94. Seeing the Other Side of Paradise

Seeing The Other Side Of Paradise: We have been many places on this trip where we’ve seen evidence of a recent monsoon season – felled trees, sharply eroded sand dunes, bamboo-clad restaurants slumped over in violent defeat, as though they’d been rammed with a freight train of wind – but we’ve never seen the beast itself. On the Asian travel circuit, much thought goes into making plans to avoid the monsoon. In international cafes, crowded around small tables littered with beer bottles and guidebooks, the gap-year British and three-month-holiday Swedes and Germans plot these evasive maneuvers in their common language of halting English. Everyone has some hearsay. A Danish kid has heard that some of the huts on Ko Phi Phi are opening early this year on account of a weak monsoon. A girl from France heard that they should keep moving south, down the Malaysian west coast, just to be safe. Someone says that the beaches on the Malaysian west coast are crap. The British guy doesn’t care where they go, so long as the beer costs less than a quid. They eventually agree on Cambodia.

When the tourists move on, local life continues through these months of wind and rain. Daily chores become an intricate waltz with the weather, umbrellas ducking in and out of awnings, bodies twisting every which way to avoid erratic gusts, swirling debris. In the hardest hit coastal areas, people wile away most of their day huddled inside of whatever semi-durable structure is available. In the cities, life – and certainly games of street cricket – continue with gusto. It’s a fascinating time to be a tourist, if only because you’re frequently the only tourist. So after Doug and I parted ways, I flew into the heart of the tempest that was the west coast state of Goa. I wanted to see a little rain, to watch a few big waves. Instead, I caught the edge of a cyclone headed for Pakistan, where it killed hundreds of people. Through this I learned that while there is no shortage of dramatic news coverage after major weather events, there is very little in the way of advance weather forecasting in this part of the world.

All hell broke loose during my unwitting stay at the beach. The ocean was the same blender I remember from the hurricanes of my Florida youth, churning waves so high that I didn’t dare set foot on the fast disappearing sand. I retreated to the safety of my solid old Portuguese guest house, sheltered from the torrent by a thick grove of elastic palm trees, surrounded by swelling rice paddies and sentried by herds of nervous water buffalo. It rained a river. What you don’t know about rain like that, is that it colors tropical plants in the most brilliant shades of green and if you watch them long enough, that green will deepen before your eyes. As it turned out, I had little else to do but watch the rain fall, because within an hour of my arrival in the tiny town of Benaulim, the elctricity went out in a blaze of sparks and flashes. It didn’t return for the remainder of my three day imprisonment.

There were only four people in residence at this guest house during this lowest moment of the low season; Mr. Mohan the general caretaker, Mr. Ignatius the cook, a very sleepy guard and me. In the early afternoon of the first day, Mr. Mohan visited my room to tell me regretfully that Mr. Ignatius will be delayed because of the weather and would I mind having dinner a little later? Also, what sorts of things do I like to eat? Am I eating the seafoods? This line of questioning would repeat itself each day and then at dinner on a covered open-air terrace, in the wild flicker of candelight, Mr. Ignatius presented that evening’s creation. Each time it was a different, unlikely variety of fresh seafood caught by the few young kamikaze fisherman who would brave these seas. Red snapper fillets grilled in a firey local masala. Sweet and sour whitefish curry. Tiger prawns the size of my hand, fried in a garlicky green Goan vindaloo sauce that’s so simple and vibrant that it made me delirious and giddy, a kid with his first bowl of Frosted Flakes. Later, in the pitch dark howl of my room, the wind whips the palm trees with such consistent urgency that it perfectly mimicked the sound of a rushing waterfall. In fact, for most of the day and night, wind and rain are the only sounds I hear. When the monsoon does eventually pause, the trees come alive with the frantic mating and social calls of lost frogs, birds and geckos. The roads too come alive with poncho-clad motorcycle riders flapping to and fro, kids skittering soccer balls across bright orange mud puddles and large families of pot-bellied pigs commuting from house to house in search of freshly washed garbage.

There was an internet terminal in that town, but it may as well have been two tin cans connected with string for the lack of power. An English language newspaper showed up one day, but it was soaked and blurry nonsense. My only contact with the world outside became a daily phone call from Amy, which rang through unfailingly on an Indian cell phone I brought with me from Delhi. Her call was the highlight of each day. I tell her about how the wind blew so hard that a local drunk fell from an embankment into a rice paddy, injured his leg and had to be pulled out by an ox. She tells me about the cast of impeccably groomed, tweed-clad 60 year-old Irishmen who dote on her all day in local pubs. We talk about news from home, gossip from friends, local cuisine and our impending reunion; we have decided that on July 8, I’ll be flying to Belfast. Blustery eventually gave way to breezy, buckets gave way to cups and I found a bemused taxi driver willing to sprint me to the relative plushness and safety of Goa’s capitol city.

Driver: First time in Goa?
Me: Yes.
Driver: I think you are making very bad timings!
Me: Oh, I don’t know. I got a pretty good deal on that hotel room.
Driver: Ha! Still, very bad timings I think. You come back January, like normal tourist.


  1. Dan S. says:

    I read this entry a while back but missed the fact this took place in Benaulim until Molly was reading it just now. I’m glad you decided to make Benaulim your stop in Goa! But it sure sounds like a different place than it was when we were there…. I’d have to agree with that driver who advised you to “come back January, like normal tourist”! (And with Amy.)