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'You are from Goa? How lucky!' A Goan returns, plays tourist

Last August, I moved back home. Among the many positives of this was the chance to fully reclaim my identity. To be the Goan I never got to be

What's more touristy than surfing?
What's more touristy than surfing? (Courtesy Joanna Lobo)

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“You are from Goa? How lucky!”

If I had a rupee for every person who has greeted me thus, I would be rich enough to actually afford a house in Goa. Being Goan has been a big part of my identity, especially as an adult living away from home. Following in the footsteps of many fellow brethren, I left Goa as a teenager to seek better opportunities in Mumbai, where I lived for close to two decades. Mumbai gave me work and purpose, broadened my horizons, gifted me a new identity and friends—and a dog—who became family. In Mumbai, I was a Bomoicar (a Bombay Goan) who would visit home every few months and carry back bags of produce, food and other items to feed my nostalgia.

I wore my Goan identity like a badge of honour but it felt undeserved. On visits home, I sometimes felt like an outsider. Goa was changing so rapidly and there was so much I didn’t know; I wasn’t able to play catch-up.

Last August, I moved back home. Among the many positives of this decision, one was the chance to fully reclaim my identity. To be the Goan I never got to be. The easiest way to discover Goa, I have found, is by playing tourist.

As an avid traveller grounded since the start of the pandemic, I have made Goa my holiday destination. I came here armed with a curated list of places to go to, food to try, people to meet. In the last seven months, I have embraced my role as a tourist to the hilt. I have checked off things on the list and often, gone rogue.

I have gone sailing in Dona Paula Bay, taken a surf class at Agonda, dined in the air at Bambolim, toured the island of Divar, participated in a cocktail-making contest, eaten ros omelette (omelette in coconut-rich chicken gravy) after a night of drinking, explored monuments in Old Goa, sampled local alcohol at renovated tavernas, attended live gigs, and bought expensive stuff I didn’t need at pop-ups.

For years, I maintained that Goans don’t spend as much time lounging at beaches as people think we do. Then I went and proved myself wrong. There’s much to love about our beaches: Morjim offers spectacular sunsets; Siridao is a good place to end a difficult year; Agonda may seem touristy but is actually a quiet and beautiful beach; and a “suicide point” actually offers a stunning view of a beach and the mountainside.

Sometimes, the best stories happen when I least expect them. On Divar island, a wrong turn took us down a canopied road to a little manos (sluice gate) and the idyllic scene of boats bobbing on quiet waters. There’s a thrill in standing on a ferry and watching one island recede as the other approaches. Getting lost in the dark in an unfamiliar place isn’t as scary with a friend who thinks it’s an adventure. Befriending a table of strangers at a neighbourhood bar can lead to fascinating discussions on what constitutes a “true Goan”.

Old buildings on Divar island
Old buildings on Divar island (Courtesy Joanna Lobo)

After decades, I have witnessed the change in seasons, a change reflected in the produce, the festivals, and oddly enough, in the decorations at the main junctions in Panaji. The state capital has a new look for every festival/season: movie stars for the International Film Festival of India (Iffi), lights and trees for Christmas; scenes from mythology for the spring festival of Shigmo.

Panaji is a city that wears many hats. For the hard-core tourist, there are the old houses in Fontainhas, the white steps to the majestic Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, Miramar beach and the food stalls there, the Dona Paula jetty, and the casinos that crowd the waters of the Mandovi river. At night, the streets ring with music and noise from bars, cafés and restaurants. The sports grounds host music festivals and flea markets. It’s a city that’s struggling to maintain its old-world charm while also being modern and trendy.

Part of exploring my home is understanding just how much it has changed. Seasonality in Goa is best observed through conversation. The monsoon months are about which “secret” waterfalls to visit, and where to go fishing. November is for Iffi and the start of the wedding season. December’s misty nights are ideal for Christmas activities and dances, and all-night parties. January this year saw the focus shift to elections, and in February, it was time for the actual carnival. Now, summer and the beginning of the cashew season has people discussing urrak, and ways to cope with the heat.

The enduring subject of conversation is the change the state is witnessing.

The Goa of my childhood was simple. I grew up in a typical village in the north, with a church and a temple, old houses, paddy fields, cashew plantations, abandoned houses, an unpolluted water body; a place so quiet you could hear the silence. We visited beaches for village picnics. Our culinary exploration ranged from cafés that served bhaji pao and falooda to bakeries that offered cheap snacks; we would splurge on a multi-cuisine air-conditioned restaurant.

My village is now on the radar: Property prices are skyrocketing, celebrities are snapping up homes, illegal construction is rampant and parties go on till late night. Elsewhere, garbage dots most places. You can still find a good fish thali but Goan food seems to be losing out to the world cuisines in upscale establishments.

Nostalgia drives me to document old haunts, from the produce and bustle of the Friday market at Mapusa to a plate of bhaji pao and buns. I take photographs of everything: the empty steps of the Panaji church, the colourful houses in Fontainhas, sunsets over the Mandovi, the salt pans of Ribandar, the oyster shell windows, and the rare books at the Krishnadas Shama State Central Library.

My journey as a local/tourist has just begun. I visit the obvious attractions but am also on the lookout for the seemingly ordinary things I used to take for granted. I say yes to things I would have once considered too boring or too adventurous. I have the best of both worlds: the benefits of being a local, while also doing touristy things. I can have my urrak, and drink it in a cocktail too.

Joanna Lobo is a Goa-based journalist

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