London - A Dutchman wearing a turban sits cross-legged on the beach and bangs a drum (upturned saucepan, actually). Children, oblivious to this aspiring yogi guru, build sandcastles around him, while a young couple walk hand in hand towards a golden future.
The sun sets with a flourish of powdery pink, a touch of mauve, a hint of coral. And the next time you look, it’s gone.
It’s all so fleeting. Mr Yogi will be gone, too, in a matter of days (unless, like our plumber, he decamps to Goa for three months to avoid the British winter); the sandcastles will disappear even quicker and the happy couple will soon be arguing about wallpaper in their new home in Hertford, Hereford or Hampshire.
But, then, Goa does impermanence like nowhere else on Earth. By the beginning of May, most of the beach huts and nearly all the restaurants will be dismantled for the monsoon season and won’t be erected again until the deluge ceases in October.
Which means you should go now, if you can. At this time of year the weather is better than the Caribbean, the beaches infinitely prettier than Dubai or Abu Dhabi and prices so low that at times it’s embarrassing how little you pay for so much in return.
We arrive just before New Year. It’s peak season, but on glorious Patnem beach, close to better-known Palolem, we are paying no more than £30 (about R530) a night for a series of huts at a charming, family-run spot called Home.
There are eight of us: my wife, me, children, step-children and two close friends, whose very presence keeps a lid on any family squabbles.
Actually, you don’t squabble in this part of South Goa. The vibe won’t allow it. Instead, you take your yoga mat to the beach before breakfast, then refuel on freshly squeezed juices before settling into a hammock with a well-worn copy of the novel Shantaram. Or, like me, you rise late, order two fried eggs on wilted spinach and tuck into the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher. My son says Maggie is not in keeping with the languorous spirit, but I beg to differ. The former PM would have approved of the local enterprise, the neighbourliness and, especially, the deflationary prices.
“The demographic is interesting,” opines one of my step-sons, who works in sales for a publishing company. By which he means thatthe market is more varied than expected.
Backpackers with roll-up sleeping bags and roll-up ciggies are more than matched by 30-somethings, families and (dread phrase) silver surfers.
But let’s be clear. North Goa and South Goa are different. The North is variously busy, throbbing, tacky - and by all accounts will become even tackier as airbus-loads of Russians flop in.
The South is gentler, less crowded, more sophisticated, and, as one of the Home staff puts it, strictly in the GMT zone (“Goan Maybe Time”). Patnem beach stretches for several hundred yards, with palm-tree headlands at both ends.
Meander further south and you arrive at Rajbag - deserted, save for a low-lying hotel set back from the beach, where I dare say the hot water is more efficient than it is at Home, but the atmosphere nothing like as warm.
Lots of people rent scooters and explore. One day, we pile into a people-carrier and make for Galgibaga, better known as Turtle Beach, on the other side of the Talpona River. I can’t imagine many more unspoilt strips of sands than here, with the sea flowing into a lagoon at the southern tip.
Shacks serving Goan fish curries and masala-buttered prawns are hidden in the trees. With beers and several mid-day cocktails, we pay less than £5 a head at Surya’s Beach Cafe.
Goa is known to be India-lite. One reason is that it was not until 1961 that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru finally ran out of patience with the Portuguese dictator Salazar, and sent in the army to absorb Goa into the rest of India. Not much of Old Goa is left, but you must take a day to explore the flaking churches and crumbling colonial mansions.
Our guide, Maria, brings together the past and present with such clarity that as we stand high up outside the Church Of Our Lady Of The Mount (built circa 1510) and look down over the watery valley towards the lively capital Panaji, we can only marvel at such a wondrous setting.
Wondrous, but not a miracle - unlike the scene at the Church Of St Francis Xavier, so-named after the 16th-century priest credited with converting more than 30 000 people and whose body is still preserved in a glass coffin near the high altar.
‘The scientists cannot explain it,’ says Maria. Which does explain why every ten years his body is carried from the basilica to the cathedral, where pilgrims file past his corpse.
Speaking of miracles, the driving in Goa is death-defying and we feel the Almighty spares us on several occasions. I just dream of returning to a massage table in Patnem, where it’s £11 for a full-body pummelling.
I also want to live because I want to watch the restaurant staff shooing away cows from breakfast tables in the morning. I want to read The Times Of India, with its endless cricketing headlines and see the ad for chocolate that says: “Sin - because it’s so easy to forgive yourself.”
Above all, I want to be among the kind and gentle people of Patnem, for whom nothing is too much trouble. For them, the going is not always good in Goa, but they keep on going with such dignity that one’s spirit soars - and soars again.