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.
‘‘I was thinking of going to Panjim’’ I said, slurping on a fruit shake, ‘‘you know, just to mix things up, I’m getting a bit twitchy’’. We’d been in the Goan village of Benaulim for around ten days; maybe longer, I’d lost count. It had been the ultimate chill out, just what the doctor ordered, but now I’d finished my book, swam as much as I could swim and put away enough sleep for a lifetime. I had to get out for a night or two, enjoy a change of scenery; I needed to do something.
‘‘Wanna come?’’ I asked. Allan was scribbling away in his secret notebook and when he looked up at me with one of his placid smiles I already knew the answer. ‘‘Think I’ll pass’’ he said, turning back to his journal, ‘‘to be honest I could stay here indefinitely’’. Gradually burying my feet in the sand, inch by inch, we lay on the beach some more until I could hold out no longer. ‘‘Lunch!’’ I announced suddenly, to which Allan looked up again, smiled a different smile and this time it was a resounding ‘‘yes!’’
We were picking out a table at the local beach bar when I spotted a blonde girl with her head in a book, a glass of beer and a plate of calamari set before her. She was reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the very novel I’d finished myself just a day or two before. ‘‘Brilliant isn’t it?’’ I exclaimed. And that’s how I met Lisa.
“I’d be up for coming to Panjim if that’s ok’’ she said, her lilting Scottish accent somehow already familiar. Allan had retreated back to Rosario’s so it was just the two of us nursing beers, the early evening light fading as the sun sank into a pink-orange horizon. “Of course!’’ I replied, ‘‘I was gonna get the morning bus, you ok with an early start?’’ “Absolutely!’’ she confirmed and it was as simple as that.
The journey to Goa’s capital took a merciful ninety-minutes, by far the shortest bus trip I’d undertaken throughout my travels. Along the way Lisa told me her story, how she was on a gap year before uni; that she’d been pretty much ‘‘packed off’’ to India by her encouraging father. ‘‘He said it would be good for me!’’ she laughed, ‘‘and I guess it has’’. Before landing in Goa she’d been to Mumbai, Delhi and the Himalayan town of Shimla. As we closed in our destination, I wondered how Panjim would compare and it dawned on me I had no idea what there was to see and do. I’d done zero research, so the first order of business was to find a place to stay!
On arrival Panjim turned out to be livelier than I’d expected, a small but compact metropolis with sprawling markets, a few bulging shopping malls and endless scooters darting expertly between the smoky traffic. Woefully ill prepared, we decided to simplify things by checking into a hotel on one of the main roads, just across from The Mandovi River. To this day I can’t for the life of me recall the hotel’s name, though I’ll never forget the jaw-dropping moment its blue and white façade flashed across my TV screen during the dazzling car chase sequence at the beginning of The Bourne Supremacy. I was straight onto Facebook messaging Lisa. ‘‘Our hotel! Panjim! The Bourne Supremacy! Matt Damon!’’
There was an indecisive moment at reception when the man asked us whether we wanted two rooms or one, a twin or a double? After a brief consultation we decided it would be cost effective to share a room, opting for the double. It was only then that a little voice inside my head questioned where things might be heading.
Venturing out into the Panjim evening, we went straight for dinner and beers at a nearby restaurant before taking a stroll along the riverside promenade. Out on the water a number of boats chugged by, casting neon reflections in the night. ‘‘Yes please, river cruise for you!’’ announced an advancing tout; but rather than wave him off Lisa and I found ourselves exchanging glances. ‘‘Shall we?’’ she grinned. ‘‘Sure, why the hell not?’’ I replied, blissfully ignorant of why the hell not.
Mr. Tout gleefully wrote out our tickets and a short while later we boarded a sizeable boat kitted out in dark-stained wood and gaudy neon. There were no more than a dozen passengers onboard, but rather than sit inside with a miserable looking family, we escaped out onto the deck to breathe in the cool night air. Whizzing away from the city, we’d just gotten ourselves comfortable when the stereo exploded into life and we were quite literally knocked for six! The music, for want of a better word, was a disco-trance monstrosity played at such a blistering volume I felt my lobes might implode. ‘‘This is ******* awful!’’ I shouted at a dismayed Lisa. ‘‘What??’’ she yelled back, ‘‘I said… this is ******* awful!’’ “I can’t hear you!!!’’ she bellowed with a mimed shrug. The beats were so vociferous they rendered any other activity pointless, so we just sat there staring back out at the city lights waiting for it all to end. At some point I caught sight of a young Indian boy who appeared to work on the boat in some capacity. Screaming directly into his ear, I asked if he could turn the music down. Smiling at me benignly, he shook his head, confirming that he could not.
Back on dry land and Lisa and I had been reduced to laughing hyenas, our ears ringing as we searched for a night shop to buy some much-needed alcohol. ‘‘What the **** was that?!?’’ asked Lisa, giggling in disbelief. ‘‘I don’t know’’ I chuckled, wondering how many brain cells I’d lost, ‘‘I just don’t know’’.
By the time we got back to the hotel we were armed with a bottle of gin and a pack of playing cards, which we put to immediate use as we settled down for the night. Still reeling from the boat debacle, there was plenty of laughter and joshing, though the atmosphere swiftly descended into acute awkwardness once bedtime came. Having scrambled under the blankets in our PJs, we somewhat comically stationed ourselves at opposite ends of the bed, a continent-sized gulf between us like some kind of invisible demilitarized zone. Lying there for a bit in an uncomfortable silence, one of us finally cracked a joke and we were back to laughing like loons. Resuming our chatter, the atmosphere became much more relaxed as we shuffled towards each other, the night moving towards its inevitable outcome.
The next day Lisa and I explored the city on foot and I was thoroughly charmed by what I saw. Framed by a skyline of terraced hills, we wandered through Panjim’s quaint cobbled streets and tree-lined avenues, many of the buildings informed by a Portuguese flavor. There were colorful villas with iron-railed balconies and red-tiled roofs, while later on we stumbled upon a large picturesque square home to a sixteenth century baroque church. On another smaller square stood a large primary school. Spotting us from above, a group of excitable schoolboys came skipping down its stone steps to greet us and pose for a photograph. ‘‘London very cool!’’ cooed one of the boys; kissing the 20p coin I’d given him, ‘‘Panjim very boring!’’
Breaking for lunch at a European style café, I did a bit of Lonely Planet reading and we made plans to visit the nearby town of Vagator where there was a colossal night market. Overhearing our discussion, we got chatting to Phil, an Englishman who adored markets and wanted to know where it was. ‘‘Sorry, I didn’t want to impose on your romantic lunch’’ he said earnestly and Lisa and I found ourselves sniggering again. ‘‘You’re not imposing and this is not romantic’’ she countered. ‘‘I see’’ he said, removing his Indiana Jones hat and running a hand through a thick head of bushy hair.
With a devious sense of humor and an eccentricity that meant you never quite knew what he was gonna say, Phil turned out to be great company. A nature enthusiast with a talent for picturing flowers and plants, he’d been travelling around India for an extended break following a recent divorce, ‘‘Yup, it’s all about finding myself’’ he drawled sarcastically. ‘‘Maybe you can find yourself at Vagator Night Market?’’ quipped Lisa, ‘‘fancy coming?’’ ‘‘Sure thing T.C.!!!’’ he squealed in his best Benny the Ball impression, one of many Top Cat references he’d produce during our time together.
Lisa, Phil and I decided to make a proper field trip out of Vagator, booking rooms at Jolly Jolly Roma, a guesthouse within walking distance of the market. Hailing a taxi, the journey should have taken an uncomplicated forty-minutes, but our driver clearly didn’t know where he was going. Having made a few failed attempts to find our guesthouse, we all realized he’d gotten us lost. Crawling hesitantly down yet another ambiguous country road, we rumbled to a stop outside a decrepit looking building with greyed-out windows and a huge Swastika painted onto one of its walls. ‘‘What???” I said, the only word I could muster. ‘‘Oh my god!’’ echoed Lisa with a snicker, ‘‘err… NO!’’ confirmed Phil in genuine horror and we were off again in search of our promised jolliness.
‘‘Well, it’s all quite lovely!’’ observed Phil, camera in hand, bending over a sprouting bush of wild yellow flowers. We’d finally checked into Jolly Jolly Roma and were now chilling out in its pretty garden, working through a tasty brunch. Keen to unveil the delights of the night market, the three of us left early to get there for opening time and ended up staying the whole night. Having wandered off in different directions, I found myself swallowed up by its vast labyrinthine network of stalls, food courts and makeshift tent-bars. It was a sight to behold, a giddy assault on the senses that enchanted me so much I succumbed to several impulse purchases along the way. Three T-shirts, a wooden elephant and a small rug later and I bumped into Phil at a seafood joint, beer in hand, feet up on a chair with a mad doctor grin on his face. ‘‘Dr. Phil’’ I nodded, dumping my bags down on the table. ‘‘Officer Dibble!” he cried, “pull up a chair!’’
‘‘Did you hear that bloody racket last night?’’ said Phil the next morning as we presided over our second Jolly feast. ‘‘Funny, I didn’t think anyone else was staying here’’. With our best poker faces Lisa and I offered no comment and happily Phil had no more to say on the matter, though I couldn’t help but notice a self-satisfied smirk on his face as he crunched his cereal.
Returning to Panjim, it was time for me to make tracks back to Benaulim. I was looking forward to seeing Allan again and cobbling together the next leg of our adventure. Without hesitation Lisa decided to join me, while much to our surprise Phil announced he was up for it too, keen to experience the relaxing Goan beach oasis we’d both raved about. While Lisa and I took the bus directly, Phil had already planned a day trip somewhere, so would be catching up with us in a day or two.
Seeing him off at the bus station, he was in fine spirits, an infectious ball of energy as he danced down the platform kicking his legs and singing at the top of his lungs. ‘‘Top Cat, da da da da da… the most effectual Top cat, da da da da da… the indisputable leader of the gang! He’s the boss, he’s the VIP he’s the championship… he’s the most tip-top… Top Cat!!!”