The American writer and humourist P. J. O’Rourke once said of France that it was a place where you couldn’t tear the toilet paper but the money fell apart in your hands. I’m not sure whether Mr O’Rourke ever visited India, but he’d find it confirmed his hypothesis perfectly. The toilet paper, which seems to be branded ‘Albania’ (make of that what you will), is the sort of stuff that NASA might well consider examining for its super high tensile indestructible properties. I am indifferent to it, however, being Asiatic enough to prefer a tap or jug. There are also a range of high pressure hoses as wall attachments, with which I once managed to drench my trousers in a busy restaurant in Cambodia. So navigating your way round an unfamiliar tropical bathroom for the first time, what will usually happen is that you will enter a small and malodorous darkened room, steamy as a sauna, and immediately fall over one of two large plastic buckets. While you curse and stumble around a long broom-like implement will casually topple over and smartly strike you amidships. This is the squeegee, with which you wipe the floor having flooded it with the contents of the bucket. As you blunder about looking for a light switch, a tap, cleverly positioned at groin height, makes its presence felt. As you double over your forehead encounters a battery of switches on the wall – half a dozen or so. None appear to operate a light switch, but by hitting them all you may find a small red light is activated on the geyser. By its faint glow you can just about make out the resident spider, who eyes you with all the friendliness of a nightclub bouncer. Making a mental note to avoid that entire side of the room you navigate your way past bare wires dangling from the wall, passing through a puddle of water that somehow escaped the squeegee, and locate one of two things. Either a hole in the floor, marked ‘direct route to Hades’, which may be accompanied by a pair of glowing eyes from within – rat, frog, roach, take your pick – or you are in luck and with a heavenly chorus in your ears you make out a magnificent pedestal emblazoned with logos. You have reached your destination: the toilet. I’m a Yamaha – ride me.
Speaking of Yamahas, if you should ever need to fill your motorcycle with petrol while in India, and you are fortunate enough to encounter an actual petrol station, as opposed to a small boy crouching on the roadside with old water bottles refilled with yellowish liquid, you join the motorbike queue. There are in fact two, or even three queues, but only one pump. The other pump lies tilted on its side, and a large hole exposes a network of severed pipes. There is a strong whiff of fuel in the air. Around half the people in the queue are ringing all their mates with their mobile phones to discuss where to meet for dinner, or something. I once saw a harassed woman in the UK trying to calm two unruly children in the back seat while filling the tank. Her phone rang and she absent mindedly answered it. Immediately there was an alarm siren and the voice of the attendant boomed out: “You at pump number four! Put down the mobile phone!” Terrified, she dropped it. Well anyway, they don’t bother with that nonsense here. Call who you like. Switch off your bike and open the tank while still yards away, then shuffle forward. Even while being pushed a scooter will try to undertake you, and here your extra cubic engine capacity is an advantage too: 350cc of ironmongery running over the sandalled foot of scooter rider will ensure he gives way to you as befits the larger vehicle. “Fill please”. The attendant tops it up until petrol slops over the brim, running down your tank and soaking your trousers again which have just about dried off since your bathroom visit. “380 rupees.” You give him 500. Make sure you loudly announce “500” for the benefit of any witnesses. He gives you 20 change. You hold out your hand for the rest. “How much you give?” he asks. 500. It is in your hand. He stares at his hand as if belonging to a stranger and turns side on to hide the 500 note from view. “Listen,” I say. “380 rupees petrol. I give 500. You give 20. Now you give 100.” “How much you give,” he repeats again, while trying to find a way out of the corner he has backed into. Now this is where you use your Perry Mason skills. Turn to the witnesses who are all queuing behind and say: “you saw me give 500, na?” Haan. Ok then. Turn to attendant who is being harangued by half a dozen scooter riders, and repeat: “you give me 100 now.” A man who knows when he is beaten, he salvages the remnants of his pride by ignoring the bundle of hundreds in his hand and instead counts you out change in grubby tens. Nine of them. “Come on, don’t try with me sunshine.” Grumpily he slams down the final ten and the last shreds of his dignity. “Thank you” I smile. “Have a nice day.” He grunts in reply.
Vagator beach, 10pm. We are at Fishtails, a restaurant shack which has become a favourite – although to call it a shack is a little misleading. It is open fronted and looks out onto the beach, but has comfy chairs in recumbent positions and low glass tables. The staff are all nice guys – one has taken to shaking my hand every time he sees me. I always have the prawn vindaloo here, hot, spicy, and with a vinegary tang. This is washed down with a coke float – a glass of coke with a scoop of ice cream in it. At 11pm they bring a candle for our table and roll out mattresses on the floor and go to bed. This is quite normal here: many people sleep at their workplace. We smoke and talk in low voices, watching the sea. The breakers come in three at a time, marching in unison, keeping parallel with each other. The wave begins to break on the far right, a white horse curl of sea which rolls smoothly leftward, unspooling steadily as it goes. Then one large wave, the middle in the set of three, breaks from both ends, left and right white horses rippling over and curling toward each other to meet in the centre. Velvet dark sand in undulations is smoothed over by the wash of the wave as it spills up the beach with a hiss which lingers and then draws back on itself. Another builds, bulges and then topples at the corner, a frill of spume untearing leftwards along the crest of the wave. Overhead the stars are thrown across the sky; they seem to visibly creep clockwise in ascendance, not steadily, but in slow incremental pulses that match my heartbeat. I pick my way in the darkness round the furniture, crossing the restaurant floor toward the bathroom, stealthy as a giant cat. My pupils grow larger in the dark. I pass within two feet of the dog, and only when I am in front of it does it realise my presence and give a startled yip. We leave and walk up the beach, two small figures ahead and two behind, languidly gliding along under the stars in the tropical night, the sea murmuring and spilling up across the sand around us. And I think to myself: this is just magical.
Sunset at Chapora Fort. An orange band across the sky is shining in the glimmering waves. The wind is warm. I imagine a British warship cruising along out there, sausage and chips for dinner, tea in tin mugs, and out there in the darkness the looming coast of India, with the smell of the land and the dim glow of lights. What do they imagine here? Small, dimly lit villages, the scent of incense, the slowly plodding cows lowing and booming to each other along the lanes? Do they see the fingers of light whirl about the sky from the hilltop laser? Do they pick out the faint boom of trance above the seethe of the sea and the whoompf of the waves on the rocks? The Malabar Coast, the smell of spices carried on the warm night air. The golden lights spill round the headland and along into the distance, shimmering faintly in the dark. We walk through the fort in the blackness, picking our way round the rocks. Through the fort doorway we see ponds of pale light gleaming down in the valley beneath the canopy of trees like dewdrops on a spider’s web. We make our way down the scree covered hillside behind three drunk Indian lads who yell and slip and complain, by the light of a mobile phone. Then one shines his phone on the ground before us to show us the way. We descend together. They collapse exhausted on the Tarmac at the road head. I kick the Enfield once, twice, it roars into life and we thunk away into the hot black night, along lanes lined with jungle plants and lush, verdant foliage.
Dogs lie curled up together on the dusty verges. Sometimes they lie in the road, and raise their heads as you pass within a few feet. A group of cows walk along. Others lie under a tree. Two boys in vests, shorts and bare feet are pushing a cart down a pitch dark road. Where are they going? What do they talk about? We stop half a dozen times to get directions. Two middle aged ‘uncles’ tottering along unsteadily, one with his arm round the other’s shoulders. A food cart – a young guy in a white shirt leaning at one end and scooping food into his mouth even as he points us down the road and says ‘second left’. A woman in a sari. Two more men outside a phone shop, pot bellies and big moustaches. In front of them a small dog barks continuously. We pass over a bridge, the river wide in the darkness beneath us, the lights on the hills into the distance. Into a town again and turn right down a lane. A van in the turn wants to go left. We all hoot. I go to the right of the van, another bike goes to its left, and we descend a switchback hill with taillights aglow. Then an unmarked junction – our road has seamlessly forked into another. We slow but do not stop: the guy ahead zooms across and I follow 5 yards behind. As I am halfway across, a bus sweeps round the bend from my right. It fills my vision. If I brake it will go straight over us. I accelerate hard and swerve to my left, to within a few inches of the road edge, which has a deep ditch running alongside. The bus is going fast round a blind bend. We squeak through by a couple of feet. Not ten seconds later I have to brake hard for an unmarked speed bump. As I change down into second and accelerate, a scooter with no lights pulls out of a side entrance and I hoot, brake, swerve, and accelerate past him. Ten seconds, three near misses. Standard for here.
We find the restaurant we have spent three quarters of an hour riding round in the dark trying to locate. It is open, just, but we are the only customers. It overlooks the water and periodically a great wave hits the sea wall with a slap, sending a curtain of spray cascading along it. The shimmer of golden lights on the far shore, a neon lit ferry blaring out a techno beat across the water as it goes back and forth, and then a golden palm tree blooms and cascades down in perfect silence: fireworks, too far away to hear. The menu has one entire side of A4 dedicated to alcohol – a shot of vodka is 90rs, about a pound, and the measure is roughly a triple. I order a nimbu pani, lime water, which you specify sweet, salty or both. One last week was decidedly brackish, like drinking seawater, but this one is just right. Kingfish balchao – a spicy curry. Or there is cafreal, a kind of green curry, or chacuti, or xacuti, or shacuti, which is yet another curry variant, or reichado, more curry. All are slightly different and all are spicy hot.
Heading back through Calangute I am tucked in behind a van. An Enfield overtakes to my right and hoots thrice (as they say here with archaic charm). I turn to look at him, look forward again and see a khaki uniform to my left raise his swagger stick a couple of feet, as if indicating me to stop. But it is a halfhearted gesture with no real hope of success, a try on, and I am already level with him. I keep going and he bangs the stick down on the ground but does not shout or whistle. I can do without a police stop, explaining that the bike belongs to a friend whose full name I don’t know, who has the insurance (which is expired), that we have no helmets because nobody does, that the left taillight may hang loose but still works, and so on and so on. A few minutes later we hit a traffic jam. It is one o’clock in the morning, and this is the queue for the night market.
Combine Camden, Brick Lane and a dash of Glastonbury and you get the idea. It is huge, lighted stalls spilling down the hillside. Dreadlocks and tattoos, the assorted freaks of the west who operate in a parallel universe. Rasta t-shirts, crystals, bongs and chillums, fetishwear. The place is heaving with Russians – blonde girls in POCCNR hoodies – tie dye skirts, assorted ethnic garb and jewellery. A football match on a big screen, UK premier league. A neon lit dance floor thumping out trance. A live band doing a cover of Led Zeppelin. A group of guys with brass instruments blast out a jaunty Central European sort of thing, vaguely gipsy. The occasional slightly ragged local wandering through, wealthy Indians with families, the Boom Shankar white kids with dreads brigade. Many wear a curious type of calf length boot with a flat sole, the foot of which is split into twin toes. This puts me in mind of the Vadomo tribe of Zimbabwe who have this same two-toed effect naturally, with the top of the foot split almost up to the shin. The Vadomo got that way through inbreeding. I hope the boots are very comfortable. They look hideous, and there’s something rather disconcerting about a bunch of two toed Russians looming out of the darkness towards you. Although admittedly not as disconcerting as those weird shoes with five toes. “Fuck, man… What happened to your feet? Oh I see – they are shoes. I do apologise. I’m really, really stoned.”
Dinner with Indians. The waiter is summoned. This here – seafood curry. Is it dry? Well, says the waiter, it is quite dry. Is it with gravy? Ambiguous head waggle from waiter. Some gravy, perhaps. Has the gravy got onions in it? No, no onions. Damn, I feel like onions tonight in my gravy. What about these prawns – are they large? Not exactly, says the waiter. Probably around medium. Show me. The waiter makes a vague shape in the air. Ok, let’s get the prawns. But wait – have they got tails on? Tails not have, says the waiter. Ok. But are they crispy? Fairly. Can you make them crispier but not too much? I can’t eat prawns, says someone, placing a hand on their stomach and giving a slight wince. Oh right, lets just have the biryani then.
A beach shack restaurant, Anjuna. At the precise moment the sun disappears into the greyness of the horizon, a bell chimes. Five men emerge in single file from a shack, the one in front carrying some kind of flame horizontally outstretched in front of him. Behind him one carries a small handbell, another a kind of drum with a rising, interrogative note, as in Chinese opera: it makes a sort of metallic ‘boing?’ sound. Then another handbell, and bringing up the rear a little guy with a conch shell, blowing a low whoop periodically. This small band make their way down to the water’s edge clanging and chiming and honking, gesture with the flame, then march back up to the shack having extinguished it. They continue to play until they are back inside, and then each chimes the bell that hangs inside, the last note lingering in the evening air. Conversation resumes, people turn back to their drinks. Three girls emerge from the trees, the oldest perhaps twelve. Dark skinned, with hair tied in a plait, They wear local clothes – long skirts and scarves in faded yet pretty patterned cloth, bangles of coloured thread on their slim arms. They carry large plastic sacks on their backs, and when they spot a discarded water bottle one swoops on it and puts it in the sack. Rubbish pickers – they will sell the empties. I see two white women strolling down the beach in neon coloured thong bikinis. The three girls trudge on, their sacks growing larger every few metres, so that one shifts it onto her head. They pass within a yard of the women and neither seem to see the other, as if both groups are invisible, occupying parallel worlds. But at our shack, tourists in recliners sipping 100 rupee drinks, the first girl, the oldest, turns sideways and looks at us all, taking in the scene, lips slightly apart in a grimace of incomprehension. I meet her eyes, and for a long moment we stare at each other across a vast gulf, wider by far than ten yards of sand, and one that neither of us can bridge. Then she turns and walks away up the beach followed by her two smaller companions, into the gathering dusk, and doesn’t look back.