On the road Goa is known as the most laid-back locale in India where cares go to expire, but it was time to test how unique it now is.
Devising a litmus test for Goa's spirit
If the names of a few places in this world induce a cringe - Chernobyl, Guantánamo and Times Square come to mind - others seem to have the opposite effect. Say the word Caribbean aloud and feel by the second syllable your mind awash in a warm zephyr fragrant with hibiscus, fried plantains and soca. So too it is with Goa, known as the most laid-back locale in India where cares go to expire.
Much of this notion owes its origins to the 1960s and 1970s when Goa occupied a coveted spot on the India-Nepal hippie trail. Beach parties in the vicinities of Calagute, Anjuna and Vagator are the stuff of legend for anyone who's still today wearing tie-dye and Birkenstocks below a braided tuft of silver hair. I have been elsewhere in India before, however, and I broadly associate the country with boundless chaos - a splendid, invigorating sort sometimes, but hardly a state of calm. So I'm wondering how different Goa will be.
I've also heard that a growing commercialism and - since banal trance music in the 1990s drowned out echoes of 1960s folk - an influx of tourists more interested in gross inebriation than meditation has dampened Goa's easy-going vibe. My guidebook warns that real hippies moved on long ago. So I have developed a sort of litmus test to gauge how unique is Goa these days. If the lore is true, and the magic still alive, then I think I should be able to arrive and within 36 hours throw a party on the beach among strangers.
It will be a simple affair: I provide food and drinks and my period-correct portable turntable, and the rest is up to Goa. And I'm even bequeathing Goa an extra sporting chance in this challenge by importing a tall, blonde, valkyriesque Dutchwoman named Lizette who is probably the freest spirit I've met. If anyone can set a smouldering party scene ablaze, she's the spark. The night before our flight I stay up late, thumbing through my record collection. We will need a heavy dose of equatorial rhythms, I decide, including "El Rey de Timbales" Tito Puente and "Mambo Queen" Yma Sumac. I also throw in Sam Cooke's finest recording, a live album captured at the Apollo, for good measure. When I land on the soundtrack of The Harder They Come, I know combining it with Lizette's rhythmic sways will be potent.
We fly around midnight on Wednesday and land in Goa the next morning after a stopover in Mumbai. Lizette has a cold and her ear canals almost explode during landing. I worry her special powers will be dulled. On the advice of several Goan friends, I have chosen Anjuna Beach for this soirée. Once a hippie hot spot, Anjuna is said to maintain some of its fun-loving without being smothered by tourists like resort towns nearby.
The 45-minute taxi ride from the airport glides us over canals reflecting the morning sun and through lush forest. The air smells green. The driver lets us off at the Sunset Guesthouse. For about US$10 (Dh37) we rent a cabana a stones' hurl from the sand. I soon realise another factor that brought the hippies to Goa: it's really cheap. By 10am we're leaning back on sunloungers and staring at waves. Immediately before us are cool drinks with wedges of fruit escaping from the side. Further on there are sacred cows basking near the water's edge. I'm starting to feel it.
But we still have lots of work to do. Our tasks include going for a recce to find the right spot to host our event; acquiring a generator to power my record player; ordering food, drinks and ice for 50 people; finding torches for the beach; and most importantly, circulating the word about our party. It's not a normal agenda for arriving tourists. But I feel a sense of purpose, one perhaps only overwhelmed by Lizette's own near-religious calling.
In my life I've had lots of silly ideas, and somehow a surprising number of accomplices. But never have they joined in with such enthusiasm as Lizette. Over the last few days she designed a stack of flyers for us. With a theme in mind that would convey instant good times and hark back to the 1960s, she named this fiasco "The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys Party", after a novelty of the era where thousands of kids bought little plastic fish tanks and added water and a packet of brine shrimp eggs to watch "sea monkeys" dance to life. The idea is odd and pitch perfect and the flyer took plenty of work. She's downing zinc and OJ to fight her cold now and she has a look in her eyes that I have seen in paintings of Joan of Arc.
I doze for an hour and then we head off to scour the beach, soon finding company trailing along. A rule that we discover is that in Goa once a person steps on the sand they will be accosted by up to a dozen girls who come here to hawk their jewellery. And like stray kittens, once you acknowledge them there is no escaping their pleading meows. One little sari-clad saleslady persists after I say I have no need for earrings. "But I am asking so hard," she says. "Why must you break my tiny heart?" Lizette speaks Dutch to them until they shake their heads and leave.
But bigger obstacles lie ahead. The tourists we encounter to whom we mention our idea tend to ask either with intrigue or disdain: "Is it a trance party?" No. Hell no. We're talking about The Harder They Come here, not bump-da-bump-da-bump-da ad infinitum. Maybe I am in the right place at the wrong time. After wandering for hours we find no suitable spot that has an outlet with which to bring electricity to my record player on the beach, and no one knows where we can rent a generator. Also, we find out that the municipality has cracked down on loud noise after 10pm, which was our planned start time. This means that we'll have to begin around sunset tomorrow, a little more than 24 hours away. Lizette's optimistic but I am less so.
My parents, who grew up in the 1960s, bought me a sea monkey's tank when I was a kid. Except my little crustaceans turned out to be dead on arrival. I know the same is possible for our party in Goa. At night, after a day of almost no luck in any of our quests, we find ourselves at a restaurant eating prawn curry and painstakingly scratching out the timing on our flyers so that the "10" looks like a "6". If not for Lizette I might give up and spend the next two days on the sunlounger watching the waves.