SEX IS NO FOUR-LETTER WORD. BUT GOA IS—if it just so happens you wash up on her Arabian Sea shores during an off season experiencing the wettest monsoon in sixty years. You see swollen rivers overrunning bridges with brown, muddy water. You see boats run aground or half submerged. You see roads broken like cracked eggs. You see newspaper articles of people dying. Houses buried under mud slides. Animals washed away. Trees splitting in two. Towns and houses thigh-deep under water. Drinking wells filling with undrinkable muck.
Nobody, I’m told, knows the precise etymology of the word “travel.” Some believe it derives from the Old French word “travail” meaning “work, labor, toil, suffering or painful effort, trouble.” And that derived from Late Latin trepalium, meaning “instrument of torture,” probably stemming from the earlier Latin tripalis “having three stakes” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Yikes, an instrument of torture with three stakes—those feisty Romans really knew how to fight boredom.
Suffering, painful effort, trouble—no, these are definitely not qualities I desire in a normal day, and especially do not need or want during a sojourn into some developing country with hospitals and poor sanitation that make Auschwitz seem like a Raffles Hotel. But I suppose travel can sometimes turn itself into an instrument of torture. Some cup-half-full-type people say: “well, hopefully, it will become a story you can tell later and laugh about.” However, when I’m traveling, the very last thing I desire is to be laid out in some instrument of torture with three stakes just so I can have a story to laugh about later. Only a Paul Theroux might desire something like that, something he could put in a book (like the time a taxi driver hauled him into a whore house instead of his hotel). I like to think I’m closer to a cup-half-full kind of guy. But I prefer to laugh about things all the time, not later after an episode of enduring and grimacing.
I scribbled this in my notebook as my plane descended into Goa: “30 July—India from the air. Brown ocean, brown clouds, brown river, rain. Everything wet. Everything brown. 36 degrees C. A baby cried all the way from Sri Lanka. Note: Buy earplugs.”
My bag was the first bag to appear off the plane into the Dabolim Airport Baggage Claim. I’m thinking: “very good sign, I like it here, good karma going down, YAY Goa.” Until I step outside. It’s not raining cats and dogs. That is elephants and hippos coming down out here.
“It’s been like this for days,” my taxi driver Joseph says.
India….Joseph….Right. But way back in the days when Europeans were setting sail to India to find spices and new Christians, the Portuguese ended up with the area of Goa, India’s smallest but perhaps richest state these days. The Portuguese built towns and houses and forts that still stand and lend Goa—if not elegant, at least—a civilized foreign flair to the place, and nothing like your-average-Indian style. The “traditional” Goan house is anything but traditional, as they are a colorful mixture of designs and styles from many places in the world. Goans traveled with the Portuguese on their sailing vessels, and brought back an array of architectural models from their journeys. You might call Goan architecture an eclectic mix of 18th century Neo Gothic fused with Early Jamaican Rasta. One thing all houses here have in common, however, is that they were designed to suffer comfortably through monsoons.
Today, Goa appears to have a decidedly large middle class: they have cars, they have time to hang at the beach, they sit in cafes and Skype. And, now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t remember seeing one beggar in Goa—remarkably odd for India. If you ever want to spend time in India and not see beggars; or people pooping in public; or for that matter, India, fly to Goa. The local people are mostly Christians. Churches and cathedrals abound. And many people have Christian names: Anthony, Paulo, Sara, John.
Joseph drives me through what feels like the wettest place on Earth—humid is a weak adjective for the volume of water in the air. This is Mother Nature giving her 110 percent. It’s a long drive from the airport to the very small village of Assagao, where I’ve rented an apartment for the summer, located in a tiny enclave of local villagers, most of whom speak no English. It’s only about 30 miles, but even on a good day when the roads are clear, the drive will take you an hour. Today, when some roads are broken, and water floods everything, it takes over two hours and a bit of back-road, higher-ground driving. So much for the good karma lasting all summer.
But it gets worse. The apartment I’ve rented is extremely—shall we say—“affordable” for an apartment with a kitchen and washing machine, so I’m not expecting the marbled class of a Taj Mahal, but I am a little surprised at how “basic” it is. And this is a contemporary, two-story apartment building, not your traditional 18th-century Gothic-Rasta. The guy I rented it from “forgot” to mention the apartment has little furniture: a small wooden table and plastic chair, two folding lawn chairs, a coffee table, and get this, a 6-foot-tall, stand-alone dressing mirror. There are plenty of windows, with no glass in them; they are meant to facilitate ventilation, which is fine as I’m on the second floor, and the windows are covered with an iron mesh (to keep out animals and birds and cat burglars). In the bedroom, a double bed. The bedroom windows do have glass and a small air conditioner in one window, which I truly, truly appreciate these days while traveling. Fine, call me a tourist. Go read Theroux if you want three stakes in your story.
It rains all night. It rains all day the next day. It rains all that night. It rains the next day. And that night. During a “normal” monsoon season, it might rain a bit during the night, it might rain a bit in the morning or afternoon, sometimes it might rain fairly hard. But then, it clears up, the clouds move away, the air emits a fresh and clean aroma, the sun shines, and you’ve got yourself a pretty fine rest of your day, with lots of lush greenery to photograph and ogle.
Many locals say this time of year is their favorite time of year. Perhaps the best part of visiting a country during “off season” is that there are no crowds of tourists; you have the place pretty much to yourself, and the prices are much lower. Perhaps the worst part about visiting during off season is this: they call it “off season” for a good reason—most people do not want to visit at this time, for some very good reason.
Monsoon is one good reason…even during a “normal” monsoon. But, find yourself baling buckets of water out of your bodega and placing six plastic pales under your leaking roof and fending off leeches during the mother of monsoon hell, and you might find yourself praying to your god or the cosmos or the myriad of local gods that you might find this funny at some point in your future and laugh about it then. Are you lifting one eyebrow, questioning my half-full cup? Bite me.
It rains for days. Night and freakin’ day. And not just a drizzle. Downpour. Continual downpour, biblical magnitude—elephants and hippos out there, maybe a rhino or two. And me on a friggin-uncomfortable folding lawn chair with my feet propped on a bamboo coffee table waiting for Godot, for days. And days. The rain stops every once in a while. There’s only so much water in the sky. Assagao is a small village with no real stores. When it stops raining, I race down to my motorbike and drive toward the nearest town, Mapusa (pronounced Map-sa), to buy groceries. It’s about a 10-minute bike ride to the Mapusa Central Market from Assagao. The Mapusa market has almost anything you could desire: onions, mangos, bras, umbrellas. Sai Baba nag champa incense. Mirrors. DVD’s. Pig heads. But no yoga mats.
I get half-way there. It starts raining again. So hard, I have to pull over and seek shelter. It’s difficult holding an umbrella and trying to drive a motorbike. I find a kind of dilapidated, wooden lean-to by the side of the road. I park the bike and slip into the shelter. But…I am not alone. A very dry brahma bull with wicked horns is calling dibs on this place. He’s not extremely huge for a bull, but large enough to make me slightly uneasy. He’s a bull. He has horns. I’ve been to Spain. I’ve seen bull fights—the matador does not always win, you know.
We share the space in silence, except for the incessant snare drum of raindrops on the roof. I’m marginally relieved I’m not wearing red. I give the bull a name: Paco. I speak with him—I let him know I’m a vegetarian. I offer this caveat in a very soft whisper…mostly vegetarian. Well dammit, a guy needs a burger when a guy needs a goddam burger is all I’m going to say about that. And don’t hand me that crap about a vegie-burger being a burger. It’s not. And vegetarianism, like Buddhism, is not a religion. So you can’t excommunicate a guy for a perceived indiscretion, like eating. So quit judging. I tell Paco he is very special. I let him know that I know that he is “sacred” even here in Christian Goa. Paco lifts his tail, plops a surprising huge amount of poop on the ground inside our lean-to, then shakes his head with what I perceive is understanding, and acceptance of our shared condition.
We huddle in peace, safe and dry from the storm. I have time to peruse Paco’s features. Dark, calm eyes make him appear wise. He has fairly large ears, and his horns have a fine grain, and I’m relieved to notice that they point backward. He has a large flap of skin along his neck and chest, called a throatlatch and dewlap. Nobody knows exactly what the hump on his back is for, and although it resembles the hump on a camel, and brahmas easily tolerate excessive heat better than any other cattle, the hump does not store water. His fur appears lusciously healthy, thick, shiny, a lovely shade of brown. And he is remarkably clean for a place like India during a muddy monsoon. I get the notion I might want to come back in my next life as a sacred cow.
The rain slows to a sprinkle. I bow and namaste a farewell to Paco. I hop on the bike, get two blocks down the road, and it’s elephants and hippos all over again. What kind of karma is going down? I pull into a tiny parking area. I have pulled into the parking lot of the St Joseph Bakery. I find wonderful fresh-baked bread, and a wall full of pastries that would seem right at home in a Paris Left Bank pâtisserie. I would never have discovered this place; it’s a little off the road, and while driving on the left in India, you better keep your eye on what is happening in the road. Apparently sometimes, you have to give thanks for little things given to you in your life even if you have to squint to see them as good karma coming your way.
Half a baguette and three chocolate brownies later, the rain subsides, and I finally make it into Mapusa. Where, of course, you guessed it: rain starts falling again. Most people are wearing rain gear and/or carrying colorful umbrellas. Rain gear seems a logical idea. I sign-language to a biker asking where I can find a rain suit like the one he’s wearing. There seem to be different levels of quality in rain gear available. Some are cheap, thin plastic. Some are thick plastic. Some are a rubberized plastic. Some have two layers: rubberized plastic on the inside, nylon on the outside—these are the highest quality. This young man is wearing a higher-quality brand, Zeel. I want the best, like his. He points to the far side of the market. I hightail it over there, dodging water-filled potholes, cow patties, and tri-shaws in the road, and find a shop that sells a fine set of Zeel—designer rain gear!—pants and jacket with hood, pockets on the inside of the jacket and a drawstring its the waist; the pants have an elastic waistband. Name and logo on a strip of iridescent material sewn on the back, for safety and perhaps a little prestige. A fine sartorial addition any monsoon connoisseur would be proud to add to his luggage.
The rain suit, turns out, makes all the difference in the world to quality of life in Goa during monsoon. You can ride your motorbike in the rain and remain completely dry. On the other hand, riding a motorbike in the rain is dangerous, for more than one reason. The road is a slick marble floor, you could easily splatter your butt all over hard asphalt. You could easily get hit by a truck. You could hit a cow. You could hit a child—people walk in the road as though it were a footpath for pedestrians, seemingly not caring a hoot about traffic or rain, or visibility. But then again, you can only sit in your folding lawn chair inside your exceedingly affordable apartment photographing a monsoon out your glassless windows for so long.
The front door to my apartment is not solid, not wood. It is made of a steel frame with steel bars covered in wire mesh. Since I’m on the second story, it’s a perfectly fine door under normal circumstances—it assists the air-flow cooling. But elephants and hippos are stampeding through the mesh in my door and flooding my living area. We install an exquisite piece of blue plastic tarp over the door, giving my place a glamorous, exotic air of nouveau-plastique chic.
But the lawn chair is truly uncomfortable after ten minutes, or so. I’ve read all three books I brought along—Joan Didion’s White Album, Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I’m living in the sub-continent burbs, there is no internet. I do not own an iPod or smart phone, I have no music. All yoga studios are closed for the season, and I can’t find a yoga mat anywhere. I’m beginning to understand the concept of “cabin fever.” I’m getting tired of photographing mango trees and palm leaves blowing in heavy wind and rain. I’m getting tired of photographing my feet. I’m getting tired of photographing myself wearing a designer rain suit in a six-foot mirror in a room with Depression-era furniture. I’m tired of the squirrel finding a way into my place and chowing down on my mangos and papayas. I’m tired of the electricity going out at night: no light, no air conditioning. It finally gets to the point where I realize I am having no fun at all.
Travel. Travail. Instrument of torture. I get it. My psyche is beginning to feel three sharp stakes. And most certainly, I understand travail and trauma could easily be much worse for me than ennui, like it is for many local people here right now who’ve lost their homes, possessions, or family members. I know my life is blessed. I do not take this lightly. Some people say, “God does not give you any more than you can handle.” You have to wonder just how strong these people here must be, just how much more could they possibly handle? I look up at the sky. Dark. Wet. Cement porridge. Huge drops of rain still falling. I decide. I’ve had enough. I say it out loud. “God…if it rains one more day, I’m leaving.”
I light a stick of nag champa incense. I sit in my folding lawn chair and sip fresh mango juice. It feels right somehow to have made a decision. Home is a fine place, a dry place. However, I do not quite know how I should feel: sad, that I am not a stronger man; or happy, that a god believes me this weak and need not suffer more deeply. Perhaps, simply grateful for all I have and don’t have.
It rains all night.
In the morning, I awake at 5 am. There is no rain. I make myself a cup of Starbucks. If you ever travel to Goa, take your own coffee along because the only coffee you may be able to buy in stores here is Nescafe, instant coffee. Only a cretin would call that coffee. I travel with my own coffee because I like to brew it myself in the mornings. I’m a morning person; I always get up early; it’s usually still dark outside, and coffee shops or cafes or hotel restaurants are not open yet. And, of course, I’d have to leave my place to buy coffee somewhere else. No, I brew it myself. I carry my own Bodum stainless steel French press and double-walled insulated mug in my bag. And also, one of those heating elements you stick in a cup of water to boil, in case I find myself in a place with no kitchen or kettle. Fine, call me a travel wimp. You think Vasco de Gama didn’t bring his own coffee along?
I wrote this in my notebook in the morning: “10 August, Friday. 0800 hours. Sun shines. 1st morning with no rain. But, sky soon turns to a gray cement-colored soup. But much longer gaps with no rain. God…are you actually listening?”
I decide to stay another day or so and see what happens in the sky. I’ve said many times during my lifetime that I cannot make it through a day without a miracle, usually small miracles, but still. Today, it appears we just may have a miracle, big miracle, in the making here. For those of you who would call this coincidence, fine, I say this: “I can’t get through a day without some fine coincidence.” For those of you who prefer to say this kind of thing comes directly from the hand of God, fine, I say this: “thank you, God.” Whatever floats our boats is all I’m saying.
Four days later, I write in my notebook: “14 August. First day with blue sky. Cumulus, too. Not really blue. Hazy blue. Is that you, Lord Ganesha, Protector and Remover of Obstacles? Note: next trip, pack yoga mat.”
That afternoon, I ride into town on the motorbike. I arrive at the Mapusa Central Market dry as a bone, and wearing no rain gear. I begin to believe I know what it’s like to survive—if only a slight—travail. I discover a local restaurant and eat some of the finest Indian food I’ve ever tasted: curry over fluffy Basmati rice, chana dal, Punjab samosas, buttered nan. For little more than a dollar. I order a second plate to carry out.
But it gets better. By what appears to be sheer chance (yet I define as one of those small miracles in my day), I find a tiny shop on the far side of the Mapusa Central Market that sells still-warm, hand-made chapattis. But it gets even better. This store also sells….wait for it….peanut butter. Sometimes perhaps, the moment when we tell the story and laugh about our torture with three stakes arrives sooner than expected?
Coming up in next post: Good God, It’s Goa All Over Again.
You can find other DP Photo Challengers here: Off-Season
You can find other DP Writing Challenge here: In a Crisis