November 28, 2004

Goa with the floa

Palolem, Goa

Here it's all about the beach. The single most perfect beach I have ever seen, two headlands anchoring a pale wide mile-long sunset-facing crescent. The thick fringe of coconut palms behind the beach shelters dozens of lodges and cafes-bars-restos, and the road behind them is full of shops and travel agents and Internet cafes, but it doesn't feel oppressively built up; the locals have kept a close eye on development here, and there are no two-story buildings or hotel complexes, and most people stay in simple thatched bamboo-stilt huts, rustic but civilized with fans, mosquito nets, electricity, and reliable if communal running water. The beach is big enough to swallow us all up and still leave plenty of space for solitude, if that's your thing.

Or activity. There's a lot of activity. Swimmers and traipsters and sunbathers, of course, and mostly-placid dogs and cows wandering by, and Frisbee, soccer, volleyball, and cricket. That last is played almost exclusively by intra-Indian tourists, who, as at all Goan beaches, make up a hefty percentage of the population, which I like: de facto whites-only bubble enclaves make me uneasy. There are a few boats, outrigger fishing boats and canoes, but not many. People are reluctant to leave the beach. It's understandable.

I've basically spent the last week hopping from one idyllic beach to another. I understand that your sympathy to anything further I say will now be muted, but really, this has highlighted the fact that chilling-out places like Goan beaches are an exception to my always-travel-solo rule: I'm having fun, and have met some cool people, but places like this would be best as part of a couple or a group. Still, you know, as work goes (yes, I said work. Research, remember? A new book, remember?), this ain't been so bad.

The Party Beach

Long ago, in the vanished mists of yesteryear - about ten years ago - Goa's beaches were host to massive raves featuring thousands of people every night. This is no longer the case (the scene, I gathered, dwindled for awhile, and was all but killed, other than at Christmas and New Year's, by a law which forbade amplified music on beaches between 10PM and 7AM. India being India, this doesn't actually make the music illegal, it just makes the required bribes uneconomically expensive except for big special occasions) but the last few vestigial traces of the Goa-trance party scene can be found at Anjuna and Vagator beaches. Nowadays, from what I saw, it's just a couple hundred people dancing barefoot in and around beach cafes to relatively improvised sound systems, but it's a very fun, laid-back vibe. Half the local touts and vendors offer you drugs in hushed voices, and you can't walk down the beach at night without smelling pot. It's like the nineties never ended, man. Although this did make me wonder about the night traffic; like all Goan beach cities, Anjuna/Vagator is so spread out that renting a motorcycle is near-necessity, and I'm not sure I like the idea of stoned/tripping Israeli bikers at midnight. OK, points for comedy, but I don't wanna be on those same streets.

Anjuna also hosts a huge Wednesday market, which is both annoying, as the touts and hustlers are out in force, voluble, and persistent - especially the ear-cleaners, who I gather are near the bottom of the tout totem pole - and cool, because it is a great market, all manner of colourful things and trinkets and cloths and sculptures and carvings and food and Goa-trance CDs and retina-scarring Om-decorated clothing for sale, although it does suffer a bit from the usual Third World market problem: sure, there are eight hundred stalls, but they get there by basically having forty copies each of the same twenty stalls. Oh, and there was a really good ashtanga yoga place, and I'm pleased to report that I went through a moderately tough session and my knee didn't even twinge.

The Package Beach

In the last decade, as the party scene dwindled, the package scene exploded, and every weekend nowadays, charter airplanes descend on Vasco de Gama airport and disgorge hordes of European tourists who then flood into Calangute and Baga (Goan beaches come in twos; Palolem, similarly, has Patnem just south). The beach is enormous, a good five miles long, and spectacular, and is cambered for great bodysurfing, and still replete with big fishing boats piled high with nets despite the thousands of tourists. The town has outstanding food and at least one good place to stay (the Villa Fatima, where I stayed. Mind you I have a real soft spot for vast crumbling once-luxurious places; a more objective reviewer would be more harsh.)

Uh, that said, I kind of hated it. The hassle - you literally can't walk down the street without twenty people trying to crudely sell you a taxi ride and/or a souvenir trinket. (The usual annoying sales tactics, too; they try to shake your hand, look appalled if you refuse, and pull you into their store if you don't. Or they cry out "Remember me?", taking advantage of they-all-look-alike-ism. Or they just refuse to take no for an answer and follow you for thirty seconds, hoping you'll suddenly change your mind.) The noise - the city has grown too far too fast, and the streets are overcrowded, and Goan driving is more about correct (that is to say, extremely frequent) use of the horn than it is about, say, motion, and you risk deafness or at least a headache walking down the street. And it's ugly, all cheap concrete packed too close together, the usual Indian dirt and unfinished look times two, and aside from eating, swimming, reading, sitting on the beach, and going to expert but pointless copies of Western bars, there's not actually much to do. So my second day there I hopped on a bus to

The Vanished City

Old Goa would be plenty creepy enough without the centuries-old corpse on display. Once upon a time, this pleasant riverside spot was the capital of the Portuguese colony here, a city of several hundred thousand; but then, struck by the tripartite blow of cholera, malaria, and the end of colonial empire, it went away. Now only the churches remain, distant from one another, connected by new roads lined with market stalls selling cold drinks and coconuts and religious paraphernelia (candles, rosaries, flower garlands, stickers and pictures of Krishna and Jesus and Ganesh, etc.)- and all around, where hundreds of thousands of people used to live, the jungle has returned, leaving no other sign of human habitation.

It's busy this month because of the every-ten-year display of the remains of St. Francis Xavier. I wasn't actually going to see said remains, but the lineups were much shorter than I (and I think they) expected, so I went. Like everything else in India, the festival had a hastily-crudely-slapped-together school-play feel which is either engagingly amateurish or infuriatingly incompetent, depending on one's mood. A covered walkway to the cathedral had been erected to protect pilgrims from the sun, but it was sagging and at one point half-collapsed. You had to pass through several sets of metal detectors, but having erected the detectors, the security guards then proceeded to completely ignore the fact that approximately fifty per cent of the pilgrims set them off, and just carelessly waved people through. After about ten minutes in line, serenaded by the constant chirping of metal detectors, I entered the cathedral, where, in a glass coffin, half-covered by an ancient filigreed shroud, St. Francis Xavier lay.

The story goes that months after he was buried, he was dug up, and despite having been interred in quicklime, his body was as fresh and warm as at the moment of his death. Maybe so. I can report that he has gotten very much the worse for wear since then. I can also report that he was very short. Other pilgrims kissed the glass coffin, or draped (Hindu-style) flower garlands on it, which attendants quickly whisked away. I did neither. I found my way through the jungle-taken vanished city to an unexpected riverboat, which took me back to the coast, from where I continued to

The Perfect Beach

...but I told you about this one already, didn't I, right at the start. Palolem. Perfection.

And now in two short hours I'm off to the hills of inland Hampi, to visit the relics of the long-ago Vijayangar kingdom, and thence Bangalore. Further bulletins as the proverbial events warrant.

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