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Sunday, July 5, 2020

Ready, set, Goa in India

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Rabbinic tradition has it that Hodu (“India” in Hebrew) is the word Yehudi (“Jew” in Hebrew), without the letter yod, which signifies the one God — suggesting that India possesses kindred spirituality to Judaism, minus the monotheism. Perhaps that is why the predominantly Hindu country has long provided a welcoming home-away-from-home for Israeli backpackers. 

Now India is evolving into a happening tourism spot for the clean-cut, young Israeli professional who simply wants to take a break from the stresses of Israeli life, with the coastal state of Goa leading the way after the “Hummus Trail” near Kasol in northern India. 

In the 1990s, this former Portuguese colony became branded as a trance-rave destination. Israelis flocked here for that post-army, psychedelic escape. These days, Israelis have found other exotic, inexpensive locales for their post-army detox, such as Central America and Vietnam, and the generation that came here to party hard in Goa decades ago is staking a new claim, older and wiser. 

Israeli-owned cafes and inns serve as unofficial consulates for the Holy Land. Goan beaches have become popular, dirt-cheap resort destinations for the discerning budget traveler. (And dirt cheap means $12-a-night bungalows that compromise Western standards of cleanliness — a trade-off that’s worth it, refreshing even.)

Goa is where you free yourself from the daily grind and learn to find joy in life’s simple pleasures, like a $1.50 papaya juice by the shore. Here are some destinations where Israelis have created a mini-outpost for the Jewish state where all MOTs should feel welcome. 

South Goa: Palolem Beach

Palolem is the beach of choice for the young professional and spoiled lost soul. Many Israelis land at this beachside community for R&R after more adventurous treks in rural and urban parts of the country. Goa’s sensitivity to Western cuisine (and plumbing) lead India regulars to remark: “Goa is not India.” 

The social, fun-loving Palolem is distinctly international, with British, German, French and Russian tourists shmoozing on recliners and cushions facing the calm sea. The place is ideal for European-Israeli diplomacy. It’s where Scandinavians bond with Israelis over playing cards, or Brits buy Israeli girls a drink (easy, considering cocktails cost $3.50). 

Every menu features Israeli comfort foods — from Israeli salad to schnitzel. Café Inn is a popular Israeli establishment on the main road serving salad-heavy Israeli breakfasts, laffas and shipudim (Israeli grilled meat). There’s also Crystal Goa, founded last year by a British Jew named David Tomkins, who retired in his mid-30s from a career in finance so he could travel, only to end up working 60 hours a week running his own Goan restaurant. As for places to stay, Jewish intellectuals should feel at home at the artsy haven Cozy Nook, where the Catholic owner, Agnelo “Aggy” D’Costa, will, like a true guru, indulge guests with talk of philosophy, religion and healing.

Bear in mind, though, when making your travel arrangements that most of the seasonal bungalows are made of plywood and straw because beachside inns disassemble for summer monsoons.

North Goa: Anjuna and Arambol beaches

Drive more than two hours north of Palolem and you’ll find Anjuna and Arambol — busier, grungier beach communities that are frequented by aging hippies, stoners and substance-seekers. “Cold” turf wars between Israelis and Russians — and an electronic music party scene — ward off the yuppies. Still, Anjuna’s Wednesday souk (marketplace) is worth a visit, as is a drink at Curlies Shack, an institution. 

Israelis have made a community in Arambol. Signs in Hebrew advertise yoga classes and mopeds for sale. Shopkeepers greet tourists with “Shalom” to lure business.

A convenient, familiar place to land is Mama Café and Inn, founded by Inbal “Big Mama” Asher and her Nepali boyfriend. It was named such because the 28-year old Israeli founder practically adopted her Israeli and Jewish guests. She has since moved back to Israel, and turned over the inn to a Nepali friend, while still giving her motherly guidance to the new owner. Along the main road, Secret Bistro Garden, also Israeli-owned, will satisfy anyone longing for a vegan-friendly Tel Aviv-style cafe.

Hampi

An eight-hour ride from Goa on a nighttime sleeper bus (get the AC option!), Hampi is a delightful detour. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has morphed into a rustic tourist destination thanks to Israeli explorers. Villagers and Israelis have forged economic and cultural bonds that have turned this former Hindu empire stronghold into one of the most welcoming enclaves for the hiker, adventurer and seeker.

Stacked, pastel-colored boulders form natural fortresses around the mystical city, with the cobalt blue of the Tungabhadra River slithering through the hills, emitting calm. Columns and statues of Hindu gods from ancient temples lie in gorgeous ruin throughout the countryside, blessing Hampi with a sense of eternity. 

But the people of the one God have solidly introduced monotheism. Chabad has set up camp for Israelis, with black-hatters strolling among Indian women wearing fuchsia saris as shopkeepers play Israeli pop. 

Be sure to visit the Monkey Temple, a Hindu site that is still active on a hill named after the monkey gods. Monkeys will literally eat out of your hand as you take in the breathtaking 360-degree panoramic view. Or, if you’re interested in creatures of a different sort, check out what travelers have dubbed the “bird sanctuary.” Hike to the top for another exquisite view — the lone shepherd will move the cows out of your way in exchange for enough rupees to buy a beer. 

Mowgli Guest House offers round huts and concrete rooms with its cafe overlooking livestock fields and the river for a meditative morning coffee, but budget travelers craving a homey, Israeli scene can opt for the aptly named Shesh Besh (“backgammon” in Hebrew).

Rent a moped for $1.50 a day, but ride with caution — muffler burns (and worse) are common. Then cruise around to places such as Sunset Point, where Israelis gather for a drumming circle, or get lost — purposefully.

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