A Travel Diary From Goa

Perched on a small dune overlooking Goa's Anjuna Beach, my attention is split between crashing waves from the Arabian Sea and topless tourists from Eastern Europe. Each wave seems higher than the next, small swells giving way to five- and six-foot breakers that arrive with a thunderous announcement that momentarily drowns the hubbub of the crowded beach. My grandmother, in her typical endearing but patronizing way, had warned me of the rough waters on the Arabian coast. Not a word had been said, however, of the coast's scantily clad denizens.

I had not arrived by chance at Anjuna, a small fishing village also home to Goa's most famous and iconic beach. It was here that Goa's reputation as a hippie- and hashish-laden haven was forged, a legacy that outlasted the zenith of hippiedom that drove Goa's tourist industry in the previous decades. Today, what remains is largely condensed to the weekly flea market at Anjuna that, not surprisingly, is most popularly known as the "Hippie Market."

It is said that anything can be found at the Hippie Market, from the most inane handmade trinkets to the most archaic trance hits. I'd made a visit there the previous afternoon, finding a little treasure of my own along the way: a Sammy Sosa rookie baseball card, with the Dominican slugger in White Sox gear and all, potentially authentic and definitely out of place in cricket country. How the card arrived on the Western coast of India is a question that my seller, a wrinkled man from Maharashtra, made no effort to evade. "He was here, once," he said simply, in broken English and with an indifferent shrug, although his teasing smile belied a more believable story.

As a student of India's colonial past and postcolonial present, I am reluctant to make reference to the country as a cultural contradiction, for the label, perilously reductionist, seems typical of a Western perspective of the Eastern other. Sitting where I was in Anjuna, however, not five yards from a Corona-sponsored beach bar, I couldn't help but think exactly that, of Goa as something of a contradiction, a state trying to find itself in a rapidly growing and increasingly powerful country. Something in the neighborhood of two million tourists come to Goa annually, many of them from abroad. The area's notoriety with foreign tourists dates back to the late sixties, when The Beatles made their famous journey to India and stopped in Goa, where, to paraphrase Lennon, "We dropped lots of acid."

The state's economic ecosystem has sought to find equilibrium between the adventure-hungry hippie and the beach-seeking tourist. Indeed, a short walk from Anjuna Beach is Fort Aguada, a former Portuguese fortification that has been transformed into a luxury beach resort that bills itself as a showcase of the spirit of Goa.

After a morning and afternoon in Anjuna, I set off down the beach to the luxury hotels down south near the fort. At Anjuna, the beach was lively: tourists jumped in and out of the water; amidst the chaos, a crew of elderly Indian men, shirtless in the shimmering heat, wildly zig-zagged across the sand, kite strings in hand and their lofty avatars doing battle above.

Closer to the resort, however, the scene was tranquil: rows of topless European women lay quietly in the sand, absorbing the generous rays of the Indian sun. It was an odd sight to see bare breasts displayed publicly with such ease in India, a seeming affront to a culture that still balks at kissing scenes in Bollywood movies. But I was in Goa, after all, a confluence of tradition that builds upon years of Portuguese rule and a steady influx of American and European sensibilities.

Indeed, half-naked women did little to pique the curiosity of the local Goans who patrolled the beach, selling water rides on jet-skis and minute-massages. As I walked closer to a group of them, seated in a haphazard circle around the embers of a dying fire, they broke off the conversation in their native Konkani language and hailed me in English, perfected after years of soliciting tourists just like me.

"Hey! You! Water-ride, 150 rupees!" One of them detached from the circle and jogged towards me, pointing to a jet-ski calmly bobbing in the ocean. I hesitated. After all, I told myself, why risk the rest of my trip to India on a rickety jet-ski in choppy seas? I declined, and the Goan shrugged. "I'll be here tonight and tomorrow if you change your mind," he said simply, and he returned to his colleagues seated in the sand.

It was apparent that the beach was not only where he worked by day, but also where he slept by night. The afternoon's tourist playground was his nighttime resting place. Far away, in the direction of Anjuna, echoing dance beats softly made their way to my ears; a dance party brewing, no doubt. Ahead, a waiter from the resort deftly carried a platter of drinks to waiting patrons on the beach. And, somewhere in the middle, the rest of Goa was there too, just getting by.


Rahul Malik