This is Aaron Rester's blog:

Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

An Indian Vacation (Part III)

(continued from Part II)
We flew on a small jet out of Jaipur's shiny new terminal to Mumbai, and then on to Goa, the smallest state in India, and in many ways the most unique. For one thing, it had been colonized by the Portugese rather than the British, like most of the rest of the subcontinent, and remained nominally a Portugese territory until 1961, more than ten years after India became an independent nation. The Portugese had forcibly converted large segments of the population to Catholicism, destroying many temples and mosques in the process. Given the large numbers of churches that still dot the state and the number of Goans who still have Portugese names, I had assumed the current Christian population to be in the neighborhood of 75%, but according to Wikipedia (caveat surftor) the 2001 census listed it at just over 25%. 

Largely as a result of its Catholic past, Goa has long had the reputation of a much more lax attitude towards the consumption of both alcohol and other foods that are highly frowned upon by Hindus and Muslims (we actually saw signs advertising both beef and pork, something that I don't recall seeing anwywhere else in the country). The hippies discovered Goa in the 60s, and in the 90s it became a hotbed of psychedelic trance music and the attendant drug culture. While traces of those scenes remain, today the main draw for tourists (largely of the European variety, as far as I could tell) is the lush beaches and laid-back atmosphere.

We spent the first night in tiny Panjim, which we thought Lonely Planet rather oversold as "the most charming of Indian capitals." It was fine, and our hotel overlooked a lovely city park, but it was not much to write home about. The highlight is probably the bizarre Nosferatuesque statue of AbbĂ© Faria, one of the founders of the scientific study of hypnotism. The next day we hired a car to take us to Old Goa, the capital under the Portugese. At one time, apparently, it had a larger population than Lisbon, but today it seems to be populated mainly with tourists who have come to see the many cathedrals, including the Cathedral of Bom Jesus (which houses the body of St. Francis Xavier and the goriest crucifix I have ever seen) and the off-the-beaten path Church of St. Cajetan, built on the original plan of St. Peter's. 

From Old Goa we drove about two hours south to Agonda, a tiny beach town where we would spend the next couple of days. Budget accomodations in Goa, particularly in the less-developed south of the state, tend toward beach-huts without attached bathrooms, so we ponied up a few extra bucks a night for a room in a guest house with AC, private bathroom and an ocean-view (if you strained your neck on the balcony and ignored the semi-wild pigs snorting below you on the property next door).  The water was solar-heated, meaning that it was ice cold at any time you might actually want to take a shower.

The beach itself was quite pleasant, though we did have to dodge cows (and their paddies), wild dogs, and Europeans in speedos. It was lined with open-air restaurants of varying quality, catering to the tourist trade. Along with delicious Goan specialties like fish vindaloo and whole snapper pulled out of the surf just hours before, you could find muesli and amazing fresh juices for breakfast, as well as, interestingly, a wide selection of Nepali food. Most of the young men staffing these restaurants, it turns out, are Nepalese. When the tourism season winds down in Nepal during the winter months, they follow the euros and dollars down to Goa. We found a favorite spot that exuded a laid-back European cool (it was frequented mostly by the French, and featured absurdly handsome waiters) with excellent food where we could sit and watch the sun set over the Arabian Sea.

After spending a day decompressing and lazing on the beach, we shifted back into tourist mode and hired another car to take us up to the Savoi Spice Plantation. Such plantations are one of Goa's main tourist attractions, and the larger ones even feature tame elephants doing tricks. Savoi is a bit more off the beaten path, and bills itself as an example of organic and sustainable agriculture. A guide took us around showing us how pepper, coffee, pineapples, ginger, cardamom, and other fruits and spices are grown and harvested, then we were served a lunch featuring many of the local crops. From there we went to see two of Goa's largest Hindu temples, Mangesh (a form of Shiva) and Shanta Durga.

I had intended for us to take a sleeper train from Goa back to Mumbai, so that Kate would get one of the classic Indian experiences (and save us the cost of a night in a hotel), but it was the end of Carneval and every train from Goa to Mumbai was booked solid, so we wound up flying back to Mumbai. We stayed in a relatively upscale hotel in the Fort area of Mumbai (though, as we had come to expect, even there many of the amenities didn't work properly). The evening we got in, we walked over to Marine Drive for a sunset stroll, but found that, alas, "Not Just Jazz By The Bay" (where I had seen the young Indian country-folk trio) was closed for renovations. The next day we took the ferry over to Elephanta Island to see the ruins of the 4th-5th century Shiva temples, and had a spectacular dinner at Indigo. Finally, on our last day, we strolled around a bit,  taking in the Victoria Terminus and doing some shopping before heading to the airport and home.

So what was different about being in India as a tourist, rather than as a student? In many ways it was more difficult. I no longer had a decent command of the language, and not having the infrastructure of the program or my host family to fall back on, I was, for the first time fully responsible for every decision I made. And being there for such a short time, by the time we left, we had just barely gotten out of  the culture shock stage and gotten comfortable with navigating  the everyday hustle and bustle. There is, I joked before we left, really no such thing as an Indian vacation. From haggling with a rickshawallah to avoiding wild animals in the street to figuring out whether you trust the drinking water you've just been served, even relaxing seems to require the expenditure of an incredible amount of energy. But that is also what makes it exciting about travel, especially in a place as unfamiliar as India -- when you are required to always be aware of your surroundings, you can never take for granted  even the simplest of actions. Autopilot is not an option.

While there, Kate and I talked a bit about whether we would want to make another trip. I felt like I had gotten it out of my system for a while, and Kate, while glad to have had the experience, didn't feel compelled to come back, and we both felt that our future vacation dollars might be better spent going somewhere we hadn't been to before. Since we've been home, though, Kate has confessed to constantly thinking about going back, and I can feel the pull starting to happen again. The place just gets in your blood, I guess, and now that our friends who got married will be moving to Jaipur for a couple of years, we have an even better excuse to return. Stay tuned...