Live Like a Waterman

It’s my first vacation in fourteen months (though people seem mad about it because I’m “always travelling”) and I’ve chosen to spend it in Goa at Vaayu Waterman’s Village, a little resort on the stunning Ashwem-Mandrem stretch.

Three years ago I met owners Rahul Malaney and Jill Ferguson in San Francisco just before they set up Vaayu. They had driven down the coast from Washington, detouring to meet surf brands like Dakine, organising to bring a boat back to India and prepping for their first season.

“What the hell is a waterman?” I ask Rahul, as he shows me around Vaayu, which houses a surf shop and whose USP, though not its only one, is its adventure centre. (While we talk, a guest with two bionic legs heads out for a lesson with one of the surfing instructors.)

Being a waterman, it turns out, is a lifestyle. The waterman is an ancient Polynesian concept of ocean people - those who interact with the ocean every day of their lives and are committed to protecting it and maintaining the balance. “A waterman has an ongoing relationship with the ocean and adapts to his (or her) conditions. So he goes kite surfing when it’s windy or paddle boarding when the waters are calm,” he explains.

Vaayu takes their waterman ethos seriously, organising beach cleanups and waste management workshops and generally giving back to not just the ocean but the wider community they are a part of.  “A strong environmental ethic is the basis of the adventure centre”, Rahul emphasizes. “Get people into the water in a fun and exciting way, to go kiting or SUPing, and convince them to take care of the beach and the ocean.”

This is the kind of trickery I can get behind. I’m no surfing enthusiast, I’m the world’s slowest swimmer and sun-bleached hair is probably the only thing we have in common but I took a tea strainer to the beach as a kid so I feel suddenly at home here.

I flew into Goa earlier in the day and my first port of call was Prana Cafe for an açai smoothie as big as my head. There I meet Urvashi Singh, one of the resident artists whose show Sublime Landscapes is on display in the Vaayu garden gallery, which rather conveniently has a bed in it. 

At night, Rahul and I head to Arambol for a gig at Twice in Nature. The band is atmospheric as hell, and belongs (if they aren’t already) on a Pedro Almodovar film soundtrack. At the bar he introduces me to Shane Heath, a second artist-in-residence who describes Goa as one large Burning Man, “full of little camps”. He’s not wrong, many of Goa’s establishments are only semi-permanent, built to last only a season at a time, “they’re just installations”. Back at Vaayu, Shane’s art fills the upstairs gallery, a relaxed terrace with a thatched roof where the artists paint, the guests read and the dogs nap.

Art is everywhere at Vaayu and their art residency program has proven to be exceptional. The artists are prolific, producing numerous artworks and executing all kinds of projects. Over the last several months, Rahul and some of the artists have been experimenting with designing sets and stages at their workshop, and the geometrical forms look like graphic art come to life

There’s a map hanging over the cafe, which has seen better days but it depicts the street art around the neighbourhood by Harshvardhan Kadam, who organised Pune’s street art festival and invited several of the artists he met while at Vaayu. (Whiz around on a bike and you’ll spot several.) There are coconuts painted by Sachin Shetty on some of the tables and collaborative paintings hanging from the ceiling. Danny Darkoski (his real name), their newest artist shows me a light-painting stick he created for long-exposure photos. A jellyfish light sculpture by Miles Toland hangs near the entrance.  Each night I let its changing LEDs lull me into slumber.

I've been coming to Goa my whole life and over the last three decades I’ve seen Goa’s trash problem escalate to frightening levels. Litter is everywhere, along the sides of the road, choking plants and wildlife, clogging canals, floating in the ocean. 

This afternoon, I will join the Ashvem community in cleaning up the neighbourhood. There is a massive and unsightly dump around a beautiful banyan tree in Ashvem village and we are going to try and make a dent in it by picking up garbage for a few hours. It’s hot, hard, filthy work. By the end we’ve filled 50 bags with ten kilos of trash each. I’ve seen and touched (and smelled) everything from syringes to faeces to broken glass, and so much plastic and packaging, I don’t think I ever want to buy anything again.

Addressing the trash problem is just as important as cleaning it up so Jill and Lata have organised a dinner with the locals in the village, to get to know them and offer them a viable alternative.

A much-needed splash in the ocean and a shower later, we head to Arambol to another venue for a burlesque show and on our way back, we drop by to Hippys (sic) Gusto, an ice cream parlour on Arambol beach that serves raw vegan ice cream in flavours such as caramel hempseed and chocolate walnut. It’s sugar-free, dairy-free, egg-free ice cream (so some might say not ice cream at all), but it is good. The base is either cashew or coconut, and each scoop is chewy, moreish and best of all, served up in a completely biodegradable coconut shell cup.

After a spell of food poisoning (not his own), Varoon Nair is back. The musician and artist turned chef joined the Vaayu team earlier this season and designed the healthy and creative tropical-themed menu at Prana Cafe. I’m missing the raw chocolate mousse, made with cacao and avocado because the latter isn’t in season. The banoffee is pretty damn good though and I really dig the quinoa rice bowl. The coffee, made with beans from Blue Tokai is excellent (the secret apparently is in the measure). At Prana, Sundays are dedicated to the brew and ‘beats that go boom’.

Like other Vaayu initiatives, the cafe is a very communal effort. Ingredients are sourced from friends and local vendors, and I met both Markus, who makes the coffees at the Sunday event and Joe who provides the kombucha, during yesterday’s clean up.

It’s also very easy to socialise here, though that is probably just as true of Goa in general. Back in the city, my relationships are made online, and through careful introductions so it is genuinely lovely to make friends out of strangers by striking up a random conversation from one table to another.

It’s my last evening at Vaayu and that means drinks. So far I’ve eaten everything (sans gluten) on the menu but I’m supposed to be on vacay and I haven’t been drinking quite enough.  I order the Mexico from the cocktail menu and it is glorious. I’ve never paired tequila with watermelon juice before so my adult life has been worthless. It’s the perfect drink - the cause and the cure. I watch the sun go down with a sweet pup named Becky and regret the last 12 years.

Vaayu offers accommodation options for almost every budget, as well as surf/SUP rentals and instruction. Visit their website for more information.


Sheena Dabholkar runs this website and has forgotten how to vacation. She mostly Instagrams selfies and puppies at @thisisweeny.

Image credits: Sheena Dabholkar, Ora DeKornfeld and Krish Makhija.