Entering or leaving Goa from elsewhere in India still has the feeling of crossing an international boundary. Border guards man gateposts on either side of the state line on major approach roads, logging the particulars of all passing vehicles into massive ledgers. Customs officials at Bombay’s steamer wharf check disembarking passengers from Goa for smuggled booze. Coming over the ghats from Karnataka, rail passengers have to switch from broad-gauge to metre-gauge carriages.
Paradoxically, perhaps the smoothest approach to Gioa is for those passengers who actually do come directly from outside India on one of the growing number of international flights that land at the state’s Dabolim Airport. Foreign airlines are vying for landing rights there to cater to Western package tourists. So far only Lufthansa comes straight to Goa with its Condor flights en route to Kathmandu. But others, including British Airways and Swissair, plan to have Europe to-Goa routes soon. As long as international flights to Dabolim are relatively few and largely limited to foreign holiday-makers, the airport is likely to remain the most convenient port of entry into India, free of the overload and the inquisitorial screening of overseas Indian returnees that choke up the international arríval terminals elsewhere in the country. Be sure, though, to avoid the direct Air India flight from Sharjah, which caters to guest-workers from the Gulf prime targets for the dilatory ministrations of the customs men.
Domestic flights link Dabolím with Cochin and Trivandrum in Kerala, Bangalore and Hyderabad in the Deccan, as well as the main metropolises of Bombay, New Delhi and Madras. Pick-up buses deliver high-rolling tourists to the five-star hotels, but there is no public airport bus, and the taxis at Dabolim like to gouge out fares as high as Rs100 to Panaji. To escape their clutches, catch an airport cab a yellow-painted taxi-cycle to Vasco, just four kilometres (2.5 miles) away, which is well connected with the rest of Goa by public transport and metered taxis.
If you are not pressed for time and your itinerary takes you through Bombay, the steamer link is more leisurely than air travel. Cabin class on the Goa Ferry is luxurious in a faded sort of way, and a bargain (upwards of Rs300 per berth with slight variations, depending upon cabin amenities). But cabin reservations are hard to come by especially during the peak winter season. If all else fails, try a direct appeal to the passenger services department of the Shipping Corporation of India (SCI, Bombay tel. 2022933, tlx. 011-2371, attention Jagdish Seth, Executive Director, whose brief includes passenger services). The northbound steamer trip is prettier than the southbound, since the ship plies closer to the coast and calls at the picturesque estuarine ports of the Konkan by daylight, rather than at night. The trip in either direction takes about 24 hours.
Bus and Rail
Quicker and cheaper, albeit less bus ride from Bombay. Night coaches also run between Goa and gracious, is the overnight (14-hour) Bangalore, Mysore or Mangalore (due south on the Karnataka coast). Private bus companies maintain offices on the main plazas of Panaji. Margao and Mapusa. The air-conditioned video coaches, which show Hindi movies during the journey, are costlier and less restful. Shorter bus hauls over the ghats take you to Londa or Hubli, where you can catch trunk-line trains.
The metre-gauge railroad, which goes only to the south side of the Zuari estuary, is no more than a spur line off a spur line: it links up at Miraj with the picturesque, but poky, Maharashtra Express of the Central Railway. Long-distance rail travel times from Goa can be daunting: nearly a full day to Bombay or Bangalore, two days or more to Delhi, Madras, Cochin or Calcutta. Most of these trips entail several train transfers and long stretches without air-conditioned carriages or sleepers -not recommended for any but the most intrepid Indrailpass travellers.
Getting around within Goa can be an adventure. Better not to schedule your day with too much precision, since the timetables of most public conveyances can be rather elastic. Allow even more latitude if your itinerary takes you across the Mandovi River, since the collapse of the Nehru Bridge at Panaji now obliges travellers to queue up for ferries, at least until completion of the new bridge (optimistically scheduled for 1990). But, despite its uncertainties, travelling around Goa is relatively hassle-free for the relaxed, flexible visitor. There is not much risk of getting stranded in the hinterland or starving too far off the beaten track: English-speaking informants and reasonable pub food are likely even the remotest villages. Inter city buses are cheap and frequent and packed often to bursting with generally friendly and chatty people, Express buses run from Panaji to Mapusa in the north and Margao to the south. From these hubs, you can catch local buses to the beach as well.
Scores of vehicle terries link the islands that dot the Mandovi estuary, plying at intervals of 10-30 minutes, Porries also cross the Zuari, Sal, Chapora and Tiracol rivers. Longer haul launches, like those from Dona Paula to Vasco or up the Mandovi to Bicholim, depart only once or twice a day: check with the main ferry wharf in Panaji for day trips to secluded coves and offshore islands. The boatmen will help you catch and cook your picnic. Rates are highly negotiable, but a general rule of thumb is Rs.13 per kilometre (0.6 mile) of sailing distance to cover petrol plus Rs.12 per hour of the boatmen’s time.
For a look at the back-country Goa, try catching the local train from Vasco. They depart virtually any hour of the day and run through the beaches at Velsao or Cansaulim, the pretty Latinate town of Margao, the mansions of Chandor or the Dudh Sagar waterfall. At major bus stands stands, ferry slips or train depots, you are likely to be met by a fleet of scooter rickshaws wherever you are headed in the vicinity for one or two rupees per kilometre, agree on fares beforehand, and yellow-painted motorcycles which will take you are headed in the vicinity for one or two rupees per kilometre. Agree on fares before hand.
If you are interested in longer forays, after-dark junkets, or just quick spontaneous jaunts to choice restaurants, you will need your own transport. Bicycles, available for hire at about Rs20 per day get you from village to village without marring your appreciation of the sounds and smells that make Goa so special. But cycling gets pretty sweaty around midday and your range is limited.
To roam further afield, you can rent motorcycles and scooters ranging from 50cc putt-putts to 250cc Czech-designed Yezdis. Day rates start at around Rs.70, with discounts negotiable for longer term. A month’s use of a Yezdi currently goes for under Rs. 1,000 during peak season in the hippy Mecca of Anjuna. You pay for your own petrol. Also for maintanence, so be sure to check the condition of your bike before renting. Bike shops specialize in rentals in the main towns, as well as the more touristy beachside villages.
Individuals, too, are often quite willing to rent their own personal bikes. This can turn out to be the best bet for shorter terms. To find one, just ask around bars, petrol pumps and shops.
To avoid bureaucratic hassles, better arrive with an interim driver’s licence endorsed for motorcycles. Bigger bikes are RECOMMENDED FOR EXPERIENCED RIDERS only. Goa’s twisty roads are no place for leaner cyclists. Nor for daredevils: you share right of way with shambling cows, scurrying chickens, snoozing dogs, lumbering lorries and creaking ox-carts.
No self drive autos are available, so if your party is too large or too nervous —for motorcycling, you other independent transportation option is to charter a chauffeured tourist car. Per kilometer rates run to Rs.2.25-2.50 (still cheaper than the Rs.3 per kilometer charged by yellow-top taxis), and often a flat day rate can he worked out at about Rs.250. Some of the drivers are personable and knowledgeable enough to double as tourist guides. Ask your hotel to introduce one.