In the past few years Goa has changed from bohemian state to Eastern party capital. But now that the original pioneers have moved on, is there still a place for peace, love and alternative thinking? We meet the next wave of free spirits
It’s 10am and house music is already pumping from the makeshift restaurants along the beachfront. Servers have kicked off their shoes and are trying to tempt passers- by towards sun loungers with offers of, “Breakfast, brunch – cocktail?” Some take them up on the latter suggestion, and are soon enjoying the early sunshine, mojito in hand.
I’m in Arambol, the northernmost of Goa’s resorts, where the sunshine and party scene is similar to so many other beach destinations worldwide. It is, however, very different to when I first visited 12 years ago. Back then, Goa was just making a name for itself as a backpacker paradise, a place that – especially in comparison to the chaos most of India thrives on – was calm, beautiful and sparsely occupied by an expat community now synonymous with the area: namely, hippies.
These free-spirited (mostly American) nomads first came here in the 1960s, drawn to Goa’s relaxed social practices (a hangover from its time as a Portuguese colony), spiritual inclinations, shoestring prices and, of course, warm climate and tropical landscape. But, as is the danger with any paradise, word got out. Today, more than half a million tourists visit each year. The original hippies have gone, and in their place are people who tick every traveller stereotype. But instead of shunning tourism like their predecessors, this new generation have decided to embrace it.
“I don’t know why anyone would choose to sit at a desk all day when you have a choice to live like this,” 26-year-old Tia Mac tells me. We’re at Natti’s Naturals, a trendy health food store and cafe on the Arambol-Anjuna road owned by her mother, Natasha. Tia moved to Goa from London in 2011 after getting fed up of city life (her mum followed shortly after), and she’s turned a lifelong hobby into a career by launching her own fashion line,TIA (facebook.com/0studioTIA).
“Goa has become much more accessible for foreigners who want to set up businesses,” says Tia. “For me, India is also great for sourcing unusual textiles and good craftspeople. I have a reliable tailor, a silk printer, a leather worker, I’ve opened my own shop and also sell online – mainly to the UK. Plus, it’s a nice way to live. It’s beautiful, sunny and cheap and you can go to the beach all the time.” Rachel Jones is quick to agree when she joins us for a round of lemongrass lassis. The nurse- turned-blogger from Ohio moved here around the same time as Tia. “I tried a few things when I first moved here,” she says. “Thai yoga massages, candle-making and then, five months in, I started my blog, Hippie In Heels (hippie-inheels.com).” Despite not being a writer and initially finding decent internet access difficult (although it’s everywhere these days), she started blogging about India and, as one of the first people to do so, got a lot of hits. “Suddenly people were requesting things for me to write about,” she explains. “It became a service I realised I could charge for.” Today, she lives off her blog (and only spends one day a week writing!), which has been featured in Grazia and Elle, and has 28,000 followers on Twitter. She even charges for Instagram posts. She and her boyfriend have a nice, cheap apartment, three dogs, a car, and a good social life. “To be honest, it’s lovely to be able to live so simply with so little responsibilities,” she says.
Anirban Halder is another Goan who rejected the daily grind to follow his dreams. At Anjuna’s hippie market, held every Wednesday, you’ll find him and his band Electric Pulse at Sea Breeze bar (seabreezebar.com), belting out everything from Nirvana to George Michael.
The 28-year-old from Calcutta was meant to follow a career in hospitality, but after growing tired of the “uniformed and restricted” hotel life, he decided to quit his job and form Electric Pulse, against his family’s wishes.
“India is a strict country with strong family values and expectations,” he tells me. “Leaving your job to become a musician just isn’t done. But in Goa, where everyone is following some kind of creative dream, it felt right.”
Soon the group, with their distinctive Western rocker look of long hair, beards and jeans, were getting regular bookings, and they’re now making enough money to live on. Anirban excitedly tells me they’ve just finished recording their first album. “I suppose I’m an Indian hippie in Goa doing what makes me happy,” he says. “And I wouldn’t exchange that for anything.”
A meditative hum hangs in the air as I arrive at my next stop, the Samata Holistic Retreat (samatagoa.com): a complex of towering Balinese village huts built inside an oasis of mango and coconut trees, with colourful butterflies and langur monkeys chuckling on the perimeter. It was exactly what Vajra Ashara was looking for when he was searching for a location for his not-for-profit yoga sanctuary four years ago. The American innovator originally earmarked the space for the Dunagiri Foundation (dunagiri.org), a charitable organisation he set up for Himalayan herbal research, but later decided it was the perfect place to build his yoga retreat. And, importantly, it was somewhere he knew he could raise his son.
“I needed to find a place where we could exist among like-minded, eco-conscious people, that was both ideal for raising a young family and had enough tourists to sustain the retreat,” he says. “Goa was perfect.”
Vajra is not a man who does things by halves. Before setting up Samata, he spent three years walking barefoot across the Himalayas and started a successful fashion company in Bali.
For the retreat he shipped over genuine century – old Balinese village huts, built a self-sustaining organic garden with 150 different plants (many non-native), a school for his son and other local international children, a holistic doctor’s surgery and an incredible treehouse. Phew.
“It’s important to me that we live by example,” he says. “Already, people are coming here because they’ve heard about the eco work we do, and our organic farming and alternative school.”
There’s another reason people are stopping by: Gome Galily’s Matsya Freestyle Kitchen. At 2,000 rupees a head (around £20), it’s one of Goa’s more expensive dining spots, but also one of the cheapest gourmet tasting experiences in the world. The Israeli chef animatedly tells me about the many Michelin-star restaurants he’s worked at (including current world No.2 Noma in Copenhagen), and his six- to eight-course “freestyle” cuisine – created from whichever ingredients look good at the market that morning, combined with whatever pops into Gome’s head after he “throws them” on his kitchen worktop.
I tuck into an astounding and, frankly, crazy dish of oysters and mussels steamed with ginger, white wine, wasabi and mango, served with passion fruit ponzu, organic cucumber and blue pea flower.
“I am messy,” he says with a grin. “I need to make a mess in the kitchen to be inspired.” Gome never intended to be a chef. Ten years ago he was two weeks into a backpacking trip when disaster struck. “Everything I owned got stolen and I only had 1,000 rupees (£10) in my pocket,” he says. “So I took a job in a restaurant in Goa in exchange for a bed.”
By the end of the season, he agreed to come back, and spent the monsoon months (April to October) working in restaurants around Europe before returning. And that has been his pattern for the past decade: working at some of the world’s top restaurants and, later, as a private chef on superyachts, before heading back to Goa. “I love the contrast of dreadlocked hippies sitting on the floor eating the same dishes that people with their top buttons done up and a million pounds in their pockets were eating a week before,” he laughs.
Three years ago Vajra approached him about a vacant rooftop space and Gome became the proud owner of his first restaurant. While initially intended to cater for the retreat, it soon became apparent that Gome’s elaborate – and menuless – cuisine wasn’t suitable for health-conscious retreaters full-time, so he opened to the public.
Now working on a second, as yet unnamed, restaurant in Ibiza, and soon to appear on the Israeli version of MasterChef, Gome has come a long way from that fateful day someone nicked his backpack, but he says he will always be a Goa kid at heart. “I choose to base myself here because it’s where I grew as a person and as a chef,” he says. “There’s also a special magic here. As soon as I land in India and get that stamp in my passport I feel able to dream. That’s what’s great about Goa.”