Goa Carnaval – a spectacular Portuguese Carnival in India

22nd Jun 2018 by

Goa in February is a wonderful place. Temperatures are in the high, balmy 20’s and it’s possible to collect the total rainfall in a small Balti dish. The contrast to the Northern Hemisphere winter is absolute. When you add the fact that it is Goa Carnival during this month then surely there are few better places to be on earth at this time of the year.

To be honest, Goa wasn’t actually my first choice for a break from the relentless British winter. A group of friends and I had been eyeing up Carnival in Rio for at least 6 months but we left it all too late and accommodation prices had skyrocketed by the time we came to book. A quick reorganisation of priorities and fresh ideas saw us heading down to Goa on India’s western coast.

Goa Carnival basics

Goa is India’s smallest state by area but manages to produce a GDP that is two and a half times the national average. The phenomenal beaches and abundant nightlife are prime reasons for the huge amount of tourism. Until relatively recently (1961) it was a Portuguese colony and the 450 years of European rule has greatly influenced the local culture, including the annual Carnival.

Goa Carnival Sand Sculpture

Carnaval (the Portuguese spelling) in Goa begins on Fat Saturday and ends on Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent follow. It’s 4 days of all the things you’d expect at a carnival – large impressive floats, incredible costumes, music, dancing, tables of sumptuous food and booze… Actually no booze astonishingly it’s a dry event.

The festivities tour through several towns enabling all of Goa to take part. The rough schedule was found on the Goa Tourism website but don’t expect that to be followed too closely. This is India, things will happen when they happen. My advice is to get there early and ask locals about where to stand and what to expect. We had been staying in Northern Goa so opted to head to the final day in Morjim.

Goa Carnival closing ceremony

As we arrived at the closing ceremony, propping up our mopeds in a shaded alley next to roughly 20,000 other almost identical vehicles, our expectations had already been greatly lowered from what we might have expected in Rio. The whole event seemed quite spread out and lacked momentum. Our expectations were lowered, but as it turns out, they could have been lowered quite some distance more.

It was 3:30 pm, still plenty of heat in the day and we were excited to see what Carnival would have in store for us at it’s slated start time of between 4 pm and 6 pm. Very little seemed to be happening in the town centre where there was a huge, vibrantly decorated main stage, a side stage and a small gathering of people, so we walked back out of town along the parade route.

Goa Carnival floats

The floats were all parked up just out of town awaiting the start of the procession through the main square. There was a huge assortment of different styles but they all seemed to carry a humanitarian message; anything from imploring people to save water to encouraging people to keep Goa clean. Very few if any had a traditional feel to them, maybe those were reserved for previous days at the carnival?

Something else which seemed slightly less than traditional was a large group of locals, all wearing Argentina football shirts dancing to high-tempo music by the side of the street. My guess is if you visit the final day of the Goa Carnival in years to come everyone may be wearing the blue and white stripes as these guys were having by far the most fun!

Goa Carnival Music

The mishmash nature of events continued as we walked back to the main square where many more people had started to gather. On a side stage, a live band were bashing out some tunes to a small army of people who were lapping up what they were laying down. We joined the throng. I’m not sure what kind of band you’d expect to find at a Portuguese festival in India but I’d wager it isn’t a group of kilt-wearing Scotsmen. Playing reggae.

However, the music was lively and the party seemed to, at last, be getting underway. Good job too as the official start time of between 4 pm and 6 pm was getting close to expiring. The band seemed full of vigour, playing the chorus of their jumpiest hit over and over and over. And over and over. And over. It was at this point we realised that they were being asked to stretch their set a little as the ‘Official’ start of the carnival was not even close to being imminent.

They played on with great gusto but it was to no avail, the crowd was starting to lose interest due to the ongoing repetition of identical musical phrases. Eventually, they had to call the song to a stop at which point the crowd slowly started to disperse. Not wanting to let the organisers down, the band encouraged the crowd to encourage them to play one more song. Yes, that’s right, the band started the chant for their own encore. It was one of the most pitiful scenes I have ever witnessed as the lead singer informed us that “If we wanted to hear another song, we needed to chant ‘One more song, one more song!’”. Oh right, that’s how it works, it seemed like the entire crowd must have forgotten.

Goa Carnival live band

Eventually, a handful of people took pity on the musicians and continued the chant with about as much enthusiasm as a person requesting a root canal at the dentist. The band fired into life and they proceeded to play another, fairly similar song until it too was knocking at death’s door. They left the stage to whimpering applause from the now indifferent crowd and we assumed that the Carnival proper was about to start.

We assumed wrong.

There were 10 minutes of silence. There were a further 10 minutes of a man shouting loudly into a microphone “One two. One. One. One two. One. Testing. One two!”. Then there was a song, at last, a song. And light, there were lasers piercing the sky and disco lights illuminating expectant faces. The song was “Viva Carnaval!” – this must be it now, this must be the start!

It wasn’t.

To the audible sigh of the crowd, shortly after “Viva Carnaval!” ended, the band were called back to the side stage. To be perfectly honest, they looked as disinterested as the crowd as they had genuinely given everything at the end of their previous set. A smidgen of enthusiasm was dragged from the depths to knock out a few more tunes, filling the time which was gradually ebbing away. Much like my interest in Goa Carnival.

The “One two” man briefly returned. “Viva Carnaval!” was played once more. And then, after keeping their Carnival cards very close to their chest for the previous 4 hours, the organisers decided to play two at once by starting the fireworks display and the speeches at exactly the same time. This took my Unofficial Shambles Rating up to a solid 8.5.

Goa Carnival – The beginning of the end

To look at the fireworks you had to turn away from the stage. If you watched the stage you couldn’t see the fireworks. If you chose to watch the fireworks then the speeches were akin to having someone standing behind you and shouting into your ear. If you chose to watch the stage then the constant fireworks explosions were a shocking distraction. It was an assault to the senses and we didn’t even have beer to numb the pain.

Fortunately, this absolute calamity was short-lived. Wait, no it wasn’t, it went on for about 45-minutes. The first 10 minutes of the speeches were dedicated to the “One two” man repeatedly asking for a specific individual to come up to the stage. He never took a backwards step, never thought about pressing on without this important person and just repeated his request over and over and over. The fireworks were actually very good but they were drowned out by the din of the man on the mic.

The committee

After some time the stage was filled by what we assumed to be the full organising committee accompanied by associated guests. It was apparent that most of these people probably hadn’t lifted a finger during the months of planning this extravaganza must have demanded but wanted their time on stage to posture in front of the now sizeable crowd.

Chief Show-Off award went to the local politician who had a genuine Bollywood actress as a guest. He seemed very proud of her and introduced her to speak to the crowd. She looked incredible in a glitzy ball gown and spoke very well. For all of 30 seconds before she was interrupted by the new leader of the Chief Show-Off award who, with no apology what-so-ever, walked his guest – Miss Goa – directly up the steps in the middle of the stage during ‘Bollywoods’ speech. There was a thoroughly embarrassing moment as the two trophy females introduced themselves to each other in the middle of the stage, on the mic and in front of the masses.

The speeches and fireworks continued in tandem until eventually all the people who wanted to shout at the crowd had been given their turn on the mic. The “Viva Carnaval!” song was played once more to most peoples complete apathy and by now the whole thing had become slightly ridiculous.

Goa Carnival – The King arrives

That was until the real guest of honour arrived – King Momo! The King is a fictional character who is considered the King of Carnival in many Latin American festivities, including here in Goa. The King is one lucky fellow who gets plucked from the Goan population each year to be the figurehead for the entire 4-day party.

King Momo, complete with entourage, was a splendid sight. He made his way through the crowd, not 5 metres from where we were standing and we felt that the shambles would soon be over now that The King was in attendance. He took the stage with a huge grin on his joyful, friendly face and the crowd roared. A pre-written speech on an elaborate scroll was placed in front of him and he did a great job of relaying that to the expectant ears.

He then sat down on his throne and nothing much happened for the next short while. We waited. He continued to beam happiness at the crowd as the committeemen stood around. We waited. The trophy women continued to catalogue pose and look elegant. The crowd grew restless.

More music came on. Including “Viva Carnaval!”. Again.

Goa Carnival – Where are the floats?

It was after 10 pm that the floats began making their way into the town centre and past the main stage. They were immediately hit with an issue that we had spotted the moment we’d arrived. The main stage wasn’t in a position where the floats could parade past it. They had to travel some 30 yards to the right as the stage was stuck in a corner. As the first float went by, nowhere near the King, you could sense the dawning realisation from the committeemen that this was indeed a major faux pas.

One of the shouty chaps, it could’ve been “One two” man, I’m not sure, decided to try to get the crowd to create a pathway for the floats so that they could come all the way up to the stage. He successfully enlisted the local police to help him and a route was deployed amidst great hilarity from most of the crowd. The floats made their way towards the stage and then stopped. There was nowhere for them to go. They started backing up and the whole procession came to a halt. I’m not sure how many more times they would fail at running a carnival as we had by this point had enough and decided to leave.

Now, it must be said, that this was just my experience of one day at Goa Carnival and it may not be representative of the Carnival experience as a whole. I’m lead to believe that each day is quite different with more traditional aspects on the first 3 days. It should also be said that this isn’t a negative review, despite everything it was a truly memorable, enjoyable day, it just wasn’t entirely what was expected. The festivities were greatly supported and enjoyed by the locals and the atmosphere was happy and celebratory throughout.

There was one more thing…

It seemed like leaving when we did was a popular decision. Within 5 minutes the single road out of town was full of cars, trucks, taxis and of course motorbikes and mopeds. Indians aren’t renowned for their patience on the road and when a truck and a car refused to yield through a narrow gap carnage ensued. There were so many vehicles that the road became blocked and there was nowhere for anyone to go. Mopeds were zipping through tiny gaps before they closed too. Gridlock. It took three policemen the best part of an hour to untangle the mess amongst angry drivers who refused to move backwards and laughing tourists who thought the whole thing was hilarious. All part of the Goa Carnival experience!

As we eventually left town, the guys in the Argentina football shirts were still dancing – if you’re going to Carnival, I recommend getting a shirt and joining in!

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