Editor’s Note: This is from a series of travel stories by the late Rebecca Bruns.
The overnight boat from Bombay is jammed with cadaverous natives on their way to an easier life. Some other westerners and I pitch our tents on the deck between gibbering families and betel-nut chewers. The boat goes into the night as gently as a cradle, rocked by warm southern waters and sweet breezes blowing from our destination, but the air of expectancy on board – westerners are no less excited than the natives – makes it almost impossible to sleep.
Before full sunrise everyone is up, bundling ragged possessions together and crowding around the deck rails. We are there! A golden radiance swells up behind thick palm jungle and spills across splendid empty beaches where waves run gently up and down for sparkling miles. I want to dive overboard for joy! We are in a tropical paradise: Goa.
We come ashore at Panjim. I catch a bus to the market town Mapusa and land in the bustling central plaza. It’s a circus! Motorcycles vroom, bicycle bells shrill, rattletrap buses wheeze by, the chants of bus recruiters vie with the cries of little boys hawking their wares. Stalls offer chunks of palm sugar, black with flies, tiny bananas pink as baby fingers, papayas big as watermelons.
Honey bees swarm around fragrant flower necklaces, smiling ladies under fractured umbrellas offer a skirtful of dried mackeral at a bargain. Drunk on exotic sights and smells, I catch the bus to the beach town of Adjuna.
My bus reels along a dusty road overhung with starlike blossoms, past blindingly green fields, past stocky little whitewashed missions and stocky pastel houses with molded love seats flanking front doors. At the Adjuna stop I drop out amid browsing goats and a few chickens. Some brown legged children carrying jugs start up the trail to Adjuna, and I follow.
It’s hot and dusty, I am caked with dust. Then we are in the blessed cool of a palm forest, and suddenly through the trees sunlight glitters on blue water, the sound of flutes and guitars mingles with the cheerful namaste (good morning) of schoolgirls passing by. We are in Adjuna.
For two dollars I buy a beach hut fully equipped (a kerosene stove, a lantern, a Ganesh poster for prosperity, a biscuit tin for storing food) and join the colony of beach dwellers. Mornings I wake to a girl leading a water buffalo by a string, selling fresh milk, or a boy selling bottles of watered-down honey, a papaya lady, a coconut lady, a chiki lady. Many things come to my door.
A man dressed as a Hindu Jezebel goes from hut to hut dancing for coins. And dope is rampant. About once a week a nice looking clean-cut guy carrying a burlap sack of ampules of morphine strolls door to door with his friendly greeting, “Hi. Want some morphine? 25 cents or two rupees an ampule.” The junkies mostly keep to themselves though once in a while a rash of thievery breaks out and you pretty well know who’s to blame.
There is entertainment aplenty. Westeners make music, read tarot cards, do tattoos, preach, throw impromptu parties with shark stew for everyone and rock music blasting out of human-size speakers, courtesy of a generator. Wandering home late at night with my coconut shell flashlight in hand (half a coconut shell with a candle stub inside) I stop for a visit with the banana man who fries bananas on the beach till midnight. At times I choose to stay in my little hut, reading by candlelight, or early to bed and to sleep lulled by the muted thunder of the waves, a sound I have come to love.
One day I decide to go exploring. North of Adjuna and Calengute, the favorite beach villages, lie ten miles of gorgeous and relatively isolated beach gashed by outcroppings and ending in jungle. I pack my sleeping bag and canteen, shut up the hut, and start walking.
I walk all day, sometimes crossing little rivers that cut into the beach, sometimes passing fishermen drawing in their nets; but mostly it is silent and empty, just me and the sea. Near sundown, approaching a nudist village, I see my first nude westerner. There are only a few dozen. They move quietly between the beach and their secluded village, or disappear around a little freshwater lake and up into the jungle that swallows the hills behind the sea.
In the jungle, I am told, some French girls live around a banyan tree. The next day I take the lake trail to find them and am soon hopelessly lost. A dry river bed leads me to a sheer red wall, on either side steep slopes mangled with roots. In a panic, I scramble up a slope and meet a tribe of large white monkeys loping along.
They stop and gather around me, and I plunge back down into the river bed. Somehow hours later the riverbed leads me to the banyan tree where the French girls are indeed living on rice and tea in primeval nude bliss. I stay the night, and snug in my sleeping bag hear a beast tearing another beast apart in the river bed below. In the morning I carefully follow the trail they show me and leave the jungle behind.
I never go back to the jungle but gladly return to the cheerful noise and confusion of Adjani . Is there anything better than to stand in the doorway of your own little hut in the cool pre-sunset breeze, sipping a cup of freshly brewed tea and watching the sun slip into the sea? But I’m almost out of money, and the year of my wanderings is over. I sell the hut for the $2 I paid for it, pack, and say my goodbyes. The Goa I am leaving has the friendliest natives, the gentlest sea, the most unspoiled beaches I will ever know. May
Vishnu the Preserver keep it so.