The Place That Changed Me

Tom Thumb: Now 23, the travel writer recalls his first encounter with Goa and its seekers of spiritual truth
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The Independent Travel

I was 18 when I first went to Goa. While I didn't have any major expectations, I knew I wanted to experience some spiritual truth and within days I realised that here was a special ambient place with a strange magnetism. More psychedelics have been taken in Goa than anywhere else and you can immediately feel it - it adds to the land's aura.

I was 18 when I first went to Goa. While I didn't have any major expectations, I knew I wanted to experience some spiritual truth and within days I realised that here was a special ambient place with a strange magnetism. More psychedelics have been taken in Goa than anywhere else and you can immediately feel it - it adds to the land's aura.

I immediately loved this intense rural landscape, the spread of bamboo façades on houses, haystacks, palm trees, rice and coconut shells drying in the sun, the cows, pigs and crows, the fishing boats - it's a natural woven effect where one part can't survive without the other, and you get caught up in it. I could see it was a place where crazy things happened and where minds have been explored away from European reality.

Within days of arriving on the beach scene, I was fortunate to meet a 65-year-old Sufi who introduced me to a circle of Western people in a remote part of north Goa who had been living a totally different life there since the Sixties. I realised that it's the kind of place you can't just wander into, you have to sincerely want to open and explore your mind and be invited to join others doing the same. You're a guest to their rich experience.

And, quite comically, it was literally impossible to just wander into, without directions, which went more or less like this: "Go along the beach here, past the herd of cows, straight past the bushes, then turn left at the palm tree..."

It sounds a bit of a cliché or old-fashioned, but these people live the "older way"; folks who have hitched to Goa from England or gone on a one-way ticket, without traveller's cheques or insurance. And while I think they were amazed that an 18-year-old was interested in spiritual questions, they gave me guidance and exercises to explore my mind.

They had totally abandoned the material dream and lived with no car or house. I joined them and it was amazing to sustain this reality. I slept on the beach and managed to live on about a dollar a day, earning my way by giving people guitar lessons and massages.

An important Goan experience for me was my Sufi teacher who taught me self-exploration through dancing on the beaches to the rhythm of the sea. I spent a lot of evenings, especially under a full moon, from sunset to sunrise, just dancing to the waves. Occasionally, this was fuelled by acid.

It's a sacrament drug and very much part of the Goan life or, rather, the Goan lesson on life. It sums up such a positive aspect that Goa can stand for - community and the loss of the ego. Once or twice a month people gather on the beach to dance and, like a form of congregational worship, they will be drawn out of themselves and come together in a high moment. In the furnace that follows, a lot of pretentiousness is burned away. They become younger and more fresh.

Goa is a tolerant place for this strange stuff to happen, especially for the white man whom local communities regard now with a benevolent detachment. I know it's possible for people to lose the plot in a life like that, but that is the price of freedom, a life without Western perimeters to hold you prisoner.

Tom Thumb is 23. His first book 'From Hand to Mouth to India', the story of his hitchhiking from England to India with no money at all, will be published by Alchemy Books on 26 June. Extracts of the book can be found on www.tomthumb.org.

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