For my first Christmas away from my family I escaped to India’s famous sandy beaches in Goa with some old Canadian pals. Flying in from as far away as Toronto, Dhaka, and Dushanbe, we had a make-shift holiday celebration of our own. Once famous for insane EDM/trance beach parties, Goa still manages to pull up dregs of weird old hippies, weary backpackers, gangs of adolescent Indian boys who have clearly never gone a trip without parental supervision, Russians, Israelis, Brits, and a whole lot of questionable drugs. The origins of this party scene are still a bit murky to me, but in general, given Goa’s history as a Portuguese colony with a primarily Christian background, it’s slightly more liberal than neighbouring states. As a major trading port, it has always maintained international connections. Graced with natural harbours and wide rivers, Goa was the ideal base for the seafaring Portuguese, who landed in the early 1500s in hopes of securing a spice route from the East. The Marathas of central India nearly vanquished the Portuguese in the late 18th century, and Goa was briefly occupied by the British during the Napoleonic Wars. However, Portuguese occupation only came to an end in 1961 when the Indian army marched into Goa.
Despite this unique history, Goa reminds me a bit of Canggu in Bali, or some areas of Mexico etc. where for all you know you’re not in Bali, you’re just on a beach, completely removed from the cultural context as you sip your overpriced cocktail from some resort. I was disappointed in this version of ‘India Lite’. But just like Bali, the further you move from the airport, the more you are rewarded with amazing views, food, and local life.
I was joking with a lovely British girl in Vagator that when we each had each decided to go to Goa, we both didn’t think much about where in Goa, we just assumed Goa was one nice beach – not the case. Further research left me scrambling as everyone wanted to go somewhere different, and as it turns out, Goa is actually a very huge place involving long bumpy drives. I can verify the cliché that North Goa is for crazy partiers, while the South is more relaxed. But, the caveat remains true, if you’re far from the airport or centre of Goa, even in the North, life slows down. While we only stayed in Morjim and Vagator itself, for two days we rented scooters and drove to the Northern-most tip of Goa, stopping at Ashwem, Mandrem, Arambol, and Kerim beaches along the way. The crowds on these beaches were mostly Russian families, Israeli backpackers, and some chilled out vegan surfers and SUPers in Ashwem. The swimming, walking, and running is beautiful along this coastline as you can continuously walk across sandy crescents and hidden bays for many kilometres.
Vagator on the other hand was a partier’s paradise – most of our drunk British roommates would stumble back to the dorm around 5 a.m. The streets and beaches were crowded, and garbage littered the beautiful Chapora Fort and the main beach of Vagator. Vagator and Chapora are surrounded by rocky cliffs which make for an amazing view point, but a cramped beach situation where aggressive watersports flail screaming tourists way too close to swimmers crowded between two big outcrops of rocks. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you’re into EDM) our holiday clashed with Martin Garrix and Whiz Khalifa, and 30,000 fans visiting Goa…but we still got a spot in a nice hostel, and enjoyed time with the other Aga Khan Fellows who came to meet us. Some of them took a bus across Kyrgyz to Kazakhstan, crossed the border by foot, and then flew to Delhi and Delhi to Goa…but Josh’s bag on a Toronto – Delhi direct flight couldn’t even make it on the aircraft! It was stuck on a train in Pune as we played a game of phone-tag with Air Canada, who managed to deliver the bag on our 7th out of 8 days in Goa.
The benefit of a more crowded beach like Vagator is a hostel that serves amazing espresso, hosts an authentic sushi restaurant, and a variety of sports and activities. To do something special for my birthday, Heather and I woke up at the crack of dawn to cycle around Goa and do a yoga class. In a classic Indian Standard (Stretchable) Time fashion, the tour started late, missed the sunrise, and the yoga class was cancelled. Still, cycling through the winding hills of Goa, rice paddies, and palm trees, felt like bliss after living in Dhaka and Ahmedabad. We had become accustomed to dust, pollution, traffic, and conservative clothes, so riding a bike along quiet roads was a dream.
Seeing old friends, making two lovely new ones from the UK, a surprise birthday cake, and the Saturday Night Market were highlights of our trip. We made the best of friends with Kaye in our dorm, and her friend Freya over amazing vegan treats, hashing out the ethical dilemmas of working in the social-sector for hours, and traveling solo as a woman in South Asia. Backpacking culture is great for chance-encounters. Another evening, three strangers bought me a birthday cake with my name on it! Stumbling back to the hostel after a sushi feast, Heather and I were confronted by a cake, signing, and a lot of Kingfishers! We spent the night chatting with the hostel crew and sharing travel stories. The following evening the hostel organized a shuttle to the famous Saturday Night Market. Everything you could ever want to buy was available, from tacky tourist shirts, to spices, strange hand-made hippie shoes, street food, and lanterns. Bars dotted the market grounds, where we sampled some local liquor – coconut fenny – would not recommend, but when in Goa… A main stage played trancey fusion music while fire dancers wooed the crowd. We eventually wandered to the DJ booths and the back and got our boogie on. I’ve never seen such a diverse crowd – Indians, Europeans, young and old, rocking it out with babies on their shoulders, or fanny packs on their waists. The essence of Goa was freedom. Nobody cared much what you were doing, and everyone was happy doing their own thing, in their own time, not matter what corner of the world they were from.
Somewhat sunburnt and very sandy, Josh and I both flew out on New Year ’s Eve. Our flights were each delayed by hours, but eating samosas on the airport floor was a perfect way to end the holidays – with old friends and laughter, just like at home.
We had the pleasure of enjoying some amazing meals and places, so I’ll leave recommendations below.
-Vaayu Ashwem Beach – SUP and surf rentals, yoga, and amazing vegan food and smoothies, make sure to sit on the sun patio/roof facing the beach.
-Bean Me Up Vagator – some of the best vegan food I’ve had in my life. Soba noodle salad, and chocolate torte are most recommended.
-Sakana Japanese Vagator/Chapora – real sushi because the fish is fresh! Handmade gelato is to die for.
-Jungle Hostel Vagator – Though their prices gave me an eyebrow-raise, this is an excellent hostel and has everything you ever hoped for as a backpacker or weekend traveller. Clean, organized, professional, fun, a good crowd, organized events, free breakfast and good coffee, towels..etc. etc.
-Burger Factory, Morjim – delicious burgers and funky open air beach décor. Even the veggie burgers are good! Fun addition is eating your meal in a swing. Make sure to order a milkshake.
-The Rice Mill, Morjim – the best coffee we had in Goa, locally sourced and roasted. This is a cozy hidden nook away from the main tourist areas. A leafy patio makes for great people watching, and the building itself has an interesting history and cute art cards.
-Rainbow Café, Morjim – a classic beach shack establishment, you’ll find everything on their menu from fruits and muesli, to palak paneer and naan. Their black coffee is pretty decent, as is the staff and service, with relaxed cushions to watch the waves from. The seafood is great and the Goan fish curry delicious! Some of the cheapest meal prices we came across.