White Like Chicken

January 21, 2008

Goa is the Indian Riviera. A series of beautiful beaches along the west coast each distinct from one another, it was settled by the Portuguese in the 15th century and remained one of the longest held colonial territories in the world only to be given back to India in 1961. Because of Portuguese influence, there is an abnormally high percentage of Indian Christians in the region with accompanying iconography around the city (although Hinduism seems to be making a comeback in recent years). In addition to iron ore, cashews, and seafood, Goa is known mostly for its tourism and for that reason I expected it to be easier than my other travels and the perfect spot to decompress before heading home.

I stayed in Panjim, the capital of the city, which is south of the hedonistic nightlife and full moon trance parties that has made Goa famous. Panjim, itself, is a fairly small town where the Mandovi river meets the Indian ocean with many small unpaved roads that wind through whitewashed shops and houses. It tends to attract older, quieter tourists and I stayed in a charming hundred year old Portuguese manor called Panjim Inn that had been converted into guest rooms. I walked to the closest beach Miramar my first day out which consisted almost solely of Indian locals. Teenagers walked along the beaches in groups looking at me curiously and asking to take my picture while young girls waded into the water waist-high in their saris. After all the attention, I felt like a famous actor on a remote coast unsuccessfully fleeing fan-crazed mobs .

The next few days I wandered through different beaches trying to find one where I felt most comfortable. I started at Calangute and Baga beaches working my way up, but ran into a detestable amount of British, German, and Australian tourists, all very much older with fat ruddy stomachs hanging over their waists and the occasional nipple ring or pirate scarf. I had imagined the beaches were within walking distance to one another, but in fact I had to spend a significant amount of money on taxi fares just to get from beach to beach. Apparently, most people rent scooters or motorcycles and let houses near beaches they like. After exploring the more touristy beaches, I settled on Vagator which was intimate with nice sand, few white tourists, and a lot of so-called "hippies."

I was surprised that even on the beach I was being solicited on an average of every two minutes by various young girls selling clothing and jewelry, men offering massages, older women slicing coconuts and mangoes with machetes, and others selling assortments of books, ice cream, and other luxuries. The young girls were amazingly tenacious and I found that this was the first sanctioned space that I had been able to talk to a young Indian girl that was even remotely my age. In a hard sell that reminded me of strip clubs I had attended, often these girls would plant themselves on the sand next to me talking for an hour or so in the hopes that I would finally look at their wares. One girl even had the self-possession enough to walk around advertising "Rubbish, get ya rubbish ere!" in a perfect (and perfectly ironic) Australian accent. And they were wonderful little scam artists many of whom assumed I was British and commented on my pale skin. We laughed and flirted, them trying to beat me down and me holding my ground until finally caving in charmed by their shystiness.

Luckily, one of these conversations paid off. As I was walking down the street I was solicited by a woman who wanted me to see her store and held me with the firmness of her grip and insistence in her eyes. Asking about me, I told her my dilemma of looking for a place to stay up north and she promptly hooked me up with a local guest house within walking distance of Calangute. Although spartan, it was clean aside from some ants and mosquitoes, had hot water, and only cost $28 USD. I was grateful and made a small purchase from her store in gratitude.

The next couple days I laid on Vagator Beach among wandering cows and goats soaking up sun, drinking beer, and eating delicious seafood. Goan cuisine fused Indian spices and seafood in unexpected ways offering variations on tandoori prawns, fish and shrimp curries, and fish stew byrianis. I had red snapper encrusted in Indian spices and grilled whole, pamfret stuffed with minced prawns and spices, masala calamari, classic shrimp curries, and thinly cut potato skins about the thickness of tortilla chips cooked in butter and garlic (admittedly one of the more Western dishes, but delicious nonetheless). I also sampled a local liquor called feni which is made from cashews and mixed with a sweet lime soft drink courtesy of the Coca Cola bottling company.

It was a strange feeling after the weight of India's poor to be laying on the beach so lavishly buying meals for under five dollars and beers for under one. But I tried to enjoy it as much as possible talking with various locals, many of whom had come as far as Nepal to work for the season. I also went to Old Goa one morning to tour the old Portuguese churches and surrounding tropical jungle. Goa is a fairly cheap place to vacation and other than the constant solicitations which occurred with maddening regularity, I would recommend it to anyone. I still had yet to sample the infamous nightlife, however, so I made up my mind to head to Anjuna Beach one evening, legendary for its all-night parties and accessibility to various drugs.