Yippee. I’m going to Goa. Sun, sea, yoga and adventure are promised in India’s smallest state and former Portuguese colony. In the midst of my glee and the run-up to my escape, my ears are ringing with the sound of ‘Are you sure it is safe for a woman to go there?’ In my case I’ve been to India before, I’ve already bought a flight, so yes, I do feel safe and extremely excited.
Having travelled in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South America; India is my favourite destination. In addition to offering yoga, meditation and massages; it is exotic, exciting, exuberant, eccentric, eclectic and extremely inexpensive. Safe? Well in my experience, yes, but I do apply the ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ rule. (See ‘Tips’)
Arriving into tropical Goa on a blamey morning, I’ve landed in paradise. It’s warm; the skies are blue, palm trees are green and tall, people are dressed in colourful light clothes and the drive to South Goa is a magical one-and-a-half hour journey through palm and cashew plantations. Occasional sudden stops are necessary to accommodate ambling cows that have sacred status here and the freedom to roam wherever they want.
My friends, Freda and Edward, are already tanned and settled by the time I land at Home guesthouse on Patnem beach. After a dip in the warm waters, it’s time for a delicious spinach and mushroom omelet, served with Goan bread. The food at Home, and all over Goa is famously good – and this is superb. Washed down with watermelon juice and a coffee, we are good to go after a two-hour breakfast.
We don’t go far, just a step onto the beach and then a stroll until we find vacant sun loungers outside one of the beachside restaurant/bars. A good book, bed on the beach, 30℃ heat and a waiter serving snacks and drinks. Heavenly.
By sunset we are ready to indulge and Cuba Bar has seductive beanbags, chilled music and great cocktails. All around us candles are glowing on restaurant tables as darkness falls. And as the big red ball disappears into the Arabian Sea, I’m so grateful to be right here right now in this beautiful palm-fringed paradise.
In pursuit of balance I’m up for for morning yoga classes, and the menu is as vast as the cocktail list. Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Iyengar, or perhaps Kundalini, with Oliver from Berlin, who is teaching at Lotus.
At 8am on the Patnem main road shopkeepers are waking up and dusting down their wares, as yogis cycle, scooter and walk to classes.
Maya, the tailor’s wife, paints fresh Rangoli patterns on the doorstep daily. This is an ancient Hindu tradition believed to attract Laxmi, the goddess of wealth into the home.
One morning after a high-speed Vinyasa flow class taught by a very energetic Spanish woman in Kranti, I head for the gentler Hatha yoga at Gurukul, located in a beautiful forest setting.
Teacher Ajay comes from Rishikesh, yoga capital of India, and incorporates mindfulness, meditation and philosophy into the two-hour class. When interrupted by monkeys on the roof one morning, he advises, “We must settle our mind and not jump from place to place like the monkey”.
At 11 am the breakfast rush hits town. The chai shop on the main road is packed to capacity. How two people can cook and serve that many people at the same time is a miracle.
Egg rolls, omelets, samosas and bhajis are on the menu and a sizeable breakfast with several cups of chai tea costs less than €1. Posh breakfast offerings at Home and Planet Goa cost around €5, including fresh juice.
Breakfast briefings at the chai shop cover the evening’s entertainment, which can range from jam sessions at Mickey’s on Thursdays, a band at Laguna Vista or a movie in the geodesic dome cinema behind Bougainville. Something happens most nights around the Palolem area and there’s always Leopard Valley or Silent Noise for proper clubbing at the weekends.
Part of the beauty and attraction of Goa is that everything is possible and affordable. Auto rickshaws and taxis are always at the ready to whizz us anywhere at a very affordable rate. The nearby town of Chaudi is only five minutes’ drive, and offers an authentic Indian market every Saturday.
Canacona Junction train station is just outside the town and here I board the 6am train to Thivim in North Goa. The three-hour journey turns out to be a thrilling experience. I’m enthralled watching people on the platform at Madgaon junction, passing through paddy fields and soaking up the scenery, when we suddenly come to a halt. ‘Change train madam’ says the woman next to me.
We clamber down the steep carriage onto the verge between the tracks and watch a train pass over our heads. This is India. Anything goes. The stationmaster comes out with a ladder to assist passengers mount the six-foot platform. No one bats an eyelid at the dangerous exercise, which would be considered hazardous in most countries in the world.
At Thivim I get a motorcycle taxi, which whizzes me over to Anjuna and drops me right at my friend Charlie’s door, in the jungle above the beach. The entire journey took four hours and cost approximately €7, with the train less than €1.
Anjuna is the original 1960’s hippy landing strip of Goa and party central to this day. The infamous Anjuna Wednesday market is heaving with shoppers and traders from all parts of the country. Tibetan jewelry, Rajasthani prints, Karnataka mirrored fabrics and Kashmiri lacquer ware are among the regional offerings in the gigantic market that goes on for miles.
Shopping is a popular pursuit in Goa and most tourist towns are lined with tailors, beauty parlours and shops selling souvenirs, spices, clothing and shoes. In the far north, Arambol is a hippy hotspot and spiritual supermarket. Notice boards advertise classes with a plethora of healers, yogis, reiki masters, astrologers and hula hoopers.
Along its 160 km of coastline, Goa has something to offer all tastes and budgets, from five-star opulence, to basic rooms in family homes. Calangute and Candolim tend to be packed with British package tourists in search of affordable alcohol, and Morjim and Mandrem are stylish and upmarket with a boutique feel. There are numerous spas and yoga retreats to suit all pockets.
Safe? I haven’t encountered a single problem and enjoyed every minute. I’m feeling sun-kissed, stretched, relaxed and a little sad to be leaving the dreamy colourful shores of Goa. Roll on next year, for more shenanigans in the sun.
TRAVEL TIPS FOR WOMEN
India is the land of ladies’ booking offices, ladies’ carriages on trains, ladies-only seats on buses, ladies’ platforms on the urban metros – and recently introduced ladies’ taxis and ‘pink’ rickshaws with lady drivers in Mumbai.Segregation may be hard to swallow, but it is wiser and safer for visiting ladies to join the Indian sisters, until things change.
It is futile to expect an entire civilisation to fast-track their social evolution to accommodate the western woman’s liberated independent mindset.
Evidence of change is very apparent and Indian women are on the path of equality, but for the moment it’s safer to behave like a lady.
Ask your host to send a driver instead of hailing a taxi outside airports in India.
Firstly, the driver can be from anywhere and have no idea of your destination, and spend a lot of extra time looking for it.
Then of course there is the ‘Oh madam, this hotel no longer open’ which is a precursor to his cousin’s hotel elsewhere, and an annoying and confusing start to a trip, after a long-haul flight.
If possible avoid arriving in the middle of the night if travelling alone, as I know women who have had spooky experiences, nothing sinister, but best avoided.
Ayurvedic masseuses and masseurs are prolific, and it is best to get a recommendation. Traditionally an Indian man wouldn’t make eye contact with a woman outside his family, let alone have her strip naked and rub oil all over her body. I met one distraught lady who had an awful experience in Calangute this year!
Charter operators fly direct from Manchester and Gatwick directly to Goa airport in season, November to April.
Margaret travelled with Jet/Etihad Airways Dublin to Goa with one short stop in Abu Dhabi. Easiest route on excellent airlines @ €595 return
Ciaran’s in Palolem
There are thousands all over Goa and mainly without websites. Price €5-50 per night.
Essential on all visits to India, and must be obtained before departure. Allow two weeks for this process and be aware that visas are valid from date of issue.
Goa is a low risk area.
www.tmb.ie for current info.
Mosquitos at sunrise and sunset – the local natural lemongrass scented Odomos. is an excellent repellent for under €1.
Indian Rupee, Rs 80 = € 1 approx.
Change cash in airport on arrival as ATM machines may not be working.
Highly recommend you have good coverage.