portuguese colony. The coastal strip is predominantly
Christian (although the state is still largely Hindu) and graceful,
white painted churches dot the landscape, strikingly contrasted against
the dark red earth and vivid green of palm trees.
Goa, arguably, is India for the lazy. Since the early days of the
hippie trail, Goa has been the place travellers head for when they
want a break from the often hard grind of travelling in India. Cheap
beer, good food - especially abundant fresh fish - and the promise
of the easy life have made the tiny state a magnet for budget travellers,
and in recent years the hordes of package tourists who arrive at
Dabolim airport by charter flights from Europe in the main season
of November to February.
Goa's long history as a Portuguese colony began in 1510, when
Alfonso de Albuquerque took it for Portugal from the Muslim invaders,
who had in turn defeated the previous Hindu rulers 40 years earlier.
Under the Portuguese, Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries zealously
set about converting the population to Catholicism and built the
impressive churches and cathedrals that remain to this day. Around
30% (2001 census) of the population remain Christian.
The 450 year colonial era came to an end in 1961 when India, tired
of having its demands for Portugal to cede the state ignored, sent
troops who successfully invaded and expelled the colonial rulers
from Goa and the other Portuguese colony of Daman and Diu, finally
marking the end of all colonial occupation in India 14 years after
independence from the British.
To some, part of Goa's attraction is that it is not perceived as
the stereotypical India of chaotic, dusty streets, limpet like beggars,
grinding poverty and arid landscapes; the culture and architecture
give it a vague feeling of familiarity for most Europeans, partly
due to the heavy Portuguese influence. Unlike the rest of India,
it is football and not cricket that is the local sporting obsession,
the Goan leagues extensively covered in the many local papers. Attitudes
seem less conservative, and women are more often seen in knee length
skirts or pattern dresses than a sari or shalwar kameez.
Whereas cows are considered sacred in most of India, and beef is
taboo, it is a common dish on Goan menus, served either as steak
or shredded in "beef chilli fry." Britain's most popular
post lager-binge curry, Vindaloo, is a Goan speciality; the name
coming from the Portuguese for "wine and garlic." Another
aspect of local culture popular with tourists, drink, is extremely
cheap owing to Goa's low taxes on alcohol. Hard liquor in particular
is far less expensive than the rest of India, and bus loads of (usually
male) out of state day trippers arrive at the weekend for a skinful
of whisky and a perve (the more organised bring binoculars or video
cameras) at the bikini clad women on the beach.
Tourism is big business and growing rapidly by the year, with resort
complexes, hotels and restaurants springing up everywhere to cater
for the increasing flow of westerners and affluent Indians on two
or three week breaks. Many well known resorts such as Calangute
and Baga are increasingly chasing these higher spending package
tourists, making some areas less attractive to bargain seeking backpackers
and budget travellers.
In terms of tourism, Goa can be divided into three areas. The beach
area north of the state capital Panaji and the Mandovi river is
the most visited, with popular resorts such as Fort Aguada, Candolim,
Calangute, Baga, Vagator and Anjuna, famous for its techno parties.
In the far North, close to the Maharashtra border, Arambol and Chapora
are known for peace and quiet and a slower pace of life.
The coastal area south of Panaji and the Zuvari (or Zuari) river
is far less developed (although that is changing) and correspondingly
it is both more peaceful and generally cheaper; typically a comparable
meal in Benaulim or Colva will be less than half the price of Anjuna
or Calangute, with rooms following much the same pattern.
The third area - and that least visited by tourists - is the beautiful
inland area that starts a few kilometers from the beach, stretching
back to the solid crescent of the Sahyadri hills (part of the Western
Ghats) that made Goa a natural fortress for the Portuguese occupiers.
This inland area has a far more tropical feel than the surrounding
areas in Karnataka or Maharastra, with small, quiet villages nestled
in among the coconut palms and rice fields, life continuing at a
slow pace much as it has for centuries.
The Cotigao wildlife sanctuary covers much of the southern area,
from the North - South national highway to the border with Karnataka,
and is a fantastic place to go if you want to head off the beaten
The impact of tourism is, inevitably, not all good news, with problems
arising from the environmental impact of tourist numbers and the
huge increase in construction projects. Less than ten years ago,
Palolem in South Goa was a genuine paradise, with only a dozen or
so beach shack restaurants on its idyllic half moon beach. By 2002,
more than a hundred wall to wall shacks occupied the same space,
and much of the laid back atmosphere has gone.
Like much of India, Goa has continual problems with supplies of
fresh water, and what exists is placed under further pressure by
the voracious appetite of the tourist industry, which requires a
seemingly endless supply for swimming pools, ensuite bathrooms,
laundry and improbably lush green lawns. The water table becomes
lower every year, and while the well water in Benaulim was quite
palatable when we visited in 1996, by 2002 it had acquired a strong
taste of salt.
Goa's "full moon" parties
The state is famous for its "full moon parties"; techno
and trance music events organised throughout the season that have
gone from ad-hoc gatherings to big business, attaining a legendary
status around the world, and becoming an obligatory checkbox on
the Israeli India tour itinerary. The popularity and scale of the
parties, as well as their reputation for nasty druggie behaviour
has made them a big political issue, resulting in a crackdown by
the Police in recent years. Party organisers face increasing difficulties
finding an acceptable location, and face higher costs in the form
of backhanders to the local cops.
In the same vein, the free and easy smoking of charas is a thing
of the past on the North Goa beaches. Police demands for "baksheesh"
have been subject to high rates of inflation, and those caught are
faced with the stark choice of handing over very large amounts of
cash (dollars are often demanded) or being carted off to enjoy the
delights of Goa's jails. However small fortunes can be made, and
in spite of the risks, many travellers and Indians smuggle hash
from the Kulu Valley, or acid and 'E" from Europe, selling
to travellers on the beaches at a large markup.
Carving up the pie
Revenues from tourism are very unevenly distributed, and many
poorer people in coastal areas are unable to capitalise on the tourist
influx, but suffer the inconvenience and higher prices that come
with it, all of which fuels a growing sense of resentment. Inland
areas scarcely see any income at all from tourism, and are not top
of the Governments priority list when it comes to handing out the
funds for the development of infrastructure.
Inevitably, when the money gets big, the crooks move in, and there
are now plenty of rackets going; extortion of money from businesses,
scamming foreigners who purchase property, drug sales and turf wars
over the proceeds of it all. An Indian friend, who used to manage
an upmarket restaurant in Calangute, ended up leaving the country
after he was attacked one night by three or four heavies, ending
up with a 12 inch knife scar across his stomach because his foreign
boss refused to pay up "insurance" to the local goondas.
Goa is famous throughout India for cheap alcohol, and attitudes
in the state to drinking are more relaxed than other parts of India,
where drinking is often treated publicly as a kind of guilty secret,
bars are few, and the accepted mode of consumption is to drink as
much hard liquor as possible as fast as possible before vomiting
and/or passing out. The profusion of 'local' bars in Goa are very
much social places where people meet and talk as well as drink.
There are plenty of local beers, with Kings probably being the best
Kaju feni; a mugging in a bottle
One of the things you will either love or hate (most likely both
in rapid succession) is Feni, a strong - and extremely cheap - local
liquor made from either coconut or the fruit of the cashew nut tree.
The latter, named Kaju Feni, is the more lethal of the two, with
a strong, sickly sweet smell and taste that sticks to your skin
for days should you spill some, and is best diluted with Seven Up
It's one of those drinks that sneaks up on you like a mugging;
you feel fine and a little tipsy, then get up for a piss and discover
your body is no longer interested in obeying basic commands. Its
brutal and toxic effects on the central nervous system continue
the next day with a hangover whose only serious rival is a long
night on budget Tequila, and a mere whiff of Feni in the morning
is likely to induce another chat with Hughie on the Great White
Telephone. In spite of this 'never again' moment, you may well find
yourself repeating the process a few hours later as the only effective
cure for a Feni head is more Feni.
For anyone with a particular fetish for fresh, doughy white bread,
Goa provides a pleasant break from chapati or naan. All over the
state, supplies are delivered each morning by guys on bicycles laden
with large wicker baskets, brimming with superb white bread rolls,
often still warm, their arrival announced by ringing a bell. We
first encountered these rolls in Diu, and they seem to be common
down most of the south west coast from Gujarat to southern Karnataka,
perhaps a legacy of the Portuguese.
Another piece of bread heaven is the local specialty known as the
"sweet bun"; similar in taste to a doughnut, they are
made of slightly risen sweet chapati dough, deep fried till crisp
and rolled in sugar. In texture they are like the (non-sweet) Bhatura
found in North India. Finding sweet buns can be a bit hit and miss,
but they are usually served in pukka local chai shops.
Goa is different things to different people. For some it is all
of India they ever have a desire to see; the ideal spot for a relatively
inexpensive and easy life, with beautiful beaches, lush landscapes,
friendly people and great atmosphere. For others it is too un-Indian
to be of more than passing interest, lacking the chaos and predominantly
Hindu culture of the rest of the country, with parts of it beginning
to acquire the crowds and concrete uniformity of mediterranean resorts.
One friend has spent a total of 5 years in India, and yet only
left Goa once - for three weeks. Another claims to have visited
Goa only once - for an hour - to collect his girlfriend, and has
no desire to return. Personally I find most of North Goa's main
beaches a bit too much, and prefer the less frenetic atmosphere
in the smaller places to be found south of Panaji and the Zuvari
river. Goa is certainly an easy enough habit to slip into; a relaxing
few days on the beach, and a week's stopover on a tour of the south
can easily stretch into a month or two.
*A note on peak season:
If you are planning christmas and/or new year in Goa, try to get
to your chosen spot a good few days beforehand, as half the backpacker
population of India will be thinking along the same lines, and the
cheaper rooms can fill up quickly. As it is also a big holiday season
for Indians (who tend to fill the mid to high price accommodation),
prices overall tend to go up wildly to reflect demand (or naked,
slavering avarice, depending on how you see it), and finding a room
at all - let alone one at a reasonable rate - can cost you valuable