At the end of February I took a three day weekend and headed to Goa with another Deshpande Foundation intern named Mariah.
We arrived off the night bus in Margaon and took a taxi into Palolem. As we walked down the beach in search of our guesthouse I remember feeling strangely satisfied in shivering in the cool pre-dawn air. The beach was still asleep.
We were following rough google maps coordinates, which led us down to the southern end of the beach. After half an hour of searching among beach huts and bushes, and repeated unsuccessful phone calls to the number provided, we still hadn’t found where we were going.
A friendly boat owner took pity on us, gesturing to chairs set up at an adjacent beachfront restaurant. Gratefully we sat down to wait for our host to wake up. As the sun rose people began to emerge slowly, going about their morning routine; tourists jogged by. The beach was beautifully quiet, peaceful.
The boat owner reappeared, abruptly ushering us out of our chairs. Until that point I’d thought he was connected to the restaurant, but I guess not. We picked up our backpacks and continued with orienteering problem. After wandering around the point and onto the next beach, having exhausted all possibilities near the advertised location, I managed to get through to the provided number. The guy on the other end told us to meet him at a nearby restaurant, ironically enough called ‘The Found Things.’
When we arrived he was still unable to be found, so we sat down for breakfast. After a while he materialized and led us to the guesthouse. It turns out we’d essentially walked by it twice, it was just named something different (but we later realized the pictures online matched the building). But I wasn’t about to complain too loudly, the room was cheap, clean and close to the water; that’s all I could really ask for.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the town and swimming and relaxing on the beach.
The beach at Palolem is a 1 mile long paradise, set in a protected bay 70km from Panjim, Goa’s capital. Spending a day at the beach is like being cast in a laid-back theatre production. In the morning the actors trundle into the beach-side eateries, tired from their aggressive relaxing the day before. Stagehands decorate the scene with rows of lounge chairs and umbrellas. The actors take their positions; the stage briefly bustles with latent activity. The day rolls by. Evening is preceded by a costume change, salty hair and swimsuits exchanged for sarongs and shirts. The actors return to a new scene – an idyllic mile of candle-lit tables set upon the sands. Eventually the stagehands, lethargic in the cool, quiet nighttime darkness, pile these set pieces haphazardly in the wings, take their bows and leave. In their wake, quiet tranquility; the beach sleeps.
Woke up at 6:30AM, with the intent to press on to explore Panjim and Goa Velha, Old Goa, but Palolem’s relaxing vibes did their best to keep us ensnared. After breakfast we set about trying to track down the guesthouse manager. At 9AM, unable to find him, we left money and keys in the room and caught a government bus in Cancona.
By the time we arrived in Goa Velha I was ready for an ice cream. The remainder of my bottled water was no longer merely lukewarm, and the air was thick and heavy in the heat. We bought our ice creams and walked up to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount, a hilltop church overlooking the jungle and the the cathedral domes and towers of Goa Velha below. On the way back down we bought sketchy bottled water from a roadside stand.
The bus back to Panjim was packed. I was ushered into the front, and ended up sitting next to the driver in his cubicle. It was definitely not as exciting as an airplane cockpit but hey, I’ll take what I can get.
We arrived in Panjim around 2PM and went in search of lunch. We headed for a place I’d read about serving traditional Goan food out of a converted colonial house. We weren’t disappointed. We enjoyed some delicious Vindalho and then left to walk around the city. We’d just left the restaurant when a taxi driver hollered, asking us why we weren’t at the carnival. We were a little confused. We were out of the loop.
Goa’s carnival is a carryover from the colonial era. Like Rio, Tenerife, New Orleans and others, Goa’s Carnival is the biggest party of the year. It’s a celebration of excess, a wild party where people can get it all out of their systems before Lent. Of course it’s a little bit more reserved than Rio. This is India after all.
After the kick-off parade and crowning of the community-elected carnival king, the north end of the old town becomes a big street party (in Goa the same local musician has been crowned king for the last four years).
We’d missed the parade, but we resolved to be there for the street party. Unfortunately, we’d booked our accommodation in advance, and it was 40km away. In a rush, we bought masks, haggled for a taxi, dropped our bags off and showered and caught another taxi back into Panjim. Except the return driver wouldn’t drop us in Panjim (we only heard about that part once he’d driven us a third of the way). Instead we were dropped off at a jetty surrounded by a crowd of people. A small ferry barge arrived, extended its gangplank and we boarded. On the other side we hopped off and found our way to the party.
The park was a mess of carnival statues and garlands. On one side, the streets around it were a sea of people, tents and vendors. A band was playing radio singles on a large stage. We were greeted by Rihanna as we headed to the drink tent. We ate some Goan prawn curry in the park and headed for the dancing.
The band’s set ended abruptly at 9:50PM. This is India, after all. Fortunately we were granted two successive encores, both gems, to cap off the night. I don’t know if there is a better way to end a set than playing Summer of ’69 and Final Countdown back to back. If any of you can think of a better combo let me know, I’d be happy to debate.
We had breakfast at our hotel in Baga, and then headed down to hang out on the beach.
If Palolem is the epitome of an idyllic tourist getaway, then Baga is the exact opposite. Originally discovered by hippies in the 60s and 70s, Baga has become known more recently for its all-night parties and hordes of tourists. The beach is long, stretching an uninterrupted 5km, past Calangute to the south. The inland road is a sea of vendors selling clothing, bongs, tattoos and trinkets. The beach is similarly lined with restaurants, bars and clubs, and patrolled by a run-down Mahindra Motors Jeep knock-off with an overly loud megaphone. In reality it’s not really all that bad, but I got a sharp piece of plastic lodged stubbornly in my toe while walking in the sand, so I’m a little biased. I’ll probably head back there in search of a party at some point. My toe is fine.
In the early afternoon we went back to Panjim in anticipation of our bus ride home. We stopped at the first air-conditioned restaurant we found, and had a nice thali. After we finished, we went in search of a coffee shop to kill time until our bus left. We stumbled upon a hip establishment and read books until it was time to walk back to the bus stand. Our bus arrived. We arrived back in Hubli around 2AM Monday morning.
Thank you to my grandparents, Marie and Peter Orme, who sponsored this weekend trip.