Many travellers head to India hoping to “find themselves”. In fact, the very notion is painfully cliched…
…but what many perhaps fail to understand is that in order to find yourself, you firstly need to lose yourself. To come to yourself, you first need to transcend yourself and in my experience, there are few better ways to lose and transcend yourself than on a Goan dance floor at one of the states legendary psychedelic trance parties.
It’s quite a paradox. Travellers in Goa spend all week meditating in Ashrams, stretching in Yoga classes or simply sunning themselves whilst drinking up high-vitamin juices. Essentially, visitors to Goa generally do all manner of things to look after, refine and tune the body so it may seem somewhat anomalous to then go and essentially poison it with a heady cocktail of banned pharmaceuticals and batter it senseless across a dance floor. However both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions teach about point and counter, about dark and light and about the yin and the yang. To create, we sometimes first have to destroy and as I said, to find we first have to lose. Besides that, inner peace and serenity is good and well but it can get kinda fucking boring after a while…
I certainly got bored of inner peace so decided to check out the legendary Goan trance scene for myself…
Around Midnight, one Tuesday in December
I met my Israeli friend Ari in an Arambol cafe a few days earlier after interrupting her conversation. Through her I met Marha, her childhood friend from Eilat, and then Marha’s Australian boyfriend Webster. We agreed that we would go to Shiva Valley, the legendary Tuesday night trance party in Anjuna. The magic of travelling is that tight friendships form fast and tonight, I feel particularly good about this dynamic because if there is one thing Israeli’s love even more than hummus, its trance music. Besides that, both Aussies and Brits just simply love to party whatever the occasion so I know I’m in damned good company.
Around midnight we take a cab from Arambol down to Anjuna. Our first stop is a newly built hostel we’ve heard about so we decide to pop in for a quick look around and to use the place as a base to drop our supplements for the evening. We’re headed to a rave so we have stocked up on MDMA/Ecstasy which we swallow in paper wraps or mix into water. At the hostel, we are greeted by a talkative German backpacker dressed in the orange pants and sarong typical of Sadu’s and Shiva devotees. Mr Orange however, isn’t a Sadhu or a Shiva devotee but rather a drug dealer who for 1000rps dispatches us each a droplet of Albert Hoffman’s magical potion, LSD. This is an unexpected boon that will turn out to be incredibly importune.
We then leave the hostel, make our way down to the beach and head for Shiva Valley. Shiva Valley is a cafe, bar and sometime nightclub built onto Anjuna beach. Its terrace overlooks the ocean and the beach can be reached by descending the steep concrete steps out the back. To reach Shiva Valley from the main road, we follow a warren of darkened pathways simply following the throb of bass which seems almost to call to us. As we draw nearer, we pass groups of inebriated Indian holidaymakers headed home for the night. By this point it’s maybe 1am and I guess they’ve had quite enough to drink and to dance. Those in the know however, know that 1am is the optimum time to show up for this is when the music gets good and the casual boozers make way for those here for the full trance experience. 1am may seem like a late hour to head to a party but when one remembers that this party will rage well into daybreak, it makes a lot more sense.
Dance of Shiva
We eventually reach Shiva Valley. By this point, I feel chemicals surging through my system. My heart beats in my chest, my vision clarifies intensely and every minute sound echoes endlessly. We are met by 2 burly looking Indian bouncers who let the girls enter for free but sting me and Webster for 500rps each; a lot in Indian terms but well worth it. As we pass through the entrance I survey the scene stretched out before me. Along the beach, rows and rows of tables are laid out with elderly local women selling bottles of water, chai and omelettes. Amongst the tables, revellers wade back and forth either wandering around or simply dancing where they stand as the bemused chai wallahs watch with indifference. Above the beach I can see Shiva Valley itself, its smokey dance floor packed tight with writhing bodies. The whole party seems to take up about half a kilometre of beach stretching around the corner, passed the jagged rocks and out of sight. It’s a pure, beautiful carnage and I’m instantly hooked. Adrenaline burns through my veins and I can hardly wait to get amongst it.
The bass pounds out into the ocean causing the waves to rupture with vibrations before they can even reach the shore. I make my way across the sand, winding in and out of the chai stalls and minding the frenzied revellers dancing beside me. I head for the dance floor climbing the steep, stone steps of Shiva Valley, the music growing louder with every step nearer I got. Finally I reach the dance floor, stake my place on it and something hits me instantly and hard…
Without warning and without consciousness the music has somehow taken me. I find myself moving passionately and unreservedly dancing with an intensity like never before. What I must make clear here is that I have not made any decision to dance, the music has simply gripped me and is whirling me around like a dervisher.
I look at the scene around me. Through the half light of the dance floor, people appear at their most beautiful, simply dancing honestly and unhesitatingly. This is not the dancing around handbags you see in the nightclubs of the world nor the regimented show dance you find in wretched Tango or Salsa. This is full on raving – dancing with no rules and no form. All inhibitions & pretensions have melted away in a sea of sweat, the participants are now freed from the expectations of others as well as from the limitations of their own ego. In this moment they are all expressing themselves freely and purely via the body movements coming through them. But it’s a deep beauty without any desire attached to it, people are not here to hook up or seduce the opposite sex and in any event, every single male in attendance has been rendered unable to perform the reproductive act owing to the hilariously ironic, impotent side effect of MDMA. For the first time since puberty I find myself able to admire the opposite sex without any lust. A thought strikes me that tonight, we are back in the garden of eden. We’re dancing freely & innocently, half naked and yet sexless as children. A return to innocence at long last…
Snakes in the garden
…but there are snakes in the garden. My thought process is interrupted as I’m brought firmly back to reality by an Indian kid thrusting a neon glow paint pot at me. He raises his finger to anoint my forehead before drawing lines down my cheeks with bright, luminous paint markings. Afterwards, he holds out his hand for payment so I push 30 rupees into it but he wants more and fixes me with a cold gaze. I realise that no matter how much I offer him, he will demand more so just I walk away and head outside to cool down. In my heightened state and still dealing with a chemical onset, the confrontation had unsettled me so I light up a cigarette to calm my nerves. As I sit smoking, steadily recovering my poise, another local appears pushing a steel plate under my face me collecting “offerings for Ganesh”. I ignore him and continue to draw on my cigarette but he doesn’t relent. Still without speaking a single word, he thrusts his plate under my chest once again. This time I respond by tipping my cigarette ash into his plate and shoot him a look that clearly says “go away now”. His black, dead eyes momentarily flash with a murderous hatred before he turns away to find the next target.
These hawkers are a regular fixture of the Goa trance scene. They are drawn from what Indian culture calls “The Untouchables”, the lowest caste in the Hindu system borne into poverty and suffering to pay for the sins of past lives. I don’t believe in the caste system but its pretty obvious that if your entire culture tells you that you was born to be a beggar, you will live a beggar and will die a beggar than, we have a classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy and you will live the life of a hopeless beggar. I adhor the caste system (which not only ignores poverty but actually seeks to morally justify it) and I do have some sympathies for these kids (I say “kids” but with the weird combination of malnourished frames and worn, haggard faces they could be anywhere between 14 – 40 years old). Tonight though, their racket is not begging, it’s bullying; they psychologically harass guests at vulnerable points in order to extort money and bullies should be stood up to wherever you find them.
Happily, other locals are more conduitive to the celebratory atmosphere. Bar tenders serve water to tripped out revellers and wait ever patiently whilst we struggle to find either money or in some cases, even words. They look on non-judgmentally at our wide-eyed incoherent rambling. I guess there is nothing they haven’t seen here before.
Other locals have taken the night off work and decided to join in. Afterall, if there was a huge party on your street you’d want to attend to right? Between bursts of dance they throw around hugs and kind words ‘Welcome Goa!”.
Heaven or Hell?
I return to the dance floor and once again the rhythm takes me] and I like before I have no control over the movements flowing through me. I am as a leaf caught in the autumn breeze, dancing magnificently in the wind, twirling and pourtting as it falls to the ground through no intention of its own. I look about me across the packed dance floor, faces and bodies seem to merge into one another. Some of the half faces I think maybe I half recognise from Arambol beach but then again maybe I know them from some other lifetime.
At this point, it strikes me that aside from the snakes in the garden, the eden analogy is flawed anyway for this is very much not a new (albeit temporary) paradise or utopia. Rather it occurs to me that each of the revellers around me here is completely and utterly manifesting either their own personal heaven or their own personal hell. From their movements (either joyously graceful or violently spasmodic) I can clearly see who is where at any given moment. Of course, I can’t actually see myself dancing so I can’t help but wonder where I am? I hope its the former but either way it feels ecstatic and thats when the revelation hit me that the true ecstatic state is neither happy nor sad and neither nor heaven nor hell. It is instead something far beyond such limiting human constructs and it transcends all human form. To be in ecstasy, is to be with what our ancestors called “God” and whatever that entails.
As I move, dancing either beautifully or spasmodically depending upon your perception, I feel brand new sensations flowing through my body. They move like electricity from my shoulders, down my arms and then out through my fingertips and I can almost see the static emitting across the room. In the light of sobriety, I wonder whether I reached a new form of sensory perception or conversely, whether I lost all of my senses completely and existed in some other, inner space. Paradoxically, I now see that I somehow went beyond the physical form whilst simultaneously been more in my body than ever before. Quite simply I was entranced and it was utterly mind blowing.
The rave is transformed into a convenient metaphor for life itself as I realise that all everybody here wants is a little bit of space in which to express themselves. They want enough space to move freely and yet still want to be close enough to others to feel community. Some people of course, seem to require more space than others and some cant seem to help but invade a neighbours space from time to time.
The beat goes on…
It appears that the DJ has now changed but the beat continues and I don’t notice the transition between sets. The music itself, psy-trance (or Goa trance) is basically one hard, fast repetitive beat. There are no melodies, no chords and no changes. There certainly aren’t any lyrics and seldom use of human voices in any form. Rather the music is made entirely by manipulating single notes and variation of sound is created by oscillation and arpeggiating. Its almost like the entire 6 hour set was made from one single note which was then looped, stretched and reformed infinitely. Another grand meta-physical metaphor for life right?
I had never really listened to psy-trance before and have never been a huge fan of any electronic music but now I completely understand it. The music is custom made for this occasion and in this setting it makes perfect sense; the pounding rhythm drives the constant dancing and the psychedelic sound effects blows acid dosed minds.
I guess that this is the same singular rhythm which humanity has been dancing to from time immemorial, it’s repetitive, relentless and tribal. Whilst technological innovation has widened the scope, the underlying principal is the same as the ancient drum circles found in Celtic, Pagan, Sanskrit and Native American cultures.
The emphasis is on complete, mass participation. The whole congregation is moving as one, tuned in together more or less harmoniously. I feel the energies of those dancing around me. Some energies are positive and draw me near and once again I see this reflected in movements. Other energies however, are negative and I felt myself instinctively drawing away from them. If this talk of “feeling energies” is too much for you then I am happy to try and rationalise; maybe the scientific answer is simply that even in my beyond conscious state, I was able to instinctively perceive from others body language whether they were safe or were a threat. But the point is, I didn’t think it, I felt it as clearly as I currently feel the cool air from the ceiling fan blowing onto my face as I write.
When the sun hits
I didn’t bring my phone so have no concept of time. However I see vague traces of blue now colouring the horizon so morning must be on its way. I head down to the beach, stand amidst the waves and dance with two young Indian’s clothed in traditional kurta’s. Finally feeling my body begin to tire, I climb the steps back to the dance floor which is now beginning to thin out. Sobriety is retuning to me and I study the remaining scene as daylight ushers itself in. The congregation is a motley crew of hardcore ravers with Mohawk haircuts, glamorous Russian supermodels overdressed for the occasion and the unmistakeable bronzed bodies of Israeli sesh-heads freshly released from the army. I turn from the dance floor and scan the beach below me. It is now daylight and I see the sands punctuated with the remaining devotees still dancing in their own worlds as the sun ascends higher across the sky and the waves roll in for morning tide; the scene is triumphantly beautiful.
The next day we head back to Raj’s place just off Arambol beach. Raj is a British Indian and all round cool guy I met earlier in the week. His ground floor room has become something of the HQ for my little tribe and we recline on cushions arranged around his porch. Raj himself is a committed raver but was unable to attend with us as he is saving his endorphins for an upcoming Christmas party. Fortunately that means that Raj is rested, fresh and able enough to furnish us with herbal tea, electrolytes, fruit and a soothing playlist to ease our comedown. Whilst my body is tired from lack of sleep and my throat dry from dehydration, I feel otherwise blissful and eternally better than I normally feel on any given sunday back in England after a drinking session. I concur that this is perhaps the first time in my life I have ever partied without alcohol and I realise what a poisonous toxin alcohol clearly is (although this realisation wont stop me buying a large Kingfisher once we reach 11am).
Lunchtime nears and I contemplate eating. I feel depleted but happy. I shiver occasionally as tingles shoot down my spine and my hairs stand on end whenever I have flashbacks from the night before. The flashbacks are not of any particular scene or incident but rather memories of feeling and it makes me swoon to realise how far out I had been and to recall this whole new realm of sensation I have experienced. Aside from the shivers, warm waves of happiness flow steadily through my body soothing my tired muscles. I pull out my phone and check my step-o-meter app. I had danced 27km the proceeding night; that’s approaching marathon distance so I guess that what I am feeling right now is probably a runners high. Who said that raving is bad for one’s health?
I then spend the rest off the day relaxing with my tribe. The shared experience is one we shall never forget and I feel a strong kinship. I already know that I’m now totally hooked on psy-trance and I can’t wait for my next Goan trance party.
A word on responsible partying
I sincerely believe that everybody has the right to experience this at least once in their lifetime and wholly encourage any traveller to Goa to seek out a trance rave. However, to get the full experience you absolutely need to take a combination of psychedelic and amphetamine based drugs and with this comes some minor risks.
To mitigate these risks, there are a number of things you can. If you have never taken any of these drugs before then please don’t start here. Instead, do them in a more low key, familiar setting so that you can get used to the effects and the drugs cycle at your own leisure. This could be in your guesthouse or on the beach. Secondly always buy from a trustworthy source. Now, this can prove difficult in a strange country where you don’t know anybody but simply a spend a few days in town getting to know people and asking around. In Goa, it is perfectly acceptable to talk openly to strangers about drugs and most travellers are here to experience the same thing. Finally, always attend raves in a group; make sure to arrive together, check-in together regularly throughout the night and then leave together. Women should at no point wonder of alone as attacks on lone women do occur across India every year. Oh, and stay hydrated.