Asia | India | Goa – New Year in the Hippie Hamptons
I arrived in Madgaon station in the early morning after watching the sunrise from my favorite vantage point, the open door of an Indian Railways carriage, while hardwood evergreens flashed past and a group of Bombay kids with perfectly coiffed hair lit up spliffs outside the toilets.
Walked into town and realized immediately the difference between Goan and Indian food — there’s all the spice and sloppiness that makes Indian food so lovely, but there’s also very, very good bread and coffee. Breakfast epitomized this: fresh baked rolls dipped into pea and potato curry, strong black coffee, and the sort of langorous clientele bouncing morning chatter off the tiled walls that you’d expect in a seaside town in Portugal. I love Goa.
Jill had left me with a rather cryptic message about a treehouse adjacent to a place some friends of hers from Pune were renting, on a beach a little south of Arambol. I bussed through Panaji and Mapusa, all the way to the northwesternmost corner of the tiny state, and started walking around, the only one for miles wearing shoes instead of sandals. Trudged along the beach asking skinny British girls and dreadlocked Israelis if they knew anything about a treehouse, or a short American girl with glasses and an enormous backpack and maybe a shock of brown hair wrapped up in a strip of Indian Army camouflage.
It took a couple more hours and a motorbike taxi, but I finally tracked her down half an hour after sunset as she was walking through the dunes near Junas Wadda after a swim in the ocean. The tree-house had been taken, to her chagrin, but another room in a nearby house showed up for three dollars a night, managed by a Goan guy named Papi and shared with a small tribe of Northern Europeans. We spent the evening catching up on the events of the past week and a half and watching the tribe struggle with their various highs. The chief was a whip-thin Swede eager to sell us MDMA and hash, but pretty ineffectual as he’d eventually offer for free whatever we declined to purchase.
Like most of the long term stayers in Goa, they were doing their own cooking, but unlike most, they hadn’t gotten around to obtaining a stove. Dinner was fished from the coals of a twig and palm-leaf fire and freed from aluminum foil with blistering hands.
‘Hello,’ said the chief to one of his tribesmen, concentrating on a half-burnt stick he’d fished from the fire, ‘Poking. Device.’ He slowly poked his friend twice in the shoulder and they both chuckled and then forgot about the stick.
The kitchen of the house had been used as a prep area a couple of times, but never cleaned, so by the time we’d walked into town the next day to buy some produce and staples from the market, then unbolted the door to the kitchen, we were greeted by piles of two-day-old burnt vegetables and hundreds of flies.
Fortunately, Jill’s friends from Pune had put a little more thought into their set-up and had a kitchen with an ocean view, a twice-daily maid service, and hearts big enough to give us free access to whatever we wanted to use.
With Jill’s and my arrival, the house probably hosted the highest concentration of North Americans in Goa. I’m not sure how it happens, but Americans and Canadians have this knack for all homing in on the same spot and engaging in the sort of instantly significant conversation that makes Aussies and Brits and everyone else uncomfortable. Within a few hours of being introduced, Zaki (from Hawaii), Achel (from Vancouver), Ken (from NYC, though working on a Masters in Pune for the past half-year) and Jill and I had dissected roomate politics, the purpose of religion, and the Osho phenomenon while swinging in hammocks and sipping mojitos.
Zaki and Achel supported their stay by running a makeshift massage clinic out of one of the spare rooms, advertised by word of mouth and a banner hung at the far end of The Front Yard, which was a stretch of sand fronting onto the dunes a couple hundred metres from the ocean. Business must have been reasonable, even in as out-of-the-way a spot as Junas, because they both had to knock off early that night in anticipation of a morning appointment, and decided not to raise the banner higher since that would bring in more day-trippers walking along the beach.
The next day Jill and I hired a motorbike. We did this the way you do everything in rural Goa, by asking around and sitting and having tea and sweets until the right person is summoned. Jill knows how to ride and I don’t, so we got a lot of stares from otherwise unimpressible Goans by being one of the only couples on the road with a woman driving and a man riding pillion. Sort of sunk into the roles as well: by day four, Jill wouldn’t start up the bike until she’d donned her shades and wrapped her hair up in the camo hairband, I sat demurely behind in an embroidered shirt, beads and a bucket hat, telling her to watch out for that pothole or that pig and worrying about how fast we were driving.
The bike did let us participate in one of the great pastimes of the Goa partying set: riding up and down the road between Anjuna and Vagator, looking for The Party.
There’s a Party every full moon, and at Christmas, and New Years, and any other time the DJs think they might get an audience and the dealers a clientele, and all of these coincided on the 30th. It was a full moon and the day before New Years, and after fighting with our Kawasaki/Bajaj 100 for a couple of hours to keep it from stalling, we finally stumbled onto The Party around midnight.
There are five or six typical venues for parties around Vagator, with not very imaginitive names like Hilltop and Banyan Tree and (big stretch this one) Disco Valley. Banyan Tree is a big banyan tree, hung with super-realistic paintings of lizards and aliens, decorated with day-glo paint, and festooned with the exact same fluorescent- orange stick-and-string geometric kinetic art you’d expect to find at a warehouse trance party in, say, Bloomington, Indiana.
The music was pretty similar as well, a straight unsyncopated 4/4 with lots of electronica in the background and very little acoustic sampling or variety….no prize for guessing I had trouble getting into it. Jill, on the other hand, fresh from five or six years of Rainbow Gatherings in the U.S., slipped into it like a salmon into its ancestral spawning waters, and quickly became the groovy center of the dusty dancefloor.
It only being 1am at this point, the crowd was sort of peculiar. Dreads and Om shirts and lots of Euroheads tripping and tripping, but also more perfectly coiffed Bombay boys (India is the only country I know of where men spend more time doing their hair than women) in conspicuous Adidas and Nike gear, and weirdest of all, middle aged tourists up from their package-resort hotel in Baga to have a look at the Local Color (namely, us).
This actually turned out to be one of the more interesting parts of the evening. One Indian man in his fifties, polo shirt tucked into white shorts and a couple drinks into the evening, bought Jill and I a bottle of water and asked us to teach him how to dance, and put some pretty good effort into it. The Adidas boys hit on Jill relentlessly and showed off their well-practiced moves. All around the edges, dozens of Indian women assembled comfort stations from straw mats and pressure lamps, selling chai, Rizlas, cigarettes, cookies, sweets and, curiously, falafel sandwiches to a zoning horde that consistently outnumbered the dancers about six to one.
Five minutes walk from the Banyan tree brings you to Little Vagator Beach, and I can’t think of a better chill-out space anywhere on the planet. By four, Jill and I were lying on the cool sand watching the full moon inch across the clear sky, time streaming by so fast the moon’s motion was almost obvious, like a snail that seems stationary until you really, really concentrate on it. We bounced back to the party, nursing blistered feet and twisted ankles and managed to dance another half hour by copping the low-energy bob that most of the other folks were using.
By sunrise we were on the bluff over Little Vagator along with a mobile tattoo parlor and a few dozen sedate Europeans, silently watching the sky change color as the lowering moon touched the ocean with silver and a little kid sold us strings of wooden beads for ten rupees a piece.
The bike ride home was maybe the best thing that happened my whole four-month trip. We whipped through the morning chill past rice fields and old Portugese churches, then rode the Siolim-Chopdem ferry as the sun finally shone full, with a democratically mixed crowd of Goans on their way to work and blissfully wiped-out foreigners. We stopped for breakfast at a roadside stand, then home finally, and slept through the whole of New Years Eve Day.
Jill woke up with a head full of snot, the latest victim of the cold she and I had been passing pack and forth since Pushkar, so New Years Eve was spent at the North American House. Bodie, a garrulous Brit sharing one of the rooms, turned out to be an unusually good aspiring DJ, and turned the speakers of his portable stereo out toward the hammock-strewn front yard.
Over the course of a few hours I learned of his disdain for Goa Trance music (“once you’ve heard the first two minutes, you’ve heard it all”) and his love for what he called Journey Trance (“you know, the sort of stuff that builds and develops and four or five minutes in takes it up to a completely different level”).
As the evening faded on, the music got a little sillier, the trance alternating with the occasional cheesy club anthem, then the soundtrack to “Rent,” then Bodie next to the campfire on his Indian-built acoustic six-string. Goofy, but somehow the perfect accompaniment for the evening’s activities, which mostly consisted of rolling hash joints, snacking, chatting, and setting off the cheap and legal fireworks that were our only indicator that midnight and the New Year had finally come. There wasn’t a watch among the five of us, so when we were stirred by explosions all up and down the shore, we blinked a couple of times and wished each other Happy New Year.
Happy New Year.