Open Country spends Christmas Day in Goa, finding out how much more this part of India's west coast has to offer beyond beach holidays and cheap package deals.
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Helen Mark begins the day with the congregation of St Rita's church in the village of Aldona, in the north of Goa. Here, the area's Portuguese roots are clear to see: the Catholic mass said in Konkani, the local language, and the Hispanic names on the tombs in the graveyard. But, here in Goa, Christmas is also recognised by the majority Hindu population, who acknowledge the day as Christians, in their turn, acknowledge Hindu feasts like Diwali. Dr Maria Couto, a leading academic and author who has travelled widely both within India and in Europe, explains to Helen why village life in Goa, with this easy blend of cultures and religions, suits her better than life anywhere else - and why she's angered by the common perception of her home as a lazy holiday destination. Joining Maria in the shade of her verandah are her friend, Suresh Amonkar, a Hindu scholar, who recalls the Christmas Days of his childhood, and Claude Alvares of the Goa Foundation, an environmental campaigner, who says that small rural communities can provide a model for co-operation between different cultures.
The Goa Foundation
A coconut grove on Valsao beach offers Helen a bit of shade and refreshment on the way to meet Matanhy Saldanha and Agnelo Rodriguez. They campaign for the survival of the local fishing industry, rich enough to support seven thousand fishermen, some of whom live in the palm-thatched houses behind the beach and who take to sea in mango-wood boats. But the arrival of mechanisation and off-shore trawling mean that the future of this traditional way of life is now seriously threatened - although Matanhy, a local politician, says it's likely to prove strong enough to survive for a good while yet.
The Savoi spice plantation, set far back from the coastal strip, has been in Suchin Shayte's family for four generations. He has opened it to tourists for the past fifteen years, guiding them through both the culinary and medicinal value of his crops - from nutmeg to cardamom, tumeric to cloves, cinnamon to curry leaves and dozens of other plants whose use is common knowledge to native Goans. The plantation could be a fine example of how to develop tourism in the interests of local people, but Roland Martins, a campaigner for civic rights in Goa, says it must be handled carefully if the mistakes of the coastal resorts are not to be repeated in rural areas.
Crocodile spotting in some parts of the world can involve exploitation and even cruelty, with crocodile sightings carefully staged by their organisers. But here in Goa, the money generated by crocodile watchers can go straight back into conservation. Harvey d'Souza and his colleague Neil Alvares take Helen out on the river to see how the crocodile population is doing, and show her introduce her to the other part of their wildlife work: snakes. They say the real joy of their work comes when they spot a crocodile which they've re-released into the wild, or see a snake rescued from a local house. Tourists hoping to see crocodiles basking on the banks might be disappointed, but the work that Neil and Harvey do with the animals is making a sighting far more likely.
Southern Birdwing website
Gordon Frost worked in advertising in London until he decided to give it all up and move to Goa in favour of bird watching. He takes Helen to his favourite birding site on the way to Cortigao Wildlife Sanctuary, pointing out that the highlight of any day might not be a bird at all, but a snake, a monkey or just the pleasure of walking in the silence of the forest.
At dusk, Moira Hickey sets off through the forest of the wildlife sanctuary with Nirmal Kulkarni of the Green Cross, which works in wildlife conservation in Goa. Although they're heading for a hide high above a watering hole, in the hope of seeing animals - maybe even a leopard - come to drink, Nirmal points out that the forest has far more to offer. Each tree is home to a huge range of wildlife and the forest, he says, should be valued and treasured as a temple to nature.
Green Cross reptile project
Adolphin Abreo, a classical Indian dancer, is fighting to save her village, Sinquerim, from over-development. Tourism is impinging on local communities by displacing people from their homes and even by blocking traditional rights of way to the fishing beaches. Adolphin's husband Hermann, who still fishes locally, says that tiny places like Sinquerim have retained their traditional values, but are struggling to do so in the face of mass tourism. For Claude Alvares, however, who first met Helen at the beginning of her visit, the bigger threat is globalisation - looking out across the Arabian Sea, he points out that Goa has always been open to influences from outside, and that its people are well adapted to that - it is wide-scale expansion, destroying traditional livelihoods and removing control of Goans' local environment, which could spell the end of rural life as it is known today.
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