A Very Hippy Christmas

The captivating sunsets of Goa

Now where did I leave you….ah yes. I was enjoying myself rather too much in Arambol, one of Goa’s northern beaches, having met a dashing tabla player and fallen in with a few locals, from whom I was enjoying learning Bollywood songs, Hindu mantras and the occasional bit of sithar. I was being conveyed about the tropical conutryside on the back of a scooter, with the wind in my hair. I was enjoying talking to hippies. I was doing yoga. I’ll admit it – I got comfortable. I had uncertainty around whether or not I could go to the Ashram out of season (uncertainty I still have as I type in Trivandrum, after a 2 day journey en route there, but more on that later). I wanted to get to know Goa and it made sense to me to stay, as my lovely friend Liz Cirelly (also travelling, also blogging, check her out here: http://limitlessliz.blogspot.com/) was passing through Goa whilst doing some DJ gigs. So I stayed. And I’m glad that I stayed as it allowed me to get underneath the skin of Goa a bit more – something that I think is worth doing, because it is a complex and layered place and I think that I have now gained some insight into the weird and colourful world that lies beneath.

The tabla player who stole my heart

I’ll start with the hippies. The great thing about Goa is the people that live here for the tourist season (from October to April). These people come in many shapes and sizes, but for the most part are older men who have perhaps worked for years and (why not) decided to retire to hedonists’ heaven. There are a lot of musos who take advantage of the live jamming scene (particularly in Arambol) and there are also conjurers, magicians (I met a man who spent the evening putting a rather long silver spoon up one side of his nose and bringing it down the other), healers and long term inhabitants of the Goan ex pat community – just people who love to party, take drugs (not booze), chill out and sleep with beautiful women (who are not in short supply). I don’t wish to sound cynical here, but I’m sure that this is a draw for some long haired lotharios that I met as I did have to bat back several advances from astonishingly forward men! Several people have found God and changed their names to reflect their spirituality (I met Swami Prem Vandar, for instance, who’s chosen name means ‘love prayer’ – I think his real name was Dave or something.) Sex and sexuality is in no short supply in Goa and tantric practices are popular. There are tantric ashrams in and around Goa which involve having to undertake ‘sexual practice with your teacher’. Hmmm, I can safely say that I have decided to continue to pursue my spiritual and yogic path for now and have avoided the same. Flavours of spirituality are there for all to try in Goa and you can dabble in just about any kind of alternativer healing, from reiki to yoga, to Ayerveda, to sound therapy.

But there is a tangibly dark undercurrent to Goa. Traditionally a place of excess, it’s been said that in days gone by they had to open temporary mental hospitals for those gone mad from too many hallucinogenics – the acid heads who never came back down. I talked about this with a ‘sound healer’  who believes these people are “caught between worlds”, different spiritual realms (all the more reason for grounding, when indulging in any practice which takes you outside of yourself, not just drugs). There are also a whole host of interesting characters, peace and love personified, but who have seen life and witnessed it in it’s darkness. I shan’t go into the story here but I spent an interesting hour with a friend of mine, discussing his past and why he had come here. “Everyone is in Goa for a reason. A lot of people are trying to escape something.” I pondered this, and the madness, lying awake in a part of Anjuna I didn’t know – the howl of dogs was permeating my sleep and at some points (I don’t know if this was real or imagined) I could also hear the howls of men and women – maybe those ghosts from before or those that die on the roads each year in scooter accidents. Anyway, it was probably nothing more childish make-believe but one thing is for sure – Goa can fire that imagination,

People keep telling me to do this!

One thing that I have observed is that people in Goa have a particular way of talking: a chilled out register and semantics that urge you to “relax”, “let go”, “go with it” etc etc. This completely contrasts with the ambitious London attitude to take every second of every day and fill it with noise and motion. As one hippy said to me “a Goan minute is a London hour”. I certainly noticed that my pace – of speech, of itinerary, of days  – lay in contrast with those around me and it was this Goan influence that started to wind back my hand of time and persuade me to stay on a bit longer, to wait and see what it had in store for me.

Although some people might find it repetitve and even cliched, I have enjoyed my encounters with people here and have really appreciated the fact that every single day you meet someone new who can give you a new, overt, spiritual perspective. Here are some of my favourites: “put yourself in an electric blue egg”.  This advice was dispensed to me by the sound healer, who I happened to meet over breakfast. I was discussing with him the fact that I had some extreme reactions to pranyamic breathing and opening my heart chakras. The fact of my being too open was on my brain, having rushed into the tabla romance and I was reflecting on my tendency to ‘let things in’ too easily- both on a physical and spiritual level. He advised me that I needed to practice grounding myself and letting my auric energy protect me. Reiki and other ancient medicine often refer to a ‘white light’ of protection, but the healer said that this is often not strong enough and that blue is the power colour to protect you. This was affirmed for me on meeting Liz later that day – she had also been told the same thing, that on occasions a more powerful, lilac blue is needed. So at times when I have felt that I have needed protection, I have practised being in that blue egg, as well as chanting mantras at Liz’s suggestion to protect me (and lord knows I think I’ve needed it in recent days!)

I imagine that I’ve now freaked everyone out by going out on a hippy limb. Perhaps what might be more appealing is other, more universal advice such as “don’t judge – experience is experience. Positive and negative, it is all experience. First of all you have to accept this. Acceptance is the key to everything.” The soul who dispensed this little gem is the cheeky and yet wise soul Navin, who for the past 10 years has been running a beach hut business in the super-chilled town of Morjim. This was a late night conversation on the beach in which we again discussed pranyama and it’s similarity to playing the didjeridoo and the hallucinogenic quality of circular breathing. Reflecting on my imminent trip to the ashram, Navin also commented that sometimes, “discipline can be good” (let’s hope that he is right) and that meditation is about “being comfortable” – physically and then mentally. I’m sure there is more to it to that but I like this explanation for its simplicity.

So a few Goan soundbites for you there…but on with the narrative! So after having spent time with Liz and her manager (we swam in the sweet lake in Arambol – so called because of it’s healing qualities…actually, it is a salt water lake so we re-named it the ‘sweet n salty lake’), I decided to search for the perfect Goan Christmas. I had been tipped off about a retro place called ‘Emerald Lawns’ – a big function hall where Indian families gather for a sumptious Christmas lunch and dress in all their finery – “glittering and shimmering like stars”. I wanted to do something traditional for Christmas so hotfooted it to Calangute, one of the northern towns near Baga Beach, to be able to acces the lawns. Somewhere between Arambol, Mapusa (the main bus hub) and Calangute I started to feel ill – very ill. I just about managed to get myself to Calangute alone and check into a room. On first sight I hated Calangute – and I mean hated. It was bizarre that only a few km from hippy heaven there seemed to be a set of El Dorado! English skin heads eating fish and chips and roast beef sandwiches – the Manchester United Cafe Bar did it for me. I resolved to check out the next morning and took to my bed with dehydration salts, colloidal silver and Jeannette Winterson.

Bus with a bit missing!

Feeling markedly better the next day I negotiated two local buses to get back to Anjuna, the place I had originally stayed. Over Christmas Goa gets exceedingly busy with Indian tourists coming in from Mumbai, Delhi, etc and I was worried all rooms would be booked. Lucily I managed to get a room at the original hostel I had stayed in, Peace Land, and found my way back there. A note on local buses – they are a great experience but be prepared to be the only white person, for it to be covered in images of Jesus and Mary and for them to occasionally blast Indian music through the loudspeakers. That is all very quaint but the rides are so bumpy they may warrant a sports bra and I learnt the hard way that if you put your bag on the seat you get charged an additional fare.

So, there I was, happy back in Anjuna, albeit having not eaten for a couple of days and at the end of what could have been a nasty bug (thanks to Liz and colloidal silver, it was not). I went out for dinner then dressed for mass. I don’t class myself as a religious person, but I wanted to do something traditional and Goa is a Catholic state, having been a Portugese colony and many Indian families attend midnight mass on Christmas eve.  So there I was, looking the picture of India in my classical dress and leaving my hotel room door when suddenly two of the hostel dogs went for me (there are dogs everywhere in India and this is not the first time it has happened – only last time I had a rucksack to throw on said dog, this time I had nothing). I just had time to open the padlock before the enormous dog (a rottweiler or similar) flung himself aganist the door. I was standing in my room, heart beating and terrified, but I would not be beaten by a dog! I ran out of the room, shouting at them and luckily they stayed away. The next drama occured just as I was wandering down the lane to the nearest church. This was a path I had taken many times before, only never in the dark or alone. I was attacked by a man on a moped – another grope, but this time done at speed so it was violent enough to hurt, shock and wind me.

I haven’t had many moments of sadness and self indulgence since I have been in India, but this had to be one of them. First being sick, then Calangute, then the dogs and now this attack – I felt as if I should have taken the decision to go to the ashram earlier and this was what was happening to me as a result. Having asked a local what time the church (which looked locked and barred) was due to open, only to be told it wouldn’t be for another half an hour, I broke down in tears. The shopkeeper, originally going to charge me 200 rupees to take me to another church took pity on me and scootered me back to Anjuna, where I told the police about the attack. Predictably they were unruffled and would not leave their post to escort me back to the guest house (I knew the family had gone to church and I would be alone with the dogs who would probably try to attack again). In the end, seeing me upset, the policeman gruffly comandeered an elderly man on a moped and sent me to the big church St Michaels, several km away, to find the family I was staying with.

At the time of being driven out of town, on a moped, with an unknown elderly man, with no money and no phone, I felt a little bit scared. But Goa is about ‘letting go’ so I went with it, reiki-ed myself and asked for protection. He did in fact drop me at the church (albeit asking me for money, to which I refused to acquiesce) and thank God I did spot the family who owned Peace Land amid the crowd. After a stressful hour, I settled into my very packed pew, to listen to a 2.5hour mass in Konkani (I had been told that it would be in English). Luckily I attended enough Catholic masses as a child to have an idea of what was going on although it was unlike any I had been to. All the Goans turned out in their finest – including tiny children in tailored suits, falling asleep on their feet. At one point I was disturbed to see a frog hopping around the aisles at ankle height.  The crowd stretched far behind the 400+ capacity with people spilling outside. One of it’s members, an elderly man began to heckle the priest, drunkenly from outside – getting continuously louder and more beligerent. This was allowed for about 15 minutes until he was forcibly removed. The carols were all played on a CD track – traditional songs but with a Carribean beat and by steel drums. It was certainly an experience. At the end, I had to find the family who had been swallowed up by the crowd again, hurriedly explain that I needed a lift back (and they needed to control the dogs). I had to stay behind with them whilst they drank coffee and ate fruit cake (an Indian Christmas speciality) and the children gathered on a concrete stage beneath star shaped paper lanterns to sing “happy birthday to baby Jesus” and cut a cake (certainly not a practise I had witnessed at Crosby SS Peter and Pauls) and then finally get their present from Santa Claus. Standing ouside, amongst the Indian families and the joyful children, underneath the lanterns and watching the lights twinkling in the night sky, I didn’t regret the experience and it felt very Christmassy. The father of the family drove me, his wife and their three little children in their mini bus and we had to slow down and look at the nativity scene which was very audacious – with it’s own lights and fully functioning water featurn  – typical of the Indian tendency I have noticed to mix the ritual and festoonment of Hinduisim with the ostentation of Catholicism, resulting in buses carrying images of Christ and Mary bedecked with flowers and adorned with slogans such as ‘Mother Mary Bless Our Way’ and ‘Jesus’ in huge letters across the windscreens. After the nativity scene, I then had to accompany the family to their friends’ house for a traditional post-mass drink. I sat there in the dark night, drinking chai, whilst all the ladies and gents and children dolled up to the nines, chatted excitedly to one another in Konkani and I listened to the waves and I felt sleepy and I felt happy and glad that I had persisted with my traditional Indian plan.

That night I slept uninterrupted for hours and awoke completely disoriented and not knowing where I was. I had decided to spend Christmas day in a decidedly other type of Goan manner and so, once Christmas lunch (two fried eggs and a pineapple juice) and the family Skype were done with, I took a scooter up to Hilltop, the place to go for trance parties and I did it the Goan way – less alcohol, starting earlier, dancing the day away. I had another moment there, dancing under the coconut trees (painted in psychadelic colours from mid trunk down), a moment of thankfulness for all of the experiences that I was being afforded in India. I got chatting to a lovely English boy and the rest of the party is history really, as I spent most of it sitting on one of the chai tea mamma’s reed mats, talking about life, the universe and everything and eventually having a Christmas kiss under the palms, as the trance music and the people came up and all of Goa was around us. It was a lovely experience to find a man so open and the story doesn’t end there. I can’t tell everything here in this blog. After a wonderful night with his other two friends (hitherto they had known themselves as the ‘tripod’, with my man the third wheel, but my arrival completed the four-sided ‘diamond’ and I had a wonderful evening with all of them. But, reader, I left him. Such is the life on the open road.

On boxing day I spent a night in the beautiful beach of Morjim with Liz, planning our onward travel, which will see us meet where 3 oceans mix at India’s most southerly point. I arrived by 2 more local buses but this time I was picked up from the Raj supermarket  by the wonderful Navin on his classic Royal Enfield motorbike, beloved of Goans and which has a gutteral throttal as it rips through the tropical air. I must beg a moment of indulgence as I thought myself very cool at that moment, scarf trailing behind me – a Goan rock chick. And Navin is lovely and the huts are gorgeous, despite outdoor showers with water so cold it causes you to laugh hystericaly, thrillingly, like children in a water fight. I had a fantastic night’s sleep (I always sleep well in the open air), and  awoke to find two cows outside the hut. I was too tired to continue the philosophical conversation with Navin, but I know I will see him again and he is friends with the musicians I know and the Kundalini Airport massive, who are totally amazing. I left Liz feeling very at one with the world and ready to face what was ahead.

That was a 20hr bus journey, followed by a 5 hour train ride to the hectic Trivandrum, from where I currently type. I will fill you in on the details of this journey later.. I’m heading to the Ashram tomorrow and so wanted to update you with Goan trials and tribulations before then. Internet will be patchy, I’m told, in Neyyar Dam, so please bear with me, send me your thoughts and comments, and I look forward to speaking with you again, fresh from my spiritual and austere experiences in the ashram and no doubt many new perspectives to share. 

Until then, shanti x

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