Pros: Cheaper taxi fares than South Goa.
Cons: The drivers don't always know where they are going.
Goa is mainly composed of red laterite stone, a curious volcanic rock that eventually erodes into red dust. Along the northern beaches, the rocks range from reddish brown to black and contrast dramatically with pale stretches of sand. We first explored Goa some years ago, when it was just emerging as a tourist destination. To us, the description of red laterite sounded exotic. It is cut into large blocks, or small chunks and used for everything from house construction to roads and lanes. Sometimes the laterite roads peter out into nothing.
You can get a charter flight and package tour to Goa quite easily from the U.K. but as we were experimenting with the Internet and independent travel, we wanted to get away from the tourist resorts of Calangute, Candolim and Baga, though these remain very popular with many tourists. Visitors from the U.S. may have to fly to Mumbai and then on to Goa. Booking a hotel was not easy. Some hotels, such as the Mandovi in the busy city of Panjim,the capital, currently only accept bookings through an agent. Some hotels have discovered the Internet and on the surface, offer all sorts of deals. Our experience was that these offers did not really exist, or at least not in the peak season.
Anjuna is a quieter place in North Goa, away from the crowds. It was a hippy enclave in the sixties and seventies, until the tourists moved in. The hippies moved further north to the beaches of Arambol and settled along the coast. Anjuna is famous for its Wednesday market. You can reach it by road, but the most exciting way to arrive is by boat. If you are staying here, you will need transport to get about. There is a post office and there are numerous little shops scattered about at regular intervals. For most of the week it is a quiet and sleepy place, but when Wednesday comes the whole of the south end of the beach erupts into a hustling, bustling mass of colour that is the famous Anjuna market. It stretches inland with avenues of stalls selling colourful clothing, amazing bed covers, wall hangings or patchwork bags made from recycled, beaded and embroidered saris. You cannot walk without being entreated to look at the goods on offer. Haggling for almost everything is compulsory. In contrast, quiet Tibetans sell beautiful jewellery at more or less fixed prices, though some negotiation is possible. We found a man selling small wall hangings made from rectangular slices of palm leaf. The surface was etched with Indian gods and mythical creatures, using a tool that would not look out of place in a museum. He said that each one took at least a day to make and the more intricate ones with their fold down pictures took three days to complete. The skill had been passed down from father to son. Unwrapping our hanging at home, we found that the fold down pictures had a few secret additional ones that he had not revealed to us previously. Well, India is the birthplace of the Karma Sutra!
As Anjuna is fairly spread out, many visitors travel by hired motorbikes or scooters. We preferred a taxi. The cost of a taxi here is much more reasonable than South Goa and consequently we gave them much more business. Our driver took us on a journey to the northern most tip,Tiracol Fort. We stopped off at almost deserted beaches, many with beach huts for rent. There are lots of houses or cottages advertising "To Let" signs and small enterprises running yoga and meditation courses. The beach huts are constructed from woven palm leaves and bamboo, they offered very basic, cheap accommodation, a few have their own toilets and showers, but many sites have a shower block. Stay here for a few days and you could say that you had truly escaped from civilisation and the rat race. We ended the day at a deserted beach watching the sunset as Richard, the owner of the beach shack restaurant, prepared the most delicious fresh fish imaginable.
Cowards that we are, we had pre-booked our accommodation from the U.K. We were looking for boutique style accommodation and thought that we might have found it. The Laguna Anjuna's own website describes itself as "designed by Dean D'Cruz, Laguna Anjuna combines old world grace and space with designer interiors". What it does not tell you is that our room was in dire need of renovation. The blue colour of the bathroom and the once beautiful floors depicting moons and stars, were all but obscured by ingrained red dust. Interested in archaeology, we excavated a crescent moon (how sad can you get on holiday?). The air conditioning felt like an aircraft at take off and several "dead" units littered the hotel grounds. Incidentally (and this is not a criticism but more of an observation), Indian fridges are colourful affairs and ours was the colour of raspberry sick. This hotel is not for the house proud, nor for the impatient. We found the service friendly, but so laid back that it was practically comatose. It was wearing to have to ask for practically everything from toilet paper to hot water. Breakfast seems to be more "forage for yourself" than buffet. If the football is on the T.V. do not hold your breath for the hastily and inelegantly chopped fruit platter (ordered 48 hours in advance). The hotel dog, aptly named Lucky, was more than lucky as the stringy, fossilized chicken Tikka, from the "gourmet" evening meal, shot from our forks and skidded across the floor. Nonetheless dining was a very relaxed experience, evidenced by one guest who did Tarot readings for others over breakfast. Having painted a bleak picture so far, the swimming pool is well designed and set in relaxing tropical gardens. If the hotel is not fully booked, the checkout is an unhurried affair. The place is quirky and not without its charms. It must have been beautiful once. The room cleaners added some homely and amusing touches to their work. Ours were brilliant towel sculptors.
Near to Anjuna, at Arpora, are a couple of Saturday night markets. We visited one (we think that it was called Ingo's). It was incredibly well organized and certainly drew the crowds for miles around. It is a great place to buy souvenirs, to eat a snack or drink a cool beer. There were marshals ushering in the traffic and police to guide us out. Rubbish was collected in large, open baskets, which were swiftly replaced when full. It was remarkable in a country where "manana" culture often prevails and it stood out from everything else we visited.
There always seems to a special event here at this time of year, be it a film festival in Panjim, the capital, or a pilgrimage to Old Goa. One evening in Mapusa (pronounced Mapsa ) there was a spectacular Shavadi Drama, spoken in Maharati, complete with a cast of around three hundred. We sat with the VIP's as elephants, horses and camels thundered past. Shavadi repelled Mogul invaders and brought errant soldiers to book. As it finished, we made for the exit only to find that there was not a taxi or tuk tuk in sight. Looking lost, we stood by the roadside in the dark as hordes of people squeezed into waiting mini vans and cars. A self styled Goan photographer professed to know where the taxi rank was and we followed him at breakneck speed to an auto rickshaw. We knew that this was a scam to get a free ride home but we were grateful for anything at this stage. Miraculously, he came from Anjuna and knew it well. In fact he knew our hotel and the owner, what a co-incidence? We hurtled towards our hotel at breakneck speed with only the dimmest of headlights to guide us. We recognized a few local landmarks in the dark, but then grew worried, as we seemed to stop to ask for directions a little too often. Finally we were in Anjuna, but hopelessly lost somewhere by the Wednesday market. Nothing daunted, our "guide" redirected the driver to turn down a dark drive. The road became gravel, and the gravel became laterite rock. Finally we bounced up and down over small boulders. Our bones shook and our heads hit the roof. It felt like a "Keystone Cops" movie. We ground to a halt and got out of our valiant vehicle. We turned and retraced our way back on foot followed by the auto rickshaw minus passengers. At this point we hated red laterite with a vengeance, as we could not see a thing. Every step promised a broken ankle. We reached the road with relief. Our "guide" still did not know where we were but we'd worked it out from the row of lights that marked the shoreline. We directed the driver to our hotel and had to pay him extra for the "inconvenience"! As our photographer "guide" sped off into the darkness in the auto rickshaw, our theory that he'd never ever been to Anjuna just grew and grew.
In Central and Old Goa there are many places to visit. For those who can get up at the crack of dawn, the Doctor Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary beckons. Allow yourself to be paddled around the mangroves in a dugout canoe. Follow this with a trip to old Goa to visit Se Cathedral and the Basilica of Bom Jesus. On the 3rd of December the place is packed with picnicking pilgrims and stalls selling trinkets, together with all manner of religious artifacts. Every ten years the body of St. Francis Xavier (minus one of his fingernails which is in Braganza House in South Goa) is paraded and put on exhibition. The estimated time for the queue was an hour and a half. Together with a distinguished Professor of Crop Physiology from the University of Arkansas, who was taking a well deserved weekend break during a punishing lecture schedule in Mumbai (We hope that he reads this and has a laugh) we settled for a cool drink. From then on, the only birds that the men spotted happened to be on the labels of Kingfisher beer bottles.
India is not for the delicate stomached or the fainthearted. Take masses of anti diarrhoea and malaria tablets and a torch. Do not even think of drinking the tap water. Buy plenty of mineral water for drinking and use this also for brushing your teeth. You will need a visa for India.
The only hotel that we stayed in, that we would recommend, is the Goa Marriott Resort. Be aware, however, that this is by a busy shipping lane and close to the city of Panjim in the centre of Goa. Rooms were spacious and clean. The friendly staff offered excellent service. The buffet breakfast included plenty of choice.
To read about our travels in South Goa click on http://www.epinions.com/content_180175605380
View our "Images of Goa" on http://www.fotothing.com/gillandtony