There was a time, not very long ago, when it was possible to visit Goa and not meet everyone you’d happily left behind in Delhi or Bombay. Goa was everything its name promised: warm waters, swaying coconuts, a clutch of decent restaurants, an emptyish main drag that stretched from Aguada up to Anjuna; the northern beaches were still peacefully deserted, and Calangute still quietly uncorrupted.
There’s no better demonstration of the changes overcoming the once-sleepy state, both good and not, than Ingo’s. In 1999, an ideal spot overlooking the Baga river became home to the novel idea of a night market. It was small and well-run, and attracted the few foreign vendors who could afford booking a stall for the season. In contrast to the crowded Wednesday flea market, this was entertainment for a Saturday night, a place to have a drink, meet up with friends, and take in the evening air.
A few years later the owners parted ways; Mackie’s continues in the same location, while Ingo found a larger plot further into Arpora. Getting there still requires negotiating a one-way excuse of a bridge, now generating the kind of traffic that can turn 15 minutes of travelling time into 60 or more. During the peak New Year’s period, reaching Ingo’s requires the lassitude of a cow. But even though I promise myself each season that this time I’ll avoid the market, it never happens. Perhaps I’ve failed to mention that Ingo’s is one of my favourite things in Goa; while it epitomises the garish and overpopulated new face of the state, it’s still worth the trouble.
Recently, I visited in mid-February instead of December. As I discovered, February in Goa comes with its own type of madness. Most of the Indian tourists have headed home, but their numbers are overcompensated by foreign visitors. By 8pm, there were several thousand people spread through the market’s several levels, making it challenging to buy, eat, or breathe. I braved the queue — if you could call that jostling, heaving thing “a queue” — for the stall of Bean Me Up for 30 minutes before proudly claiming my scrumptious tofulafel. A friend soon joined me, brandishing a chocolate éclair for dinner: seems that was the only stall without a line. By around 11pm, most stalls only offer crumbs of their original fare (goods and food alike). But at least you can walk without tripping over someone, and enter the stalls rather than peering hopelessly over a mass of shoulders.
However, the best time of all to arrive is 5pm. The sun’s still up, and there’s a calm breeze flapping though the radiant hammocks and scarves. The vendors are less hassled, more willing to exchange pleasantries or even to offer a bargain. A few years ago, I would always pick up some tapestries and lively bedspreads. Now, I incline toward the more specialised items. At this time, the stools fronting the jewellery stalls are still open, and I have my pick of the loveliest earrings. I have three favourite stalls, the best of which is run by a British fellow who fashions beautiful earrings from coconuts and exotic-patterned shells. The greatest clothes stalls are also run by foreigners, ranging from unique pieces designed by the vendors to Bangkok T-shirts and surfing labels purchased abroad and sold here for double the price. You’ll find psychedelic shirts and hoodies, hats that glow in the dark, military-type gear that’s favoured by foot-stomping Israelis but you’ll also discover a range of pretty dresses, and those comic ninja boots (booties, I call them) with a separated section for the big toe.
In all their great variety, the clothes reflect one of the most fabulous aspects of the market and Goa: its endless stream of strange and beautiful people. Make no mistake: this is as much a social outing for those who live here as clubs and lounges are for our big-city inhabitants. The market is a place to meet and be met. The run-of-the-mill tourists are mere backdrop for gorgeous women with tight dreadlocks, backless tops, leather miniskirts and boots that lace up to the thigh. People are here to make a statement, so this is people-watching from its bizarre to uber-stylish best. I saw a woman with face-paint of sequins and shimmery pastel shades and butterfly-headgear; a man with fake pointed ears. But it’s not a freak show; just astounding how many attractive and curious people can be in one place at one time.
Given the hedonistic appearance of things, it’s surprising how organised and straight the atmosphere actually is. The several alcohol stalls provide enough good cheer, I suppose, to replace other intoxicants. I’ve never seen anyone out of control, any violent behaviour; nothing but a serene vibe that’s only undercut by the hectic number of people. The market features a central stage that has showcased artists like Prem Joshua, and everyone vies for one of the chairs overlooking it. The performances often start with a Rajasthani dance and end with a great rock band, and you’re likely to appreciate at least one of several artists.
I find, though, that the best way to savour the market is to start with a beer and a platter of sushi from Cuckoo’s stall, and roam each level from the bottom up. Take a break at the pizza stall when night falls; you’ll have to wait your turn, but the pie is always perfect. It’s a lucky night if you find a free table by the food stalls, in which case you can also try one of the messier dishes like sauerkraut or beef carpaccio. But otherwise, just keep walking — sneakers and a backpack are useful companions. The market empties out by around 1am, and by then the long procession of cars will have diminished to make it an easy ride home. Clutching my many packages as I leave, I inevitably find that utter tiredness can be a very satisfying thing.
Ingo’s Night Market, Arpora, runs every Saturday from November-April from approximately 4pm to 1am