Beach Life (Varkala, Gokarna, Goa)

I have this thing about hippies.  The thing being that I hate them.  Which is weird because some of my best friends are hippies so clearly it’s not hippies on a case by case basis but hippies en masse that annoy me.

The seed of my hatred was planted in high school, when in the one social arena in which I felt I belonged, I was still subject to hazing from the senior tie-dye wearing contingent.  By the time I went to college it was a flowering fruiting forest of objection.  Wearing patchouli was an incitement to violence.  Dreads on a white person won instant apathy.  An affection for The Grateful Dead or Phish equated with frontal lobotomy.

It’s only recently that I’ve starting examining my dispassion, wondering why it lingers to this day.  I think partially it boils down to a perceived lack of creativity, a lack of respect for anyone who latches onto a cookie cutter identity the same way I’m suspicious of goths or punk.  I understand not feeling mainstream, but I’ve never believed that a fashion choice or genre of music could define me as a person.  But my hatred of hippies runs deeper still and I think it boils down to this; hippies at their origin were more than just free love and “mind expansion” and jam bands.  They came from a movement defined by activism; the worthy notion that we can make the world a better place for everyone that has been largely dismantled by modern cynicism (although I’m cautiously hopeful that Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign and the worldwide Occupy movement signal a change in the zeitgeist).  The idea that social justice and environmental conservation can be co-opted as fashion accessories in a marijuana leaf and Bob Marley ensemble is what really ticks me off.

Unfortunately the “hippy vibe” has become a symbiotic organism with the “traveler scene.”  Understandably so since long stays in developing nations, stripping down to what you can carry and doing without “western” luxuries and a desire to experience and interact with a truly different environment are certainly hippy-ish activities, it is unfortunate because inevitably places popular with travellers, begin catering to them.  And nowhere are they catered to more than at beach resorts, Bob Marley and marijuana included.

A separate world to the busy city itself, Varkala’s stunning beach cliffs are crowded with shops selling low cut floaty batik dresses and Che Guevara tee-shirts, California style juice stalls and standard issue bars and restaurants with identiprint menus and weekly parties.  The best meal we had, melt-in-your-mouth calamari and fist-sized prawns, would have been just as delicious was it not presided over by a 15 foot technicolor mural of Bob Marley.  Catching a minute of international cricket on tv from the front of a convenience store, two young locals struck up conversation and within one play offered to procure us of weed, hash or cocaine.

And Varkala is just the “new Goa”; Goa with its infamous hippy rave scene.  With 90% of businesses closed for the monsoon anyway and the foreknowledge that raving was not on our list of priorities, we chose to stay off the beaten track and visit Anjuna and Arambol, the travelers’ hubs, on day trips.  Within minutes of parking the scooter in Anjuna we were befriended by a local who took us for a stroll on the trash littered beach and showed us the all-day all-night bar where we could buy “anything you want” across the counter.  Although Arambol was doing its best impression of a ghost town, weathered strung-out looking dreadlocked loin-clothed westerners still wandered the alleys in potent hazed herds like a strange indo-euro echo of the clutches of goats round every corner.

Not that there is nothing else to do.  Both Goa and Varkala offer beautiful scenery (although the water is less than inviting), yoga and a wealth of dining and drinking, as well as a luxurious resort-style familiarity that I guess even a traveler needs from time to time.  But the best things we did in Goa were unique to it; watching the sunset from the crumbling 16th century Portuguese sandstone fort in Chambora, polishing off a bottle of dangerously drinkable Goan Honey Bee Brandy at the bar of a friendly expat’s wonderful restaurant, hearing one out of what is no doubt hundreds of stories of how a person finds himself not in the country of his birth or education but settled thousands of miles away in a new home on a new continent.

But still I far preferred Gokarna, a small beach town just across Goa’s southern border.  While the three sandy coves north of the town are populated by small clusters of bars, guesthouses, beach shacks, yoga centers and a surf school, the town itself retains its own identity.  With four important temples and a local population that is friendly to but not exclusively for travelers, Gokarna feels unique, like a discovery, not a franchise.

Not that, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m on a high horse of any kind.  I’ve been known to like a party, a rave, a night that ends the next afternoon.  And I’ve also come to accept that there’s more than a little hippy in me.  Which is why I’m thinking I’d enjoy a couple of days in Goa during season.  Maybe for my birthday next year.  But I’m also sure I’ll be equally happy, climbing out from under my inevitable comedown, shaking the hippy out of my hair, buying a bottle of Honey Bee Brandy for the road and waving it goodbye.

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