Goa beyond beaches, my susegad moment, and the art of contentment.
“First time, Goa?”
“No, I’ve been here before.”
“Oh, when? And where all have you been?”
I share the details of my past visits.
“But you haven’t been to xyz, no?”
“No, I haven’t. Where is that?”
“What madam, that is the best place in Goa. It is away from all these tourist areas that are crowded and expensive. A handful of restaurants and beaches have become popular in recent years and now everyone thinks that is all there is to Goa. Listen to me and go to xyz; you will love it there.”
‘xyz' isn’t a code name for one place, but many. I learn about a new beach or village on every visit, and these recommendations usually come from the local taxi drivers. It’s clear that there are numerous places in Goa that are yet to be discovered by visitors, even though it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.
I have been to Goa six times over the years. I would have visited it a lot more if I lived closer. My first trip was with my extended family when I was eight years old. There were twenty of us, aged between three and sixty-five years. We took an overnight train from Hyderabad and traveled in a mini-bus within Goa. Our hotel was by the beach and when we weren’t in the water, we were church-hopping or eating sausages. My most distinct memory from that trip, though, is the part where I almost drowned.
My second trip was when I was a teenager. It was the first time I was traveling with my cousins, unaccompanied by adults. It was four of us — two older brothers, one younger one, and me. A quintessential ‘party trip’ that most people associate with Goa — it was a lot of fun, I experienced the worst hangover of my life, but what I’ll never forget is having parts of Calangute beach to ourselves at night, sitting with our feet dug into the cool sand, and listening to the waves crash. (A clean and deserted spot in Calangute seems unimaginable today!)
My third trip was with a close friend from a different city. We met in Goa and the only agenda was to catch up and enjoy our time off work. We found a lovely apartment located in a gated community in South Goa and spent most of our days snoozing under an umbrella at Colva beach, devouring Kingfish Rava Fry and Pork Vindaloo, enjoying the sunset with a sundowner, and zooming past coconut trees and green fields on a rented motorbike.
My fourth and fifth trips were more recent and revolved around scuba-diving. I did the four-day PADI open water course in Candolim, followed by some quiet time in Morjim. On this trip, and the next, I experienced a side of Goa I hadn’t known before. I’ve always loved the small-town vibe and slow pace of life that most seaside places have, but this was the first time I explored secluded beaches and quiet villages, interacted with a lot of local people, discovered the Goan fish thali and hiked up hills to catch breathtaking views of the sea during sunset.
I found lovely homestays and got to experience Goan-Portuguese architecture up close, and my favorite activity was watching passers-by from the balcão (an enclosed verandah at the entrance of the house with stone seating — a place meant for neighbors to drop by for tea and gossip). I had limited time on my hands on both trips, but I couldn’t wait to come back in the monsoons and learn more about Goa beyond its beaches.
My Susegad Moment
On my last trip to Goa, I wanted to experience the ‘untouched’ parts of the state. I signed up for a day tour with The Local Beat Goa, an eco-tourism agency that celebrates the old-world charm of Goan life through picnics and pasois (leisure walks), away from the tourist hotspots.
We visited a natural pool surrounded by trees — a spot known only to the residents of that area and considered a holy place in folklore. It was just us there, and after several plunges into the water, a leisurely swim, and tickly fish massages, we proceeded to a riverside farm for a picnic. Lunch was made by a member of the Goud Saraswat community (the dominant Konkani-speaking Hindu community in Goa) and included jackfruit salad, prawn cutlets, mutton curry, red rice, kokum water, and Goan pão — a welcome change from the standard fare offered at beach shacks and restaurants.
One morning, I went kayaking through the mangroves of Nerul with Terra Conscious, an eco-tourism initiative run by conservationists. I had kayaked once before in Ninh Binh, Vietnam but the only reason I made it through the limestone caves and back was because of my 65-year-old kayaking partner who did most of the work. Thankfully, this time, our tour leader, R, taught me how to operate a kayak before we got into the water.
As we paddled from the jetty towards the mangroves and into the narrow alleys, we saw the branches of the trees reflected in the water. It was a mesmerizing sight.
Mangroves are a vital ecosystem and though they are easy to grow (they survive even in challenging conditions), they are rapidly declining. A quarter of the world’s mangroves have been lost in the last four decades because of human activity, despite being integral to the well-being of coastal communities, biodiversity, and mitigating climate change.
The Nerul river in Candolim is home to an extensive mangrove forest, and kayaking tours are one way to raise awareness about the importance of conserving and growing mangroves.
In some areas, the water was so clear and shallow that we could see the roots sprouting up from the ground.
“There are two kinds of roots,” said R. “Snorkel roots and stilt roots. Snorkel roots help plants get enough oxygen by rising above the surface of the water, just like snorkeling tubes. Stilt roots allow gas exchange in oxygen-poor soils.”
We spotted mangrove tree crabs, fruit bats, oysters, Brahminy kites, mangrove herons, a kingfisher, Indian cormorants…… and AC vents. Yes — stuck in the roots of the trees were plastic bottles, wrappers, and electronic waste! We collected these in our kayaks to dispose them safely later, but it was a disconcerting sight.
The best part of the kayaking tour was floating with the paddle kept aside. Since it was early morning, there were no boats or fishermen around, and the river was still. At one point, I was way ahead of the rest of the gang, so while waiting for them to catch up, I found myself alone in the middle of the river. There was complete silence, barring the calls of the Brahminy kites perched on the trees. I was surrounded by water and mangroves, and I sat there on my yellow kayak, taking it all in. I felt calm and content, and I wondered if this is what susegad meant.
The Goan Art of Contentment
Goans are associated with a laid-back attitude towards life. Is it the weather? Is it the culture? Or is it just a stereotype?
A slower pace of life is common in most coastal areas and small towns, and everyday life outside the tourism industry in Goa isn’t as glamorous as it may appear to be.
Goans’ general state of happiness and contentment is attributed to their culture and embodied in the Konkani term ‘susegad,’ which means being content with life. The word is derived from ‘sossegado’ which means ‘quiet’ in Portuguese.
A few weeks ago, I read ‘Susegad: The Art of Contentment’ by Clyde D’Souza. The book seeks to understand Goan culture in relation to the art of contentment, much like how Ikigai and Hygge have been explored in recent times.
Food, music, dance, architecture, nature, festivals, and a close-knit community are an integral part of Goan culture and way of living, and the book includes heirloom recipes, anecdotes, songs, interviews, history, and even Konkani proverbs!
While I loved the concept of the book, I felt that it lacked depth, as much of what is ascribed to the Goan art of contentment holds true for other communities and cultures as well. Every community in India has a rich culture, history, and cuisine, and when we delve into the details of traditional practices and lifestyles, we’re sure to find nuggets of wisdom that remain relevant today and may help us lead happier lives.
Nevertheless, the book taught me a lot about Goa. My favorite Konkani proverb from the book is ‘Aiz maka, faela tuka,’ which means ‘today for me, tomorrow for you,’ signifying the inevitability of good and bad fate, and the need to help each other through difficult times. I also loved craftsman Vijaydatta Lotlikar’s definition of susegad, which according to him means “being satisfied with one’s hard work.”
Living close to nature can also have a significant impact on one’s mental health, lifestyle, and overall well-being. Despite being a small state, 56% of Goa is under green cover, and on my next visit, I hope to explore some of its national parks and sanctuaries (including the Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park that have been resisting government-sanctioned industrial development projects).
While Clyde’s book didn’t convince me about the Goan art of contentment, it reiterated that a balanced life is key to peace, happiness, and fulfillment. Every person, no matter which place or community they belong to, can incorporate the fundamental principles of living in sync with nature, pursuing a slower pace of life (or a more mindful one), nurturing a close-knit community of people, and holding onto cultural practices and rituals that brought joy and contentment in the past. As the Goans say, “Faleam mortolo mhunn aizuch fonddatt poddchem re?” (translation: “You may die tomorrow, but you don’t need to fall into your grave today”). Live a happy life while you’re alive.