It was our last evening in Goa. One last attempt to catch a sunset over the waters of the Arabian Sea. After spending almost a month away from home—where I had bubbled up for months—I was in a pensive mood that day, looking in the rearview mirror and already feeling nostalgic about the freedom to travel. At a beach shack in Majorda, a waiter chuckled when I asked for water (“Who drinks water in Goa?”) and brought his hospitality A-game to the fore after months of little business. The charming conversation, a human playing catch with his dog, my Kindle on the candlelit table…all faded away when the skies turned a shade of lavender, its reflection x-rayed on water, as if an artist had painted the scene with their watercolors. The photos, even with my two-day-old phone, didn’t do justice to what was right in front of my eyes.
Was this trip everything I wanted from my 30th birthday celebration?
It was this sunset and the many others I had watched throughout my stay in Goa that decided it for me: yes.
Travel has always been a luxury for me. Being paid to see the world and describe it through my writing? A blessing. But after 2020, bound to my home as I was, it turned into a fleeting thought—something that might happen in the future if things don’t go further downhill. And then this summer, India, where I live, was hit by its second wave and the stories of horror I saw and read stayed in my mind–pushed back into a corner, perpetually hovering nonetheless. Patients gasping for oxygen, which wasn’t available; piles of dead bodies waiting to be cremated without family members; people begging for help on Twitter: How do you come out of this nightmare unscathed and think about stepping out anywhere?
The pandemic made my world smaller—by choice and by force. Any trip that followed would be significant in my life as it would have a huge impact. On my milestone birthday, I wanted to make a splash, sure, but also step out of my own mind and embrace the world as it is now. The maskless days of queuing up at airports were over, but I was fully vaccinated now and things were getting better. It was time to gain a new perspective as a person and as a writer, as terrifying as it sounded. Although I had been to Goa cautiously in December 2020—unvaccinated and filled with anxiety—the trip this year was a way to conquer a part of my life that had been placed in the wishful thinking category. Checking into a hotel after 21 months. Traveling with my closest friends after years. Dining in at indoor restaurants. Discovering a city once again. Simple things that have doubled up in value now.
So, off I went to a place I was familiar with, back to the friend who had felt the shockwaves, too. Out of my comfort zone but treading very lightly.
My friend lives in North Goa, in a sunshine yellow bungalow that has a gorgeous verandah overlooking paddy fields. This was the spot for our morning tea and chats. I read, she embroidered, her dog demanded treats (Sophie is too dignified to beg) and together we all watched peacocks sashaying in the fields. Lounging on my favorite chair, I crafted my Goa itinerary; line items included all the hotels I had booked for this trip. I was not joking when I mentioned to her that the eco-conscious kayaking trip in the mangroves we were considering would end up with me drowning. A few days later when the kayak capsized and I went under, it was her words that the non-swimmer, aquaphobic me remembered, “As long as you’re wearing a life jacket, you’ll be fine.”
Well, I didn’t drown! But my phone couldn’t be resuscitated. I lost my cap and slippers, and my clothes tore. Out of all the seven people who were on that tour, including the guide, it was the least adventurous who fell into the otherwise gentle stream, kayak on top of the head, and had to lunge at tree branches to keep my head above the water. Kayaking in the mangroves was a beautiful experience before and after—I have pictures to show for it that mercifully backed up to the cloud. It’s a great story and someday I will laugh at the fact that replacing my phone, hat, and slippers collectively cost me as much as the trip.
But I was alive. I was in Goa. I was with people I loved.
There were so many other blips. The first few days of my trip were spent sneezing ceaselessly, a change in weather and air. I got skin allergies in my second week, so my dermatologist banned two things synonymous with Goa: dipping my feet in the water and seafood. I carried little bottles of hand wash and lotion in my tote because sanitizers were a no-no, too. Alcohol doesn’t suit me—I don’t drink much anyway—but twice I felt sick after a few sips of my favorite tropical cocktail, pina colada.
But I was alive. I was safe. I was having fun.
Two days before my birthday, we had checked into the green sanctuary that is Cabo Serai. In a remote part of South Goa, it is an exclusive beachside luxury resort with just 10 tents and cottages, spread over 14 acres. It’s an eco-friendly, dog-friendly, vegan-friendly place with such polished, unintrusive, and warm hospitality that we were overjoyed to be there. A special breakfast by the beach, a sunset yoga session on a clifftop pavilion, nature trails deep into the forest, and star-gazing at night—we downloaded an app to identify constellations—the resort was a testament that traveling may look different now, but it doesn’t need to be less gratifying. The most important thing was that I was getting to share this experience with my friend who appreciated it all as much as I did after an isolated year and a half.
The next hotel on the list was a contrast, maybe that’s why it hit me harder. The cottages were too close together. Too many people in close proximity. Moldy smell in rooms. This wasn’t where I wanted to spend my birthday, but oh, the sunset on Agonda Beach. What is it about South Goa’s sunsets? It’s like a prism of colors, pristine and hauntingly beautiful. We stayed the night, had pizza at a hip cafe, played cards in our room, and went for a trek to the famed Butterfly Beach.
The next afternoon, we checked out. It was a day early because even with this mountain of gratitude I feel for travel, I know my limitations.
The following days, our cute little Airbnb suffered through a water outage. The wi-fi died in our room on a Monday while we all were working. Exhaustion took over in the third week of my trip. But I felt loved by my friends who had dropped everything and joined me to celebrate my way. I felt hopeful. I was out there again finding stories and drinking Vietnamese cold coffee.
As chirpy as my personality sounds with this above sentence, I’m hardly an optimist. If anything, I’m standing on the slippery slope of fatalistic thinking. Guess what popped into my mind when I saw the Arabian Ocean from the window of the aircraft just before landing? “Goa is a coastal state and it may sink in the next few decades.”
If 2020 helped me see what was important in my life, in 2021 I was confronted by human mortality and frailty. Anxiety over my mom’s well-being has kept me up many nights and I have seriously considered making a will—anything can happen to anyone. It doesn’t help that I read about climate change and the catastrophes that lie ahead.
In the same breath, I should mention that I’m also learning about resilience. As scary as these images of the pandemic are, I have to keep chanting in my head that you can’t prevent what you can’t predict. Change what you can, accept what you can’t. Yes, I have a litany of affirmations in my armor to keep moving forward.
I felt deeply about my travels this time because I had the freshly-received gift of perspective (or maybe I’m just aging—is this what maturity sounds like?). I was better prepared to deal with these disappointments because it’s become so much clearer what this statement means: it’s a part of life. The concoction of the good and the bad is much more palatable now, so I’m stirring and slurping. The new and improved tricenarian.
Call it superficiality, privilege, or naivety, but two years ago, the sum total of my bad experiences would have equaled a failed trip. This wasn’t the case in 2021. At no point did I write this trip off as irredeemable. My definitions and ideas of travels have changed: they go a few miles beyond fancy hotels and fine-dining—not that I’ll ever complain about those experiences. But when a rapid throws you off your boat and you come up breathing and kicking without help, it’s hard not to be a little impressed with your own patience, calmness, and strength.
Does this mean I’m ever going to voluntarily book another kayaking tour? No, thank you very kindly.