Goa: Paradise Lost?

Article excerpt

I'd always thought of Goa--India's leading holiday resort on the west coast--as predominantly Catholic, as it was a Portuguese colony for 450 years before cession in 1961 to India.

"No, no, that's what everyone thinks," says Selvaraj, who works in Goa Shipyard Ltd. "Catholics are less than 30% of the population. We Hindus are twice that number."

I ask him if there's any communal trouble.

"No, nothing like that. Just that we don't mingle as freely as, say, fifteen years ago. It's because of these bloody politicians. They have done what the British did so well. Divide and rule."

We are in The Vasco Express that runs twice weekly between Bangalore and Goa. Selvaraj is returning home after a trip to Bangalore and I have to meet Susan O Neill, a writer from Andover, Massachusetts. She is on a month-long tour of India with her husband; Goa is their last stop. She emailed me asking whether I could meet them.

"Go to Pato Bridge in Panjim," Selvaraj says. "Ten minute walk from the main bus terminus. Lots of guest houses and hotels. What's your budget like?"

Three hundred rupees a day?

He shakes his head. "Rents have gone up. But who knows, you may get something cheaper."

We are approaching Margao. This is where the Portuguese under Admiral Alfonso de Albuquerque established their colony in 1510. Coconut trees flit past in the hundreds. Multicolored cottages pop up every few seconds. A dirt road meanders alongside. Several trucks, laden with iron ore, wait for our train to pass. Tourism, ship building, fisheries, export of iron ore and cashew nuts are Goa's key industries. Half an hour later our train huffs into the last station, Vasco da Gama, named after the Portuguese explorer who opened trade links with India in 1498 in Kerala but, strangely, never set foot in Goa. I walk to the bus stand. An hour later I am in Panjim, Goa's capital.

Pato Bridge is a lazy arch over the backwaters of the Mandovi River and I go past a row of offices and stop at a brown and cream-colored building. A modest signage announces "Relax Inn." From a niche in the wall, a beautiful statue of Madonna smiles beatifically at a bunch of flowers placed on the ledge.

But Allwyn Fernandes, the proprietor, refuses to smile. He is young and wiry and his eyes flick over my suitcase, my shoes. "I am a writer," I tell him. He relaxes somewhat; yes, I can have a room for two hundred a night. "The bathroom is separate," he warns. His attractive wife, sitting behind a table and minding her little boy, says, "Why don't you show him the room?"

We thump up a wooden staircase. The light is dim, the passage narrow, and there are just three doors. Allwyn opens the last one. A very small bed, a table, an ashtray, a jug of water, a cupboard in the wall and ... nothing else.

Allwyn switches on the fan. "Use the ash tray. Don't keep any valuables in the room when you go out. Use the back door when you return late in the night. And don't invite strangers."

I am taken aback by his stern tone. He explains that Indian tourists usually kick up a ruckus in Goa's hotel rooms--dancing, drinking, yelling. He hands me a tiny lock for the door and smiles for the first time, "Don't miss the Carnival."

Carnival?

Every February just before the onset of Lent, Goa celebrates a three day festival just like carnivals in Latin countries. "We are the only place in Asia to do so."

After a bath in a cubicle downstairs, I step out to the street and follow the scores of people hurrying towards the road near Mandovi River. The air reverberates with drumbeats and trumpets. Hundreds of tourists, armed with camcorders and beer cans, have lined up against the bamboo barricades to watch the carnival procession. Ingeniously designed tableaux float past, trailed by groups of boys and girls gyrating in dazzling costumes. A giant model of The Hulk, complete with green body and agonized face, looms in the distance. …