What I saw on National Highway 4
Clara, 10, sits quietly next to me in the back seat of Aloysius’s gold Tata Indigo wagon. Her henna’d hands rest on a bag of Lay’s “Magic Masala” potato chips. She’s wearing a burgundy cardigan, Nike headband and a green blanket over her shoulders because – despite the 30 degree celsius mid-morning temperature in the car, she finds the blowing wind from the open windows chilling. She’s a child of India.
Her father (and alternate driver) Claude sits in the front next to Aloysius, who is barreling down the Pune-to-Bangalore highway to get us to Goa at a decent hour. The four of us left Mumbai before dawn because – at 6:30 in the morning – we could drive the 40 kilometres east to Navi (New) Mumbai in three-quarters of an hour instead of rush hour’s three. From Pune (“Poona”) we’d take head south towards Bangalore, then turn right at Banda to tear along village roads in the Western Ghat mountains, descend past the Amboli waterfalls and enter Goa’s Bardez district from the northeast.
- many, many billboards selling real estate, including one outside Pune offering to help you “Get lost in your own version of paradise”. Instead of the North American idea of paradise – white sands, coconut trees, sunshine – the billboard tempted stressed-out Indians with western-style homes: gleaming counter-tops, sectional couches and swimming pools. Sand, coconuts, sunshine? Got it, don’t need it.
- black-soil and the fields of marigolds, sugar cane and rice that grows in it.
- motorcycles and scooters asserting their place on the highway, increasingly out-numbering cars – many with women on the back, their pink, orange and green saris billowing in the wind behind them
- green, green hills, round and plumb like swirls of dollops of whipped cream
- monkeys at mountain passes, stopped to watch “goods carrier” trucks grind gears up the long ascents
- “Reliance” rest-stops: gas, food, washrooms and showers set-up in American-style truck stop style, completely empty of business (except for us) because most long-distance drivers would rather pull over by the side of the road and have a wallah cook up a meal for them there and then at a fraction of the price.
- The toilets at Reliance: the lady-in-a-dress universal symbol for “women” replaced by a graphic of a woman in a sari.
- Men filling holes in the highway with round bowls of stones
- Toll booths: lots of them, and Aloysius’s over-extended vehicle stalling right in front of them. He and Claude checked all wires and fluids and found nothing wrong. Claude started to push the vehicle forwards, just to get it through the gate and away from the cacophony of honks and I throw decorum to the wind and jumped out to help, Canadian-style. Aloysius threw it into second gear and the beast started in a plume of black diesel smoke, and I jumped back into the back seat, grinning at Clara victoriously. “Girl Power!” I mouthed to her, conspiratorially.
- Aloysius’s en route stories: how a western doctor couldn’t diagnose a simple-but-infectious case of small pox because he didn’t recognize it; how Indian women – even the poorest – wear and acquire gold jewellry for security; and how ghee (clarified butter) is heavily used in India and that’s possibly how my friend gained twenty pounds when she spent time in India
- Duke’s lemon soda spiced with ginger, bottled by Pepsi, ice cold
- “Veg and non-veg” restaurant menus. “Do you eat meat?” I asked Clara, offering her a ground-beef-filled snack roll. She looked at me incomprehensively. I rephrased the question. “Do you eat non-veg”? Yes, she nodded.
- Poverty? Another friend emailed to ask how it felt being here in India, “the epitome of poverty,” I saw people living in shacks, begging, and lining up for food – but I’ve seen that everywhere. What I haven’t seen in India (and other countries I’ve visited, come to think of it) is the “poverty of community” I’ve seen in my home Vancouver and other so-called First World countries – where people advertise in the newspaper for friendship and love; where families build high-security walls around their neighbourhoods; where cars take priority over play space for children in front of houses..
- Defence Colony. Turning off the Mapusa-Panajim roadway at Porvorim, past a sign that says “Defence Colony,” into a tree-lined little street where two girls in saris doubled on a bicycle and neighbours peered out from the late afternoon shadow of their verandahs to investigate the arrival of Aloysius D’Souza to his anchestral home with his oft-mentioned, slightly wilted cousin from Canada, here to live for the next six months.
Two fingers of … scotch?
Not long after we’d arrived and he’d unlocked the teak doors to his Goa house, Aloysius strode into the kitchen, pulled open the fridge door and reached for a one litre bottle of Ballantine’s Scotch Whiskey. Hmm, I thought, that’s a bit odd and drastic, but what the heck – it was a long drive.
“How many fingers?” I asked as I found two tumbler glasses and set them onto the kitchen table and next to the bottle. He looked at me quizzically.
“You know – ‘one’ is this much,” I said, wrapping a finger around the bottom of the glass, “Two fingers is this much…” Aloysius continued to look at me incomprehensively, so I reached into the glass cupboard for a shot glass.
“Okay, okay,” I said jovially, “Let’s do this properly.” I grabbed the hefty bottle, filled the shot glass and peered at it. The whiskey was… colourless. “Is this… feni?” I asked of the clear liquid. Feni is a hard liquor made from cashews and specific to this region, and I’d promised Aloysius that I’d give it a try once we reached Goa.
“Feni?!” He snorted. He looked at the bottle, the tumblers and the shot glass. He filled a glass to the top and gulped it down. “It’s water – I boil it on the stove and when it cools I pour it into these empty glass bottles – see?” He held the fridge door open and the door tinkled with old whiskey, sherry and port bottles.
We laughed until tears came to our eyes, and on that first night I learned that in Goa as in Mumbai, I knew nothing, and that that was a good place for the magic to start.