Raving in Goa

A passage to India: Karl Taro Greenfeld ventures into the dark heart of the Goan rave scene, with an unlikely guide-cum-drug-dealer named Ian.

Published September 4, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"You see, these here, these are Roses, blow your head off, these will; this is Capricorn, a little lighter, but speedier, and these are dots, micro-dots. I've got purple and gray. The purple are from California; fuck if I know where the gray ones are from."

Ian has a shaved head, pierced nose, pierced ears and pierced upper lip. He is from Brixton, 6,000 miles from Goa, India, and he's talking fast, too fast, but he's got a lot to say and a vast amount of intoxicants to sell. He is sitting on a chai mat -- a straw ruglike tatami laid out by one of the many Indian vendors who make their living at Goan rave parties. They brew coffee and iron kettles of chai (tea) over charcoal grills and display trays of honey, cream and ghee (Indian cooking oil) pastries.

"These white doves are Es." Ian is gradually emptying the numerous pockets of his faded army pants and removing more and more drugs: tiny ziplock baggies of charis (unpressed hashish) and marijuana, pills, tabs, powders, bindles, bits of who knows what wrapped in foil. "I've also got Elephants, those are a little better, from Amsterdam. Now these pink ones, these are fucking brilliant, made in Japan, like Sony. Fuck you up good, these will. I've also got speed: sulphate; it's a little brownish 'cause it got wet. This here is nitrazepam methylmorphine. Have you ever tried ketamine?"

Nobody knows exactly when the first Goan rave took place. Where subcontinental hippy culture ended and rave culture began is hard to say, since the two subcultures share a disdain for the mainstream and a fondness for hallucinogens. According to Manfred, a Zurich DJ who has been doing raves in Goa for four years, the first true rave -- as opposed to the old-school beach party around a bonfire where everyone passed the chillum (Indian-style hash pipe), dropped acid and listened to Floyd -- was back in 1987, when the legendary DJ Rey "brought the Hindu god Shiva to the dance floor" by playing acid-house cassettes brought over from England.

Rave season in Goa lasts from September to March, and for much of that stretch there are parties every other night. The locales vary -- Ajuna, Disco Valley, Japora or Badam are the most frequent venues -- depending on which police official or civil servant can be bribed at the lowest price; baksheesh (bribery) is an Indian institution. The organizers are ad hoc consortiums of chai-mat vendors, bar owners, drug dealers and land-owners looking for a quick rupee. At every one of these affairs you see the same old Crown or Macintosh amplifiers and beat-up Ritchie mixing boards; the output, a meaty 5,000 watts, is usually doubled by BGW preamps. No one uses turntables. (If you've ever had to haul hundreds of pounds of vinyl to a club or a friend's house, then you understand the impracticality of lugging albums around the world, not to mention the excess baggage surcharges airlines will impose.) The DJs who work the Goa raves do so with cassette or digital audio tape. A trio of Sony Professional Walkmans or Sony or Aiwa digital audio tape players are the Goan equivalent to the twin direct-drive Technics turntables ubiquitous to most nightclubs in the Western world.

To find out where the parties are, after dinner -- and Goa has some of India's finest cuisine, a legacy of having been a Portuguese, rather than English, colony -- hit Tito's, Primrose or Hilltop, the three best local bars, and ask around. It's not a matter of knowing the right people, and there is very little of that hipper-than-thou vibe and logistical complexity that permeates so much of European and American rave culture. "We've all come from thousands of miles to party," says Jackie, a 21-year-old English girl. "We could have stayed at home if we wanted to be snobby and posh."

The parties don't really get going until 4, and it's around dawn that the energy levels, various ingested chemicals and rising sun make for a high-octane, good-karma cocktail that will surprise even the most skeptical, hardened, jaded club-goer. Good Goan raves last until 2 or 3 in the afternoon; great ones go on for four days.

"If you need anything, talk to me." Ian arranges his wares on the dirty tan mat as though he were dressing the window display at some kind of alternative Tiffany's, one where, instead of silver and diamonds, the velvet jewel boxes would contain tablets of White Doves or lines of speed. "I'm the man with everything, except smack. I don't handle smack. The locals do that. Did you see my tattoos?"

It is impossible to miss them. Two massive, insect-like creatures -- anthropomorphic praying mantises? The monsters from the movie "Aliens"? A "Godzilla" marketing tie-in? -- are coiled on each side of his spine. They cover his entire, otherwise pallid, back.

Ian's decided to become my best friend because somebody told him I was a writer and he is going to set me straight -- or get me bent as possible -- and make sure I get the real, neurological story, which he insists requires that I buy one of the items he has arrayed before me. The 500 American, English, French, German, Dutch, Australian, Japanese, Israeli and Indian kids dancing under the Day-Glo paint-splattered tarpaulin, sprawled on the chai mats and embracing on the sand are, apparently, already satisfied customers of Ian's; from a money pouch secured by a tiny brass and steel padlock (this mini-lock is the only thing about Ian I would call cute), he removes a wad of green and white 500 rupee (about $16) notes thick as a water-logged Tom Clancy paperback.

"Even after this is black marketed back into sterling," Ian grins and shows a gold tooth, "we're talking serious loot."

Four hours later, Ian dances over to where I'm quivering like a scared child to Syndicate's X Mood trance track. He's got something in his hand, another packet of white pills with Chinese characters imprinted on them.

He shouts over the heavy, heavy bass. "You ready to get seriously fucked up?"

By Karl Taro Greenfeld

Karl Taro Greenfeld is a Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University. He is the author of "Speed Tribes" and a contributor to Vogue, Details, the New York Times Magazine, Wired and other publications. He has written for Wanderlust on Ibiza and exploring northern Thailand by foot.

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