Vagator, one of Goa’s coastal tourist towns, was said by our guidebook to have “long been the hot location for the outdoor rave parties that made the Goa party scene famous.” But on the day that we arrived, with only a week till Christmas, and accommodation supposedly jam-packed, it was deserted.
The restaurants were all empty, and shiny Christmas decorations hung feebly from the rafters. Rows of clothes and souvenir stalls stood redundant, their proprietors calling out from shaded straw mats, “Hey, how you doing? Just have a look…” in feigned American twangs, or “Yes yes, have a look… please madam!”
The guesthouses and hotels were only half full, but still charged exorbitant “high high season” rates – the locals believed that the regular horde was still on its way. We settled into a spacious tiled room, bright and clean; a delight compared to Mumbai’s Samrat hotel and its midnight vermin visitors.
I devoured prawn vindaloo, authentically Goan enough to make my sinuses march in protest. After lunch, we attempted to explore the small town, but soon retreated to our guesthouse. Besides endless rows of desperate stall owners, empty restaurants and small shops stocked with imported Western comforts, there was nothing to see. In fact there was nothing particularly Indian about the town at all, apart from the locals who manned the superfluous shops and stalls. Mumbai’s exoticism had provided hours of exploratory entertainment, and now, having gone through a kind of acclimatisation to India’s manic, colourful world, we felt disappointed with Vagator, and longed to be dumped back into the middle of the sub-continental madness.
At Vagator’s Main Beach, we found a small morsel of it. A hundred sari clad women ran into the sea shrieking, and stopped waist deep before hauling themselves out, saris weighed down by the water. Tour buses waited until the rainbow coloured ladies dried out in the sun, and drove them away with their husbands, outlines of soggy wet underpants visible on their trouser seats.
Further along the coast, Little Vagator Beach was a palm-fringed picture of foreigners sun-tanning, swimming, or playing with beach bats. Restaurants had been set up at intervals, just beyond a long row of deck chairs where people tanned, and ordered seafood lunches. Ladies with heavy baskets on their heads called out “Papayaaa! Pineapple! Mango!” and plonked themselves at the end of deck chairs to deliver dripping pieces of fruit, sliced with a shiny knife.
Intrepid cows casually sauntered up to the row of tourists, following their noses; one buried its snout in my bag of pineapple slices while my back was turned. Wandering cows were ubiquitous in India, and Little Vagator Beach was a glossy-brochure illusion that their arbitrariness defied.
“Sarong! Sarong!” a young woman called, carrying a pile of vivid cloth on her head. A tourist called out to her, began rummaging through the pile and asked the price, an eyebrow raised.
“One hundred,” said the sarong lady softly.
The tourist dropped the sarong she’d been holding and looked away.
“Okay, how much you give,” said the sarong lady said suddenly. Her eyes pleaded.
“Thees is stoopid price,” said the tourist. “I not stoopid tourist! Thees Fifty Rupees!”
The sarong lady lowered her head. “Fifty I no can do,” she said, disappointed.
“Fifty!” said the tourist.
The sarong lady looked at her for another price: a compromise. The tourist began reading her book, the sarong lady still perched at the end of her deck chair.
“Seventy okay,” the sarong lady said.
“Fifty!” shouted the tourist.
Slowly wobbling her head from side to side, the sarong lady released her grip from the sarong. The tourist handed her fifty Rupees – less than 60p.
I met the sarong lady a few days later, when she sat down beside my deck chair – just to rest she said; I had no need for a second sarong. I asked her about her husband: the short line of crimson powder she wore at the start of her middle parting classified her as a married woman.
“He is in Tamil Nadu,” she told me. “I am Tamil. I come to Goa to work, and go home during monsoon.” Thousands of Indians, Goan or otherwise, relied on the seasonal tourist trade – and it was the slowest season in years.
The beach, as far as we were concerned, was Vagator’s only attraction, and so we began daily pursuing its simple pleasures: sun, sea and sand. But after a few days of sun-worshipping, I began to feel the guilt of doing nothing. I wasn’t in the frame of mind to relax on the beach all day – it felt mundane. I kept wandering, bored, through the town’s clothes stalls, which other – I fancied – even more mundane tourists visited; not to browse, but to reinvent their wardrobes, becoming almost identically dressed hippy look-alikes, decked out in Indian cotton. In the evenings we ate dinner after a sunset beer.
Goa had a reputation for weeks of outdoor trance parties during its December-January season: 72 hour gatherings of international ravers who stomped the nights away among hippies, druggies and people like Iain and I, who just appreciated an interesting party.
Summertime in Cape Town for us had always meant driving a few kilometres out of the city to spend two or three days at some of the world’s most renowned outdoor trance parties, set amongst gorgeous orchards, below lush mountains. We had high expectations for the Goa trance scene – but, so far, there was not even a rumour of a party.
I clasped a cold Kingfisher, trying to ignore the ceaseless buzz of mosquitoes at my ankles; they seemed immune to the potent smelling coils that had been lit to deter them. My barstool faced Vagator’s main road, darkened and quiet, save for the steady vroom of scooters driving past. Most of Vagator’s male residents rode a scooter and for tourists, a motorbike or scooter was the crucial accessory to tattoos or dreadlocks. All the foreigners driving past took a right turn down a narrow road we hadn’t explored, so, beers finished, we decided to see where it led.
We walked for about fifteen minutes; thick shrubbery grew around the few houses on either side of the road. It was unlit, so we wouldn’t see a snake until we had practically stepped on it, Iain joked, playing on my fear. The scooters continued to drive past us. “There might just be a few guest houses down here,” I said to Iain. “Let’s just turn back.” But we went a bit further, and heard a faint bass beat in the distance.
Around the next bend was a swarm of people, bouncing gently in time to the raging bass of trance tunes; strolling between bars, restaurants and crowds that spilled into the street. Beers in hand, people chatted animatedly. Some sat at restaurant tables passing chillums that propelled marijuana smoke into the air, creating a herby haze that wafted from group to group.
We took the last two outdoor seats at a tiny bar looking onto the bustling street, and began excitedly gulping beers, astonished by our find. Chapora, the town, was more of a village: Vagator’s modest neighbour. It originally housed little more than a small fishing community, and is almost adjoined to Vagator, only a twenty minute walk away. The older brother of the two, and still a functioning harbour, Chapora’s quaintness had somehow won the crowds. Vagator – previously the guidebook’s favourite – had been rejected and was left empty; it seemed a cruel spate of sibling rivalry.
A short, stocky Brit in his fifties strode up to a battered black hifi and changed the CD: The Doors blared through the bar, and he pulled up a chair beside us. He wore ordinary Western clothes: jeans and a t-shirt; not the faded hippy garb of the Chapora crowd.
His name was Dave, and he’d visited Chapora every year for the last 32. “That’s longer than any of these people,” he said, in a sharp accent from London’s East End, motioning toward the other bars. “The Old Man of Chapora they calls me.” But there was no one around who might have called him that, at least that night; he was without company.
“I was the bus driver on the original Magic Bus,” he said brashly. “It stopped in India on the way to Kathmandu. Let me tell you, this place wasn’t always like this. There were no foreigners, no shops, no hotels. Lived on bananas, bread and peanut brittle for a month we did.” His tone was almost aggressive.
“You must have witnessed a lot of change here,” I said, and tried not to sound patronising.
He ranted on, telling us angrily, “If I see something… a problem… I fix it! You take my meaning? I fix it!” He showed us a tube of mange treatment he carried around with him, and insisted that it was only Goa’s animals that needed help. “All these women begging on the street, with the babies in their arms – it’s all a scam I’m telling you,” he announced, irritated.
“They asks you for money for milk, you buy them the milk at the tourist price, and they goes back to the shop and gets the money back.”
“What do they use the money for then?” I asked tentatively.
“Oh, they don’t feed the baby. They rents those babies from mothers coz they earn more that way!” He was shouting now.
We drank up and moved on, eager to find gentler company. A few metres down the road tables and chairs overflowed into the street outside a tiny shop, which was doing a brisk trade in Kings beers for only Rs25 – less than 30p. Sanjeev, the owner, wore a white vest and a sarong, and served purified ice with his gin and tonics, all out of this shoebox of a shop. It was little more than a corner shop, with a meagre stock of biscuits and crisps, two large stainless steel fridges, and the chairs and tables outside, brimming mostly with Germans. Next door, also brimming, was apparently full of Italians.
We met Achie, a slender effeminate man with a waist-length ponytail, who pursed his lips when we mentioned the aggressive Old Man of Chapora. “The one who zinks he know everything? I know zis man. Nobody likes zis man,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “We are coming here every season and are happy to see all the people again, but not zis man.”
Achie had spent every season in Goa for the past 26 years, and now lived in Chapora in an air conditioned house down the road. “I have been very lucky,” he said, when we asked what he did for a living. “I go back to Germany in June every year, for summer, because it is terrible here at that time –so so hot! Your clothes grow mould, there is never any wind, your skin is wet all the time – it is terrible.” His tanned face wrinkled.
We asked him about Vagator’s empty restaurants, the owners and staff standing forlornly outside. I thought that a fear of terrorism may have deterred people: only a few weeks before, a group of Pakistanis were arrested carrying bomb-making equipment on an Indian train – they were on their way to Goa.
Achie had his own explanation. “There are no parties,” he told us, despondent. Apparently the Goan police had begun enforcing a late night music ban. The nature of Indian law enforcement meant that late night parties could still happen, but ever more baksheesh was required to keep them from being shut down. Many new age hippies considered paying an entrance fee to an outdoor trance party – which went towards baksheesh for the police – unthinkable. Paying heartless currency to bask in the moonlight on the beach in an act of peace-loving unity under Mother Earth’s sky is very un-hippy-like, I supposed.
“This year I am leaving for Thailand on January 15th. The parties there…” Achie smiled. “They know: full moon party, new moon party, quarter moon party… All the time. It is very sad – this will be the first time I leave Chapora before the season ends.”
But not everyone had dismissed the threat of terrorism entirely: there were virtually no Israelis in Goa. There is a huge trance scene in Israel and many of the world’s best trance DJ’s are from there. December usually brought them to Goa by the thousands – but Israeli masses at an outdoor party would be an easy target for Pakistani fanatics.
The straggly haired man beside him – German Swiss – had remained silent throughout the conversation. Now, his artistry complete, he soundlessly lit and passed us a beautiful tulip-shaped joint – the petals delicately formed by the rolling paper which now kindled the slowly burning orange tip.
Despite the good company we’d met in Chapora (Dave, the Old Man of Chapora, excluded), the hippy-wannabes that zoomed around Vagator on their very un-eco-friendly scooters had begun to annoy, “lingering like a bad smell,” as Iain put it. We walked to Anjuna, a town four kilometres away, where there was a market every Wednesday. A few of the hippies had set up stalls there, alongside the Indians: not all were economic refugees, there to escape the necessity of work, in a warm climate, where the law could be bought.
Goa’s bohemian tribe, obsessed by looking different – yet wearing matching badges of belonging – were impossible to escape. And Iain and I could not help but be condescending of this cult that seemed to have no substance other than desperate non-conformity, superficiality and arrogance.
Our objections stemmed, in part, from an intolerance of attention-seeking show-offs, but mostly from our dismay at being treated like we were in some competition of cool. This crowd boasted about what drugs they took, turned their noses up at our European travels, and scorned our conventional appearances. We were made to feel, in some ridiculous way, inferior.
I clutched the bus roof’s sticky, swinging handle while the driver bumped along the road, flinging me around as he screeched on the breaks to pick up ever more passengers. My arms were shining with sweat, which left nowhere to wipe my trickling forehead – besides my shirt. I released the handle and wiped my brow, trying to prevent the salty sting in my eyes, and instantly fell into the man beside me who, luckily, stood only a few centimetres away. The rusted local bus was on it’s way to Panaji, Goa’s capital, in this skin soaking heat.
At Panaji’s bus station, it hooted the high-pitched tune of Indian buses: a combination of grating notes that forces you to seriously contemplate the bus driver’s murder. An artificial marigold garland dangled from the top of the windshield, above a framed picture of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, who always ensured a safe journey. And it was the picture, I suspected, that was supposed to protect our driver against his own refusal to stick to the left hand side of the road, obey speed limits, fear blind corners, and dodge oncoming traffic.
The bus station was a muddle of vendors selling sliced coconut, samoosas, fruit and vegetables and crispy fried dal (lentils). Men mixed the dal with onion, tomato, chilli and lemon juice on a tray balanced on a wicker stool, which they carried around on their heads. It was served in a soggy bit of newspaper, with a torn off piece of cardboard, used to scoop the tasty snack into your mouth.
Buses were parked in seemingly random places, and people shuffled slowly out of the way when one drove in; they seemed oblivious to the piercing hoots.
We walked toward the exit and passed a tiny structure that housed a painted statue of Jesus, his arms raised. In front of the statue stood an enormous red heart and a crucifix, marigold garlands – traditionally hung as offerings to the gods in Hindu temples – dangling from it. The building was lit up on the outside with an electric blue crucifix, and the fluorescent words Holy Cross.
The Church of the Lady of the Immaculate Conception stood, brilliant white, at the end of two roads, a neat park in between them. It was a majestic European presence in the midst of a dirty, litter-filled Indian city. Consecrated in 1541, it was in pristine condition, a silver bell gleaming from below the steeple, and had been decorated with star shaped lanterns, made from crisp white paper.
I noticed the unusual existence of pavements adjoining the wide, Portuguese planned streets, and the occasional white-washed building, incongruous, took me back to Lisbon, if only until a car hooted by, or the smell of urine reached my nose.
Panaji was the first port of call for voyages from Lisbon, so it was at this cathedral that the sailors gave thanks for a safe journey before travelling to Old Goa, the original Portuguese capital.
Old Goa, a short bus ride away, was once said to rival Lisbon in magnificence, but this was difficult to imagine wandering around the ex-capital, abandoned in 1843 after devastating malaria and cholera epidemics struck. A bronze statue of Gandhi, with his distinctive cotton khadi and stave, had replaced a statue of Camoens, a proselytising Portuguese poet, in the centre of a traffic circle, once a 16th century square.
The Basilica of Bom Jesus, famous throughout the Roman Catholic world, is Old Goa’s major tourist attraction, frequented by foreigners and middle class Indian tourists alike. It contains the tomb and mortal remains of St Francis Xavier, who travelled extensively throughout Asia spreading Christianity among the subjects of Portuguese colonies; today he is Goa’s patron saint.
Xavier’s three tiered marble tomb dominates the simple cathedral. It is claimed that Xavier’s body – which has supposedly been doused with quicklime – is incapable of rotting. Needless to say, the incorruptible body has generated a variety of interest over the centuries. His right arm, parts of a shoulder blade, and all his internal organs now lie scattered throughout South East Asia.
We wandered past enormous Roman Catholic cathedrals, many built almost five hundred years ago. The Portuguese buildings appeared to have been randomly planted in the tropical surroundings and little more of the town remained. The absence of houses was unsurprising; the population was sparse enough to give Old Goa the feel of a ghost town. This piece of Europe had been so carefully built, by people more than six months at sea from Portugal, and now it lay eerily empty, the buildings and churches steadily decaying.
Sanjeev’s shoebox bar was humming; we sat down at the last empty table. Achie floated from group to group, resting his chin on his hand as he spoke. A well-built man and his nondescript friend – both German Swiss – asked if they could join our table, as these were the last two seats at Sanjeev’s. They had just returned from a trance party at a large outdoor venue known as Hill Top: an Indian-organised affair that charged Rs1000 entrance fee for foreigners (about twelve pounds), but none for Indians. Close to the opposite had apparently happened an Israeli-organised party: they displayed ‘No Indians’ signs outside the entrance and the party was broken up by police. Many of the hippies had boycotted the Hill Top party that night; some had imitated the entrance stamp on their wrists with ink.
The well-built man began dextrously rolling a joint, while he smoked another. “I smoke joints like cigarettes,” he said, offering us one. “I smoke 110 grams a week. That’s nearly 6000 in a year.”
“Oh,” I said impassively. The Germanic efficiency that characterised his habit was quite extraordinary.
The man’s skin was tightly drawn over a sharp jaw. He said he was full of chemicals. He had been going to Goa for 17 years, every December, and had brought his friend along this time.
Iain shrugged at the figures. “Grams don’t mean anything to us. In South Africa, weed is sold in bank bags, and grown outdoors.”
The man converted the weight into ounces, eager for us to fathom the amount – it did not help.
“The charas here is not as good as what we get at home,” he said, with confidence. “I have to smoke much more here.”
His friend remained silent, nodding at what the well-built man said, passively accepting the joints that he was perpetually passed.
“Every year, after I am in Goa,” he continued, “I detox for a week. Nothing. No charas, no hard drugs, no alcohol. This way I keep my body strong.” I had to wonder how exactly it was that he went about maintaining his muscular physique.
“So, what do you do in Switzerland?” I asked him, eager to change the subject.
“Office work… It is a crappy job,” he said, just as eager to talk about something else.
He began telling of tales of India, mentioning several of its highlights. Now we listened intently.
“There is a temple where you can smoke charas… in the North. And Hampi is a great place.”
“Where else would you recommend?” asked Iain. “You must have seen a lot of the country in seventeen visits.”
The man looked down, and paused for a second before regaining his air of certainty. “Oh, I have plenty of time,” he said. “I am going to retire here in a few years.”
But he had never ventured beyond Goa. He flew in each year, and was driven to his guest house by taxi. Still, he felt confident telling us that he would retire there, at 45, and that our nine days in Mumbai had definitely been too long.
Simon, sitting at the next table, was English, in his early forties, and from somewhere supposedly green and beautiful between Nottingham and Manchester. A stone mason for half the year, he spent the other half living off his pounds in Chapora. His hair was shoulder length and scraggly, and his one-tooth-short smile was warm.
We told him about our journey, and although he had mentioned travelling a lot, he seemed disinterested. “Yuh know, you’ll see…” he spoke with a lagging lilt. “When yuh get home after a year or two… or however long its been… people will listen to yuh talking about the world, and what yuh’ve seen… They’ll listen for a while… Boot fifteen minutes later they’ll be talking about what was on telly last night… and that’ll be it.”
He was another escapee of the West, trying to break away from his mundane life in England, but had nothing to fall back on: finances, talent, ambition.
“How old are yuh now anyway?” he asked.
“Twenty four,” I replied.
“Well, there yuh go… When you’re older you’ll understand… Yuh’re all optimistic now, but yuh’ll see… The best thing you could do now is buy yuhself a big piece of gold – yer from Souf Africa, right, it’s cheap there – and in a few years yuh’ll have a nice chunk a’ cash for yuhselves.”
It was beyond amusing. After all, Simon did have about twenty years on my twenty four: and during those twenty years, he’d come to the realisation that he didn’t want to work anymore, and had managed to deposit a few illegitimate kids over the planet. He may have even had a stash of gold hidden in the bottom of his sock drawer.
Fireworks sounded, and everyone turned to face a roof across from Sanjeev’s. Two tiny Indian men ran around on top of it, dodging sparks that spurted from the cheap, hastily lit Indian fireworks, which flew recklessly out of flimsy holders. The crowd that had assembled below the roof began backing away from the flying sparks, laughing nervously at this alarmingly dangerous display. “Happy New Year!” people shouted.
The sound of trance music and Westerners that surrounded me were familiar, and I found myself wondering what kind of fireworks displays were happening thousands of kilometres away: where Vasco da Gama stopped en route to India, where the Indian ocean meets a peninsula on Africa’s tip.
If you enjoyed Goa’s Haughty Hippies, subscribe to email updates or our RSS Feed. You'll be notified when we next publish a story about the Old World.