There is no doubt that its beaches are Goa’s major attraction. Although India has a long coastline and many other States have equally attractive beach destinations, the combination of its reputation as a laid back easy going society combined with the easy, low cost availability of booze and sea food have made it a great favorite for many foreign and Indian tourists. It is a special favorite for many landlocked compatriots from North India. I do the Delhi-Goa-Delhi trip 2-3 times a year and there is never a flight without a few newly wed couples heading for their honeymoon (unless it happens to be one of the inauspicious months in the Hindu calender) and in the wedding season I have counted as many as 15 on a single flight.
On a recent short trip I made, I was surrounded by a group from Punjab, mostly first time fliers who were heading out on a ‘monsoon’ special – a low cost offer made to fill un-booked rooms. Sure enough it being June, we landed in pouring rain. It was raining almost continuously for the next 3 days, and it is doubtful if they saw anything but the rain on their 3-4 day trip. But, the booze and food would have helped them watch the rough seas and fulfill their dream of having seen the sea. But, even in good weather, most visitors do not stray far from the seaside. Most of the tourist activities have come up along these beach resorts. But there is much more to Goa than just its beaches.
Being a coastal State, the Western Ghats are not far away and the flat coastal strip is fairly narrow. The whole region is always green, more so during and after the monsoon. While Gulf inflows and increasing incomes have led to a lot of modern construction, a drive inland away from the sea side, takes you through the lush green country with its varied flora. Your drive will take you through small, villages where many old houses are standing as they have for a century and more. Recent prosperity and awareness are leading to more of them getting renovated. Away from the highway, traffic volumes are low as is the population pressure.
Due to its historical baggage, most of the temples one passes are recent additions – what is more evident are the churches and chapels. This gives visitors a false idea that it is a Christian culture, but Christians only constitute a third of the population and their influence culturally and politically has declined in the decades after liberation. Of course, it is a syncretic culture and many Catholic events like the Panaji Fest in February is a big event on the State calendar.There are many others as well and the remains of St Xavier which lies in Old Goa (a UNICEF World heritage site) are a huge attraction for the CAtholic devout from around the world. and many small and big ‘jatras’ or fairs spring up of both along temples and churches at various times of the year.
There is also some misconception regarding Goan food – there is far more to it than vindaloo and sorpotel, cafreal and xacuti. The Hindus traditionally, ate fish but not meat – when I first went as a bride to Goa, I don’t remember being served even chicken in any house. While coconut is a common feature, Hindu dishes are less spicy and use tamarind and kokum for the zingy taste rather than the vinegar used in Catholic cooking. We should remember that the although Indian food is famous for its spicy flavor, only pepper is native to India and we need to thank the Portugese for bringing in the green chilli, which we have appropriated as ourown.
Of course, over the last 3-4 decades, most of the younger generation of Hindus have taken to chicken avidly, pork is still mostly taboo in Hindu houses. Even the standard Goan fish curry, tastes different in different restaurants! The vegetarian cuisine is overshadowed by the fish-pork-beef trio, but has its own flavors and there are many unique dishes for the vegetarian palate as well. Just the taste of the vegetables and fruits, the long beans (vaal), the local giant sized bhindi (okra), the non-graft local papaya etc. are themselves a treat for a Delhiwalla. And finally, the local breads, pao, uno and poiee, are unparalleled and needs a write-up of its own.
And then there are the towns of Goa – few (Panaji, Mapusa, Margao) but interesting to wander around. The town centers are compact and bustling and are busy commercial hubs. I am not very familiar with the others, but Panaji has much to offer. Many of the old Portugese buildings are still used as Government offices like beautifully renovated old Goa medical college which is now the home of the International Film Festival. The area of Fontainhas is a protected area and gives you a flavor of Lisbon. And if you stroll along the covered corridors, you could peek into shops with original teak cupboards standing unchanged for a century.
The markets should be visited in the morning, when the fish sales are at their peak. Other produce is also fresh and often off the farms. You can get hand pounded rice, poha and hand made papad, all of which I stock up on these visits.
There is also a fair share of cultural activity, with the highlight being the annual International Film Festival in November. Goa is the home of the Mangeshkars and has a strong tradition in the classical arts and many artists perform through the year. Panaji has the beautifully Charles Correa designed Kala Academy to host these events. For the last few years there is also a Literary festival which is fairly highly rated. The unique Konkani Tiatr, a mixture of song and short skits which of late address current issues with wit and humor.
And there is much more, and since I am not doing tourism promotion for Goa, I will leave it there. But, being a second home for me, I felt that I needed to voice my feelings. I trust that some of you out there will try and go beyond the beaches and try to see more of the State.
P.S. And I forgot to mention the recent addition to the culture scene, the Museum of Goa. Set up by Subodh Kerkar, a well known GOan artist at Pilerne Industrial Estate, Bardez it is an interesting exhibition space which displays his own work as well as many other contemporaries. It also hosts a variety of cultural evens and workshops related to art and artists. Its big negative is that it is a bit off the track and one has to make a special effort to get there!