Full Moon Fables
They wore the strangest clothes, loose and dyed bright in unmatching indigo and aquamarine, belted by fanny packs full of cigarettes and hash and music fliers, almost like costumes, and to some healthy few on vacation from a career, it really was a guise. Others were old and tired, with the sallow, sunken features of addicts and long scraggly hair, the women all Janis Joplin and the men all Willie Nelson, and they had been in India for a long time.
They reminded me of Diogenes the Cynic, who lived as a dog in the streets of Corinth, sunbathing nude, sleeping in a bucket, eating and defecating and fornicating wherever nature dictated. When King Alexander asked him, “Diogenes, I have heard of you, now what can I do for you?” Diogenes replied, “Could you move to the right? You’re blocking my sun.” He was making a statement: mankind can be much happier with a simpler existence, as Adam and Eve in the Garden. The hippies of Goa have all of Diogenes’ slothful vices and none of his witty virtues, those lazy, worthless people, accepted into paradise for the foreign money in their pockets.
How critical can I be, O Reader, while still conveying how much I enjoyed myself in Goa? Of all the towns along the coast of that old Portuguese colony, we turned down crowded Anjuna and the sleepy south and decided on Arambol, a busy hippie enclave in the far north. It had been so highly recommended (and the other towns so often scorned) by fellow travelers, always the best source of information, and sounded like the best mix of lazy days and active nights. The last person to advocate Arambol was the Venezuelan hypnotist who put me into a trance in Bombay and failed to find any evidence of a past life. “You’ll love it!” he cried.
Goa looked primeval as we approached it in the train. The jungle on the other side of the open sores of plowed earth was a solid wall, a jagged roof of verdant green limned in white over a thick nest of palm trunks so shaded as to appear a murky midnight purple. It took us a few hours on local buses to get to Arambol: a dusty road, crowded with Russians on speeding scooters and chugging Royal Enfields, lined on either side by touristy shops that sold beaded jewelry, cheap folk instruments, braided bags, leather fanny packs, and hippie garb, medieval in aspect and bizarre in coloring. Posters and rugs displayed Ganesh, Krishna, Marley, Guevara, Lennon, and all the other hippie deities, including the icon of the bud. At the end, this street turned down past a few more shops and spilled out through a parking lot of scooters onto the golden strand.
Tom and I found accommodation at this corner, a minute from the beach, when a man called to us in a deep voice, “Need rooms? Where you stay?” We bargained hard for two shacks in the alleyway and received them for $3 each. I shared mine with a few cockroaches and with the rumor of a giant black rat. In the mornings, a Sacred Cow walked by on a regular errand. He had the long horns, dangling chin, and hearty hump of India’s strange cattle. Many of them wandered the beach, between the restaurant tables, lit up by candles at night, and the lounge chairs just above the surf, where Tom and I spent most of our time. We turned away the touts who sold necklaces and massages, and who preferred female clients anyway.
The beach still had a natural feel to it—no concrete and glass, only sand and palm. Sharp-prowed fishing boats, heaving with nets, with a single long pontoon lashed to the side, were beached between the deck chairs. Unobtrusive restaurants were built of thatch between and often around the trunks of the untouched coconut palms. To the north a high tiered plateau lowered into the water and became a series of jagged rocks. Parasailers coasted over it on curved wingspans. Across this there was a freshwater lake, divided from the sea by the thin white line of a sand bar. To the south of Arambol the beach curved around a bulge in the coast and went on toward Morjim and Anjuna.
And, thank the Muses, the trance and house music so ubiquitous, so overwhelming in most young coastal retreats like this one, that was all kept away, and there was only the surf and the noise of people. People lived in Arambol—long-term hippies and contented locals who followed the Goan code of susegado or easy living, living off the casual visitors. I would say that over a fifth of Arambol’s foreigners were there for months. They kept the place nice and lively and livable. The Brits and Russians who came to party rudely and drunkenly, and whom the Goans could not stand, went elsewhere.
That first day we sat on the beach and swam, and at night we sat in the little courtyard outside our apartments, under a net to catch falling coconuts, and listened to a band jamming in the restaurant across the alley, which lit up the palm trees with a spectrum of lights. We thought it a fine life. On the beach we picked out and ate a red snapper and a hamsi, and on the main street we met a Mexican and went with him to Coco Loco, where his Indian friends asked us, “Do you know any card tricks?” Tom showed them a good one, and the chief magician, taking this as a direct challenge to his skill, performed several.
I had very little interest in yoga—that glorified stretching seemed so vain and New Age—but Tom, who had been doing it for four years, had me in a courtyard with Jo, the English yogi he’d met on the beach the day before, going through the routines the next morning. We were her only students in that quiet part of the season, which gave her more opportunities to forcefully stretch my muscles in ways I would otherwise have appreciated as torture. It was Tom’s twenty-fifth birthday, and this was the start of his perfect day, which turned out to be a sound one for me as well. After the course, Jo recommended Shree Ganesh, down at the far end of the main shopping street, for breakfast.
Shree Ganesh was a narrow coco-thatch hut built around a half a brick wall. Branches and bamboo and two intersecting tree trunks hold up the peaked roof, covered in carpets and fans, and posters decorated every available surface of the walls: icons of Ganesh and Shiva and ads for everything Goa had to offer. Plastic tables with leather table covers wobbled on the uneven dirt and under the strain of eating, as each was crowded with flies and food and seated regulars, shirtless hippies and long-haired musicians and tattooed yogis, strangers sharing conversation over the few simple surfaces.
The only kitchen was the little cart set outside on stacked bricks, the spokes of its tires rusted away, with a gas stove on top where Ganesh filters chai and folds omelets into sandwiches served on metal tins. He lives in the back behind a curtain, where his wife mixes cut fruit and muesli for the health conscious. I ordered an egg and cheese sandwich and chai and sat back to look at the ads on the wall, for classes in Yoga, Tai Chi, Ayurvedic massage, Tibetan healing massage, guitar making, coin and card tricks, kitesurfing and windsurfing, and for trance parties and tattoo parlors and orphaned kittens. Tourists in tuk-tuks and Russians on scooters rushed by in a great hurry, but inside I found some measure of peace and gratitude for good, simple, Western food.
We set ourselves up in chairs on the beach: swam, read, listened to music, talked about the future, about retiring to a mansion in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela and ending life in that “sublime uneventfulness” I enjoy so much, and we dined after the brilliant sunset on hammerhead shark and kingfish. Tom suspended the terms of his clean-living to enjoy fish, beer, and charas on his birthday. We were feeling very fine, walking under the twilit palms to the sounds of surf and jungle, trying to find a cab to Morjim. That night was a full moon, the first and brightest of the year.
The Full Moon Parties of Goa are endangered legends. There has been a noise curfew in Goa for the past ten years, ever since the locals got tired of the heavy bass on the beach keeping their kids up all night, and strung out Brits lying on the road between home and the school. A few clubs get around this. Coco Loco, with its good police connections, hosts a party late every night. Other ventures must bribe the police. The place we went to, Blue Waves, with its thirty hour Марафон beach festival, had apparently paid a lot of baksheesh.
Tom and I negotiated a cab there and arrived after midnight, when the marathoners were just arriving. The Goan trance party looked as a rave would look in a tightly budgeted made-for-TV movie. Russians danced alone on the wide, smokey floor, lost in their own world of tribal beats and drugs, into which I put my feet. Neon posters plastered the back wall, and opposite that, across the dance floor, people were passed out in a string of pavilions that looked down the dune to the fire-dancers and loafers on the beach.
At four we left the place and ran back for an hour along the beach. The bright moon illuminated our road, between the pounding surf and the forested hills. Stray dogs chased us, but we turned and charged at them, shouting like animals, and escaped across the rivers that flowed into the sea. I felt that spirit of freedom that the hippies often talk about.
Another uneventful beach day began after breakfast at Shree Ganesh. Everything was closed by the time we went looking for dinner, and so we went back to Shree Ganesh for toasted sandwiches and milk chai, and sat at a table with a John Lennon lookalike named Darius, who was plucking at a mandolin and whistling. He had been in India a long time, summering in Dharamsala, wintering in Goa, and playing music in both as part of a folk band that performed traditional Celtic, American, Turkish, or Middle Eastern tunes—whatever their instruments supported. “This guy showed up with an alto sax,” he said, “so now we’re kind of playing gypsy music.”
His friends, a Russian couple, came and sat with us. The girl was very pretty and hunkered down in her vest so it came up to her chin. The man was built low and strong, and he had a goatee and fierce Cossack’s features, softened noticeably by his amiable character. He started pulling cigarette butts out of his fanny pack and put them in the ash tray.
“That’s too much,” said Darius. “What do you think these guys will do with them? You know they’ll just end up in the street, anyway. Floating down a river.”
“No!” cried the smiling Ivan.
As the Russian toasted a cigarette in his lighter, drying it out so it smoked better, Darius asked, “So, what do you think of the Russians here in Goa?”
“They’re horrible!” said Ivan. “They drink and drink and drink—so much! Vodka, vodka, vodka! It goes to the head. It takes the ceiling out,” he said, miming some Slavic equivalent of losing your head, “and they go mad. They just want to start fights. They are rude to everyone. They work and drink and do drugs back home, and then they come here, to Goa, nowhere else in India, and they drink and do drugs and go to trance music rave. They don’t know any music, but they say, ‘Oh, yeah, trance, this is a good beat, let’s party, time to dance,’” and he slackened his face in a moronic gesture and made a noise like hrrr, then sealed those features into an expression of rage that, strong as he looked, was almost comic on a face so naturally cheerful, and he declared, “I hate Russians!” His girlfriend was laughing.
I later cultivated an idea for a movie, based in part on this premise, and revolving around Goa’s two distinct factions, the hippies and the Russians. Here is the film pitch for the movie that could be titled Ruskie Groove or Coco Loco:
The principle characters are a mean, hard-working Russian, who we’ll call Ivan, and a lazy, jack of all trades, master of none hippie, who we can call Darius. These polar opposites meet without much attraction at a hash dealer in Arambol, both seeking drugs for their own reasons, and the hash dealer says, “I have to go get something, come with me.” The Russian and the hippie have a few awkward conversations in the hash dealer’s car, and then get out, leaving their baggage on the back seat. The hash dealer runs out of the bushes, gets in the car, and speeds off, pursued by several officers of the Indian police.
Thus are Ivan and Darius enmeshed in a buddy cop sort of pairing, tracking down their possessions: Darius his violin, a Stratovarius or something fancy from the days before his torpor, and Ivan his mother’s ashes. The old woman loved Goa and wanted to have her ashes scattered there.
Darius: What does it look like?
Ivan: Like gunpowder, or maybe cocaine.
Darius: No! What are the ashes in?
Ivan: In vodka bottle. What you look at me for? The, how you say—the vase, it broke on the airplane, so I put in vodka bottle. It is good vodka, from my village, not cheap Ukrainian shit! [He spits on the floor.]
Darius: Man, they’re your mother’s ashes!
Ivan: Shut up! It’s what she would have want!
These two get in many misadventures. They go to the beach, Darius in a sarong, Ivan in a speedo. (“What’s with that?” “I must get even tan! Fuck you!”) At night they go to a hippie jam circle on the beach, looking for the dealer. “What is this music?” says Ivan, “There is no trance?” There is a vodka bottle going around, and Ivan snatches it away, looks in it for ashes, and then downs it. He approaches a girl and says, “Dance with me now,” and when the girl refuses he says, “Fuck you bitch! You break my heart!” He gives her the finger and screams in her face, which really happened to a girl we met. Darius comes back and finds Ivan in hippie gear, sitting out on the beach. They have a talk.
Ivan: I don’t know. I work and I drink, and I thinking life is more than hard work, hard drink. I think maybe it is good to take easy sometime.
Ivan’s family arrives in Goa for the funeral, and Darius helps him pretend that nothing is wrong. He meets Ivan’s sweet and beautiful sister. She at first doesn’t even notice him, but then he cuts his hair and acts distinguished. He plays violin at the funeral, not his violin, but a decent one, and impresses her tremendously. And so both characters realize a median between the hard-working, hard-living ideal of Russia and America and the lazy freedom of the hippie generations that are besieged in Goa.
South India seems a small world sometimes, especially its traveler’s circuit, where you happily meet the same people again and again. On the last day of January I ran into Tamara and Lola, eating lunch at a place on the beach.
The German and the Quebecois had rented a scooter and driven it from their huts in Anjuna to Arambol (at a safe 40 kilometers per hour, wearing helmets) to try kitesurfing. That ended up being to expensive, but Tom and I did meet Tamara later in the streets and went with her to see a soulful Korean woman play guitar. “I’m free,” she kept saying, and she cackled like a maniac. We went to Shree Ganesh and sat with Darius, and Tamara and the mandolinist played an improvised duet. Tom went to bed, missing his girlfriend, but I went down to the beach with the girls and a few beers and told them the story of Santiago and the Sword, which few Readers will remember.
A year had passed since I left home for London, it is remarkable that a year ago my mom was crying in the airport, and I was waiting in the security line in my REI gear, ready for unknown things to come, and not really ready at all. I spent New Years in a trashy bar off the Interstate, playing pool and talking to overweight girls and listening to the ACDC playlist, and my friend threw champagne glasses around at midnight so we had to leave. Back then I wondered at maps that seemed to take on a new meaning now that I knew I could visit many of those places, and now I know I can see them all.
Unbelievable, as Sven would say. Good on you, as Steve the Aussie would. Bob the Drunk Welshman might even buy me a drink. I know Jean would say, Man that’s a long time, and Amelia would have something witty for me. Skip told me that a year on the road makes it impossible to go home, but he spent ten years lost. I know where I’m going. Someone asked me of my trip, “Does it all blur together?” and I replied, “No, it’s all very distinct in my mind.” To this I must add that all the time before I left for London, all that life seems a blur!
Tamara and Lola asked me if a person changes when they travel. They do! Travelers just don’t see it, no more than a man who looks in the mirror every day discerns the changes of age. He only notices his maturing when he sees a photo. I must go home to know how new I am!
I don’t miss the specifics of home, the people, places, food, and weather, so much as I miss the feeling of home, of familiar surroundings and familiar people that I know will be there tomorrow, where the events of life are not rapid and intense but slowly cultivated. I know I am mortal, but sometimes I prefer the dreary, routine passage of time. Nothing lasts on the road: you must enjoy its transitory pleasures, warm yourself by the bright and flickering flames that quickly burn out. Is home the same? Will it be changed as I, when I return, to wash up on the shore like Ulysses in rags?
I have learned a lot about travel—to take it slow, to watch my things, to get names and give my own—but I still have a long way to go to finding those true places, never on any map. They beckon so subtly, and require a great effort and perfect timing, but ah, the boons! The things I have seen! Such stories have I heard, such friends have I met, such adventures have found me in the last year to make me the envy of my former self—adventures like the following tale.
I spent the next day writing in a cafe and swimming in the ocean until Tamara found me at the former. She and Lola had gone back to Anjuna the night before and had returned with their two traveling companions, Paula of Venice, the Italian that the Reader has already met at the Laughing Club of Mumbai, and a Welshwoman named Cat, a professional photographer. We went to Shree Ganesh for a quick dinner. I ate a few omelet sandwiches and Tamara had a thali that later made her sick, and we left before the others to meet Tom on the beach of Arambol, where hippies converged around sunset.
There was a circle, O Reader. An accordion player sat at the center. Tamara was next to him, strumming the rhythm on Tom’s guitar, and there was a man who sometimes played guitar and sometimes scooted around, making circles in the sand, and chanting or making animal noises. I was there, clapping a beat, next to Tom and a cute Canadian girl named Casey. Women stood just outside our circle, singing or belly dancing. Moving further outwards, the Reader finds a section of percussionists on stretched pans, and sometimes other musicians, on trumpets or saxophones or flutes, whatever they brought with them, whatever could fit into the music. Past them the fire-dancers practiced with glowing sticks or their unlit batons, shadows sat in circles with the ember of a rolled joint between them, and then there was the sunset on the surf and the jungle. What a strange place!
After this dispersed, we went down the beach to an open pavilion and sat in the sand, drinking and smoking. All the tables were taken. A big band was jamming on the stage, all sitting, backing up an excellent bassist who appareled himself as Jimi Hendrix. Tom walked Casey home and then went to bed himself, and Lola and I walked Tamara back to her hut after a stomach virus struck. (“I didn’t even have any beer,” said the German, still clever in her second language.) Cat, Lola, Paula, and I went down the beach to Coco Loco. We could see from the jam bar a group of fire-dancers and took seats in the sand among the watching crowd. The performers whirled flaming hula hoops, sticks, or balls on chains in wild, dangerous dances to the club’s trance music, a live flute and drum vaguely detectable jamming over the beat of the music.
Now that the scene has been set, we come to the story: There was a scrawny man between us and the square of the stage, facing away from the fire-dancers, resting on his shins with his hands on his knees in a state of deep, inconvenient meditation. He had on a sari and a tight shirt, and his curly brown hair was tonsured on top but long down to his neck in the back. His eyebrows looked sharp enough to cut, and his clean-shaven face was more wickedly confident than serene.
We enjoyed the show for a while, and the disciple changed position. He hunched or prostrated himself over his knees, his arms tucked under him, so he was a little pill-shaped thing in the light of the whirling flames. This was fine, only then a puppy came up off the beach and started licking his hair and neck. The man did not move. Then Cat came back from the dance floor and, seeing the puppy, squatted down on her haunches beside it. She rested her hand on the sack of vegetables next to her and pet the puppy for a good long while.
At this point, Paula asked Lola and I, “What are you laughing at?” We had tears in our eyes and busted guts, and thought the scene would come to its climax when Cat suddenly looked up and said, “Oh my God!” but her revelation was not the one we expected. “I love this puppy!” she exclaimed, her hand still on the frayed round prop. Our laughter renewed itself. This went on for what felt like several minutes as the Welshwoman cooed over the dog. Then the sack of vegetables that she had been leaning on, which was in truth, the Reader can guess, the head of the meditating man, suddenly sat up and turned a withering look, a sorcerous, wicked expression, terrifying and not at all soothed in its calculating clarity, on the woman. I was hunched over at that point, and I was still laughing when Cat came back without having said a word.
“I’ll be back,” said Cat, “if it’s alright. Do let me know when you want to leave. I’m just going to—”
“Apologize?” Lola cut in.
“No,” said Cat. “To have a boogie. Don’t be mean,” and she went off to the tribal dance floor, where the flutist and the drummer were in an ecstasy of their own.
The story does not end here, O Reader, for the meditative man held a grudge against the creature that had so disturbed his awakening to nirvana. We watched the fire-dancing for a while, and suddenly heard the puppy cry out from the crowd. Thinking nothing of this first whine, it was only after it came regularly that we looked around and saw the man, still crouching where he had been, holding the puppy tightly in his lap, a wrist across the dog’s throat.
“Hey!” we cried across the spectators, “Let that dog go!” but the man ignored us and considered the dog with the calmly malevolent glower of his eyes. Finally Lola got up and went over to him and said, “Dude, you have to let the dog go. He’s crying. He doesn’t like it.”
“The dog is fine,” said the man, in an approximation of Satan.
“The dog is not fine, he’ll be crying again when you start squeezing his head again. He doesn’t like it. Let him go,” said Lola, and she grabbed the man’s hand. He held the puppy in a tense, immovable grip and turned up at the rescuer that wicked gaze of his, holding it steady and unblinking for a full minute, as if marking her face for some purpose. The Jewess did not look away until the corners of the man’s thin lips curled up in the evilest suggestion of a grin, but when she did not back down even then, the man curled up over the puppy, lying silent in his lap now that the torment had stopped. “Seriously?” said the girl.
People who had long taken notice of this strange scene and respected it pacifically were now actively watching it, but only another girl had confronted the man in support of the captive and Lola. The man’s friends, in a circle near him, watched so listlessly that they might have been mannequins. I do not know what he had in mind: a punishment or a faith healing, an ayurvedic massage, or some sort of sadistic indoctrination, but the man straightened back up and glared at the insistent enemies of whatever conversion he had in mind for the poor pup. Finally, I, who had been standing just behind Lola, stepped across the crowd.
“Come on, man,” I think I said as I grabbed his suddenly compliant hands and moved them away from the dog, “It’s no problem. No worries. See?” I added, as the puppy renewed its squirming and finally jumped free, “it just wants to go sniff stuff. No worries. You didn’t do anything.”
The man glared wickedly at me this entire time, and he did not smile. He folded his hands back in his lap and watched me return to my seat. The way the crowd was sitting left him a clear view straight to Lola. For a while she ignored his gaze, and then she held it, and then she said fiercely, “I’m sorry if I offended you, I was just worried about the dog,” but no matter what the Jewess did, the meditating man would not remove the curse of his thoughtful glower.
Eventually, of his own will, he stood up, and in an open area near the corner of the stage, did some sort of ritualized bow and held his hands together in the namaste greeting, and he blew a kiss our way. After a visit to the bar, he sat among his listless friends, meditated a little, and several times paced back and forth behind us, either looking for his canine subject or intimidating us as an animal would. He held a rock in his hand as if it were sacred. We wondered if maybe we had broken him out of his own world, stopped him just short of his ascension. We started back when Cat returned from her boogie, looking over our shoulders regularly for any sign of that strange man.