Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Goa: Paradoxical Paradise

Goa is unlike any other part of India.

It's palm huts and pina coladas, fair-skinned foreigners sunning in Euro-kinis next to fishermen cleaning the day's catch from primitive boats, rave and reggae music blaring from beach-side speakers.

It's colonial Catholic churches the color of wedding mints next to tiny stores selling Pringles, Prell and paba tanning lotion.

And, restaurants that run riskily against the water's edge with "chill out" pods of bean bags, rugs and pillows where you can smoke bhang/marijuana cigarettes and everyone looks the other way and pretends it's smoke from the tandoori.

Goa is a paradoxical paradise, and while we're amazed, it's easy to get caught up in the groove.

The beaches and easy freedoms draw tons of visitors to Goa: beer and alcohol are untaxed, late-night parties spill onto the beaches from coconut palm groves lit by psychadelic lights and there are only a few historic sites to tax the brain and draw one away from the warm sea.

The last occupied state in India, Goa was a Portuguese colony until the early 1960's, when Nehru's military finally kicked them out...but not before hippie traveleres had discovered its lure. Goa feels more Mediterranean than sub-continental, and we sometimes forget that we're in India until a cow happens upon the beach or busy "entrepreneurs" throw shade on you on the beach asking if you'd like a sarong, henna, jewellery or drum.

I've polled a number of Indians, some wealthy and vacationing here and others native, and this former colonization of Goa--for close to four centuries--is the main reason they feel it's so different. That and the booming tourist season that brings charter flights from the UK into Goa's tiny airport from Novemeber to March, seem to make it a tiny piece of Raj Riviera.

And it is quite enchanting...

We spent 5 days in Palolem Beach in South Goa, and just moved up to North Goa to spend five days on Morjim Beach. Palolem was a palm-lined crescent of beach with perfect waves lapping at its shore lined with hut villages and restaurants. By day, rattan loungers and "Kingfisher" or "Sprite" umbrellas dot the sand and offer bathers a respite for chai and shade, and by night, Palolem is a glimmery half-moon of candlelight and Christmas tree lights. Everything is open air and mellow, and drifting the beach at night, you smell patchouli and sandalwood burning from spiral incense coils.

We rented bikes and cycled south to Patnem for a day to check out the waves, and it was a less-crowded version of Palolem. There were hut villages, restaurants made of rattan and palm fronds, and more surf to ride in on among the fishing nets -- though nothing too exciting. And plenty of Western white bodies, one of which Andy managed to accidentally take out TWICE in his body surfing expeditions. Seeing a pasty Brit in a tiny swim briefs being catapulted from a hot pink air mattress by my lover was one of the best laughs I've had on the trip for certain! Somehow, "Sorry mate!" didn't cover it; one headed for sea, the other, for shore...pink air mattress in hand.

On the way to Patnem, we passed oxen ploughing fields, and in Palolem, we passed one smelly piece of beach path that involved rotting garbage and some very cute black piggies on our daily "commute". (sigh...finally, a commute I can handle! even without NPR!) These, and the busy women who work the beach and the guest house floors in saris, were often the only reminders of India. So very strange for such a vast country...that you can visit one of its states and feel it's so far away.

Two days ago, we hired negotiated a taxi ride north to Morjim Beach--in a mini-van thing of sorts that Andy thought was very cool and would fit into a garage "sideways" but be good for hauling things. Have I mentioned that when we talk of a future abode, the words "garage" and "kitchen" come up the most? Or, has Andy's mom Marjie likes to say, "One of them wants a loft, the other a lift..." (for crucial car repairs).

Anyway, North Goa has more of the fabled "party atmosphere" and we wanted to experience its various village towns and night markets. So far, life is good...we're staying in a Rajasthani safari tent about 100m from the beach! We've eaten at a restaurant with dining areas covered in mosquite netting and candlelight (for atmosphere), and stuffed pillows to rest against as you gaze at tapestries with a Ganesh face or "Om" sybmol in Sanskrit glowing in black light. (no, I am not kidding!)

It's one day from a full moon, and we're exploring the town of Arambol. We just ate dinner at a place with staggered plateaus of cement built on to the beach from a cliff. Each plateau had a table and candle, and we faced straight out to the moonlit Arabian sea, hearing the waves crash as we ate fresh naan. Oh my....life does not suck here in Goa.

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