Out of India: Zombie-like on the beach with Eight-Finger Eddie

GOA - You don't find freaks here any more like Eight-Finger Eddie or Alejandro the opium-loving South American with the bull-whip, or even the German boy perched ever so quietly on a rock with a few feathers in his lank hair who, after a passage of ordinary conversation, confesses: 'Actually, I'm a bird'.

Since the late Sixties, Goa has been synonymous with hedonism. Sure, you got a few weirdos like Alejandro who used to roar out of his bungalow, draped in pelts and silver jewellery, cracking his bullwhip at anyone on the beach who obstructed his view of the sun melting into the Arabian Sea. But the vibes were good. Goa was the last stop on the hippie trail, after Benares where you went to get your mind thoroughly smoked with ganja. In Benares, holy men shared their chillum pipes and let you sit beside them on the steps of the Burning Ghats, watching the corpses flame on the pyres and the river flow. Then you recovered in Goa. You went naked on the beaches, smoked dope and partied.

But not everybody recovered. Eight-Finger Eddie would find them wandering, zombie-like, on the beaches with their wallets as gone as their minds. He took them home to an old Portuguese colonial cottage in the coconut groves and lured them down from their lunar orbits so they could remember their names and their parents' address, and help could be sent.

The hippies that survive look great. While the rest of us have been going pudgy behind desks with our only exercise sprinting up and down broken Underground escalators muttering to ourselves, they've been on the beach for the last 20 years playing frisbee in loincloths. My only consolation was that many of the hippies were losing their hair. Was this a result of tying their ponytails too tightly, having sex upside-down, yoga-style, or a link between marijuana and baldness?

Trading jewellery and tie- dye clothes, cutting hair or giving tattoos, many hippies tour the beach circuit to Ibiza in the summer and Goa in winter. Another migratory tribe descends on Goa from the Himalayas, carrying the season's harvest of hashish. The vibes went bad in the mid-1980s when Indian heroin - brown sugar - hit Goa. Rival gangs sprang up, fights broke out and the Goan police cracked down.

The police realised that busting a foreigner for dope and demanding a bribe to be released was a wonderful way of fattening their meagre salaries. Some Goan police indulge in shameless shakedowns of the young backpackers who have replaced the hippies. Nobody smokes hash openly in bars like Tito's and the talk is all of near-arrests and the best place to hide your tackle. Even the full- moon beach parties, with the drug Ecstasy in abundance, have waned under the police's greedy eye.

A remaining freak hang-out is Anjuna beach, a secluded cove. It used to be far from everywhere, but I could take a taxi up to the cliff and saw the hippies cavorting below. Tourists arriving in Goa by the charter planeload do the same thing: gawk. Some hippies were tossing the obligatory frisbee. A few were chiselling a sea boulder into a massive human head, but most were happily immobile on the sand. I felt as though I were watching the dwindling herd of an endangered species in a safari park.

Beside me on the cliff were Indian tourists, mainly men, who had come to see exposed female breasts. The Kama Sutra notwithstanding, Indian society is exceptionally prudish. It is difficult for the Indians to comprehend that the grandsons and grand-daughters of the British sahibs and memsahibs who once ruled them so primly come to Goa to get naked and lose their inhibitions. It makes many Indian males giddy with excitement.

Goa's racy reputation persists. Air India's posters show their mascot, a plump maharajah, drooling on his beach towel as a girl in a bikini walks by. The Goans, mainly Catholic and conservative, were enraged by this advertising campaign since it implies that Goan women are as fast and wild as the hippie girls on the beach once were.