Goa, Goaing, Gone

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of India  ,
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Communications HQ is a room in Mumbai 1.3m wide and 4m long. If you tried to park a car in it, you'd slice the vehicle right through the middle of the gearbox and leave the rear trunk on the pavement.

Four monitors, each squeezed between pieces of cardboard on a stick to define a personal cubicle, fill most of the length of an anorexic desk, leaving only a wedge of space for a torso to fit between table edge and rear wall.

The tallyman is tucked up tight on a minimalist stool inside the roll-down door with timer and wallet. 40 roops (rupees) an hour - US$1 - a high price in the scheme of things.

Three small three-bladed fans peer down on the sweatshop with a suggestion of comfort from a perspiration flow suffering a seriously faulty off-switch. Prodded management prods a button. Two fans rotate solemn laps trailing lumpy threads of coagulated Bombay dust.

The stranger at my right elbow furtively covers his screen.

No stopping curiosity, and a sly peek reveals some obvious shenanigans. He's carefully doctoring some official identification document. Changing colours, dates, names and switching a mugshot. The dodgy chap has a nervous edge, looking up, covering up, blathering moist flecks on my right cheek as he speaks across me to the doorman.

A large African gent squeezes out of one of the city's noddy-car taxis a metre from the entrance, fills most of the door frame with his silhouette and shouts something at the fixer. The short, scrubby forger, with curiously large veins extruding almost entirely along the length of his scrawny arms, hits the save button, collects everything on the screen, and ejects a CD-ROM disc. Then he carefully deletes scattered icons before emptying the trash. On the surface, the lad seems to know how to earn a shifty shilling.

Mumbai is a brief dalliance, a stopover on the ride north to the magic white castle of Udaipur and beyond.

Time enough to log and blog and ponder a fortnight spent in the old Portuguese enclave of Goa, known to the hip of the 1980s and '90s as a legend of the rave. Trip in, drop the tab, drop out, smoke the doob, rave it up, dance the sunset and sunrise electric eclectic. The small beachfront state has a 30-year history of sex, drugs and more recently trance music.... because "rock 'n roll and reggae are so passé, bro", says a studded, walking tattoo.

I hadn't intended visiting old Portugal, a de rigeur stop-over for most of the India traveller sect if only to say “been there, done that”.

The original port of Old Goa once stood toe-to-toe with the capitals of Europe in the tall-ship 17th century trade era. This was the first port of call after the haul from Mombasa, in Africa. The West’s gateway into the exotic lands, spice trade central, and the perfect port for providore and refurbishment before the long push home to Europe around the Cape of Good Hope. But savage seasons of malaria, intermittent conflict with local neighbouring powers and the growth of other Asian sea ports slowly saw Goa meander into a trading decline through the 18th century from which it would never really recover. The more Jakarta, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai came on line, the more did Goa’s relevance recede.

Then someone mentioned that an old Johannesburg housemate from a previous millennium, now a Vrau Schneider, traded and had a house in Anjuna, the heart of 'hippy Goa'. The vivacious blonde was also being visited by another old mate, Jonny C, who was trying to transform three months of intentional ayahuasca hallucinations – endured while seeking enlightenment in the north-east jungles of Peru – into chapter, verse and book.

Old, good company in a land of strangers is a rare pleasure, and free accommodation for the long-range unemployed a bonus to boot.

Having sallied the pocked labyrinths of Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, Manaus, Macau and Maputo, an old penchant for inner-urban Portuguese ambience now had an excuse to become mildly piqued, especially when it carried the possible promise of a deep-fried peri-peri and garlic prawn or three.

Get dumped by a cab, from a railway siding in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of an unknown village. The phone contact number doesn't work, the café workers don't know the address. Situation normal. Find a room, find a breeze, find a beer, sit down and take in a street of scurrying scooters. The villages are small, and there is 3,4,5km between each, and to the beach and into the hills. You can't do a thing in Goa without hiring a scooter, and they whizz and sputter past day long, driven by dreadlocks, tattoos, bronzed blondes, Scandi-beauties, arms of bangles…

Helmets and drivers’ licenses definitely not required.

Another call, the puzzle is solved, make connection, and find the
missing hostess. The greeting party turns out to be even more of a boere* convention than I had bargained for. (*Boer, or farmer, is mildly derogatory slang for a South African, or a South African rightwinger.) Seems more than one of the hausvrau’s mates were in town. Oudtshoorn babes, Cape Agulhas brothers-in-law, camp shirts from Camps Bay, and yours truly, your regular East Cape roaming yokel.

Bumping into the tribe was definitely not part of the plan. The whole point of leaving South Africa is to meet people who are not from home. If I’m overcome with an immediate desire to see the homeboys, I know exactly what airline to use to find them. But a fine bottle of Old Monk rum soon helps smooth the introductions before the clanger drops, to not a little merriment: the Goa party's over, man!

While the annual tourist season had just burnt down to the butt, the real party had in fact finished years ago. Yet somehow, the 'call of Goa' still attracts more than its share: young things hoping against hope that the end-of-party rumour is wrong, fly-by-nighters in the hope of catching a wild card thrash, drifters, and Indian lifers beaded and bangled, of swishy cotton tie-dyes and muddy braids seeking solace from the intensity of most of the rest of the India.

And the originals: Paul, “I’m the mad parrot man from Bogner ”, who says, while also attending the cricket match in Chennai, that he’s been visiting Goa for nearly 40 years – and looks the real deal. But no more.

"It's over, man," says someone who claims to have saved 51 parrots in the south of England, who has had two African Greys for 25 odd years, and who recently acquired a lost macaw that fell madly in love with him. “I swear those African Greys would murder the macaw if they got the chance because they're so jealous of my love for it".

Goa is in a funk. A rash of tourist deaths over the past few years come to a head with one Scarlett Keeling, a 16-year-old girl, found dead on the beach.
Police first put it down to a drug-induced drowning: a juicy cocktail of ecstasy, cocaine and alcohol was found in her blood. Then a second post-mortem discovered she had suffered multiple rapes and 50 abrasions to her body, and rumours buzzed of a cover-up.

 Mama Scarlett, Fiona MacKeown, would not let the matter drop, the local chief of police was hauled over the coals, and the international press have been like a dog with a bone.

Two men were arrested and charged with drugging her, stitching her up on the beach, drowning her and tossing her into the sea. One suspect lives a few metres behind the home of my hostess, Vrau Schneider, a single mother. He's out on bail.

Says parrot Paul: “I’ve been going there for 36 years. I can’t go back any more. Man, it’s just not the same. Man, with Scarlett, and all, and I know her old lady, the vibe is too weird, too down, everybody’s freaked out.”

And yet still, the naïf make the pilgrimage.

The flea market, the Wednesday social event, is Anjuna’s raison d’etre. It is a world class gathering of stalls and shops, of wonderful exotica and weirdos – drifters and grifters, merchants and middlemen, shakers, fakers, fakhirs, snake-oil salesmen, swamis, swamijis, hustlers, hucksters, the tired, the bored, tribesmen and women.

The market season was winding down, and there were now only around 400-500 stalls rather than the normal 700 or so. The empty stalls spend the off-season as sagging bamboo frames, scraps of string and ripped shade cloth.

But all manner of trinketry and cloth imaginable is still on display, From traditional tribal dress of southern Kerala and Karnataka, to nose rings from Nepal, hookahs and hair-dos, guarana cocktails and bottled holy Ganges water.

Euro-chicsters and the travelling Tibetan sales team beat their peddling drum to rave clothes, rows of chillums (marijuana pipes), hammocks… everything except the one thing I sought, a spiral bangle with flattened cobra heads.

No moustache wax either, making coiffure tricky for any respectable, gentleman traveller.

The market also doubles as the local network dance floor, where ‘secret’ hill-party venues are loudly spread in faux hush-hush, assorted rumours do their daily jog, previous travels are discussed ad nauseaum, Scarlett's death is rolled around and around in a big barrel of conjecture, and herb and spice is shared for pleasure and profit.

A group of Uzbekistan prostitutes is arrested, and suddenly the worst-kept secret of the area, of the Russian mafia in neighbouring town Morjim, struts itself across the local Nivham Times, labelled by my hallucinatory friend and South African hack, as the worst newspaper in the world. Mumblings suggest that if he can't put his psychedelia into words, he might take a sub-edting job with them. So serious are the Russians about raising their flag, they have
erected a statue of Lenin, outside a guesthouse in Morjim’s Russian quarter. Townsfolk are in a cultural impasse with their economic invaders - who are accused of stealing local business as well as stealing local culture, imposing some kind of mod-Moscovite regime.

The Russian men seem to love to parade their bring-and-buy blondes through the market lanes, preening as the arm candy fingers lingerie, and appraises experimental Euro fashion. But generally, the storekeepers have it, they're known as a bunch of tyre-kickers, window shoppers. However, local cogniscenti acknowledge that at least the Russian gals know what they don't want, unlike the loathed Brighton Beach brigade, the D-class tourists who drift into Goa at the end of the season when flights are cheapest and think they're in Camden Market, trying get anything and everything for a fiver or tenner,  “cos we can back home”.

The end of the market season marks the final weeks of the sauna-like, enervating build-up to the monsoon rains. Marketeers pack up, reserve stalls for the following year, bid tree-huggy fairwells, and all voice a living dread of the impending “first Chinese tour bus”, which will finally, totally annihilate any last, fading semblance of cool. Some rub their hands in anticipation of the custom, though in their hearts know that an era is passing.

But it is a time for Goa long-stayers to lean back, lean into the peaceful reason they moved there in the first play, knowing that it’s another period to quietly live off the hard-work’s profits, not have to kowtow to tight-fisted backpackers or go through the never-ending meeting and mating rituals with another bunch of day-trippers.

The death knell of the never-ending beach party was announced a decade earlier when Greater Anjuna killed the DJ. Village elders decided that while it might be uncool, perhaps even unconstitutional, and definitely more than a bit unprofitable to outright ban jollity, they could at least issue a noise edict, to somehow put a stop to the incessant boom-boom-boom across the valleys, through the rising moon and into the rising sun each day. Now all parties in public areas must adhere to sotto voce by 10pm – exactly the time the mushrooms are normally beginning to kick in, and the glow is beginning to flow.

Morjim has somehow short-circuited the legal hamstringing with
apparently well-placed baksheesh – the oil that smooths all Goan roads, and the rhythms still drive golden ankle chains across sandy dance floors.

Pop down the road to Vagator, with the inflexion on the final syllable. Bump into a scraggy,tattooed Vietnam vet throwback, rangy, long-haired and beard, wild, unfocussed, unlucid eyes who has a habit of saying to someone he has just been speaking to: "Heeeeey, maaaaan, haven't we met before?"

Turns out Mr Disconnected is also purported to be an aghori sadhu, a particular fringe Hindu sect who’s members are not shy to snack on a human thigh off a funeral pyre, or a bit of rare bicep from any human corpse floating down a river. Their belief system says god is pure, and god is everything, and eating dead humans is in some ways similar to Christians taking the host at communion. In an apparently acceptable contradiction (or perhaps the hymn of a difficult to discern splinter sect), the eating of human corpses is also seen as absolute and total debasement, the only base from which a holy man might find true and absolute liberation, that being from the cycle of reincarnation.

Feasting on tales of the road comes with as many pinches of salt as you might wish.
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