Sunil Sethi: The olive oil factor

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 15, 2013 20:24 hrs

A European friend in search of acquiring a private rural retreat in coastal India, a maison secondaire of sorts, prospected for several years in many places including Kerala, Maharashtra and Odisha before deciding on the ideal secluded spot in Goa. His final choice was dictated by what he calls “the olive oil factor”. This does not suggest Mediterranean hillsides covered in olive groves; simply the easy availability of provisions and produce of almost any description, a few miles away from any location.

At Mapusa market, the main town in north Goa, the cornucopia of food and wine grows yearly in reverse proportion to the parking space. In addition to mounds of spices, traditional food, flowers and fresh fish, you now find neatly packed varieties of goat cheese produced locally with Swiss assistance; leeks, celery and strawberries from farms along the Western Ghats; and exotic vegetables like Thai ginger and baby aubergine. A small roadside nursery where friends bought traditional fruit trees and flowering shrubs has grown to the size of a garden estate; it sprouts rare species of tropical heliconias and torch gingers from South America and Indonesia in blazing bird-of-paradise colours.

Most new brands of Indian wine are test-marketed here, in deference to Goa’s bibulous way of life, its leisure economy — but also because, given low excise rates, consumption is high and retail prices appreciably cheaper.  

Some years ago I met a warm-hearted Greek with auburn hair called Marie Ketty, a figure straight out of Zorba’s story. She ran a modest but mobile catering outfit, setting up charcoal braziers at local parties and fairs to produce pita rolls and salads. Soon she set up shop on a small terrace overlooking Vagator beach. This week I found her presiding over a vastly expanded restaurant serving 150 covers, with hungry hordes waiting their turn. “Thalassa” – goddess of the sea in Greek – is now a famous eatery, and Marie Ketty, in clannish Indian tradition, has imported many of her Aegean kin to help run the show. Her success is part of the olive oil factor but also a heartening example of Goa lending the ravaged Greek economy a helping hand.

Goa’s tourist season used to begin in October, peak at Christmas and New Year, and take off again at carnival time before gradually winding down during Lent in mid-February. But, as many in the travel and hospitality business will attest, there is hardly an off season any more. Russian tourists were once a subplot but have now taken over whole stretches of beach. In parts of south Goa you may think that signs in English, Hindi or Konkani face extinction given the preponderance of the Cyrillic script.

Goa’s transition from a mining and agricultural economy to a booming tourism enterprise has resulted in plenty of political jiggery-pokery at the top as well as a low-life trade in drugs and prostitution. Strong environmental activism and government action have reined in widespread illegal mining of iron ore and minerals. Manohar Parrikar’s Bharatiya Janata Party government defeated the Congress led by Digambar Kamat decisively in state elections last March, largely on issues of rampant corruption. Mr Parrikar, an IIT graduate with an image of personal probity, is trying to clean up Goa but given the fragile composition of the 40-seat legislature, this is easier said than done.

Gambling in floating casinos on the Mandovi’s estuary is licensed on a limited scale, but the flesh trade flourishes covertly. Locals report a growing industry in Bangkok-style massage parlours, with busloads of new-rich trippers from the Maharashtra and Karnataka hinterland shipped in for dirty weekends, fuelled by cheap booze and the services of Mumbai’s bar girls, who are said to migrate en masse for the high season. They may be competition for the “motorbike Marias”, as the Ukrainian hookers lurking in downtown bars are called, but it takes some sleaze to keep Goa’s leisure economy well-lubricated and afloat.

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