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Where Aquarius Is Showing Its Age


Letter From India

WHERE AQUARIUS IS SHOWING ITS AGE

I stroll along the beach, lulled by the sound of the waves. Fishermen lean against wooden boats, cleaning their nets for another night's trawling. Then, I climb over some rocks and am confronted by a strikingly different vista: coconut trees with trunks painted in swirls of Day-Glo pink, yellow, and orange; near-naked sunbathers; and fumes from illegally smoked substances.

Welcome to sun-drenched Goa, a hippie haven that's still going strong. A Portuguese colony for centuries until 1961, the enclave enjoyed customs such as the rowdy Carnival that made it a bit more laid-back than the rest of India and set the stage for the hippies. For three decades now, the anything-goes atmosphere and gorgeous beaches have attracted rudderless travelers mf varying ages, particularly Europeans, who lounge about in cheap rented cottages for months at a time. "There are regulars who come every year. We all get to know each other," says Babsy, a thin German woman who, like many regulars, declined to give details on her background, let alone her full name.

Attempts to recapture the good old days are evident everywhere, from the tie-dyed sarongs peddled by beach hawkers to the thin, bearded souls perpetuating the Jesus look. But the Aquarian paradise is not what it used to be. For starters, the hippies themselves have become a tourist attraction. Travel operators throughout India promise eye-opening sights to young men whose beach experience, if any, has been watching Indian women wade in the water with saris hiked up to their knees. Large groups of such youths tramp the sand, ogling and photographing sunbathing Western women.

The weekly flea market, once a quaint affair where Westerners sold apple pies and secondhand books, has grown into a sprawling bazaar. Dylan, a 43-year-old Englishman with a mop of sandy curls, has a stall selling Body Shop lotions and knockoff consumer electronics. He blames the new tackiness on the hordes of package tourists who descended in the mid-1980s. Wandering through the flea market in straw hats and souvenir T-shirts, they are accosted everywhere by new vendors selling Kashmiri carpets, Rajasthani pillowcases, and Tibetan jewelry. "Too many of them," sniffs Dylan, whose customers are mostly Indian. "And they're frightened to death." Of what, I ask. "Of India," he says.

True, coming to Goa for most package tourists is not a trip to India. It's simply a warm, cheap place to go. What they'll never see are the prospering villages and lush fields and orchards of the interior. Nor will they explore the deserted coves further up the coast. But they will see plenty of other tourists: 200,000 annually. In front of the new Old Anchor condominiums rises a boat-shaped restaurant that would be right at home on the Jersey Shore.

GOA WAY. The package tourists cluster at such places as Leela Beach Resort, which opened in 1991 and features two pools and a small golf course. On the path leading to the beach, a huge sign in several languages advises: "The management of the Leela Beach cannot be held responsible for the quality and hygiene of the food and beverage available outside the hotel premises."

No wonder locals complain they don't like charter tourists. "They pay their package, and they're not willing to spend any more," says Claude Alvares of the Goa Foundation, a citizens' group. "And they don't want to meet people, to see how Goans live."

Some Goans, though, aren't sorry to see the new tourists displace the hippies. Locals are frustrated that a police crackdown on the drug trade has been mainly a chance to shake down suspects. "The police are just filling their pockets," says a liquor-store owner. Goan officials now talk of the ideal tourist, a couple of notches above the hippie and charter crowds. Such visitors might turn out to be the same travelers who put Goa on the backpackers' map 30 years ago, like one European man I met. Returning for the first time since the 1960s, he has brought his wife and young son. He talks of a Goa that used to be: uncrowded beaches, few cars, no beach hawkers. Why has he waited so long to come back? "I have a tough time getting away from the office." As Mick Jagger once lamented, what a drag it is getting old.SHARON MOSHAVI


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