In 1995, I came to Goa in search of whatever it is an 18 year old traveller is looking for.
The season I arrived there were conflicts between the police and the politicians as to who was going to make the most money and as a result there were hardly any parties at all. All night people drove around on their motorbikes pursuing the rumor of a party. Like Pooh Bear following his own tracks, people drove after other freaks dressed up in fluoro, convinced that they must know where the party was and in turn were followed by others.
At that time I was pretty indifferent to all of this. For me it was just great to be in Goa at all. I spent days just wandering around between milkshake spots, high just on the ambience of the place. The roads were just strips of concrete that split a course through the gleaming rice paddies and the sky loomed tropical overhead. Everyone burned around on motorbikes and the hundreds of potholes, cows, dogs, Indian trucks and other stoned drivers ensured that there were always people with bandages wrapped around their legs.
Perhaps for the above reasons I was always a walker. I was happiest picking out trails between the palm trees and the bushes that led to discreet cafes that you would never have fond if someone hadn’t taken you there. The Portuguese houses in the bush looked like they were under water. Smoky red roofs overhung the white walls and any decent house had a long, shady verandah – the soul of the house. You always knew you were arriving at a residence long before it ever came into view. The houses seemed to form part of the organic ambience of the jungle and you could walk past a place without even noticing it.
First you would come across a shelter where the family stored fallen branches of the palm trees for fuel when they cooked their rice in the late afternoon. Somewhere around the periphery you’d find the outside toilet – a concrete shed with a bucket of water and a chute leading down to the ground behind. There awaited the local pigs who ate the shit. Every now and then you’d hear the scream of someone newly-arrived who hadn’t expected to see the snout of a pig at such close quarters.
There were always clothes hanging out to dry of course and probably a couple of motorbikes standing at ease. You could tell how many of the family were at home by the number of flip flops accosted on the verandah and perhaps you’d even realize that an old grandma was sitting there all the time watching you. Mothers unleashed chemical warfare on the jungle by frying chillies and left you choking and unable to breathe. At night the family dogs barked themselves to three times their size but didn’t scare you as much as the crazed great-aunts who were locked away in the back room like living ghosts.
Emerging from the bush you could still find shade in the groves of the palm trees that grew close to the beach. Gangs of crows swore at one another in the branches above and you didn’t put it past them for a moment to drop a coconut on your head. Everyone had a story about the coconut that almost killed them and you knew there was one up there with your name on it. A walk through the palm trees on a windy day could be quite a Zen experience.
The resident characters that really made the ambient in Goa were the animals. There were vagabond cows who ate the flowers off roadside shrines to Maria and who chased you for your bananas on the beach. Sometimes the beach dogs would hassle them and they’d break into a run, sending people diving out of the way.
The beach dogs themselves were a motley crew of canines in varying degrees of health. Some of them were mangy beyond hope and they gave birth to pitiful batches of puppies that would never survive the rainy season. There were a couple of characters among them that I still remember. One night I was tripping with a friend on the beach, staring at images of Shiva dancing in the moonlight upon the water. I slowly became aware of a paw that had landed on each of our shoulders as one of the mongrels had come to pay homage too.
The snakes were something you didn’t really believe in until you saw one. After that you didn’t walk barefoot at night any more. A snake bite could cripple you for life or kill and so I learnt to stamp as I walked and used a torch at night. The kraits were deadly and often too slow to get out of your way. One season I was too poor for a torch or even sandals and it was only the Gods who guided my feet to tread in safe places. In India you end up believing everything.
I was given a house to live in a few hundred meters from the beach in the middle of the rice paddies. After being burgled once or twice I concluded it might be wiser to leave my passport and money with the shopkeeper at the end of the road. I was repeatedly warned to treat this man with respect, however.
“He may look like just the guy who sells cigarettes but Antonio is one of the most important people in the area. The shop front is just that, a front for everything else he does. Don’t imagine he makes his living only from selling fruit and biscuits.”
I never did find about what other business he did but I was careful to call him ‘sir’ after that.
Ali introduced me to the circle of old freaks from the early days and I sat around at mealtimes listening to their stories. In my first couple of seasons no one paid any attention to anything I said of course. I was just a snotty-nosed teenager on his first trip to India. So I just kept quiet, let them override me in conversation and kept notes on the side.
There were a few characters who were more open though and one of them was the oldest freak of them all, 8-Finger Eddie. An Armenian-American with a deformed right hand he was one of the very first freaks to arrive in Goa in 1965. He was the stuff of legend but now in his 70´s he seemed to be marking time.
He woke up at dawn to dance for 45 minutes every day, play patience all morning and then walk into the lunchtime cafe each day on the stroke of noon. He played racquet-ball on the beach in the afternoon and was the first customer in the same restaurant each night. If his luck was in someone would buy him dessert.
He’d barely left India in the past 40 years and lived a humble life on the interest of some money he had stashed away somewhere.
“I consider every day of my life that I don’t work a day of success,” he once laughed as I hassled him for his stories on the beach. When you asked him how it felt to be old he’d tell you:
“How would I know?”
His philosophy seemed to be holding up. At 70-something he had a full head of chestnut hair although he was so thin and bony that you could lose him in the sun when he turned sideways.
Journalists in search of a story about Goa would sometimes track down Eddie for an interview and he might answer the questions for a hundred bucks. He was like a holy man without any religion or practice. He just lived his simple life without any grand philosophy or wisdom to impart. Various people had tried to make a guru out of him through the years but he never believed in that game.
“If the Buddha was out there on my doorstep I wouldn’t go out to meet him,” he insisted. “What can the Buddha do for me?”