Now that I’ve been snowbound at home here in Baltimore for six days straight, the only activity outside the house I’ve had is shoveling snow, eating burgers and going to hot yoga. Though I love snow, I really do, and I love having days off from work (thank you, federal government), I think the hot yoga is leaving me a little dehydrated and perhaps hallucinating of warmer places. After listening to yoga instructors pretend to speak Hindi and be Indian because they can hold themselves upside down on two pinkies, I’ve decided to transport myself to the birthplace of hippiedom, the grand poomba of American yogism, and the great center of full-moon parties: Goa, India.
My first experience with Goa started with my best friend, Karen. She has dark hair and very tan skin. Her mother, equally tan and dark-maned, speaks with an exotic accent and if you ask Karen about her background, she’ll tell you she’s Canadian (which does not explain anything you’re looking for). One day I pressed her about the un-Canadian features in her family, and she told me her mother’s side was Portugese. But then her mother made a lot of tasty Indian food and left it in Karen’s freezer, because apparently her Indian grandmother made these dishes. And then I was reading my Frommers’ Guide to India and learned about how the Portugese settled in Goa, and I looked up and said “Karen… are you Goan?“
Yes, so Karen is part-Goan. She says it’s complicated to explain her whole background, so she just says Portugese. And that’s the quick history of Goa: Portugese missionaries came down to convert the Indians into Catholics and build churches and breed generations of exotic-looking people. Then around the 1960’s, another exotic-looking group of people descended upon the beaches of Goa and gave it the reputation it has today – a nirvana for flower children, floursack pant-wearing stoner hippies who dred their hair and party every night, full moon or not.
Whether you’re a modern-day hippie (i.e. one with a lot of financial independence so you can spend your time backpacking around the world without a care and buy all sorts of drugs. Oh, and the hemp clothes sold at the local markets are targeted exactly for people like you, so please support the local economy and buy them) or a traveling business school student like I was, Goa is a vacation spot for all. Some highlights:
Beaches. There are many. We rented a scooter and scooted along the coast to explore; many had shack-like hotels and restaurants right on the beach. The Baga-to-Calangute area north of Panjim is a ridiculously touristy section that, even if you’re not totally looking for Nirvana, takes away from any restful experience you might have been hoping for. Skip ahead towards the beaches north of that, and the farther north you go, the more rustic and secluded it will become.
Where to stay. In high season, it’s advisable to make a reservation, but if you’re okay with abandoning your original plan and checking out other places, you can. Many beaches come with little huts for very little. We stayed in Anjuna in some $6/day hotel on the beach (I can’t remember the name now but I would not really recommend it) that gave us our own little one-room, two-bed house with one bedsheet each but a full bathroom, even if it came with a frog and a giant cockroach. Though the room did not give me much sleep, the beachview balcony and menu of Indian-or-Chinese food did.
Old Goa. For some history and culture, check out Old Goa inland. It’s muggier and hot, but you can find refuge inside a cool stone church, which was my theory on how the Portugese managed to convert so many Indians (“we offer you our Lord and air conditioning”). Old Goa is a World Heritage site and a good walking tour of old churches and conversion sites from the 1500’s. In the Basilica of Bom, you can view the preserved body of Saint Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa.
Shopping. The Global Village market in Anjuna on Wednesdays sells great souvenirs and take-home items, but be warned that many of the same items (claimed to be hand-made in Goa) can be found in other markets around India and even in markets in Europe and South America. Haggle hard. Be aware of extremely aggressive women and young girls who will grab you and force you to look at their items for sale, though it’s okay to say no and walk away after looking at them.
Activities. People-watching is especially fun, from the man-in-tatters doing exercises on the beach to the European tourists who think they’ve turned Indian. Cow-watching is just as fun – they enjoy the beach as much as tourists do. If you must, there are yoga centers around the area, but don’t be surprised if classes cost the same as they do back home and are run by blond women from London or California. Eat delicious seafood in banana leaves and drink fruity lassi (shakes); be aware that during full moon parties, the “Magic lassi” contains items that are not necessarily yogurt and fruit. Full moon parties occur all the time on Anjuna, with drugged-out European backpackers swinging their dreds and braided hair to rave music all night long.