theodoressmith

Arambol Escape

In India on March 9, 2013 at 8:38 am

I am settling into the beach rhythm of Goa’s north coast in Arambol.   Beach life, the simple life.  My host Mr. Fate is gracious in his hospitality offering me cheap prices on everything from motorcycles, heroin, cocaine and hash to fresh seafood and live chickens.  I do frequently take him up on his offer to exchange American currency on the Indian black market for a better exchange rate than the tourist moneychangers and ATM’s.  As much as I wouldn’t trust this man in any binding legal contract, I do trust him and his assurances in black market and closed-door dealings, a counterintuitive notion of traditional business practices.  Normally, I would never recommend putting blind faith in hollow reassurances of anyone in India dealing with tourists and their money.  Never.  If he is conning me I seem to be conning him in return as he announces to his kitchen staff that I will be muddling around in the kitchen as the newest chef and future owner, slapping me hard on the back and letting out a proud and deep throated laugh.  He genuinely has come to like me and invites me to his home in Mapusa to meet his family and explore the weekend market and Hindi festival along with his wife, uncle and baby son.  He is kind to me but I see there is clearly another side to him.  A side I hope not to uncover.

My first days are spent wandering the busy beach and getting pounded by both sun and waves.  My beach hut retreat is clearly not meant for guests, but to house the kitchen and waitstaff.  Remnants of clothing and bedding have been pushed to the side, clearing some floor space for my things.  The staff now relegated to sleeping on the beach sand that is also the dining room floor, I feel little guilt when I shock myself on exposed wires, electricity sending sharp impulses through my hand, clenched fist retracting, causing me to punch myself hard in the forehead.  I am not to use the room’s toilet as the water supply is cut off.  Worst of all, my hut happens to be situated at the apex of a beach party platform, where staging and speakers are placed most evenings, as if my front door is the stage exit and entrance.  I barricade my door with an overturned wood bed frame, indicating my hut neither a green room, bathroom or opium den.  Most nights I find quiet restaurants and cafes to read a book and write in my journal while the rather tame  but bustling nightlife pans out around me.  I feel uncomfortable in my surroundings both beautiful and boring.  I’m not here to party and I’m not here to meditate.  I find myself a distant minority, surprisingly awkward and lonely in my middle position.

Sometimes I feel compelled to spend time at my base camp restaurant with the convenience of my nearby bed.  I feel I owe my hosts some of my time and attention, for there is rarely much going on.  There are Bob Marley posters and giant black tapestry depicting a pot leaf and a screaming skull with the words “Stoned to the Bone.”  Clearly a classy joint.

One afternoon I interrupt Badri, the headwaiter, in the middle of an afternoon nap sprawled atop a dining room table, joint halfway smoked in his left hand, right hand crumpled over his face in a futile attempt to shield himself from the afternoon sun.  Mr. Fate tells me Badri is the person I should talk to, should I need anything legal or illegal to make my stay more comfortable in his absence.  My request this afternoon, the daily catch of seafood from the fishing boats I’ve seen bobbing around not far off the shoreline.  He invites me to sit with him and drink chai while he has time to compose himself.  He is happy to oblige, but also shocked at such a mundane and legal request.  He quickly rattles off a grocery list of drugs to supplement my seafood extravaganza.  I ask if I should talk with Mr. Fate when I next see him for my request.

Still sleepy, Badri tells me, “Mr. Fate not come today, I think.”  He continues, “Mr. Fate at late night photo shoot.  Security job, yes.”

I have to ask, “Is Mr. Fate also a photographer? Or a body guard?”

“Yes, the security for the Russian.”

“Is there a famous Russian here!?”

“Ha, ha, ha, not so famous, they hope,” his finger pointing and sweeping the full length of huts and restaurants along the beach.  “Much business money, Russia mafia gangster.  Assholes.  Mr. Fate in charge all mafia security in Arambol for Russian Assholes.”

Earlier events and instances begin to fit into place, as my memory backtracks to days previous.  I had wondered why only Russians came to this restaurant and why only Russians parked their Speedo and gold chain clad bodies on our plot of beach.  It’s not a good restaurant, the servers stoned and asleep and most every tourist giving nothing but a glance before moving further down the beach.

“Mr. Fate up very, very late many evenings and sleepy morning time.  Maybe he here for dinner, yes?”

I also had to ask, “Badri, why do you think the Russians are Assholes?”

“Russians with big money, no English, always shout, shout, shout in Russian, I no understand, they keep shout.  Treat local peoples like shit!”

I take a shower and think how Badri’s complaint of the Russians is a common one, at least from the Goans in Arambol I’ve talk to.  I almost regret the information that I’ve uncovered.  I’m already uncomfortable in Arambol and now sense this operation to be a Russian money laundering scheme with ranging levels of ownership and control,  Mr. Fate perhaps the highest I will have clearance to meet.  I’m told the other owners Rajat and Sidi are employees of the mafia.  They both embody an unmistakable fierceness, but that of a wounded animal backed into a corner.  They are clearly afraid of Mr. Fate, but show a confidence and swagger in his absence.  It’s the feeble and cowardly power of a bully picking on those smaller, the waitstaff and the kitchen.  It’s verbal, perhaps it doesn’t need to be more.  It’s sting still effective.

That night I buy a train ticket from Madgaon, a couple hours away, south to Alleppey at the southern end of Kerala.  I negotiate with a my skinny and weathered motorcycle driver Satchit, to wait for me outside his house a half mile away from my hut, to expect me at 9am sharp.  I already know that Rajat and Sidi will milk me for money while Mr. Fate is away on a religious holiday for three days.  It’s three more days I don’t care to wait out, despite Mr. Fate having some of my American money to be changed into Indian Rupees.

I announce to Rajat and Sidi that i’ll be cutting my time short in Arambol and heading north to meet up with some friends the following morning at 9am.  They both know Mr. Fate has my American money and that my room is already paid for and more, as i am leaving early and had paid upfront.  I already knew the argument that was about to ensue and i was already aggravated and very scared.  I had eaten seafood and I did have a bar tab for the week.  They both wanted the money now.  I try explaining that Mr. Fate has my money which is enough  to cover my bill and call it even.  Rajat’s agitation to my announcement has me worried.  “You will pay now or you will not leave,” his answer.  I knew this could be settled or wouldn’t be an issue if Mr. Fate were here, but he wasn’t.  “So, what about MY money that YOUR business partner has?”  “It is not my problem, this bill YOUR problem.”  Looking around the room, all I see are staff ignoring the escalating situation.  I will later figure out how to deal with these tense and all too common situations in India, but now I consider my few options.  I agree to pay the money in the morning hoping maybe Mr. Fate will somehow return two days early from his religious holiday.  I know it won’t happen.

After retreating to my hut, I am startled by rustling outside.  Peering through the narrow spaces between the bamboo weaving, I see  three men setting up a perimeter around my hut.  They are smoking cigarettes, coughing and talking in whispers around me.  They are worried I will bolt in the night and they are setting up an all night watch.  I don’t sleep that night with the situation clearly escalating.  It’s true, bolting in the night would have been an option worth serious consideration.  I’m angered and now more frightened and that’s where they want me.  They know they have an advantage with me alone wanting to leave early and without my feared ally.  I reconsider my options.   Pay the extra, but significant, amount of money and walk away safely, having been ripped off, another casualty in the tourist trenches of India. My other option is to refuse.  Refuse an injustice that I can’t afford to let happen the rest of my time in India.  I’m the wounded animal backed into a corner ready to lash out with my last ounce of energy.  My plan takes a razored appearance of a compromise.

My compromise is this; in the morning I will take a tourist off the beach as a witness while I photograph myself giving the requested amount of money to Rajat.  Rajat will  be represented in the photo along with Sidi and the name of the guest house.  I will tell Rajat that if he accepts the money handed to him in the photograph, that I will go to the police with the photos and witness testimony and say that he demanded this amount of money from a paying guest and tourist that was not owed to him.  If the money is not accepted, Rajat can and should collect the owed amount from Mr. Fate and I won’t have to involve the police.  I rehearse my speech again and again in my mind, making sure I’m using simple and understandable English.

At 8am sharp, I pick up my backpack and throw open the flimsy bamboo door ready to argue my case.  To my surprise, all three watchmen are sound asleep in the sand.  I walk into the dining room where everyone lays motionless.  I stand there dumbfounded.  I consider waking them up to drive my case home.  I just stand there, longer.  I weigh my options once again, wake them up or walk away.  I walk away silently past the dunes and onto the hard packed sand close to the water.  I find Sanjit sitting with a couple friends outside his house eating potato chips.  I’m almost an hour early.  He sees me and springs to his feet, “time to go?”

“Yes Satchit, time to go.”

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