A eulogy for old Goa
SOMETIMES, when the sun is setting over a village called Aldona, and the evening bread is delivered on the backs of bicycles, you can convince yourself that Goa is all right. When Reginald or Tulsidas or Lata or Maria stand at the front gate speaking to that passerby at dusk, and the urak season starts slipping into the feni days, so all you smell on the road is the arch fermentation of cashew apples: Yes, it’s OK.
But then you think about the beaches, the ones with the plastic bags in the water, which you mistook for jellyfish, and the shards of glass from the beer bottles carried into the waves, which now churn with sewage from the septic tanks. Those beaches; you can forget those beaches.
And the hills and roadsides, covered in garbage, blossoming like wildflower. And the earth inland that mining has stripped bare and turned rust-red, leaving peacocks dead from contaminated groundwater. The Mandovi River, too, full of floating casinos and effluent. You can forget these things. And you can remember Goa’s ghosts.
My husband and I moved to north Goa eight years ago, though I first visited with my family 30 years ago, when I was four: We drove down from Bombay in the car, my brother seeing his first nudist on the beach, his mind blown. This time we came so I could study yoga, and we realised there was no reason to leave. Goa was beautiful, laid-back yet exciting, a meeting place for the world. Sure, there were problems. But the beaches! The restaurants! The music, and the people!
It was about four years ago when the doubts first crept in. We noticed how swimming in the sea would leave us with a sore throat or infect a cut. We could no longer pretend the garbage piles on the Assagao, Siolim and Parra hills weren’t getting worse. We saw the trickle of new construction becoming a torrent. And, looking around, we realised many who had created Goa’s culture were now looking elsewhere: locals sought Portuguese passports; foreigners talked about Cambodia or weighed the merits of staying in Europe, saying the good days were over. On balance, it was still worth it. And our village of Assagao – we said – was special, hidden from the corrupted beach-belt; things would be fine.
But things are not fine. The garbage is out of control, river shellfish have been decimated by coliform bacteria, turtle nesting grounds have been ruined. And the construction has exploded. We went away for work for six months, and when we returned six Portuguese villas in our village had been demolished. In their place were construction sites for luxury apartment complexes, the required sand dredged from the rivers, the necessary water drained from wells that ran dry in January. And it’s not just our village: Anjuna and Vagator are changing even faster, with new projects such as Rainforest Boulevard (complete with fake photos of Goa’s beaches in the brochure) and Goa Junction (“for those who choose to be among the privileged few [and] believe in a king-sized lavish & luxurious life”) rising up.
The most recent horror? The “eco-tourism” development of the ecologically sensitive Chapora River area by means of “ferry terminals, a tourist village, museum, marinas, fisherman’s wharf, hotels, an underwater aquarium, sea world, a bird park, an adventure sports island, a tree-top hotel, hotel complex, an exhibition centre …”
With sadness, we have decided to leave, to look toward Europe or Latin America. I have canvassed the opinions of long-term foreign visitors who have also turned away. For Manu from Mexico, the filthy sea was the final straw, though there is also the unscrupulous local business people, “always wanting to take advantage or cheat you in some way”. Phil from England, who has been coming here for 25 years, said, “The joke I made this season was, we all used to say Goa was not the real India, but now REAL India has turned up.” And Marco, who has been driving his VW bus from Switzerland to India for years via Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, wrote, “I think I’m not coming back. Too much pollution, traffic, crazy tourists, new buildings, corruption …”
Foreign tourism has been falling for the last few years. India News Network reported that the total number of foreign tourists has fallen 20 percent compared over the last two years, while The Times of India said 57,000 foreign tourists arrived between October and December 2015, compared with the 85,000 in the same period the previous year. Over 20,000 Russians, the demographic Goa recently relied on, have cancelled trips. The collapsing rouble and problems in the eurozone are external factors that partly explain the disappearing foreign tourist, but Goa doesn’t help itself. In an IndyaWire.com social media survey, 42pc of Russians who had visited in the last four years said they wouldn’t be coming back: Goa was too expensive, too dirty, the taxi mafia too aggressive, women didn’t feel safe, the police were uncooperative.
Anecdotal evidence supports claims of increased harassment of women. A chef friend from Chandigarh, who worked late in a restaurant, had to switch from a scooter to a car because she was being stalked on her way home. An Italian woman here for 10 days stopped travelling alone after a man tried to force her off her bike at night. And a Californian friend who has lived in India for more than 30 years told me about a new bag snatching gang targeting single females travelling alone in the evenings. Little by little, the foreigners who have settled here, the ones who made the parties and the markets come alive, are going elsewhere.
For now, a sense of sadness lingers. I talk to the husband and wife who run one of my local fishcurry-rice places. They tell me that “everything is corrupted; everything is gone”, and when considering the construction boom add that “in five years the village will be lost”.
We look to the agricultural land next door to their business and they both wonder if in 10 years even this will be sold. But what can they do? It’s a question you hear often. What can we do? The answer is unclear. What is certain is that the state is in a period of upheaval, and whatever the outcome, the Goa we once knew is gone. – The Guardian