Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Hippie Days are Here Again

(Written in Anjuna – Mar 11th)

Anjuna Beach. 

Hippie capital of India, former home of the Goa Freaks and trancehead ravers, and scene of countless volumes of drugs inhaled, snorted, swallowed or injected; still living on the infamous but fading glory of decades gone by and drawing travellers like a magnet to what-used-to-be.  My home for a few days, perhaps a week, as I further indulge my inner hippie (who, by the way, is never buried that far beneath the surface — my corporate-world self is only ever a veneer).

This particular beach, somewhere in the middle of the northern beaches, has probably the most colourful past of any Goan destination.  It was a mecca for young Westerners in the hippie heyday of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s — the “Goa Freaks” who lived on the beach and did a mind-altering amount of drugs on its long stretch of sand.  A couple of decades on, raves took over the scene, with a different generation doing different kinds of drugs as they danced under the moon.  (Right ... why didn’t I come here then, back in my rave days?)

Now?  Traces of its past exist, but they’re getting harder to find.  The famous flea market still runs every Wednesday, sprawled over a vast spread of land at the south end of the beach, and you could spend an entire day there without managing to visit every stall. But these days, for the most part, all those hundreds of stalls sell a hundred varieties on the same tourist things; good if you’re looking for that, but not particularly hippie any more.  There’s a little bar in the middle of the market, though, that clings to its hippie heritage; grey-haired pony-tailed musicians belt out an array of 1960’s tunes from its miniscule stage.

The drugs are still here, I think; as I walked back from the market the day I arrived, people kept calling out to me, “Smoke? Smoke?”.  And I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean cigarettes.  A British guy I met today told me that you can still find stronger stuff than marijuana; he’d managed to procure some acid and was going in search of ecstasy tomorrow.  I think I’ll pass; I have nothing against drugs in principle (and I think we might solve a lot of problems for ourselves by removing the criminal element from drugs, legalizing and standardizing their production).  But I’m not here for that; I just want to chill out in peace (and, er, not run the risk of Indian jail time).

My hotel, one of many on the shallow cliff overlooking the northern end of the beach, is very cheap at 250 rupees (about $5) a night.  It’s nothing fancy — just four walls, a fan, a bed and a tiny bathroom without hot water — but it’s enough.  And there’s a gorgeous common area overlooking the sea, with lounges to recline on as you gaze at the view, chat to the people on the next couch over, sip your Kingfisher, or whatever else strikes your fancy.

Along the cliff and down the beach, there are cafes and restaurants and cheap hotels a-plenty, interspersed with shops selling the usual tourist wares of Indian cotton dresses, Kashmiri shawls, Tibetan jewellery, and other assorted “authentic Indian handicrafts”.  The infamous Anjuna flea market is still running as it has since the 1960’s, every Wednesday over a vast area at the south end of the beach; these days, though, it sells more touristy souvenirs than anything else, with hundreds of shops offering variations on the same theme.

Away from the beach, dirt paths and twisting back roads lead to cooler haunts in among the trees, cafes where they’ll let you lounge all day for the price of a lemon soda; I’ve found a couple of perfect spots to camp out and write.  Along the main road leading away from the beach, there are more restaurants and shops, with a few travel agencies if you’re into organized day tours instead of bumming around on a scooter.  There are no ATMs, but there’s a few places that will exchange foreign cash for rupees, and one bank that will change travellers’ cheques in the most complicated way possible (more about that later). 

There’s even a grocery store — actually, two — which I haven’t seen anywhere else in India.  They sell an interesting mix of goods from pasta to spices to sunscreen; my favourite item, perhaps, is the “Barbie India”, a dark-haired (but still pretty fair-skinned) version of the infamous doll clad in a vibrantly-coloured sari.  There’s a mind-boggling array of alcohol on offer, from local beer and wine to more expensive imported stuff, some of it perplexing:  I can’t imagine there’s a huge demand for the 5700-rupee bottle of Krug champagne on offer, but you never know.  I tried Indian shiraz and cabernet sauvignon at a mere 240 rupees a half-bottle; quality was, well, about what you’d expect.

Anjuna Beach - almost sunset
All over town, cows wander the streets freely, and wind their way in among the beach chairs as they plod slowly down the sand.  Towards sunset, a group of them gather near the north end of the beach, laying down on the sand with their legs tucked neatly under their bodies.  There’s a few goats around as well (although not nearly as many as in Kochi), and a veritable army of scooters and motorbikes weaving crazily down the backroads and dirt paths (usually with a sunburned tourist or two aboard).  Walking down the street is a high-stakes obstacle course, as you attempt to evade the cows and goats while not getting mown down by the maniac drivers playing chicken with each other. 

It’s near the end of the season here, so it isn’t as overrun with people as it likely would be in December or January.  Most travellers are the solo backpacker kind, with a few package-holiday tourists wandering among them looking lost and bewildered by all the dreadlocks, piercings and tie-dye.  Some travellers come for just a night or two, but most come and stay ... and stay ... and stay.    For weeks, or months, or even years.

So, even if its hippie days are largely a memory, and whatever it might be now ... Anjuna’s still got some magic.


  1. I would totally like to try Indian wine. Want to bring me back some??

  2. Oh, and I want an Indian Barbie too!!!

  3. Wine, maybe (I have time to kill in Delhi airport so I'll check out duty-free)... but I refuse to buy anyone a Barbie.