Saturday, February 12, 2011

Goa Trance

Many Kingfisher beers later ...
(Written in Goa – February 7th)

Goa has quite the reputation. Everyone knows that it was a hippie mecca in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and more recently (1990’s) a haven for trance-heads and ravers of all descriptions. (I should really have come here then, when I was still into raves. There’s apparently a bit of that left now, with a few underground parties around, but the scene has largely died out.) But it’s had a reputation for partying and general debauchery as far back as the 16th century, when Portuguese sailors used to head for Goa for a good time. Maintaining your party rep for 400 years: now that’s quite a feat.

Goa these days is quieter in some spots, and package-holiday central in others. You’ll find a few leftover hippies (some of the originals are still kicking around, with a sprinkling of younger wanna-bes), but there’s nary a Portuguese sailor in sight. Mostly it’s English-speaking tourists, here for sun, sand and drinking for a couple of weeks; they seem to aim to find a little bit of tropical paradise without actually having to feel like they’re in India. (I don't get that at all; if all you want is a beach, just head for the one closest to home and spare the planet the extra flight miles -- does it really matter if you're in India, or Cuba, or Tenerife, if all you want to do is drink and sleep on the sand?)

I’ve been in Goa for two nights, getting here after one night in Mumbai; it's a short flight (under an hour) but a long taxi ride from the airport (an hour and a half), as there's only one tiny airport that serves all of Goa. I leave later this afternoon on a flight south to Kochi in the state of Kerala. I like Goa, and I’ve had a blast here (although my liver will take a while to recover), but I haven’t particularly felt like I’m in India: this could be any beach, anywhere in the world (except for the occasional sari-clad woman selling goods in a souvenir shop).

I stayed in Calengute, towards the north of Goa — it’s definitely the “party” beach catering to the beach-vacation crowd. To find a bit of hippie Goa, I think I’ll have to head further north, to Anjuna or Arambol; I might do that on my way back from the south, before I fly home. (I’ll see what I think of the south, and then decide; I have just under 6 weeks after my tour ends before my flight back from Delhi, so I have some time to linger if I want.)

Calengute has been fun, though, although going out for two late nights in a row definitely makes me remember that I’m not actually 22 any more. (But I did manage to keep up with the 22-year-olds in the group, and outlasted some of them, so I’m pretty chuffed about that. Years of practice, baby, I can party with the best of them.) The mornings after also remind me of my age; at 22 I could wake up after copious amounts of alcohol and little or no sleep, and still be fresh-faced and dewy-skinned. At my age now? Well, let’s just say it takes a bit more effort to look presentable before emerging into the world. (But don’t get me wrong, I still don’t actually LOOK my age. Or so I like to tell myself.)

But I had a good time, which is all that matters. There’s a strip of bars in Baga, just south of Calengute that pump out music till the wee hours of the morning; I can’t remember the last time I stayed out past 3 a.m.! (Two nights in a row, in fact.) There are even late-night snack shops so you can get your fix of pizza or other assorted junk foods late at night, and restaurants a-plenty that even have cow on the menu. It’s a complete departure from elsewhere in India; you’d hardly know which country you were in at all.

Unless, of course, you try to shop. Mostly sellers here aren’t terribly pushy; oh, they will call out to you as you pass their shops and remind you that “looking is free, madam”, but they don’t swarm you or stalk you down the street as they do in Jaipur or Agra. Once you enter a shop, though, and display a little bit of interest, the hard sell starts; I felt like telling a few of the shopowners that they’d stand a much better chance of making a sale with me if they’d just let me look around in peace for a few minutes instead of thrusting a bewildering array of articles under my nose from the instant I entered. I did tell them, finally, to stop showing me pink things; for some reason, this is what they all wanted to sell me. (And you have no idea just how terrible I look in pink, or how little I like it. Show me a nice green, or rust, or red anyday.)

I think I finally got the knack of haggling, though; I started out cruising the shops with a vague idea of buying myself an appropriately hippie-esque dress, but I wasn’t terribly bothered if I didn’t find anything. So when the first price I was quoted was outrageously high, I countered with something much lower that I was willing to pay, and then stuck to it — and when I started to walk out without purchasing, I got things for the price I wanted. So I have a very practical long-sleeved cotton shirt (red) that will let me cover up in the south and still stay cool, and a pretty tie-dye hippie dress that I probably won’t be able to wear anywhere else in India but Goa. (But I made good use of it here, where you can show a bit more flesh and not get hassled or gawked at. You can show shoulders! And knees!).

It’s been a good two days, anyway. I did get away from the beach (not being that much of a sun-worshipper, with this pale Celtic skin!), to check out some of the sights in the town of Old Goa; there are some gorgeous old Catholic churches and ruins of a convent dating back to the early 16th century, when the Portuguese controlled this part of the world. It’s a unique little corner of India, quite different from the north; much more laid-back and speaking entirely different languages. There are people living in Goa, apparently, that speak only Konkani (the state language) and Portuguese, with not a word of Hindi or English.

I wish I had a bit more time here, although I’d head to a quiet beach that wasn’t so resort-intensive and overrun with tourists. I might take a couple of weeks to chill out here before I head back home; I like the idea of Anjuna Beach, an old hippie stalwart that is apparently pretty relaxed and undeveloped still.

Some of our group is leaving after Goa, but eight of us carry on to the south (Kochi and beyond), and a few new people will join us there. One more week of travelling in Kerala with a group, then I’m on my own; it’ll be quite strange to go back to solo travel after three weeks in the constant company of other people. But I think it’ll be very nice to have time to relax, and read, and write; and I don’t think it’ll be hard to meet other people to hang out with if I so choose.

Oops, they’re calling us for our flight, so I’ll have to leave you for now. Flying to Bangalore (Bengaluru) first then on to Kochi, so a long travel day. More from the south!

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