It is April in Goa and hot. The Arabian Sea sparkles and the sand sings beneath our feet as we walk along the beach to Anjuna. The guidebook tells us here we will find the world’s biggest flea market. After several kilometers we reach our destination: acre upon acre filled with merchandise I recognize immediately. This must be the warehouse where vendors from Brazil to Canada come to buy the alternative clothing, the incense, jewelry and hippie paraphernalia sold since the seventies as generic ‘Indian’ products, some legal, some not.
There is not much evidence of the latter as we wander through aisle upon aisle of flowing floral dresses, blockprint tops and pants, brilliant psychedelic tie-dyed T-shirts and skirts, batik lungis, paisley bedspreads, patchwork vests. We are joined by others like us, Westerners in search of a bargain from the source.
Around noon it is really hot and I am in need of the only refreshment that will make a difference: an ice cold Kingfisher. As luck would have it, among the traders and vendors, there is a breezy cafe al fresco, offering just what I am looking for. I sit down at table made from a chunk of wood crudely sawn off an ancient tree. I have the perfect perch from which to survey the passing crowd.
Along comes a tall guy with the walk of a young man but the skin of middle age. He wears an embroidered vest over a T-shirt, tight jeans, leather hat and a pony. No earring, those belong to a younger generation. He is accompanied by a grim young woman half his age. He looks at my beer.
“That beer ice cold?” He is American.
“Cold enough,” I say. Two words give away my accent and he decides I know nothing.
“You British wouldn’t know, ” he accuses. My hackles rise.
“I’m Canadian, not British. We know about cold beer! Feel it!”
He is humbled, orders his beer and feels free to join me. Miss Thunderface does not drink; she sits and looks alternately vexed and impatient. When she obliges with a few terse words I hear staccato German. Soon a biographical exchange begins between Cold Beer and myself. It takes half a beer to recount in broad strokes where we had been, and what we had seen in the past fifty years. Middle-aged bonding really irritates the girl, especially when he starts talking about Goa in the 70’s. His eyes are misty, his words ambiguous:
“Oh yes, I was here when this flea market started. It was small to begin with but then people started buying the stuff and selling it in Europe and America. All kinds of stuff. Wonderful days, those. We used to sleep on the beach. Everything safe, everyone doing his own thing. Great dope, great sex.”
He looks to see if she’s impressed; she looks bored. I indulgently smile my wise granny smile; this kind of bragging is familiar and amuses me. He is encouraged to divulge more, she attempts to stop him: checks his beer, checks her watch, does everything but tell him in so many words it’s time to go. I am relaxed and she is annoying me.
“You, know, beer drinking is just like yoga,” I use the coaxing voice reserved for pre-schoolers, “you’re not supposed to watch the time!” She sniffs, he continues:
“You won’t believe how many came here poor and went away rich. I am one of them.”
I tell him about the
account in Empire of the Soul of how
hash oil, distilled in Swat by a Canadian entrepreneur with Goan connections,
was smuggled across the Atlantic in hollow typewriter lids. His eyes light up;
I’ve touched the sub agenda. Alarm replaces mere vexation on the face of our
young companion. I imagine the proceeds of his seed money provides quite a goo living for her.
“Ha, it’s like the book trade here in Goa in the old days. It took the police quite a while to discover why the covers of those beautiful Goan coffee table books were so thick! We exported quite a few before the book trade was stopped!”
I hear the ‘we’ and so does she. Time to get her geriatric partner away from nosy granny before she loses total control of her man. I know when my time is up. I allow her to yank him away. But I have one last thing to say:
“When you look at the young kids coming to Goa now, do you see yourself thirty years ago?”
He softens and looks almost young again.
“I do, I do, and it’s great. I hope it never stops!”
“Keep the faith,” I say, “whatever it is.”