By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 14, 2008; Page A09
GOA, India -- The tie-dyed billboard states in swirled paint:
"Welcome to the Mother of All Indian Night Markets." Inside the
market, at twilight, Neil Young's bohemian mantra "Rockin' in the
Free World" fills the muggy air.
And market-goers find themselves swaying to the beat as they hop off
their motorbikes or step down from their cabs. A graying, ponytailed
disc jockey interrupts the tune and calls out: "All you lucky
hippies, shop well. We are here to rock India, baby."
So right at 7 p.m. on a steamy Saturday night, hundreds of
holiday-making Indian families joined hundreds of Birkenstock-wearing
young tourists to wander the myriad stalls selling hemp-fabric
hammocks, dreadlock extensions, sitars and saris, along with classes
for aromatherapy analysis, reiki and colonic hydrotherapy.
Shiny glass bangles, miniature statues of Hindu deities, giant
stuffed elephants bejeweled with mirrors and bright Rajasthani
fabrics, T-shirts bearing images of Mahatma Gandhi with marijuana
plants sprouting from his head. To Sam Andersen, 29, the market was
one of the highlights of this palm-fringed beach destination. The
compulsive shopper from England started sweating.
She could barely contain her desire to "buy everything" because "it's
so much fun here that you start to really believe you need the
Incredible Hulk sarong and matching towel, which has the Hulk but
also is printed with the Hindu god Ganesh."
"So brilliant," her friend said, examining a pair of sandals, which
had straps shaped like giant red lips. The shoe designer wasn't
bargaining -- there were plenty of customers looking for funky footwear.
"We make people too happy," said Arathi Menon, an apprentice for a
Goan shoe designer who was selling the aforementioned "kissing feet"
style along with floppy yellow, green and orange boots that look hobbit-like.
The Saturday night market is an outgrowth of a smaller flea market
started in the 1960s in Goa by broke hippies. Today there are several
night markets and a Wednesday market in the hippie enclave of Anjuna
beach with thousands of stalls.
"The hippies wanted to stay in Goa, bum around India for as long as
they could," said Alfred Wolfgang, 60, speaking through a mouthful of
brownie. At the market's food stands, he was holding forth about the
history of the place to a younger crowd. "So they sold their
bluejeans, they made lasagna, they played Beatles songs. They did
what they could at the flea market to be able to earn a little more
and stay a little more."
Gregarious, with thick, caterpillar-like eyebrows, Wolfgang is from
Long Island. He came to party in Goa decades ago, got hooked on the
place, and started making brownies and selling them at the flea market.
"The first Indian family to taste them back then -- and that was
before globalization -- well, they ordered just one and ended up
leaving with the entire tray," he said, himself ordering another
brownie from a young German couple who were selling them alongside
Wolfgang has long quit the sweets business and instead imports
espresso machines to high-end customers in Mumbai and New Delhi.
And these days, the Saturday night bazaar has expanded from a
foreigners' market to include merchants from across Asia. Hippie
purists say the market should have stayed small. But merchants say
they saw an opportunity and wanted in on it, even if they did have to
print a tie-dyed sari or put pot fauna on Gandhi's head.
On this night, a visitor could wander at 9 p.m. through the market's
labyrinth of stalls and find Tibetans selling mini prayer wheels and
singing brass bowls, Kashmiris hawking carpets and shawls, and French
women chain-smoking as they sell their designer "nomad purses,"
buttery leather handbags fused with tribal cloth, for around $200 --
Around 9:30, many Indians, who typically eat dinner late, line up at
the food stalls, many of which are run by foreigners. There's Goan
rice and spongy bread, soggy pizza, greasy ravioli, overstuffed
falafel and creamy but slightly sweaty tiramisu, along with ginger
tea, fresh lime sodas and the season's first mango juice.
At several stalls, Nepali teenagers sell burned CDs of Goan trance
music alongside Kurt Cobain and Bollywood soundtracks. At 10:15 the
disc jockey spins "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
Closing his eyes and swaying to the music, Nila Ales, 25, begs some
tourists from Germany to buy a bundle of incense sticks wrapped in a
Buddha-embossed silk sack. They look annoyed and head off in search
of beer at a nearby bar.
Nearby are star-shaped paper lamps, a Goan artist with hip and
colorful prints of auto-rickshaws, a cashew seller -- Goa is the
cashew capital of the world -- and homemade basil and thyme soaps and
lavender bubble bath.
At almost midnight, the DJ, his voice lucid, cheery and most likely
tinged with alcohol, sings out: "This is only a test," laughing at
the punch line he's about to deliver. "The next life is for real."