Do you guys want to be let in on a little secret?
I love India.
LOL! Not a secret. Sorry if you feel betrayed, I’m a beast. I just dangle that carrot in front of the donkey’s face and swoosh, whip it away as quick as it was put there in the first place.
But yeah, I love India. It’s one of if not the most incredible countries on this planet, and I’ve never shied away from openly gushing of my deep, deep affection for the country which often treats its cows better than its people and whose government will occasionally just get bored and think “LOL, I know, let’s cancel all the money, won’t that be funny?“.
I love India equally as much as I love Dairy Milk buttons, slightly less than I love cookies and a little bit more than I’m currently crushing on The Greatest Showman soundtrack (and cast – Hugh Jackman, yes puhlease). And if that’s not the most exact representation of my heart right now, I don’t know what is.
Despite all of the above, despite my years of pining for an authentic street samosa and chutney, and despite throwing my heart and soul into spreading the online word that WOMEN SHOULD NOT BE SCARED TO GO TO INDIA ALONE, the one aspect I just couldn’t wrap my head or my heart around was, quite surprisingly, Goa.
The Holy Grail for all things digital nomad, hippy, and yogi
Despite being none, but at the same time all of the above, when I first visited Goa back in late October 2016 I almost immediately got a sense that it just wasn’t my kind of place. In hindsight, this may have had something to do with how we’d driven for what felt like 8 days all the way up from Kerala, myself in an almost permanent state of unconsciousness for all but 2 hours of the journey.
And when I say a state of unconsciousness, I don’t mean I was sleeping, I mean I was unconscious. Genuinely. The last of my rabies injections had completely wiped me out to the point that I had to be physically shaken to wake up for our food stops, forced to eat a few handfuls of chana masala before being led back to the car where I would very attractively let my chin loll onto my chest and fall unconscious again, mouth open, catching more flies than a jar of honey. I remember at one point we had to stop at a state border, and I could hear the policeman asking who I was married to and where my passport was. But no matter how hard I tried to open my eyes to be all “Hey, I’m alive, they’re not kidnapping and/or murdering me, I swear“, I couldn’t.
The only way to describe my mood on arrival in Goa was cranky. Like that scene in Rugrats: The Movie in the hospital where all the babies are singing and peeing in the sky, and then they all cry in unison at the end. Those babies are me. I am those babies.
Based on what I’d heard from others, and based on what I’d seen on social media, I was expecting pristine beaches, colourful smoothie bowls and cheap thalis, and quaint little huts on the beach. You know, paradise.
What I got was crowded and quite dirty beaches, an endless supply of restaurants offering the oh-so authentically Indian ‘chicken nugets and french frys‘ and more British party-goers than you’d find in Cardiff Queen Street on student night but, believe it or not, wearing fewer clothes. If that’s even possible.
Calangute and Baga, where we were based for most of the trip, was how I imagine Ibiza to be at the height of party season, but with cheaper alcohol and more Bollywood music.
It wasn’t all bad
I’m really selling Goa right now, right?
As shit as I’ve made that trip sound, I actually had a really bloody fantastic time. But I will say it was more the company than the surroundings that made it what it was. I travelled with four (maybe five, possibly six, I’ve lost count) really good Keralan friends.
We visited some of the nearby beaches, went go-karting in tin cans, got matching tattoos and ate out every night (food is always a winner in my eyes). At some point, we acquired a motorbike from somewhere and I was finally able to live out my long-awaited dream of driving through palm trees on the back of a bike, singing on top of my voice and letting my hair fill up with bugs. We watched a few gorgeous sunsets, ate some corn on the cob on the beach and most of the guys took advantage of the readily available alcohol (Kerala is an almost-dry state so it was an absolute treat) while myself and my best bud took advantage of the readily available Appy Fizz.
Is it possible to get drunk on apple soda? Because I think I did.
All in all, it was a really lovely trip. I just didn’t like Goa. To me it seemed less of this off-the-grid, digital-nomad safe haven and more of a cheap and cheerful, let’s get so off our faces that the dirty beaches look pretty kind of place swarming with foreign and local tourists alike. It seemed lacking in culture, lacking in pretty views and lacking in that certain je ne sais quoi that makes you fall in love with the place. If you weren’t interested in partying, drinking or doing yoga, there wasn’t much for you.
I didn’t get the appeal, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t go back unless I was already in the area.
So what changed?
Having said all of the above, and how lacking I found Goa to be in, well, everything you may be sat there questioning why I elected to go back last November.
The honest answer comes in three parts. The first is that I had some annual leave left at work, had a hankering for some Winter sun, and it turns out that flying halfway across the planet to India works out cheaper that time of year than a few hours across the continent to the Canaries or Greece! The second is that one of my best friends was going to be there at that time, and I am quite fond of him. And the last is that my stepdad was running low on tiger balm so a mad dash to India was well overdue.
All in all, it was excellent timing.
So I got myself a cheap-as-chips multi-city flight with OmanAir from Heathrow to Goa and back from Kochi, packed a few items of clothing into an otherwise empty suitcase (ready to bring back full to the brim with Tiger Balm, Appy Fizz and Good Day biscuits!) and set off on the long and winding road from Cardiff to London.
Doing it right the second time around
In case any of the guys I road tripped to Goa with the first time around are reading this, I had such a good time with you all. But I didn’t like Goa. I thought it was ugly, crowded and a bit pointless if I’m honest. Having grown to love India and all it stands for so much, I was thoroughly disappointed that what is seen as the gold medal of all Indian holiday destinations was such a letdown.
When I knew I was going back to Goa, I was determined to make the most of it and to at least semi-enjoy my surroundings as well as the company I was with. So I went against everything I’ve ever believed in and I actually did some research before heading off.
That’s a huge deal.
I never plan out my trips. Ever. I buy the flights, book the first and sometimes last night accommodation and off I fly.
This time around I Googled the bejeezus out of phrases like “best things to do in Goa”, “pretty views in Goa”, “off the beaten track Goa”, “no alcohol Goa”, spent hour after hour reading up about waterfalls and hikes and butterfly sanctuaries (which I can’t for the life of me find reference to now!), and frantically searched the #Goa hashtag on Instagram, so by the time my plane touched down at Dabolim Airport I knew exactly where I wanted to go.
And it made all the difference.
Instead of sleeping through breakfast every day, retracing my footsteps on the same overcrowded beaches, visiting forts that looked more like concrete car parks (that’s you, Aguada Fort), I was waking up at the crack of dawn (not quite), zooming through the most incredible scenery on the back of my best bud’s moped heading to the most secluded beauty spots and beaches, visiting forts that looked less like a concrete car park and more like a scene from Lion King and feasting my eyes on some of the most stunning coastal views I’ve ever seen in my life.
If there weren’t so many tiny little ant people on that stretch of beach I 100% would have believed that I’d stepped through a time machine into the Jurassic era. It wouldn’t have surprised me if a Stegosaurus snuck up behind and took a meaty chunk out of my side. In fact, I would have welcomed it. It’d be a nice change from a monkey.
I’m not a planner in any aspect of my life.
Every Christmas I optimistically invest in a new week-at-a-glance diary, hellbent on actually using it this year as now is the time I get my #@$% together. Without fail by mid-January it’s lost down the side of my bed, nothing in it but my name printed neatly on the first page and a few Bob Marley related dates scribbled throughout. I don’t take a list when I do the food shopping, and always end up coming out with half the snack aisle, five candles and a book about serial killers but no fruit, veg or remotely useful household goods. I don’t write my shifts down, instead choosing to rely on my memory (which to be fair is mostly remarkably good) which of course results in me consistently showing up either half an hour early or late for work.
I don’t plan things. I never have.
Well, Goa Take-Two has helped me see that planning bits and pieces of your trip doesn’t actually suck away all the fun and spontanaeity of travelling on a whim. In fact, it enhances it. Having a brief idea of what you want to see and do, and when you want to do it is refreshingly brilliant. It takes away some of the pressures you didn’t even know where there when you plan to “take it day by day”. There’s no frantically Googling if the museum you want to visit is actually open on a Monday. There’s no having to skip breakfast and lunch as your accommodation is too far from all the nice places and you have to spend 6 hours a day travelling back and for.
You just sort of wake up and say “Oh yeah, we’re doing this today, remember?” and off you trot!
From now on I’m not going to totally relinquish my easy breezy, let’s just fly to a country and see what happens view on travel. Nor am I going to become one of those people (hats off to them!) who plan their holidays military-style from the crack of dawn to the stroke of midnight. But I definitely will do as I did with Goa this time around, and do just a little bit of research before I shoot off. Even if it’s just a bit of scrolling through hashtags on Instagram.