Eating by the Water (Goa, Jan 2020)


More than four months after we left, here, finally, is my farewell to Goa. We spent a week there, living in the lovely home of old friends who now live in Hong Kong and it was one of the best vacations we’ve had as a family. It seems a world and two lifetimes away now but I see my other trip reports and look back with pleasure at our time there—hanging out at the beach every day, eating (mostly) very good Goan food both in restaurants and at home, visiting the local fish market, visiting old Portuguese cathedrals, touring the Paul John distillery etc. It was a charmed week and I don’t know when we will ever be able to do it again.

But I also worry about the toll that the pandemic and its associated closures and restrictions will have had and will continue to have on the lives of so many people we interacted with there and who took such good care of us. (I know it’s probably off-putting to hear these concerns voiced by someone who lives a life of great privilege in another country, and who is about to talk about and show pictures of food. Please feel free to tell me to fuck off.) A large part of Goa’s economy is based on tourism. Already in January we were told by the small, informal merchants who ply the tourist beaches that political turmoil in India—over the bill passed by the Hindu fundamentalist ruling party, the BJP to limit the citizenship of religious minorities—had disrupted a lot of tourist traffic. And then came the pandemic.

Covid was not yet a concern in India when we left Goa—though it had begun to be a week later as we were getting ready to leave India. But with international travel narrowing sharply in February and March, the end of the high tourist season (which closes at the end of March) must undoubtedly have been traumatic for the migrants who ply an uncertain trade haggling with tourists over trinkets and massages on the beach; for the other migrant workers who staff the beach shacks where tourists like us hang out like beached whales all day; for cab drivers and so on; or for that matter, for all the people who run and work at the restaurants we ate at and all the others like them.

Beyond the loss of income, but not separable from it—especially for those already living precarious lives—is the uncertain progression of the pandemic in India. While the numbers of people infected and of fatalities seemed remarkably low in the early months of the pandemic, things are beginning to look very different now. And it’s not certain either how trustworthy reported numbers have been in the last few months. At any rate, cases are rising sharply now, just as many states have begun to open back up. Goa had very few reported cases for a while—for what that’s worth given both limited testing and a reasonable likelihood of fudging of numbers (the state government is also BJP). It has since seen a spike in the last month or so after the government opened up travel from other states.

Here in the US it is hard to believe that the pandemic will be behind us (or receding very rapidly in the rear-view mirror) by the end of the year. And it is of course working class Americans—especially African Americans—who are at greater risk here—not only for bad medical outcomes but from economic pressures driving them back to unsafe working conditions. For poor people in countries like India, where the social safety net is somewhere between negligible and non-existent, and where the central government and most of the nation’s elite have displayed/reconfirmed a breathtakingly, inhumanely low estimation of the lives and rights of the poor, things are far more grim. For a state like Goa which is so heavily reliant on tourist travel from both Europe and other parts of India the uncertainties are greater. Even if the rate of infections in the state abates over the next few months it’s not clear if/when tourists will return.

Well, after that grim preamble let me tell you about our time on the beach back when things were already not optimal but still very far away from terrible.

Here is how the beach life works in Goa in the tourist season. Whichever tourist beach you go to is going to have a line of shacks stretching in either direction. These shacks are centrally restaurants that also put out, gratis, sun beds and umbrellas for tourists to lie on and under, just a few tens of feet from the very blue sea. There is an unspoken social contract: if you avail yourself of sun beds—which cost you nothing—then you should purchase food and drink from the shack since that is how they make money. This food and drink can be consumed either in the more formal restaurant part of the shack or brought out to your sun bed. To make use of the sun beds but not buy (very much of) anything is a gross violation of the social contract and I wish I could say that I didn’t see any tourists engaging in it. But, alas, I did. And I will note that it in my random sampling it was always European tourists—and most often British tourists—who did this. Indians were a small minority on Cavelossim Beach—which was our center of operations—but they uniformly ordered vast amounts of food and drink.

For our part, we ate lunch on the first day at the shack whose sun beds we were sacked out on: Seaways. The menu—as seemingly at every shack or other restaurant in Goa catering to tourists—was a mix of North Indian, Chinese, European and Goan dishes. We were interested only in the Goan dishes and so I disregarded my friend Vikram D.’s warning that if we ate at the shacks we’d be better off just getting the tandoori chicken. That’s fine for someone who lives a good part of the year in Goa, I thought, for us US-based saps even the shacks’ Goan food will feel like a gift. Alas, it was not to be the case. It was uniformly bad. This caused a dilemma for us. On the one hand, we wanted to lie on sun beds, under beach umbrellas for 6-8 hours every day; on the other hand, we didn’t want to in exchange eat either bad Goan food or just about decent North Indian or Indian Chinese food.

We solved this conundrum by getting breakfasty things on arrival at the beach, ordering lots of drinks all day and then getting tandoori chicken and naans for the boys’ dinner before heading home at sunset (and by tipping very generously—alcohol is very cheap in Goa and non-alcoholic drinks almost ridiculously cheap). At lunchtime we’d go further afield for better Goan food (for example, to Martin’s Corner and Fernando’s Nostalgia). And after shuttling between a few different shacks for the morning and afternoon sessions of the first two days we settled into a long residency at the Blue Oasis, with whose staff we developed a friendly, bantering relationship. And I will say that their tandoori chicken and naans were pretty good as was their masala omelette.

For a look at the shacks and their food, launch the slideshow below. I’ve also thrown in at the end a few gratuitous shots of beach life more generally. Included among these are pictures of two of the beach merchants we spent a lot of time in conversation with. The missus purchased a few pieces of jewelry from a couple of these ladies on the first day and got a pedicure and I came to an arrangement with them—we would purchase more from them on our last day and in between they would spare us the daily hard sell. I got along very well with them and most days they would come over and chat with me while taking breaks from trying to convince severely sunburnt Russian and English tourists to buy earrings or get foot massages. They really are a remarkable lot. They are from adjoining rural Karnataka; they come to Goa for the tourist season, putting their children in schools there. They then go back to their villages during the low season and find work there. They’re illiterate but speak five languages at various degrees of fluency, including enough English and Russian to get by with the tourists. They asked me to take photographs of them for us to remember them by—I haven’t posted here the ones in which their faces are clearly visible.

Well, that’s it for Goa. We would love to go back on every trip to India but right now I don’t even know when we will be able to go back to India again. And as the boys get older it’s going to be harder to keep them out of school for a few weeks in the winter so that we can do longer trips to India—soon it’s going to be just a couple of weeks around Christmas and spent mostly in the vicinity of family. Whether we get to go back and see any of these places or people again or not, I do hope they will come out of these troubled times with their families, their health and their livelihoods intact. One can dream.

Alright, next week I will begin my reports of meals eaten in Calcutta, which was our next port of call in India. I will probably have another pandemic takeout report from Minnesota as well and a recipe.

I hope you’re all staying safe, whether you’re staying home, going back to work, or hitting the streets for righteous protest.

3 thoughts on “Eating by the Water (Goa, Jan 2020)

  1. As someone who is generally familiar with the konkan coast but not a lot with Goa, I enjoyed this whole series a lot. Also having spent more total time on the coasts of Mexico than Goa, some of the similarities are striking and surprising.

    I also loved hearing that your kids liked fresh lime soda. One of my favorite things to order in India.

    Like

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