Golden Goa! Pearl of the Orient! Jewel of the Arabian Sea!....So go the advertising slogans aimed at European tourists (those who cannot afford pricier Mediterranean resorts!). And such are the nostalgic memories of expatriate Goans (who cling to visions of the serene paradise they left a long time ago). But are they true? Or is it all hype? Is Goa still golden? Is it really a "susegade" oasis in the chaotic Indian desert? Or has the diamond of the Arabian Sea turned into a cubic zirconium? I decided to find out for myself. You guessed it....I made yet another trip to the homeland.
My discovery began at Dabolim airport's "new" arrival terminal -- a warehouse-like structure with gray cement floors, unfinished walls, harsh lighting, garish billboards, and a couple of carousels that shoot your bags right off the belt like giant catapults. I was amazed. I know this already worn-out monstrosity is new because it wasn't there last year! I'm guessing its designers-products, no doubt, of the 3-week-degree-by-mail school of engineering!- were responsible for the first Mandovi bridge!
The cab-ride from the airport was a lesson in urban development. Concrete apartment blocks, with grandiose names like Princessa de Mar and The Royal Residency, lie sandwiched between Joaquim's "balcao" and Anton's "cumao". Stately homes of the nouveaux-riche rub shoulders with Dharavi-style colonies of migrant labor. And in a manner befitting the deeply religious Goans, the disposal of sewage has been left to the gods. My amazement turns to disappointment. "Where," I ask the cabbie, "are those quaint Goan bungalows? The ones with the wooden verandas, French doors, and red-tile roofs?" "Torn down by real estate 'developers', sir" came the reply. "And the people who lived in them?" I asked. "Gone off to foreign lands" he responded with a knowing look. I squirmed a bit. That felt too close for comfort!
What I saw that first day turned out to be a sign of things to come. During the next three weeks I alternated between disbelief, sadness, frustration, anger, and disgust. Goa has changed and how! The laid-back land we know and love has metamorphosed from a beautiful butterfly into an ugly caterpillar. The kiss of economic development has turned the prince into a toad. Goa's self-serving elites have undone in a decade the beauty that nature took eons to create.
The more jarring changes have occurred in what used to be sleepy little villages along Goa's coastline. Fishing and farming have been replaced by tourism and the Goan soul appears to have been sold for a fistful of dollars (or is it pounds?) Village folk have traded their fishing boats for taxi-cabs, turned their homes into hotels, and their yards into antique shops. Goa's towns have fared no better. Their raffic congestion would make Los Angeles proud and their roads have more potholes than Swiss cheese.
But perhaps the most outrageous changes can be found at Goa's once-pristine beaches. The dazzling white sand that we played in as kids is now dirty and brown. Hundreds of plastic bottles (left by hordes of visiting "ghantis") litter the shore, and dogs and cows (yes, cows) frolic among the dunes. The cows even sit in groups on the beach, a sight so bizarre that you almost expect them to break into song or a game of poker! Is the sharing of our shores with the denizens of the animal kingdom an expression of the famed Goan hospitality? It may explain why mosquitos, traditionally a monsoon menace, have decided to stay for the rest of the year.
Goa has become quite the modern paradox. Cellular phone services are now available to a population that still suffers through several power outages a day. A million cars ply narrow two-way streets that haven't changed since the horse-and-buggy days of the Portuguese. A visit to the doctor will set you back 50 cents but expect to pay five dollars for a gallon of gas.
To answer my original question - it appears that the glitter of golden Goa is fading fast. The pearl is losing its luster. How could this have happened? Why have materialism and greed overrun ecological and social concerns? Have we learned nothing from the experiences of other tourist destinations? Topics for discussion no doubt (and perhaps for future columns in this newsletter). But you know what saddens me most? The fact that all of these changes have aroused little concern, outrage, or debate among the Goan people. Newspaper headlines decry political scams in far-away New Delhi. The party-going set debates the merits of the Cielo over the Maruti. And the common man worries that power may fail during the next Baywatch episode!
So much for Amchen Goem....