The day I met Franky Gracias, I almost didn’t meet him.
After I had spent two sleepless nights in Goa without electricity and in the company of buzzing mosquitoes, on that very day I defected from a home-stay to a fancier hotel with power back-up and water that didn’t make its way in a tanker. While paying off the bill at the home-stay, a conversation about Goa’s power situation, depleted water table, and desperate state of local businesses had me hooked for 30 minutes, and that’s how I almost didn’t make it in time to meet Franky. He was patient enough to wait, and as luck would have it, that 30-minute conversation serendipitously turned out to be a preface of sorts of my chat with him.
As I walked towards the boulevard in Panaji city with the sea and the seashore of Goa stretched out in front of me, I spotted his cycle before I saw him. He greeted me with a warm smile and directed me to a comfortable spot under a large tree. That he was a journalist wasn’t hard to imagine; his inquisitiveness about what I was working on and a slight discomfort with being misplaced in the equation was evident. I guess he was used to being the one asking the questions, penning notes, probing for more and yet here we were.
“I have been a journalist for a very long time now,” he said, “I also did crime reporting for many years. Then over a period, it started getting to me so I decided to move to an editorial position. Now I edit the Goa beat. But what is it that you want to know?” he asked and just like that set the power equation straight. He was indeed the journalist, and I took a mental step back, steadied myself and told him that I wanted to know about his Goa. “Everything you probably know of Goa is not my Goa. I take people to the real Goa on my cycling tours.”
And that is what was fascinating about Franky, that he was a journalist by night and a cyclist by day. I wondered how that came about – ” I always loved cycling. Cycling was a passion growing up. Then adulthood and life took over. I got busy with work and home until I moved to Goa and started visiting the Campal pool here. I met an old friend there who was running a cycling club, and I joined him. I didn’t even have a cycle (chuckles). But that was then; now I have a number of them and some of the best ones in the business. My latest being a Schnell. Anyhow, so that’s how I got back to cycling. I just take off on my cycle and explore Goa, and that’s how I know of some places that even most seasoned travellers have not heard of. I do a trip called the ‘Islands of Goa’ which takes people to the beautiful islands of Diwar and Chorao. I am also open to customised trips. I take people to these islands on the local ferry and show them old ports and houses and tell them stories along the way. I concentrate on building an experience. It is satisfying.”
I could see his passion stemmed from his love for the state, but also a love for the act of cycling – a culture that seems to be catching on in the country I said – “I am not sure. I don’t even think it is a cycling culture really. I will only call it a culture when people start cycling to work. But how can they? There are no dedicated cycling lanes, no infrastructure. I think Panaji is the best example. It is perfect to turn into a cycling-friendly city, but we are not there yet. There is rampant, unplanned construction everywhere in the name of tourism and Goa is losing its identity; it is becoming a place to come and while away time.”
I knew what he was alluding to; anyone who visits Goa as often as I do (more than a couple of times a year) is well-versed with the 24 X 7 drinking and general abandon this place seems to inspire. But isn’t that Goa’s charm I wondered – a place where the rules are relaxed and where the world comes to party? – “Unfortunately yes, the world sees it as a place to let their hair down. A place to drink themselves silly or do drugs. A lot of foreigners who visit India, seem to consider Kerala the cradle of culture and Goa the cradle of everything “sinful”. I do not deny that aspect fully, but it isn’t all about that. An entire group of people, their culture and their customs can’t be reduced to what happens along the beaches, in pockets. When I take people on my cycling trips to the islands of Goa, they can’t believe their eyes. They see this quaint village and experience a calm they don’t possibly associate with what they know of Goa. Goa is Calangute and Baga for most people; how can they ever know how Goans live. Another misconception is that we are lazy, but that isn’t true. The word that comes closest to describing our way of life is laidback; it is ingrained in our culture to give equal time to everything. So you might wonder why shopkeepers shut business at 1 and only return at 4; it is because they value their meal and their sleep just as much as they value their work.”
I found this a simple concept yet so refreshing. It reminded me of a time when I was cruising down a road in Siolim with a friend and discussing how I feel a weight lift when I land in Goa. As if this place makes it legitimate to take out time for oneself. I snatched myself back from that thought and asked if he had a favourite route – “That’s a tough one. But I will have to say the islands because they are traffic-free and tranquil. The sanctuaries are amazing too (yes, you read that right, there are sanctuaries in Goa) but they are tough to ride. It’s like riding the Ghats. I think I also prefer the islands because it gives me a chance to show people the culture of Goa. I make it a point to introduce them to local businesses. See Goa supposedly runs on tourism. But that is far from the truth; the locals are suffering today because now their homestays have to compete with fancy hotels, their bakeries have to compete with multi cuisine restaurants, and they are losing. The money that tourists are spending is not staying in Goa. So it isn’t really Goa tourism.” I knew I had added to that tragedy this morning when I chose the fancy hotel next to my home-stay, so I naturally hesitated when he asked me where I was put up.
But I liked where this conversation was going. What I expected to be a breezy tale about riding through the beautiful lanes of Goa was turning into a thought-provoking discussion. A first-hand account of the pain of the locals and by that association, the tragedy of the real Goa – a place that I thought I knew well enough and had come to love and care for as my own. I asked how he would present Goa differently? “I would highlight the local culture, the cuisine. Take them to the villages of Goa and explain the Goan lifestyle. We are a content lot. Or at least were. We don’t judge people or create trouble. That needs to come out. I think we owe it to people who come to Goa to give them a real taste of our values and our life. I would like for us to welcome them with the spirit of Goa, I would like for tourists to sip solkadi at the airport (smiles).”
The idea sounded as peachy as the refreshing solkadi he wished to offer. But the reality was far too dark. I realised that we were unknowingly ruining this place we love. It was as if we were altering the very Goa we like by seeking out big city comforts in its small town heart. We seem to have turned Goa into our best of both worlds – a world where you can be a bohemian beach girl with her bottle of Kings by the day and then turn up in high heels for a sit-down dinner of risotto with wine at night. The latter isn’t harmful per se (in fact it sounds like quite a delight), but at what cost is the question. If that luxury comes at the cost of you never knowing that of the 1500 species of birds in India, 500 are found in Goa, of never tasting balchao cooked with fresh and dried shrimp, of never walking through the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary looking for a barking deer and at the cost of making it hard for the local Goan to sustain in Goa, is it even worth it?
If that is a question that sets you thinking, I suggest you make a trip to the real Goa next time. Find a local bakery to eat pattice, go to a local shop and buy tendli achar, walk into a roadside joint for a hearty fish curry meal or a cauliflower caldine and maybe even spend a morning with Franky, cycling down an island road with the wind in your hair and a real Goan for company.