In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
My travels around India had been highly eventful from pretty much day one. I’d had miscellaneous objects shoved into my ears in Delhi, found broken glass in my bed in Agra and been dealt an absurd amount of bad luck in the soulless claustrophobia of Jaipur. There’d also been romance and camels in Jaisalmer, comical James Bond nonsense in Udaipur and fine dining and cocktails in glitzy Mumbai. Not to mention The Bus Journey From Hell in between.
So it was perhaps understandable that by the time we rolled up in Goa, both Allan and I were more than ready for an extended spell of beach-related nothingness. Luckily, we’d chosen just the place! A peaceful, rustic village located on Goa’s southern coastline, Benaulim consisted of little more than a handful of family run guesthouses, a couple of restaurants, one bar-cum nightclub and mile upon mile of peaceful golden sands. A world away from the hedonism of North Goa’s infamous party resorts, I knew we’d come to the right place the moment I stepped off the bus and felt the cool sea air on my face. ‘‘Finally!’’ said Allan as a couple of seagulls flapped by overhead.
Lodgings were obtained at a pretty little guesthouse called Rosario’s, just a hundred meters from the beach. Checking in, we were greeted by Mama Rosario herself, a plump rosy-cheeked woman with a cheerful nature and a booming laugh. Speaking little English, Mama’s laugh served as her official language. ‘‘From?’’ ‘‘I’m from England and my friend’s from Scotland’’. ‘‘Ha ha ha ha ha!!!!’’ ‘‘Today where?’’ “Um… we’re going to the beach again”. ‘‘Ha ha ha ha ha!!!!’’
Less amusing was Mama’s trio of lanky, bone-idle sons. The youngest served as the cook, a boy who actually succeeded in burning a boiled egg! The second born meanwhile was supposed to be the cleaner, though all this seemed to involve was dragging a filthy wet rag across the lobby once a day. But the pick of the bunch had to be the eldest, a sloping dimwit in a Man United shirt who screwed up my laundry. It took him twenty-four hours to get my clothes back to me and when he did I was given a pile of shrunken T-shirts, a color-bled sweater and several pairs of underwear that definitely weren’t mine. ‘‘Ha ha ha ha ha!!!!’’ boomed Mama Rosario.
Thankfully we didn’t have much contact with Team Rosario, instead choosing to spend as much time as we could on the beach. A late seaside breakfast consisted of pancakes and a fruit smoothie, after which we’d grab some chairs under an umbrella close to the tide. Days were spent sleeping, swimming, sunbathing and working my way through Donna Tartt’s outstanding novel The Secret History. I also became quite the expert at killing an hour or two with a cutting edge contraption known as the CD Walkman.
Once a day the various sellers did their rounds but it was the off season, so neither the sarong woman, the fruit man nor the henna girls could be bothered with much of a pitch. Our favourite visitor by far was a scrawny boy who passed by in the late afternoon with an old leather sack. Maybe ten or eleven years old, he was worryingly thin and so dark-skinned that at times I couldn’t make out his eyes. But there was no missing his beaming smile; an exhibition of as yet unspoiled pearly white teeth. ‘‘Hello sirs, beautiful day! You looking hungry, must wanting yummy cashew’’. Sitting cross-legged in front of us with dripping optimism, he opened his sack and threw out a number of small plastic bags, all of them bulging with fat deep-brown cashew nuts. Sadly his visits always seemed to come an hour or so after we’d eaten. ‘‘No hungry?’’ he’d say, not at all put off by our disinterest, ‘‘no problem! Buy now, eat later…. cashew last long time, little nibble every day, bag last many week’’.
Day after day we waved him away, his happy-go-lucky outlook never wavering. ‘‘But sir, cashew perfect for any time. Cashew breakfast… cashew lunch… maybe snack after dinner! You can make a cashew party, share with your friends. Sexy girl love the cashew!!!’’ His performances became so amusing we eventually caved in and bought a few packs, much to his visible delight.
We’d been in Benaulim for just over a week when I finished my book and began to feel restless. It was just another scorching day in paradise; I could see Allan taking a dip in the sea, while just across from me a middle-aged Spanish couple lay snoring under a polka dot umbrella. The Cashew Kid was sitting next to me listening to my Walkman, his little head bobbing up and down. ‘‘Sir, what is this music I hear? Like nothing I know, amazing like aliens!’’ ‘‘Radiohead’’ I laughed as Allan returned, refreshed from his exertions in the water.
Bidding them both farewell, I decided to take a walk up the beach, to see how far I could go and what, if anything, lay in the distance. I passed pockets of statuesque sunbathers, a run-down shop selling cold drinks and a collection of ramshackle huts where women hung laundry as their kids played around their feet in the dirt. It had been well over an hour by the time I reached a nameless guesthouse that looked like it had seen better days. Poking my head through the door of its adjacent restaurant, I discovered a surprisingly well-stocked bar with a dozen or so wooden tables and benches. Ordering a draft beer from the barman, (whom I had to wake up), I took a seat in front of a whirring fan with the belief that I was the establishment’s sole customer. But after just a few sips I was startled to see a figure emerge from a shadowy table in the corner. Tall and sinewy, a cowboy hat cocked over a mane of dirty long hair, he sauntered over with a mooching swagger. A whiskey and coke in one hand, a cigarette in the other, he fixed a steely gaze upon me, revealing a face disfigured with crisscrossing pockmarks. ‘‘Well howdy…’’ he said in a thick U.S. accent, an impressive pair of bags swelling beneath his heavyset eyes. ‘‘May I?’’ ‘‘Sure!’’ I answered, as he slowly lowered himself onto the bench opposite me, setting his glass down on the table. ‘‘Leighton’’ I said, offering a hand half the size of his. ‘‘Butch’’ he answered with a firm grip, ‘‘Butch Cassidy’’. I smirked instinctively, ‘‘Where’s the Sundance kid?’’, but immediately regretted it as he shot me an icy glare. ‘‘There must be a million Sundance kids in this darn country’’ he drawled, taking a lengthy drag on his cigarette, ‘‘and not one of them a Robert Redford. No… this cat chooses to fly solo’’.
With no idea how to respond I just nodded as if I understood, feeling more than a tad awkward in the ensuing silence. I asked him how long he’d been in Goa, to which he answered ‘‘a long time’’. Apparently he’d been in India ‘‘even longer’’, though he clearly wasn’t into storytelling so I didn’t push him on the details. Butch seemed to be a man of few words, so I did most of the talking, giving him the lowdown on my travels. Staring back at me ambivalently, I wasn’t sure if he was even listening. When I got onto the subject of Udaipur he suddenly piped up with an irritated shudder. ‘‘******* James Bond!’’ he growled, ‘‘imagine a place where that’s your claim to fame, James ******* Bond’’.
At a loss as to what to say, I sat back and allowed him to rant. ‘‘You’re trapped in a dark alley, there’s no way out, the enemy is closing in. Who do you want covering your ass? Paul Newman? Or Roger ******* Moore? And don’t get me started on Pierce Brosnan”. Butch was clearly in a foul mood now; so much so that he literally sat there sneering into what remained of his drink, ‘‘******* Udaipur!’’ After a couple of painfully uncomfortable minutes I made my excuses with an unconvincing story about dinner plans with friends. ‘‘Sure thing’’ he mumbled without even looking up, ‘‘don’t ever come back here’’.
Slipping out onto the beach, I briskly retraced my route back to normality and an hour later I was sipping on a vanilla milkshake, relaying the story to an amused Allan. ‘‘Ah yes, Butch is crazy man’’ chipped in The Cashew Kid, who’d been listening intently with a knowing smile. ‘‘He stay in Goa too long, but for me it’s good because this cowboy love the cashew!!!’’ Hauling himself up, The Cashew Kid dusted the sand off his legs and told us he’d see us tomorrow, same time same place. His sack swinging back and forth, he made a beeline for a group of distant sunbathers, whistling the tune to Paranoid Android as he went.