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The Indian army marched into Goa in 1961, ending 450 years of Portuguese colonial rule and, in an accidental side affect, opened up a hippie tourist Mecca. The liberation, as it’s officially known, saw off one set of invaders but gave rise to a new one.
The changing face of Goa began with a succession of Hindu dynasties, then Muslims from the north and east, and finally the seafaring Portuguese. During the four centuries of their occupation, the Portuguese demolished temples, built churches and converted people to Christianity.
The ‘sixties hippies found no airport and no signs of established tourism. There was virtually no accommodation available, so they threw up palm-leaf shelters on the beaches or rented rooms in village homes for a pittance. Until the mid-seventies, a steady stream of ‘freaks’ turned up and gave Goa a rather undesired reputation as a den of drugs, all-night partying and nudism that upset some local sensibilities.
They’ve all but gone now, but some of their character remains, especially at Anjuna’s Wednesday Flea Market. Covering a vast expanse of beach just off the north of the region, those earlier travellers found their wallets empty but, wanting to stay longer, began auctioning off their belongings from guitars to jeans, from flower-power shirts to Beatles records.
A lurid package of noise, colour and ethnic mix, it is a stimulating if exhausting combination of cultures and produce. You can buy spices and shoes, jewellery and clothes, fish stew and dahl. The colours, the smells, the young girls in their brightly coloured saris who will set upon you, grabbing and pulling, dragging you. “Come to my stall!” and won’t let go until you have given a few Rupees for something. They are nothing if not tenacious. They will fight among themselves if they think one of their group has stolen a sales opportunity, and are hot and fiery of temper but equally quick to forgive.
Rajesh is from Rajahsthan. He pays what seems to him a hefty rent for his pitch, so he works long hours to generate an income during the high season that will tide him over when the Monsoons come. “My family, my brothers and sisters, we make these things during the rains when it is too wet to work outside.”
The instinct for trading is strong. Rajesh and others ask me have I anything to sell. He is desperate for a mini-disc player but Indian Government taxes put a regular Sony totally beyond his reach. He’d like me to buy one for him in the UK that I could send to him and he would pay me in the quilts and throws that line his stall.
Like many others, Rajesh is selling richly-died decorative covers, beaded and bejewelled, with abstract patterns in colour themes. Shells and off-cuts of satin, cheap jewels, silk and deeper died cottons are combined to create pieces that range from cushion covers to single bed sized. Hung in an exclusive gallery in Edinburgh, they’d cost at least £150 each. Here they cost about £15.
Rajesh introduces me to someone who makes leather goods, a popular Kashmiri trade. I want a leather jacket for my 19 year old son. The fact that today is the end of Ramadan means there are fewer Muslim traders than usual in Anjuna, but we find one. “What kind of leather you like, what style, what size?” asks Rouf. “Yak is the best,” he tells me, “see, you can screw it up in your hands, twist it, and still it will come back perfectly.”
I hazard a guess at Nicky’s size, chose the style of a Hugo Boss model from the catalogue of some major retail exporter, and the Yak jacket is delivered to my hotel next day, made to order, for £45. Silk-lined cashmere suits for men and women; bags, belts, briefcases are all made bespoke within a few days in towns and villages throughout Goa.
Though few of the sellers are westerners now, the hawkers who hail from Gujarat, Rajasthan and the semi-nomadic Lamani tribe of Karnataka, remain, like their predecessors, on the fringes of Goan society. They have a unique style of dress and culture all their own, selling everything from an ear-picking service to motorbikes.
Beach raves around Anjuna abound. One renowned party host is ‘Goa Gill.’ He describes how it all started when he first came as an Aussie backpacker in 1969. “I remember that clear as today. We were sitting by the holy fire in Anjuna beach. The good thing about when we got here was it was untouched. I guess we created a lifestyle which was the best of the East and the West.
“We developed the concept of redefining the ancient tribal rituals for the 21st century and tried to use the party situation to uplift people consciousness through the trance-dance experience.
“You know, use music and dance to evoke the cosmic spirit and everyone would be rejuvenated and healed by that, and the earth also. We’re just moving that on to work for young people now.”
There is real alarm that too much of this kind of thing could be the route to Goa’s collapse as a respectable tourist destination, but that seems very unlikely to me. Goa encourages its visitors to enjoy what they want to enjoy. You can be oblivious of raves and noisy nightlife if you choose to be. You can go on your own little crusade around all the important churches like St Francis Xavier or you can spend all your money on cut-price designer goods in the capital city, Panaji.
You can treat it as you might treat a Majorcan resort, or you can go native and explore the untouched hinterland with its rich environment of plant life, birds and animals. You can stick to organised tour coaches or risk the sardine can buses for a couple of pennies. You will eat in restaurants reflecting every imaginable ethnic group and you will find, like most places, that the quality varies. When it is good, it is fabulous and a whole lobster will set you back perhaps £2.
Goa, with its odd mix of modern tack and medieval morality, is a tiny region just 65 km wide and 105 km long (3701 sq km). Somehow it manages to generate something that is still unique, and for a price a lot lower than a week in Cornwall.
write by hughes