Calangute: Nightmare in Paradise – Goa, India

“Stirrrr it, there’s sumthing at the bottum” Siggi had just finished impersonating my accent very badly for what seemed like the 50th time that morning, then proceeded to light what might have been her 20th cigarette of the day. Then, through what seemed to be a permanent haze of tobacco smoke around her head, she went into her slapstick routine for the 10th time centered on some hapless South African guy we had met on Baga beach the day before. After that, she made yet another joke about how old I was. By the time she had finished I felt like I was 80. I think you’ll agree that’s pretty good going seeing that it was still only 9:15 in the morning!

My travelling companion Siggi, and her laser beam humour, is the only redeeming aspect of Calangute that I can recall. Calangute is the centre of Goa’s international package tourist trade and each time I visit I notice more and more new hotels, restaurants and English pubs. Given its position, it should be the jewel in the crown of Goan tourism. But ever sprawling Calangute is becoming over developed and appears to lack any coherent planning strategy. If there is any strategy then it doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact at least as far aesthetics is concerned. The place is commercialism overlaid with more commercialism, with each trinket and jewelery shop, each overpriced restaurant and each shopping or hotel complex leaving me craving to escape.

The hippies arrived on Calangute beach in the early 70s, much to the dismay and even moral outrage of some of the local people. At that time little existed beyond fisher families and villages. Then in the 80s came cheap flights from the UK to entice the British package tourist who sought sun, beaches and low costs. The prices in the various concrete high rise “costa del hell holes” British tourist spots in Spain increased and over the last decade Goa has become the new Spain for many Brits. Now Brits, Germans, Scandinavians and increasingly Russians flock here.

It always strikes me as pretty strange that so many Brits travel half the world to arrive in a place where they expect (and get) fish and chips, English pubs, and now a fully blown Irish bar, with varnished floor and brass hand-pumps, which could have been transported from any number of UK high streets. It’s not an imitation – it’s the real deal. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Calungute itself.

Sometimes when in Calangute I have to remind myself that I am actually still in Goa. Mexico, Spain, Thailand, Turkey and any other number of places have their own plethora of Calangute type places, each conforming to the standards of commercial tourism and each having a huge impact on the local economy, culture and ecological systems. I guess they serve a purpose, however, for those hankering after the tourist dollar (or pound or euro or rouble) and those in search of cheap breaks. Whereas Spain is just a short hop from the UK, Goa is in India, a faraway place and one of the most exciting and diverse countries on earth. To travel half way around the globe and then never venture beyond a six kilometre radius of Calungate, which is what many do, seems such a waste. Calangute is the tourist ghetto par excellence.

During my latest visit in October I found myself on a moped just outside of Calangute and asked Siggi if she would like to take a photo of the scene at hand. There was a newly built, surprisingly architecturally pleasing building set against a forest of coconut trees and green hills. It was a beautiful scene. Siggi declined the option however and instead asked, “Is that building a hotel that caters to foreigners who never interact with local people because there is a bar, restaurant and pool on site, and they never have to leave the complex?

I responded that it probably was. Siggi was as sharp as they come but let’s face it, it doesn’t take a PhD in world tourism to understand the nature of much of modern day tourism.

Believe it or not, I actually like Goa. And there is certainly a heck of a lot more to it than Calangute. It has some lovely beaches, great historical sites and beautiful scenery ranging from lush paddy fields and towering coconut trees to the rain forests leading up to Castle Rock in the Western Ghats. It is an international draw for good reason and I am continually drawn to the place. But for some reason and at some point I too often find myself visiting Calangute, which can be relatively pleasant during the off season. However in December, at the height of the tourist season, I can give it a wide berth.

Travelling is not necessarily about the places that you visit, but about the people you meet. Perhaps those Brits who come here have fond memories of Calangute because of the friendly Goans they encounter. I love Goa but dislike Calangute and its concrete sprawl, inflated prices, poor infrastructure and the type of tourism that the place represents. However, thanks to my German friend, Siggi, I do actually have a soft spot for it these days. Siggi was beautiful to look at and beautiful to be with, unfortunately the same could not be said of Calangute. But are our memories of certain people whom we encounter when travelling a good enough reason to develop a fondness for a place and excuse it for all of its man made ills? I don’t think so.


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