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Scorpions in Goa, A Dark Memory by Lawrence Morgan

Late one August afternoon on the Greek island of Naxos, a German beatnik regaled us with tales of his sojourns in Goa, punctuating his stories with sips of ouzo as he chewed his way through a platter of olives and char-grilled octopus tentacles. The former Portuguese colony on the southern Indian coast was not yet an internationally renowned hippie haven, and we vaguely fixed it in our minds as our destination, although we didn’t really have one. We were simply wide-eyed, impressionable and heading East. He offered one final piece of advice as we parted company: “It’s a tropical paradise, yes, but you must never sleep on the floor there,” he warned ominously, and pinched his thumb and forefinger together. “Scorpions!”

Week upon week of gruelling hitch-hiking ensued as we left Europe and drifted toward the rising sun. We were fortunate enough to catch rides on trucks, in cargo vans, in rickety sedans, interspersed with days of trudging through the heat with our thumbs outstretched. We wound our way haphazardly through the austere terrain of eastern Turkey, traversed the interminable, bleak deserts of Iran, rattled over the notorious mountain passes of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, until we finally splurged on the withering discomfort of third-class train travel in India and made it to Bombay.

We arrived in Goa a few days before Christmas, travelling deck-class on a rust-bucketcargo ship that rolled ponderously across the Indian Ocean beneath a pall of diesel smoke. We were immediately beguiled by the exotic tropical coastline, and the scent of sandalwood incense on the breeze. A crumbling, one-room Portugese bungalow halfway down Calangute beach set us back fifteen dollars per month. No electricity, no running water, but it boasted thick stone walls against the heat, and had a solid, red-tiled roof. A communal water well was situated twenty yards away, and a scattering of similar bungalows encircled it, all in various states of disrepair, each inhabited by young western travellers, freaks, hippies, hobos, and assorted vagabonds. Ours had once-upon-a-time been given a lick of whitewash, and included a verandah overlooking the yellow sand that led through groves of coconut palms to the beach. A sagging outhouse listing to one side sat in a clearing behind the bungalow, which we assumed was a plus. We were novices with no inkling of precisely how Goa’s peculiar waste-disposal system functioned.

The furniture in our house consisted of four grimy straw mats and two charpoy beds, one tightly-woven and reasonably comfortable, the other a frayed horror of sagging ropes that had been re-strung with hard knots in all the wrong places, not to mention it was also too short. The first night in paradise was sheer misery for me on that wretched charpoy. It was impossible to contort myself into a comfortable position for sleep, even with my down sleeping bag as a mattress. The nuts and nuggets of knotted rope dug into my body no matter which way I turned or twisted. My lady friend slept like a baby on the good charpoy, except that babies don't generally snore all night long. After one look at my haggard face the next morning she took pity on me and we agreed to alternate nights on the charpoys in order to share the agony equally.

Our landlords had left a collection of battered tin pots behind, and behind one of them we found a plastic container of white powder labeled DDT, with an illustration showing multiple insects in various stages of demise. There were no instructions in English, but after some back and forth we decided to give the stuff a try the next night. We didn't know any better, and assumed we were supposed to use it. So we flung a healthy amount of the powder all over the floor before we went to bed the second night, knowing nothing about anything at that stage, and went to sleep.

At least I fell asleep, because I was on the good charpoy. My companion tossed and turned and grew quite vocal about her level of discomfort. At about 2am I finally insisted she take the good charpoy and I volunteered to sleep on the floor on my sleeping bag, despite the German beatnik’s warning. Then to my everlasting horror I switched the flashlight on. A dozen dead and dying scorpions of all makes and models were scattered across the room. Huge ones, tiny ones, black ones, amber ones, pale green ones…everywhere I looked some poor venomous arachnid was thrashing about and stinging the straw mats or its companions mindlessly with a dripping tail. I felt terrible about their plight, but I also had absolutely no intention of sleeping on the floor after witnessing that carnage. I tiptoed gingerly around the room and placed each leg of each charpoy into a defensive container of water, utilising the entire contents of our CampingGaz cook-set, and we swapped beds. It was not a restful night. The next morning she swept up the mess with a straw broom, raising clouds of DDT dust and scorpion corpse fragments that we breathed in while the sun rose.

We cobbled together a breakfast of stale chapatis, cheese, and a bruised mango, boiled the kettle for chai, and ate on our verandah, listening to exotic bird-calls and revelling in the sunshine that filtered through the palms. It was then that we discovered the pigs. Or rather, they discovered us.

I was the first to visit the outhouse. The wooden walls were warped and cracked, leaving gaps wide enough to let the light in. A plank buffed smooth by countless bottoms served as the loo, with an ample hole chiseled through its middle. A few squares of faded newspaper had been punched onto a nail beside the plank. I peered through the hole to see where it led. It didn’t lead anywhere. Three feet below the hole in the plank was a churned-up area of sand, and in the middle of the sand stood a stout black-and-white pig, staring expectantly up at me.

Intrepid traveler or not, I was taken aback. It was obvious what was supposed to happen. And then four more pigs jostled into view, grunting and snorting impatiently. Why hadn’t the German beatnik warned us about this? Fuck a bunch of scorpions, this was downright visceral

It turned out there were several sounders of pigs roaming free on the beaches of Goa, sanitation engineers one and all, and they developed preferences for certain outhouses. Ours were black-and-white and as friendly as puppies, while our nearest neighbours had a mean trio of brindle hogs that screamed like banshees and shouldered one another out of the way while they scavenged. This uniquely south Indian sanitation service took some getting used to, but in time we all did.

As far as I am aware, every hippie on the beach agreed to forego bacon for the duration of their stay.

Sometime in early January rumours of an upcoming beach party wafted through the Calangute community. We found out about it from the four French morphine aficionados who lived in the bungalow opposite us, thirty metres or so away through the palms. These two couples were unusual because they argued and fought among themselves frequently and loudly, which struck the rest of us as very strange. Most foreigners in Goa at the time developed a laid-back, easygoing daily routine: a morning breakfast of bananas or other fruit accompanied by chai, then a quick visit to the pig loo, then perhaps a chulum of hashish or a ganja joint, then some lazy chores before lunch like sweeping up the DDT dust, strumming a guitar, or drawing water from the well, then the munchies-savvy Coconut Biscuit Girl would make her rounds, selling her homemade sticky sweet treats, and afterwards a nap might be in order, before we headed down to the beach in the afternoon to help the fishermen pull in their nets in return for a couple of fat fish for supper…

Anyway, one morning our four neighbours all gathered near the well, dropped their lungis and commenced bathing, which in itself was strikingly out of character. Four sour, pale figures boldly decorated with patches of livid red sunburn and tattoos, skinny as could be, shampooing their long locks and soaping each other up...and for once they weren't snapping and snarling at one another. I wandered over to fill our water pot and they announced that a party was planned for the next afternoon in front of the Peace Sign House. The Peace Sign House was something of a landmark, a roomy bungalow further down the beach with a huge white peace sign painted on the roof. It was supposedly owned by a Bollywood movie star, and evidently a wealthy German doctor friend of his wanted to make a 9mm film of the local freak lifestyle, so he decided to host a big party. There would be free food and drink, plenty of hash and acid, and lively music. Eight-Finger Eddy and his cohort were rumoured to be coming, all the way across the river from Anjuna Beach. According to the scuttlebutt Herr Doctor was angling for topless hippie chicks to gyrate seductively in front of his lens, but that may have just been uncharitable gossip. All we had to do was show up that afternoon and be our normal freaky selves. The word was he needed sufficient ambient light for his filming, so it couldn't wait until full dark.

It was swelteringly hot and humid that winter in Goa; most folks tended toward the lethargic end of the activity scale during daylight hours. Shade was a treasured commodity when the sun was out. My lady friend and I strolled through the soft sand beneath the brilliant sun and made our unhurried way to the Peace Sign House at about four-thirty. There were probably fifteen or so people there already, most of them sprawled out in groups of two or three, hugging the meagre strips of shade the palm trees provided. A cassette player perched on a milk crate pumped some Dylan tunes into the brassy afternoon heat. A folding table had been set up, upon which was arrayed a dubious assortment of snacks and drinks, which greatly entertained the buzzing swarm of flies that had arrived to join the fun.

Someone had anoversized chulum going and drifted around the beach offering hits to anyone who wished to partake. One energetic fellow with Rasta-braids was passing joints around the partygoers via frisbee, tucking the lit joints beneath the frisbee's rim and letting centrifugal force hold them in place as it spun from person to person. We sat down on the outskirts of the party in a shady spot and the chulum-bearer obligingly put us on his route. It was hot and still, we got thoroughly wasted, the afternoon stretched out before us in slow motion, the tinny music vied with the distant murmur of the ocean, and the swarm of flies performed intricate acrobatic dances above the congealing samosas and pakoras on the table.

The Doctor was a diminutive man, with a potbelly and translucent ears. He waved his camera at us as if it was a symphony conductor's wand, exhorting everyone to have fun, to dance, to get stoned, to eat-drink-and-be-merry. Dozens of glazed red-rimmed eyeballs followed him as he trotted from clump to clump of righteously zonked-out hippies, zooming in on their bemused faces for close-ups, then panning away for wide shots, all the while maintaining a disjointed, frenetic commentary as torrents of sweat poured down his face. It looked to me like he was speed-freaking his little heart out, but I don't know for sure. It was surreal. More people showed up as the afternoon shadows lengthened, and even more gathered as dusk settled in. I think everyone from Anjuna and Calangute must have been there by sunset, even the skimpily loin-clothed inhabitants of Baga Beach.

Fresh food arrived, the flies disappeared, the heat of afternoon softened as a gentle, balmy breeze pressed in from the ocean, the moon rose in the sky and was framed by an eternity of stars, someone hooked up a far superior pair of speakers...all was right with our world. As night fell I watched the Doctor take a huge hit on the chulum, and then he crawled beneath the folding table to fall sound asleep in the sand with his precious camera cradled on his chest. A kind girl covered him gently with her sarong, and almost immediately the party really got going. Sure enough, topless beauties were soon swaying and dancing in the moonlight, but the lonely little Doctor snored the night away in the shadows until the party ended.

That is how it was in Goa, 1970.


Lawrence Morgan was born in Miami, raised in Istanbul, and left home at the age of 15 to explore the world and have adventures. He currently resides in Scotland. His other writing includes Meal, Combat, Individual, Bottle Rockets, One, Two, Three, Hike, The River Guide Myth along with his superb pieces for Memoirist:The Curious Case of the Grandmother and the Frozen Mackerel,Island Fever, And Yener DancedThe Visa Siege and Herat, 1968. He was awarded the Memoirist biannual prize in April 2020.


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