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
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
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
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
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
"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.