THE long hair, beards and beads of a number of male passengers on the flight to Dabolim Airport in south west India are an ongoing testimony to Goa’s reputation as a hippy paradise. The former Portuguese colony became the destination of choice for dropouts, beatniks and alternativelifestyle seekers in the late 1960s and many of them are still there.
In the 1990s Goa gained a reputation as a rave scene, with all night dance parties disturbing its usual tranquillity. A clampdown by the Goan authorities has more or less put an end to that but there are still clubs which cater for party animals and an occasional spontaneous happening on one of the region’s numerous beaches.
As well as westerners Goa attracts people from all over India and you will find holy men on elephants, snake charmers and beggars wandering the streets.
The smell of spices wafting from cafes, restaurants and people’s homes is one of the most
memorable sensual experiences.
Anjuna is home to the best flea market in Goa. Held on a Wednesday many traders will shift from their usual patches to set up here. For the visitor it is hassle city and almost impossible to even glance out of the corner of your eye at an item without the stall holder insisting that you come over for a closer look. If you are interested in buying an item, haggling is the key and goods can be secured for a tenth of the original asking price.
There are bargains to be had. Rugs, throws, clothing and beads – lots and lots of beads – are the main items. But you can also pick up more unusual items, including sitars, saris and carvings of the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesh.
Goa’s capital Panaji (also known as Panjim) is a small easygoing port city. The centre is dominated by The Church of the Immaculate Conception, a legacy of its Portuguese colonial past, which overlooks the main street and which is beautifully lit up at night.
Tuesday is market day and the people from throughout the region descend on the city, the rest of the week is much more relaxed.
In the evenings dozens of boats leave from the docks with onboard entertainment. Given the number of Indians who go on these excursions it is clear that they are not just aimed at hapless westerners. Sailing out along the Mandovi River towards the Arabian Sea as the sun goes down you could be forgiven for ignoring the entertainment, which is for the most part third-rate cabaret and simply admiring the scenery. However, a Bollywood-style chorus line dancing to some Bhangra pop became an indelible memory of India.
About 10 miles from Panaji is the former capital, Old Goa, which was abandoned following an outbreak of malaria. The main attraction here is the Basilica of Bom Jesus where the remains of St Francis Xavier are preserved in a glass casket.
Apart from Mediterranean-style churches and a museum there is little else to see and any indication that this was once a thriving capital has been long lost.
Hindu temples also dot the countryside but he insides can be a bit of a shock for while they are ornately decorated they can often seem gaudy with Christmassy-style flashing lights hanging from the ceilings.
Goa’s second city is Margao which has little of the charms of Panaji. The roads are potholed, the pavements cracked and the buildings look as if they are about to fall down – it is down-and-dirty India, but friendly and safe.
For the really adventurous a 10-hour train journey will take you to Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay).
Inland among the Western Ghat mountains on the border with the neighbouring Indian state of Karnataka lie the Dudhsagar waterfalls which tumble 600 metres into a rock pool. For most people getting there involves hiring a driver and four-wheel drive vehicle that plunge into rivers and pass through impressive tropical jungle. Look out for the huge intricate webs woven around dark ominous looking holes where fist-sized spiders lurk, although apparently they are not poisonous to humans.
Closer to the waterfalls dozens of black-faced langur monkeys swing through the trees and descend to greet visitors in the hope of a snack.
The most famous beach in Goa is at Palolem, about 40 miles south of the Panaji. It is a holiday brochure designer’s dream with straw beach shacks, backed by coconut trees sitting beside golden sands as the sun drips onto an impossibly blue sea.
Off season the beach is almost deserted and it is possible to stake your own private little piece of paradise and swim in the shallow tepid waters with no-one to disturb you, apart of course from stray traders offering you the chance to buy some beads.