My first tryst with Goa, India commenced when I was probably too small to even remember when it actually began! Mention 'first love', and most people would often think of that cute guy on the adjoining bench in school or the pretty neighbor's kid! But for me, my first love will always remain to be this paradise on earth - Goa!
Goa has always been known for its pristine beaches, majestic churches, quaint, serene temples, rave parties and scrumptious food. A holiday in Goa would always mean visits to the beaches followed by plenty of booze! But for me, it is more than just the sand and the surf and bottles of wine. It is the place where I shall always belong and cherish, for all the special things I have learned from this wonderful land.
Though 'technically' I may not be a Goan, I found myself being absorbed and influenced heavily by the Goan culture. It was then I realized, that in Goa, there could never be a Maharashtrian, a Punjabi, a Hindu, or a Muslim. You can only be a 'susshegad' Goan! It is here where you can lose yourself entirely to nature. This is the place where I really discovered myself and found a spiritual connection with nature.
If you really want to discover Goa beyond the beaches then you must shed all your inhibitions and bid adieu to the luxurious Goan hotels. Forget about those well-made beds and people waiting on you. A modest place in a small village would actually help you to imbibe the local Goan flavor.
Imagine waking up to the melodious ding-dongs of the church bell. Mornings are also symbolized by the gentle honking of the local 'paav-wala' (bread-seller). He bears the brunt of many hungry Goans waiting for him eagerly, every early morning's and late evening's. As the morning progresses, you can get a whiff of freshly fried fish and fish curry (known as 'Uman'). Cram yourself with these mouth-watering, delectable items and you won't blame the Goans for their siesta time! Please note: Catnaps are a must after any delicious Goan meal.
Evenings find the Goans either getting back to work (generally almost every Goan has to have a shop!) or going for a stroll on the sandy Goan beaches. Watching the sunset is almost a norm out here. Come to think about it, when was the last time you actually saw the sunset from your plush office window? A happy lot, most Goans have no time to 'chase' money or be a part of any 'rat race'. They are satisfied with what God has bestowed upon them and prefer to have a happy and content life, within Goa itself.
Night life in Goa is contrary to what most people have heard. The locals are not really party animals and don't really get high on swigs of beer, always. A conservative lot, there are plenty of youngsters who would prefer a peaceful night out with their family rather than being squeezed in any disco or pub.
My eternal connection with the beach began when I took my first baby steps on the clean white sands strewn with pretty shells of all shapes and sizes. It was then I realized that no feeling could be better than to have your feet sink into the sand and feel the majestic, azure waves crashing onto your body. Long walks in the water always followed and became a way of life for me. Every time I looked at the distant horizon, I realized that every problem in life seemed insignificant before the mighty sea.
The golden sands, the inviting blue waters and the skies splashed with reds and blues resemble the creations of a great artist at work. When you stay in Goa, you can never really be far from a beach. From gorgeous beaches that are buzzing with tourists to virgin stretches. Every outing will have new stories to unearth. The Sinquerim beach, Palolem beach, Benaulim beach, Baga beach, Vagator beach, Anjuna beach, Candolim beach, Calangute beach, and Arambol beach are some of the most popular and frequented ones. But there are also loads of virgin lands you can uncover during your Goa vacation.
Ditch your plush car and rent a bike. Pack your bags with basic food supplies, water, some cashew feni and sexy swimming gear and with the help of the locals, discover those not-so-frequented Goan beaches. The effort would definitely be worth it! I have listed a few of my favorites.
Located in Pernem, Morjim beach is one such place, which lies across the Chapora River. When I had first stepped onto this beach, I was mesmerized by the beauty and tranquility of this place. Even a whisper seemed so very noisy to me. Missed by the regular tourists, this place also houses a Sea Turtle Conservation center. When I saw Morjim in the rains, it was simply breathtaking! The incessant drops that hit me hard did not deter me from throwing all cares to the winds and running towards the inviting waters. The wet sand, the overcast sky, the air having a strong fragrance of the salt water, the refreshing spray from the angry waves can be felt even today, although I may be miles away from Morjim. Words of caution though, don't try swimming in the rains.
Ashwem Beach offered a refreshing change from the regular hotels when it had its first bamboo beach hut in 1996. The journey on bike to Ashwem, down to the south, from Arambol beach was a memorable one. As I mounted the bike and my friend navigated through the narrow lanes dotted with pretty bungalows, I was initially apprehensive about approaching this place. I was not aware what was in store for me! With only some fisher folk for company, I enjoyed the solitary long walks and little dips in the sea with my friend. I can never forget the red rocks full of tiny little crabs scurrying around doing their daily chores or the sweet pain I experienced, when the numerous shells bedecking the seabed, cut through my skin!
Close to Margao, the Betul beach is a tiny stretch of white sands, sprinkled with abstract shaped rocks. To approach Betul, I had to clamber down a small cliff, which was not my idea of having fun! But the reward was astonishing when I finally made the descent. The sky with its dainty white clouds, the swaying green coconut trees, the little fishing boats moored at the side and the strong waves hitting with full force on the porous rocks was a sight to behold. The solitude it offered was a blessing in disguise. A few locals stared at me curiously when I sat myself on the rocks and stared at the horizon. I don't know what I was looking for, but it was the peace and the stillness of the place that really enthralled me. The roaring sea had such a calming effect.
Apart from marveling at the magnificent architecture, a visit to the temple for me always meant sweet smelling flowers, pleasant fragrances being emanated from the incense sticks and the 'aarti's' being performed by the 'pujari's' (Hindu priests).
I can frequently recollect the calm environment when I used to climb those numerous steps to invoke divine blessings from the Lord after choosing the flowers from the persistent flower sellers who religiously sat making garlands, patiently on the steps. With sparkling, clean interiors these temples often have lakes of pure water adjoining them and are also surrounded by betel nut trees and coconut groves. The Shri Shantadurga Temple, Shri Mahalaxmi Temple, Shri Mangueshi Temple, Shri Ramnath Temple, Shri Mahalsa Temple, The Tambadi Surla Temple, Shri Naguesh Temple are some of the revered ones to name a few. Hindu tourists from all over are known to plan their trips especially to visit all these destinations to personally experience the sanctity of these marvelous abodes of the Hindu Lords. Traditional zatra's (feasts) are often held within the temple grounds.
It was only after I moved out of Goa, it finally dawned on me that I was 'technically' a Hindu by religion. After being asked, "Are you a Christian? " on numerous occasions, I realized that I had never ever differentiated between the two religions. The massive Goan churches always had a magnetic pull on me and I felt myself being drawn to these imposing monuments. The holiness and the stillness of the place, the architectural splendor, and the people dressed in their best Sunday attire all added to the grandeur being exuded by these historical wonders. The Basilica of Bom Jesus and Goa Se Cathedral are the two most revered churches of Goa. Among the other popular churches of Goa are the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, The Church of Our Lady of Rosary, The Reis Magos Church, etc.
The hospitality of the Goans was truly felt one fine day when I happened to go on a sketching trip in the villages of Goa. Here I was, hungry and engrossed in my work when a kind Goan family happily agreed to give me a delicious meal although they were living off in a very modest old-fashioned Goan house. Food from Goa is spicy, hot and comprises mainly seafood. Coconut also forms the main ingredient of most dishes available. Goans are known for their mouth-watering preparations of fish curry and rice. The excellent Prawn Balchao, the Sorpotel, the Goan Vindaloo, the Cafreals, Prawn Curry, are ones that top the list for most tourists and locals. The most popular dishes comprising prawns, lobsters, crab, pomfrets, clams, kingfish, and mussels are used to make a variety of curries, soups and pickles. The bebincas and such other pastries will have you craving for more.
Always a land of joy and merriment, I have noticed festivals belonging to different religions being celebrated with great fervor by all communities throughout the year. Christmas time in Goa means lots of carol singing with Santa Claus and hanging your stocking by the bedside, at night. Music and dance flows through the blood of all Goans. This is visible even during Diwali and Holi. The zatras or feasts held within the temple complex are colorful and create a very unique atmosphere for that period. The little stalls sell colorful bangles, toys, steel utensils and a lot of other knickknacks.
I have seen Goa really come alive during Shigmo, a festival celebrated by having special parades of colorful floats with the people dancing in all their glory. People from all over the world flock to Goa especially during Carnival time. The Panaji Church is a sight to behold during the Panaji feast, when the church is bedecked and the narrow roads are suddenly buzzing with activities with people shopping for food, children looking for toys or foreigners getting a tattoo done!
Music and dance being dear to all Goans, my mornings always began listening to a lot of rock and trance music. Browse through the flea market at Anjuna and you are bound to bag a good bargain. Remo Fernandes brought fame to Goa when he made a mark in the music industry in India. Take a stroll in any of the lanes in Goa and don't be surprised to hear live bands strumming guitars and crooning some Portuguese tunes or young girls performing the Dekhni, one of Goa's most popular form of dance.
Wendell Rodricks brought Goa on the international map in the fashion world with his treatment of white and usage of simple clean cuts. But for the typical Goan, a pair of shorts would suffice! Owing to the hot and humid climate, I always found myself clad in outfits made from pure cotton. Besides I was never sure when I would find myself at the beach so keeping a pair of cargo shorts can certainly prove useful at any time! Vibrant colors are predominant in Goa, be in on the fabrics or the quaint bungalows!
Goan tourism has really picked up over the years. With visitors from India and all over the globe, I have been fortunate to interact with people from different areas of interest's and cultures. And found many friends from diverse lands. The need to come to Goa varied from person to person. For some, it was to seek their inner soul, whereas to others it meant nothing more than getting a good tan! Whatever the reason, they have sure gone back with a smile and loads of memories.
Goans don't really need a reason to celebrate. I have been fortunate enough to spend so many years in the land that really teaches you to live your life to the fullest. The perfect blend of culture and the harmony that exists is an experience, which could not be given by any swanky hotel in three nights! If you want to taste the flavor of the real Goa, I suggest, pack your bags for at least a month and leave the excess baggage behind.