On my (Not so) Great South Indian Motorcycle Trip, my plan after Hampi was to head to Goa, then Mumbai, and then to the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. However, true to character, I left my camera in the hostel and so had to ride back to Goa from Mumbai. You may wonder why I didn’t just ask the hostel to ship the camera to me. I did, and they didn’t.
It all turned out well though, because I got to spend time in both North and South Goa: two regions similar in their beaches and the preponderance of foreign tourists, but different in most other ways.
My first stop was Vagator beach in the North of Goa. This particular village (town? beach?) is famous for being home to the place where they shot a single scene in the title song of Dil Chahta Hai. It was also the venue for the Royal Enfield Rider Mania 2017, an annual celebration of the commercialization of motorcycling culture in India, a festival that I chose not to attend after I got to the venue because it turned out to be too expensive.
The North of Goa is known far more for its endless opportunities for partying than for its beaches or attractions. There are raves and roaring clubs every night of the week. There are smiling people smoking weed and on trips to what surely is a much more fascinating part of their mind. Restaurants and bars are open till 4 AM or later, with people dancing and flitting around from place to place and person to person. Being of a more laid-back and conservative type myself, I spent most of my time in the hostel, chatting with other travellers, and generally feeling happy (because everyone was so nice, of course).
One night, I was talking to a man who had lived in Goa all his life. In his twenties (more than thirty years ago), he had worked as a Civil Engineer and had designed many buildings, including the former-house that the hostel was now in. He was complaining about the prices of vegetables in Goa, saying that they were higher than in the rest of the country.
I asked him why this was the case since, to me, it seemed like vegetables should be cheaper in Goa given how green it was. “That used to be true,” he told me. “Even as recently as twenty years back, people had their own farms or gardens. They would grow their own vegetables and many had rice farms. But now, everyone is in the tourism business. You can just rent out ten scooters and you’ll make more money in a season than you would with a farm in a year.”
Goa imports most of its vegetables now, even though the climate is perfect for growing them. Alcohol is cheap, but basic groceries are expensive. The whole economy now runs on tourism, and the culture has become just what tourists want to see.
“The current generation is very lazy,” he said. “Their parents worked hard, building the guest houses and the hotels, and going from being middle class farmers to becoming a rich part of a booming tourist economy. The younger generation has just inherited all this wealth now and our culture is dying out because they just don’t care about preserving it.”
Butterfly beach is a small stretch of sand in Vagator north of the main beach. It has only a few shacks and is much quieter. There is an easy way to get here and a hard way, and we (a friend from the hostel and I) chose the hard way. We walked down from the Dil Chahta Hai fort, which turned out to be just the remnants of a wall on top of a small hill. It’s still a nice place to walk around if you get there before the crowds, just as it opens. There are many spots to take pictures all along the wall, framing yourself with the stones in the foreground and the sea in the background.
From the fort, we walked down to Butterfly beach. After a brief dip in the ocean, we sat down to eat breakfast at one of the shacks and the waiter started talking to us. He was from Darjeeling, and had come to Goa to work during the Goan high season. “I can’t find work in Darjeeling now. The tourist industry is almost nonexistent now because of the Gorkhaland protests,” he said, referring to the protests by some of the natives for their own state that had rocked the city over the last year.
“I used to work in a tea estate, but they pay only Rs 100 a day and that is not enough to feed my family. They really exploit the workers there. In Goa, I get paid much more and can live comfortably. In the monsoon, I will go to Manali to work there.”
He wasn’t going to see his family for the next six months, but at least he would save enough to send home. I asked him how much he was making here. “About 300 rupees a day,” he said. “It’s amazing. The weather is nice, and I don’t even have to work as much as in the tea estates.” By not as much, he certainly did not mean the hours, because his work was from 6 AM to 11 PM, seven days a week.
As our bill arrived, I realized that our breakfast would have taken him one and a half days of work to pay for. As I walked back to the hostel, I felt selfish and privileged to be able to look the other way and live so easily, but somehow still manage to smile less than him.
From Vagator, I went to Bombay where I stayed with my cousin for a week. Then I drove back down to Goa to retrieve my camera. This time, I decided to visit the South of Goa, which is known for its more peaceful vibe though these days, it’s quickly catching up to the North. Ironically, it’s getting more crowded as the number of tourists who come here because it’s more peaceful increases.
I spent my time in Agonda, a peaceful beach town that used to be a fishing village. The beach is lined with shack after shack serving the same food and with similarly beautiful huts facing the sea for accommodation. The rooms were more expensive and the fish less delicious than I thought they would be.
Agonda is full of foreign tourists: families, yoga students and a slightly more upscale style of backpackers than I am used to. As evidence of this, there is a vegan restaurant in the middle of the town serving raw cakes and fancy salads and vegan cheese. The specials are listed with chalk on a blackboard outside with a level of artistry appropriate to a laid-back tourist town that is slowly losing its character. I ate here once, attracted by the fancy lighting and the plants tastefully arranged around the wooden tables and chairs. I was the only Indian customer.
All of this is not to say that I did not like Agonda. I actually had a great time. I did yoga every day, I wrote, I meditated. I talked to locals and to tourists. I motorcycled to a nearby fort and an even more expensive beach (neither of which I remember the name of) with a friendly traveller from England.
On top of all of that, the sunsets were phenomenal. I would start walking an hour before sunset, and come back to my room only an hour after. The beach was not too crowded because the season hadn’t yet properly begun. Couples having fun with their kids, tourists taking confident selfies, beautiful people playing volleyball or meditating or laughing with each other, crabs scurrying in and out of their holes, all as the sun performed a new dance with the sky every day.
Pankaj is the owner of the Guest House I stayed at in Agonda. He has done Vipassana multiple times and says that anger is no longer a part of his life, though through our conversations, it seemed like he was angry about a lot of things in Goa.
I ask him about Goa, and how he feels that it has changed. He says that when he was a kid, him and his friends used to spend a lot of time in the water. They loved it. Fishing was the main occupation in Agonda, and when a restaurant said they served fish that was fresh, they meant it.
Now he says that tourism has taken over. The sea and beaches hardly have any local kids in them. Boats that used to be for fishing now take tourists to see dolphins. Much of the fish in Agonda comes from neighbouring villages (that explains why the fish was only mediocre everywhere I tried it). Echoing what the gentleman in Vagator said, Pankaj says that the previous generation worked hard to set up the guest houses, while maintaining a fishing business. Now they are rich with money from tourism and the current generation has developed a reputation for laziness.
Some of the ladies, like his mother, still pick up fresh fish and sell it in the fish market because without their culture of fishing, they would be lost. The younger generation is lost, according to him.
Over the next few days, we talked about many things, but another thing in particular he had strong opinions about were the Yoga classes cropping up in Agonda. “A few years ago, there was only one place here, and it was good. Now, it is all commercial. These guys, they are not real yogis. Their institutes are open only to make money and attract white women.
“They give themselves fancy names, play mantras in the background during yoga class and say Namaste with a fake smile on their face all the time,” he said angrily expanding on my remark that when I went to yoga classes in the West, I always found it amusing how there was random Indian music in the background.
“How can anyone become a Yoga teacher in one month? Just because you pay a lot of money, you can’t become a better yogi. The foreigners come here with so much trust and a genuine desire to learn, and these guys take advantage of them, and they leave as worse teachers than when they came.”
These were in line, if much stronger, than my own observations of Yoga in India. Yoga had gone from India to the west, and was coming back now, shiny, polished, attractive, and with less soul. Of course, for someone who’s looking, it’s not hard to find great teachers and institutes in India. But to Pankaj (with a lot of experience) and to me (with almost no experience), it seemed like Goa was not that place, beautiful and peaceful as it was.
He continued, “Yoga is about recognizing your own self, not about the exercises or the music or how much you can bend your body. These guys stopped being yogis the moment they started making more money than they needed.”
He said that, in a year or so, he would start yoga classes himself, for free. I told him I hoped he could stop himself from becoming one of these people he seemed to hate so much, and we both laughed, a bit uncomfortably.
Reading this post, you may be forgiven for thinking I didn’t like Goa. But really, I enjoyed my time there a lot, both in the North and South. More tourists is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact is usually the sign that there are now many layers to a place, especially in India. Moreover, the sunsets are pretty, the people are friendly, and beer is cheap.
I just couldn’t help feeling sad for what I saw as a lack of identity, even though (probably) a lot of the young locals themselves don’t share in my sorrow. Goa has always been one of the premier destinations for travellers to and in India. I just think that as the economy and the locals have shifted their focus and livelihoods to tourism, it is losing some of the things that it made it so attractive in the first place.
I read an article in a local newspaper that said that the number of foreign tourists coming to Goa was going down while the number of Indian tourists was going up. This was worrying to the government because, of course, Indians aren’t as big spenders as the Westerners (they (or maybe I should say we) are also — according to the owners of restaurants and guest houses I spoke to — louder, ruder and less clean).
The article went on to blame this fall of tourists on the loss of culture in Goa. It ended on a hopeful note that the people in the interior of Goa, which is green and lush with forests and farms, are trying hard not to repeat the mistakes of their coastal brethren, as tourism ramps up there.
I have no doubt that you only have to dig deeper to get in touch with the local culture. Or you could just drive a few hours in any direction from the beaches. In the North is the Malvan coast, where tourism is still picking up, the fish is still delicious, and when it is Mango season, you have amazing mangoes as well. In the South is coastal Karnataka, with the new hangout for backpackers, Gokarna, and some great unexplored beaches as well. In the East is the interior of Goa, lush green, and still full of culture.
Travel Details and Meaningless Ratings
Getting there: 8⁄10. There is an airport with good connections to everywhere. Most people take a bus or a cab from Bombay, or even Bangalore. The roads are great, and inside Goa wind lazily through villages and the mountainous Western Ghats.
Staying: 7⁄10. There are many options at all budget levels. There are hostels that specialize in the party scene, and hostels that advertise themselves as being especially laid back. I stayed at the Folklore Hostel in Vagator and it was nice. In Agonda, I stayed at the Saturn Guest House. It’s not on the beach, but the huts are very pretty.
Eating: 5⁄10. I don’t really know. I was pretty disappointed with the food in Goa. I’m not an expert on fish, but I felt the fish wasn’t fresh, and the locals I spoke to agreed with me. I did have great food in a restaurant named Tintin at Vagator. But you can get better “great food” in Bombay, Bangalore, or Delhi.
Doing: 6.5⁄10 if you’re like me. 9⁄10 for the kind of tourist who already is dreamy about Goa. 10⁄10 if you like to drink and party. The sunsets are great (as I’ve mentioned multiple times through this post), the people are nice for the most part, and the beaches are great. There are churches and homes built in the old Portugese style. There are forts to walk around in, and a few small hikes scattered around the state.