Gurus, ganja and free love on the beach

Forty years on, a lot of Goa's original hippies are still here playing vigorous games of racquetball

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For the past couple of months, I've been addressing letters to a young absentee friend, care of Joe Banana, South Anjuna, Goa, India, without much hope of them ever arriving. I needn't have worried. I've just had breakfast at Joe Bananas. Freshly squeezed green grape juice, masala tea, egg chop - and am now confident that a letter sent via Anjuna's oldest and best loved café has as much, if not indeed a significantly better, chance of reaching its destination as a letter from London to Guildford.

For the past couple of months, I've been addressing letters to a young absentee friend, care of Joe Banana, South Anjuna, Goa, India, without much hope of them ever arriving. I needn't have worried. I've just had breakfast at Joe Bananas. Freshly squeezed green grape juice, masala tea, egg chop - and am now confident that a letter sent via Anjuna's oldest and best loved café has as much, if not indeed a significantly better, chance of reaching its destination as a letter from London to Guildford.

This is more of a fact-finding mission than a holiday, though with a picture-postcard, palm-fringed beach yards from my door it would take a stronger will than mine not to spend most of my time lying on it. The mission is to weigh up whether swapping a flat in Clapham Junction for a guesthouse in Goa is a sensible move or a totally unrealistic pipe dream.

I saw the tail end of a television documentary the other day about a retired couple from Lancashire who were planning to open a snail farm in Spain. They had found a more or less suitable location, give or take a few details like building a five-mile road, renovating a shack and finding out the Spanish for snail. Alas, the project had to be put on the back burner when the wife went in for a hip operation in Preston arranged so long ago she'd forgotten all about it.

My friends want to open either a guesthouse or a bar and have been viewing potential sites the length of the Goanese coast. The first question is, should they buy a roofless, dilapidated 19th-century Portuguese mansion complete with porticoed veranda for £20,000 or settle instead for a 15-year lease on a stretch of virgin beach for £800 a year and build something to their own design. The second question is where. Goa is a big place.

Four years ago, I spent a week in a tiny resort called Palolem, way down south near the Karnataka border. It was almost my last holiday ever. One evening we were sitting at a table in Palolem's only beach café watching a team of workmen put up the resort's first street lamp. It was very tall, made of concrete, and when, with difficulty, it was finally installed everyone cheered. We paid our bill and wandered off towards the market. Seconds later, there was a tremendous crash. Turning round, we saw that Palolem's first street lamp had fallen down, obliterating our table and the entire roof of the café.

In tourist years, that's ancient history. Palolem now has 200 beachfront restaurants, scores of luxury hotels, dozens of street lamps. The whole demography of tourism in Goa has changed dramatically since the first hippies started coming here in the 1960s in search of all the usual flower-power requirements - gurus, ganja, cheap sandals, vegetarian food, free love and sunshine.

Three small fishing villages and farming communities at the northern end of the state - Candolim, Vagator and Anjuna - bore the brunt of the hippies' invasion. Forty years on, a lot of those original hippies are still here. Most of the European men playing vigorous games of racquetball on the sand around me are as old as Victor Meldrew.

There the resemblance ends, unless he's taken to wearing a thong. As OAPs go, these Germans, Italians and Scandinavians are extraordinarily well preserved, tanned, muscular, athletic and a little daunting, especially the one who, instead of a thong, prefers to wear a single, rather small red sock. Whether for modesty or sunburn I couldn't say. He's English.

Last night, there was a massive techno trance party on the beach to celebrate Shivaratri, the birthday of Lord Shiva, one of the main Indian gods. South Anjuna is famous for these parties where the techno beat blasts out and kids with strangely dilated eyes dance feverishly all night, some with small children perched on their shoulders.

We opted out of that party and went instead to Eight Finger Eddie's 81st birthday party at someone's house. He's a bass player who's apparently been coming to Goa for more than half a century. When I told my travelling companion about Eight Fingered Eddie, she told me about a musician she once met in London who had "love" and "hate" tattooed in time-honoured fashion across his knuckles. Everyone in Anjuna, by the way, especially the Victor Meldrews, have tattoos all over their arms and legs, mostly flowers or gods like Ganesha, the elephant god. Sadly my friend's musician had one of his fingers amputated and ended up with the rather less inspiring message "love" and "hat". I don't suppose if he came to Goa anyone would notice; they are far too laid back.

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