[This is an extract from Tales of a Road Junky by Tom Thumb]
When I was 18 I went to India and freaked out. I got ill, harassed and was almost thinking about going home before I headed down to Goa and found my feet again.
A friend I’d met in the Himalayas introduced me to the old freaks who sat around in Joe Bananas Café each day and analysed their changing Paradise. To even find Joe Bananas you had to be shown the way through the twisting jungle paths and it was one of the oldest cafés around. The story went that some 20 years ago a hippie had thrown a banana at someone, missed and a Goan called Joe picked it up and sold it to the next freak to come along.
Plenty of younger people came to Joe’s for the legendary lassis and milkshakes but it was the generation in their 50’s who held court each lunchtime and, to their puzzled discomfort, I made myself a regular at their tables, absorbing the stories of the old days and barely being allowed to squeeze in a word edgeways. At best, I was a curiosity to be tolerated or patronised, at worst I was 30 years too young to offer an opinion on any subject that mattered.
Most of them had come overland to India in the 60’s and 70’s and reminisced about the good old days when one navigated the jungle with a candle in a coconut shell at night. These were the days when the Goans were rescued from the economic and cultural vacuum left by the Portuguese (who’d renounced their colony in 1961) by the long-haired freaks who came to spend the winters on the beach.
The conservative Goans were a little shocked by the naked foreigners smoking charas on the beach but on the whole were almost unreasonably tolerant of the excesses of the freak scene. They provided a modest demand for fish, fruit and the odd house to rent and most of them left by monsoon when the good fishing started.
Moreover, they gave the locals something to talk about. Goans could be reserved to the point of being small-minded and the presence of the freak community was a welcome source of fresh gossip. Word spread among the freak scene that Goa was a tolerant location to let it all hang out and freaks began to take breaks from seeking enlightenment in the rest of India to come and party.
At first it was just bongo drums and chillums on the beach, watching the sun go down and getting pregnant. Freaks wandered around dressed in sadhu outfits or just went naked and troubled themselves only to bury their charas in the sand when the cops showed up. I heard wistful tales of legendary drug stashes lost under the sands to short term memory loss and successive monsoons.
Soon the first parties began with electrified rock music and the beaches filled up with thousands of freaks from all around the planet, tripping their brains out all night long. I was assured with pride that, Anjuna, the beach where I swam every day and tripped at night once a week, probably had the honour of more LSD having been taken there than anywhere else in the world.
I was curious to know how the golden days of the freak scene had metamorphosed into the fixture on the international trance scene that Goa had become. Between ordering just about every dish on the menu in a single sitting, I plied the veteran freaks with questions about the old days. Their nostalgia stoked, the stories flowed freely and allowed me to piece together a picture of how it all started.
I learned that as the scene matured and those idealistic young hippies hit 30, their values began to change. Being poor and starving had its charms but even lentils and rice hippies took a ride on the gravy train sooner or later. One survivor of that time put it this way:
“It all went wrong when people starting making money with drugs. Everyone began making runs to the West with charas in their shoes and suitcases. They came back wearing fancy clothes and snorting coke.”
Combine the arrogance of the coke head with the spiritual superiority of the hippy and you have a truly dreadful slice of humanity. It became a battle of the egos to see who could make the latest entrance to the parties.
“Us poor freaks in lunghis would be sweating it out all night long to a crackly guitar band and we’d look up at the cliffs in the morning and see the coke dealers looking down on us, dressed to kill.”
Predictably, everyone lamented the passing of time and how things weren’t as freaky as they used to be. Their days were numbered and they knew it. In the footsteps of the freaks came another breed of tourist and the wealth they generated changed everything.
Being a romantic, I shared their sympathies and wished I’d had come 30 years earlier. Goa was still magical to me but I could easily imagine the beaches with not a house or restaurant in sight. When the fisherman used to row out to sea instead of endangering the lives of long distance swimmers with their Yamaha engines. When you could walk through the jungle without encountering brick walls marking the fault lines of family squabbles over land that was previously worthless.
I used to climb the hill above the beach to catch the dawn after a hard night’s dancing on the sands and all I could see were rice paddies and jungle. The signs of progress were still invisible from on high and to even arrive at these few world-famous beaches you had to negotiate windy, pot-holed roads through a thicket of hills. It seemed improbable that news of these Goan beaches could ever have reached the outside world.
Perhaps I should have been hanging out with travelers of my own age, bombing around on a motorbike, chasing girls and fine-tuning my chillum etiquette to impress the gang. But I figured that if there was anyone who could tell me anything worth knowing it would be the old folks. They were actually quite nice to me now I think about it and they probably enjoyed the chance to tell some of the old tales to a pair of fresh ears.
I heard tales of all the characters over the years who had become holy men or women, committed suicide, overdosed or just gone plain crazy. When I quoted the line And I lay traps for troubadours who got killed before they reached Bombay I was sharply reminded that the Stones never made it to India, much less covered anyone’s funeral expenses.
I pestered everyone for stories; a man who had spent 7 years living in a mountain cave as an ascetic baba; another who drove around India every winter on a motorbike and who once owned a half share in a cow in Varanasi; a German Kali devotee who held that her bad moods were the righteous rage of the Goddess, intent on destroying ignorance and stupidity; others told of dope deals gone wrong, brushes with the Indian mafia, golden moments with celebrated gurus or the trials and tribulations of raising kids in the tropics – especially when they ended up rejecting their freak upbringing and becoming investment bankers.
The grandfather of the freak scene was 8 Finger Eddie, an Armenian-American with only 3 fingers on his right hand. He was one of the very first freaks to arrive in Goa in 1965 and though he was the stuff of legend, in his 70´s he now seemed to be marking time. He woke up at dawn to dance for 45 minutes every day, played patience all morning and then walked into the lunchtime café at the stroke of noon without fail. He played racquet-ball on the beach in the afternoon and was the first customer in the same restaurant each night. If his luck was in someone would buy him dessert.
He’d barely left India in the past 40 years and lived humbly on the interest of some money he had stashed away somewhere.
“I consider every day of my life that I don’t work a day of success!” he once laughed as I hassled him for his stories on the beach. Eddie was friendly to me from the first and that probably went a way to easing my social acceptance among the rest. Barely a week would go by without some acquaintance from the past returning after 15 years away from the freak scene and rushing up to him with great fondness. His memory was prodigious but often he’d just smile and let them gush about the old days for a few minutes until they left him to his own devices.
“Did you remember her?” I asked him after a matronly blond woman from Switzerland had bent our ears about all the ‘masters’ she’d been studying meditation with recently.
“Nah.” he waved a 3 fingered hand dryly, “Anyway, meditation is a waste of time. There is no path.”
That was the kind of Zen simplicity that was Eddie’s trademark. He could be incredibly mundane at times – his dirty jokes on his occasional stand-up shows tested the loyalty of even his oldest friends – but there was a calm and simplicity to Eddie that charmed me. He had the air of someone who had understood his life and was now just enjoying the remaining days one at a time.
When I asked him how it felt to be old he shrugged.
“How would I know?”
His philosophy seemed to be holding up. In his mid-70’s he had a full head of chestnut hair although he was so thin and bony that you could lose him in the sun when he turned sideways.
Journalists in search of a story about Goa would sometimes track down Eddie for an interview and he might answer the questions for a hundred bucks. He was like a holy man without any religion or practice. Various people had tried to make a guru out of him through the years but he never believed in that game.
“If the Buddha was out there on my doorstep I wouldn’t go out to meet him,” he insisted, “What can the Buddha do for me?”