Thursday, 7 November 2013


"It's 2.30pm in the afternoon and I am at Baga Beach, in Goa, India.  To be more precise, I'm at Jamies cafe scoffing the fluffiest pancakes I've had in a while.   It's nice to be at the cafe, seated behind its low cane fence fringed with green foliage climbing out of terracotta pots, beside a quietly whirring fan, taking time out from the hectic activity on the road not two meters away."
I wrote that in my mobile diary, to remind myself what I was feeling on my Goa holiday.  We had been at Goa a few days and had decided to ride our scooters further up the coast to visit one of the more popular beaches.  The hectic nature of India's roadways meant that, every now and then, I had to stop, withdraw and take a breath!  Breathing over coffee has always been therapeutic for me.

The first time I heard of Goa was in Saudi.
The people recommending it were saying how beautiful it was, and that it was a tourist mecca on the Indian coast.  Having been to a tourist mecca or two, I was envisaging something along the lines of the Gold Coast.  That is absolutely not what Goa is like.  In fact, I would describe it more as Waiheke Island back in the late sixties when the hippies moved in!  The roads are narrow and rough.  The buildings have a definite lived in look.  Many of the shops are cram packed with trinkets.  And most food joints look basic and suspect.  Once you add the Goan people, the myriad scooters whizzing about, the local buses and trucks honking their way through the crowd, and the cows lazily lounging in the street to the mix, Goa, though definitely not a five star place in the hotel industry sense of the word, is certainly unique.

We hired a couple of scooters and spent a few days riding around seeing what there was to see.  Tootling down the many side streets of town uncovers a number of hidden accommodation and dining options that I'd never seen on my trip advisor research!  Exchanging money got you a better rate if you did it downtown as opposed to at the hotel.  And of course we looked in at a number of shops, buying a couple of trinkets for the whanau.

The old fort is worth a visit, one of the many remnants of Portuguese occupation. Numerous boats are moored along the river, waiting for tourists for dolphin spotting or disgorging fish.  The petrol stations are something else...plastic drink bottles full of petrol sitting on a shelf on the roadside.  Awesome!

The beach is very easy to get to in Goa, and though Goa is a supposed beach holiday destination, the beaches aren't really that spectacular.  (Yes, I know I'm a spoilt snot whose been to many a fabulous beach).  In fact, as one young Indian lady told us, Goa is not the place to go if you expect pristine beaches and sparkling clear water.  The water rolling in on the tide is a murky brown and, I admit, because its India with it's less than reputable sanitary standards, I was a little suspect on where the color originates from! (Of course, if you rarely get to a beach, then the beach is fab!)

Jet ski rides, para-sailing boats and donut or banana boat rides can be found at the more popular spots along the beach and there was no shortage of tourists, many of the local kind, spending their holiday money on them.

Swimming on the beach, especially between the flags of life guarded beaches, is a non-event.  In fact, swimming is discouraged in favour of paddling.  We were only allowed into the water up to our knees, which didn't take us anywhere near the break in the waves.  If we tried to go too far, the guards whistled us back in again.  Why?  Because most Indians visiting Goa cannot swim!  Westerners heading out into the deep only encourages locals to follow, so in the interests of every ones safety, staying in the shallows is where its at.  In fact, over a span of two hours sitting at a Baga Beach shack (there are beach shacks all along the beaches where you can spend your time people watching while enjoying a beverage and delicious seafood) we saw two folks being rescued!  I'm guessing that if, as a tourist, you want a decent swim, you should go further along the coast to a more secluded beach where there are less people, or somewhere not flagged.

The only disconcerting activity I saw in Goa was what I call 'ganging'.  Groups of young (and not so young) Indian men would surround westerners sunbathing on the beach, (even western couples, not just women), and blatantly take their photos, ignoring pleas to move away until the tourists felt so uncomfortable they up and left.  It's not an unknown issue, there are articles about the practice in Goan local rags pondering over ways to stop it.  (The locals reckon most of those guys are from Delhi.  Delhi does not have a great reputation for safety.)

Away from the beach there is also plenty to see.  One morning we organised a driver to take us to old Goa, and its many churches, and a spice plantation where, after a short walk through a spice forest over rickety bridges, past washed elephants and accompanied by explanations of a number of the plants, we were given a sample of the local cashew based Fenni (considered country liqour, but actually is a lot like vodka), and treated to a spicy buffet.

Our trip to Goa was fairly well timed.  The monsoons had stopped and the tourist season proper had not yet started, so prices were reasonable and the streets not overly packed.  The activities I'd planned on doing hadn't started - swimming under a waterfall after a forest trek, canyoning - that type of stuff.  However, I loved the freedom of being on the bike - Saudi does make me crave being in charge of a vehicle  (any vehicle!) - and with so much else to see, do and get used to, I wasn't too bothered about missing out on a couple of action packed jaunts.

Our hotel, Vivata by Taj, was lovely.  Old, but lovely.  The buildings themselves might not have been five star, (lets face it, the place was built a long time ago), but the service certainly was.  And with a sister hotel just down the road with a spa, pool bar and extra options for dining, we could easily have spent our entire time at the hotel, though I'm glad we didn't.

Would I go back to Goa?  I know people who travel there every year, they just love it.  The forest, the beach, the people and the seafood.  The government apparently has great plans for Goa, developing it for tourism, and you can see some of the newer establishments already springing up and looking rather modern against the rest of the place.  I hope they don't overdo the development.  The world doesn't need another western style tourist mecca.  Goa's beauty is in its simplicity and Indian-ness.  That is what is worth going back for.


Ka Kite,

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