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Goa: The Rough Guide

Goa: The Rough Guide

by David Abram
If any word could be said to encapsulate the essence of GOA, it would have to be the Portuguese sossegarde, meaning "carefree". For Goan expatriates, the term conjures up memories of long, lazy evenings on pillared verandahs, surrounded by tropical vegetation and the heady scent of cashew and frangipani flowers, with the crash of surf drifting


If any word could be said to encapsulate the essence of GOA, it would have to be the Portuguese sossegarde, meaning "carefree". For Goan expatriates, the term conjures up memories of long, lazy evenings on pillared verandahs, surrounded by tropical vegetation and the heady scent of cashew and frangipani flowers, with the crash of surf drifting periodically through a curtain of coconut palms. The pace of life in this former colonial enclave, midway down India's southwest coast, has picked up over the past twenty years, but in spite of the increasing chaos of its capital, beach resorts and market towns, Goa has retained the laid-back feel that has traditionally set it apart from the rest of the country. Its 1.4 million inhabitants are unequivocal about the roots of their distinctiveness; while most of the subcontinent was colonized by the stiff-upper-lipped British, Goa's European overlords were the dissolute Portuguese, a people far more inclined to enjoy the good things in life than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
Goa was Portugal's first toe hold in Asia, brutally carved out by the explorer Alfonso Albuquerque in 1510, and served as the linchpin for a vast trade empire for over 450 years. However, when the Portuguese colonial mission began to flounder in the seventeenth century, so too did the fortunes of its capital. Cut off from the rest of India by a wall of mountains and hundreds of miles of unnavigable alluvial plain, it remained resolutely aloof from the wider subcontinent. While India was tearing itself to pieces in the run-up to Independence in 1947, the only machetes being wielded here were cutting coconuts. Not until 1961, after an exasperated Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, gave up trying to negotiate with the Portuguese dictator Salazar and sent in the army, was Goa finally absorbed into India. The overland travellers' trail wriggled its way south down the Konkan Coast from Mumbai a decade or so later, ensuring that this hitherto remote enclave of Latin-influenced culture would never be quite the same again.
Those visitors who came here back in the late 1960s and 1970s found a way of life little changed in centuries: Portuguese was still very much the lingua franca of the well-educated elite, and the coastal settlements were mere fishing and coconut cultivation villages. Relieved to have found somewhere inexpensive and culturally undemanding to recover from the travails of Indian travel, the blow-ins got stoned, watched the mesmeric sunsets over the Arabian Sea and partied madly on full-moon nights, giving rise to a holiday culture that soon made Goa synonymous with hedonistic hippies.
Since then, the state has largely shaken off its reputation as a drop-out zone, but hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors still flock here each winter, the vast majority of them to relax on Goa's beautiful beaches. Around two dozen stretches of soft white sand indent the region's coast, from spectacular 25-kilometre sweeps to secluded palm-backed coves. The level of development on them varies wildly; while some are backed by ritzy Western-style resorts, the most sophisticated structures on others are palm-leaf shacks and old wooden outriggers that have to be heaved into the sea each afternoon.
Goa's beaches, however, are only a part of the picture. A short foray from the coast will take you into the state's real heart, the densely populated strip inland - a lush patchwork of paddy fields, coconut and areca plantations, and gently meandering rivers. Further east, the jungle-covered hills of the Western Ghats separate Goa from the drier Deccan plateau, scattered with tiny thatch-roofed settlements and isolated communities of forest-dwelling farmers - direct descendants of the region's aboriginal peoples.
Wherever you travel in Goa, you'll find traces of former Portuguese domination, creating an ambience that is at once exotic and strangely familiar. Gabled Baroque church facades nose tantalizingly above the tropical treeline, padres in long cassocks cycle to mass, fishermen wear crosses and Madonna medallions, and on Sunday evenings Christian families take a leisurely stroll in their best clothes, the women in carefully tailored dresses, the men in slacks and shirts. Blending the Latin love of meat and fish with India's predilection for spices, Goan food, too, is quite unlike any other regional cuisine in Asia, as is the prevalence of alcohol. Beer is cheap, and six thousand or more bars around the state are licensed to serve it, along with the more traditional tipple, feni, a rocket fuel spirit distilled from cashew fruit or coconut sap.
Outside the Christian heartland of central Goa, the temples, rituals and exuberant festivals of Hinduism, the religion of more than two-thirds of the state's population, mingle easily with more recently implanted traditions. Unlike many parts of India, religious intolerance is a thing of the past here; faced by the threat of merger with neighbouring states, Goans have always put regional cohesion before communal differences at the ballot box, and some of the state's principal religious festivals - notably Christmas, Carnival and Diwali - are celebrated by adherents of both faiths.
However, the debate over statehood and identity has gradually come to dominate the political agenda in Goa over the past decade or so. Following New Delhi's recognition of Konkani, spoken by the vast majority of Goans, as the official state language in 1992, the press platformed calls for greater autonomy, as well as curbs on immigration from other Indian states. Goa is considerably more prosperous than adjoining regions, and this has stimulated a vast influx of economic refugees, the poorest of whom live in shanty settlements around the construction sites where they work. Among the main employers of migrant labour in recent years has been the Konkan Railway, completed in 1997 to form a super-fast land link with Mumbai - another stimulus for economic growth that threatens to bring with it lasting changes.

Product Details

Rough Guides, Limited
Publication date:
Rough Guides Travel Series
Edition description:
3rd Edition
Product dimensions:
5.12(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.56(d)

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Fuelled by remittance cheques from expats working in the Gulf and North America, and by the hard currency receipts from tourism, the recent boom has placed a great strain on Goa's fragile natural environment, and green issues nowadays feature prominently in any talk of the region's future. Much anger, in particular, has been directed towards a handful of purpose-built luxury hotels, which have been accused of ignoring environmental laws. We have tried to reflect such concerns in the Guide, indicating which hotels have been taken to task by the green lobby, and what you can do to minimize the impact of your presence in this part of the world.
If you've never travelled in Asia before, Goa may come as something of a shock. Its beaches certainly conform to the glossy holiday brochure image, but once outside the tourist spots many first-time visitors are surprised to find themselves in workaday rural India, where bullock carts far outnumber cars, rice is planted by hand, and the majority of villagers subsist on an average annual wage that is far lower than the cost of a flight from Europe. Don't, however, let this deter you from venturing off the beaten track in Goa. The little-frequented corners of the state are likely to yield some of the most memorable moments of your trip, combining beautiful scenery with the chance to encounter a way of life that is worlds away from the headlong commercialism of the beach resorts.
Where to go
Which beach you opt for when you arrive largely depends on what sort of holiday you have in mind. Heavily developed resorts such as Calangute and Baga, in the north, and Colva (and to a lesser extent Benaulim), in the south, offer more "walk-in" accommodation, shopping and tourist facilities than elsewhere. Even if you don't fancy crowded bars and purpose-built hotels, it can be worth heading for these centres at first, as finding places to stay in less commercialized corners is often difficult. Anjuna, Vagator and Chapora, where accommodation is generally more basic and harder to come by, are the beaches to aim for if you've come to Goa to party. To get a taste of what most of the state must have been like ten or fifteen years ago, however, you'll have to travel further afield - to Arambol, a sleepy fishing village and hippy hang-out in the far north; or to Agonda and Palolem, near the Karnatakan border, where tourism has yet to make much impact.
Foremost among the attractions away from the coast are the ruins of the Portuguese capital at Old Goa, nine kilometres from Panjim - a sprawl of Catholic cathedrals, convents and churches that draws crowds of Christian pilgrims from all over India. Another popular day excursion is to Anjuna's Wednesday flea-market, a sociable place to shop for souvenirs and the latest rave gear. Further inland, the thickly wooded countryside around Ponda harbours numerous temples, where you can experience Goa's peculiar brand of Hindu architecture. The taluka (district) of Salcete, and its main market town, Margao, is littered with wonderful Portuguese mansions, churches and seminaries. In addition, wildlife enthusiasts may be tempted into the interior to visit the nature reserves at Molem, in the far east of Central Goa, and Cotigao in the south, which both support fragile populations of rare animals.
With so many tempting beaches, markets, monuments and nature reserves within the state, it's no surprise that few visitors venture across the Goan border into neighbouring Karnataka. But beyond the shelter of the Western Ghats, amid the parched plateau lands of the Deccan Trap, lie the remnants of several ancient capitals. Among these is one of the most spectacular archeological sites in South India, the ghost city of Hampi. Today, weed-choked palaces, temples and discarded statues are virtually all that remains of this once opulent metropolis, capital of the formidable Vijayanagar dynasty, but a visit here will give you a vivid insight into the extravagant art and culture of pre-colonial Hindu India, while the ten-hour journey to the ruins can be an adventure in itself.
For this reason, we've included a detailed account of Hampi in Chapter 4, Around Goa, which also features the highlights along the Konkan coast, the lush strip running south from Goa in the shadow of the Sahyadri Hills. Previously accessible only by a winding pot-holed highway, the Hindu pilgrimage town of Gokarn can now be painlessly reached by train from Goa on the new Konkan Railway, while India's highest waterfall, spectacular Jog Falls, 154km from Goa, also lies within relatively easy reach of the coast. It's possible to string these two together in a trip of three to four days, but with a week to spare you'll be able to spend time exploring rarely visited fishing villages and forest areas along the way.
When to visit
The best time to come to Goa is during the dry, relatively cool winter months between late October and early April. At other times, either the sun is too hot for comfort, or the monsoon makes life miserable for everyone except the fishers and hoteliers, who get to sit around all day snoozing and playing backgammon; come here during these months hoping to spend a holiday on the beach and you're in for a shock - grey skies, violent storms and heavy seas (not to mention falling coconuts) can make even a stroll along a Goan beach a hazardous exercise. The rains start to subside around late August to early September, usually petering out by early October, though expect the odd hazy day around then. Peak season, from mid-December to the end of January, sees near perfect weather, with the temperature gauge rarely nudging above a manageable 32C. Finding a room or a house to rent at that time, however - particularly over the Christmas and New Year fortnight when the tariffs double, or triple - can be a real hassle in some resorts, notably Anjuna, which is inundated with party-goers at this time. If you're travelling without pre-booked accommodation, it may be worthwhile reserving a room by phone before you leave.

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