They are a parasite, he says.
They find a host tree that they like, grow around it and suck up all its nutrients, strangling the tree and taking over its shape. They’re basically killing the tree.
They’re suffocating it.
That’s the only way they can live.
Sunrise vinyasa, Hatha, Iyengar, Ashtanga,
Pranayama, Tantra, Osho meditation, Ayahuasca,
Reiki, Hula, Poi, DMT, Lomi Lomi, Ayurveda, Mud-bath,
Pancha Karma, Uropathy, Acupuncture, Buddhist chanting,
Kambo frog medicine , Erotic dance, Wild women circle, African drumming…
I peel back one of the signs to see what is beneath: The symbol Om is printed in the corner. A small body soars across its page. I can make out the words “TANTRIC MIDGET TOSSING, 500 RPS PER MIDGET. 200 RPS PER DOG”. A phone number is listed.
Appearing like something out of Where the Wild Things Are, they emerge in all sorts of places along the streets of North Goa, their sinewy frames simultaneously haunting and enchanting, knuckles and boughs smoothly imitating the tendons and nerves of the human body as though a million men writhe beneath their bark. Tendrils reach from their archways and sway weighty in the wind, whipping the faces of those who ride through.
* * *
In the photographs, a few hundred young men and women roam a pristine coastline, dressed variously in elephant collared shirts, neutral toned linen and leathers, and the trademark Bohemian garb of the Woodstock generation. Palm trees lean cinematic behind their silhouettes, captured in various states of wandering, dancing and conversing. One shows a woman sitting before an open shawl housing small balls of what looks like animal droppings (it is hashish). Her handwritten sign reads: MANALI SHIT. She is almost stoic beneath her matted locks, surrounded by revellers hazed and languid. It is the late 1970s in Anjuna Beach, Goa.
The girls at Twice the Garden look the part but their feather earrings are made of plastic and cost Rs.50. I know because less than a fortnight ago my own faux-feather earrings revealed their bleached veins to me and I rued my juvenile Ishka-buying ways. Swaying along to a bassy Om Namashivaya remix bellowing from a speaker mounted by a plaster-cast Natarajah’s feet, I inadvertently catalogue my way through the outfits around me, recollecting the festival gear frenzy of Melbourne over summer. Most of the tie-dye clothes and tribal accessories I see can be bought at the local shops along the main drag in Arambol; Ali Baba pants made of cheap cotton, acid-wash polyester t-shirts screen printed with images of Shiva, Buddha and Ganesha, crop tops and strappy dresses of viscose and pleather in earthy maroons and mustards. Detailed with Rajasthani patch-vests, semi-precious stones, and hard-scavenged nomad treasures, many almost look the real-deal.
‘Australia!? I’m pretty good aren’t I? See how I could guess?’
The lanky fellow speaks to me across the windy upper berth of a bamboo-built eco-cafe; a regular haven for the wifi needy of Ashvem beach. His accent is British, but he quickly informs me that he has some Spanish-Moroccan ancestry, the whites of his eyes glinting against his otherwise liberally bronzed and sand-dusted skin.
Max is a yoga teacher. He teaches a new kind of yoga that only a few people know how to do. He has been practising it for years. One of his key contributions to the development of the practice – reportedly rooted in an Indian lineage somewhere – is that one must drink all liquids through the nose. It’s a yogic practice, he informs me. A woman woven with leather straps and feathers giggles in the crook of his arm as he tells me. ‘She’s from Germany. We met last night at the Holi party’. The woman smiles at me. ‘Actually, she met me drinking red wine through my nose’.
* * *
In early 2014 I travelled India solo.
I’m not sure if it was three weeks in low-season Rishikesh, waking to the glacial Ganga every morning and reading scripture and philosophy that I had never before had the interest, nor maturity, to absorb. It could have been the immense clarity brought on by a 10-day Vipassana in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal and the intense relationships and transcendental experiences that followed. It could even have been the simplicity and synchronicity that only a place as full of chaos-forced harmony like India can deliver. But more likely, or perhaps in equal measure, it was the fact that I had packed my bags in Melbourne with an intention of finding something true of myself – something that years of cynicism and depression caused by corporate Western city-living had all but erased. I went to India to be saved. And perhaps because of this, India saved me.
Is it an illusion? Is it something of the soil? Is it the weighty and ornate presence of idols and worship forcing trespassers to question their faith? Or is it the desperate need for the insulated Western citizen to experience a terrain of raw anti-fragility in order to know they are alive?
Whatever it may be, India’s lore precedes it’s travellers, hundreds of thousands whom make their tracks across this bloated and burgeoning country in seeking. And consciously or not, we follow the paths of those others who came before us. We cash in our privilege for a few months, or a few years, roaming the city-pockets we can afford on the cheap, finding hilltop labyrinths that serve meditation and yoga, (and bang lassi); places that allow us to live an alternate life to one ruled by Western values of propriety and culture; that allow us to forget the known version of ourselves, and create, discover, (or forget again) a new meaning for our existence.
That/this. It does not happen by accident, but out of necessity. Out of a deep existential despair of humanity to break the bonds that dictate its being – a trait shared along the continuum of those who trek these paths.
I look at the photos I find on the internet of the paradise that Goa appeared as in the late ‘80s. The hues of oceanic blues and earthen reds beneath the nostalgic tint of the film romanticise the characters in the images. I look at them and feel a sense of the ‘good old days’, the original rebellion, the Woodstocks and Ginsbergs and Stones, the Lennons and Yokos and No War in Vietnam. I look at the clean beaches, and rue what it has become, questioning the doctrine of the modern-day “hippie” – and of myself here amongst it.
I want to believe we are just at a different end of the timeline, but I wonder if it is more than that. Could it be that the tenets of spiritual belief that were sought and interpreted for the world by many of that pioneering generation have not been diluted with a lesser, more corporatised brand of spiritual consumerism? Those places once considered a mecca for wisdom, becoming outlet malls for self-help?
Or did they too came to India in seeking, only to find themselves constrained by the inability to actualise spiritual beliefs without corrupting those of the host country? Full of ideals of ecology and sustainability, only to be sadly mocked by their tendencies for consumption and comfort.
* * *
Ashvem beach is usually nicer than the others in the North. It is quiet and clean with good sand. But now you need a special ticket to cross the bridge from the river, and glass bottles and plastic rubbish wash up on the shore overnight from the earlier revellers. It’s the worst on Mondays, probably because every Sunday night Riva has a party and everyone goes. Poi and hula hoops are rife on the lawn as the DJ spins psy-trance and Indian and Nepali men in starched whites serve barbecued burgers, salad and cocktails. The cost is Rs.100 to get in.
The main supermarket has a fridge section almost completely labelled in Cyrillic. The grocery seller a few doors down has honed his Russian to a finely nuanced tongue over the last seven years, rebutting his customers playfully in intimate phrases. In some areas of the strip, you would swear you were in Eastern Europe, were it not for the coastline and the sun.
On the day of Holi the main street turns into a rave. Revellers who have been going almost all night are a slicked mess of colour and alcohol by early afternoon. The 24-hour bar is pumping dubstep loud enough to send a vibration down each end of the street. The next morning the remnants of this mindless debauchery is strewn across the paths. Dark-skinned women with bejewelled blouses and multi-coloured cloth tied around their heads will pick through the rubbish, collecting plastic water bottles and other worthy recyclables that can be exchanged for money.
We live in a cottage by the river which runs inland near to the beach. Pigs and palm trees cluster across the hilly expanse of reddish dirt, dry grass and brambles between us and the bridge to cross the river. There are four or five houses that run along the make-shift dirt suburb. They were designed by a Danish woman who first came to Goa in the nineties, and has been returning every year since.
When we move in, Aggie – a Goan man, whose wife and family have been running the property for years – comes to greet us. He tells us about the space, about his children who run about (his daughters are both in need of eye surgery in Chennai). He tells us that he takes care of everything and we should invite others to come and stay too. ‘But only nice people’ he says, with a cautiousness of ‘you-know-what-I-mean’. ‘Only smiling people’.
A few doors down, Johnson invites us over for omelettes. He is wearing a checked towel as a lunghi whilst making his coffee, and his large belly protrudes as he greets us jovially with his wide Austrian accent. The wooden sign above his verandah entryway is decoratively painted with his name and his partner’s. They live here six months of the year and have done so for 10 years. Together with Aggie they have expanded the homes, paid for renovations, tended to the animals. ‘Have you seen my dogs?’ he asks us gleefully, as three stray puppies and their mum come nipping at our feet from inside.
I came here because I thought it would give me a chance to really look at this.
To really deal with it, you know?
As she speaks, she self-consciously tucks her hair behind her ear.
I tell her that I do know. I tell her that it can feel crippling, and a I tell her what I do to try and deal with it. We talk of our struggles, our families, and the things we read to help along the way.
Out in front of the sun-beds, women are sitting in lotus and meditating towards the water, as others take photos in yoga poses, and write words on the sand: ‘SHANTI’. It means peace.
We rise at 6am to make it to class, dodging school buses and airport pickups across a decrepitly pot-holed road. The early sun imprints a near-fluoro red circle upon the sky. It crests behind the palm trees and paddies that sprawl between homestead restaurants and random shops and pharmacies. Bound against the crisp wind in a scarf and cardigan, I pathetically try and capture it on my phone. But the elation can only be felt in person, zipping through the unwieldy mosaic of facades somehow a reminder of your wholeness amidst the chaos.
Mats in-tow, we walk up the front path without speaking. The stillness of the surrounding foliage, thick and live, seems to sand the wear of the street from our pace.
At its end, a vast red clay-cement platform with angular white pillars and Portuguese-style roof tiles hums a silent welcome. Inside its walls, there is only breath: 40 – 50 bodies on rows of mats not 30cms away from one another, each making their way through the Ashtanga primary series in absolute solitude.
My mind strays with chatter as I wait at the back of the class. I think about Melbourne, our bodies stiff in the car as we try and beat morning traffic to make it to the studio. I think about how long we might stay here, about where we’ll go next.
I look at the outfits people are wearing, their physical feats of strength, their tattoos, their vulnerabilities, the stories I imagine for them, the questions I have about what brought them here.
I sit, and I wonder.
But then she calls my name, as she will each of the others,
and I unfurl my mat,
so that I can stop,
if I am to begin.
* * *
Commonly known as the Ficus, or Fig tree, the Banyan tree cannot spread its seed independently. Rather, the animals and insects that live within its branches and hollows must carry its seed to a fresh host tree in order for it to procreate. The tree is unique in this way: it is not an independent entity, but one that requires carriers of different species in order to spread its seed, and relies upon another tree sacrificing itself as the foundation. The tree itself, cannot survive without this cooperative synchronicity of occurrence. This emergent multi-species collaboration occurs again and again; this gathering of insects, plants and animals of different description recurrently partake in a concerted cycle of biodiversity that allows the tree to survive and grow ever larger, breeding more of its own kind, and assuring a home for those who rely upon it and whom cannot live anywhere else. It lives through this co-creation, while ultimately destroying – or transforming – that which gave it landing. And this process underpins a cyclical chain of regeneration that is vital across soil, insect, animal, and air.
* * *