The baby next door is singing again this morning. It’s not a cry so much as a kind of joyful up and down wail, testing the boundaries of his own voice, adding his bright noise to the dawn chorus. He’s huge – a real bouncing boy, with straw-blond hair and clear blue eyes. The exact details of the parenthood are uncertain, but he’s most definitely Russian – you can somehow see it already. There are several children in the flat next door, looked after by a Russian lady – she speaks fluent English but with a slightly French intonation. She’s a qualified teacher back in Russia, and teaches a class in Panjim here. After she’d graduated in Moscow everyone wanted to know which prestigious school or academy she’d go to. When she said India eyebrows rose. “But what about your career?” they asked. “What about money?” She shrugged. An older child romps barefoot around Goa, playing with the local kids, utterly free. His name is Happy.
And sometimes I see her partner – similar in age, and yet somehow ageless: he’s lithe and athletic with long wavy blond hair and tattoos. Yesterday I saw him playing with the baby in the pool, singing to him in English but with a strong Russian accent. “Write to me a letter…” he sang, and the baby sang along too, in his own way.
We went over to a place in Chapora for dinner at the weekend – an open air shack overlooking the estuary that is usually deserted. It was started up by a couple of the Pahari (hill people) lads from another restaurant we go to, and they have a distinctly laid-back approach to business – half the stuff on the menu isn’t available, ever, and they close as and when they feel like it. Despite a phone call confirming they were open on Sunday, by the time we got there the place was in darkness and the gate shut. A strong smell of kerosene hung in the air. But there was a shadowy figure at the gate who opened it for us, murmured words of greeting exchanged in the darkness. We ascended the stairs and arranged ourselves on cushions in the corner. There was the deep, soft thump of ambient trance. At the opposite end of the room was a figure hunched over a laptop in a small pool of light, setting up a playlist. It was the young Russian guy – our neighbour.
Drinks came, and we looked out at the water. Then suddenly a flare of light from the courtyard below – a flickering yellow flame. Then another bloomed, and it began to twirl. Our neighbour was doing fire poi – spinning a flaming baton around himself. With an acrobatic leap on pointed toes he leapt into the golden pool of light he cast, and the music changed, became deep and rhythmic, a swaying beat like the gait of a cantering horse. Singing began – a droning, guttural chant with an eerie flute-like whistle to it – Mongol throat singing. It was Huun Huur Tu, a group from Tuva, a republic in the Russian Federation on the Mongolian border. Swing and thump, the earth falling away beneath you at the pace of a horse across the steppe. Round and round the flames went as he spun and twirled. Out on the terrace in the darkness a woman in a long skirt danced, entirely beautiful, swaying from side to side, arms tracing patterns through the air, watched intensely by a dog that lay a few feet away. I couldn’t see her clearly but somehow felt her presence: she seemed ageless, the music reaching something deep inside her – some nomadic imperative of the Russians locked in their Asiatic landmass, like some shamanic priestess of the Altai tapping into ancient roots.
We adjourned to the terrace ourselves, and lay on our backs smoking and looking up at the stars. The music faded and our neighbour came up. “That was very cool,” I said to him in passing, and he giggled. “Sometimes it comes together,” he said, his eyes darting around. There was a slight note of hysteria to his voice, and I realised he was tripping. He abruptly turned a cartwheel and walked off on his hands, going to sit in the corner with the dancing woman. Low murmured conversation and laughter. I heard her voice for the first time: she wasn’t Russian at all, but English, with the slightly flat vowels of the East Midlands. I couldn’t hear the conversation fully but then he made a joke which prompted laughter, and then said to her: “But you are only eighteen!” She smiled modestly and dipped her head in acknowledgement. This young Russian man performing fire poi to Tuvan Mongol music, and an 18-year-old English girl dancing like some Central Asian priestess on a rooftop in India…
I met him again the next morning, coming up the stairs to our apartment, emitting a faint whiff of something inflammable. Seeing me he halted and took off his sunglasses. I did the same, fumbling to change to my non-tinted ones. A look of deep recognition passed between us as we clasped hands.
“What is your name?” he asked me. I told him.
“I am Arkady,” he said. “We are leaving tomorrow.”
“Where are you going?”
“Moscow,” he sighed. He said it like an American. Muss-Cow.
I smiled sympathetically. “Well, have a good trip.”
He laughed. “I think not such a good trip. But yes.”
“I hope to see you here again some time.”
“For sure. Till next time.” Then he was gone, in a blur of long hair, racing up the stairs.
I’ve been mistaken for a Russian myself a few times over the years – mostly by other Russians who are then quite taken aback to find I speak not a word of it. Russian or Irish – the Irish always recognise me as one of their own: I have an Irish head, I’m told. But Russian? It’s the eyes, apparently. Maybe there’s some ancestry, way back. Who knows. Certainly many Russians possess features that are a curious fusion of European and Asian – ostensibly Caucasian in appearance and yet with that cast to the eyes and the high cheekbones of the steppes. The Mongols left traces of their presence deep across the Eurasian landmass, right into the heart of Europe, reaching the gates of Vienna in the 13th century.
In consequence there’s always been a historical fear buried deep in the European psyche of the hordes from the East – that they were somehow “other”. In Germany in 1945 the population were terrified of the Red Army not just because they feared revenge for the invasion of the Soviet Union, but from something older, more atavistic. And the sight of a Red Army baggage convoy with visibly Asiatic soldiers leading a column of double-humped Bactrian camels – the 308th Rifle Division – struck a mixture of astonishment and outright terror into the hearts of the Berliners who witnessed it swaying through the streets early one morning. (According to war correspondent Vassily Grossman, one camel, Kuznechik – meaning ‘grasshopper’ – who had survived the battle of Stalingrad four years earlier, was led to the Reichstag and encouraged by his driver to spit upon the building. Kuznechik duly obliged.)
Other departures too: places are closing up in preparation for the monsoon, weatherproofing their roofs for the rains. The tourists are leaving, and the coastal strip of Goa will go down to a skeleton crew, only a few long-term residents remaining. The Pahari boys will go back to the hills as the season begins up there. We will follow soon. And the old English guy in Oppa’s who was looking around, taking it all in, as if for the last time. He rose to his feet with a sigh, paid his bill and began talking to the owner: “I’m off tomorrow. Back home” – he gave a mirthless laugh. “Got to do six months this time. But I’ll be back, after the monsoon.”
The pig dog at Eldou’s – brindled brown and white. He’s big and gentle and perpetually itchy, wandering over to rest his chin on your lap with a silly grin, breaking off intermittently to scratch. Periodically the staff half-heartedly chase him out, but he sidles back in soon after. I gently stroke the warm fur of his head and back. Whose dog is he, we ask? The owner explains: “He is Morjim and Chapora’s dog.” Morjim, the village up the coast on the other side of the estuary. How does he get all the way to Chapora? He swims. At low tide he wades it. And some guy with a boat said how he was out on the water one day and this dog swam up to his boat and clambered aboard, hitching a ride.
Sunset at Sunset – a shack on Uddo Beach. Fishermen wade waist-deep through the blood-warm shallows. The waves are rippling, jumping, a slate-grey band of endless movement beneath the apricot sky, like an animated painting. Overhead wheel 20 or 30 hawks in the spiralling vortex of a thermal that fluctuates over the ground, coming closer then moving further away. There are often birds of prey here; there is a graveyard on the hillside.
Two birds – Brahminy kites – perform an aerial ballet, flying side by side with wings almost touching. One rises above the other, then dips again, and they alternate height, rising, falling, rising. One leads, the other follows, then they swap position, roles… The higher bird turns a half-somersault and flips upside down beneath the other, then rights itself. The other repeats the manoeuvre. They fly on motionless wings side by side over the glimmering water and then glide across the shoreline, high above the coconut palms, heading inland.
A person sees in the world what they carry in their heart.
Adapting to a tropical environment means developing different routines. On arriving home the minute you come through the door you reach for the punkah ceiling fan switch, even before the lights, and then open the balcony door. The air-con is in the bedroom, and now, early May, we are using it more and more frequently – coming back from lunch we’ll have a siesta under the air-con, trying to cool down. The bedtime routine is to brush teeth (rinsing the ants off the toothbrush first) and shower – or at least wash feet, which are always filthy from wearing flip flops the whole time. Then comes the ritual of the Kailash Jeevan – a miraculous, multi-purpose ointment of ayurvedic herbs with a coconut oil base. We daub each other, ministering to the assorted bites and stings that have been acquired over the course of the day. Then I switch on the air-con, set to 24 degrees, on a two hour timer, and put the ceiling fan on to setting three. By early morning, just before dawn, it’ll be hot again in the room, so I get up to open the window and turn the fan up to four. I get up properly at six a.m., and even then, in the coolest part of the day, sitting in the living room without the ceiling fan on you find yourself sweating. And it just keeps getting hotter, day by day…
Each morning the uncle from next door waddles out into the lane clad just in a pair of shorts, his belly hanging monumentally over the waist. He greets the chowkidar and then goes to a bush of hibiscus and picks a solitary flower, plucking it tenderly from the stem between his enormous fingers.
“Off-ish-ially I am in Helsinki,” said the woman at the next table, repeatedly and loudly, to no-one in particular. She was terribly, tragically drunk. “In ten days I fly to London Heathrow.”
“Good luck with it.”
She smiled crookedly. “Good luck. Yes. But off-ish-ially I am in Helsinki.”
Coming into Anjuna, sitting on the back of K’s scooter. She’s wearing a helmet for once, as we are heading down to Candolim, and cops often try to pull people en route. Sure enough, a blue-uniformed policeman steps into the road in front of us flapping a hand. K nods, smiling sweetly, slows down, and then as she draws level with him, swerves round him and accelerates away. He was checking licences, and she doesn’t have one, like most people around here. There have been many more police about this last week, at the roadside. This may be connected to the fact that the Anjuna cops lost their drugs. They had a big stash that they’d seized and it has gone missing. In consequence a few small-time dealers have been pulled in. Rumour has it cops are planting drugs on people to extort a bribe.
In one of the first blogs I wrote from Goa this time, I mentioned a story of a guy who had been arrested for drug dealing, skipped the country, was extradited back to India and then let out on bail again, whereupon he promptly opened a bar. We happened to be having dinner in a restaurant across the road from it one night, and there were raised voices. Someone was furious. He was shouting into a mobile phone, almost incoherent with anger. “You tell that motherfucker to get my money,” he shrieked. “You don’t know who you are dealing with!”
The security guy came across the road and exchanged low words with the waiters. Immediately they became agitated. “We have to close,” one called out urgently to another. Their movements, normally so slow and easygoing, became jumpy and staccato – the whole mood changed in an instant.
We were getting ready to pay our bill. “Is there trouble?” asked K. No no no, everything’s fine, the guy assured us, but his watchful manner gave lie to his words.
“Time to go,” I said. “Before there’s a drive-by. Anything happens, just hit the floor fast.” I’m quicker than she is, and realised I’d probably have to get her on the ground. We are very laid-back about it, but I am on high alert.
We walk out into the now deserted street. A few customers sit silently in the bar across the road, tense. I look up and down the strip, see nothing, then fire up the Enfield, swing a U-turn which carries me close to the bar entrance, prompting heads to turn, then K clambers on and we roar away, past Savitri supermarket, then right onto the trail that leads down to the temple blaring out amplified chanting. Slowly I exhale. We’re away.
Lunch with the ladies. The maid and her daughter have cooked noodles – a kind of spaghetti with bits of assorted veg. We sit out the back of a friend’s house, watching the chicks chase each other round. A low grunting comes from the stall at the back of the yard – Pigoo in his pen. His days are numbered, alas, due to the feast of St Anthony. There’s a dead straight tree about 20 feet high in the yard, and our friend says how the maid shins up it with a jug tucked into her belt to water the plants on the roof. It’s quite an athletic feat. The aunty next door bathes a dog, and two men sit painting planks of wood with creosote. They shoot occasional curious glances at me. What is a white guy doing with all these Indian women? It’s a breezy day, the wind shaking the treetops.
“Aunty?” Did you eat lunch yet?” She is offered some noodles. The chicks scuff around at our feet, cheeping. The aunty goes off and comes back with a plate of peeled and sliced mangoes for us.
Suddenly there’s a faint rustle overhead, and perhaps two seconds later a tremendous thump, which shakes the ground. The enormous spiky jackfruit, double the size of a watermelon, has fallen off the tree. Lucky no-one was standing underneath. Everyone hoots with laughter, and the chickens go over to investigate. It’s the time of year that things drop out of the trees. You have to be careful – a falling coconut will do major damage – and people die each year being struck on the head by them.
We eat out on the balcony. It feels like a privilege to be doing this, to be here with these women as the only male, eating together. Each has their own experience of the worst behaviour of men. Violence, intimidation. Customs around the world make rituals out of food, and the gendered divide is sometimes strong in Asia – men eating before women, being served by them and so on. But no such division exists between us now.
A final dinner together in the rock and roll restaurant. One of our group is leaving – flying back to the US.
“When you go home, back to the UK, what is the predominant mood there?” she asks me. “You know… the vibe.”
She nodded slowly in recognition. “But this time I’m going to travel,” she says. “Go up to Canada, and then there’s this thing in South Carolina…”
“That’s it. To travel is the thing.”
We laugh again at the chalked sign on the wall: Money Exching. Exchange Ker-ching. Six of us sit around the table. We keep coming back here, from all over the world. Something has brought this collection of improbable individuals together in Goa again and again, year after year. It’s Bob Dylan playing tonight, and often conversation pauses as we go into our own thoughts. Someone softly sings the chorus to themselves.
We descend the stairs in single file, and stand in the courtyard. Above us overhead the balcony juts out beneath the palms, ringed with small fairy lights, glittering star trails that slowly cascade downwards. The music changes – Cat Stevens. Although I’ve heard the song before I feel like I truly understand the words for the first time, the poignancy and beauty in their heartfelt wisdom.
“Oh man, this is too sad,” someone says. Long hugs are exchanged. Then we all get on our bikes and ride away into the night.