Waves and raves at Portobello-on-Sea: Once travellers in Goa heard music in their heads. Now they hear it on Baga beach - but not for long, writes Rose Rouse
Saturday 01 August 1992
Fortunately, I had been there before so I knew the perfect place to stay - Iskon (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness). The Hare Krishna temple has a hotel where karmis (outsiders) as well as shaven-headed, bead-carrying devotees are allowed to stay - something not too many travellers are aware of. Clean, welcoming and cheap ( pounds 8 a night but, naturally, no swimming pool), Iskon is in Juhu, the gentle beach side of Bombay, which is ideally positioned near the city's two airports.
The temple has impressive white marble towers, while the hotel is a cross between a red sandstone Gaudi creation and a university hall of residence. On my last visit, Boy George, a Hare Krishna fan, had sung here, much to the unabashed adulation of the devotees. This time the temple was full of Bombay families in their Sunday best, showing their respect to Swami Prabhupada, the now-deceased founder of Krishna Consciousness.
Unlike in Britain, where Krishna devotees are generally viewed as lunatics who dance down Oxford Street wearing very little but making a helluva lot of noise, in India they are highly respected. At this ashram the devotees are almost entirely Indian.
The Iskon even has room service although you do have to remember the correct phraseology: 'Hare Krishna, toasted cheese and tomato sandwich please, Hare Krishna.' Ensconced in my room - twin beds, an enormous Bhagavad- Gita but no satellite television - I decided to call on Narotaim, a former full-time devotee, originally Lauren from Buffalo, who tuned in during the Leary era and turned off during the Eighties. Now he had a full head of hair, sold incense around the world and was thoroughly disillusioned with organised religion.
Luckily, he was in and we wandered across Juhu beach together. A carnival- type atmosphere took over as the sun set. Camels, painfully thin horses and teenagers raced across the sands, itinerant vendors were selling everything from green coconuts and spicy bhel puris to future-telling sessions (Hindi only). There was even a man who had buried himself in the sand, only his hands jutting silently upwards, hoping to receive a few rupees. There were unforgettable red and yellow saris that dazzle through the darkness.
At 4.30am I was rudely awakened by uproarious chanting and painful tambourine playing. I had forgotten: the one drawback of the Iskon hotel is the 'spiritual ecstasy' that takes place at this unearthly hour every morning.
A few hours later I had finally arrived in Goa, famous for its all-night moon parties and dope-smoking, ageing hippies. More recently a younger, more hip crowd has brought in Ecstasy as well as techno music. One of the first sights I saw was a Drugs Dead End sign at the side of the road.
I was on my way to Baga beach in between Calangute, which had its heyday in the Sixties and Seventies, and Anjuna, where ravers with money now rented houses (after 20 years of tourism, there are only a couple of guest houses at Anjuna) and along from small Vagator beach where ravers with no money had built their own village out of palm leaves and splashes of neon paint.
Sea View Cottages, on the beach, were a bit basic for pounds 7.50 a night. Long- staying travellers managed to find rooms at 40 rupees (just under pounds 1) a night with a shared bathroom. My first visitor was Horst, a forty-something beatnik poet from Berlin. He immediately put a pair of 'trippy' orange sunglasses on me, waffled on about third- eye consciousness and told me about the house party he went to the night before. 'Chillum after chillum and no communication,' he moaned. Sounds encouraging, I thought pessimistically.
Baga beach was quiet but massively entertaining. With white sand, not the prettiest palms and a set of funky beach restaurants called Woodstock or Good Luck, the tourists ranged from a few package holidaymakers in pristine white floppy hats to ultra-hip young men sporting silly thongs. Thongs were the thing on Baga beach, and the most popular sport was bat and ball. Which led to some extremely funny sights.
A delicious fish curry (a Goan speciality, with lots of coconut, and costing only 35p) for lunch and a continuous stream of different sellers offering everything from Kashmiri papier-mache boxes to fresh mangos meant there was never a dull moment. On my way back to the room, Horst, who had by now donned green and black mood-enhancing sunglasses, grabbed my arm. 'Don't worry if you hear strange noises very early in the morning,' he warned me, ominously, 'it's only me hyperventilating while doing meditation.'
I had dinner out at Calangute with a couple of divorced British travellers who called themselves the Baga boys - they were here in the Seventies, when chillums and nudity were de rigueur. They filled me in on the party scene. 'The police commissioner changed on 1 January,' said Johnny, a middle- class roofer/hippie from north Wales, 'and he's banned mass parties. Thousands of people turned up at raves over Christmas and now they've decided to get heavy. They break up parties with guns and instead of a few hundred rupees' baksheesh, the police started demanding several thousand. The government is keen to get rid of low-budget travellers from Goa.'
So the parties were over . . well, not entirely. Just a couple of days before I arrived, there had been a rave in a fort in Maharashtra - having been frustrated in Goa, ravers had turned to the nearby state. At least 1,000 people on motorcycles and acid punch (cheaper than Ecstasy), listening to loud techno tapes and dancing all night. The real groovers set their alarms for 4am and got up to dance as the sun rose.
Wednesday morning, from the back of a motorcycle, I surveyed the Portuguese- influenced houses, the bougainvillaea, the buffalo, the dried-up paddy fields, the red, red earth and the Anjuna flea market, a traveller's institution. In among the palms, just back from Anjuna's beautiful beach, could be found mirrored red jackets and bags from Rajasthan, embroidered blankets from Gujarat.
Here was the hub of the travelling scene. A friendly French woman who had been on the road for six years gave me a Thai foot massage. Over in another corner, young Israelis held court around a mighty ghetto blaster. Some gave haircuts to fellow travellers while others who had bought stones in Nepal and turned them into necklaces were selling the jewellery for pounds 20. One girl showed off her newly shorn head; she hoped to sell the hair. Various Goans looked on, bemused by the commotion.
Anjuna market was half Glastonbury festival, half international madness. A Goan boy wanted a Danish hairdresser to turn his hair pink with Crazy Color; a German boy had a scorpion tattoo inscribed by an elderly Indian man. Meanwhile, a skinny girl in bright orange and yellow paraded through the market in funny linen boots with juggling batons protruding from her bag.
Chat on the chai mats (stalls where you could sit and have tea and cakes) was of how much Vitamin C you were taking and how long you had been up. Then there was the endemic 'guruitis', and not just among the oldies. I listened to one 'wise' Israeli boy tell an English girl who was buying one of his necklaces: 'Listen, you're not indecisive because of the weather. It's you, man.' The regulars who had been coming to this market for years complained 'because they've made it more orderly, they've put all the goods into neat sections which makes it less interesting'.
The sunset scene focused on the Shore Bar right on Anjuna beach. As the giant red ball sank in the sky, hands jerked into the air in a sort of communal goodbye as that ever-present German techno beat pulsated through the throng. Glittery leggings, tiny Lycra tops and lots of sweat. As the evening progressed, the movements became more frantic and zomboid. Finally, the hard-core ravers wandered off to find more music and I got lost in a now very black palm grove. Having tripped over a wall and down a ditch, I bumped into someone and asked for help. Back at his home, he had a moped and kindly gave me a lift back to Baga. Saved.
I was not so fortunate later, however. There was an undesirable 10- minute walk across a light-free beach to get back to my room. I decided to brazen it out. However, at a particularly black bend I heard footsteps behind me and a voice murmuring 'Hello, hello.' My every pore screamed DANGER. As he tried to grab me, I yelled in my loudest and most imperious bellow: 'Don't touch me. Get out of my way.' Miraculously, he ran off. My heart pounding, I resolved to move the following day. I was, after all, a woman on my own.
Arambol is two hours' north of Baga, an isolated but quite well known series of magnificent coves, coconut palms, fishing boats and old hippies. As the incoming ravers have occupied Anjuna with their free-market spirits, the older, more culturally aware hippies have retreated northwards, to the last bastion of nudity and 'traveller's' snobbery.
In a deserted beach cafe, a pregnant English dweller made a clear distinction between the long-term travellers who were staying in the village and the real thing, those who had built their own shelters way back in the jungle. 'It's easy, you make the floor from cow dung and the walls from palm leaves,' she sniffed. 'But you do have to be careful. Last year, thieves came and took everything. We caught one boy and tied him naked to a coconut tree to make an example of him.'
I strolled round the coves and eventually came to a freshwater lake where a group of naked young travellers sat playing guitars. One was caked in yellow mud and juggling. Elsewhere a family of German hippies were bathing, while red dragonflies flitted across the peaceful scene. I wandered back through the jungle to find the famous banyan tree where people gathered for afternoon music sessions. But there was just one solitary, smiling hippie washing his clothes in the river. 'All the Shiva- ites have gone off to Cochin for a festival,' he said by way of explanation.
Back at Baga, I found Villa Bomfim, a 19th-century Portuguese house with a wonderful veranda and ornate wrought-iron balconies. Amazingly, a much cleaner, more attractive room cost the same as the beach dump. The amiable owner, Celestino, was one of the few Goans who still spoke Portuguese. Here I was surrounded by Cosmos package tourists who went on endlessly about the cramped plane, the spicy food and other fascinating minutiae, but at least I felt safe.
Mapusa market is mandatory on Fridays. Tie-dye silks, sparkling saris, Tibetan necklaces, money belts, shimmering bed covers, chillis, crabs, garlands of marigolds and spider lilies - it was all here. The atmosphere was more authentically Indian than Anjuna's free- for- all. Orange-robed sadhus were begging proudly, heavily decorated ladies from Karnataka were plying their jangly jewellery. It was there that Heffi, a German who had been visiting Goa for 23 years and looked more like an Indian, appeared out of the blue. Sipping sweet lassis, he told me about Anjuna in the Sixties.
'People used to arrive and sleep on a bench in a chai shop for two months,' he laughed. Heffi, 53, claimed that he still took acid every weekend.
'I believe acid is a gift from God,' he said. 'I go walking up into the Himalayas, take it and have visions.' He still went to the raves, but remembered the days when everyone danced to the music in their heads. Presumably, they were also out of their heads. 'Mostly, I'm in my own mentality,' he said. 'Hippies wanted to be outside the system, the young ones want to be in it.'
Tito's bar at Baga was the main hangout in the evening. 'The beautiful people go there,' said the Baga boys disdainfully. And certainly there was a fair amount of crushed velvet and bohemian attitude. In fact, Baga has been described, quite accurately, as 'Portobello-on-Sea'. Those you might bump into included Serge, the French healer who was into Tao yoga, the various forty-something British India experts or Renato, the beautiful Brazilian boy.
Pinned to the noticeboard was the Partygoers Manifesto. Outraged ravers, had organised a non-violent demonstration in Goa's capital, Panjim, to protest about the ban on parties.
The demonstration was apparently a flop. The police managed to turn back and fine many of the motorcyclists who were trying to make their way there. Local newspaper editorials were incensed that foreigners should think they had the right to complain. However, the problem has yet to be resolved. The Indian Tourist Board still uses 'the parties' as part of its promotion of the territory.
Goa, most people here would agree, would not be the same place without those vital all-night grooves.
Flights: Inspirations East (0753 830883). Charter flights to Goa from pounds 380.
Getting there: a taxi to Baga beach costs 300 rupees (about pounds 7.50).
Staying there: rooms at Villa Bomfim cost 300 rupees a night. The address is: Baga Road, Calangute, Bardez, Goa.
Further information: Indian Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street W1 (071-437 3677).
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