Landing at Goa airport was one amongst many adventures facing us. The airport isn’t a commercial facility in the truest sense; it’s a military base that has loaned its strip to the charter companies. The only problem is; the Goan military hasn’t woken up to the fact that they’ve lost the war.
Goa is full of ancient monuments and the terminal building is the first. The next is the transfer coach. Here, I use the word “coach” advisedly. I believe both Herr Mercedes and Herr Benz were still alive when this one rolled off the production line. Moreover, I suspect Henry Ford hasn’t stopped laughing since.
Getting the bags was more of a bun-fight than usual, ably assisted by two escapees from The Kumars play Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: Miserable and Stupid. Rather than let the tourists fight amongst themselves for pecking rights at the conveyor belt, they made us crowd around one end and pulled all the bags as they came through, lining them up in the central aisle between the two belts, then unleashing the crowd in all its fury to trample over luggage, scrabble between outsize Brummies with Nike sports shirts, and dodge flying Tesco bags tossed from one of the room to the other by two athletic looking Mancunians with savagely anarchic haircuts and culturally disadvantaged clothing. The kind of guys you would like to see get on a bus going the other way. Happily they did just that and we saw neither hide nor excessively gelled hair of them for the entire fortnight.
Predictably, the influx of bags eventually outweighed Stupid and Miserable’s ability to hide them in the seething mass of Haute d’Asda accessories, resulting in a pile up at one end and a Le Mans style dash across the baggage hall by all and sundry. My mood lightened measurably when the Mancunians collided in mid throw, and were immediately swamped by a herd of stampeding wildebeest, cunningly disguised as the Romford Crew. The resultant tangle of white handbags, leisure suits and hair gel was apocalyptic.
Customs were uncharacteristically charitable: they’d obviously enjoyed the melee and for once resisted the temptation to examine the contents of every wash bag. So it was with a joyous step that I loaded my three thermonuclear devices onto the luggage cart and braved the arrivals hall.
As expected, our rep was hiding behind a pillar, pretending to be a cleaning lady, with only a clipboard, tour company t-shirt and wedge of Welcome leaflets jammed into his back pocket to give the game away. He directed us to our bus by waving vaguely out of the hall to the crowded car park, “Over there, init.”
Luckily, there were at least sixty more refugees from Snow White to help us get our bags the fifty or so metres to the coach. A quid each sufficed as remuneration for their efforts, although a quick calculation based upon mileage revealed this to be a rate considerably greater than first class travel via Concorde to New York.
Once the luggage was stowed… on the roof… and the travel weary, pasty-faced westerners slumped in their seats; we set off for our destination hotels. An annoying woman from some hovel in the North of England gleefully announced that she’d stayed in our hotel last year.
“It was nice,” she insisted, “But OUR hotel is much better”.
Good of her to tell us so early in our holiday, it helps avoid disappointment.
Goans drive as if they learned their skills from watching disaster movies. Hurry is too mild a verb to describe the headlong flight in which they engage with all the casual ferocity of tigers brawling over bragging rights to a dropped carcass. I remain convinced they are subject to visceral torture with kebab sticks should they fail to cause potty problems in their charges. Never before, not even on a pissed trip on some theme park’s ride called Nightmare, have I ever wished, “Please let this end”.
Unfortunately, Apora, our intended terminus is the letter “K” in off the beaten track. So our excoriation at the hands of “Top Gun”, as I had privately named our driver, lasted well over an hour. Arrival was a blessed relief. The room was functional, decrepit, but clean. The staff were smiley, long suffering and grateful for the issuing of too many notes with big numbers on them. We were there.
If I were to write three things that describe Goa they would be: fish, tut-tuts and darkness.
Fish are on every menu in a million different forms. Even Captain Birdseye would struggle for aquatic enthusiasm after a few days. Cheap and plentiful are the over-riding factors here. The Goans are fisher-folk by history and inclination and the daily catch is prepared in so many different ways as to make it an art form. That makes it all the more of a shame that the tastes are so startlingly undifferentiated. There are three basic varieties. Curry flavour, hot curry flavour and hot curry flavour with tomato. The latter was added by the Portuguese to appeal to the European taste. Fortunately, you can pay more for a bag of crisps in the UK than you would for a full fish meal with fresh vegetables in Goa, so experimentation is thankfully within the grasp of even the meanest of vacationers.
There are other dishes, such as mutton, chicken, goat and fresh vegetables, all of which are exceptionally tasty, if slightly more expensive than the standard fish fare. Typically a meal for two at an average restaurant will set you back about five to ten pounds depending on how much alcohol you consume. In a beach cafe a similar meal will be about four pounds. The most expensive meal we had, was a three course Thai meal of exquisite quality, presentation and taste, which together with an aperitif, wine and a couple of beers came to less than thirty pounds. This was at the Banyan Tree, which is well known to all the taxi drivers in Northern Goa and well worth a visit.
The taxi drivers are a breed alone. They have little of the surliness of the Latin countries, even less of the happy go lucky outlook of the Caribbean, and certainly do not even approximate that curious blend of sagacity and wit for which London cabbies are so often incorrectly attributed. Goan taxi drivers are salesmen. They think not of today’s fare, but of tomorrow and the following week. They want to ensnare you, make friends with you, be your personal servant for the week. That way, they can pursue their fondest desire, which is to sleep in their cab as often as is possible, your continued patronage, the ever escalating tariffs and the assured gratuities enough to guarantee their living while you subscribe to their services. They also take you to their friend’s shops and cafes, all of whom will try to rip you off mercilessly. My recommendation is to change your cab driver every day and make sure he knows you will only use him again if he gives a tip top service. Do not feel embarrassed about stating this plainly.
The tut-tuts – yellow three wheel motorbikes with a passenger compartment strapped on – are less than half the price of the regular taxis, but are far more uncomfortable, and probably twice as dangerous, but given the nihilistic approach to driving in Goa, that leaves you with a statistically negligible chance of survival either way. Just take short journeys.
Nights in Goa are dark, very dark. Street lighting is only an occasional municipal practice and one that is haphazard enough to deny the vacationing foot soldiers any chance of dodging from one pool of light to another. You either walk in the dark or you stay in the hotel. The choice is yours.
Having said that, the nights are refreshingly clear of hooliganism, or even the leery behaviour associated with young British tourists. In fact, we only experienced one episode of violence and that was directed at a drunk Londoner who assaulted a British woman of Indian descent. The locals beat him senseless. Rough justice indeed, and the sounds of his cries of anguish still plague me, but given the determination in the voices of his punishers and the complete absence of police, I can only feel relief that I was not involved.
Goa is famed for its golden beaches, although the sea is turbulent and difficult to swim in, so paradise is not perfect. The ocean is warm, but does not compare to the Caribbean sea as a playground for Piscean visitors. This is something of a shame, because Goa is nothing if not a beach holiday. Sure, there are visits to temples, jungle camps, rides on elephants, markets, shops and boat trips, but seventy percent of your leisure time will be on the beach, either sun bathing or cooling in the sea and frankly, the sea is just not the best.
Another decade and Goa will be Cancun mark two, with prices to match. Right now, you can get a tailored suit for about thirty pounds and a bottle of coke will cost you about twenty pence, but it will not last. India will cotton on to the jewel they have, develop it and turf out the locals. Holiday Inn will take over and make the place safe for Americans. Which is a shame, because I like Goa the way it is.