“You got plans for December?” asked my longtime friend and fellow expat, Solid Gold, as we chatted between my home in Kathmandu and his on the French Riviera.
“Yeah, thought I’d finally try that Goa thing everyone talks about. I mean, I’ll never likely live this close to India again. This year was a pretty bad one for me. I feel like I need… I don’t know… something like Goa. And you know, read Shantaram, so–”
“So feed the soul a bunch of shitty electronic music?”
“Yeah, but even EDM is good if you’re in the right mindset.”
“Ha ha. Yeah… high as balls.”
“Basically, yeah… thought I’d see what all the kids are talking about. While I’m at it, head down to the Andaman Sea. Do some island hopping in Thailand.”
“I see now. You’re doing the British Douchebag Circuit.”
“Oh yeah buddy. It’s all douchebags, all the way. British mostly. Russians too.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
I suppose SG has some authority on the subject. He spent time in Phuket a few years back and generally loathed everyone except the Danish girl he met. Moreover, while there’s no recognized authority on hatred of British and Russian tourists, I’m certain that SG would win the trophy.
Fortunately for me, I take everything he says with a shaker of misanthropic salt. Besides, the tickets were booked. I handled a year’s worth of tourist douchebaggery in Bali; I would manage the Christmas holidays just fine.
I’m at the point in my life as a traveler where I leave as little as possible to chance. Normally, I get to the airport way earlier than required (I’ve missed an embarrassing number of flights). As an added incentive, I have lounge access at KTM. On the day of my departure however, everything fell apart.
Lunch took longer than it should have, I realized late in the game I’d packed insufficient underwear, and when it came time to leave for the airport — here’s a classic — not a taxi in sight.
I had 2.5 hours before departure. On a good day, sans heavy traffic, roaming cattle, and Maoist demonstrations, the airport commute takes an even 25 minutes. Still enough time, not panicking yet. I called Kumar, my emergency driver for situations like this. He’s already at the airport with someone else. I call Backup Kumar, he’s at temple. I finally flag someone down, negotiate a fare way higher than it should be, and away we go.
It was not a good day for traffic. Cows.
Arrive KTM to find along the sidewalk outdoors an idle queue of passengers, the length of a football field, leading to the one skinny door that enters the terminal. Today of all days, Nepal’s government decided the airport needs security. Maybe Benedict Cumberbatch had returned.
Through that door was another human snake, this one slithering through vinyl rope barriers that funneled towards a single metal detector manned by an utterly indifferent octogenarian in a funny hat. Beyond the metal detector stood a firm-faced policeman with a broom-bristle mustache and you know he wanted a piece of me. To frisk, that is.
Finally emerging from the morass, I galloped towards the check-in counter, thankful to have a “Me First!” card from such-and-such airline. A sign above the desk read: PASSENGERS WHO WISH TO CHECK BAGGAGE MUST ARRIVE ONE HOUR BEFORE DEPARTURE TIME.
My ticket showed departure time as 2:30pm. I approached the counter at 2:28pm, breathing a sigh of relief, and handed over my passport.
He began to work out my boarding pass, and eying my suitcase, flatly declared that I was too late to check the bag.
“Nossir. I am right on time,” I declared, showing the time on my phone, and pointing to the digital clock behind his head.
“I am sorry, but you are not.”
The manager standing nearby must have seen my posture shift to Pouncing Leopard Pose, because he scuttled right over and muttered something to the agent.
Wryly, the agent corrected himself, “It’s fine, sir. Are you carrying any explosives?”
I was a bit sad to miss out on free beer in the KTM lounge, but at least I made the flight. Anyway, I’d be in Mumbai for a four-hour layover soon. Just tuck into a lounge there and pregame for my arrival in Goa.
Mumbai International, as it turns out, is the only airport in Asia where none of my lounge access cards work. I would spend my entire layover in the Regular Damn Part of the terminal, paying for food and beverages with money. I’d forgotten how much airports mark that stuff up.
I had my first Indian beer: Kingfisher. It would not be my last.
Arriving in Goa, I learned that even more so than Nepal, people in India don’t queue. To an appalling degree. Waiting at what must’ve been the 30th airport security checkpoint on this, my first day of vacation, a fella in a smart looking business suit strode past everyone in line and parked himself directly in front of me. Call me a typical American — an American douchebag, even — but I won’t stand for such shenanigans.
“Excuse me. End of the line is back there.”
The guy tried to cold ignore me. I repeated myself, more loudly. He turned to face me, smiled and waggled his head a bit. It’s an India thing.
Waggle nothing. This guy had totally cut me off. It’d be one thing if he had a “Me First!” card, but all he had was a nice suit. But what was I going to do? Deck him? Report him to the authorities?
Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea.
When it came his turn to be screened, I remarked audibly, “Excuse me officer. Be sure to check his bag carefully. He is very important. We must make sure he’s boarding the plane safely.”
The man turned to face me. Another waggle. No smile this time. He made it through okay, but I’d like to believe he thinks twice about cutting line in the future.
In India, money was funny. Just a week before my departure, President Modi announced that certain larger-denomination bank notes would be removed from the currency. If that edict took me by surprise, imagine the reaction of India — everyone from the wealthiest CEO, to the most ho-hum government bureaucrat, to the lowliest street beggar — who learned the news one morning around 9am, with no prior warning whatsoever. I cannot conceive what that must be like, to have a president who makes impulsive decisions, seemingly with no long-term planning or consideration of the people affected.
My Indian friends in Nepal tried to warn me. They suggested I buy up as many Indian rupees as possible before the flight. I shrugged it off. This is the 21st century, I thought. India is a modern country, I thought. There will be ATMs everywhere, I thought.
Airports without ATMs. They exist. Incredible. The reality of my situation in India sunk in, fast. I’d need to withdraw as much cash as possible from a money changer, which turned out to be 4000 IDR per person, per day. That’s 60 bucks. And of course there would be the exchange rate and money changer fee and assorted nonsense for every withdrawal. Fabulous.
One more wait, this one for transport. The hostel had sent me an address and phone number, details that in much of the world would prove sufficient for an out-of-towner to guide his driver to the destination. However, this was India. They’d never heard of the hostel, the town, or the region. Fortunately, on the plane I met an aged French guy who was returning to his home in Goa after a trip to Cambodia to claim a kayak paddle he’d acquired in a bar bet of some sort. This gentleman was kind enough to translate my directions and even offered to split the fare, as his place was just a little further north.
We arrived at my hostel, the Old Quarter, located in Goa’s, umm… Old Quarter. This part of town once marked the Portuguese presence in India. Some centuries back, a plague swept through Goa and most colonists died or fled. It stood as a ghost town for years, but slowly repopulated with locals. The colonial architecture remains intact; it’s one of the few places in all Goa where this is true. All this I learned on the ride over.
I thanked my French ami, threw on my backpack, and wandered into the hostel.
The hostel keeper was a sleepy-eyed local guy who dropped “brother” into every other sentence. You know, typical hostel keeper. He’d gotten the beds mixed up which meant… another wait. Just as well. I was hungry.
I set out to explore the neighborhood. Found a decent looking restaurant on Zomato called Black Sheep and walked some ridiculous distance up a hill to find it. The sidewalk gave way to unpaved road, the unpaved road gave way to total crazy. Crawled over some cement embankments and things, realized this was idiotic, no matter how good the food might be and walked back down the hill.
Waiting for me at the bottom was an oasis of all that is good and right about American food: Route 66. They had deep fried snacks, barbecue ribs, and honest-to-god hamburgers.
I spotted a couple Australians from the hostel. We started talking and realized they, like me, were victims in the bed mix-up. With time to kill, we drank quite a lot. Bars are cheaper in India than Nepal. I was liking Goa.
My new Australian friends had traveled a great deal around India. They’d met kind souls and dirty old men. They’d seen sights to defy the imagination. They’d traveled on rickety crop dusters, slow-moving diesel trains, barely-floating ferries, dodgy buses, and so, so many tuk-tuks. They described their varying levels of diarrhea in grand detail. They’d enjoyed Varanasi but disliked Delhi (as did every other traveler I met). Goa was their last stop after two months of travel (Americans take note: other Western countries enjoy well more than 10 non-sequential vacation days per year). I told them I was just here for the hedonism. Nothing too spiritual for me, thanks.
“For hedonism, you’ll need cash. That’s in short supply right now. We came to Goa because places take cards. Better cash up before you head north.”
“North” referred to Anjuna Beach. I wasn’t ready for that level of cray. Not just yet.
I thanked them for the advice and the three of us ambled back to the hostel together. Fortunately, three beds were available by that time. Still not sure if we got the right ones, but my bed was soft and I slept soundly through the night.
Jet lag woke me early, even though the time difference in Nepal is only 15 minutes (a true fact). I shuffled to the commons area, placed my breakfast order with the front desk, and opened the Navhind Times, morning edition.
I felt a presence, staring at me. Flipped down the top of my paper and gazing at me with a seemingly endless cheshire grin was a tall, bearded, bespectacled Indian man. “Hello my friend,” he began, “where are you from?”
We exchanged pleasantries, and learned we were both in Goa for the same reason: a need to get away. We spoke a bit about Modi’s economic reforms, which dominated the front page. Raj lived in Mumbai, and as a young, middle-class, white-collar professional, he supported the president. He believed the reforms would do as Modi promised: end corruption. Most every Indian I met felt the same way, which surprised me a bit, given the daily thrashing Modi received in the papers.
Breakfast came. It was Indian style, with curried chickpeas, roti, and a samosa. It was such a nice plate, I ordered it every morning at Old Quarter, along with a nice cup of black tea.
Raj asked of my plans. I had none. He asked if I’d like to join him to see the old Old Quarter, where the Portuguese Jesuits first landed and built cathedrals. If there’s one habit that’s served me well in foreign countries, it’s to make friends who speak the language. I agreed to join him.
When it comes to public transport in a new country, I feel overwhelmed. Too often, I’ve boarded the wrong bus or train and wound up someplace different than anticipated. Yes, that’s all part of the adventure, but arriving at one’s original destination is also a nice feeling.
Raj was instrumental in getting us to the terminal, then to the right bus. Before long, we stood in front of a towering Roman Catholic cathedral in India, a building older than my country, in a country older than Western Civilization. It was pretty impressive.
Raj wanted to go in, but it was Sunday and they were holding Mass. As it goes with cathedrals in Europe, this one was frequented by tourists all days of the week, but non-parishioners were kept outside during services. Generally, tourists understand this, and out of common courtesy, don’t make a fuss. Raj tried to argue his way in, explaining to the Catholic lady at the door how Catholics were supposed to be welcoming and on and on. I took him aside and explained positive protocol. The moment was awkward and embarrassing. I began to think this should be my only adventure with Raj.
We walked from the cathedral to another cathedral across the street. As it goes with cathedrals in Europe, cathedrals in India become monotonous after you see the first one. The day was hot and we felt thirsty. Unlike cathedrals in Europe, these cathedrals in Goa’s old Old Quarter had no taverns nearby. We boarded the return bus.
Back at the hostel, Raj suggested a number of places we might go for lunch and a drink. First though, he wanted to talk up a pretty girl he’d seen in the lobby earlier, read my newspaper, and shave. I didn’t have the time for that, nor the desire to spend more time with Raj. I thanked him for an interesting morning and went to the Panjim Inn for lunch. The service was prompt and the food tasty — Goan shrimp curry, Kingfisher beer, and a pot of tea.
Those few days in Panjim were a splendid purgatory. I spent most of my time reading and writing and not much else. There was an art crawl, which over the course of a full day I managed to tour from start to finish. The best art tended to be on the walls of buildings along the way. The crawl ended at a culture show and concert, where more delicious Goan food awaited.
I should mention the short trip to Dudhsagar Falls. It was a package deal offered by the hostel, and sounded pretty. The van arrived with a small crowd of people from Old Quarter’s sister hostel, Jungle. They included an American, an Austrian, a German, and an Australian. The Australian had been drunk since the night before and hadn’t slept. He was nursing a bottle of cheap local vodka and nearly incomprehensible. The time was 11am. Surely, I thought, he’ll fall unconscious during the two hour drive to the falls.
Following the two hour drive was an hourlong jungle jeep safari, then we’re hiking the falls and the Australian is on a new bottle of vodka. He found a nice rock to lay across while the rest of us stripped down and jumped in the cold water. Even with a couple hundred other tourists there (mostly from other corners of India) the swim was relaxing and rejuvenating. A steam-powered train passed over the trestle bridge that ran across either side of the falls, blowing its whistle.
The sun began to set and we gathered our belongings, ready to head back to the jeeps. The Australian stood up, took a step forward on the boulders, and his knees buckled from beneath him, as if he were a marionette whose strings were suddenly cut. His head bounced against a rock and his neck twisted sideways. He lay lifeless. We thought the poor bastard had died or at least paralyzed himself.
As we rushed towards him, his head suddenly sprung up. Through a sloppy grill of mangled bloody teeth, he started to cackle drunkenly, the way only a true sot can. He remarked upon the obvious: “Oi. It seems I’ve fallen down.”
We would have to carry him back to the parking lot, as he was in no state to walk himself along the treacherous path.The fiasco stopped being amusing after the first hundred paces. What should’ve been a 15 minute walk became nearly an hour, as we had to coax him down from trees, things like that. The stalwart German finally threw the lanky Australian over his shoulder and hauled his corpse the rest of the way.
I mentally noted a rule for the days to come: don’t be that guy.
That last day at Old Quarter, I was sad to go (although I did finally manage to eat at Black Sheep). One last samosa breakfast, then a cheap shuttle to yet another sister hostel — Prison — this one in Anjuna. I would’ve stayed there, but it’d been booked out for weeks before my arrival. Too bad, because once upon a time the hostel was an actual prison and the guests sleep in barred cells. Sure it’s gimmicky, but when else does one voluntarily sleep in jail?
Outside of Prison, my options were limited [insert rant about criminal justice reform]. In younger years, I might’ve thrown caution to the wind and wandered around my new environs, looking for a decent place to sleep. But backpacks are heavy and my time is precious. Well ahead of my trip I booked one of the few places with vacancy and mostly good reviews, the Wonderland Hostel.
This place looked like a dude’s back yard. Actually, it was. A dude’s backyard with a collection of bungalows scattered around. A young, attractive, vaguely Eastern European girl greeted me on the dirt pathway from the road. “You are staying with us? Oh good! Welcome!”
She led me in, took my money, counted it cautiously, but smiling, and showed me the room. It was a 6-bed unit, with an American couple already there. They were from Iowa, and this was their first trip overseas. “When we checked in, we thought we’d be in Anjuna one week, tops,” they explained. “That was three weeks ago.”
They gave me some general advice for the area, ranging from the best eateries to the best party venues. We became fast friends.
I cannot say I “felt the vibe” the first few days in Anjuna, but sure as hell tried. Every morning, midday, and afternoon, I lazed on lanai chairs that lined the beach like neatly arranged driftwood, trying to read my Hemmingway while psy-trance music throbbed from every bar and restaurant on the strand. I spent my evenings dining family-style with other hostelers, reggae music and hashish smoke wafting through the night air. I tramped around the late night scene, dropping into bars full of silly dancing, spun out revelers, and a great many Russians eager to flaunt a bit of wealth. I toured the Saturday Market, its booths largely occupied by expat Westerners selling hippy paraphernalia. I even rented a motorbike and traveled with the Iowans to another beach further north, this one full of the burliest hippies the world’s ever known. My motorbike stopped working and the three of us had to ride on the Iowans’ motorbike the entire 45 minutes back to Anjuna… but that’s another story.
All the people I met were nice enough. A few douchebags but none of them obnoxious, and very few cases of the high level drunkenness I witnessed at the falls a few days before. Still, I felt like an odd duck at this party. I’d come for hedonism, only to realize that hedonism looked pretty boring in practice. It was like a repeat of that awful Aware Dance night in Bali all those years ago, but on a massive scale. Maybe it was time to accept reality: the “Goa Sound” sucks, shoestring backpackers, with their pithy bumper sticker theologies and their Full Moon Parties and their tattooed dreadlocks, are naïve, boring, self serving pricks, and I would never, ever be one of them, just like I was never punk enough to be punk or hip enough to be hipster or groovy enough to be a hippy. I was stuck with being me.
I was ready to leave Goa earlier than expected. Then, on Christmas Eve, came the night I met a ghost.
“Howdy, friend! Looks like I’m sitting here!”
The Ghost of Christmas Past plopped down into the plastic resin beach chair next to mine, uninvited and grinning ear to ear. We clinked our bottles together. He drank Sprite. Kingfisher for me. The night was lit by dancing lasers but the beach was dark. Psy-trance music belched from every bar on the promenade. Around us on the sand sat diners and drinkers.
“Your accent is from the States, right? Man, not a whole lot of us out here, Americans. Seems like we’ll never learn how to get out of our comfort zones and onto a goddamn airplane. Shit load of Russians, though. Am I right?”
We dropped into the standard “where you from what do you do where have you traveled where do you travel from here” conversation. He was from Chicago. An enterprising DJ and musician (there’s a difference). In his younger years he traveled to backpacker party towns like this one and organized lineups for raves such as the one we were avoiding at the far end of the beach. He was supposed to have met his girlfriend in Goa, but she dumped him last week and now he was here hoping to score some acid or mushrooms before proceeding on to Varanasi to realign his chakras. He was my age.
We had much in common. After all, he was the Ghost of Christmas Past. He claimed a major city as his hometown, only because few people knew where to find his real home town on a map and it’s easier when you just say “Chicago.” His town, like mine, was a quiet place, generally free of crime, and he went to a small, respected high school. As he didn’t care much for sports, he was an odd kid out. He frequently felt harassed by peers, police, and the general public. At his first opportunity, owing no small favor to those years of cumulative bitterness, he relocated to a young, hip city with a scene. He would go on to live abroad, and like me, finds it hard when he returns to the US, harder every time. Years ago he was married, but that’s over now.
I had been on the beach all day and night, and planned to pay and leave and sleep just moments before the Ghost of Christmas Past arrived. I was caught somewhat off guard. He was the rare kind of person I’d have considered a close friend in younger years. The commonalities were uncanny. We continued to speak of life and travel and how funny it was that our paths crossed on this night. So many memories came back to me, as we shared.
I learned that as a party organizer, he had innovated methods for smuggling things in and out of countries. Used to. He’s retired now.
I realized then that he wasn’t the Ghost of Christmas Past. He was the Ghost of Christmas Hypothetical Situation.
We never got around to the the exact moment he became a smuggler, or what incentivized him to do so. One might assume that even today, he’s not really sure. But I realized how quickly things could have gone weird for me at different points in my life. I’m eager to please, often to a fault. I love to entertain, often to a fault. I take risks that some consider reckless, but I don’t see it that way. I like to travel.
In what hypothetical situation might I have wound up in his shoes, like the cocaine he once carried through airports under his insoles? What a rush that must have been, to clear security and customs and collect a VIP badge and triumphantly present the illicit payload to DJs and their crews as they arrived from Budapest and Tel Aviv and Moscow and Rio and Mumbai. The elation as the main stage act reaches her crescendo and the beat drops and 10,000 partygoers throw their hands and fingers and fists in the air and the epiphany of “I caused this. I pulled this off tonight. This is all me.”
And the undying paranoia and the management of corrupt cops and local authorities and the long creeping fingers of drug dependency slowly taking hold.
Wow. This was getting heavy.
“Hey wait a second,” I said. “Aren’t there supposed to be two more ghosts?”
“What do you mean, bro?” he asked, puzzled.
“Well like… you’re the… ghost of uh… the ghost of…”
“Man, you’re fucking high right now.”
“What? But I haven’t…” I looked down at my bottle. I was drinking Sprite.
“Rule number one if you plan to party. Always watch your drink. Have a great night man!”
With that, the Ghost of Christmas Whatever rose from his beach chair and floated away.
Suddenly, the music started to sound good. Really, really good.