There are three kinds of tourists to Goa: Those looking for a “trip”, who head straight to the northern hippie haven of Arambol; those looking for fun, who camp on the sands of Baga and Calangute; and those who come looking for themselves, and head to the southern idyll of Palolem.
Paradise found: Palolem at sunset. Arjun Razdan
Palolem’s story, like that of all tourist magnets, is one of hype and deflation. Long promoted by Western guidebooks as the secret tropical paradise, the fortunes of this quaint Goan fishing village were changed irrevocably by the influx of thousands of sun-starved, winter-weary Europeans. In the late 1980s, it had just coconuts and fishermen. By the end of the millennium, fishermen were letting out a few rooms to visitors. Now, there are restaurants with near-identical menus and clubs and Internet cafés and laundrywallahs and “Hello-friend-I-give-you-cheap-price” vendors and masseurs (“shakes” and spicy massages also available) and yoga packages and Silent Noise parties and, of course, fishermen accosting tourists for a dolphin-sighting ride.
After six trips over the last four years, I can say that much of Palolem’s popularity is well deserved. With a deserted island and a lagoon to the north and a perfect 2km-long crescent of white sand, it’s the prettiest part of the Goan coastline, and a gradual slope into the ocean makes it the safest beach for swimming too. Then there is Palolem at night, which presents the mesmerizing spectacle of an arc of a million illuminated candlewicks fusing into the purple coolness of the ocean. No, I do not agree with Lonely Planet’s latest classification of Palolem as “claustrophobic”.
Shopping ladies: Konkani women dressed in traditional attire near Chaudi bazaar. Arjun Razdan
For, it has another face that breathes its languid rhythm as nonchalantly as it always has, another Palolem where life comes to a halt for siesta, reviving with the amber light of sunset. A Palolem which may or may not exist for tourists and their guidebooks. A Palolem where Konkani women with fragrant flowers in their hair sit in mud courtyards, splitting mounds of salo (raw mangoes) on toe-held cutters, where brightly painted earthen stands for the sacred tulsi (basil) dazzle in the afternoon sun, where jackfruits rest on giant tree trunks next to ancient moss-covered stone wells, where the colloquial lingo’s sing-song stress on the last syllable makes all conversation seem interrogative, where the lush green paddy fields contrast fiercely with the red laterite soil, where dogs are too lazy to bark, and cattle too nonplussed to make way for anyone.
Unlike many of the Velhas Conquistas (Old Conquests) areas north of the Zuari river, most of the interior areas of Canacona district (where Palolem is located) are Hindu-dominated. Mallikarjun (a manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva) is the most popular deity, with a majority of the fishermen’s boats emblazoned with “Sri Mallikarjuna Prasanna” (May the Lord be pleased).
The most important of the shrines dedicated to the deity lies about 7km from the beach. One sultry evening, as the countryside reeks of cashew feni, I cycle my way up to a local temple. Inside, a few Kunbi farmers seek shelter from the piercing sun. It was their ancestors who chanced upon a lingam (phallus) 350 years ago at the site and erected a structure to mark the discovery. Today, the farmers take over the management of the temple for three months—March, April and May—while Brahmins from other parts the country run it the rest of the year.
So stark is the contrast between the two faces of this region that on another day, when a local bus drops me to the remote hamlet of Avali near the Cotigao wildlife sanctuary, I find myself at a loss for words: None of the villagers speak Hindi or English. This is a picture of what Goa may have been had it not been “discovered”.
Kunbi farmers with koytas (machetes) hanging from their waists tend to their fields. Red chillies are left to dry in the tropical sun, while the men congregate over chai and bhaji pao or samosa (with the thinnest, flakiest pasty ever) in cool, sheltered cafés.
Sauntering on these rural tracks, I see movement among the cashew trees. A farmer, exasperated with the heat and the petty thieves who have made off with a substantial chunk of his produce, pokes about the foliage with a pole to bring down the cashew apples with the kernel attached at the bottom. These kidney-shaped pods will sell for Rs47 a kg at the nearby Chaudi bazaar (at the time, the finished cashew nut was being sold for Rs400 per kg at Mapusa market). He offers me the tannin-laced fruit. Sweet, sticky, bristly in texture, I devour it till my forearms are wet with the juice.
Sweat runs down the farmer’s forehead. But he ignores it for an evening in his prized grove, far removed from the bustle of the beach.
On the evening of Gudi Padwa (New Year’s day), the local villagers shed the garb of service providers catering to the lucrative tourist industry to assert their cultural lineage. A thick pall of haze hangs in the air at the compound of the local temple as men dance vigorously around a fire, stoking it intermittently with the gudi (a long stick crowned with bougainvillaea flowers and leaves).
Never mind lungs choking with the smoke, I notice the reversal of sorts that has taken place. For that instant, the tourist is not the cynosure of attention any more. For that instant, the onlooker, rather than the native, is exotic and the gaze turned back to those who had descended on the sands in search of fleeting oblivion. For that instant, a place and a culture were on offer rather than an experience.
Much to my relief, I realized paradise is not completely lost.
TRIP PLANNER / PALOLEM
Palolem is located on the southern end of the Goan coastline in the Canacona district bordering Karnataka. Fly to Goa on Kingfisher from Bangalore (fares from Rs5,658, round-trip), New Delhi (Rs8,558 onwards), Mumbai (Rs4,109 onwards), Chennai (Rs7,567 onwards) and Kolkata (Rs13,000 onwards). Hire a taxi from the airport to Palolem for around Rs1,000.
The Palolem locator. Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
Hire the ‘MV Blue Diamond’ at the Intercontinental, the Lalit Resort, for Rs18,400 an hour (a maximum of 12 people) for your own yachting experience. Fishermen will also take you on a dolphin-sighting ride or a visit to the secluded Butterfly Beach. Hiring a boat for about an hour (a maximum of eight people) costs around Rs800. Intercontinental, the Lalit Goa Resort (www.intercontinental.com; tel.: 0832-2667777), is a sprawling property overlooking the Rajbagh beach, around 2km from Palolem. A sea-facing luxury suite costs Rs20,000 from April-October and Rs30,000 from November-March (except the high season lasting from 27 December to 10 January, when it almost doubles to Rs65,000). Ciaran’s (www.ciarans.com; tel.: 0832-2643477) has 17 aesthetically-done beach shacks, available for around Rs3,500 per day. Dreamcatcher and Temple Garden (tel.: 0832-26470344, email email@example.com) situated on the northern end of the beach on the riverbank, has themed huts, some of which overlook the lagoon. A royal suite costs Rs7,000, while huts with common washrooms come at Rs1,000 (during the season).
Palolem offers a fabulous medley of food, thanks to the various expatriate communities. Café Inn (tel.: 09923084731) is a great place to drop by for coffee and lemon meringue. Magic Italy (tel.: 09370193171), run by an Italian couple, Claudia and Tita, has provided the best Italian fare this side of the Zuari for the last 11 years. Recommended: lasagna and ravioli. Ordo Sounsar (tel.: 098224 88769), across the lagoon on the northern end of the beach, has the most upscale Goan restaurant in
Palolem, offering little-known delicacies in the Portuguese-Goan tradition such as Prawns Peri Peri and Verdur. Hotel Sameer Classic (tel.: 0832-2643 728 ) does the best Goan fish curry rice in the beach town, served with salad, kismur (a dried prawns and coconut relish) and another side dish of delicious little chunks of crabmeat. Cuba (tel.: 098221 83775) has always been popular with Westerners for seafood. Besides these, numerous beach shacks offer almost identical menus replete with backpacker fare such as lemon-sugar pancakes and Israeli salad.
Hire the ‘MV Blue Diamond’ at the Intercontinental, the Lalit Resort, for Rs18,400 an hour (a maximum of 12 people) for your own yachting experience. Fishermen will also take you on a dolphin-sighting ride or a visit to the secluded Butterfly Beach. Hiring a boat for about an hour (a maximum of eight people) costs around Rs800.
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