New breed of hippies on the old India trip

Never mind the meditation, show us the way to the cheap drugs and raves. Charles Owen meets the new generation of travellers, more eager to chill out than 'find themselves'
Half a century after independence India is still scrambling towards industrialisation. For disenchanted young Westerners, though, it remains a refuge from the modern world. Today, 30 years after the age of flower power, the hippies are back.

Refugees from the chemical generation are heading to India to take in that heady atmosphere of spirituality, off-beat aesthetic experiences, a peaceful pace of life and cheap drugs.

But since young Westerners first arrived in the Sixties, the style has changed radically. Flowers are out and dreadlocks and piercings are in. Mass raves have replaced meditation centres and and people talk of "chilling out" rather than "finding themselves".

Many stay for at least six months, some for years: prices are so cheap they can live comfortably on pounds 30 a week. Most save before they go, others work as body piercers, Tarot card readers, reflexologists and aromatherapists.

These people know how to look after themselves. Sven, for example, is on the dole in Germany. Every three months he goes home and signs on. The money that accumulates in his bank account is enough to cover his plane trip and provide a comfortable life in India. He used to work in an office but got tired, he says, in characteristic hippie-speak, of "me me me, go go go".

Thorbjorn worked for four years as an "imagineer" in an advertising company, and made enough money to never need work again. He's 24 years old. His friend Rob pays his way by smuggling ketamin, the new dance drug in Europe, which is available over the counter at Indian pharmacies.

Zeeb is sanding a coconut shell when I meet him. He has been working on this scintillating job for three days and it will take several more before he is satisfied it is smooth enough to use as a bowl for mixing tobacco and charas (Indian dope). But for Zeeb, time is not of the essence. He sits outside his coconut-frond shack and gazes out over a perfect sweep of beach. "This place," he tells me, "is like a sanatorium. In the morning we sedate ourselves and in the afternoon do handicrafts."

In England Zeeb is a market researcher. His girlfriend Viki worked as a hostess in Hong Kong for a few months, long enough to fund a year away. Other popular ways to raise money include teaching English in Korea, working as dancers in Japan, and swallowing a few hundred grams of charas, wrapped in tape and sealed with beeswax, before boarding a plane for the West.

So attractive has this lifestyle become that parts of India feel like hippie resorts. Manali, in the foothills of the Himalayas, Hampi, a ruined city in the south, and Rishikesh, the meditation centre made famous by the Beatles, are crowded with cheap guest houses, chai shops with banana pancakes on the menu, and even places offering didgeridoos for hire.

But the region popularly associated with the hippies, Goa, is being abandoned by them. Now full of resort developments, it is no longer sufficiently laid-back for hippies.

The only people who seem pleased with this development are hotel owners and the police force, which has grown rich taking baksheesh from foreigners - usually in return for forgetting about drug offences.

The long-stay travellers might be moving out of Goa, but, in a sense, the hippies are still the shock troops of tourism, serving to open up new, unspoilt places.

Zeeb's beach, for example, has just appeared in a guidebook. A Japanese developer has been sniffing around, new, concrete restaurants are replacing the shacks, and there have been raves on a neighbouring beach. There are more people greeting the sunset with bongo drum rolls than there were last year.

But all this poses little threat to Zeeb's chilled-out demeanour. There will always be other beaches.