By Ulrike Rodrigues
Ally and Marcus waited for their lunch at a white-washed table at Zeebop beachside restaurant. It was midday-hot, but breezy and cooler at this table in the shade. As Marcus adjusted the strap of the motorcycle helmet resting in his lap, Ally sunk her toes into the cool white sand. Each time she leaned forward to take a sip of her cold coffee, gusts of warm air from the Arabian Sea blew strands of her dark hair around her.
Cold coffee. In the States, mused Ally, we call it iced coffee and the Starbucks baristas wouldn’t dream of handing you a cup unless it slushed with ice. Ally had left grey, rainy Seattle behind, three months ago to visit India for the first time. Her mother was from Goa and had met her father on an American scholarship. Ally was born in New York, but later moved to the west coast to work in IT. She had travelled to warm, exotic places all her life, but it was only when her mother’s brother offered her a place to stay near Baga that she decided to come to Goa. She wanted to learn about her Goan heritage.
She was keen to learn about Marcus too. She didn’t know him very well. They had met casually in Washington five months ago, and quickly discovered that they both loved motorcycle travel and would be in India at the same time. When Marcus emailed her from Taiwan and asked if he could visit her in Goa, she had said yes.
After a week exploring Goa’s northern coastline by himself, Marcus rented a Royal Enfield motorcycle in Panjim and asked Ally if she’d like to ride further south with him. It felt wonderful leaving the traffic of Goa’s capital city behind to linger here at Utorda Beach.
It reminded her of Thailand.
“I remember a restaurant like this on Lamai Beach,” she said aloud.
Marcus looked up.“Where’s that? Is it here in Goa?”
“No, it’s on a little island called Koh Samui, in southern Thailand.”
Marcus moved the helmet to the chair next to him and leaned back, attentive. After Goa, Thailand would be the next stop of his journey around Asia.
“I stayed at a guesthouse there and I remember two guys, Chang and Vodka, who stayed at the same place.” Ally recalled. “They were both Germans but they didn’t like each other. Chang was a good-looking, body-building kind of guy…”
Ally gave Marcus a sideway smile. “Kind of like you.”
She continued, “He was popular with the bartenders, they nicknamed him ‘Chang’ after the Thai beer. He was also popular with the ‘ladymen’— the transsexuals. He’d shoot pool and flirt with them and they loved it. One of them, Eve, wore an incredibly tight gold-lamé dress.”
“Hot!” grinned Marcus. “And what about Vodka?”
“Vodka—Volker was his real name—was a big, bald, pot-bellied guy and he was kind of obnoxious.”
Ally shook her head at the memory of it. “One morning at breakfast he bragged about how he only paid thirteen dollars for an entire night with a Thai girl.” Ally paused. “He was pleased that she was cheaper than his previous night’s ‘girlfriend,’ who didn’t do his laundry correctly.”
“Vodka and I were sitting at a restaurant just like this.” She gestured around her. “I watched him stare at a blonde in a bikini who was walking towards the water. ‘Look at that ass,’ he said to me, as if I was a guy. To her, he said, ‘Achtung auf die Haien!’”
“’Look out for the sharks,’” translated Marcus.
Ally quickly looked up.
“You speak German?”
“Yep … I …”
A waiter interrupted their conversation to serve their lunch. Ally looked up at Marcus’s face expectantly. When he’d read the menu, the American had confided that he had a taste for the exotic.
“In Taiwan, for example, it took me a full day to find snake soup,” Marcus grinned. “The owner put a big bowl of clear broth in front of me and I could see thick, white sections of snake in it,” he enthused. “The soup came with three tiny glasses. One glass was red with blood, one was green with bile, and one,” Marcus pointed to his eye, “…was white with eye fluid. I threw them back like shooters!”
Here at Zeebop, he’d ordered shark—a common menu item in Goa, but an expensive and unusual one in Seattle.
When the waiter placed the shark on the table, the fish was smothered in butter and garlic. Marcus looked disappointed.“But I want to taste it,” he moaned as he picked up a fork.
“Will you eat anything?” Ally asked Marcus between bites of her own chilli fry.
“Sure,” Marcus asserted. “In Taiwan I could have eaten rat. I figure when you travel there is no such thing as ‘weird’ food. It’s a matter of culture.”
Ally nodded. “It’s true. Look at us Americans—we eat the embryonic fluid of unfertilized chickens.”
She felt a bit queasy about the idea; she always scrambled her eggs so she wouldn’t see the white and the yolk.
Marcus continued. “But I draw the line at foods that are unethical. You know, like shark fin or whale meat? I want to be respectful of the culture I’m visiting.”
“That’s why I got these pants,” he said, pointing to his grey slacks. “They’re cutting-edge technology with stay-cool, antibacterial fibres. I paid a fortune when I ordered a custom pair online, but they’re worth it because they look like regular pants, like the locals wear."
Ally looked down at his plain-looking trousers. “So, um, why wouldn’t you just wear regular pants?”
Marcus didn’t hear her question and continued, “Have you heard the expression, ‘Some people live to eat, and some people eat to live?’ I live to eat. For me it’s part of the whole travel experience.”
“I’m definitely an eat-to-live type,” admitted Ally. “I’ll eat snake if there’s nothing else, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to find it, like you. I love a tasty meal if someone has cooked it, but otherwise it’s just fuel to me.”
“Well, maybe you need to taste some of my cooking,” he smiled suggestively. He leaned forward and guided a mouthful of shark towards her. Ally reluctantly accepted but was grateful for the generous garlic topping. She’d heard that sharks don’t expel their urine, but reabsorb it into their flesh.
They walked back to the Enfield and Marcus mounted the bike. Ally slid behind him and pressed herself against his back. She put a hand on his thigh and felt the muscles harden and then relax when he kick-started the engine.
I could be with someone like this, thought Ally. We both love bikes, we both love to travel, and we are both curious about the world. We’re fellow explorers, with the same appetite for discovering the unknown. And here we are taking it all in—in balmy, spicy, sexy Goa.
Back at the house, Ally stood under the shower and thought about Marcus in the other room. Then she thought about her uncle in Bombay.
Uncle intended to retire to this house in Goa after he had wound down his factory in the city. He had allowed Ally to stay in the Baga house rent-free until then. Like Marcus, she wanted to be respectful of the culture she was visiting. As a distant relative who was more American than Indian, she wanted to be sensitive to her uncle’s traditional Christian beliefs. And she’d quickly learned that—kind as they were—her neighbours wouldn’t hesitate to fill Uncle in on her comings and goings.
When she’d asked him if Marcus could stay there a few nights as a guest, Uncle had reluctantly agreed.“Don’t worry Uncle,” Ally reassured him, feeling like a teenager. “He’ll stay in one room and I’ll stay in the other. Nothing will happen.”
Uncle was a father-figure to Ally while she was in India, and his opinion meant the world to her. But when Marcus stepped out from the bathroom that evening—clean and smelling of sandalwood soap—she felt weak. She’d been in the house alone for three months and Marcus represented everything she wanted in a man. He reached for her and Ally found herself pulled tight against his chest, inhaling his scent and feeling the heat of his skin through the thin fabric of his T-shirt. His strength excited her. She glided her arms around his waist.
“Thanks for an amazing day,” he murmured. “It feels so great to be here in Goa with such a beautiful local guide.”
Ally closed her eyes and lifted her chin, and then stopped.
“I can’t,” she gulped, blinking her eyes open.
“You can’t what?” he asked, still breathing into her hair.
“I can’t be with you like this.” Ally stepped back and searched his face. “Here, in my uncle’s house.”
Marcus looked confused.
“Goans can be very traditional about this kind of thing,” Ally stuttered, knowing how ridiculous it sounded to a fellow American. “But I’m my uncle’s guest. I made a promise and I don’t want to upset him.”
“Plus,” she added, “You have a girlfriend.”
Marcus looked down at the floor. “I told you, Meg and I have only been together a year. I told her from the start that I’d be travelling, and she knows I’ll meet other women. And I told her she can date other guys while I’m away.”
“Well, that’s awfully generous of you,” Ally said quietly, “But you’re still entangled. I’m ready for a boyfriend of my own, not someone else’s.”
Marcus straightened up. He seemed to be assessing the situation. “But I can see us together in the long term,” he offered as he reached for her. “You know, later.”
“Me too,” smiled Ally, taking another step back, “But it’s like the Rolling Stones song. ‘You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.’ You got a place to stay and a tour guide and I got flirtation and motorcycle rides from a handsome man.”
Marcus gave Ally a hug when his airport taxi arrived the next morning. “We’re still friends, right?” he called out from the front seat.
Marcus sent Ally an email when he arrived in Bangkok. “I love this city! Once you get past all the touts offering taxis and sex, there’s the street food—it’s delicious and so cheap.” On Facebook, he posted photos of steaming bowls of soup heaped with sliced beef and green onions.
Ally smiled. Fifteen years ago, she had also arrived in Bangkok for the first time. She’d shocked her friends and co-workers by quitting her job to tour Thailand by motorcycle. She’d caught a train south to the islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, hired a bike, ridden backroads north to the Myanmar border, then followed the Mae Nam Khong river southeast to the Golden Triangle.
Travelling solo for four months, Ally learned how to speak a bit of Thai, and how to listen. She met women who shared their stories in gestures, smiles, and tears. She learned about Thais, falang, women, men, farming, food, and family. She also learned that not everything is as it appears.
“Guess what?!” wrote Marcus. “I met a waitress who has offered to show me around. I asked her where she wanted to start and she said, ‘How about your hotel room?’”
Ally groaned. She could imagine Marcus with his pale skin, blue eyes, and backpack, attracting the city’s famously beautiful and assertive bar girls like light attracts flies. She felt a little protective of him.
“Careful you don’t get hooked,” Ally wrote back.
“Don’t worry; I’m not as naïve as I look!” Marcus joked. “Besides, I’ll bet times have changed since you were here.”
I doubt it, Ally thought to herself. In Thailand as in Goa, deep-rooted morality, propriety, and expectations don’t change very quickly. Western-style modernity just shines on the surface of it.
“Ask her how many kids she has,” Ally prompted. She remembered Lamai Beach. When she spoke with local women instead of foreign men, she heard another side of the story. The women admitted they worked as “girlfriends” so they could support their families back home.
“Two,” he wrote back after a couple of hours, “But I’m not that into her. Besides, she’s being kinda clingy.”
The next evening, Ally received good news from her house caretaker. A lady across the road, Minaz, was offering a tiffin service to the neighbours. For less than 100 rupees, Minaz would deliver a hot dinner to her door. The tiffin set would include rice, chapati, a vegetable dish, and a local dish such as chicken xacuti or prawn curry.
It was an ideal situation. Ally could send a bit of extra money into her neighbour’s pocket, sample home-cooked Goan food three times a week, and put the neighbourhood aunties’ minds at ease. They seemed concerned that if Ally didn’t know how to cook Indian food, she wasn’t eating at all.
She picked up her mobile to share the news with Marcus and found a WhatsApp text message waiting for her.
I found out as her second job she is a bar girl, LOL. At least I never had to pay for it.
Ally’s chest tightened. It sounded like he was talking about the Bangkok waitress, but the tone was so flippant. She didn’t want to assume.
Pay for what?
You didn’t have to pay for sex with the waitress … you got it for free?
Pretty much. I did buy her a dinner and breakfast.
Ally put down the phone. She felt confused and nauseous, and she realized she didn’t know Marcus very well at all. She’d believed him when he spoke about being sensitive to local culture. Did that sensitivity not apply to women? Was he just another Vodka and Chang—white men satisfying an appetite for exotic delicacies on the cheap?
Ally texted back.
I feel sad.
I thought you were a different kind of traveller. That’s the short answer.
Ally tried to piece together Marcus’s words and actions, and her own feelings of betrayal and disgust. That night, she dreamed that Marcus was in a Bangkok hotel room with a young, naked Thai woman sitting on the edge of the bed. Her idealised Marcus was surrounded by a luminous, glow like the orange aureole around a saint in a religious painting.
In the dream, Saint Marcus pulled off his T-shirt, and then his grey trousers. The aura which represented his virtuous ideals shimmered around him.
Marcus then bent down and removed the left, then the right sock. The glow shone golden on his skin. Now naked except for his briefs, he slipped his thumbs into the waistband and slowly, sensuously pulled his underwear down. He pulled them past his erect penis, dropped them down at his ankles, and then stepped towards the Thai woman.
As he did, the aureole shifted. Beginning at the tip of his penis, it receded along the length of his member and stopped at the base of his erection. Now, while the rest of his body continued to glow with virtuous light, his penis and scrotum were bare and white. Unaware, Marcus knelt in front of the Thai woman. He placed an orange hand on each of her knees and slowly spread her legs.
“I want to taste it,” he mouthed, leaning in to the girl’s sex.
His custom-made pants with stay-cool, antibacterial-fibre technology stank in a heap next to him. In the shadows, Vodka waited his turn. Chang stood behind him and more men, white men, queued behind them.
A week later, Ally joined her friend Angela at a tiny Hotel Venite table and ordered a cold coffee. It was noon and the Fontainhas café was empty except for the two women, sipping and laughing. Ally told Angela about Marcus, Bangkok, and the dream, and they joked about the turn of events.
“You dodged a bullet,” Angela remarked. “It sounds like that guy had foolin’ around on his mind—it was just a matter of who with!”
“Yeah,” sighed Ally. “And at what cost? To be honest I feel relieved. He was tempting, but I took a cue from his willingness to cheat on his girlfriend. I wonder if he intends to sample a woman in every country he visits?”
Angela chuckled and then turned in her seat to look at the daily specials board. “Hey, what are you going to order? I see they’ve got shark today.”
Ally groaned and scanned the board. “I think I’ll stick to something less exotic.”
The waiter arrived and poised his notepad. “Yes madam?”
“I’ll have the prawn curry.” She slurped the last of her cold coffee. “And bring me a lime soda, sweet.”
Ulrike Bemvinda Rodrigues visited Goa for the first time in 2008 and was so moved by her experience that she kept an online journal: Girl Gone Goa: Travel, sex, magic, and cycling in an Indian state. Ulrike returned to Goa in 2014 to edit Homeward Bound, her uncle Aloysius D’Souza’s now-published memoir of Goan migration to, and escape from, Rangoon, Burma. Ulrike writes and rides a bike in Vancouver, Canada. Visit her blog here.