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The wonderful Goan bubble

Agonda Beach with Sonho do Mar

We had just landed and were waiting for our bags, when a simple conversation with a young airport employee already revealed one difference between Goa and the rest of India. “So, you are coming for the festival?” The casual tone of his question was already a bit untypical, I thought. “No…”, I said, assuming some religious festival was going on that I in my ignorance had not known about. “What festival is it?” I asked. “Goa’s biggest music festival, lots of people are going, it’s in North Goa”. Still stuck in my stereotypical mindset, I expected Bollywood/Bangra kind of music and was actually surprised for a second when he added “It’s a techno festival!”, until I finally connected the dots to the well-known branch of electronic music called “Goa”. Obviously, I knew about it before, but was somehow still unprepared for the reality of techno music in India. I actually would have liked to go, but with our resort in South Goa and my mom onboard, I decided against it.

Paradisiac relaxation

A hilly and lush tropical landscape similar to that of the Western Ghats in Kerala awaited us outside. Maybe even more impressive was the perfect state of the roads, which made it possible to reach our resort in 60 km distance in about an hour. We spent the time well enjoying the beautiful countryside with its neat houses and picturesque canals.

The small state Goa can be broadly divided into North and South Goa, with the North being more resourceful in terms of historical heritage and tourism, and the South more laid-back and less frequented. The cultural heritage of the former Portuguese-Indian towns Vasco da Gama, Panjim and Margao in the North would no doubt have been interesting, but after the sightseeing in Bombay and the North’s reputation of overcrowded beaches, I had opted for a beach in the South with a particularly quiet reputation: Agonda Beach.

When we reached the resort, I did not regret my choice. Amidst palm and coconut trees and set right on the tropical beach, our resort “Sonho do Mar” was the kind of dreamy location that we had wished for. There is a reason why Goa is such a popular tourist destination, I thought, looking around.

Though supposedly non-touristic, Agonda beach is in fact lined with resorts in front and a road with shops and restaurants in the back. However, neither the resorts nor the road are in any way disturbing and do not spoil the blissful relaxation that Agonda offers. This is because neither the limited road traffic, nor the existence of other resorts is noticeable from within the resorts.

All accommodations are small and unobtrusive one-story structures, often built from natural materials. They rarely put any furniture out on the beach – I think there must have been more cows than recliners. Because everyone seems to respect the peace and quiet of their neighbours, the waves are the loudest sound on the beach. In fact, they can be heard so loud and clear that they almost wake you up in the morning.

Sitting inside Sonho do Mar and peering outside, the beach felt remote and unexplored, and only walking towards the beach, looking back at the line of resorts, or walking to the touristic back streets reminded me that I was in one of India’s touristic hubs.

The housing was basic, a bit too basic – but no other stay during our trip had a similarly inviting sitting area as Sonho do Mar, with tent-like open pavilions right on the beach that each had a low table surrounded by pillows and was lined with colourful draperies.

Not wanting more, I spent most of my time in one of the pavilions ordering one drink or snack after another and reading. My only activity during our four days in Goa was a boat trip with a fisherman to watch the small dolphins – technically “purpoises” – that jump the Arabian Sea some hundred meters off the coast.

My family was a bit more active, riding and washing elephants, visiting a spice garden and exploring the small street behind the resort seamed with one tourist shop after another selling “ethnic” items. Goa is where my brother and his girlfriend started ignoring my advice on what to wear. They just could not resist the many “Indian” clothes on offer and came back from one of their shopping tours with several pairs of Turkish trousers which I doubt are even worn in Turkey, leave alone in India.

Dress code riddles

Most Western tourists come to India prepared with an India-specific wardrobe, many of them stocking it up along their trip. The climate and culture requires a special set of clothes, they rightly assume. So far, so reasonable.

Before I go on, these are the facts: In the winter, coastal climate in India is comparable to a mid-European summer, with about 28 degrees Celsius and very limited humidity. During other seasons it is up to 10 degrees hotter and very humid.
Regarding the dress code, India as a whole is a conservative country. Except for very touristic or  cosmopolitan contexts such as Goa and some elite places in Delhi or Bombay, you rarely find anyone wearing short dresses or shirts with a revealing décolletage. As a rule of thumb, people become more conservative the further South and the further away from cities they are, with Goa being the liberal and a rural village the conservative end and South Indian towns somewhere in the middle. In Goa, Indians I think have become so used to tourists you can simply wear your summer clothes from home. In the countryside, even shoulders and calves are considered too much too show, and female curves are normally concealed with a shawl.
So, depending on when and where you travel, packing the right things – which are supposed to be both airy and concealing – can be a challenge.

However, this does not explain some Westerners’ strange wardrobe choices. Even more, it does not explain the kind of clothes that are bought during their travel, when they have already seen for themselves what the Indian dress code is.

What happens is that while tourists are usually prepared for the climate, especially young people often disregard the real local dress customs and instead follow their own, made-up version of it. This newly created dress code is neither Western, nor Indian, but some strange fantasy in between. This large group of tourists does not check or care about what their Indian counterparts actually wear, but cling to their projection of what clothes they would like to be worn in India.

One version of this fantasy bubble is India as a oriental fairytale place where you wear not only Turkish trousers, but also shirts with Hindu scriptures or batik patterns, head cloth, and sandals with sea shells.
Another version is India as a huge survival camp that requires functional clothing otherwise used for Safaris or jungle treks.
While the latter version at least has some connection to real life, the former is entirely a result of the tourist industry with no linkage to India whatsoever.

Similarly, many people seem to believe that because India is a developing country and thus – in their imagination – somehow more laid-back than their home countries, it is appropriate to dress down and go around in home wear or dressed like a hippie.

While it is fully understandable that while on holiday people want to dress comfortably, and it is eventually really up to them how they dress, they should be aware what they look like to many Indians (in case they care), many of whom wonder why a person from a rich country would dress in such an “uncivilized” manner or who simply find their dresses funny.
To devout Hindus, even worse is the sight of sacred symbols such as the “ohm” sign in tattoos or on t-shirts of unwashed looking, dread-lock wearing half-naked tourists.

You do not need to stretch yourself so much to wear traditional Indian clothing, which could backfire as well – just imagine an Indian wearing a traditional Bavarian leather trouser… My recommendation is much simpler: Just wear a conservative version of what you wear at home! Unless you are planning an actual jungle or wildlife tour, just dress like an Urban Indian – in a trouser and a t-shirt, and that’s it! And if you are travelling during a hot season and don’t have any suitable clothing at home, any thin or loose trouser or long skirt from H&M would do.

Another peculiarity that is common to almost all tourists travelling to India is their trekking rucksack – a lot of people seem to think that you best travel with this huge backpack as though going on a Himalaya tour. These people usually come by flight, get picked up by taxi, and then typically don’t even carry their bags by themselves when checking into their hostel. Even if they do have to walk a bit with their luggage, there is almost always a street that is good enough for wheeled suitcases. So what is the point of a bag that you have to carry on your back, that disturbs other passengers in trains or busses, and that almost always involves difficulties when trying to reach your belongings?

So while I go around in my chino’s and a t-shirt, wearing my usual sandals and pulling my trolley behind me with ease, I do take some – admittedly quite arrogant – pleasure in watching yet another fantasy bubble couple checking-in to my hotel wearing a batik head cloth, an ohm t-shirt, Turkish trousers, and huge backpacks.
I thanked the Gods that my brother and his girlfriend’s oddities were at least reduced to their trousers, which they – by the way – wore until the end of our journey, despite my constant dismissive remarks.

 “Goa is not India” / The authenticity dilemma

My boyfriend had not been wrong with his remark that “Goa is not India” in the sense that neither the people, nor the institutions, nor the customs of the two places we saw had much in common with what we have seen in other places in India: Almost everyone on the beaches and the backside street was a Westerner, with Indian presence normally being limited to shop staff, servers and fishermen. There was no average Indian shop around, and the resorts had a markedly Western/Carribean/Hippie influence, anyway they mostly looked quite different from the hotels and homestays we had seen elsewhere. Tourist’s behavior was largely un-adapted, and Indians also seemed more open-minded than average.

Many resorts even seemed to be run by Westerners, judging from names like “Manfred’s nest” or “Shanti Ohm” we saw on the way. Sonho do Mar, for example, belongs to people from Berlin, as I later found out, and also neighbouring “Monsoon” is run by a German. So overall, Agonda did not feel very “Indian”. Was that a good or a bad thing, and was that perception justified?

Most affordable holiday destinations, I contemplate with my mother, undergo the transition from “hidden gem” to “crowded tourist destination”, moving from “authentic” to “touristic”. The right balance lies somewhere in the middle, but striking it is difficult. However, most tourists want just that: An “authentic” experience with all the comforts from home. In addition, they want their preconceptions to be met – India to many stands for “being in touch with nature”, cows, elephants, spices, Hinduism/spiritualism, jungles, beaches, “happy” rice or coffee farmers, and also poverty. So they want to see some “back to nature” stuff, take a photo of a cow, do an elephant ride, they want to see pepper and cardamom plants, see temples and ideally some rituals, they want to go jungle trekking and swimming, and they like to take pictures of “romantic” rice farming and also of desolate housing or beggars.

Even though many of tourist’s impressions of India are not entirely wrong, their interpretations of the same are often twisted to meet their own ideologies. The actual reality of India for many is either too boring or too uncomfortable. This, I think, is not just true of India, but to some extent of all tourist destinations, and in particular the “exotic” ones, which leave a lot of space for projections.
Tourists’ expectations of authenticity and comfort, mixed up with their preconceptions, tend to create the kind of reality bubble that we saw with the dress codes.

In India, successful tourist destinations cater to this bubble by offering Western comforts such as continental food, alcohol, and WiFi, various created-for-tourists-only trips (elephant rides, spice plantations, ethnic dances etc.) and satisfying preconceptions with “eco friendly” tours and products or playing background sounds of chirping birds (see when I write on Cochin).
It is a dilemma that could only be solved by knowing locals and getting a private tour. The prerequisite for this would of course be an actual interest in the country’s real life, which can turn out to be a disappointment, as we will see during our next stops Kannur and Alleppey.

Not very different from all the other tourists, we also like our comforts from home, and so despite my reservations about Goa’s “Un-Indianness”, we did enjoy our stay very much, specifically because it perfectly catered to our needs: Our resort had that perfect “individualistic” style that most Westerners like, swimming was common (unlike on other Indian beaches where there are only staring fishermen) and protected with a lifeguard, restaurants served the preferred mildly spiced Indian and continental dishes, cafés played cosmopolitan lounge music, the souvenirs on offer were tailored to our shopping interests, and, most importantly, our resort had Wi-Fi.

Reflecting further on my feeling of Un-Indianness, maybe my own expectation of what would constitute an “authentic Indian lifestyle” in Goa is wrong. Maybe one should accept the fact that tourists, together with Goan locals, have created a new culture. And maybe Goa has always been a bit different, considering the fact that it only gained independence from Portugal in 1961. Goa is what it is, why should it be any less legitimate than the lifestyle in other Indian states?
Furthermore, Goa can hardly be called an Indian only phenomenon. I am thinking of Venice, or some Greek islands that today live for and from tourism only, which of course somewhat renders the idea of tourism ad absurdum.

Lastly, all these criticisms and doubts require tourists to care whether their holiday is in line with India’s reality or not. I think, just like many simply do not care what Indians may think of their “ohm” t-shirts, they do not care whether any of their touristic activities are typical for India. They just want to live peacefully in their Indian bubble. I do not think there is generally a problem with this as long as you are aware of it.

Mallorca in India

After spending two nights in Agonda, we had planned to continue to Kannur by night train. However, despite many weeks of planning, our train ticket was not confirmed (another topic for discussion – getting around in India can be real difficult), so that I had to spontaneously add another night in Goa. Sonho do Mar at that point was booked out, so we went for “Cuba Beach Bungalows” at neighbouring Palolem beach.

Palolem gave us an idea of what the Northern beaches probably looked like. Unlike Agonda, its many resorts were often bigger (more huts or two stories), the beach was more utilized with chairs and tables, loud music was playing, and many, many more people were on the beach, bathing or playing.

After Agonda, the liveliness of Palolem was refreshing, but not a long-term option for me. Though I have admittedly never been to Mallorca, Palolem to some extent reminded me of my idea of it.
However, accommodation and food were – a bit surprisingly – an improvement. We had sea view cottages with our own hammocks outside, something my brother and his girlfriend particularly enjoyed. And the freshly grilled garlic prawns I had in the Cuba’s restaurant were the best I ever had.

We ended our Goan experience in the most authentic way it deserved – with continental food and imported wines, listening to electronic music.

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