my life on Goa's beaches
Goa in the 1960s and early 70s was the ultimate destination for
travellers weary of a materialistic west
The Observer, Sunday 28 March 2010
As the sun went down on Calangute beach, a gathering of skinny,
long-haired, bead-wearing, tie-dyed, bell-bottomed westerners would
inhale deeply, gaze out at the horizon and break into a round of
applause. Sunsets were, if that is not a contradiction, a high point
of the day in Goa in the 1960s and early 70s. A transcendental
spectacle for free.
There and on the neighbouring beaches of Colva, Anjuna and Baga,
sleeping in the open air or on the bunk beds of the sparse hotels
that dotted the endless coastline, were a few hundred Danes and
Britons, and Californians and Germans.
Some were the true Beats who had been there since the 50s, quietly
integrated into the village life around them. People like
Eight-Finger Eddie, who looked after the lost and the spaced-out who
had arrived in their wake. Some were American draft dodgers or
Vietnam deserters with faraway stares and heroin habits.
More had arrived as part of what became known not by its
participants as the "hippy trail", which would leave London on the
Magic Bus and make its way through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and
Pakistan to the Shangri-la of Kathmandu. As winter arrived in the
Himalayas, the travellers would head south to Bombay and take the
overnight ferry to Goa, sleeping on the deck beneath the stars. Paradise.
For a very few, Goa became home. For more, it was a last port of call
before a return to a more prosaic life in the west or a resting point
before the journey continued. Their presence was tolerated by the
hospitable locals and their impact on the economy and way of life
Goans would watch with amusement the yogic meditations and the
earnest arguments over the true meaning of the lyrics of Bob Dylan's
Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. For a country that had observed the
antics of the colonial Britons and, in Goa, the Portuguese, the
latest arrivals often seemed a puzzle with their buffet approach to
religion a Buddhist locket here, a Ganesh pendant or a Sikh
bracelet there. "What is your purpose?" was an oft-asked question.
But, beyond setting up the occasional cafe selling mango-flavoured
lassis, little was required to accommodate them. It was possible to
live for months on a few quid. A bed in a shared bedroom could be
secured for six rupees a night. "Imagine no possessions" was a creed
as well as a line in a John Lennon song. Fresh fish, coconut rice.
Paperback copies of Hermann Hesse and Rabindranath Tagore, William
Burroughs and the Bhagavad Gita were swapped. Battered tapes of Ravi
Shankar and the Incredible String Band were played. The I Ching was
consulted for advice on the next move. Disconnection from the west
was complete; the only contact the occasional airmail letter-card at
the Poste Restante in Panjim.
There were casualties: hepatitis, an occasional overdose, an
over-eager desire to leave behind the samsaric values of the west
which sometimes led to the ritual burning of a passport. In general,
the mood was benign. The travellers were thin in number as well as
body and most were more interested in extracting something from the
culture painful nights spent listening to sitar practice than in
imposing their own. There was little overt tension with the Goan
population, although the view may have been different from the other
side, confronted with the sexual permissiveness of the new arrivals.
Goa today has changed beyond imagination. Beaches once deserted
except for a few fishermen and a couple of meditating Dutch dopers
are packed with rent-out loungers from tide line to road. Jet skis.
Man City v Spurs live on satellite TV. Copies of the Mail and Express
are on sale everywhere, with baleful reports on how foreigners ruin
Britain. Criminals from eastern and western Europe deal in property
and corruption, launder money, sell knock-off fashion and every
variety of drug. Goan environmental groups have resisted valiantly
but the tide has been against them.
The Magic Bus is long since garaged, the "hippy trail" pockmarked by
IEDs and Goa reached direct by charter flights. Travellers arrive now
not in their tens but in their tens of thousands. Some surely still
find the old magic. Paradise, perhaps not lost, but mislaid.
The Paradise Trail by Duncan Campbell is published by Headline