Goa's Hippie-Era Holdover Is a Shopping Dream

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 14, 2008

GOA, India -- The tie-dyed billboard states in swirled paint: "Welcome to the Mother of All Indian Night Markets." Inside the market, at twilight, Neil Young's bohemian mantra "Rockin' in the Free World" fills the muggy air.

And market-goers find themselves swaying to the beat as they hop off their motorbikes or step down from their cabs. A graying, ponytailed disc jockey interrupts the tune and calls out: "All you lucky hippies, shop well. We are here to rock India, baby."

So right at 7 p.m. on a steamy Saturday night, hundreds of holiday-making Indian families joined hundreds of Birkenstock-wearing young tourists to wander the myriad stalls selling hemp-fabric hammocks, dreadlock extensions, sitars and saris, along with classes for aromatherapy analysis, reiki and colonic hydrotherapy.

Shiny glass bangles, miniature statues of Hindu deities, giant stuffed elephants bejeweled with mirrors and bright Rajasthani fabrics, T-shirts bearing images of Mahatma Gandhi with marijuana plants sprouting from his head. To Sam Andersen, 29, the market was one of the highlights of this palm-fringed beach destination. The compulsive shopper from England started sweating.

She could barely contain her desire to "buy everything" because "it's so much fun here that you start to really believe you need the Incredible Hulk sarong and matching towel, which has the Hulk but also is printed with the Hindu god Ganesh."

"So brilliant," her friend said, examining a pair of sandals, which had straps shaped like giant red lips. The shoe designer wasn't bargaining -- there were plenty of customers looking for funky footwear.

"We make people too happy," said Arathi Menon, an apprentice for a Goan shoe designer who was selling the aforementioned "kissing feet" style along with floppy yellow, green and orange boots that look hobbit-like.

The Saturday night market is an outgrowth of a smaller flea market started in the 1960s in Goa by broke hippies. Today there are several night markets and a Wednesday market in the hippie enclave of Anjuna beach with thousands of stalls.

"The hippies wanted to stay in Goa, bum around India for as long as they could," said Alfred Wolfgang, 60, speaking through a mouthful of brownie. At the market's food stands, he was holding forth about the history of the place to a younger crowd. "So they sold their bluejeans, they made lasagna, they played Beatles songs. They did what they could at the flea market to be able to earn a little more and stay a little more."

Gregarious, with thick, caterpillar-like eyebrows, Wolfgang is from Long Island. He came to party in Goa decades ago, got hooked on the place, and started making brownies and selling them at the flea market.

"The first Indian family to taste them back then -- and that was before globalization -- well, they ordered just one and ended up leaving with the entire tray," he said, himself ordering another brownie from a young German couple who were selling them alongside milky coffee.

Wolfgang has long quit the sweets business and instead imports espresso machines to high-end customers in Mumbai and New Delhi.

And these days, the Saturday night bazaar has expanded from a foreigners' market to include merchants from across Asia. Hippie purists say the market should have stayed small. But merchants say they saw an opportunity and wanted in on it, even if they did have to print a tie-dyed sari or put pot fauna on Gandhi's head.

On this night, a visitor could wander at 9 p.m. through the market's labyrinth of stalls and find Tibetans selling mini prayer wheels and singing brass bowls, Kashmiris hawking carpets and shawls, and French women chain-smoking as they sell their designer "nomad purses," buttery leather handbags fused with tribal cloth, for around $200 -- after bargaining.

Around 9:30, many Indians, who typically eat dinner late, line up at the food stalls, many of which are run by foreigners. There's Goan rice and spongy bread, soggy pizza, greasy ravioli, overstuffed falafel and creamy but slightly sweaty tiramisu, along with ginger tea, fresh lime sodas and the season's first mango juice.

At several stalls, Nepali teenagers sell burned CDs of Goan trance music alongside Kurt Cobain and Bollywood soundtracks. At 10:15 the disc jockey spins "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

Closing his eyes and swaying to the music, Nila Ales, 25, begs some tourists from Germany to buy a bundle of incense sticks wrapped in a Buddha-embossed silk sack. They look annoyed and head off in search of beer at a nearby bar.

Nearby are star-shaped paper lamps, a Goan artist with hip and colorful prints of auto-rickshaws, a cashew seller -- Goa is the cashew capital of the world -- and homemade basil and thyme soaps and lavender bubble bath.

At almost midnight, the DJ, his voice lucid, cheery and most likely tinged with alcohol, sings out: "This is only a test," laughing at the punch line he's about to deliver. "The next life is for real."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company