While Josephine focuses on braiding a coat of hemp rope over a stone, Andreas stretches his legs on the deck chair. Psychedelic music plays atypically quiet from a speaker in the background and, in a way that resembles more a Sunday afternoon than a Tuesday morning, Andreas opens a can of beer and calls me to join him under the customized shade in front of their van. ‘There gotta still be some real old-school hippies in Goa’ – he muses optimistically. ‘Oh, yeah, that’s for sure!’ – reply I almost automatically in the vein of a supportive, rather than engaging type of conversation. However, the first thought that crosses my mind upon his comment should be more accurately translated as ‘Well…if “hippie” trousers with elephant patterns have totally flooded the markets of South East Asia in exact equal measure to 7/11 stores, we have probably reached the point where real hippies are exhibits in a gallery of antiques’. But why to be uselessly negative on a beautiful day in our sweet disney-land travel through the paradise of Thailand? Why to spoil the day? The sun shines and beer is cold. ‘Sure, there may still be some old hippies hiding in Goa, it’s probably just a matter of searching and finding them’. But who were the real old-school hippies anyway?
The Spirit of Goa
Half a year and many vehicles later we find ourselves by the roaring shores of the Indian Ocean. It is late monsoon, the air is humid and the walls of the colonial houses and churches are mouldy and damp. Sweat runs in torrents down our bodies, but we are quite content with the sticky heat and the thick rain. This is precisely how a tropical journey is supposed to feel. Jack rolls a spliff, the fourteenth for the day. He looks out of the balcony with a serene smile. Below, the empty street it is all quiet, only a few friendly dogs wag their tails and pant with sticky tongues under the swaying coconut palms. Off season Arambol is as charming as it gets. Colourful birds sing their songs, and the air smells of tropical fruits and hash. Monsoon has not fully left yet; the skies alternate grey and blue, while the waves of travellers are still either counting the days to their flights or are just about to book a long train journey southwards from the Himalayas. ‘So empty, slow and silent. Quiet and… boring’ – comments Jack. – ‘Oh, well, what to do?’ – he concludes with his favourite rhetorical question. But his observation is not quite true. Next to us sits Darya, a girl from Mumbai that had grown up in Arambol, and is an epitome of bouncing energy who knows no silence and no slowness and is always plotting something to do, some party to go, some friends to meet, some drugs to take…
‘That’s so bad! No spirit in Goa anymore! In season it is better but not quite. And it is all cuz the hippies, the real hippies, they are all gone, you know.’ – she jumps into the conversation – ‘Oh, the hippies of the old times, they animated this place all year round!’ ‘They really lived in nature, camped by the beach and ate from wooden spoons they had carved from branches on their own! Can you believe it? They lived happily and free and parties were real good ones, not like the clubbing nowadays…tripping, dancing, fire… and have you heard of headphone parties? People were family, really, proper Goa family‘ – Darya paints a truly romantic picture of a time gone by in this part of India- ‘I was born and bred here and I promise you, man, all that Goa was it now gone’
‘Where are they gone? Where did the old hippies go?’ – we ask, hoping to locate the elusive characters.
‘Just gone and mad and broke and dead.’ – comes the hammering reply – ‘Some burnt their brains and got completely lost, others left because business destroyed their back-to-nature paradise, some actually went on the dark side and became fucking capitalists themselves. Many are probably dead by now…’ – Darya summarizes briefly in her own words and view the faith of the hippie movement, and tells us some creepy stories of drugs and murder and madness.
Her personal aura of insanity makes us question her sources and slightly doubt the veracity of all her information. And yet, we cannot deny she may be making a few good points. It would not be a surprise if some people had overused hallucinogens to a point of no return, and it is not an exaggeration to say that while some kept moving across Asia in search for secluded corners and peaceful faraway beaches, the most entrepreneurial of the travellers opened their own bars and hostels or wrote commercial guidebooks that became backpackers bibles. While few of the now older, and still long-haired and bearded, hippies of the past that Darya recalls, still roam around the same paths, others own tiny shops stacked with Indian jewellery or clothes, run yoga centers all over Europe or simply drink beers in neighbourhoods back home, dreaming of past sunny days by the Indian shores.
‘I used to wear pink bell-bottoms and long hair when I had any and travelled to India, and Morocco, and made a living selling crafts…’ – would tell us Pete over a pint of ale – ‘I travelled to India overland and back at least 6 times’. The stories of the infamous hippy trail would mix in with the noise of football fans on any winter Sunday at our local pub in Sheffield. He would speak of borders that are hard to cross now, of travels to an Afghanistan that is long gone, of overland journeys that would wake up our wanderlust when our own way east was just a dream. And now that Sheffield feels far, and we have reached the hippies paradise, we cannot fail to wonder who were really those hippies that are supposedly gone? We hear someone speaking of the Goa family that comes together with the season, and wonder whether ‘hippie’ might not simply be the sort of loose but convenient umbrella-term that generalized many different groups of travellers? And actually, was anybody gone at all or simply one generation made room for the next one coming? In Goa, ‘hippie’ is an ever trending word, so soon we were sure, we would come to know more.
Sadhus and hippies under a banyan tree
Every day we walk the deserted beach back and forth in the company of a gang of dogs, following a diet made up of liters of coconut water and kilos of watermelon. We watch the merchants in Arambol get ready for the new season. Many of them tell us that they come for the tourists all the way from Gujarat, ‘a state of highly developed business flair’, somebody proudly explains. Stalls of clothes, bags, notebooks, sleeping sheets, carpets, organic products, psychedelic paintings, marijuana accessories and dreadlocks maintenance services bring life to the seemingly abandoned bamboo and tin huts. There is hardly any other foreigner roaming the streets of Arambol so we have to politely decline daily shopping invitations. ‘Come see, now just see, no problem. But tomorrow come back and maybe buy. OK?’, ‘Be my first very good luck customer, please!’, ‘ Promise tomorrow come dreadlocks fixing!’ – the sellers try their luck every day just in case. At some point, just as always, our cat companion, Burma, brings us into a more detailed conversation with one of them. Having a cat perching on your shoulder like a parrot, is almost a guarantee for special encounters.
‘Sir, you have babies?’ – comes a casual chatting up question.
‘No, not yet.’
‘And this cat have babies?’ – somebody must have babies at the end of the day
‘Maybe later. Many good cats here…tomcats, sir.’ – left eye winking naughtily in combination with a self-explanatory laughter.
‘I am afraid it is not possible, because…’ – He does not wait for an explanation.
‘Sir, you don’t worry about it. Only God decides. He sits on a big white chair in the sky and points with his finger – this one – no babies, 3 years life; this one 5 babies – 77 years life; this one 3 weeks life… – and like this, God only. What is your God, sir? – the conversation takes a dramatic turn after such a revelation of unexpected secrets.
‘I don’t have a God.’
‘Not possible! God is everywhere! You know our Lord Shiva? He has ‘yata’ (dreadlocks) like you and also like our Indian sadhus. You never see holy sadhu?’
‘I have seen, but I still don’t believe…’
‘ You have seen fake ones. Here, under the Banyan tree, there is a fake sadhu.’
‘How do you know he is fake?’
‘One time I go there to ask for blessings, but he doesn’t speak to me and hugs blonde hippie girls. Not good, sir.’ – I agree that it does not sound very kind of a religious person to ignore the attentions of a devotee… but I am more impressed by how, regardless the matter of the conversation, being in Goa and not mentioning at least once the magic word ‘hippie’ starts to feel almost sacrilegious. We decide to go to the Banyan tree and meet this fraudulent sadhu and hippie huger. It looks like that for some people the hippies in Goa have not vanished into the abyss of modernity the way Darya claims ‘them gone’. So maybe they are still here, tangible and interacting with the locals.
The Banyan tree is just about 20 minutes hike through a jungle path that starts from the Sweet Lake and the lake is a non-salty water pond 20 meters from the shore of the ocean. The lake is the territory of one of the local drug-gangs. Territories are pretty much divided when it comes to trade. Along the beach one can easily be offered stuff by the Nepali guys. Next to them operate the African guys, who all have Nigerian accent but claim to be from South Africa. Further down the beach are the Indian guys. Sometimes the groups fight, but usually they avoid conflicts and zone overlapping. ‘We want no trouble’ – somebody clarifies – ‘ We are normal people, and we are here to make a living. Just like the locals. So we have to respect each other.’
Wondering who offers the best stash for its value, we leave behind the Sweet Lake and pass the healing water stream, climbing slowly up to the Banyan tree which turns out to be a remarkable forest landmark. Giant, beautiful and awe-invoking, the tree is the perfect playground for holy men and…guess who? …hippies! Underneath its falling branches sits a half-naked Indian sadhu with a round belly and long white hair. He speaks with authority about the importance of the connection between man and nature and puffs big clouds of smoke from his chillum. He actually lives from nature and for nature, he explains. ‘Oh, that’s how it has to be.’ – we shake heads slowly and contemplatively, passing over the chillum with faces emerging and submerging into fume. ‘Do you know what’s that fruit over there? Is it edible?’ – we ask about some nice looking berries on a nearby bush ‘Mhmmm…I don’t know. But mangoes, they are my favourite fruit’ – everyone rolls his eyes picturing a pulpy mango. ‘Are there mango trees around? What else do you forage here? How far do you need to walk for water?’ – we keep asking, with true curiosity. The sadhu stops for a second his discourse of wisdom and nature and looks at us. ‘Actually, I don’t know. I don’t pick fruits form the forest, but people often bring me mangoes, coconuts and bananas as offerings. They are also natural, you know, organic from Goa!’ We sit down in silence, uncertain of the best way to keep the conversation flowing. Maybe the sadhu is really a fake wise man, but he still has a chillum so why not sticking around for a bit longer? Next to him sits a silent blue-eyed guy with fair skin and dressed in a chartered loongie. He doesn’t speak much English, but Russian is luckily his mother tongue so I guess we might be able to have a chat. His sight roams tired and hectic through the air.
‘I have been under this tree for 6 years’ – he says – ‘I only leave when the rains come and well, also one time I was gone for three months…’
‘But what do you do here? Do you have passport and visa and stuff?’
‘No, I don’t’ – he pauses for a while – ‘That’s why I had to leave the tree, you know. The police took me. I thought it is gonna be only for a day, but it lasted a couple of months…’ – the Russian guy shares part of his story.
‘And how did you manage to come back to the tree?’
‘Oh, I just told them that I very much like India and they felt happy. At some point they said that if I so much like their India I could stay.’
‘That is…that is somehow incredible.’ – we conclude out-loud.
‘Not really. I have a friend. He is Polish and speaks a bit Russian, but also English. He too didn’t have papers, but they let him stay, cuz he also loves India. He even got a job somewhere around…. I really love India’ – with the next puff of weed his conversation and our disbelief dissolve into smoke and silence takes once again over the tree shade.
Beer, drugs, Jesus Christ
Indeed, the story of the Russian guy may not be an exception. We have heard of a few foreigners overstaying their visas and chilling passport-less in the tropics for months or years. And just a week earlier we had met a Jordanian guy in a sort of similar situation. After two seasons in Goa, when running out of money, he had come up with a business master plan: to work for one of the drug bands. But after getting the stash, and before finding any more clients than himself, he simply disappeared, apparently making his employer uneasy and disturbed. ‘If they find him, next time we see him he will be floating in the ocean’ – Jack makes a grim prediction that luckily will never come true – ‘not even the fish will be able to recognize his face’. Some days later, in the heat of the day, when everybody is gasping for air next to a fan, we see the Jordanian guy dropping off a motorbike with a friend, both dressed in thick, long black robes, with hoods on.’ We are almost invisible now. Nobody would notice us.’ – he gives a brief explanation before jumping back to the motorbike. We don’t know what has happened since that day and hope he is still invisible and well. Goa is certainly still an attractive magnet for special characters unfitting for any social conventions.
‘Every Sunday I pray for all my children and my guests’ – Concessav is firmly convinced that her orations are heard in heaven, and prayer is the reason her children have grown up to be successful, her guests never get into trouble and her hospitality business goes well. ‘Nobody knows if the Russians will come this year, but I already have the whole first floor booked for six months’. She always gets good people that do ‘no drinking, no drugs ‘ – one beer is ok from time time, but that is all – ‘My children do not drink at all, not even beer, not even on weekends’. We wonder how much our pious neighbours approve of the lifestyle, “freedom” and excesses enjoyed by their foreign visitors over the season, and whether they preferred the old-school hippies or the current wealthy Russians, that everyone fears have become a bit less rich after the ruble collapsed. Maybe it does not matter at all. ‘We pray, and God will provide’ – Concessav points to an image of Jesus Christ surrounded by colourful blinking lights. Next door her neighbours gather for puja over Ganpati festival, and we join a crowd of locals that carry large images of Ganesha to be sunk on the sea. A bit further away the sound of Goa trance starts to fill the evening from the bamboo bars.
Acting like hippies in Goa
After a couple of dry days, monsoon strikes with its final strength. The sun hides behind an armada of clouds and the sky turns liquid. The rain pours undisturbed for hours and we keep company to Jack on the balcony. He rolls and rolls with the intensity and determination of the falling rain drops. As time passes by, we increasingly start feeling stuck in between the hammer and the anvil. Eventually, I decide I rather get my clothes completely soaked than become a completely stupefied extension to the chair. I walk down the mouldy stairs of our home into the soaked path that leads to the main road of Arambol. There is nobody on the streets and all shops are closed. Arambol feels like the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic scene, silent and abandoned. In the distance, a lonely street light glows meagerly. Suddenly, an old red car splashes the puddles and breaks right next to me.
‘Hey, do you like participate in a movie? I need extras and was looking for hippies!‘- with a strong Russian accent, the lady on the wheel interrupts my slow walk under the rain.
Clearly we are not alone investigating on the hippies issue. But while we are searching for a trace of them somebody else seems to know how to find them.
‘Yeah, why not. So did you find hippies?’
‘No, only you! But another producer is also checking around town. It’s hard now, off-season, the Israelis are still in Manali and the most of the Europeans have not arrived yet. There is nobody selling bracelets on the beach….’
‘Ah, I see.’ – my thinking is greatly impeded and I hardly follow her train of thought.
‘Ok, anyway. You start tomorrow; I will come and pick you up in the morning. If you have a girlfriend take her with you, especially if she has dreadlocks. It is a good pay.’ – the window of the car rolls up and the vision quickly dwindles in the dark.
Early morning the day after, in the make-up room of a film truck stationed at a nearby beach, we are transformed from everyday normal travelers into the hippies everybody seems to be searching for. Besides the two us there are another four foreigners – a South African couple with long blonde hairs, an Italian rasta musician, and an Australian traveler with feathers hanging from her long hair. The search for background actors has turned out to be pretty successful despite the rain. ‘Ok, put this clothes on. They are really nice, arent’t they.’ – somebody says while handing to each of us a set of colourful rags – ‘ Add some more bracelets and necklaces as well. The more of them the better!’ – the assistant director shares his thinking, and we happily follow the aesthetic guidelines. A bit of blush, some mascara, shoes off and some shawls on, and we are all ready to roll.
Soon we are on stage ready for three days of shooting that will earn us a few seconds of big screen background fame. As far as we understand, the movie is an Indian love story, of a Rajastani girl and her badass boyfriend, who have run away from home after a family drama. We – the hippies – live in a hut somewhere in the desert (or on the beach) and have to host the two main characters of the movie when they come in running away from the rain – the unmarried Indian couple that has just randomly stumbled upon our den of freedom. We are divided in three couples and our job is to ‘romance’. We are somehow part of the decoration which eventually predisposes the Indian lovers to openly give voice to their feelings of love and lust…
‘Don’t be shy.’ – the assistant director says – ‘You just relax and act natural. Do like the hippies, brake old, rusty social norms. Dance…’ Shiva explains that with Puri, the director, they were in Barcelona shooting another movie a couple of years back, and made friends with many hippies. Spanish hippies with dreadlocks of all colours. ‘Great people, so free! They never had money, but always were ready to party’ – he adds some more pieces to the hippie puzzle.
Meanwhile, every now and again, six of us romance clumsily in front of the camera, dance in swirls under fake rain, and warm up around a staged fire despite the unbearable heat. We sweat behind the scenes, but cannot complain. Most of the time is spent drinking chai, playing cards and waiting for the next scene, while admiring the unearthly beauty of the main actress, just as if we were sitting at a bench in front of a flat of apartments in any suburb. And Marta, who hates losing at card-games, walks around camera in hand, curiousing behind scenes, watching the measured moves of the choreographers, the setting and shifting of camera rails, enternaining hereself with little chats about life with whoever passes by, from actors to grips to catering. Curiously, all women around seem to wonder how many boyfriends she had had… it is not conceivable that a hippie traveller has had only one. And so, we all spend some fun days to the tune of “Jiya, Jile Jile Jile…”, the Telugu song we have come to record.
On our last working day, we sit for a special dinner on an empty tropical beach. A table with six chairs, beer and bottles of wine are set just next to the ocean for us. The moon projects a path over the waves. Is there anything like high-class, spoiled, pseudo hippies? Probably. Everything has been invented by now. But maybe that doesn’t really matter to anyone. Who were the hippies anyway?
We leave Goa by the time the crowds start to gather, when all handicraft stalls are ready to open, when the sun shines with might and Concessav announces that the Russians are soon coming to take over our room. We hitch out with the closing thought that ‘hippie’ is one of these vague and fluid notions reserved to label anyone perceived as romantically marginal. And whether attracted by the Woodstock aesthetics, the laid-back lifestyles, the search for experiences, the love, family, music or the drugs, maybe everyone has a hippie side secretly searching for a way to Goa, or to any other imagined paradise. Many new-generation hippies gather summer after summer, still calling themselves family, and make seasonal homes in Anjuna or Arambol, keeping alive their version of the old times Goa spirit. Others come and go with the waves.
To the evolving tune of Goa trance, huts, hostels and resorts grew like mushrooms by the coast, the hippies of the old times slowly left room for a newer generation of travelling free-thinkers (as somebody else called them once) that mix with the backpacker and flashpacker masses that the season is soon gonna bring, that change high-heels for flipflops or even walk barefoot during their holiday. And whether working for a corporation or living without documents under a tree, fresh off the army, or new-age bourgeois, itinerant craft maker and seller, busker, rainbow traveller or random person on a holiday, it probably makes no difference whatsoever when it comes to fitting the stereotype. It looks like pretty much everyone could end up acting the hippie dream once in a while. Hippy is a subculture and aesthetics that often turns simply into an image that applies to anyone who, even unknowlingly, may help to sustain the myth of a dreamt ephemeral freedom. In a sense, hippies probably existed long before their cultural revolution and will surely stick around for years to come, as long as there is a fire place by the seaside or a banyan tree to gather around, as long as people feel the rush to search for that sort of ethereal freedom that always seems to be hiding in some lost paradise.
Notes to curious travellers:
- Arambol is one of the backpacker’s hubs in the north of Goa. Visiting off-season might be boring for anyone in search of wild parties, but for us it was a blessing. We were there in August, where the main road starts to wake up, a few travellers walk around searching for a place to rent long term, and everything else is quiet and damp.
- All stories are real but the names and details of people who shared them have been changed. So you probably won’t be able to find Darya or Jack or a Jordanian guy in a black hood, and do not look for the visa-less Russian either. The Banyan tree and the sadhu, though, will probably be there the next season as well. So will the Salty Lake, and everything else.
- For a much better feel of old-school and new-generation hippie life than we have been able to convey, you can check the documentary film from Darius Devas, portraying the past and present lives of many hippies in Goa.
- The Indian movie where we took part as extras is called “Loafer”, directed by Puri Jagannadh. The main actors are Disha Patani and Varun Tej. (more info on this coming soon).