Paradise isn't always how you imagine it. Groups of armed soldiers waiting at the gates of Goa's Sunburn Music Festival, rifles slung at their shoulders, caught me off-guard. For a Canadian electronic music fan in India, it's something that takes a little getting used to—and as disconcerting as the spectacle was, their presence served a very serious purpose.
ISIS, the Islamic terrorist organization, had been making threats of an attack leading up to the festival, and the government wasn't taking any chances. India is no stranger to terror; the 2008 attacks in Mumbai were similar to those in Paris last year, and left the country tense. While my mother might have been worried about me attending, people my age were fairly disinterested. "ISIS says this type of stuff all the time," explained one of my friends. "Nothing is going to actually happen."
Growing up part Desi in Canada, I'd excitedly watched electronic music culture grow in South Asia. Since 2007, Sunburn has grown to become Asia's largest music festival, with this year's four day lineup featuring international headliners including David Guetta, Kygo, Martin Garrix, and plenty of talented Indian acts. I had been in the country since December, attending Jai Hind College in Mumbai on exchange from Toronto. My exchange buddy, Behdad, and I agreed Sunburn was an opportunity we couldn't miss. We bought tickets and booked hotels before hopping on (and almost missing) the 12-hour bus ride to Vagator Beach, where the festival would be hosted.
Goa is a state on India's southwest coast, thought it could almost be its own country: made up of connecting beaches crowded with tourists and hippies, and dense, humid forests where locals live and work. We arrived on time and stood patiently in the heat, but no Indian event would be done properly if people were punctual. We spent our time waiting in separate lines based on our sex. The guy beside my friend in the male lineup sat on the ground, thinking he had heatstroke. The girls behind me in the female line somehow munched away on salted chips in the sweltering heat.
Security huddled together like a football team preparing for a game before opening the security-check. They pawed through our bags, taking cigarettes, lighters, food, and drinks—nothing out of the ordinary from my experiences in Canada. However, when they began to flip through the money in our wallets and confiscating condoms I was surprised, to say the least. Behdad had forgotten he had one in his wallet and and was somewhat appalled by the look of satisfaction on the security guard's face as he took it away. I was also interrogated about the tampon and pad I kept in the side pocket of my bag, which I embarrassingly fought to keep in my possession.
Once inside, I gradually became aware of the lack of physical interaction between men and women. I had become too accustomed to the orgiastic vibe that EDM festivals often have: writhing couples making out, groping each other, and grinding to the music. Instead, the atmosphere was much more relaxed, with couples hanging out together; everyone seeming to just mingle and dance casually in their own space. My friends at school said that normally you would get in trouble for being too touchy with someone at events like this—the police can be picky when it comes to physical interaction between couples in public.
But I wouldn't say the lack of touching was a bad thing. I never had anyone pushing me to get to the front of the stage; I never felt like I was suffocating in the middle of a sweaty crowd with someone else's hair constantly sticking to my face. Everyone had their own space, for the most part, and could dance and jump around without bothering their neighbors. Before long we were partying with an eclectic group of travellers: an Australian backpacking across the country, a Norwegian guy who gave us some smokes, and a handful of Iranians who repped their country with flags on their backs.
After dancing for some time, I eventually found myself at one of the art installations away from the stages, a huge peace sign made of balloons drying in the sun. A group of people sat around it on the grass chatting and snacking. Beneath it, the inscription read:
"Tranquility. When fear fuels violence and violence proliferates fear, against all that have reduced humankind to vicious specificities, it is to this one sign that we must inevitably return. The only sign that can give us a future. To Peace, the only hope we have, the only hope we ever had!"
I realized that the reported danger surrounding the festival, the threats, hadn't even crossed my mind. A barrage of thumping bass and flashing lights might not be a typical notion of tranquility, but that's undoubtedly what I'd found in Hindi beats and new friends.
As the sun faded to dusk, inviting shades of pink to the sky, the heat began to dissipate. A soothing breeze began to cool our bodies that had shaken and thrived with energy for hours beneath the sun. As we headed home, we passed through roaming crowds, giddy and tired, still hearing the music echoing from the beach. There were barely any stars in the sky, but the moon was bright. Cows were sleeping lazily along the dusty street. We treaded carefully, hoping not to wake them.