(Written in Anjuna – Mar 9th. Internet access here is very sketchy, so you’re seeing this a few days late!)
So I’ve arrived in Anjuna, in the northern half of the tiny state of Goa, stepping off the night train from Kochi in Margao/Madgaon further south and getting a prepaid taxi to the end of road by Anjuna Beach. 1100 rupees (about $25) and an hour and a half to travel the 60 kilometres from the train station, such is the state of Goan roads.
Goa is Portuguese India —as recently as 1961, it was still claimed by Portugal, and only ceded to India when the Indian army marched into the state. But the Portuguese had a pretty good run here, having first arrived at the tail end of the 15th century, and — by the way — hanging on to their Indian territory longer than the Brits did. There are still people living in the state who speak only Konkani (the local language) and Portuguese, with nary a word of Hindi or English (I’m guessing they don’t travel much in the rest of India).
The cultural influence of the Portuguese is still apparent here, giving Goa a flavour that’s very different from the rest of the country. The food is much more meat-oriented, and the chicken cafreal, a local specialty, is mouth-wateringly good. Some of the drinks appearing on menus are things I haven’t seen since Brazil (caipirinha, anyone?) with a few local twists: feni, the Goan specialty, is fermented from coconuts or cashews, and packs a lethal punch.
Some of the architecture dates back to the Portuguese arrival, most noticeably so in the towns of Old Goa and Panaji (the capital). Away from the beach towns, crumbling heritage mansions still linger, reminders of the lost glory of the Portuguese empire.
Here on the beach, however, it’s a different Goa yet again. And it depends very much which beach you’re on, which particular flavour of the Goan experience you’ll get. Head to Calengute and Baga (where I first went on my way down south), and it’s package-holiday central, overrun by European tourists on two- or three-week vacations and with the facilities to cater to these crowds. Oh, I had a good time there (a couple of very late nights out), but it could have been anywhere in the world; there wasn’t anything, particularly, to distinguish it as “India” instead of any other anonymous beach resort anywhere else.
In the south half of Goa, there’s a few beaches like that, too, I hear; Palolem gets referred to dismissively as “Palaga”, a reference to the hordes of lager-swilling British tourists who invade each year (and to the resort town in the south of Spain that has the same experience). There’s some quieter beaches as well, where you can kick back and relax without the throngs of people; a Vancouverite I met in Kochi especially liked off-the-beaten-track Agonda (except for the sea-bound stream which doubled as a sewer and cut directly across the beach).
Here, in the north half of Goa, it’s a mix; there are quiet beaches like Mandrem where travellers go to do a lot of yoga and gaze meditatively at the sea, and others (like Arambol or Vagator) that cater more to travellers seeking the non-stop party that used to be Goa. There’s a scattering of old Portuguese forts and churches in among the beach shacks, and a few high-end yoga resorts catering to moneyed people seeking enlightenment (or at least an improvement to their downward dog).
Anjuna, somewhere in the middle of the northern stretch of beaches, has probably the most storied history in recent memory of all the Goan beaches. It was a major destination for hippie travellers in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, who became known as the “Goa Freaks” and did a mind-altering amount of drugs on the long stretch of sand. In later decades, it became famous for its raves, particularly around the full moon, with a new generation of travellers doing different kinds of drugs as they danced till dawn.
That’s where I’ve landed for at least a few days. The season is winding down here, as it is in other Goan beaches, so it’s pretty quiet. There are hints of its hippie and raver pasts, but the present is a tamer, faded version of those. There are still tie-dye-wearing, dreadlocked travellers around, with a scattering of package-holiday tourists, and you could, if you wanted, still find drugs from hippie pot to raver ecstasy. Trance music still pumps out of some of the beach shacks (if I closed my eyes, I’d think I was back at a rave), and there’s a stage or two where you can hear musicians playing 1960’s rock.
But it’s not what it was, I don’t think. I still like it, and I can see the odd glimmer of the hippie past that I find so fascinating. But there are more cafes, more restaurants, more hotels, more shops ... and more tourists, period, than would have ever existed in Anjuna’s hippie heyday. Everyone’s a wanna-be (including me); few remain of the original “Goa Freaks” (although I think I may have spotted a few).
But I still like it, even if I can’t quite live out my hippie dream. I think it will be a good little home for a week or so. After that, though, I think I’ll head further north; I like what I’ve heard about Mandrem in particular, a quiet and peaceful little beach with a lot of simple huts to sleep in and an abundance of yoga classes to occupy your days. Last chance to soak up some serenity before heading back to the airport for my marathon journey to Delhi and then Toronto, and then the madness that is called the working world.
Real life. Huh. Not sure I remember what that is, but it seems to be starting to intrude. I had a message from my boss the other day, with information about a job opening he thought I might be interested in; I can’t even conceive yet of going back to work at all, never mind whether or not I’d want this particular one! So I might just have to think about it for a while.
In the meantime, I think I’ll have another Kingfisher, and write some more of the Great Canadian Novel, while I listen to the sound of the waves.