THE OCEAN AIR SMELLS SWEET, the colors of the red earth are deep and full of surprises, and the soft sands, the green forest, the people from every walk of life can be wonderful and warm. The sign above the exit in front of me is in eight languages and all say Welcome to Goa, India.
I arrive in a dual-propeller coming in from New Delhi at mid-day, though they just call it Delhi now, perhaps because it’s no longer so New. I am heartened to see, on the approach to the runway from high up in the sea-salt air, an endless coast of clean, sandy beaches of white sand, red earth, black volcanic rock and blue sky touched by the large green leaves of brown coconut palm trees. The airport is clean and friendly, in fact it’s weirdly friendly and everyone wants to shake my hand, they offer grab my hand and then sell me sunglasses as if I were either rich or some kind of celebrity. At least the sunglasses were only five American dollars, not a bad deal.
A crowd of people waits at the exit of the secure area. They seem to wait for me since they almost all smile and wave at me, make eye contact and point to the signs they’re carrying, signs for other people. Others are not carrying signs at all but they are waving at me for some unknown reason. They wear mostly shorts and t-shirts and the air is instantly warm. Luggage, yes, thanks, but I can carry my own… no, I don’t need help from a porter.
“No problem, sir” they say in return, and then give me a head wiggle along with a smile… interesting. A little too weirdly friendly, I suppose, but a warm reception the instant I arrive. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something about that head wiggle was rather nice.
The rest of the airport appears to be deserted. The place is 32C in the shade, after all, with small black ceiling fans circling slowly over weary travelers day and night. It’s unusual to find an airport almost deserted in the middle of the day. I suppose, who would want to stick around an airport with such good vacation air just out the door? Immediately I revel in the fact that I’ve arrived in a safe and hopefully friendly tropical land.
Who knows, maybe paradise too.
Not even five minutes after landing, I already liked the place and had a smile on my face. Soon I was on my way by taxi to my beachfront hotel, far from the airport by three-wheeled rickshaw there is no doubt, but eventually I knew I’d reach about a mile of uninterrupted soft white sand, travelers in bikinis and assorted bathing suits getting sun and surf and eating amazing food.
Passing through the busy villages, the taxi driver drives maddeningly fast, driving like a crazy man but he’s also light-hearted and funny. He turns around (when not dodging a cow) to talk to me and he makes me laugh. He’s funny enough with our light banter that it’s almost laughable how easy we could be killed due of his shitty driving, I thought to myself. He dodges several cows and then a pig too and then looks back at me, and laughs. While going through the first town we passed dozens of people, then a couple of chickens, a skinny dog, a cow, something that looked like a buffalo pulling a cart, another cow, a few dozen more people, and a couple of Tata freight trucks. We rush in and out of traffic from under a canopy of lush green, vines above us, vines beside us, vines that become tree stumps and then vines again and then “tree rope” that apparently can be braided by young kids.
Along the red earth pathways the dancing shadows of midday split the road in every direction and yet the driver seems to know where he’s going. Eventually Y-intersection after yet another Y-intersection soon lead to small paths that make their way along to the beach. The roads stretch on in every direction with no signs, no immediately visible markings to tell me where I was headed, or how I’d get back.
I had been staring out the window after almost two hours of driving, a smile on my face at this peaceful little village with bamboo restaurants all around. I bet the food is amazing. We reached the Banyan Tree Beach Hut Guesthouse owned by Mr. Mahindramatrafastofa Abu, proud proprieter, a father and family man. He’s Indian roots trace back to Goa but Abu grew up in Toronto. He smiles and immediately upgrades my room to a chalet suite built into a banyan tree, with a marble deck and stairs that lead out onto the beach. At the check-in counter he tells me about five times how much he misses going to Maple Leaf games, even though the team sucks and it has sucked for years, never having much more than the slightest of slight chances in the world of winning the Stanley Cup again. Mahindramatrafastofa, or Abu as his nickname goes, says he moved from Canada to India to get away from it all, but he still really misses the Maple Leafs. I can’t blame him either, to miss your favorite team can be heart-wrenching at times, like the year NHL hockey was canceled in the 2012-2013 due to a labor strike. I can’t blame him for missing those Maple Leafs games, even though they truly do suck at times. Abu lives here with his wife, three children, two brothers and their wife, and their children, and a few maids, hotel staff, a mechanic and of course his mother, plus some extended family whose names escape me know all live in the guesthouse properties.
Abu has still got the wiggle, of course, that funny way Indians on the sub-continent seem to convey a laisee-faire attitude to happiness in life. He can also raise his eyebrows while he does “the wiggle” and it is more than mildly entertaining, it’s as funny as it is comforting, as if he’s thinking about all the love of the many family members that surround him. So much life in one place adapts to the environment, husking coconut shells before doing the dishes and then retiring into a bamboo hut, it must all be a little overwhelming to those of us used to four- and five-star Western hotels.
I must look surprised, I would imagine, because Abu smiles often and all the time, it’s warm and genuine from what I can see, and the air around me is fresh and damp from the crashing waves I hear that are within walking distance… I should go check out my room, nice chatting with you Bababu!
“Don’t forget…” he says, as I find myself already walking down a sandy path next to a banyan tree, then under a canopy of tree, a complex pattern of vines grown and woven into an archway. Gray vines of many sizes sprout thick vegetation leaves that are carefully trimmed into an elegant walkway. “Don’t forget, it never snows here, and you’ve stepped into paradise! But yet I still miss the Maple Leafs!
Abu is a nice, friendly host who seems trustworthy at first impression. He’s got a good tan and it brings color to his face. He must really love the beach. His work attire is a pair of shorts and a thin t-shirt. His watch is waterproof. His sandaled feet are weathered from the hot sand, and his hair is absolutely wild. There’s a couple sitting in the courtyard restaurant smiling at oogling each other, and from what I can smell of the food, they are also dining with fine Indian food. When all else fails, the food will keep you going because it’s absolutely great.
I didn’t know much about Portugese culture until I visited Goa. It is formerly a Portugese colony that peacefully re-joined, or perhaps they would say reunited, with one of the most populous and complex countries on the planet, India. India is a land home to over a billion people from all backgrounds and religions of the world, though it is mostly Hindu and Muslim.
Ever since I did competitive swimming I’ve loved swimming in the ocean, the salt sea air all around me, dolphins off in the distance, fishing boats, men in swimsuits and ladies in bikinis that are sometimes topless, from all walks of life… I’m going to enjoy every moment of this week and maybe never to leave.
Oh, I know where I’ve arrived. Tropical hotness around me, life is so much slower and overall warmer feeling here than it is at home.
The lane that leads past the restaurant to the cute collection of bamboo huts is a carpet of white sand, surrounded by curvy palm trees and a few fallen coconuts. Already I wish my shoes were off, my swimsuit was on, and that I was headed for the beach. Instead I reach my hut, a quaint little single room dwelling made entirely of bamboo, with a small attached bathroom that’s made of concrete and brick in the back. I drop my bags on the floor and zonk out on the bed for several hours.
I awaken just in time to see the sunset. I change into my swim trunks and head for the water, like a lemming. My first gulp of seawater reminds me that I’m really here, in the ocean, on the other side of the world and it’s utter bliss. I play in the great waves with the tides coming in until the sun has completely disappeared into a pocket of the sea. Then I dry off, get changed and experience get down to business with my first Indian dinner, of Goan origin apparently, modified from an original Portuguese recipe brought on a ship way back when Goa was once a Portugese colony. It would be dinner at the communal table for me tonight, in the restaurant known only as Tandoori Kingfish that barbeques amazing fish and also serves Goan spring rolls on the side, plus some excellent Indian veg korma, a real delight. Yum.
There are a few other travelers sitting at the table with me, all say hello to me and one even waves me closer, so I sit with them and we chat for a few minutes. I’m too tired to jump into a long conversation, though. My eyes are crossing and my teeth are dotted after traveling for 37 and a half hours without sleep just to get to this place.
“Nice to meet you all,” I say, as I head off to bed early, still exhausted from all the travel required to get here. I was ready to collapse at any instant. Yet somehow I had this restful feeling inside me saying that this is going to be a great, great vacation. And then I’m out like a light.
I wake up the next morning feeling miserable.
I hadn’t slept at all.
It was this first morning, an early morning in January in the southern tropics of India, when I lay awake in a cold pool of sweat and started to wonder what’s wrong with me. Depressed? Not sure. I had spent most of the night staring at the ceiling, with its slowly spinning, mind-numbing ceiling fan swathing the sheep that I’d count in my head, fapping, fapping-fap-fap-fap around my head as I lay there staring at it. I just could not fall asleep. Now it was already hot, too hot and the bloody day had barely even begun. I get up to find the bathroom and notice I have a nose bleed and no Kleenex or soft towel to wipe my blood, so it drips over the bed, over the sand and onto the mat next to my bed. Yuck.
Off in the distance the waves of the ocean are crashing, rolling, crashing. It’s a swell of emotion at times, I was just laying awake and thinking about things and suddenly I start bleeding. Life, work, job, girlfriend… yes, that’s right. There’s no girlfriend, quit my job and didn’t like it anyway, and sometimes it feels like I lead a miserable life. I’ve come here alone, and I’ll leave alone, of that I am pretty sure. It’s all about the people I can meet along the way. A short vacation is just a short escape from it all, a fairytale land of make believe in a way, that’s my reality. Just when things might seem perfect for a change, it all comes crashing down.
I smell the sea salt air coming in like an old friend, accumulating in my nose in great crystalline structures that could only be removed one way: by picking. It’s painful at time. I find myself sneezing, my nose is crusty and plugged, and I feel sick. This thought has me sad and almost teary for a moment, without even knowing why, as I lay there picking the crusties out of my nose in the dawn of the early morning light, an unfortunate act in life that I simply had to do so that I could breathe… and I soon found myself mulling over complex memories, thoughts and emotions all the while.
This is only a short escape from my dreary life, I know – yet I wonder what might happen when anything is possible and that traveler sitting next to me at dinner could possibly be The One.
As I think about this my index finger is extended straight out, thick and big inside my nose, a big elongated nostril getting serious finger action as if I had just come up with a great idea and I really wanted to enthusiastically point it out. Nasal problems, I hate to admit them. Here I had nasal problems and I’d only just arrived. Plus, it seems I’d brought the baggage of all those things I’d wanted to leave at home too, instead of my traveler’s bags, a sub-50 pound rucksack carrying the things that weigh me down and the ones I’d hoped to soon forget… but for now they lay me down to sleep on a hot and sticky blanket in the heat.
I think I’ve found paradise but then I go and find something wrong that I have to point out, ponder over and finally pick apart. And then the whole world comes crashing down and it’s a bloody mess. Let’s make this a peaceful, relaxing and perhaps mind-expanding few weeks of vacation instead. And with that, I must have fallen asleep.
I get up like an Energizer Bunny, I skip breakfast, barely have my swim trunks past my knees as I run out the door and run to the ocean just as the sun is starting to rise. I swim and float in the waves as the tides come in, and then spend an hour or more wandering aimlessly along the beach looking for shells… most days I wear a business suit, but not today. I’ll admit it feels weird to be wearing shorts and a T-shirt in January when it’s snowing back home and -35C. The only way to enjoy a winter in Canada is to embrace if full-on with a toboggan in one hand and a cup of Starbucks in the other. There’s no point feeling sorry for myself for having brought all my problems here. My love, or my lack thereof, could be found on this trip. A job is just a job, and can be recycled like the trash if needed, but a life of love and companionship is not quite so easy to find. My only regret this morning: the trip will not be long enough.
Well, that’s when I met contestant number one from the Price is Right. I looked up at her at apparently the exact right time, as if someone watching over me had granted my wish. Big blue eyes, as bright and blue as the ocean, larger than silver dollars and with a ring of iridescence of a true ocean blue they stared back at me from her bleach blonde brown beautiful face. Her eyes could see right through me like X-Ray vision if they wanted to, or past me, to the heavens and beyond. Those eyes were wide and wild. I’d wonder in a fleeting instant if one day she could see right past anything I’d ever have to tell her, just reach in and take it with her eyes until she had found the truth… wow.
With a big smile that could warm up even a -42C blowing Edmonton blizzard, she was unbelievable in her beauty and grace, but also deeply tanned, and probably very soft, oh and in incredible shape, of course… my fantasies are always good ones and mind tends to wander. Her stomach was as flat as the longest ski hill on Fortress Mountain, longer and flatter than a long drive across the entire province of Saskatchewan on a Thursday afternoon in March, longer in fact than the laps I’d make up and down Heart Mountain near Canmore, Alberta. And for the rest of her, I couldn’t even steal a look. Her bikini bottom was riding so low on her hips it seemed criminal to look at anything but her eyes, which were peeled to mine the entire time. Yet somehow in the corner of my eye I can see her bikini thong is worn in a perfect tee, and oh, her hair goes past the middle of her back with long bleached dreadlocks. She’s not your typical Edmonton girl.
I stubbed my toe on a volcanic rock at that point, and literally fell for this woman at first sight. I can be incredibly clumsy at times, I know. The rest didn’t matter at that very moment, for example I could only hope later that she might be as beautiful inside as she is all the rest and not want to. Yet at that very moment all that mattered were those long matted bleach blonde hair dregs, the ones that really threw me for a loop. They were landing on soft bronze skin, bouncing off her back near her waist into twisted and contorted into dreadlocks that were bleached to a tropical light blonde quite nearly white. She was barely 22 and with pale bleached blonde hair in the warmth of many days under a tropical sun, it sure looked like she’d been traveling the globe for a while. Her white hair contrasted with her dark-tanned Swedish complexion. Without the dirty hair filled with who-knows-what she could have been a swimsuit model at least, maybe a supermodel on vacation, or just another one of those bite-my-lip-until-it-bleeds kind of mind-blowing woman who would never make the first move on anyone in a hundred years or more… In another fleeting moment I wonder what it would be like to make her laugh and kiss her all the time, even on a dark and rainy days. One look and already I’d fallen into her eyes, where I saw something out of an age-old dream without heartbreak… she looked through me as she passed and said hello, and then she was gone.