I step out of the plane and immediately a warm blast of air hits me, the kind you only find south of the tropic of cancer, it carries with it the scent of India, all spices and sunshine and together they bring a big smile to my face. Next its a scrummage to get through customs and collect my bags and out through the airport doors into a sea of waiting taxi drivers all pushing and jostling for trade even though it’s only just got light.
I select an elderly gent who looks as though he’s been at his trade for ever and therefore must know what he is doing, we are swiftly on the road whizzing through towns and villages, overtaking and undertaking early morning traffic, tuk-tuks and scooters and motorbikes that carry mothers and fathers & children, along palm tree lined roads and paddy fields, all the way dodging cows, the queens of the highway who sleep and sit and shit wherever they wish. I quickly let go of my ideas of driving and how it should be done, my taxi driver belts along the road like a lunatic and I ask him to play some local music, he duly obliges and I get him to crank up the volume, we career along the road at break-neck speed to the accompaniment of a tune warbled by some Konkani Songstress. Each new vista is a thing of wonder and curiosity, despite sleep depravation, two flights, a night in Mumbai airport, I am wide awake and in awe of our journey. How somebody so bad at driving has survived in his trade so long is a marvel, how that whenever we overtake another vehicle it only seems to occur on a bend just when a vehicle is approaching from the opposite direction. How most of all this life threatening taxi ride is actually the most fun I’ve had in bloody ages and that curiously I’ve not felt as calm and chilled in myself in as long as I can remember.
My journey finally comes to an end at Boomshankar, a little beach bar and restaurant with a bunch of stone cottages, I’ve pre-booked one for my stay which is open ended, I’ve no plans to go anywhere soon. Outside my little cottage is a row of pineapple plants growing from the distinctive red earth of Goa, beyond that a stone wall the other side of which lies Columb Bay, a sun drenched inlet with a shoreline lapped by waves that sparkle and glint in the morning sunshine.
The thing is though, that because it’s early there is nobody awake or about, I spend the next two hours waiting for somebody, anybody from the staff to come with the keys to my rooms.
By eight 8 a.m. I am time zoned and travelled into a kind of zombie state and all I want is a little sleep. At last one of the workers arrive with my room keys. I collapse on the bed still wearing the clothes I had travelled in. I sleep for the next couple of hours, when I wake I have to check my watch, it’s close to midday but my body clock thinks it’s the middle of the night. The jeans I travelled in have stuck to my legs with perspiration & I slowly realise that during the early morning the mosquitos had been out and have bitten me without mercy. My face is covered in bites, my chest, my neck & they’ve even managed to bite me through my jeans. Little fuckers.
I put on a T shirt & shorts and wander down to the beach, walking along the hot sand I have the feeling of being a large pink pin cushion, a sweaty one, I literally throw myself in the sea and float there for half an hour being pulled and pushed by the tide and that feeling I can tell you was about as close to heaven as I could imagine,
Over the next couple of weeks my skin gradually turns from pasty English white to a Goan kind of brown, it feels a bit like camouflage to me, like I am beginning to blend in with the scenery, the mosquitos lose interest in me, which I am very happy about, I swim every day and have my meals at one of the beach bars, by evening I sit and drink a beer or two and watch the sunsets which are without fail always different & always beautiful.
One morning I am having breakfast at a little place back from the beach, they do a good cup of coffee which in my book is one of life’s necessities. I’m grumpy that particular morning, despite my freedom & the beauty of my surroundings. Whilst I’m waiting for my brekkie and my second cup of caffeine in saunters a pretty young thing, blonde, in her early twenties, she sits at the table next to mine, she is one of those shiny happy people, this I put down to having had an easy life, born of privilege, she’s never had to struggle for anything, as I’m looking at her I weigh her up, by the way she is dressed and the way she carries herself I imagine her to be on a gap year, by the way she talks when she orders her smoothie I can tell she is a Brit, most likely from the south east of England, probably London, she has gone to a ‘good’ school & comes from a ‘good’ family.
At this point I decide two things, firstly that from here on in I am going to talk to people, to engage people in conversation, whenever I can, and that I am going to question everything I think I know.
May I join you I ask, yes please do she says.
Amy, let’s call her Amy, is indeed on a gap year, or something like it, she says she’s decided to travel, she’s heading towards Australia, via India and Indonesia, she’s planning to work there for a while. A little later she confides in me, Musical theatre is really my passion she says, but a year or so ago I kept feeling unwell, the doctors did test after test and couldn’t work out what was wrong with me, In the end I had to stop my studies, I just couldn’t keep up with them. Finally the Doctors came back with results. I was diagnosed with Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker disease.
My eyes widen and I ask what on earth is that?
Exactly she says, I’d never heard of it, I have a disease that’s incurable, it is extremely rare, always fatal and all that I know for sure is that I have maybe two years where I will be well enough to travel and to do stuff, after that I just don’t know, so I am going to see as much of the world as I can whilst I can and enjoy every moment.
After breakfast I wish Amy safe & happy travels and we head separate ways, she has a journey ahead of her that I cannot begin to imagine, that she can carry herself now with a smile and positivity when faced with what lies ahead astonishes me, this young woman that I had labelled as a gap year waste of space was far more than I could ever have imagined & and my own little petty worries in her reflection meant nothing at all.
From then on each morning I began to get up with the dawn and head to the beach to watch the sunrise. This time of day is fabulous, nobody about, just the sound of the waves, the sun rising in the distance and the light growing from greys and monochrome to a world of colour, each time whatever negative thoughts I might have that morning they just tumble away, how can a bloke watch a sunrise and not be happy? No matter how hard I try to feel miserable the sunrise makes me happy to be here & to be alive.
At eight a.m. every day I go to a yoga class, its a pain in the ass, and the neck and the back and everywhere else, but little by little I begin to unravel and stretch and day by day I become a little more supple and a little stronger.
By day I hang out at the beach & swim & sunbathe, come late afternoon the temperature begins to drop off a little and the beach gets busier as people come by for sunset and the cool of the afternoon. The other beach goers are a mixture of foreigners from all over Europe and North America & a smattering of domestic Indian tourists, some are here for a couple of week holiday others more long term, here for the ‘season’ which runs through from November to March or April. One late afternoon I’m sitting at a table on the beach with bunch of other people sinking a beer and participating in what is apparently known as banter. The others are all younger than me, mostly in their twenties or at the outside early thirties, one new face a rather beautiful young woman by the name of Jovana, she I learn is a Serbian, on three weeks holiday and as I can’t help but notice is also possessor of a pair of the longest, most perfect legs I’ve ever seen. Jovana is studying for her PhD. She has also funded her way through college by modelling, later I see some of her photos from catwalks and fashion shoots, the camera loves her. So it turns out do most of the lads at the table who spend the rest of the night trying to chat her up. By the end of the evening Jovana and I are playing footsie under the table.
Quite how this happened I don’t know, the following morning I wake up in a slightly beer sodden fug, trying to recollect what had happened the night before, did I imagine the footsie? I must have done………..
A day or two later I bump into one of the blokes who’d been at the table that night, Jovanna keeps asking after you he tells me, God knows why he says, but she keeps asking where you are.
I think you’re in there mate he adds.
Really I say, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.
I spend the next hour or so in a state which I can only describe as one of over excitement, I trawl up and down the beach trying to find Jovanna, when I spot her on a sunbed I then sneak fifty metres further down the beach to another bar and then wait and watch. A little later she heads down to the sea for a swim. I do the same only I swim way out to sea then make my way back in a big circle, bumping into Jovana entirely by accident -or at least what I think will look like accident. Hello, I’ve been looking for you she says, I’ve been looking for you as well I reply.
Jovana swims over to me and scissors her legs around my waist.
I really wasn’t sure about the other night, the footsie, I say.
Footsie? What is footsie she asks.
I mean when our legs were touching under the table that evening, that’s playing footsie.
I wasn’t sure if you were interested I add……….
We don’t have footsie in Serbia she replies and laughs, but yes I am interested.
Over the next few days Jovana and I explore our cultural differences, we are both smokers and when she asks for a light I simply pass her my lighter. She shakes her head, No, this is not how it works in the Balkans she tells me. You don’t pass the lighter, you either light her cigarette or, if you want to be sexy you do this: then she takes a cigarette from the packet, places it between her lips, lights up, takes in one breath then exhales and passes the cigarette to me. For a moment I feel like I am in an old black and white movie, and the year is 1945.
Jovana is a wild child, she likes to party and is not averse to a pill or two given the right circumstances, when it comes to sex she is even less inhibited. One afternoon we head back to my room after the beach and take a bottle of wine with us. As she lies on the bed she tells me that her last boyfriend called her a succubus. I think to myself If this is how I am going to meet my end then so be it.
Before I know it Jovanas holiday comes to an end and she heads back to Europe. She didn’t know it, but she helped an Englishman the wrong side of fifty with the self esteem of a bowl of dishwater to begin to think differently about himself.
If a gorgeous Balkan Beauty with a PhD could fancy a bloke like me then maybe there was hope after all.