Not much happens in the laid-back beach settlement of Palolem, so when a Scandinavian woman is hit by a falling coconut, word gets around fast. Later we learn the unlucky tourist has nothing more than a sore head but that doesn’t stop the rest of us from spending the day looking up, just in case.
Palolem lies in the far south of Goa. Palm trees swoon over sautéing sunbathers and a broad swathe of sand is lined with a ramshackle collection of wooden chalets. The village provides all the services an international beach community needs, including money changers, massage centres, henna tattooists and hair braiders.
Goa is India’s smallest state and covers an area roughly three times the size of Hong Kong. A Portuguese colony for more than 400 years, until 1961, it retains a cultural, religious and architectural colonial legacy, as well as a roll call of Iberian-sounding surnames, such as Fernando, D’Silva and Alvarez. Tourists are drawn to a string of more than 50 sandy beaches, some popular with families, others renowned for their party vibe, and a handful where cows still outnumber people.
All kinds of characters wash up in Palolem. There are fresh-faced backpackers on extended trips and package holiday-makers here for a week. Older long-termers rent rooms by the month at discounted rates. Yoga devotees swap ashram anecdotes with wannabe chefs on Indian cookery courses and health tourists take advantage of low-cost dental treatment. Two Australians are passing through as they tour the subcontinent by motorbike and a dreadlocked Canadian is learning to play the sitar. Weed smokers and a bevy of alcoholics further enrich the demographic. No one could ever get tired of people-watching in Palolem.
Early morning is the best time to stroll around the crescent-shaped bay. Yoga practitioners salute the sun as it climbs above the glinting Arabian Sea and cricket matches are won and lost in the amber half-light of dawn. Joggers share the sands with cows, stray dogs and stray people who haven’t quite made it to bed yet.
Electricity comes and goes but the frequent blackouts and voltage surges still catch everyone by surprise. Ceiling fans thump like a helicopter one minute then wheeze to a standstill the next. Restaurant lights dim whenever a blender is used to make a smoothie.
I’ve arrived in Goa at an auspicious time. The Holi festival of colours is in full swing. Despite its religious origins, the celebration has evolved into a feisty free-for-all that involves throwing coloured powder over friends, bystanders and anyone else foolish enough to venture outside.
Easter follows and is celebrated with gusto by Christians, who make up a quarter of the Goan population, then Hindus celebrate the Shigmo spring festival with a flamboyant parade. And if that’s not enough, cricket-mad India is hosting the world cup and the home team are among the favourites.
Beachfront bars show the matches on giant screens and money changes hands on the winners, losers and probably on when the next power cut will be.
Finding accurate information about the Shigmo celebrations in the nearby city of Margao isn’t easy. Conflicting media reports suggest the event is due to take place the next Tuesday. Or the Monday or maybe even the Sunday. I gamble on the latter and turn up to find the police closing streets and confirming that the parade will begin on the dot of 4pm.
On the dot of 5.47pm the show finally hits the road. Participants in bright orange turbans calm their pre-procession nerves with sneaky swigs of the local firewater, feni, then reedy “snake charmer” flutes wail and drums start to thump. Hinduism and Christianity briefly rub shoulders as giant fibreglass models of the elephant deity, Ganesh, and the monkey god, Hanuman, pass the Holy Spirit Church.
I get caught up in the commotion and lose all track of time until some helpful revellers warn me the last bus back to Palolem is at 7.30pm. By now I’ve learned to allow for GMT, or “Goan maybe time”, and arrive at the bus station at 9.30pm, just as the last bus is leaving.
Craving a break from public transport, I hire a moped the following morning and head south past a succession of beaches, each more peaceful than the last. Patnem is popular with couples and Rajbagh with fishermen. At Talpona and Galgibaga, “in the know” visitors tend to be cows.
To the north, a scenic road meanders through the rural Goan landscape. Hindu temples mildew in dense forest, villages slumber in a state of melancholy decay and a gaggle of girls in colourful clothing play in the shade of a cashew tree.
Agonda has transformed since I visited in 2002. A once-deserted beach backed by a dozen rustic huts is now a bustling 3km resort strip with bungalows, restaurants and souvenir stalls. I press on to Cola Beach, a serene sweep of sand reached via a dusty track that weaves between palm groves and banana plantations. Old hands refer to it as the new Agonda.
Next stop is the crumbling fort at Cabo de Rama and then, just as I’m congratulating myself on leaving the modern world in my wake, I stumble on a roadside demonstration. An international weapons exhibition, DefExpo India, has relocated from New Delhi to an eco-sensitive region of south Goa used by tribal communities as grazing grounds. The locals are not happy.
Erudite pastor Savio Fernandes brings me up to speed on the arms convention and its implications for the district. He then switches to his role as spokesman for the Centre for Responsible Tourism (Goa) and tells of plans for a golf course in the north of the state that will encroach on ancestral lands and compete with villages for a limited supply of fresh water.
I’m interested to hear more about Goa’s growing pains but the sun is setting and I need to return the moped to its owner. I’m tempted to keep the crash helmet, though. In a land of falling coconuts, it’s better to be safe than sorry.