You drive into the outstretched hand of Mumbai and she curls you into her fist, fingers of traffic closing around you. The density increases as the sun climbs, decrepit shacks leaning against modern shopping centres, garbage heaped next to a Porsche dealership, a contemplative cow milling about in front of a gas station. Families still asleep in ordered rows along the pavement, bundled like corpses in shrouds of brightly coloured cloth. A small girl—the first awake—rummages under her blanket as though digging for treasure, while her sister sleeps open-mouthed beside her. They are neat, delicate, pretty. You can’t find words for this. A whispered homeless, but it doesn’t fit. The homeless that you know is most often unwashed, mentally ill, helpless. These people seem none of those things.
The traffic thickens. A posse of schoolboys scrambles across the street. You think of paper boats as the boys bob and weave and disappear into the swell of cars, scooters, trucks, tuk tuks, emerging, somehow, safely on the other side.
She takes you down, slowly. Throngs of men drinking morning chai by the seaside. The Gate of India, where you photograph the gulls and the Indian tourists photograph you. The sun beats hotly against your shoulders. Thick sweet mango juice, curried vegetables. And then an organic bakery, a soy cafe latte!, stumbling onto an unexpected cluster of art galleries tucked into the shadowed folds of dusty side streets. Layer after layer languidly stripped away, and yet, you never quite get to her raw nakedness. You can only hover at her surface, enraptured.
A street seller with a pet chick dyed shockingly pink. The steam escaping from a piece of fresh naan as it’s pulled apart. A kingfisher’s startling blue. The watermelon market outside Mapusa, endless green orbs heaped like jewels against the red earth. Aloo gobi, Chana masala, which both remind me and don’t remind me of my childhood and my parent’s so-called Indian cooking. A woman and child sleeping under a spray of bougainvillea, its electric pink the exact shade of the woman’s sari.
Things that can’t be photographed anyway
The rustle of a thumb-sized cockroach rummaging about in the bathroom. The cool relief of an overhead fan licking away filmy perma-sweat from my belly and upper lip. The sun’s various weights and intensities at different times and angles. The gritty taste of Mumbai, which coats the tongue and teeth. Sounds which are constant and arrhythmic: car horns, cawing birds, the chorus of stray dogs; in Arambol: the ocean’s lovers quarrel with the shore. Certain movements: an ability to simultaneously shake and nod one’s head, as a way of saying yes, no, and/or I have no fucking clue what you’re talking about; the sway of a girl’s hip and the ramrod line of her neck as she makes her way along the beach with a basket of pineapples perched on her head; the flutter of a sari as it catches the wind, its silvered pattern playing the light. The cocktail of body odour, rotting garbage, maracuja, cooking oil, exhaust, urine, incense, the sea.
Two days exploring Mumbai. I do not exist here. Everyone speaks to Roland--Nice tattoo my friend, how do you like India? Taxi, sir? Maybe tomorrow?--while I trail a few steps behind, unsure if I’m offended by being made invisible, or happy to be left alone.
A week in a beach hut in Arambol absorbing the sea, after which I feel that I am made up of 90% salt water, 10% sand. At night the waves roll in so close that falling asleep feels like drowning.
24 hours at The Crown Hotel in Panjim, rinsing sand from my hair, eyes, ears, the cracks between my toes. I get lost in the king size bed with too-white sheets, the minibar fridge seems like a small miracle. At night I miss the sound of the sea.
A long dusty cab ride to Palolem, past houses, temples, churches painted like a tropical fruit salad—papaya, mango, guava, fig. And then: a week in a jungle green dream. We rent a bamboo hut hidden in a tangle of palms, banana trees, and droopy hibiscus. The bed hung with gauzy white mosquito netting that must have been taken from a child’s princess fantasy. A cacophony of birds sing our wake up call—a thousand staccato voices in ragged harmony, morning meditations punctuated by their tribal rhythm. Then: leaping into the open embrace of the ocean. Afternoons in the shade of the terrace, sprawled in a pair of lounge chairs with our arms and legs held wide from the torso so that no two sticky areas of skin touch. Except where I allow an inch of my hand to rest against his, the pooling of our sweat its own kind of comfort.
The ache of wanting to stay here forever.
We rent a scooter, driving south one day—Talpona, Galgibag—north the next—Agonda, Cola, Cabo de Rama—palms lining the road like upturned exclamation marks. At first I feel unsteady perched behind Roland as he drives, too fast. But the road slowly wins me over, the knot of fear dissolves. This is what I learn from traveling—especially traveling in India—this acute awareness of how often my life is in other people’s hands. I get in a cab and trust the driver to navigate the confusion of vehicles and blind curves and chickens on the loose while nattering away on his cell phone. I ask for directions, get the yes/no/maybe bobble-head thing and a vague wave of the hand, and I follow those outstretched fingers on the blind faith that they’ll lead to safety.
Travel reminds me that it’s not just here, but always, that we live under tenuous circumstances—every time we enter a built or shared environment, we are at the mercy of those who have built it or share it. Every moment of your life you are held up by 6 billion hands. We learn, through travel, to surrender to this uncertainty, not in the belief that nothing bad can happen, but rather in full knowledge that someday, some of those hands are going to let you down. To surrender is to know that you might get hurt and to let go of fear anyway. Because you know too, that the best way you can live your life right now is to relinquish control, clamber onto this scooter, kiss the back of your lover’s neck as the copper-streaked strands of his hair billow against your cheek, and let India unfurl before you.