‘The time has come’ the Slogrus thought,
‘to write of many a thing –
of little tuk-tuk taxis
and ladies selling bling;
of Hindi as she’s spoken
and shades of Dayglo bright
that obviate the need for
any lamppost in the night’
If you’re looking for something cool in Goa (I’m using the word in its narrow sensory meaning) then aircon, thin cotton and Chicken Korma with boiled rice will have to do. Everything else – the taxis, the gemstones, the linguistics, the TV syntax and the colours – are set at the highest temperature of experience this side of the Planet Mercury.
If you’ve never ridden in a tuk-tuk taxi (left) you’ve never lived. Or put another way, if you ever do decide to ride in a tuk-tuk taxi, you’re taking your life in your hands. Although they look from a distance like something designed by Derek Trotter, once inside them it’s like being the passenger in an invalid car. That is, an invalid car driven by Keith Richard after scoring some unimaginably pure Colombian pupil-dilator.
It is the driver’s certainty of self-belief that makes the tuk-tuk journey a challenge for even the most yogically chilled bowel. Closing one’s eyes during the experience is (when you think about it) no more intelligent than the ostrich head in the ground shtick; but as the man with his hand on the tiller heads for the anorexic space between the flashing headlights of a truck and the lumbering bulk of a bus with people clinging onto the window frames, going full Ostrich feels like an excellent option. It won’t blot out the Battle of the klaxon horns, but you can’t have everything in this world….not even when you’re about to enter the next one.
The horror is multi-dimensional, in that even without oncoming ground-to-ground missiles, there is the ever-present sense that, on taking a left or right turn (or just braking too hard) a tuk-tuk is likely to disengage one wheel from the tarmac, and thus skid noisily along on its side.
Having undergone the tuk-tuk initiation ceremony myself, I think that NASA missed a trick on the Apollo training programme by not making it obligatory for wannabe astronauts to do the same. It would have been excellent preparation for the possibility of a command module suddenly bumping into a meteorite shower.
Every other street stall in Goa is trying to flog jewellery. Everyday Indian consumers of silver and gold outstrip their equivalents in every other nation on Earth by some distance. This is mainly a cultural interest in religious or personal decoration, and partly an inbuilt distrust of paper currency among Indians as a whole. What helps, of course, is that India is rich in gemstones and crystals offering astonishingly varied colours, and generally affordable value.
Walking down Holiday Street in Calangute, however, you won’t find much in the way of precious metal. You will hear a lot of claims about “precious alloys’ and other similar guff, but pavement traders and real hallmarks are strangers destined never to meet. To get the real McCoy, you have to use whatever senses you have beyond the usual five in order to decide who is honest in the grown-up shops.
Just as with tailors and leather dealers, local intelligence is everything. I ask the restaurateurs, landlords, beach shack owners and fulltime expats, and they usually concur on who to avoid. I’ve been quietly saying hello each morning as I pass the shop of one highly recommended bloke. Sometimes we chat for a bit, and thus far he seems a quiet, considered and helpful guy.
This is the way communities should work. In this sense, Calangute is very similar to the Mani in southern Greece.
So far, I have mastered the Hindi words for thank you, water and “Why?” You’d be amazed how far you can get on those: displaying good manners, slaking thirst and challenging tradition gives one a general air of common sense and interest. Also, “Why?” is a good opener in any haggle, as in “pull the other one, chummy”.
But as with Welsh, it has been invaded by so many modern English terms, the average local speaks Hindi like English expats speak Franglais in France. All languages are organic, but at times the effect of familiar words scattered among the impenetrable sound evokes the same hilarity as the late Stanley Unwin’s patter:
“Wall dahoo tin co deem oh samble samble one double-zero cha dum soo tang sall fonn rupoute do hinka yaam app download straight to phone chooka kizwass sinta oolum rorrrl tum trepparopey simble foolka harri vinkel switch it off and switch it on again garam domby wallah zummoo vinda khazi make you very-very good price”
What really sets Goa apart – and India as a whole, I suspect – is that, while the Western colour spectrum for clothing and design just sort of sits there looking like a rainbow, here the use of white light once broken up isn’t doing the bizz until it pulsates. We have red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. They have volcano, crayola, turmeric, harlequin, azure, blingido and violent.
Indian television content reflects this. There are times when you need sunglasses to cope with the supers, advertising banners, programme trailers, and even the shirts worn by news anchors. Since arriving here, I’ve been trying to adjust the TV colour, but it stops well before pastel. Colour in India is like the weather and the food: hot, hot hot.
Every day, one rare occurrence (at least) assaults the eyes of the unprepared Westerner. Last night I witnessed the most incredible thing. On my way home, there was the inevitable sacred cow by the roadside, with car, taxi, bus, scooty and tuk-tuk traffic speeding by in both directions. She was gently licking a small and confusedly blinking shape on the pavement below. It was a calf with legs still tucked under its body. Her calf.
The newborn was still covered in the detritus of birth. At first I just gaped in wonder. Then – with an instinct clouded by culture – I moved to check the little bundle was alright. This was a very dumb move, as the mother understandably went for me: I mean, went for me to the point where she was clearly uncertain about the relative usefulness of butting me in the balls or staying close to her baby.
When I was a kid (aged around nine or ten I suppose) I reared some white cabbage caterpillars to chrysalis stage and then – as children do – left them on the kitchen windowsill and duly forgot about them. The following Spring, I was about to leave for school when I saw three shapes on the tile above the sink. They were emerging butterflies using the gravity of the sink wall to fill their new wings. I stood transfixed as this apparatus first expanded, and then tentatively flexed until the drenched, half-closed umbrellas became the cream-coloured flutter of flight. And then they were gone.
Yesterday evening, sixty years on I stood at a respectful distance and observed the cow mum gently nudging the calf to its feet. After which, the infant went straight to the udder. No doubt it is destined for a life in which persistent horns, bright headlights and garbage cans become the essentials of everyday existence.
In that context, what exactly does “natural” mean? I’m damned if I know.