Christmas in Goa

To the ends of the earth with Nick Smith

Despite its image for being crowded and rowdy, in Goa it’s quite easy to find a quiet beach bar on the golden sand

If you’ve ever wanted to get away from it all for the yuletide and do something a little less conventional, then you’re not alone. A few years ago Bay’s Nick Smith decided it was high time to break the mould, and off he went to spend the Twelve Days of Christmas on a beach in sunny Goa, India…

Say it out loud, but only whisper it in case you offend someone. We all dream of the day when we can spend Christmas somewhere else, somewhere far, far away. Perhaps we think that one year, while the joyful and triumphant faithful are shivering and damp back in Wales, we’ll be lounging on the golden sands of a tropical beach watching the apricot-coloured sun dip down towards the horizon over the Arabian Sea. Perhaps we’ll go to Goa, chill out in a beach hut for a few weeks, do a little sunrise yoga, swim with dolphins, get temporary Celtic henna tattoos and listen to peaceful music on our headphones, undisturbed by the commercial world of loud TV adverts and vulgar neighbours who put up their Christmas trees in October.

Top: To get to the beach at Mandrem you need to cross one of many rickety bridges that cross the creek Bottom: Brightly painted beach huts, fishing boats and palm tree. A picture of tranquillity

The sun-soaked getaway is a cliché of course, and not one that impresses everyone. The Alabama 3 (you know, the band that did the theme tune to The Sopranos) dislike the idea with such ferocity that they wrote in their song Ain’t Going to Goa, “the righteous truth is there ain’t nothing worse than some fool lying on some third-world beach in spandex psychedelic trousers.” And I have to say that as much as I appreciate the point, and as much as I fear the disapproval of a bunch of woke Brixton hippie troubadours, I couldn’t get the idea of basking in the sun at Christmas out of my mind. It’s hardly a blasphemy: after all, I’ve been to Bethlehem, and I’ve been to Jerusalem, and cold they were not.

There are endless miles of golden sands and sunsets where you can do a spot of beach yoga

Following my star to the East was not going to be as straightforward as I had first thought because I was scheduled to be in Antarctica for the weeks leading up to Christmas. I’d been sent south by the travel editor of the Telegraph to photograph one of those polar cruises you see on the television, where adventurous (and very rich) tourists clamber ashore to tick the last continent off their bucket list, take a few snaps of gentoo penguins and beat a frozen retreat back to the ship for an unending stream of Christmas turkey, champagne and carols around a tinsel tree hastily dredged up from the innards of a decommissioned Argentine naval warship. There’s fancy dress, hot toddies, ‘secret Santa’ and all sorts of other fun and games. But while others were revelling in their improvised festive fun, I was wondering how on Earth I’d ever get to the beach in Goa by the appointed time of Christmas Eve. I’ll spare you the logistics of perhaps the longest single journey I’ve ever been on, other than to say that from the South Shetlands in the Antarctic Circle it’s a three-day sail across the fearsome Drake Passage to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile. This was followed by a short-haul internal flight to Santiago, a trans-Atlantic long-haul to Madrid in Spain, a hop-skip-and-a-jump to London Heathrow, another long-haul to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai, and then a quick paper dart to Goa. Tumbling out of my fifth flight in two days, and without the slightest clue of what the ‘real’ time might be, I jumped into a taxi and said to the driver “Vailankanni Cottage Guesthouse, Mandrem Beach.”

A Mandrem creek bridge up close and personal

I had no idea that the cab ride would take four hours, most of which I spent listening to the voluble driver explaining to me how British trustafarians – that is, young British aristocrats financed by parental trust funds pretending to be poor by having bleached white dreadlocks and eastern-style tattoos – had bought every scrap of land on the coast for a song and were building expensive hotels on it. “It’s the worst kind of imperialism,” moaned Harjit, who was understandably disenchanted by the fact that his ancestral land was now owned by people who didn’t even live in India, who were lobbying the local government to relax planning permission regulations while making a mint on the back of proceedings. As sympathetic as I was to the driver’s justified tale of woe, my brain was hurting from all the time folded up like a paperclip in five aeroplanes. I simply wanted to get out of the car and go for a swim in the sea. As we approached Mandrem I decided I’d like to walk the last mile or so, paid Harjit in American dollars, got out of the car and looked at the ocean. It was just how I’d imagined it: Christmas Eve at sunset and my daughter was running up the beach to greet me.

here’s also plenty of wind for kite surfing

Don’t listen to everything you hear about Goa. For sure it might be a little infested with entitled alternative-lifestyle New Age capitalists who’ve never done a day’s work in their lives, and you’ll get sick of the beach ghetto blasters pumping out Bob Marley’s One Love and Three Little Birds (don’t these people ever listen to anything else?), and you can have a chuckle at the overwrought sincerity of the tribal drumming, tie-dyed sarongs, and the fact that every sentence finishes with the word ‘man’. But just as with anywhere else, if you can be bothered to walk five minutes away from the car park, you can have the place to yourself. And if your plan is to find a church to visit on Christmas Day, you’ll find yourself almost exclusively among the local citizenry, who I was to discover were welcoming to, if slightly baffled by, the British people “who lie on the beach all day in the sun drinking beer.”

Top: One of the many Portuguese- inflected churches in Old Goa. This is St. Cajetan Church, also known as the Church of Divine Providence Bottom: take a walk into the countryside and you’ll see an agricultural way of life that hasn’t changed in centuries

This was an observation offered to me by Mr Baptista, a wealthy local businessman whose name betrayed the historical Portuguese influence over this part of India. We were standing outside the whitewashed walls of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, patiently waiting in line to go to mass. But the church was heaving, and we were forced to make do with listening to the service outside over a jury-rigged public address system.

As the words rang out in a mixture of Latin, Konkani and English, we followed proceedings in the increasing heat that was roasting us like turkeys. Just as we were all about to drop dead, the mass was over, Mr Baptista asked me what were my plans for the remainder of the day. I told him that my family were distributing their presents on the beach later. “Nonsense,” came the reply. “You will bring your family to my home, and we will celebrate Christmas together. It is the big white house at the end of that road.”

Mr Baptista was an excellent host. In a house that might be better described as a small palace, he offered me a glass of

At the spice plantation in Ponda you can visit Asiatic (Indian) elephants that for a few dollars will drench you in water

the distinctly-difficult-to-get-hold-of Bank sherry, which I politely refused, but upon which he insisted. There followed a long tennis match in which my reluctance was met by further insistence until

finally the penny dropped that protocol dictated that he couldn’t partake of alcohol until I had. As the chestnut-coloured liquid sloshed into the first glass, a vast host of cousins emerged with empty beakers, and they all got plastered watching a video of an old Manchester United F.A. Cup match on an enormous television screen, while their wives watched reruns of Eastenders in another room. Sensing that I had no interest in the outcome of the contest, Mr Baptista took it upon himself to advise me on my travel itinerary while I was in Goa, from the spice plantation with its famous elephants at Ponda to the historical devotional architecture in Old Goa. “I will arrange everything for you,” he informed me. “There will be a car waiting for you tomorrow morning.” We waddled back in the dark to Vailankanni wondering what had just happened.

Left: A battered old tuk-tuk in one of the side-streets in Arambol Right: Sometimes the only way to get your wares to market is to carry them on your head.

True to his word, Mr Baptista organised everything and left no stone unturned in his efforts to leave a good impression of this part of India in the minds of his guests. I say ‘guests’ because he was (rather inevitably, I suppose) the owner of Vailankanni, nestling under the palm trees with rows of prettily painted fishing boats moored along the creek that separ-ates the mainland from the sands of Mandrem beach. Walk north a few miles and you come to the village of Arambol in the shadow of a dramatic headland, where the markets and bars create a focal point, where the permanent residents intersect with the temporary visitors on a daily and fragile basis. This was where I detected the paradox that all these trendy Londoners, so desperate to find wisdom through their mystical yoga and wonky homespun philosophies, were nothing like the ‘authentic people’ people they were earnestly imitating. While the locals lived modestly and innocuously, drank iced ‘dudh cola’ (a sumptuous blend of half milk and half coke – try it), smoked Marlboro cigarettes and watched

, Top: The impressive, jagged headland at Arambol with a traditional net-casting fisherman in the foreground Below: India’s street markets are stuffed with the freshest produce money can buy

English football, the tourists (who were too cool to be ‘tourists’ and called themselves ‘travellers’) became an embarrassing parody of themselves. All of which would be harmless enough, I thought, if there wasn’t behind their New Age exterior a raging thirst for capitalism of the worst colonial colour. But the truth is that the good people of Goa need the income from the patronising people of South London, so the markets hawk terrible quality silver jewellery to British vultures haggling for bargains, while the exquisite silks and spices go unnoticed. I mentioned this to an unconcerned Mr Baptista, who dismissed it all with a wave of his hand. “Take no notice of them,” he said, “they are people who don’t know what they are looking for, and the saddest thing is that they’ll never know when they have found it.”

As the days passed, I came to discover that the man who obviously revelled in his self-appointed status as the most important and wealthiest man in the village, was possibly one of the kindest strangers I had ever met. It wasn’t just that he arranged for me to watch the Boxing Day Ashes test match on a satellite TV plasma screen in one of the many beach bars that he owned. It was the fact that, on seeing two of his staff peering over the bar, sneaking a glance at the match too, sharing jokes with me

The perfect vision of Christmas in paradise with the apricot sun setting over the peach-coloured sand

You won’t go far in Goa without seeing a beautiful snow-white egret

about how pathetic England were, he told them to take the day off, relax and watch the cricket with Mr Smith. Jugs of iced mango and melon juice were sent over and we had a famous time. I thanked Mr Baptista, who informed me that the people of the village were his family and that he enjoyed looking after them by giving them jobs. He also employed many people from the countryside as seasonal workers, making sure that they were paid enough to send money home so that their kids could go to school. He accompanied me on the long drive to Old Goa where he escorted me around the buildings of the Portuguese colonial past, expertly describing points of interest relating to church after church. We stopped for coffee close to a bridge spanning the Mandovi River where we watched hundreds of sea eagles spiralling in the hot air. “Have you ever been to Lord’s cricket ground?” he mused aloud. I replied that I had many times. He laughed: “No, not the one in London. The one here, in Goa. Come with me, I’ll take you.” As we walked in the heat to an unmown field where kids played tape-ball cricket with borrowed bats, I thought there are times when you need to step out of the conventional Christmas to discover what its proper meaning might be.

 

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