India: Sipping on Susegado

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High on the checklist of asian travel is the perfect beach — a sun-drenched Elysium unsullied by the footprints of backpackers and sarong vendors. The standard ensemble of white sand, stately palms and sapphire sea is lovely, no doubt, but it gives the visitor little sense of place. For that, you need people, preferably local. Some travelers look at a funky beer joint on the beach as an eyesore; to me, it's a sign of life — not always intelligent life, but holidays aren't meant for heavy thinking.

When the sun set on my first night in Goa, it found me at Zeebob's, on Utorda beach, not thinking too hard. Architecturally speaking, Zeebob's barely exists: when the monsoon comes, everything except the concrete kitchen block gets swept away. Yet, when hammered and nailed back into existence, Zeebob's serves magnificent grilled seafood amid a setting of palm trees and twinkling lights just above the tide line. And there are hammocks there for that postprandial collapse.

Zeebob's is the kind of place where you're not surprised if the waiter sits down at your table. Raymond, a tall, impressively hirsute young guy, brought out the drinks, and waited a full 10 seconds before inviting himself to join me. He wanted to teach me some Goan dialect. "You must know susegado," he said. "Maybe it's the reason you came to Goa." Susegado sounds like a Portuguese word but it isn't in the dictionary. Seeing Raymond's easygoing smile, I was able to guess the meaning: chilled out. After another round, Raymond promised to take me to North Goa on his motorcycle to check out the clubs and beachside discos. When he roared away into the simmering night, I realized that he wasn't a waiter at all. He was just a friend, helping out — how very susegado.

I first heard of Goa as a college graduate in the mid-'70s. It was a compulsory destination on the hippie trail, which led from Turkey via Afghanistan (for, um, essential supplies) to points east. Like in Kathmandu, kids came to Goa for a week and never left. The tradition of amped-up susegado continued in the '90s with Goa's famous full-moon parties — ecstatic, quasi-pagan raves. In Bombay, Indian friends told me matter-of-factly that "[authorities]cleaned all that up." I didn't like the sound of that — even aging hippies need a place to lay their buzzing heads. But although a crackdown on drugs has restrained the nightlife in Goa somewhat, there are still plenty of cheap rooms and heaving clubs, most of them located north of the Mandovi River, for young travelers with statement hair. South Goa keeps its beaches tie-dye-free, catering mainly to the well-heeled.

Whichever side of the river you're on, Goa is where visitors have always sought exotic bliss. It's a Macau or a New Orleans — a weird cultural cocktail of its own devising; and like Macau it was a Portuguese colony, until 1962 when the Indian government annexed it.

North Goa has established hegemony in the realm of funky nightlife; the south specializes in historical funk, such as the Menezes Braganza Mansion. This rambling plantation house, partly dating from the 16th century, went into decline when India instituted land reform, so the family — resident for 14 generations — has opened it to the public. The 14th generation, named Abigail, aged two and naked as a jaybird, guided me by running ahead to open cabinets crammed with old silver, while dogs dozed on the ballroom floor.

On the way back to the hotel I stopped at a 1,500-year-old Hindu temple, Shri Chandreshwar Bhuthnath, located atop a steep hill. It resembled countless other temples in India, but the old man who tended the place told me that thousands of people visit it from all over the world.

Whether it's spirits or spirituality, people are always going to Goa to look for something. As for me, I'm planning an advanced seminar in susegado, with basic research to be conducted in a hammock at Zeebob's.