That's pretty far out, man

Hippie paradise ... cows hang out on the beach in Goa.
Hippie paradise ... cows hang out on the beach in Goa. Photo: Getty Images

The cows are a dead giveaway. Without the cows it is almost a normal beach, the kind you would find anywhere. There is sand, waves crashing on the shore, the sun beating down on tourists clad in bikinis.

But then there are the cows. I've been on the beach about an hour before they arrive, plodding across the hot sand in single file.

The first one is a shock, the same as the first one you see on the street when you arrive is a shock. But then, just as those street-dwelling bovines begin to lose their novelty value with time, so too do their sand-loving brethren. No one even lowers their book or drops their drink as the cows saunter past, cutting a swath between sunbathers and swimmers.

Cows on a beach? That is when you remember you are in India. More specifically, you remember you are in Goa, that famed hippie paradise on the western coast. Because without the cows, you might forget.

I expected something different. When you picture Goa - an image conjured by films and books and mainstream media - you see the hippie paradise of the '70s and '80s. You see Westerners in silly tie-dyed clothing, twirling fire sticks and sitting in drum circles. You see clouds of purple haze enveloping mellowed-out dudes.

That is what Goa was always known for, for better or worse. It was not just a stop along the hippie trail; it was the destination. And that reputation persists. The rest of India might be about culture, but Goa's all about being far out, man.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. Hippies always seem to choose the best destinations. You never find hippie getaways in polluted cities or frozen landscapes - they're hanging out in beachside locales, or in mountain hideaways.

The Oaxaca coast of Mexico, the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, the Byron Bay hinterland, Chefchaouen in Morocco - these are all places with a reputation as hippie-friendly havens of flower power, and all are stunningly beautiful. Say what you want about their dress sense, but hippies know how to pick a holiday destination.

So that is what I had expected from Goa, famed as the original and the best: a beautiful getaway for those of an alternative bent. The reality is slightly different.

Goa, like most ageing hippies, seems to have gone middle class. Hearing Goa described as a hippie retreat now is like a parent trying to tell their children they used to be into flower power. It just seems a bit suspicious; it's hard to put the two images together.

The best example is the stretch of beach from Baga to Calangute. Up north in Anjuna you might still find some vestiges of hippies past, but the main tourist strip in central Goa seems to have shed the tie-dyes, got a haircut and applied for a job.

Street stalls along the main road still sell baggy harem pants and Om-symbol T-shirts, but they do a much better trade in touristy wood carvings and knock-off board shorts. There are still dodgy guys peddling drugs in a few of the beachside bars, but you are just as likely to find yourself eating a gourmet meal of Goan fish curry at a swanky restaurant as you wiggle your toes in the sand.

One of the most popular shops on the main road is Cafe Coffee Day, India's answer to Starbucks. It's the sort of trendy Western-style place that's big on the streets of Delhi and Mumbai, but incongruous in a blissed-out hippie town.

Still, the residents of those cities need their caffeine hit while they are on holidays, and Cafe Coffee Day scratches the itch in modern, designer ways. You do not get chai, traditional spiced Indian tea, here - you get a chai latte.

Whatever once drew the hippies to central Goa has surely disappeared. Modern tourists do not stay in tepees in Baga or bungalows in Calangute, they sleep in resort rooms that cower around shared swimming pools. They dine in upmarket restaurants that cater to India's colossal middle class. They drink in bars that serve designer cocktails and have door policies intended to keep groups of marauding single men away.

There are still parties to be had, for sure. There's a strip of bars in between the two towns that rocks long into the night, with big screens playing cricket and short-term Indian travellers having the time of their lives. But there is nothing hippie about that.

There's still the beauty of that beach, as well, which is filled with everyone from fully clothed Indians splashing about in the water to swim-suited Westerners soaking up the rays and drinking beers in the deck chairs. But again, there is nothing hippie about that. You could have the same experience at just about any beach in the world.

The only difference is, you would not see the cows. Maybe the hippies liked that?

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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