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The Traveler Scene in Kovalam, Goa

Eccentric, pretentious and sometimes hilarious, travelers in India offer the most entertaining of culture clashes.

Diary Entry: Kovalam, Goa, 1988

Here in Kovalam, the bars are filled each day with young Westerners. Yet, most of them have never really left Europe, let alone come to terms with India. Regarded by the local people with a mixture of curiosity and amusement, they are a commercial necessity for the indigenous community and, as such, are treated gracefully – with kindness and a certain deference.

But, they are not here for India, it seems. They are here for the sun, sea and surf, for the cheap food, the cheap clothes and the cheap drugs. I imagine that within a few weeks, they will return to their homes, proudly displaying their photographs of the beach and their psychedelic baggy trousers, and will likely opt for a different destination next year, having now “seen India” this time around. But, no matter, there will be more next year to finance the local community.

Last night I heard an English fellow telling a companion that he was heading to Kodaikanal – “that’s where Sai Baba is right now! You know, he’s like one of the biggest gurus in India. He materialises objects out of dust. Far out, eh? Fucking amazing! Yeah, well, I’m heading up there so maybe I’ll get a look at him. Apparently he’s got 1,400 followers up there with him so the accommodation’s a bit expensive – but it’d be pretty cool to see the guy, to get near him. You can’t really miss him ‘cos he’s got this huge Afro hair-cut. Yeah, that’d be really great, like to get so close to the guy”.

Well, I am a cynic and cannot profess to knowing Mr Baba though I have seen a photograph of this gentleman with a profusion of chins and, as so accurately pointed out by our young English traveller, his huge Afro hair-cut. I should imagine, however, that, like the Irishman in Bognor Regis who some years ago declared himself to be a reincarnation of one Mr J. Christ, he is plump and wealthy and laughs his way to the next sermon. Religion may be the opiate of the masses, but if you’re a Baba, then it’s good business as well.

As I write, a lithe, topless European girl, well-tanned and clad only in a modest genital covering, is playing “bat and ball” with a friend on the beach. A crowd of men has gathered, presumably all “bat and ball” aficionados. They twirl their dhotis in wonder and whenever the nymph bends down to retrieve the ball, her buttocks aimed provocatively skyward, there are mumbled asides, and the many Indians walking casually past, visibly slow their pace for a closer view of this ball game. But of course Indians have long been admirers of field sports.

Rumour has it that there is a crazy German here who spends his days running about screaming, setting fire to clothes set out to dry on lines and bounding over stone walls. They say that the police are to be called to assist him in putting his devils to rest. There is also a young man who is wheel-chair bound. He appears to have three helpers, and today they carried him from his chair down to the sea and bathed him with his head just clear of the waves. He seems to be paralysed from the neck down, without the use even of his arms.

Meanwhile, some 50 yards away, an Indian teenager, his legs severely wasted by polio, dragged himself along the sand and sat, propped up by his arms, beneath a lifeguard’s umbrella. As the invalided European was carried back to his chair, the young Indian crawled away on his knees, walking with his hands. In this environment, where Western foibles are catered to in lavish style, it was a solemn reminder that the afflictions of man are uninfluenced by race, culture or financial circumstance and, in a strange way, the sight of these two young people, similarly afflicted, was the only indication of the common bond of humanity, of the fact that we are all essentially the same, and that neither wealth nor circumstance can render a person more free or in any way better than his fellow man.

* * * * *

I have now seen Mad Fritz. He is in the early forties, with a full head of greying hair, dressed in long, dark trousers and a sober shirt, and he is bare-footed. Whilst I was taking a pot of tea at a small cafĂ©, he ran out clutching a bottle of Kingfisher and strode purposefully down the beach. The bar’s proprietor summoned the police and, on their arrival, a lengthy conversation ensured during which the officers smiled, gesticulated and then resumed their beat.

Watching the visitors bargain is a spectacle in itself. They have evidently read, in some well-meaning guide book, that prices initially quoted for a vendor’s wares are not to be taken at face value. And thus, paranoid that the entire population of India is intent on ripping them off, they establish themselves as “knowledgeable hagglers”. But, they have no honour, no idea of the value of what they are buying and their endeavours at bargaining reek of the ridiculous.

A man approaches with a bundle of lunghis. Beautifully-patterned and in 100% cotton.

“How much?” asks Katie (who, as I discovered later, hails from the exotic city of Luton and is on a 6-week “see-India” holiday, split evenly between Goa and Kovalam).

“One hundred rupees!” the vendor asks hopefully, almost mischievously.

“That’s bloody ridiculous!” exclaims Katie, who would have happily paid fifty times that price for the same item in the exotic city of Luton. “I’ll give you ten rupees and not a penny more!” she retorts haughtily, oblivious to her erroneous reference to the sub-division of the Indian rupee.

The vendor looks wounded, insulted. An offer of fifty rupees would have left ample room for both parties to manoeuvre but Katie’s frivolity has disturbed something; it has upset the process of the exchange, as if, in the opening move of a game of chess, the vendor’s opponent has swept all the pieces off the board and then waited for her opponent to respond. And so, uncomprehendingly, the vendor turns away and Katie does not buy the lunghi that she really does want. She turns and smiles jubilantly at her companions, as if to say “they can’t fool me with their rip-offs”.

In the afternoon, Rachelle was eventually persuaded by Dennis, our landlord, to go for a massage. He is, so he claims, a qualified practitioner of ayurvedic massage. Poor Rachelle commenced her ordeal around 4.00 p.m. When she emerged, some two hours later, her face was a combination of stupefaction and modest pleasure. She has just had her first major “alternative Indian experience”.

It all started innocuously enough when she was led to the massage parlour – an adobe hut adjacent to a tattoo parlour on one side and a rat-infested drain on the other. Rachelle was invited to adopt the prone position on a slab. Within seconds she had been stripped naked, Dennis explaining gently that if encumbered with clothes, they would be spoiled by the oils and unguents that were to be administered during the procedure.

Submitting suspiciously easily to this ploy, she closed her eyes whilst Dennis pummeled her limbs, his fingers occasionally straying to forbidden areas. But, ultimately, the sudden insertion of the masseur’s index finger into such a zone gave cause for alarm.

There is an old Buddhist saying of “always expect the unexpected”, but Rachelle was not a Buddhist and thus endured what ensued with a certain surprise.

Rachelle emerged somewhat shakily from this revitalising experience, vowing never again to experience Ayurvedic massage. Dennis, beaming, offered (honourably, one might think) to waive the massage fee but Rachelle, fearing further advances from him, insisted on paying and then limped away for a pot of lemon tea.

* * * * *

There is another German here, one Walther whom I have taken to calling Werner. He is an uncommon bore and from Western Germany, and employed in some minor position with local Government. He stands about five feet eight inches, and has a receding hairline with a large, centralised bald patch and a wispy tress at the rear, which could only improperly be described as a pony-tail.

He cavorts about the beach, clad only in a g-string through which the outline of his diminutive genitalia may be observed. He has also been recently tattooed – the type of tattoo that one might more usually associate with a Hell’s Angel than a country clerk. He also enjoys smoking very small quantities of marijuana (and telling everyone about it in loud whispers) and exchanging pleasantries with plain ladies.

The pig-tail, g-string, drugs, tattoo and good-natured ease with which he approaches the ladies, all combine to create the aura of a progressive young man of experience – a fellow to be admired and reckoned with. But the veneer is thin and everyone knows that he is a minor Government employee, and it is rumoured that he bites his toe-nails.

He is the type of man that, even had he sported a ring through his nose and an opium pipe tattooed on his forehead, no-one would have noticed because, paradoxically, his provinciality was the strongest force about him. He seems to me to be a man who thrives on mediocrity, who is indecently decent to his acquaintances; a man who would never dream of doing something ‘wrong’ and therefore never achieves anything ‘right’; a man who is desperate to be admired and thus becomes scorned; a man who searches for love, and thus remains un-loved.

In the worlds of the sage proprietor of the Volga Palace Hotel, where Werner usually takes breakfast, “he is a man with a good soul but no mind”. Werner will leave here today, to do good elsewhere tomorrow. But we all need our Werners to remind ourselves of our own shortcomings, for in our recognition of all that is fathomable and unashamedly evident in Werner, we admit to all of our own mistakes.

Narendra Sethia

Narendra Sethia is an accomplished sailor who lives in the Caribbean.