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Goa: Favourite destination for Russians
Russian tourists' fascination for Goa does not start and end at the sun-kissed silvery sands of Goa beaches, but extends much beyond that. Notwithstanding the language barrier, Russians and Indians have forged new ties and openings.

A COUPLE of days back the red carpet was rolled out to Russian film actors, directors and delegates at the India International Film Festival (IFFI) which is being held in the Indian state of Goa, in its capital city of Panjim. On Tuesday, yet another group of Russians had a different experience - a brush with the law enforcing agencies, in another city Mapusa. The Hare Krishna disciplines from Russia got into a scuffle with the local police and eight of them have been booked for rioting and assault on the men in khaki, while two of them were assaulted by the local mob.

Goa’s USB has been tourism for the last several decades after it was liberated from Portuguese rule in 1961. The state has become a home away from home to many Russians in the last few years. The incident is likely to be yet another bolt on the tourism front for the state, which has been trying to clear the muck created by the death of English teenager Scarlett Keeling on February, 2008, and the alleged rape of another German teenager by a Goa minister’s son recently.

Russian tourists’ fascination for Goa does not start and end at the sun-kissed silvery sands of Goa beaches, but extends much beyond that. The foreign tourists who have bought large tracks of land in villages like Arambol and Morjim; some of them illegally.

Their illegal acts have got them into several tangles with the law enforcing agencies. Some of the land deals are under scrutiny from the federal authorities for having contravene several laws. And Tuesday’s incident is one of the several incidents in the recent past where in the Russians have being trying to assert their dominance, albeit unsuccessfully in the state, a move which has brought them into a conflict with the locals.

Russian land-sharks, who have infested Goa land-deals it is alleged, have also a pie in supplying Russian girls for the flesh trade in the country, some of whom operate in the state.

But in the current global economic meltdown, the state tourism authorities are trying to entice the big spending rich Russians to the state and trying not to destroy the hen that lays the golden egg.

The state has been experiencing a fall in tourists from United Kingdom, the market which Goa has relied on for long.

On the brighter side, the blonde Russian girls are very much in demand as side dancers in the Hindi film industry. But some of them have been functioning as escorts for the rich Indian businessmen and providing them sexual services and working under the guise as models in the big Indian metros like Mumbai and Delhi.

But the Russian love for Indian Hindi film can be found even in the golden era of film starring Raj Kapoor.

If the Hindi films of late Raj Kapoor struck a special chord in the hearts of Russians, the resonance continues. The Russians now are visiting the Indian state of Goa as tourists and fun seekers, bent on enjoying the surf, sand and shopping. Young Indians, on the other hand, are in Moscow for a different challenge.

Indian medical students Reshma Shetty, Edna Pinto and Rehmatullah Khan have written to India after completing their five-year-long academic programme. They hail from diverse backgrounds and from different states. Reshma is from the southern city of Bangalore and is all set to be a psychiatrist; Edna, from Goa, has set her sights on becoming an ear-nose-and-throat specialist and Rehmatullah is specialising in oncology.

The trio, for their part, mastered Russian and have no trouble striking up a conversation. Reshma was cultural secretary of the Indian Students Organisation in Russia, and along with her colleagues, used to organise programmes highlighting Indian culture for Russian students.

What surprises her is the fondness that the Russians in their 40s and 50s have for the late Indian film actor-director-producer Raj Kapoor. “Old Hindi films by Raj Kapoor that we can’t find in India are easily available in Russia. Dance-and-run Hindi films with Russian subtitles are popular in Russia.”

Meet Paramahansa Singh Raj, who first landed in Russia some 10 years ago. He was one of the first groups of students who risked travel to the erstwhile Soviet Union after the restoration of capitalism, he is now working as tour guide in Goa after having given up on his medical studies midway.

The first months were difficult for him, having to immerse himself in a four-month crash course in Russian. Then, exposure to a frigid climate for the first time hit him hard. Although he found the sight of snow enthralling, the October through February period was also difficult. This is also the time when schools and colleges have their winter break, closing from December 10 to February 10. Schools in Russia close down for a second break, from July 10 to August 31.

Students coming to Russia to study medicine are generally those who have not qualified for a place in a government-run medical college back home. The only other option they have is the numerous private colleges that charge capitation fees and donations. The starting admission fee ranges from INR 500,000 to 600,000 and later fees can reach INR two million rupees.

The Russia-India connection is not just one-way. With the Russian economy opening up, more and more Russians are traveling to India, with Goa as their favourite destination. And Alexander Sukhochyov is one of them, after three years of chilling in Goa, turned his experiences into a movie deal and later wrote a book. In his first novel ‘Goa Syndrome’ Sukhochyov wrote about the Russian colonisation of the tiny seaside village of Morjim.

Once in Goa, the Russians are on the lookout for seafood and crabs, especially lobsters stuffed with small amounts of spices, not forgetting rice and the nans (breads). They also are fond of Goan fruits like mangoes and guavas, he says.

In Goa, many beach-side restaurants post their signboards in English and Russian to attract patronage. Once inside, Russians can read from menus written in their language.

Language is a major barrier for Russians, especially those in their late 30s and 40s trying to converse with the locals in Goa, but younger tourists speak fluent English. Their presence comes in handy for their older compatriots when shopping and in other venues.

Being accompanied by a Russian tourist guide isn’t much help if he or she does not know English. Ultimately, they have to resort to sign language to get their message across when they go shopping.

Once in Goa, the Russians, who party hard back home, do the same here and head for the numerous discos to rock and roll and sip Goan cashew feni. “The Russians want to experience more Goan and Indian folk music and folk dances performed by locals,” says Svetlana, a Russian tourist guide based in Goa.

During the day, besides tanning in the sun, they splash in the sea and roar around on water scooters and motorboats.

Russians shop compulsively and pump more dollars, not rubles, into the Indian economy, and stuff their travel bags with Indian jewellery, clothes, ornaments, incense and DVDs, which come relatively cheap compared with back home.

Many Russians now prefer Goa to Turkey or Egypt as their destination and the best way they can get "into" a trip to India is to buy Indian goods, ranging from food, music or the latest Bollywood film DVDs, which are available in Moscow.

Another Indian offering, yoga, has swept the entire Western world, and Moscow is no exception. The Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Center there offers free classes in yoga, as well as Hindi and tabla drums.

For Indians, Moscow’s Krishna temple is a meeting place for the Indian community and to pay obeisance to God. But those visiting the Krishna temple are not just Indians. Hold your breath -- many Russians belong to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and flock to the temples regularly.

Notwithstanding the language barrier, Russians and Indians have forged new ties and openings, although xenophobia against darker skinned races has certainly dampened the flow of Indian students travelling to study in Russia.

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