When Israelis complete their mandatory military service, many of them take flight to the beaches of South America, Asia, or India, where an informal network of veterans, hostel owners, and rabbis shepherd them back to civilian life. This is the third in a three-part report filed from Goa, India. Read part 1 here, and part 2 here.
Liav and Ofra, an Israeli couple in their late 30s, run Woodstock Village, in Arambol, north Goa. They seek to marry the spirit of a kibbutz with the rock ‘n’ roll spirit of the 1960s. It’s a peculiarly tight-knit place. Guests eat together, clean up after each other, smoke charas—Goan hash—together, and play music together. Everyone keeps their doors open, so when babies cry or women moan or dogs bark or someone farts, the sounds vibrate through the night. Couples swap partners, and younger singles regularly get together. Most of the guests are Israeli, and many bring young children. Liav and Ofra’s young children have been raised as much by the guests as by their parents.
Time disappears in Woodstock, because people smoke massive amounts of charas in more forms than I could have ever contemplated. Guests who initially intend to stay only a few days find a month has passed, and then they realize that their plans have changed. For some, Woodstock incubates a fear of the outside world, which everyone calls Babylon. I meet two young Israelis in Woodstock who served in combat capacities for the Israeli Defense Forces. My impression is that they were both damaged by the experience in a very real way. Naor fought in Lebanon; Ilya piloted unmanned aircrafts, or drones, in the Robot Wars.
Neither Naor or Ilya likes to talk about his army experience much. One night, when we both get high together, Naor tells me his feelings toward Palestinians. His attitude is one of pure and honest hatred. He draws an analogy that I can understand. Imagine, he says, seeking to describe his work in the army, if you could “vibrate your hand to kill Osama bin Laden.” They smoke charas every day and take LSD, MDMA, and Ketamine regularly.
Ilya is obsessed with a wooden trellis supporting the canopy of dried palm leaves that covered the courtyard, which looks like a sukkah. Beneath the leaves are five low tables with mattresses where residents sit and eat and get high and pass out. When I first came to Woodstock, Ilya was one of the guys who passed out on the mattresses. When I returned after a two-week trip he was climbing the trellis, which indicated that life was flooding back into his limbs. While the degree of his chemical addiction is unclear, the major damage appeared to have been inflicted on his soul by a life spent playing video games that had turned deadly.
Several days after I met them, Ilya and Naor were coming out of long acid trips and were distant and uncommunicative. Liav and others tried to engage them in conversation, but they were too far gone. Ilya half-yawned; it was as if he thought that he needed to yawn and then urgently realized that he shouldn’t. Naor wore a scowl. His Swedish girlfriend (they met at Woodstock) touched his arm, but he flinched at the slightest contact.
Liav, the proprietor, was a fighter during the First Intifida, and he hints to me that he also experienced a certain amount of trauma. His face reminds me of Bob Dylan circa Rolling Thunder, or the Joker in a deck of cards. He has a small blue tattoo on his left triceps that reminds me of the end of an Internet cable. He watches over Naor and Ilya like he would his own sons. This doesn’t mean he prohibits their drug use—quite the opposite. He himself has used drugs regularly since the army. But he is also a responsible father and businessman. He downloads studies on the effects of drugs so that he can join and coach the young Israelis. He points them to informative lectures and books on topics such as “synthetic happiness,” by which he means transforming your unhappy memories into happy ones through the process of synthesizing the two parts of your soul—anger and forgiveness. He believes that anger needs to be balanced with pain in order to create an emotional levelness that makes it possible to absorb happiness while resisting the large amounts of shit that the world will always throw at you. It’s a very Israeli version of strength, a homemade emotional putty that can repair the large gashes that run through the lives of the young men who make their way here.
The day Naor and Ilya find themselves deep in acid holes, Liav finds clever ways to keep them from digging any deeper. He asks Ilya to set up the laptop and find some music for everyone to listen to. He starts a conversation with Naor about synthetic happiness. After an hour Naor is making eye contact again, and by the end of the night he’s speaking coherently and even laughing and playing with his girlfriend. Ilya stays in a dark place for a couple more days.
On the plot next to Woodstock’s is a hotel called the Phoenix Homes, whose residents quote Hunter S. Thompson, drive loud motorcycles, hang from the hotel restaurant’s rafters, dream that they all speak the same language (they don’t) through transference of chemical energy by way of neural signals, and shout “Medicine!” when they “boom” a chillum hash pipe, which compared to shooting heroin is a form of recovery.
Liav is opposed to organized religion, especially Judaism. He shows inquiring guests online lectures to demonstrate how the major religions of the world derive from sun and moon worship. People here believe strongly that the Age of Aquarius has arrived, is arriving, or will soon arrive. The Internet, they say, will somehow deconstruct organized religion. The guests are not particularly messianic. They just enjoy weird conversations.
When guests arrive, Liav invites them to play chess, which is just a con so that he can discourse on religion to a new set of ears. “There are over 10,000 religions in the world,” Liav says to me during our chess game. “Their followers all have one thing in common: 99 percent only believe because of the other 1 percent, who know next to nothing about other religions,” he says. “So, how can they possibly say they know what is true?” Liav beats me easily in chess. He’s a crafty player. He’s even invented a new way of playing wherein he moves the pieces according to the movement of sound and light.
Liav is insistently argumentative, but not in a rude way. He enjoys playing word games. When he’s stoned, he talks in an odd code that involves oblique references to string theory, Radiohead, chess, Zen Buddhism, cartography, love, and principles of logic. He’s also very funny. His favorite saying is “For sure, maybe.”
He and Tomer, the leader of the Jewish House in Arambol, are good friends. Their children also play together. The two men love trying to prove each other wrong. Liav sometimes goes to the Jewish House and persuades Tomer to let him deliver his anti-religion beliefs to Jewish backpackers who come for Shabbat. Religion is basically absent from Woodstock, though occasionally Ofra puts together a Shabbat dinner and invites guests, guests’ friends, and staff and their friends. It’s a lovely affair, and Ofra asks one of the young men to bless the bread and another to say something. Liav loves throwing parties, so he enjoys these occasions in spite of himself.
Only later did I realize that Tomer and Liav had both served in the same division a generation apart. At first, each man perceived the other as a threat to his self-appointed mission of putting damaged souls back together in India, the first through faith and the second through reason. They steered clear of each other, but their wives met and slowly became friends. Ofra brought their daughter, Stavi, who was 3 years old, to Tomer’s house. After that, Tomer began to invite Liav to give his secularist sermons. In return, Tomer began appearing around Woodstock, dropping off books. The young veterans began bouncing back and forth between the two families and getting clean in the process.
In their time in Arambol, Nati, the wildest of the three Israelis, makes a point of separating himself from Liav and Woodstock. Nati refuses to sit on the floor, and the restaurant there has only knee-high tables and mattresses. His new haircut, which he tops with a funny hat, makes him look like an old man. He also refuses to speak English, something Liav requests so that everyone can join in a single conversation. “We’re not a part of this,” Nati says to me. “We speak our own language. If you want to speak it, learn Hebrew.” He picks a fight with an Austrian girl named Leia who mocks him for holding forth on the merits of Israeli hummus versus Indian hummus. “You laugh at our culture,” he says. She admits it. “Austrian food is terrible so you shouldn’t talk,” he shoots back.
By now, Maor, the homesick Israeli, has gotten his own room at a different guest house and taken up with a new group of friends. Nati and Elad, who have been best friends for 18 years, don’t see much of him anymore. Instead, they spend most of their time on the beach, where Nati wears his funny hat and Elad wears his kerchief. They also meet several more times with the fixer Hilik Magnus, who has succeeded in getting the three Israelis permission to leave the state of Goa, though they still can’t leave India. Nati and Elad immediately make plans to return to the “Hummus Trail.”
Before they leave, Nati argues with Liav about the meaning of truth. He interrupts a conversation between Liav and Ilya, the stoner I’d met at Woodstock, both of whom are speaking in stoner riddles. Nati, Elad, and Maor haven’t smoked since the arrest, and now they don’t like being around high people.
“We understand what we think is true,” Ilya says to Liav, “until we encounter something new, which we then try to fit into this old definition we lived by, until that doesn’t work anymore and we need to start all over again. It’s all very”—Ilya bobs out for a bit, then perks back up—“dizzying.” Liav agrees. Nati overhears and jumps in. He pulls quotations from the Talmud and Maimonides to explain his belief that there is a single truth, and it’s called Judaism.
“How do you know that’s true?” Liav asks.
“Because I know,” Nati answers.
“But I have my own truth that’s different than yours, which is that everyone has their own truth,” Liav says. “So, if our truths aren’t the same, how can yours be true?”
Nati doesn’t have a good answer, so he deflects with an aphorism I’ve heard him say many times. “First you do. Then you know.” This is a big part of the reason why he came to Goa: to taste other cultures in order to confirm the supremacy of his own.
“And this is stupid,” Liav answers.
“It’s only because you’re lazy,” Nati says. Liav rolls his eyes and walks away.
The conversation upsets Nati. “It’s very easy for you to sit here and laugh,” he says. The next day he leaves for Hampi. He’s angry that I’ve decided to stay at Woodstock.
I approach Liav about the conversation after Nati leaves with Elad. I ask him to describe what he was thinking when he decided to leave in the middle of the conversation.
“Leaving is a choice, and so is staying,” Liav says. “But staying is the lazier choice.” His message to Nati is the same lesson that he gives to the junkies: Don’t keep running from the reason that you are running; turn around and run toward your fear.
Liav enjoys clamming on the beach. He calls it “catching mussels,” with a wink. He likes to take people with him whom he feels have achieved something significant at Woodstock. On this occasion, the mussels are for Naor and Ilya, both of whom have released their torpor and weaned off heavy drugs (“medicine”) after their recent binge. They’re both leaving Woodstock in the next couple days. Naor and his girlfriend will go to Karnataka. Ilya will travel in the opposite direction on his Bullet motorcycle.
Together, we drive to a remote spot Liav calls Paradise Bay, which is still a ways from Paradise Beach, he says. Liav’s bizarre—the word I want to use is “zig-zaggy”—mantras are intended to lodge in your brain so that you play them over and over again to figure out what exactly he meant. In this case, he wants to give Naor and Ilya the idea that greater happiness awaits them further along their journey.
Ilya has carried Woodstock’s hatchet and rope on his Bullet, and Ofra asks him to build a fire. He straps together a bundle from heavy pieces of a broken log and carries it back to the group. The rest of the evening, he quietly tends the fire, tracing the flow of heat with his eyes.
We leave the beach after nightfall. On the way back, Naor’s bike runs out of gas. He’s riding with his girlfriend, apart from the other bikes in the convoy. As it happens, my bike also runs out of gas. I’m confounded—I just filled the tank that day. Liav and Ofra (with their 4-year-old daughter) see me and stop. Liav helps me find gas.
Naor and I discuss our odd predicaments later that night. He also thought he had a full tank. Liav overhears us and smiles. His face folds upwards into his temples.
Naor spots his meaning immediately. “Baba,” Naor starts, calling his mentor by their affectionate nickname for each other. “Are you telling me you took the gas out of my tank? Why would you do such a thing?”
Liav looks at Naor, then me. “Today we caught mussels.”
For a couple weeks I don’t see or hear from Elad, Nati, or Maor. Then one evening Maor returns to Arjuna, and the next day Elad and Nati arrive. All three seem happy. Maor loved every minute of traveling by himself. He bought new jewelry and clothing, which he shows me proudly. Nati and Elad head straight to Woodstock, where Nati chats amiably with Liav. Any past disagreements and bad feelings are water under the bridge. Elad tells me that Hilik Magnus succeeded in convincing the judge to release their passports and that they’ve returned to Goa to pick them up from their lawyer. Then they’ll all travel together to the north.
Nati is tired of India but he wants to learn more about Hinduism. He isn’t sure what he feels about going into Hindu temples yet. In Tamil Nadu, he and Elad went to a zoo and then to a water park, where he purchased a souvenir of his time in India—a T-shirt with a lizard stitched on the front. “Welcome to Goa,” it says.