Monday, June 8, 2009

Freewheeling through India’s beach capital

The Sun, Sand and the sea are three very basic components that make for a fantastic summer vacation. And boasting of the best location for a holiday to soak up the sun while in the lap of the sea is Goa. The beach state has been on my must-go list for a while, but it was the potential expense that had me hesitating. Huge portions of the tiny state have been taken over by multi-starred hotel chains, rendering it a destination for foreigners with foreign exchange and NRI’s. However, the truth is that you neither need to be unusually rich or a green card holder to enjoy a holiday in Goa, as my cousin and me found out.
It was an uneventful beginning to a long weekend that led us to Goa on more of a whim than anything else. Jumping onto a second-class compartment, we found ourselves in Vasco station. The train journey in itself is scenic and you also get to see the Doodhsagar falls, which true to its name are milky cascades. Vasco station is a lot less crowded than Madgaon, which is the principal station. Yet it has its share of touts and crooks in the guise of unauthorized tourist guides and capricious cab drivers. Warned in advance by a Goan friend, we headed straight to the Vasco bus stand. Our destination was Panjim, home to Mandovi River and a tourist hub for those interested in the beaches of North Goa. The one and a half hour bus ride to Panjim is not anything to write home about in terms of exotic locales or scenic beauty. You might as well be riding on a bus in pretty much any suburb in any part of India. However, the one distinct impression that stays on is that of the constant smell of fish in varied forms. From fresh seafood to dried fish, the smell has enveloped the region and is part and parcel of the Goa experience, whether you decide to hike up to the forts or relax in the sun.
My cousin and I had called up the Goan Tourism Department Corporation (GTDC) to check whether rooms were available in their Calangute hotel. Calangute beach was known as the hub for all things happening and fun in this side of Goa. Heading to Calangute, in a good old 1988 vintage ambassador, the GTDC person’s non-committal grunts were ringing in our ears. But the sights, sounds and smells on the way to Calangute, which showed off the vibrancy and the energy of the beach state kept our spirits high. The first glimpse of Calangute is a surprising one. After various twists and turns on a winding route, the road suddenly straightens out for half a kilometer or so. And at the end of the road, the beach suddenly rises up to meet the road, which stops a few meters shy of the sea, at a series of steps which head to the sand. The GTDC has been lucky enough to build a hotel right next to these steps facing the dark waters. We decided to bunk there for the trip as we were a couple of hours away from sunset and we wanted to be near enough the beach to catch our first sunset in Goa. Also a stone’s or rather shell’s throw away is Souza Lobos. One of the oldest eateries in the area, they not only serve mouth watering Goan cuisine but also boast of a traditional live Goan band. We chose to sit at a table outdoors, with our toes sinking into the sand, tucking into Chicken Vindaloo, with Konkani melodies and the crashing waves in the background.
The next day we were up early and rewarded by a near deserted beach with the water at just the right temperature for a dip. And the best way to get yourself dry is to take a walk along the shore. A brisk walk further down takes you to Baga, the tranquil extension of the beach, known for its fisherman’s village. Yet at night, the beach transforms into one of the liveliest night scenes around with popular hangouts like Tito’s and Mambo’s staying open till the wee hours of dawn.
Next on the agenda was roaming around the countryside Goan style. With neither the money nor inclination to pay overpriced cabs, we decided to hire a scooter, a service available in most stalls around Calangute. Zooming off to the nearby beaches of Anjuna, Vagator and Candolim are easiest, if one decides to take this mode of transport. This way we got to discover picturesque looking by lanes looking like postcards from Portugal and feel the sea breeze in our hair and sun beating down on us. It was like an actual slice of Goa as opposed to the sanitized guided tour.
A fort we came across by chance, on the road trip was Chapora. While it’s Fort Aguada which most Indian tourists head to believing it to be the fort immortalized by the Bollywood hit Dil Chahta Hai (2001), locals told us that it was Chapora which was actually the scene of all the action. Riding the scooter up an impossibly steep hill, with nothing vaguely touristy anywhere near, we reached Chapora’s foothills. Confronted by the prospect of a vertical trek up loose dusty stones and dry grass, it was only the dream of photographing ourselves as the stars did, that made us climb up. A fabulous view of the sunset over the waves of Vagator made the effort worthwhile.
At the end of our weekend it was a multitude of experiences that we took back from Goa. From flea Markets and English Breakfasts to clear and rocky waters and excited masses trying out banana boats and water scooters, there’s something for everyone in Goa. And no matter which part of the state you head to, you don’t need to be a millionaire to experience it.

The New Indian Express, April, 2009

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