I guess if I had to pick my favorite brand of European colonialism, from a strictly cultural standpoint of course, it would have to be Portuguese. Oh sure, Lisbon could brutally repress a native population and exploit their natural resources just as well as London and Paris could. In fact, in most respects, it was the Portuguese who wrote the how-to book. But when it comes to the inevitable cultural crash between occupier and occupied, the Lusophone empire, in my opinion, yielded the most interesting results. Go to Macau and order some African chicken if you don’t believe me.
The main reason was geography. Portugal’s empire was the definition of far-flung. Their carbon-neutral colonial footprint touched down on East Timor, Angola, Mozambique and Brazil among many other places. Sometimes they were looking for gold or treasure, other times it was to refill the pepper shakers. Trade, people and ideas ran like electric currents between all of their outposts and anyone who has read TRWE knows I’m mainly talking about food. Great cuisines develop in places that have been invaded, ransacked and/or colonized. See Lebanese, Persian and Vietnamese cuisine to name but a tiny few. It’s one of those rarely discussed positive and unintended occurrences that always arise alongside history’s tragedies.
So there we were in Goa, surrounded by huge cathedrals and small, white chapels with bells on top. Those famous blue and white Portuguese tiles held Portuguese street names that all started with ‘Rue’. The crucifixes were many but so were the Ganeshas and the Shivas. Since it was December, baby Jesus could be found in several shapes and hues, with a healthy mop of hair and without. Goa felt like a jewel on the Caribbean Sea only it was the Arabian one. The weather was tropical. Giant fronds and leaves covered the place like bad wallpaper in a Long Island home. Everyone we interacted with seemed to have an upbeat disposition and an easy smile, probably because you could actually breathe the air.
In an outdoor kitchen, surrounded by spice trees and more than enough green leafiness, a motherly woman scaled a fish with a large knife as we, in our orange and tan aprons, anxiously watched. She then scraped out the insides of a coconut with a device that looked like a metal spur stood up on a piece of wood. The user would sit on the wooden surface like a saddle while running the inside of a coconut over the spur until enough of the fiber fell out into a pile. Much like the first time I saw the Ronco Rotisserie on TV, I instantly wanted one. Having that grater would make me eat more coconut, so said my internal self-delusional voice. After a few minutes, the idea got sillier as did the thought of trying to get one past the TSA.
We had paid for a cooking class but really, it was more of a demo. Our teacher, whose name will be lost to history, was nice enough to lay out the myriad of spices we would be using so we could see and smell them in their natural state. She also let us pick from a menu of dishes we would be preparing and even let us stir the wooden spoon once in awhile. But my apron was too clean and I only had to wash my hands once. It wasn’t really what I had signed up for.
I don’t want to completely neuter the experience, though. The most interesting part was sitting down with the gregarious lady and devouring the meal we, I mean she, had created. Particularly good was the Goan shrimp vindaloo, a dish the Portuguese took the time to introduce to India as subjugation and extortion is hungry work. Our teacher answered all our questions about Goa and also displayed all of her prejudices when recounting her feelings on the different tribes of Goan visitors. She didn’t have fond memories of the young Israelis who would come to Goa in the 60s and 70s and party it up. Nor did she have nice things to say about the young Russians who still visit in droves. But she really saved her choicest words for the Nigerians who have been making their way to those shores as of late. To her, they were a cancer on Goa and she said they brought crime and drugs with them to a place that she was convinced never had them before.
Our teacher then began talking shit about her boss and how little she was getting paid. She dwelt on that topic for a little longer than was comfortable for Sass. Later, Sass commented on how her gripes were a cheap ploy for a bigger tip. Maybe that was true but I hadn’t really picked up on it and I’m not sure Kory did either. Sass was convinced we were being had. But that was standard, on-guard Sass.
Sass had been working in India for several months by the time Kory and I visited, and she was there alone. Single women have a hard enough time traveling internationally as it is but India is one of those countries driving that point home the hardest. In the last couple of years, the news has aired several stories of white, Western women assaulted, raped or just plain hunted in India. It is sick and disturbing to be sure, but what’s even more so is India’s foot-dragging response, seemingly only spurred on by global pressure. Being a young, thin, Caucasian woman in India is something, I imagine, can only catapult your guard. I get it.
Still, it wasn’t just a concern for safety fueling Sass’s hyper-sensitivity to being taken advantage of. She was like that anyway and traveling only amplified it. Tuk-tuk drivers, cabbies and service people constantly raised her ire. I often felt uncomfortable when it seemed like she was scolding a waiter for his definition of what a dish was which usually happened to contrast with hers.
But life’s a beach. Goa’s huge beachfront wasn’t going to be on a Sandals commercial anytime soon. The slice of it we spent time on, though, was beautiful. The surf was mild and the sand was fairly free of garbage, lawn chairs and other tourists, save for a few Russians. My paler companions and I weren’t the sun’s biggest fans so we chose to sit and take in the beach from the safety of a covered tent. Luckily, a drink service was also covered.
The sand was thick and as soon as we sat down in the cheap red, plastic chairs provided, the leg bent and I fell backwards into it. If you fall down in any bar, you have to get right back up. Why waste time time not drinking? So I did. We shared a laugh and before long we shared some feni. One of the few liquors produced in India, feni is made from either coconut or cashew, the latter being far more popular. It certainly tasted hard, the clear liquid reminded me of grappa but with a slightly smoother ending. I dug it. Like I would Fernet, I mixed some into a Coke. Kory and Sass were not into it at all which was probably a good thing. Less enablers.
The sun took its time setting. Lightened by the King Fishers and feni, we walked along the shore. Sass walked pretty far ahead of Kory and I and we were in no hurry to catch up. As we talked, I saw it out of the corner of my left eye. Or rather him.
I really don’t remember the exact point when he emerged from the horizon. I don’t remember him being in my field of vision at all but there he was. His complexion was very dark. He seemed to glide across the sand, his left hand clutching the shoulder strap of his leather satchel. As he got closer, I could see his slicked, jet-black hair and his long sideburns. Closer still and I could see all the rings on his fingers, studded with enough blue and green stones to make Janis Joplin envious. The only way his attire could have been more new age is if he had slain a hippie and wore his skin as a coat.
Living in large cities had taught me that you can observe the eclectic or crazy person all you want as long as your eyes do not meet theirs. Once that happens, they will engage and you can never climb back up to your fascinated, yet completely judgmental perch. I temporarily forgot this lesson. When our eyes met, I couldn’t look away and worse, neither could he. Within milliseconds, the mystery man was standing in front of us. He kept saying something in his native language that sounded reassuring, as if he wanted to help. But this guy had me on edge.
He was positive that he saw something. A fluid movement and he was right at my shoulder and reaching for whatever he claimed was on the right side of my head. Like a taser victim, I couldn’t fucking move. Kory didn’t move either. I let this strange stranger invade my personal space and reach toward my ear, reassuring me all the while that what he was doing was necessary and that he was the man for the job. Or so it sounded.
I didn’t feel anything because he didn’t actually touch me. When he was through with his make believe probe, he brought around a thin metal, toothpick-like implement to show me the tiny green, splotch he had pretended to dig out of me. In my imagined translation, he told me that I was lucky he came along, that for only one easy payment of everything I had on me, he could rid me of this malady. All I had to do was trust him and follow him to an undisclosed location. He would gladly hold my wallet till we got there.
That next instant, I just snapped out of it. Kory and I turned and stormed away from him as he was beckoning me to come back, that he only had my best interest at heart. With my back to him, I kept refusing his entreaties with a mix of expletives and throwing up of arms.
“Why didn’t you say anything?!” I steamed at Kory. I was furious and at first I wasn’t sure why. So I took it out on the nearest English speaker.
“What did you want me to say?!” she jabbed back.
She had a point. What could Kory have done? She was just as much under his spell as I was. Technically, I didn’t lose anything in my exchange, if you want to call it that, with the mystery hippy. But, I kind of did. First, whatever serenity was gained by enjoying that idyllic sunset scene was completely ruined. More importantly, to let someone who set off my internal alarm get so close to me meant, at minimum, I lost my mind. Your gut intuition may be the most valuable thing you possess when out in the wider world. I had let India’s answer to Tommy Chong get past my defenses and I felt sick about it, I felt compromised. Nothing is worth that feeling, no matter how in need I was of a good ear cleaning.
After a few seconds, he turned his back to us and continued his walk, no doubt looking out for his next victim. I was upset with myself and I continued to rant about it. Kory continued to laugh. Eventually, so did I. After we caught up with Sass, Kory made sure to fill her in on another in a series of my travel humiliations.
The sky was turning a light violet and the sun a neon pink. The already sparse beach was becoming more so. As we made our way back to our taxi, I would be lying if I said I didn’t patrol the corners of my eyes to make sure the sinister hippy wasn’t brushing up against my lobes. For the first time in India, my guard was up and the inevitable tension it caused kept a spring in my step. I wanted the fragile comfort of my ignorance back or at the very least, a decent pair of earmuffs.
WHAT: the Goan beaches rolling out the brown, sandy carpet for us
WHEN: December 17, 2013
WHERE: Goa, India