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Letter from the tropics

December 31, 2004

Goa, the place where working class Brits can be kings for a day, a week or however long their package holiday lasts, is hot in December. Were it not they would probably be staying in towns like Huddersfield where it is cold. The other day a mechanic from there asked if the battered Jeep I was sitting in was a taxi and looked disgruntled when I told him it was not. He wanted to impress his son who was wearing a read football shirt. Noting my accent he said: "Should've guessed, you're far too well spoken to be from around here." Had my friend Z., a drugs fiend, not been buying pot in the driver's seat, I would have said: "I'm too well-spoken for Huddersfield too you Northern git."

Z.'s supplier was on a moped and attention from an idiot trying to score a car off us was unwelcome. "Is that really a Jeep or have they just stuck that there," he said, pointing to the metal plaque that said "Jeep". No, I said, it's actually a Lacoste but they ran out of crocodiles. He lingered a bit, inspecting the vehicle as if we had stolen it from him. "Have you hired it?" he asked. "No, we bought it for the trip," I lied. It actually belonged to the friend we are staying with.

We were next to an open-air pub above a shop called Babutes On Top where a middle-aged English couple had their gaze fixed on the television. It was showing a Hollywood action film. Their heads, on sunburned shoulders, didn't move except to sup beer occasionally: all the way to South Asia to watch the telly. Z. and I have avoided the damn thing and, as a consequence, coverage of the big wave that appears to have killed thousands of people this week. But yesterday I did manage to catch some of CNN's 9/11-style "here's the tragedy in pictures with violin music" which was lovely.

My therapist e-mailed me to confirm I was in fact in Goa and not lower where the tsunami had struck. I didn't know whether he was worried about my health or the prospect of losing custom. The Hindu Times carried an interesting headline that day: "Relief operations under way" accompanied by a picture of dead bodies dumped in a pit or as the caption had it "laid to rest." Meanwhile, the BBC World Service talks freely of the stench of rotting corpses, children abandoned, half-naked, homes and lives destroyed: the language of reporting changes when it is nature that kills a hundred thousand people and not the United States.

"I can't tell a man who has lost his wife and children to boil water before drinking it." This was a quote from the head of an aid agency in one of the papers today. Water, an expert said on radio yesterday, is a bigger "medium of disease" than rotting bodies. Odd that: the substance which in the shape of angry waves consumes boats, districts and towns, treated and bottled saves lives.

Plastic bottles left by tourists litter the dusty streets of Goa and are occasionally eaten by cows, supposedly holy creatures that wander in search of a bite and, perhaps, something to do. I saw one today with things stuck to its nose; it had clearly been dipped in roadside junk. On lighter tip, there is not a sheep to be found in the state. Not one. Goans, as travel guides remind, have an identity distinct from the rest of India. Five hundred years ago they were colonized by the Portuguese who refused to promote Indian priests beyond a certain level in the Catholic hierarchy because of their race. Even when a few of them sailed all the way to Lisbon to appeal in person, they were told politely to fuck right off. (For a more in-depth account see Lonely Planet.)

Last night I met the owner of the flea market in the district of Calangute, a cool chap who took exception when I made a reference to Goa being part of India. I hit back saying that there was no lamb in Goa so there's nothing to be proud of anyway.

"Yes there is -- goat," he said.

"But goat is not lamb."

"It's lamb," he insisted.

"No. Sheep is lamb. Goat is goat."

"Goat is lamb."

"But goat is not soft," I said. "Sheep is soft."

"Goat is soft. Cook it long it's soft."

Yeah, cook a horse for three days and you'll have puree. I didn't tell him that of course. It was a fine example of geographical pride giving way to delusion: there is no such thing as goat that tastes better than lamb. He insisted that lamb stinks. I disagreed but stopped short of telling him that fish, which is readily available here, is smellier and that his pride in goats was perhaps because you only have to add a 't' to Goa to get one. This after all is India and you do not offend Indians. They kicked out the British and the Portuguese and will an Iranian that gets too cocky.

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Peyvand Khorsandi



Book of the day

My Uncle, Napoleon
A Comic Novel
by Iraj Pezeshkad
translated by Dick Davis

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