The City

The mental maps of multiple cities overlay one another, blurring at the edges. If I walk out into the street, over the small, whitewashed bridge and turn left, will I find myself in Lewisam Avenue, beneath a colonnade of jacaranda trees, and the dogs that race along the Durawall to fling themselves in fury at the gates (chenjera imbwa!), down to the expanse of tawny savannah dotted with flat-top acacias that lies at the end of the road? Or was it right, into Bahnhofstrasse, up the steep hill that led to the cafe where we sat one day in the sunshine over tall glasses of weissbier and a conversation that brought the world crashing down around me, leaving me stumbling through the ruins? Was it straight on, past the Rimi supermarket – or was it a Woolworths? – and into the wide streets lined with wooden villas that overlooked the water? There was a bridge there, crossing the harbour. But the bridge is not there; the water stretches away on all sides unspanned, deepening to ultramarine, out to the open sea. A different city, another time.

The plane from Mumbai had flown into the darkening sky of a tropical dusk, coming in low over the estuary of the Mandovi River which shone like pewter in the evening sun. The silhouettes of two rusted freighters were moored like hulks in mid-stream. Small lights were springing up along the Malabar Coast, and I made out the first signs of life – a bus crawling its way up the road, a motorcycle overtaking it, people standing outside shops. Apartment blocks rose into view, and the light blue oval of a hotel swimming pool ringed with underwater lights. We dropped down from the sky into another world. I had been here before.

But in the intervening two years, much had changed – both in myself and in Goa’s physical landscape. New bars and restaurants had appeared, old favourites were no longer there. Baba au Rhum had relocated to a site on the backroad to Baga overlooking an expanse of fields; even the perilously narrow bridge to get there, with its memorably tricky 90 degree bend, had been replaced by a wide, two-lane expanse of tarmac. The small house where I once stayed was still there, but had changed colour, from a vermillion orange to a more muted shade of maroon. An enormous new bar had appeared on a headland at Vagator beach, which boomed trance music out to sea. It was as if I were seeing the physical manifestations of change overlaying some deeper and more intangible sense of place – as if life had gone on apace in my absence, and meanwhile I had constructed new mental maps, built yet more cities in my head, only to find myself back in one that I once knew, but in which I kept getting lost. I noticed the small white chapels that lay everywhere – at a crossroads, in the middle of a field, or set back slightly from a road lined with coconut palms. How had I not seen them before? But they had always been there.

And people, too. How strange it is, and how wonderful, to meet someone again out of context, in a setting where you never expected to see them. I had last seen A. two years and several worlds ago, as a small figure walking away into the deepening chill of a Kabul night, silhouetted by the powdery shafts of headlights as the traffic streamed by, the weight of the city’s hopes and fears on his shoulders. I had looked out of the rear window of our taxi for a long time at his departing form as it got smaller and smaller, until he was swallowed up in the darkness of Afghanistan, and I had feared for him. Now here he was again, in the heat and light of India, clad in some outlandish surfer shorts decorated with the stars and stripes, grinning broadly.       


The heat… it hadn’t changed, but I had forgotten. It was steamy, all-enveloping, and slowed life to a crawl, making a mockery of human timetables and endeavours. I had come from the rarefied atmosphere of the Himalayas; here, at sea level, each breath seemed thick with ozone, and the smells were different: the aroma of incense, the scent of exotic flowers, the vaguely corrupted odour of windfallen fruit, the seductive, spicy fragrance of hashish and its promise of languid, lucid dreams. The heat was like being wrapped in a damp towel – stepping out of a lukewarm shower in a steamy bathroom you immediately broke out into a sweat again. To dry off I stood naked under the whoosh of the ceiling fan with arms upraised, seeking relief in its cool breeze. Over the course of the morning the sun climbed the walls, finding a way through a gap in the curtains and shining bars of hot golden light slanted across the floor. The cries of mynah birds in the surrounding trees, the chirrup of the little yellow-striped squirrels which chased each other round and round the trunks of the palms, and the deeper ‘hoop hoop hoop’ of some tropical bird falling in a descant from the jungle-clad hilltop behind the house.

In such a climate one’s shoes become immediately redundant, and they sat in the corner of the room for the duration. Instead I reverted to flip flops – or thongs, as the Australians would call them – a pair of which I had bought in a mall in Alice Springs some months before, and which immediately became baptised forever by the red dust of Goa, their soles permanently ochreous. I bought some loose cotton kurta pyjama trousers from Fabindia to wear instead of jeans. Riding around with no helmet on a 1950s-era motorcycle while clad in pyjamas and flip flops rather goes against the training and advice of the British motorcycling fraternity. Indeed, so internalised do our mental maps become, of different customs and received wisdoms, that it was hard to shake off an intense feeling of vulnerability at first – the paranoia that something might happen (I once had the same sensation riding in the UK in full armour but trainers instead of boots). Still, everyone was doing it, and soon it felt natural once again. Autre temps, autre moeurs.

Nevertheless this trip had lately been marked for me by a strange morbidity, almost like the onset of a depression. I tend to get these periodically: not, as many do, with the onset of autumn and the drawing in of the days, but paradoxically in spring – March in particular. And rather like having an inner body clock that tells me when it is tea time whatever time zone I happen to be in, having gone through three dramatically diverse climate zones in as many months, I felt the onset of vernal gloom. I found it hard to shake off the conviction that one of the many planes I needed to take was going to crash, and that while I assured myself that statistically it was highly unlikely, and that I was far more likely to immolate myself on an antique motorcycle, I knew that the figures for that year, with three Malaysian planes going down, were already improbable. I have never set much store in intuition personally, since I’ve been wrong as often as I’ve been right, but it was hard to fend off a sense of foreboding.

And then I realised that it was in fact another issue: I missed home. I felt as if I had unfinished business there, a life not yet lived, and the thought of not seeing people again was inconceivable. In this rather glum frame of mind I gazed broodingly out to sea upon beautiful beaches lined with tourists basking in the sunshine, wondering what I was doing there. I realised too that the trip had been characterised by getting stuck in places: stuck in Victoria till early January due to the trebling of air fares over Christmas; stuck in Kathmandu for a week due to a plane crashing into the airport; and now stuck in Goa when mentally I was already back home in England. I began to suffer from assorted maladies due to the climate. I felt badly designed for it: I had the wrong kind of skin, which burned in the sun, attracted every mosquito for miles around, and broke out in some kind of prickly heat rash. One night an insect flew into my ear, and it must have stayed there because I went deaf on that side, and barked at people grumpily in consequence. I missed the windswept beaches of Suffolk and the North Sea’s pebbly seethe, the vast and ever-changing skies, the air so clean and cold it was like an intoxicating draught, and the hiss of rippling reedbeds on the marshland round the town. I badly wanted to be there again.

Over the next few days, in the company of my friends, I gradually shook off my malaise. But it had been that condition of uncertainty, a state of dithering that I despised in myself, which I sought to avoid. Much of my trip so far had been spontaneous; at one point I had been set on going to Burma, so Nepal had been something of a surprise even to myself – and I had enjoyed the flexibility of not really knowing where I was going next. But I was determined to act, to lift my gaze from the cobblestones to take in my surroundings once more, so I rebooked flights home, making concrete plans. Immediately it felt like a resolution, and I felt as if I could finally appreciate where I was.

And what of the Goans themselves? They had seemed almost marginal figures on my last trip, like many permanent residents of holiday destinations, regarded by incomers as rustic figures of fun – rather lazy, indolent, unbusinesslike. They provided essential services, rented out accommodation, kept to themselves and periodically indulged in religious festivals peculiar to the area. At the time of my visit it was Shigmo – a kind of Holi – and on more than one occasion while riding late at night we got caught in traffic jams as crowds converged on a nearby temple in a chaos of colour and amplified chanting. I wondered at the fate of these placid people in their tropical heartland who had made a living largely from fishing, coconuts and spices, and had been converted to Christianity by the Portuguese, with the enforcers of the Inquisition bringing to trial some 16,000 Goans for crimes such as greeting people with the traditional Hindu “Namaste”, growing the tulsi plant which was held to be sacred, and speaking to each other in Konkani, the local language.

The Portuguese influence was perhaps most visible in the streets of Panjim, which resembled the Old Quarter of some Latin American city. Wrought iron balconies overlooked narrow, winding lanes, houses were painted a multitude of colours and high windows were flanked by heavy wooden shutters to keep out the glare. Venite was an old restaurant that might have been in Havana or Cartagena, the entrance through an ornate doorway decorated with mozaic and blue and white azulejo tiles. Punkah fans rotated lazily beneath the high ceilings, and the menu featured numerous Goan dishes whose names betrayed their Portuguese origins: balchao, sorpotel, cafreal and vindalho (known as vindaloo on UK takeaway menus, and a byword for spicyness).

Riding back over the bridge from Panjim that night, sitting behind K on her scooter, the lights of the town shone on the dark water of the river and the wind was warm. I remembered somewhere else – a sultry evening, coloured lights shimmering in the reflection of the river and the outline of palm trees. Was it Hoi An, Vietnam? Perhaps. After a while, when you’ve travelled a lot, places can begin to resemble one another, and something will suddenly remind you of somewhere else. And there was the unknown element too – the different set of rules for a different place. Technically, officially, to ride a motorcycle on a foreign licence in Goa you need to have an International Motoring Permit (£5 from the Post Office). In reality, nobody has one – few even have a licence for a motorcycle. And the advice of the locals was, if the police try to flag you down, don’t stop. It runs contrary to the internalised obedience of more organised societies. Different rules apply.     

We passed a row of small shops, and I was brought out of my reverie by the appearance of a figure staggering up the side of the road covered in blood. We began to slow as we passed him.

“Did you see that guy?” K said.

“Yes. But it might not be his blood.”

We rode on.        

My callousness felt like a rebuke. But it was true – what could we do? There were many people about, the bloodstained man was walking past several shops where he could have sought help. And, more crucially, we didn’t know the rules. Perhaps he was a notoriously violent drunk in the neighbourhood? Perhaps he had just murdered someone with a machete? Or maybe he’d fallen off his bike, couldn’t afford a taxi and was walking home. We didn’t know. I remembered one night in Zimbabwe, having got into a drunken fight outside a club with someone who turned out to be with a group of friends. Naturally they all joined in, and I got very knocked about – five against one is only going to go one way. Having somehow made my escape, walking down Arcturus Road trying to see out of two rapidly closing eyes while staunching the flow of blood from my nose, a car pulled up. It was a young African taking driving lessons from his cousin. They gave me a lift all the way home, and refused any offer of money, although they were low on petrol. And in the cycle of karma, how had I repaid this act I had never forgotten? By ignoring someone in a similar plight. So it goes.    

I had been housebound by necessity after that small scrape, and spent my days shuffling round the house, ghoulishly inspecting myself in mirrors. I sought consolation for my assorted woes in the small, book-lined study, the rows of bound volumes with their spines set afire in the glow of the afternoon sun. A French window opened out onto the terrace, and there, on those golden African afternoons of motionless cumulus clouds in a deep blue sky, with the seedpods of the Natal mahogany periodically thunking onto the canopy overhead, I first opened the book that was decorated with the blue palmprint that is the sign to ward off evil in the Arab world: Justine, by Lawrence Durrell. I was mesmerised from the first lines. So many memories transposed upon one another, a dozen interwoven lives, all played out against the backdrop of Alexandria. All the different places merged into one. And the line, which has stayed with me ever since: “A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.” 

The City – C. P. Cavafy, as transplanted by Lawrence Durrell

You tell yourself: I’ll be gone

To some other land, some other sea,

To a city lovelier far than this

Could ever have been or hoped to be –

Where every step now tightens the noose:

A heart in a body buried and out of use:

How long, how long must I be here

Confined among these dreary purlieus

Of the common mind? Wherever now I look

Black ruins of my life rise into view.

So many years have I been here

Spending and squandering, and nothing gained.

There’s no new land, my friend, no

New sea; for the city will follow you,

In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly,

The same mental suburbs slip from youth to age,

In the same house go white at last-

The city is a cage.

No other places, always this

Your earthly landfall, and no ship exists

To take you from yourself. Ah! don’t you see

Just as you’ve ruined your life in this

One plot of ground you’ve ruined its worth

Everywhere now – over the whole earth?