Goa, India (Spring '14)

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

This past Spring, I travelled to India for the first time since I was a toddler. Even before I was born, my parents were an adventurous couple (such as touring Russia when it was the Soviet Union or road-tripping through Europe before settling in Paris to study French) and so having a toddler in tow, and my brother on the way, hardly caused them to slow down or resist taking us with them. Travelling tends to be the fulcrum of most of my childhood memories and it's prophetic that the first move I made I was barely one and that moving country has been a dominant life pattern ever since! So I hope (with that in mind) that this blog will be a place, among other things, to share my travels.

Meeting a friendly cow

So back to India, which as you know is such a vast and diverse country that to cover or understand it all in one short trip is impractical and frankly, impossible! I recall standing in the queue for my visa striking up a short chat with those around me. One lady who travels there every year, for months at a time, was shocked when I said I'd be visiting Mumbai, Hyderabad and Goa - for just 10 days in total! I said that it was a 'tasting-menu' approach to the country and I hoped to be back (this of course was said without knowing yet if I'd ever want to!)

Finishing with Goa, we took a break from Mumbai and Hyderabad (which I shall be sharing more about soon), and decided to stay in a colonial manor house in the state capital - Panjim (or Panaji).

The Panjim Inn
We didn't want to be close to the popular beaches, because of the crowds and in general, I prefer a central location to walk around on foot and explore the sights. Road signs are still in Portuguese and most of the sights, beyond the beaches and resorts, revolve around historical Christian churches and the remaining colonial architecture. Only Churches were allowed to be painted in white, hence why all other buildings are so colourful!

Old Panjim School-house
Old school-house, Panjim
Panjim Road Signs

Casa Lusitana, Panjim
Casa Lusitana, Panjim

Fundacao Oriente Art Gallery, Panjim
Peering through the gate of the Fundacao Oriente, Panjim
Goa was primarily settled by the Portuguese, so I was expecting to be reminded of my travels to Portugal and Melaka. What I encountered was part-Melaka, part-resort, part-Khao San (the Bangkok backpackers district). Most of the beaches are on the fence between untouched and undeveloped (depending on your point of view) and most well-heeled Indians really only visit for the large music festivals (in December or January) or on special occasions - but the colours are fabulous at any time of year and you truly feel anonymous as you drive through the narrow lanes linking clusters of houses and watering-holes.

Colourful river boats, Goa

Vagator Beach, Goa
Vagator Beach
Despite a historically hippie reputation and vibe, a lot of the beaches are now characterised by cheap tourism, increasingly from Russia, akin to what Kuta was in the 90s for Australian backpackers (perhaps still so). You notice the touristy aspect when taxi-drivers quote A/C or non-A/C prices for journeys and vendors are bit more pushy with their wares compared to elsewhere. But, in amongst the 'shack-style' huts, we chanced upon a slice of Greek island life in north Goa...

Thalassa Restaurant, Shop and Cabins
'Thalassa' in Ozran

...and promptly set into some delicious grilled seafood. Thalassa was recently featured in Vogue India and as well as being a restaurant, has a small collection of cabins to stay in - quite popular for the 'glamping' end of festival goers. 

Grilled Red Snapper at Thalassa, Goa
Grilled Seabass at Thalassa

Overall, the food in Goa (and India generally) is very reasonably priced and one needs to find these little beach gems to remind you why you visited!

Street side coconut, Goa

Street side fruits, Panjim

Pepsi truck, Goa
If I lived in India, I would understand the appeal of Goa as a holiday destination - because it's by the sea and provides welcome respite from the crowds, noise and faster paced life in the city. But as an international visitor, there are better seaside getaways to be found all over South-East Asia and closer to Europe. 

The unique selling point for me is the UNESCO World Heritage Site - Old Goa - which sadly does not extend its protection further than a small area of churches - nevertheless they are worth the visit!

Statue of St. Francis Xavier
One of my favourite photos from the entire trip!
I particularly liked the Eastern touches on Christianity, such as the flower wreath around this small statue of St. Francis Xavier.

Church mantle, Old Goa

Old Goa Street Sweepers

Church Altar
Portuguese and Indian architectural features were interestingly mixed throughout. There is still a very active Christian community across Goa and there are small community churches dotted all over. This, naturally, is juxtaposed by the large Hindu population and the reverence/respect for free roaming cows (like the friendly chap at the top!)

Church Interior

Church of St. Francis of Assisi
After 10 days and 3 cities, I only scratched the surface of this expansive, complex, beautiful, confusing and multi-layered country. I spent too much time in cars and didn't have the time to explore more on foot, but I'm certainly glad I went. Some visit India and are blown away by the history, spirituality, poverty, people, romanticism, food...but I have been most affected by the freedom.

Street Art, Panjim

I live in the UK, where much of life is regulated: relations between people, the relationship between citizens and the state, health and safety, law and order, tax, the list goes on. As a foreigner, what we often overlook is that social regulation in India is as important as the state: family, caste, class, and religion are all sources of customs and norms. What attracts foreigners to India in my mind is the apparent absence of the state - you can disappear in a city, let your hair down and be anonymous.

I think for this reason, in addition to many others, the comparison between India and China as they develop and grow economically will be fascinating because of the different way their societies and systems of governance are structured. Though I'm not sure when I'll be back to India, I'm happy that I've put some images and experience together with what I'd previously read and heard. I'm sure that even more will sink in with the passage of time!

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