In Search of Paradise?
Goa Revisited

by Tom Cole
© 2010

With inevitable nostalgia for the the past and lost youth, and the recent 'reunion', many have recently declared Goa to be “finished”, “it’s over” or something similar. 

But given the fact Goa has been around for a long time, with the earliest historical reference dating to the  third century BC,  I am guessing such declarations may be premature.

But then, what exactly is supposed to be ‘finished’ or ‘over’.   The good old days?  Hippie paradise?  A place to call home?  Or what?  But none of that is really Goa.  

What were those good old days?  When sleeping on straw mats on a cow dung floor was considered comfortable?   When there were full moon parties on the beach, with a decent sound system blaring out the tunes of the day including the anthem of that time and place, Baba O’Reilly (The Who), assuring us that we really were living and apparently thriving in teenage wasteland. 

We were young, and everyone was young save a few who were older (they still are!), and then there was Eight Finger Eddie. 

But he didn’t really count, he was beyond old, a revered ancient soul, a living yet still mythical figure.  He was not just older, he was old; he was 46 when I first met him! He actually married people, presiding over weddings on the beach. He told stories about hanging out in the ‘50s at NY jazz clubs.  And on his 86th birthday in March, he remembered, not without some regret, actually starting the Anjuna flea market. 

Or is it a hippie paradise that is now finished.   Sure Goa was great, but if it is finished as a hippie paradise, the declaration has come rather late.  That was over by 1974, as the “scene” was wracked by the “cocaine wars of ‘74”. 

Innocence abroad came to an end.  And with that loss, paradise ceased to be so as well.   Or so we could think, if one embraces the notion that foreign tourists had actually created a ‘paradise’ there.

An old and rather grand house in Goa

A place to call home?  How often has the odd foreigner chosen to live in Goa, and soon thereafter beset with a problem that has always existed -  a visa extension.  India is for Indians (a slogan from the relatively recent past), inclusive of all the various castes to which previously, we foreigners

occupied a unique position in the social hierarchy – the sahib and memsahib.   But the average Indian hoped we would come and go.  Staying had once resulted in civil disorder and expulsion of the resident sahibs during the period of partition and independence.

Above - An older house with the proud owner in Assagao

Below - An old estate in Anjuna

So how can Goa be “finished”, if it is unclear what it was to begin with?  There is evidence that Goa existed as a geographic entity long ago with a rock dating back 3,600 milliion years on  exhibit at Goa University, though much of Goa is of a more recent

vintage, in terms of geological history, ie. approximately 66-80 million years old. The Indian epic, Mahabarata, dating to 400 BCE refers to the area now known as Goa, as Goparashtra or Govarashtra which means a nation of cowherds.

Cows grazing outside a very rustic scene near Assagao.

The geography of Goa, with the western ghats providing a natural defense from their neighbors, was conducive to a relatively peaceful history.  But still the primary power brokers on the subcontinent held the territory and called it their own, including the Mauryan Empire, the Kadampa dynasty of neighboring Karnataka (345 – 525 CE) and the Chalukya Empire of southern and central India (6th – 12th century).  Central rule from Delhi was never strong then

(and now?), allowing the  founder of the Vijaynagar Empire (Harihari I) to call Goa his own in the 14th century.  But that did not last long; in 1510, the Portugese landed on the west coast of India, declaring  Goa (as well as Daman and Diu) to be theirs.  They studiously ignored the independence movement in 1948, but 451 years of colonial rule came to an abrupt end in just 36 hours, with a three pronged attack by the Indian army, navy and air force on December 18, 1961.

Above - A bucolic scene with a woman walking through the village of Anjuna, off the beaten track.

Below - A woman walks on the main Mapusa/Anjuna Road on a quiet Sunday afternoon

The  history of Goa is long, and as it continues, one sees signs of those who have passed through this territory.  Pristine Christian churches still dot the horizons, crosses are found in seemingly random spots on the edges of rice paddies and roads, and some Christmas decorations never come down as the year progresses from the temperate winter months through the searing heat and humidity that precedes the welcome monsoon rains, nourishing the land and its people.

But these days there are no new churches and few chapels being built, as Hindu temples appear in greater numbers, sprinkling the countryside and villages with colors found only in India including bright orange hues, iridescent blues, deep reds.  Inevitably, the face of Goa changes as the per capita income far exceeds that of any other state in India.

Above - Vendor of pork sausages in the Mapusa market

Below - A colorful fruit vendor in Mapusa

A shoe repairman seated at the primary entrance to the Mapusa market

And contrary to the idea that Goa is a paradise apart from India, it is not.  It is presently an integral part of India retaining some charm from the past, including the surnames of Fernandez and Silveira, in addition to grand homes constructed in the Portuguese style with lovely tiled floors and ornate window frames, some dating to the 17th century. 

The scenic roadways feature an international corporate presence with Honda and Toyota, well represented while even Fabindia (a clothing and interiors store specializing in re-creating traditionally dyed cotton cloth) and Lacoste can be found in Candolim and Calangute areas.

Above - The 'bread man' making a delivery, just as they have always done for many years now. Assagao

Below - Boys playing cricket in a dried paddy field

So what is it about Goa that is ‘lost’ or ‘finished’?  During the recent “reunion”, the “Goa freaks” found some things had obviously changed.  Music in public venues past 10pm was forbidden and even one of the reuinion parties was stopped by the local authorities. 

Motorcycles could be found everywhere; few dirt paths escape the sounds of a two stroke engine with fewer people found actually walking these paths.

Some restaurants hang signs begging the patrons to refrain from smoking while others clearly declare (without enforcement), “no drugs”.   But these ‘changes’ are merely incidental and cosmetic, rather than monumental.

Why did tourists come to Goa in the first place?  They found a friendly people who were  tolerant of youthful fun and folly.   And that population has not gone anywhere; they are still there.  Walking down a deserted inland road, it is easy to encounter the average Goan who will flash a bright smile and a friendly greeting.  

The coconut trees still sway in the breeze, the waves still lap up onto the sand of its world famous beaches (deservedly or not, Goa’s beaches are a tourist attraction), kids still play cricket in the dry paddy fields. And the bread man covers his long rounds pedaling along on a typical Indian bicycle featuring the same horns they have had for at least the last forty years.

Local characters hanging out at a chapel by the side of the road, Assagao

So what’s changed?  As elsewhere throughout the world, some things do change.  More houses are built, more hotels spring up out of nowhere and in Goa, some “investment” opportunities appear in the form of new apartment buildings and condos, some located in such incongruous locations that

boggle the mind as to who would actually pay to stay there.   Bali has experienced similar transformations where villages I lived in for two months so long ago have been unrecognizably swallowed by sub-urban development. 

Whlie education is still an issue in Goa with very few qualified
schools, this institution still exists in a lovely, older building.

Of course Joe Banana’s restaurant is still a fixture in south Anjuna, but I could barely recognize the immediate surroundings except the local volley ball court, thankfully maintained by a foreign patron to whom the village is extremely grateful.  

Walking through south Anjuna, I became dependent upon a sense of direction and knowing where the sea is rather than recognizing local landmarks. But that is not the real difference, that is not why some have declared it's ‘finished’.  It must be something else.

An older house with a newly constructed wall complete with fresh paint.

Years ago, the Israelis became a presence in India, but more recently, it is Russian “tourists” who have come to Goa.  They gather in north Goa, in Morjim – a beach resort area few of us, in the past, ever ventured to for very long.  Recently a Goan taxi driver was beaten to death by Russians in Morjim and it is difficult to believe the authorities are still trying to come to terms with this and yet to arrest the culprits.  

And young Russian women ply what has become known as a somewhat common trade for them in the new millennium – prostitution.

Clearly the “hippie” slogan of free love is a thing of the past, though not all who came to Goa so long ago partook in that philosophical pastime but no one paid for it!

A country road in Goa, near Arpora Note the wall to the left, hardly straight and seemingly bending in the breeze!

Organized crime was never a problem in Goa and still is not, at least among the foreign tourist communities.   The word "organized" implies a certain level of professionalism, and that is what was and is still lacking in the underground scene of Goa.  If anything, it was more organized and professional years ago with more opportunities and without the threat of terrorism. 

But a significant Russian presence in any ex-pat scene abroad has to be viewed with caution.  Russia is a country where private gun toting guards are employed at posh restaurants in St. Petersburg, where one passes through a metal detector to eat an overpriced meal anywhere on the Nevski Prospekt (central shopping district).

Then there is the local criminal scene with the Goan police as culpable as those who they claim to be apprehending, and often (but not surprisingly) indistinguishable from those they pursue. Much of the contraband they have seized quickly finds its way back into circulation on the beaches, sold by locals to the foreign patrons. The local newspaper reports on all this, as expected, fall on the deaf ears of the powers that be But what else is new?.

Violence against foreigners (usually women) has also occurred, but that is an old story. If one examines the statistics, the percentage of incidents probably does not exceed those of so long ago, given the increased total of tourists who come to Goa each year. Still the number of Indian tourists grows to the consternation of the local population.

A roadside shrine, Assagao

The music has also changed, as it has throughout the world, so that is to be expected. If it is true that Goa first exported a ‘sound’ in the form of techno/trance music to the rest of the world, then Goa Gil is responsible.   He calls it “redefining the ancient tribal ritual for the 21st century” and no one would disagree.  But who can imagine ancient tribals relating to the wall of electronic, psychedelic sounds of modern party music?

Perhaps he understates his case/cause with the word “redefining”.  The impact on what we called music in the past, with harmonies and melodies, has been great and all but disappeared in this most recent incarnation.

But there’s a beat (which a few might term relentless?) and keeps parties going for hours, and sometimes days!  But rarely in Goa anymore.  The party people sometimes plan their events and migrate to remote locations in neighboring Karnataka to revel for a day or two given the party/music ‘curfew’ within the confines of Goa itself, and in other urban centers, such as Bangalore, or so I've been told by those who seem to know.

What else has changed?  The wells and pigs have virtually disappeared, replaced by running water (some of which is purchased and trucked in) and septic tanks that serve a dual purpose as breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

But I enjoyed the hot shower I was able to take every day, enjoyed passing by the lush gardens of the landed gentry class of Assagao, even though the eventual toll on the natural water table has yet to be determined.

A glimpse of a young girl who lives at one of the orphanages, relaxing on the
front porch of an old Portuguese style house on a long, hot afternoon. Assagao

But tourists still travel to India, sometimes to run away from or to find themselves.   The"Goa freaks" used to say that time stood still in Goa. What used to be an exclusive club has grown exponentially as the children of original “Goa freaks” occasionally revisit Goa, and some have stayed, as their parents before them had.   Perhaps no other tourist scene in the world has produced the number of

offspring who have chosen to repeat what their parents did, to frequent its beaches, drive the same roads and hang out in chai shops for a morning snack or afternoon lemon soda.  On one level, time has stood still with the resident faces, at times, eerily resembling those who came before.

One of a few antique store fronts scattered across Goa, Mapusa/Anjuna Rd.

Goa continues to be what one makes of it, either the ‘end of the road’ or the impetus for a new beginning.  Artists are still creating art, young people are partying away, casual travelers are always enthralled with the beaches, and the Mapusa market provides all that one could want or need, from ripe

mangos and fresh juice to terabyte hard drives and Ray Ban sunglasses. Though not necessarily related, substance use and abuse persists and road accidents have increased with the traffic though the narrow roads have barely changed in years even if the some of landmarks and buildings beside them have.

View of a wall by the side of the Mapusa/Anjuna road.

Was history made in Goa as some have unilaterally declared?  Probably not. As a provincial outpost of the Haight Ashbury/Woodstock/'60s phenomenon. what happened can hardly be termed ‘historic’. 

Interesting and fun?  Yes, but not of historical importance. 

Besides, history is not usually declared by the players in a scene; it is only made.

Declarations such as we "made history" are better left to posterity and/or ‘historians’ to judge. To lose sight of this is fraught with danger, possibly reflecting a self absorbed perspective.

In the end, Goa is just Goa, with the covered market in Calangute thriving despite the virtual absence of foreigners. 

Goa is just Goa, as cows wander, grazing in the dry paddy fields with white herons perched on their backs. 

And Goa will always be Goa, especially for Goans and for those who keep their eyes, ears, and minds open in seach of a real Goa experience.