In my hostel I share my dorm with 3 other girls, one from Bangalore, one from Canada and the Finnish girl. We chat about each other’s lives and it’s all very innocent and wholesome. Any minute now I think, someone will get out facemasks or start a pillow fight.
That day I walk around Panjim city. Goa is a former Portuguese colony and Panjim is Portuguese AF – the Old Quarter might as well be Lisbon. But I’m not complaining, it’s an absolute delight. I visit a huge market and end up in the fish section, not an area you ever want to stumble into in flip flops. I’m looking down at some live crabs in a bucket when a market seller reaches for one and starts cracking its legs off before nonchalantly passing the remaining limbless body to a buyer. The look of unreserved horror on my face goes unnoticed and I get out of there before the PTSD sets in. I walk for hours around the city, stopping only when accosted for selfies. The novelty of the celebrity status that my Western face provides me has started to really wear thin, particularly as I’m drowning in my own sweat, have blistered feet and am still battling a blocked nose in the suffocating heat. And also because agreeing to one selfie seems to conjure hordes of young men, who appear magically as if from nowhere and creep forward, their phones poised at the ready, asking (demanding) selfies in different poses / camera angles. So I start to refuse some which is both empowering and awkward.
The next day I visit Old Goa – the former capital that was abandoned due to disease in 1600s. It is now a small collection of preserved churches and cathedrals in amongst other ruins. I know what you’re thinking – CHURCHES?? WHAT? Rewind… ‘ent chu in India?? Yeah, my mind was blown too. Newsflash: A quarter of the Goan population is Roman Catholic. And my visit to Old Goa coincides with another Goan religious holiday – The Feast of St Francis Xavier – so not only is it rammed, but the whole place is like a cross between Glastonbury and Alton Towers, complete with rides, games and stalls selling food alongside ornamental crucifixes and other Christian memorabilia.
There is also mass, en masse, happening in the centre. Most people seem to be in large family groups wearing their Sunday best, but not the Sunday best you might imagine. The men and boys are in smart suits and the women and girls in colourful, almost 80s party-style, Western dresses. One girl is in a dress that I’m pretty sure I wore out during Cardiff University’s Freshers Week. (All the more mind-blowing because the general attitude in India is that women should cover up as much as possible, and that’s what I’ve witnessed up until now). But whilst bizarre and maybe a little tacky in parts, the energy of the place is captivating and actually quite heart-warming.