First published in The Sun-Herald, 2005
It has been six years since I washed the last of the Indian dust from my skin but when I step out of the Mumbai airport into that press of bodies, that laden air, it rises up in me from the vaults of memory. Ah yes. This place. I sit back in the clattering auto-rickshaw and watch the peopled night shudder past – lurch of bovine traffic, flutter of a chiffon dupatta scarf from the back of a scooter, cries of the bhelpuri sellers crouched in their painted wooden carts, all steeped in a pungent cocktail of incense and drains and diesel fumes and lit with paper Christmas stars, strung amid electrical wires like the work of some crazed spider. This place.
With all the trains to Goa booked until after New Year, we find ourselves a seat on a sleeper bus and are wedged, bags and all, into a top bunk the size of a child’s single at the rear of the bus and above the back wheel, which remains steadfastly off the tarmac most of the 13 hours down the coast from Mumbai to Goa. We arrive in Arambol, in the far north of the tiny state, somewhat disheveled, as the sun is rising from behind the palm trees and the tang of salt in the air.
Once the jewel in the crown of the Portuguese empire, Goa was captured in 1510 and remained a foreign colony until 1961, when the Indian army ended 450 years of foreign rule. However the tiny state’s reputation as a respite from India’s hard-line Hindu morality has continued to lure foreign travellers in search of a more permissive place to let it all hang out.
The first all-night dance parties were held on Goan beaches in the 1960s. Twenty years later, experiments with electronic music and psycho-active drugs spawned Goa Trance, which later evolved into the global music and lifestyle phenomenon, known around the world today as psy-trance.
However, the hippy vision of the Goa parties – a coming together of people in ecstatic union with the music and the earth, reminiscent of the ancient rites of tribal peoples, seems corrupted beyond repair. On New Year’s day at Disco Valley on Vagator Beach, the first light gilds the smiling faces of the dancers, but the lines of caste that mar the sweetness of palm-fringed waters, are clearly drawn in the yellow sand – we, the monied white leisure and pleasure seekers; they, the wheedling business-wallahs, all-willing, for a price. In the crucible of tourist Goa, despite the ‘freedom-baby-yeah’ rhetoric, the haves and the have-nots collide and only money talks.
Eagle-eyed chai-mamas surround the dance floor, their jealously-guarded territory marked out with straw mats. They hiss and cluck and chide their clientele into glasses of chai and coffee and mint tea. Laid out before them – plates of coconut cookies, Rizlas, bananas, chocolate and rolls of bandage, torn off and used as safi to filter the ash from the traditional Indian pipe, known as a chillum, through which the Hindu babas and party punters smoke their marijuana charas.
Young boys work the crowd with chewing gum, Chuppa-Chups and water. Others scuttle crab-like around the heaving dance floor with buckets of water to damp the choking dust. They bow and scape their way through the moving forest of legs, clad in rags. A beggar woman, tiny babe in her arms, pulls at my sleeve and makes the familiar gesture of fingers to mouth, while the fluoro-daubed palms shake their shaggy heads in the breeze.
We could be on any of a hundred beaches around the world with their bamboo huts and sarong-sellers; their restaurants selling stoner standards of banana pancakes and banoffi pie; their greatest hits of Bob Marley and their courses in yoga, massage and reiki.
In Arambol village, women beat their washing by the well where chicks scratch amid the banana trees and bristling black piglets trot neatly by in single file, or flop in wriggling piles in the dust. The fishing boats bring in their catch at sunrise each day and the women and children un-foul the nets on the beach, throwing the tiny crabs and sea snails to the ravens.
But most of the people in the string of coastal villages now work in the restaurants, bars, shops and guesthouses that line the streets, catering to the torrent of foreign tourists that flood Goa each northern winter – families, middle-aged European couples on package tours and shoestring backpackers. Young Israelis, in their post-army bid for freedom, colonise whole suburbs around the palm-fringed beaches of Arambol, Anjuna, Vagator and Palolem and take the bends hard on their roaring Enfield Bullet motorbikes.
At night, they eat hummus and drink VB in guesthouses strung with hammocks. They play Dylan and Credence songs on their guitars and sleep to the tsk tsk tsk of tinny bass through thin walls. And they cough, lungs rattling with the detritus of a thousand chillums, competing with the endless yipping loop of the dogs that punctures all of our dreams.
At the ancient banyan tree above the freshwater spring that runs down to a beach-side lake, just around the Arambol headland, Dorje, who is more likely Hans or Erich, struts like a stringy rooster in his g-string langroti. He utters a gutteral ‘bolinath’ – an incantation to the Hindu god Shiva, as we step into the hallowed heart of the ancient tree, surrounded by a sinuous mass of roots that spreads in every direction.
Later, spirited away from the ranting Dorje by a white dog, dyed an auspicious saffron by the Goan dust, we sit with our feet in the sweet water of the spring. An enormous butterfly lurches from the green to land for a moment on my forehead, like a black and red velvet bloom. In the evenings, the sea smoothes pink and silver as the belly of a fish and we watch it swallow the sun from the beachside shacks that grill yellowtail fresh off the boats.
Each Wednesday, the narrow roads that snake their way into the travellers’ village of Anjuna are choked with belching auto-rickshaws, Enfields champing at the bit and gleaming tour buses, as all of Goa heads for the sprawling flea-market, where Indians from far and wide come to sell spectacular regional wares at grossly inflated prices. Puffy white women in shorts descend the a/c coaches, clutching their handbags in horror as they are jostled from every angle by boys pushing armloads of jingling, glittering Indian tat, pleading ‘only looking madam, best price’.
However it’s not only the Indians seeking a share of the filthy lucre. At Anjuna, and the Saturday night market near Baga, many of the stallholders are Western expats, who live in India or come for the season to sell their handcrafted jewellery and funky clothing designs. Some compete with the Indians, selling Rajasthani silver and tribal embroidery. Goa’s freaks have turned their heads to business and are making a killing, or at least a living, from a new generation of India travellers, who will happily spend their foreign dollars on a memento of a hippy paradise that ran aground long ago.
We buy spicy pizza topped with fresh coriander and curd and glasses of green sugarcane juice and sit on the beach where a small girl walks on a tightrope for the upturned lenses of the Handycams and a gang of laughing children chase a drunk Englishman into the water in his clothes.
Weaving home on a sputtering Kinetic scooter, fat moon rising, past emerald green rice paddies where boys on buffalo wave and the sound of temple bells and smell of frying spices fills the air. Here is India – a santised, commercialised, romanticised India – one that at times, out in the brutal heart of the subcontinent, I long for with all my heart.