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A Bit of a Goa

Goa, India

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Indian Ocean cruises are growing in popularity, though the name is a bit misleading. You probably wouldn’t hear a cruise operator talking about a ‘Pacific Ocean cruise’ – most Americans know that the Pacific is far too big to be taken in on one boat ride. Instead, the cruise lines tend to talk about Hawaiian cruises, or west coast cruises. An Indian Ocean cruise could, conceivably, be based on any itinerary from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of Australia.

Many Indian Ocean cruises, however, center on India, which has been steadily growing in its appeal as a holiday destination for the past couple of decades. Very popular with cruisers – and with an astonishingly wide range of other vacationers and travelers – is the coastal region of Goa, which lies around half way up the Indian subcontinent’s western seaboard.

In recent years Goa has earned something of a reputation for decadent living, and was for some years one of the major centers of flowerpower and psychedelia in the Far East. Although things are a little sharper these days, and more distinctly geared to the business of making money from tourists, the old hippy culture still persists in places. Here and there – particularly on the beaches – you can find the occasional western traveler who arriving twenty years ago has ‘gone native’ and settled into the relaxed lifestyle.

It’s the beaches, really, that have led to Goa’s rapid growth. The region has had a pretty turbulent time in the twentieth century. It was one of the very few areas of India that was never subject to British rule, having been subjugated instead by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. When the rest of India got its independence in 1947 the Portuguese doggedly hung on to Goa, and, ultimately, had to be kicked out by the Indian army in the 1960s. Today, the rich, golden beaches - Goa has over sixty miles of them – draw hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.

Although it seems to be on the wane, Portuguese culture still has an influence on Goa. The region has a very large number of people who have both European and Indian ancestry, and Portuguese is still spoken to an extent. Interestingly, Goa’s most significant contribution to world cuisine – the notoriously hot vindaloo curry – is originally a Portuguese dish, brought over by the conquerors. Even the name ‘vindaloo’ is a corruption of the original Portuguese name – though the Goans truly made the dish their own by the addition of the hot spices that have made it famous.

Native Goan cuisine is just as interesting, and you should try to take the opportunity of sampling it at some stage during your stopover in the region. As the region is quite isolated, stuck as it is between the ocean and the high peaks of the Western Ghats, it’s hardly surprising that the local cooking has come to be dominated by fish harvested from the sea and rice grown in paddies on the lower slopes of the mountains. The typical Goan dish is a strongly flavored fish curry. One of the most distinctive of Goan flavorings is coconut, harvested from the plentiful coconut palms that fringe the beaches. Experienced cruisers may be interested to note some of the startling similarities between Goan and Caribbean cuisines – cooking from two areas half a planet apart that has similarities resulting from common climates and ingredients.

If you want to do something more than simply laze on the beach during your stop-over in the region, you should consider a visit to the Bom Jesus Basilica. Located in the heart of Old Goa, the traditional administrative capital of the Portuguese colony, this is one of the finest old Christian churches outside of Europe. Goa has always been one of the most strongly Christian parts of Asia. When the Portuguese arrived they brought the Inquisition with them – so the locals didn’t have much choice but to convert to Catholicism. The Basilica, which holds the body of St. Francis Xavier, a great Catholic missionary, doesn’t quite match the glories of some of the great churches of Italy or Spain, but its well worth looking around.

Talking of Italy and Spain, many travelers have commented on the distinctly Mediterranean atmosphere of Goa. You’ll have to assess this for yourself during your cruise: if you visit other parts of the subcontinent – and most cruise itineraries do – then you’ll probably find it very different from other areas. But then, this has always been a city apart – rather unlike anywhere else in the world, let alone India, and likely to remain that way.

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