A tropical hangover, non-alcoholic. Too many mosquito bites. Despite being coated in 50% Deet they dined lavishly. Lying in a dark room beneath the slowly circling Punkah fan, listening to the sounds outside. The squeak of the gate. The thunk of an Enfield passing by. The boom of bass from the cafe next door. The wind is up today, swaying the fronds of the palm trees, which click and rustle incessantly. In the distance, from the lagoon, I can hear the cry of waterfowl – something very familiar. With the sigh of the wind and their plaintive high watery call it sounds like Suffolk.
Each morning a small Toyota hiace van comes rattling down the lane and pulls into the compound. I watch from the balcony. He parks facing the wall, then decides he is not quite straight, so he reverses and pulls closer to the wall. There is a bang and the van rocks. He has crashed into the wall. He repeats this performance, every morning, without fail, bumping down the lane, reversing till he is straight on, then crashing nose first into the wall. I’ve been here three weeks. I think it is some kind of ritual.
Anyway, my head feels like the bumper of that van. Brains slopping around inside skull and periodically colliding with it with a bang. It’ll pass. Too hot. Too bright. Too many mosquito bites. Too much India. I shuffle out into the glare, squinting despite my shades, and seek solace in a giant bowl of cafe au lait in babas. Dinner last night was at an Italian place called Lambrettas, decorated with strategically placed scooters. It was excellent. Calamari followed by seafood linguine and then something I have never seen before but couldn’t resist: chocolate lasagne. White and dark chocolate layers. Magnifico. The linguine was perfectly al dente, the seafood abundant and assorted. An excellent place for dinner, if you are in the area – Lambrettas in Anjuna, just before the HDFC bank on the other side of the road.
Given how nothing ever quite goes according to plan here, and schedules are at best works of fiction if not outright farce, yesterday was a surprisingly productive day. I had got the number of a local travel agent in Calangute called Libra Worldwide and rang to see if they could arrange a train ticket for me on the overnight train to Kochi, 1000km south of here in Kerala. They asked if I could come into the office. This involved a half hour ride south, hiding behind a van on the bridge to avoid the police check the other side. I am fairly legit, but it’s a flexible interpretation here. My best disguise is that of long term resident, who has been shaken down for bribes so often that he’s wise to it and knows the form. This is backed up by the fact that unlike most tourists I ride a big old Enfield, not a scooter, and wear a shirt. After the usual minor confusion from my pillion (“turn left here… No, I mean right”, which gets tricky when you are being overtaken, undertaken, and have bikes coming at you on the wrong side of the road while hooting furiously), we made it to the office, which was next to Little Acorns Project to Rehabilitate Street Children. I loved the name. Two local girls sat in the office clicking rather aimlessly at computers with an air of extreme disinterest, but one detached herself and wrote down my details in laborious longhand. Then more clicking. The Internet connection was appallingly slow as usual, but after half an hour or so I was presented with a print out which was my e-ticket for the Manglam Express to Kerala, second class AC. This took about 18 hours to reach Ernakulam, Kochi’s nearest station, and coincidentally cost £18. Deciding to strike while the iron was hot I asked the girls to call a hotel I had found in the Rough Guide, as well as on the Hostelworld app, and reserve a room for three nights. This they did, for no charge, in a fraction of the time it would have taken me to do so.
When I came back from Africa I couldn’t get used to many things about the UK. The unfamiliar silence at night, with no perpetual chorus of insects. On my last night in Harare I went out onto the patio with my stereo, inserted a fresh C90 cassette, hit record and just left it. Back in the UK one night, missing what had become home, I put the tape on my Walkman. A vague background hiss. Then the chirp of cicadas. A low, descending “hoop hoop hoop hoop” call of some African bird. The bark of a dog, taken up by another, and then another, until they are barking right across the suburb of Chisipite, as my friend Edison described it, “here I am, here I am, here I am”. A car went by down Enterprise road with a broken exhaust, past the shopping centre, with the video store and Bon Marche, the hairdresser and the butchery, past the tall pines which shielded the place that looked like an Italian monastery, past the Shell station selling ‘blend’ made of sugar cane alcohol for your tank, and the wasteground where they brewed kachasu sugar cane alcohol for yourself, and which smelled the same and was probably just as good for you, and on over the junction with the traffic lights called robots which stopped working at random hours, causing chaos, and on into the jacaranda lined streets of Harare. Gone. It is all gone. My younger self on a cold night in England in the unfamiliar silence of northern nights, with hands jammed over my earphones, pressing the sounds closer into my ears, with tears streaming down my face at what had been lost when my African life ended. Well all those sounds are here again. I found them all again in India. It is not the same, but it is close enough.
Another night, another motorbike accident. We are having dinner in a nice restaurant out at Vagator and suddenly two police walk in (called ‘cops’ here, with a vaguely American pronunciation, as in “here come the cups”). They stand round a table which seems to be covered in a blanket. The blanket raises an arm. It is a tourist who has been injured. A few minutes earlier we had heard a bang and a surprised moo outside, but thought nothing of it. It turns out that the tourist had been riding a bike and had gone straight into a cow standing in the road. The cow is not in a good way, and nor is the rider, from the look of it. The ‘cups’ make notes, stand around the cow, talk to people. Someone calls the animal rescue, who say they are only open during business hours. Nothing to be done. We leave – three Indian girls on a rickety scooter followed by self and pillion on an Enfield. I take it slow heading home, watching for cows, speeding tourists, drunk 4×4 drivers, buses with only one headlight that look like motorbikes, and everything else.
In the newspaper an announcement from the staff of the Asha Widget Company Ltd. ‘condoling’ the widow of Mr J T G Fernandao, former sales executive, on the third anniversary of his untimely passing. People here condole each other as an active verb. Last night I heard a new one: to ‘wish’ someone, as in “did you wish them yet?” Wishing happy birthday, happy anniversary, congratulations on promotion etc. To wish and to condole – the gamut of human emotion economically reductio ad absurdum.
The elephant is back in the layby this morning, with a female tourist perched uncertainly upon its back as it shambles about while her companion takes photos. She doesn’t look entirely comfortable having her legs spread quite that far apart – an elephant’s back is awfully wide. “Aww, poor th’hing,” says K, with that characteristically aspirated Hindi haitch that I am completely unable to master. She means the helephant, which is reputed to be drugged, although given that most life forms around Goa are drugged this is no great surprise. The helephant’s howner, a horanged-robed hancient, has trouble telling one tourist from another, so half approaches me heach mohorning hasking for mohoney. Naheeee, I reply. I ride an Henfield. And he wahanders hoff.
A fairly typical lunch in Goa: I arrive at K’s office just before 2pm, as arranged. I then wait anything between 15 and 45 minutes while she finishes what she is doing, and fends off assorted people who have just thought that minute of something which absolutely must be done right now, immediately; important stuff like updating a blog that a handful of people visit each week, or sending out a petition which would take months to reach critical mass, if it ever manages to galvanise anyone into the vital NGO pastime of ‘clicktivism’. Quite what happens after that nobody seems to know. Perhaps the chief minister of random state has created the post of filing clerk specially to archive the outraged letters from the general public that are pouring in about assorted human rights abuses. Perhaps the secretary to the relevant department has an ulcer, a nag for a wife, five teenage daughters to educate / protect 24/7 from local boys / marry off (delete as applicable) and a boss he hates with a venomous loathing, combined with a 1.6kb Internet connection, 1024 unread emails in an account he never checks, and only five more years to go till retirement. Or perhaps it makes a difference somehow. How many people read the blog, follow the links? Nobody knows. They are running on blind faith and that most heady of charitable brews, “making a difference”, confronting a monolithic bureaucracy famous even by Asian standards for the glacial speed with which its wheels rotate, often in reverse; a regional superpower technically at war with its immediate neighbour which is one of the most dangerous and anarchic places on earth, possessed of largely ungovernable regions, which produced a phenomenon that at the turn of the new millennium, as the world was patting itself on the back for the new world order that turned out to be yet another case of wishful thinking, reached out and struck at the heart of America and nothing would ever be the same again. This vast republic – forget the ‘sub’: this is a continent unto itself – with half a dozen separatist movements, a leftist intellectual tradition, a feudal underclass of unprecedented size and a turgid legal system that is selectively applied, has opened up to big business, bought into the neocon dream, marketed trendy buzzwords: incredible India for the tourists and credible India for the business investors – although too often the terms are the other way round – and is dealing with the all too predictable consequences of corporations playing fast and loose with people’s rights because they haven’t got the same obligations of accountability that they would in the west or elsewhere. Oh sure, the corporations broadcast their credentials, their corporate social responsibility strategy, and then they have a discreet word: minister, we need to open up this area for investment, but there are a bunch of peasant farmers living there who don’t want to work for slave wages for us, but instead inexplicably prefer their traditional and sustainable livelihood of farming. These people are a barrier to progress, an obstacle to development. Some may have antisocial tendencies; they may even be terrorists. The Naxalites, India’s Maoist movement, are never far away when it comes to encouraging peasants to follow them. So in go the forces of law and order under their various acronyms, beat up some people, arrest some more, or worse, and the mainstream local news channels fail to cover it. In steps the new media phenomenon of the citizen journalist on dial up speeds. But who is the target audience? Villagers? Indian middle classes? The rest of the world? Each require a separate pitch, a different framing. One size does not fit all, in the world of journalism.
Such things are discussed under a tin roof, over plates of spicy food, as a squadron of flies endlessly circulates and traffic roars past a few feet away, hooting continuously. Service takes forever, one hour turns into two, nothing is solved, everything is hopeless, and yet the dedication of the staff is undiminished – India’s problems defy the imagination in their scale, and yet they plod on anyway. What else is there to do but give up?
I may have said this before, but my standard third world policy, which I suppose I should now call a developing world policy, or perhaps a global south one (Australasia aside), is to only give to the first beggar I see that day. It saves having to make a moral judgement call on who is the more deserving. And yet, compared to Delhi or Rajasthan, I’ve seen very few beggars in Goa. The exception was the Saturday night market, where along the main road every few yards a woman squatted in tattered yet originally colourful clothing, usually with a child. Today I went to recharge my phone credit, unsuccessfully for the fifth time in a row, and where I pulled up there crouched another, under a tree. She outstretched an arm beseechingly. A tiny girl, perhaps 2 years old, stood half naked, filthy and grizzling next to her. I hardened my heart and went into the phone shop. You have to. You can’t help them all, feel for them all. In the shop I found I had two notes loose in my pocket. 1000 rupees – about £12, and 10 rupees – about 12p. Twelve pence. When I went back out to the bike the little girl was still grizzling, the woman trying to comfort her. What an abysmally fucking rotten life that kid has been sentenced to. I gave the woman the 10 rupee note and she touched both hands together and smiled. The little girl was so taken aback she even stopped crying and gawped at me. Then I went and had a cup of tea at a restaurant. 60 rupees. I know about begging rings, about kids getting mutilated to get more income, the perpetuation arguments. But maybe I made someone happy for a short while, for the sake of 12p.
I ride along endless twisting lanes in the sunshine, lined with coconut palms. Small yellow striped squirrels scamper up and down the slender trunks. I am thunking along in fourth gear, which feels like being gently kicked in the pants once a second. The sun is hot, but the breeze keeps me cool. Last night, after a windy day, it was refreshing. For once my shirt was not soaking wet. In tropical terms, if you are not actually sweating, you start to think it is growing cold. I pass open ground to the right – what in southern Africa we would call a vlei. The setting sun turns the grass golden. A dog snoozes on the parapet of a bridge. Amplified Indian music, a male female duet, fills the air, and from across the lake I hear another sound system playing the same sort of thing, different tune. They compete, drown each other out. There is no synchronisation, no coordination. The end result is a colourful, joyful cacophony. What a country.