We’ve all traveled somewhere that changed us, yet we don’t always think to go back. In this series, “The Second Trip Around,” made possible by the Flights.com “Don’t Skip the Trip” campaign, our writers do just that.
The taxi slowed to a stop on the main street in Anjuna, a small beach town in the northern part of Goa, on the west coast of India. I got out of the car and was swarmed by a dozen men and boys. “Come with me, ma’am, come with me!” they all yelled, grabbing at the straps of my bag. “Please, ma’am, let me carry your bag and take you to a very nice place,” they continued in chorus. The man in front of me was the most persistent. He was fat, wearing a stained, not-quite-white t-shirt and had a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth, but I was hot and exhausted, so I followed him. The trip was a last-minute decision, and I hadn’t booked a hostel in advance. My choices were to lug my bag around in the afternoon heat searching for a decent place to stay, or just follow this guy and hope for the best.
“I guarantee you will love it,” he said of the place he was taking me. “Your own hut on the beach with a hammock for just twenty dollars a night. It’s paradise!” He took me down a pathway and I noticed a trail of empty bottles and chip bags. We walked past an abandoned lot that appeared to be a de facto garbage dump, with an oversized pig rummaging through it.
Right beside the lot was a small house where a white, middle-aged man sat in his underwear on the porch drinking beer. I was gob smacked that he was living right beside the garbage heap, drinking that beer as if he was at a Sandals resort. We continued to walk until we arrived at three dilapidated huts, located beside various bars that lined the beach, each one blasting its own particular brand of awful music. More middle-aged foreigners reclined in the loungers beside them. They had the bloated, sun-burned look of excess. I dropped my backpack on the sand and plopped myself down on it. I looked up at the man who had brought me here. He was still smoking, and smiling.
“What do you think?” he asked.
I opened my mouth to say something, but all I could do was start to cry. I was devastated that this once-idyllic village that I used to frequent as a little girl had come to this: a chaotic, garbage-ridden escape for Western drop-outs.
My father immigrated to Canada from Goa in 1969. He met and married my mother, who was born and raised on the East Coast of Canada. For the first twelve years of my life we alternated Christmases between our hometown, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and my father’s family home in Panjim, Goa. From an early age, I decided that I preferred the Arabian sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Goa was an exotic land with expansive, quiet beaches, friendly, beautiful hippies, simple seafood shacks and endless swathes of rich green palms that sat under bulbous, searing orange sunsets. We would spend all day at the beach, building sandcastles, collecting shells and swimming in the warm ocean. We stopped only to inhale French fries, fried fish and soft drinks. I remember walking past the European hippies at the Anjuna flea market. They were young, radiant, tanned and free. They smiled warmly at me and sold homemade clothes and jewelry. My nine-year-old eyes lingered on these radical beings, who effortlessly coexisted beside the local women selling fruits, vegetables and spices in their brightly-colored saris.
One New Year’s Eve, we all piled into cars and drove to Calangute, another village just north of Panjim. We sat at a beachside restaurant and feasted on king prawns and French fries as the sun set over the ocean. All of the other Goan families around us were so relaxed and happy. I think this is the first time I understood the term susegad, a word of Portuguese origin associated with Goa. It refers to a relaxed contentment, and the ability to enjoy life to the fullest. We drove back to town that night with all of the windows open. I felt the warm, thick air on my face as we raced past palm trees under an endlessly starry night. My dad, and everyone else on the road, would not stop honking their horns in celebration of the new year. I felt euphoric.
My parents divorced when I was a teenager, and that was the end of our family visits to Goa. But twenty-five years later I went back, looking to recapture some of those childhood memories of the Goa I loved. Problem was, it seemed to be gone.
Goa is different from the rest of India, my aunts and uncles used to say. They explained to me that Goa was a Portuguese colony, the last part of India to become independent in 1961. Back in the 1980’s they would often say that soon Goa would be taken over by Western tourists and Indian businessmen looking to capitalize on our little piece of paradise.
It wasn’t just the garbage that made me cry upon my return. There had been so many other changes; my family’s predictions had come true. Goa appeared to be completely corrupted by tourism. Its universal allure had proved its undoing. The clear-eyed hippies had been replaced with drug-addled escapists, gangs had taken control of most of the beachside businesses, and slippery businessmen from New Delhi had opened up resorts everywhere they could, with zero regard for the environment. The small makeshift market had developed into a sprawling, overcrowded commercial center.
As a child, I had fantasized about coming back to Goa as an adult. I would be able to join those hippies in Anjuna, drink cold Kingfisher beer in intimate seaside shacks and sleep under the stars if I wanted. By the time I actually made my return, the beach nightlife was frenetic, fuelled by loud trance music and gaudy, flashing lights. There were long lines to the bathrooms, where everybody went in two by two and checked their nostrils for rogue white powder before heading back to the dancefloor.
I had heard that the south was less developed than the north, and I was curious to see for myself. We had never ventured south as a family. So I hired a taxi and headed toward the edge of Goa, where it bordered the state of Karnataka.
I arrived in the village of Palolem, where I made fast friends with the manager at my hotel, a quick-witted, handsome man from Kerala who had recently given up his corporate job to live by the sea and write. We rented bikes and spent the next few weeks exploring the open, winding roads of the south. The scenery was breathtaking: vibrant green rice fields below jagged cliffs, interspersed with gorgeous white-washed churches and old abandoned homes overridden with jungle. There was not a resort in sight.
One day we went to the market in the little town of Chaudi and, to my delight, I was the only tourist. We bought cashews, fresh mangoes, garlands of flowers, and boxes full of cheap, colorful glass bangles. On the way home, we found a random tiny seafood shack where we would return a few days a week to eat plates of fresh tisyra masala (curry clams) with cold Kingfisher beer: just me, my friend and a few locals. We sat at small plastic tables. To get to the bathroom we had to walk through the kitchen, where there were buckets full of freshly foraged clams. Just a few feet away, the waves crashed up on shore.
We marveled at the magnificent, old Indo-Portuguese mansions, with their terra cotta roofs, wide wrap-around balconies and bright colors. Cows and chickens wandered the roads, against the incredible backdrop of mountains, untouched coastline and rocky seaside cliffs. We ran the length of the beach daily; toward each far end there were no other people, and no bars. We ate cashews and drank lime and sodas as we watched the giant orange orb drop into the sea.
On my last day in Palolem, I woke up to the sound of the bicycle horn of a man selling pao, the fresh Portuguese breakfast bread. My mouth watering, I got up and headed out. I sat on the beach eating a fried egg on pao with a sweet chai in a tin cup.
When I left Goa, entrepreneurs and mafia were buying land in the south, making plans for high end resorts, clubs and restaurants. Things will change soon enough, but at least for now, some of the old Goa still exists; quietly pulsing underneath the superficial veneer.
Interested in visiting southern Goa, or that special place you traveled long ago? Visit Flights.com and connect with your Facebook account to revisit your past trips, and then travel to your favorite places again.