Where the Wild Things Are
“Life is small,” said the tuk-tuk driver. “You must do big things. You live easy, you die easy. Do something big. Easy to do, Khatmandu.”
He turned his attention away from the road to say it, and I thought he might hit a Sacred Cow. They say if a tuk-tuk driver hits a cow or a person in India, all passengers should run away as fast as they can. A mob forms of howling, violent natives, and it is not a good place to be. I thought I would rather be anywhere than hanging out the side of the rickshaw next to the turbaned driver. Tom was in the back with our bags and a Swiss girl who was also going to Hospet to get a bus. She had just said goodbye to her boyfriend, whom she met a week before leaving on a year-long trip. They had only spent a little time together since then. Query, O Venus: Doth love wait for our dreams' fulfillment?
The tuk-tuk driver swerved all over the place through a crazy Indian city, indescribable in its random chaos, to a soundtrack of groaning cows, goat bells, squealing tires, car horns, and shouting merchants, and eventually we spilled out into the road in front of a restaurant where all the Paulo Travel buses stopped. Tom and I waited a long time, and our bus was very late and very unhurried. We had sleeper berths for this trip, that is two beds side by side in a coffin big enough for one man. Jostled, sleepless, clutching at the grate windows as a prisoner would, I yearned to be away from all the noise and struggle of the real world, somewhere by the sea.
Many kings ruled Paradise Beach.
There was the great eagle that swooped down from the forested headland to catch fish, and who soared around on thermals and considered all the people that had come to his beach. There was the Baba, a shaman who spent half the year in a cave up on the mountain, who would dance around the Paradise Cafe, smoking a chillum and saying strange things in a voice like a didgeridoo. Then there were the foreign lords, the tatterdemalion princes, holding court in one or the other of the four cafes like the crusader kings of the Holy Land: Tall Andy, Vince, Phi, and especially Rhythm, a short man from Beverley Hills who some say gives Americans a bad name.
He had been coming to Paradise Beach for seven years, from back when it was a few huts and tents on an unexplored beach without power or Internet, a footnote in Lonely Planet. This year twice as many travelers came to Paradise as the year before, a change that most of the kings observed with heavy fear and loathing. The bus that once ran twice a day to the dirt road across the ridge from the isolated beach runs every hour, and the motorboats pull into the bay more often than before, letting off groups of day-trippers in their collared shirts and backpacks. More people means more life, more music, and more going on. On a night just before the new moon, Rhythm organized a trance party.
The coolies brought down a nice sound system to a spot on the beach, a circle formed naturally by the black volcanic rock. 5000 rupees worth of fireworks illuminated the sky at twilight, and the place filled up with ravers. Little Rhythm strutted around in his arrogant way, his chest puffed out like a rooster’s, his beard like Jesus’, his long hair tied in a bun, and he talked to his subjects regally, only looking at them when he was speaking and at other times glancing all over the small pond of his domain, his attention as divided as the great eagle’s.
Around midnight, a squad of Indian police officers crept down the mountain on the treacherous path from the road. They wore brown uniforms and mustaches, and they carried the long bamboo batons that they normally employed against the Indian men who came to watch Westerners in bikinis. The police scared them out from the bushes as they would fowl for a hunt. Presently, the dozen policemen mixed in among the ravers on the strand and marched between them with hawk-eyed glances from side to side, batons swinging at their hips, and the ravers watched them in a confused stupor. All of a sudden, at some unknown signal, the policemen began to savagely beat everyone around them. The revelers scattered.
Under a rock one German sat with a group of Indians, whom the police assaulted without impunity, until only the German was there, all the others having been routed. He got up, shouldered his bag, and walked calmly down the beach at a steady pace. A police officer shouted something at the Saxon’s broad back and, receiving no reply, thwacked him hard with a baton. The German staggered, then kept on walking at the same steady pace, his bag full of drugs, and the policeman turned away toward easier targets.
They rounded up as many ravers as they could and searched their bags for grass and rupees. Having taken these things, they sent the prisoners off without charge. They took the sound system and told the owner he would have to come pay a fine to have it returned. Satisfied with their raid and loaded down with plunder, the police climbed back up the trail and disappeared over the headland, and the night was again starry and silent but for conspiratorial whispers and crashing waves. Candles flickered in the coco-thatch huts of Paradise Beach until very late.
Morning came. Rhythm stayed in his bungalow up on the cliff, as Achilles stayed in his tent on the beaches of Ilium. Baba danced around the Paradise Cafe and lit incense sticks and put them in the corners. He washed his clothes in the shower and went out onto the promontory, ash smeared on his bony bare chest, and howled a mournful dirge into the wind. The eagle hunted for fish and dismissed the strangeness of men. The courtiers, some of them bearing welts and bruises, went to their computers and wrote home energetic descriptions of the brutal injustices that had been committed.
At a table in Manju’s, another king of Paradise, a paunchy, jocund French-Algerian lawyer named Jemal, crafted a response with the fire for political justice that is written in the French genome. “It is ridiculous what they have done,” he declared. “I am going this afternoon to the chief of police!”
“Are you going to put a shirt on first?” asked an English courtier.
“Yes, I am going to wear a shirt! I will dress very nice!”
An Indian serf watched this conversation with disinterest from a palette on the back wall. He took an order five minutes before and had yet to get up to deliver it to the kitchen in the stilted structure on the cliff above. Each of the four cafes maintained a population of serfs, surly bachelors who slept on the floor at night and sent their pittance home to support their families. Their situation and their clientele of rude, hazy-brained space cadets made most of them irascible, ornery, and lazy. Those foreigners who visit Paradise Beach were too passive and drugged to say anything, and so this behavior went uncorrected.
Jemal continued after a sip of his Budweiser, “You must show them respect, and they will do anything you say. They still have a hospitality. I will go and say, ‘I want you to write down exactly what the rules are. Is there no music? There is a festival this week, and I’m pretty sure there will be music there. I’m sorry! I don’t know the rules! If you write them down then we won’t get in trouble in the future. Is trance not allowed? They play it all day on Om Beach. Can the party not exceed a certain size? What is it: ten, twelve people? Please, I just want to understand,’” and with a sudden Gallic fire he added, “And I will not leave until I have the list!”
He was concerned for the state of affairs on Paradise Beach. “Everyone is talking,” he whispered to the conspirators around the table,—“Everyone wants to know, ‘Who told the police? Who is the rat?’ I must find out. I will ask the chief of police. He must know that it is bad for business.”
The superintendent in Gokarne received the French lawyer, who wore a collared shirt and a pair of slacks to the interview, with all the hospitality he was due and then, when the conversation became politely serious, pretended to not understand English. Jemal left the town empty-handed and returned to the beach.
I hope that this story acquaints the Reader with the strange state of affairs on Paradise Beach, with its knights and squires and magicians, a menagerie of big fish in a small pond. At home these men would be nothing, but here they were kings.
At around 4 a.m. the bus dumped a dozen passengers off at a moribund warehouse in the forest. I sat there in the warm dark until another bus came to take us to Gokarne town. It was a quiet place in the early morning, except for the tuk-tuk drivers. Tom and I ducked into a chai shop for tea and idli to escape them. One of them followed us in and waited patiently until we finished eating, then drove us up into the headlands and down to Kudle Beach.
Gokarne is arranged in the following way: The busy town, with its temples and dusty lanes, lies just adjacent to the filthy Gokarne Beach on the Arabian Ocean, the first of five beaches running south. High, wooded headlands divide Gokarne Beach from small, noisy Kudle immediately south. Next there is Om Beach, a picturesque beach split in two by a narrow rocky peninsula that makes it resemble the Om symbol, and then Half-Moon Beach, where there is no electricity and only a few coco-thatch huts on the small strand. The final and furthest beach is Paradise Beach.
The encircling headlands fall away from the forested ridge to rock cliffs as they meet the sea, and a rock promontory divides the beach into two sandy strands, each two-hundred meters long. The Paradise Cafe sits on top of this promontory, a great coco-thatch hall with hammocks and low seats along the front, looking out at the promontory and the pirate flag waving there. Huts and bungalows run up the green hill behind it, simple $2-per-night shanties containing only a mattress, and also behind three similar establishments all along the beach: Manju’s, Om Shakti, and Ever Green.
Tom and I ended up on Paradise Beach but did not start there. In Kudle, six miles away, we found two huts and locked our things in them. Around ten we went south into the hills, hiking up and back down to Om Beach, and crossing that, back up onto a treacherous path along the edge of the next headland. Descending on steep natural steps down to Half-Moon, we called out to Tamara, who was walking barefoot around the rocks below, a Saxon princess in a bikini and sarong. Cat and Lola had taken a boat from Om to Paradise, and Tamara was the only one of them with the courage and energy to climb back up into the cliffs. She led us back the way she came, through a maze of trails.
“I got lost on the vay here,” said the German. She told us about Rhythm’s techno party, which happened the night before I arrived.
On Paradise Beach, Tom and I jumped in the water, had a cold drink, and then started the walk back to get our things. “But why don’t you vait?” asked Tamara. “Because then we wouldn’t want to go at all,” we replied, “because it’s sunny and the ocean is cool, rum is cheap, and everyone is stoned.”
We hiked back and arrived sweaty and sunburned in Kudle Beach. After having a soda, we repacked our things and sneaked out of our bungalow camps, who did not have our passports or our money, under a pall of paranoia, and back up to the top of the headland where the tuk-tuks were parked. One of these brought us to Paradise Beach and was not suited at all for the dirt road there. The road cut out under the mountain behind Paradise Beach. It was with some sweaty difficulty that we, along with a big English rugby player in a backpack as big as me, climbed to the top and scrabbled down the other side into Paradise.
Ah, sublime uneventfulness! Must I return to you so soon? All that languor in Hampi and Goa and I still feel, after that hike and that bus ride, that I could spend days in your sandy bosom. We, the five of us, sit in the cafe waiting for food that the serfs take forever to cook. We read in hammocks or on the beach, and we meet the kings of Paradise and discern their strange stories, and we meet strangers from all over the world. We go down to the sand and jump into the sea. The water is cool and deep, and dolphins play out around the shoals, visible from a distance as a flicker of dark gray, the flash of cetacean flukes.
The sun sets. We sit there on a dune to watch the star drop over the headland. The jungle spills down from the top of the ridge to the sand, a few rustic bungalows there between the palms, but where it meets the sea the promontory is all jagged layers of rock. The Baba dances on one of them, whirling around his white scarf, until the sun disappears. The shaman hears Shane blow the conch shell from the other side of the beach, and he wraps his scarf around his shoulders, picks up his walking stick, and comes back along the cliffs to Paradise Cafe.
Tamara plays Tom’s guitar, and I test my harmonica. There was no moon, and the Milky Way came out full and bright. When we feel like it, Om Shakti Garden sells bottles of rum for $1.20, and Manju serves cheap food. We sit and spend a long time at dinner. An Israeli named Or sits down with his fine guitar and plays one of the 500 tunes he knows by heart. A Persian named Michael, who looks like some King Xerxes with his huge beard and his great bundle of hair, and who wears in spite of it a cowboy hat and a short black sarong, sits with us and looks through an algebra workbook. An Algerian in a white turban plays my harmonica much better than me, and he tells me, “I can’t teach you harmonica. You just have to learn the sounds. Just keep playing. People will say, ‘Stop playing that harmonica,’ and you tell them, ‘I’m learning.’” I say, “Alright.”
Back at the Paradise Cafe, the kings convene to watch all the jesters and minstrels. They sit at the center of crowded tables or out on the veranda between the hammocks or around the fire in the sand on the promontory, self-important magnets. Smoke slips through their fingertips and drifts out their mouths.
Or the Jew asks pretty girls to play his guitar, and Michael the Persian flips on his cowboy hat and moonwalks across the floor in a perfect emulation of Michael Jackson. Jemal can play all of Dark Side of the Moon. An old Welshman named Martin on his guitar, a 40-year-old beauty with worn out strings, accompanies a Swede named Niels who plucks the mandolin with a fire, despite being hopped up on ketamine. Martin tells stories of the old greats, of Bob Dylan and Keith Richards, and was once elbowed in the face by Van Morrison, whom he asked for an autograph for his mom, “and then he just ran off toward the stage. He’s a very short man, you know.” An Israeli buys weed from the jungle man who supplies the beach. “This is paradise!” says the Jew. Everyone says that.
I was one day at a table in the back with Tall Andy and some other lost souls, Andy telling a story about tripping on acid in a bat cave. A Hindu serf came in from Andy’s domain at Ever Green Cafe with a message for the tall prince and then ran out. Andy remarked to us, “Do you get the feeling that we’re in a palace when messengers come knocking?” Vicky, a caver from Toronto with her long hair in dreadlocks and a phoenix tattooed on her back, replied with an aristocratic laugh, “Yeah, and the courtiers are waiting outside.” No madame, they are already here!
There are wars fought over which iPod is connected to the speakers and whether it will play jungle trance or chill out music or jam bands, and the bitter, cliquish rivalries of the court descend into shouting and passive contempt. Playground politics, children in a fort.
Time loses meaning, the days are all the same, the place is inescapable, and no one questions the order of the Brave New World of Paradise Beach. It is one of those places that gets stranger, scarier, and more eccentric the longer you stay and study it, but most subjects are too stoned to see under the surface. They sink instead into the welcome oblivion of “sublime uneventfulness.”
“There’s one good thing about this place being full of drugged-out space cadets,” said Tom,—“It’s really quiet in the morning.”
Only a few people were up, waiting for their eggs and toast and porridge. There was only the sound of the breakers on the rocks and of a hen and her chicks pecking around under the tables. Smoke drifted up past the pirate flag from the plastic burning on the promontory. Another fire smoked in the clay kiln, and flies swarmed the cooling pastries. The three boat masters sat around the gerum table shooting pucks around and looking to the sea, where Tall Andy waded slowly into the surf and dunked himself under as if being baptized, and beyond there, the Baba came down the path on the northern headland with his walking stick, a wizened man in orange and yellow.
A courtier attired as a wizard told an Austrian girl that she might have a bladder infection. His girlfriend once had the same symptoms.
“It’s probably from the bathrooms,” said Lola. “I feel like I’m going to get AIDS every time I go in there.”
One bathroom and one shower room served the eight bungalows of Paradise Cafe. The two toilet rooms adjoined each other in a coco-thatch shack behind the open hall and against the cliff, which formed the back wall. In the shower room people set their bars of soap on the rocky ledges before standing under the cold water, and in the cubicle with the toilet a candle burned there when the power was out and lit up the roots of trees in an eery way. The dirt floor looked like it had been used for some butcher job. The looped rope that one tied to seal the door made one think, with its dampness and filth, of gonorrhea.
“No,” replied the Austrian girl, “it’s from having sex in unsanitary conditions.”
By the time the Baba arrived, the Argentinian with hair like Einstein’s had laid out his jewelry in the back of the cafe, and with his wire cutters and pliers and the detritus of the beach he began crafting more. Not all the accessories were for sale, and he shouted at people who touched them. The Baba got up from the table where some of the lords sat and made a big show with a tennis racket. He swung it around in huge, energetic motions and leaped through the air to swat imaginary shots, making sound effects with his didgeridoo voice.
The old English lesbian—she described herself as a raging one, that unhappy but obnoxiously outgoing woman, with a big nose and an overbite—delighted over Baba with her hoarse, horrible voice that could be heard across the cafe, and glowered at anyone else who showed the shaman any attention, as some fans of an unpopular band will publicly disdain all casual newcomers. Phi was her name. She tried to tell the Baba what the word crisis meant—“I’m having a crisis,” she kept broadcasting—but he was just Baba and did not care about such things. He went off to dance on the rocks, and Phi started telling some gossip and called for a chillum.
The Baba attended a few duties around Paradise Beach. Every day he picked up the stray dogs that lived on the beach and took them, one at a time, down to the water to wash them. The dogs squirmed and struggled in his lanky grip. Once I watched, fascinated, as Baba blessed his friend’s Sprite. With solemn attention, he used the straw to take some soda from the bottle, sealing the end with his finger, dripped it three times on his golden bell, and rang the bell over the drink. He handed the Sprite to the man who ordered it, who was grateful for the benison.
Baba’s hook nose and gleaming eyes shone out from the leathery folds of his face and his thick salt and pepper beard, generally tied in a bun. He bound up his long, matted hair in an orange turban so faded that it appeared pink, and he sometimes wore a jacket of the same color. He wore an orange or a black sarong and sometimes wrapped scarves around his shoulders and walked about with ash on his bony bare chest. Strings of stones hung from his neck, and one one of these there was a golden bell. He spoke only a little English and compensated for it with wild charades and animal sound effects, but who could understand what he meant?
To the kings he was a novelty, a court jester to entertain them. They had collectively spent decades in India, without really seeing any of it. “I didn’t come here for real India,” said Tall Andy,—“I came here for some erotic dream, some fantasy.” Paradise Beach was their kid fort against the world of confusion and work and passed judgment, yet it’s hard to escape from all that. I, however, was engrossed by the Baba.
“How are you Baba?” I would say. “Very nice question,” replied the Baba, and he made animal noises and jerked around.
The Baba took a liking to Lola, whom he called Maharalaxmi, and he once tried to lick the jingling bangle she had around her ankle, fawning over the accessory as he prostrated himself on the ground. One day Lola lay in the hammock smoking a joint with Niels the Swede there on the veranda, and the Baba walked up, leaned his staff and bag against a pole and interrupted them, talking nonsense with his didgeridoo voice.
Martin, the old Welsh rocker, half-asleep in a nearby hammock, could not help but overhear his noisy intrusion and detect that the girl wanted the shaman to leave. It was none of his business, Martin knew, but as an older brother and a romantic he felt he had to do something. He went over to the three and asked Lola, who carries a pharmacy in her haversack, for some medicine for his swollen foot. Lola took him up to her hut on the hill to retrieve some drug.
When they were alone in the bungalow, where Cat was asleep on the mat on the floor, Martin said, “I gotta tell you, you need to watch out for that Baba. He’s not a good Baba. I’ve met good Babas up in the north, real Babas in monasteries. He’s just a tourist Baba. You shouldn’t trust him. Don’t fall for his tricks.”
Lola said, “Okay,” but her look seemed to say, “What did you think I would do with him?”
Suddenly the Baba was there, though he would not enter the chamber of his Maharalaxmi, and his spindly arms were everywhere at once in the door frame, lost in an activity of rage. “What you do? What you do?” he cried at the Welsh intruder, emphasized with animal grunts.
“Baba doesn’t like me,” Martin later confessed as we sat on the veranda one night. He told me the story of the Baba’s anger and added, “He talked to me after. He said, ‘Namaste,’ as we passed each other on the trail over there. I said, ‘Namaste,’ back. Then he got really angry again and said, ‘Me no bad Baba. Me good Baba, good Baba. Ooh ah eeh ah,’ you know how he is. You see, he knew that I knew what he really is.”
Martin said, “A real Baba told me to be careful of these tourist Babas, the ones who hang around beaches. They’re not good Babas, he said. They just want money and to talk to girls,” but I add of my own observation: I never saw the Baba take any money or ask for it, and could never myself discern why the Baba was there or why he did the things he did, but I would not call him a phony.
They say that on the full moon he stands on the promontory and rings his bell, and the whole island comes to its sound to celebrate. He had a trickster’s wisdom in his bright black eyes, and a purpose and power to his rituals. He was just one of those mysteries of India.
Festivals rank among India’s chief attractions, and the Shivaratri in Gokarne promised to be a good one, though we could not tell what would happen. I had heard variously that they would open a cave containing Shiva’s penis, that they would pull giant “Shiva-powered” chariots down the street, and that they would throw bananas at children. All of these sounded well enough to warrant investigation.
This brought Tom, Lola, Tamara, and I into Gokarne Town on a Friday afternoon. The streets were lined with sweet sellers and cloth dealers, so many it seemed impossible for them to all do business, and all the cafes and restaurants were full of people. We walked from the bus station to Car Street, which ran from a Hindu temple called Venkataraman, with something like an artichoke on top, all the way to the beach.
“Why did we bring girls to the festival?” I asked Tom as we sauntered down the crowded street, the girls looking at T-shirts and Ali Baba pants and chillums in all the shops on the way.
“I know, what were we thinking?”
Tom and I expressed our frustration at the plodding pace of the women through various analogies about leashed dogs, and suddenly said, “Hey look at that!” having seen the huge, colorful, inert shapes that loomed against the sunlight at the end of the road.
The chariots were really two massive pagodas on four tightly spaced wheels of bolted wood. One was thirty feet tall with five foot wheels, and the other pagoda was seventy feet tall with ten foot wheels. It looked as if an elephant would have trouble moving the large one. The beast heads that opened their jaws in the space between the wheels were smeared with saffron dye, and the dark wood of the pagodas were carved with idols all the way up, until they came to a platform—thirty feet off the ground on one, twelve on the other—with screens bearing colorful frescoes of the heathen gods. Above this, each chariot had a sort of onion dome formed by a thousand small pennons of red and white hung from a thousand sticks that sprung out from the central column.
Passing these monstrosities, we met Cat, who had taken a boat to the beach rather than the public bus and had been soaked by the rough seas. “I thought it would be easier,” she said. We walked slowly through the crowded passages out to the beach, past the Ganapati and Mahabaleshwara Temples, and past line-ups of Hindu pilgrims in white. The Indian crowds moved with the same graceless, haphazard efficiency that characterizes much of the country.
I cannot understand how those lines of people, hands on each others’ hips, shuffling forward in step without any order but that which governs a mosh pit, cannot result in trampled corpses; nor how the dry thatch houses, with people burning trash in the alleyways and throwing cigarette butts everywhere, don’t burst into flames; nor how the wild, lawless traffic does not end in any fatalities. Not only do these chaotic situations function without incident, but they move faster than our ordered Western ways. It is a wild miracle endemic to India.
We emerged from this horde onto the strand just in time for the fleeting sunset, red behind the smog on the horizon, and we walked down, through lines of beggars seated on blankets weighted down with piles of rice and rupees, to sit in the sand. On the way back through the crowded passageways, which were this time so packed that I had Indians pressed into my chest and back, I was separated from the rest and saw only Tom’s head above the shorter crowd and Tamara’s back way ahead. Eventually Tom caught up with me, with his arm around a dried up old Indian woman in a red saree, about half his height.
“Dude,” I said, “where’d you get that old lady?”
Grinning ear to ear, Tom replied, “I don’t know, she came up to me. I think she wants me to help her through the crowd. She’s so little.” Tom had felt a hand grab his from behind. Thinking it a beggar or a pickpocket, he clutched the hand and brought it around only to find the old Indian woman on the other end. He led her safely through the crowded streets until they came to a temple, where she released his hand and waved goodbye. “That was really cool,” he said.
The great chariots did not move that night. Instead, just after dark, a smaller white pagoda, covered in Christmas tree lights with a lawnmower engine on the back, was pushed down the street, proceeded by a group of ecstatic drummers and two lines of torch-bearers. Two robed men sat in the throne on the pagoda. One was an Indian and the other a White man with a childish face and a mean, unhappy countenance. He had his hair shaved except for a streak in the back. As the Indians came up to him to receive a sort of flower blessing, we wondered if he was some yogi Lord Jim who had persuaded the savage natives to worship him as a god.
The real festival came on Monday, but it took a while for the boat to leave. Phi the Englishwoman had come into the Paradise Cafe that morning in her usual vest and skirt with a necklace of skulls around her neck and raptor claws in her ears like some queen of savages, and she announced loudly that she had arranged a boat to Gokarne Beach for fifteen people. “Paradise Beach will all go together,” said the countess. “We’ll show them! Happy birthday Shiva!” She sat down and called for a chillum.
Around noon I was ready to leave, not wanting to miss the festival entirely, but the countess and her court were content with their smoky sloth. Lola was sick with some fish from Manju’s and Tom and Tamara had left the previous day for a yoga ashram near Trivandrum. Tom and my parting, after a month on the road, was a brave one. We shook hands stiffly over Steve the Austrian. “Come on dude,” I said, unsatisfied, and we circled around the Austrian and gave each other a manly, brotherly hug. The German and the Canadian walked off down the beach in their backpacks with a spring in their step, happy to leave Paradise Beach and get back to India.
So on the festival day it was just Cat, Martin of Wales, and myself, and to me in my agitation we also seemed like the only people who were not stoned. Phi was nowhere to be found. I went around and told Or and two Israeli girls and Steve the Austrian and his friends that we were leaving if they wanted to come, and picked up a few others on the way to the beach.
I called out from the surf to the three boatswains in their anchored ferries, but they just whistled and pointed down the coast. Eventually their three managers arrived and demanded a hundred rupees for passage from everyone, all fifteen of us. A tattooed German tugged at his long, sharp beard and said to himself, “They do this every time! I hate it! Every time it’s a contest to get it for fifty rupees. Why can’t we just get on the boat and go?”
Or and I argued with them for a long time. By the time we agreed on eighty rupees, Phi came down the stairs from the hall, her squire Shane in tow, and delivered some exhortation to valor in which I took no interest. She sat in the prow, the queen of savages, as the boat heaved and nearly tipped on its way north to Gokarne Beach.
It was such a hot, sweltering day that the heathens delayed their festival from noon until four o’clock. The small chariot already rested in front of the artichoke temple, but the 70-foot-tall one had not yet been moved from its spot at the end of the road, near the beach.
The street between was full of people: throngs of locals, Indian women in their colorful sarees, Indian men in their dhotis, and Hindu priests in their orange robes, with many tourists in varying grades of Indian adventurism, from the pink-skinned northerners in neckerchiefs with their socks up to their knees, to tanned old souls with white mustaches and tattoos, in their leather vests and bright-dyed sarongs, hemp bags over their shoulders. Wallahs walked about with bunches of fist-sized bananas, perfect for throwing, and shouted, “Bananabananabanana,” in endless streams of syllables.
Around two, the police in their brown uniforms with their bamboo batons cleared the way in front of the grand chariot. Coolies set up ladders to the upper platform on both sides, where doors opened in the painted screens, and Hindu priests, young ones with shaved heads and old men in strange garb, climbed up inside in an endless stream so that it seemed impossible for the pagoda to fit them all. Everyone threw bananas at them. Children peaked out from the door and ducked back and tried to catch thrown fruit. To hit a child in the head with a banana was the highest honor of the day and delivered the greatest luck from Shiva. Men cleared out areas of the crowd so they could get in a full throw, hurling the bananas as they would the cricket ball.
The police pushed the mob back so the coolies could run out the two ropes, each thick as a man’s thigh, in front of the great chariot. The monstrous thing would be pulled by men. Clods of them crowded around each line so you could not see the ropes anymore. At the appointed hour, they began to heave and cry out. The crowd stuttered, in the street and on all the balconies and rooftops. Would they be able to move it? The great chariot jerked, and the wheels began to move. The crowd erupted with applause and bananas. The yellow specks streaked towards the screened platform and its open doors as the chariot began to lumber forward.
It moved in a circle of activity. Just in front of the rope pullers, Hindu priests and devotees shouted and threw each other in the air and whirled around in some spiritual ecstasy. The police kept them moving forward, and they shoved back the crowd ahead and to the side of the chariot. The street was barely big enough for the lumbering vehicle. In some places the wheels came within feet of the wall. There the shouting police pushed men back and beat them, and the men tried to make room to throw fruit. A Sacred Cow got caught in one of these meat presses and started to sway and groan and defecate.
Inside the circle of officers, some servants cleared the road ahead of the wheels, and others darted around behind the vehicle with wooden blocks to jam under the wheels to keep it from rolling backwards. The pullers fought a tug of war against gravity. Robed Brahmins shouted mantras to keep them moving and in step. The street was not straight and the pavement was not even. The chariot often stopped as its course was corrected, and then it would start again with a shaking groan. All this time the bananas kept flying.
Here again I wondered how something like this could happen without any fatalities. I was hot and sweaty, following the chariot in the middle of the crowd of brown faces. I had bought a bunch of bananas for $2 and threw them at the priests and tossed some to children. Eventually I offered them to some Indians and a swarm descended and snatched away as many of the remaining fruit as they could.
I saw Tall Andy and Vicky of Canada, dancing in such a tripped out ecstasy that the packed crowd had made room for them to flail about to the beat of the drummers. Vicky’s bare feet were coated in mashed bananas. Rhythm also danced in this crowd, but I could not see him over the Indians. Further back I saw the Baba’s walking stick, a yellow flower and orange ribbon tied to the top, and arranged around his shaman staff were Phi, Shane, Vince, and several knights of Paradise. I asked Phi, “How’d you do?”
“Real good,” said the Englishwoman, stumbling around the crowd, her face red and sweaty. “I hit so many priests. They warned me three times,” and turning to her squire she remarked, “The cops are going to come down to the Beach and beat our asses. You know this, right?”
At the end of the road, the chariot stopped under the artichoke temple. The coolies moved the ropes onto the other side of the chariot and did the same with the wheel blocks so it was ready to roll back the way it had come, the police cleared out another corridor through the packed crowd, and the whole procession began anew. It traversed the street again in the same chaos as before. As it came to rest I joined the mad press of people rushing to the front of the chariot to see the priests emerge from its front. They rushed down the stairs or climbed them slowly, and the mob heaved to touch their colorful robes. In the back, those priests waiting threw down the bananas they had collected to a waiting crowd, and pilgrims threw them back up, trying still to nail a priest.
I climbed under the chariot and duck-walked to the back, looking out at the feet of all those people who caught falling bananas and put them in plastic bags. They shuffled for space on the road, which was covered in a banana paste. As I climbed out and moved back down the street I saw the smaller chariot coming. It’s onion dome of flags shook and the whole thing rumbled as its bearers raced down the street, not content with a slow pace.
“The cops are going to come down to the Beach and beat our asses. You know this, right?” At the time I had dismissed Phi’s remark as the ramblings of an egotist, but as it turned out Phi had not said, “I hit so many priests.” She had said police.
On that auspicious day, the stoner kings and hippie chiefs of Paradise, as they always did, went to Laxmi Cafe, an enclave of the kingdom in Gokarne where they could smoke upstairs, but our party wanted nothing to do with them at that point and avoided the meeting. There Rhythm and Phi, Tall Andy and Vince, with energetic exhortations and paranoid rhetoric, mustered all the knights and squires to retaliation against the police for the raid on Rhythm’s trance party.
According to Phi, this reckoning was a long time coming. “The politics are so old that there’s only one person, and that’s me,” she added, as if it were not obvious, “who remembers where it started, and I only know the story from other people.” She told me a story about Reiner, the German founder of Paradise Beach, and some legal incident between him and the police regarding a boat. It did not make any sense. Phi hopes to write a history of Paradise Beach, and I wish her well. All this chronicler can say is that on the second floor of Laxmi Cafe, the kings of Paradise shared hot words, then smoked, then went outside and bought bananas.
They decided on a point-based retaliation. Hitting a policeman’s head or hat with a banana was worth the most points, after a bombardment of the superintendent, who was still holding hostage that sound system. The dozen of them bought bananas by the bunch, paying anything that was asked, and hurled them at the police as if it would hurt. They laughed and ran away as if they were in trouble. Phi expected a violent response, expected to see the police “come down here with their fucking sticks and beat everyone fucking senseless,” and hoped to be gone by that time.
“I throw bananas at them every year,” Phi later told me, “but this year they took notice. They called me aside a few times, gave me three warnings. They’ve never done that before. They once put surveillance on me for three months, you know. It cost them a fortune. It was fucking annoying.”
“There are so many stories here,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Phi, “because we’ve lived a lifetime here. This is like a home.”
Phi had a good day. Not only had the retaliation succeeded, but she had received a message from a girl she used to know.
“She’s a difficult girl,” said Phi that night. This girl, Adi by name, did not have an email address or a phone. She was a 22-year-old runaway who had left home without telling her family where she would go. Phi, the 45-year-old countess and a self-described raging lesbian, met her on Paradise Beach for a brief romance. Today Phi went into her favorite cafe in Gokarne, where she had taken Adi often, and found three messages waiting.
“That’s great,” said Martin. “True love always finds a way.”
“Oh she’s not my true love,” said Phi. “My true love is back in the UK,”—along with her ex-husband and her son, the ill-starred lad,—“but I like her, and I’m fucking crazy, and I can’t help myself. I see it as separate. This is me in India. It’s different than my life back home.”
The next day Phi said, “I’m waiting for the message that will change my life,”—her Indian life, I suppose. Paradise Cafe had two computers hooked up to the Internet via satellite and powered by the cafe’s solar panels. It was the only link to the outside world on the beach. Phi sat at one of them, writing a message, and just when she was about to send it, a skip in the power shut down the computer and she lost it all.
“Oh for fuck’s sake!” she cried, jumping out of her seat and raging around the place,—“I spent two fucking hours on that. I just had it fucking perfect! For fuck’s sake! I can’t believe this!”—and turning a crazy grin on one of the serfs on duty,—“You owe me a beer.”
Rhythm had equally poor luck with romance, and the fault was not his own. A year before he had been engaged to marry a Teutonic princess, living in Germany, and was trying to get a visa to go there to take his vows. It took a long time. There were some problems at home he had to address, some issues in India, and the German authorities proved uncompromisingly difficult. Finally the princess came herself to Paradise and said, “Are you delaying so long because you don’t want to marry me?” Rhythm dismissed her angrily from his kingdom.
“She doubted me,” he said, “and I couldn’t go through with it after that. It really broke my heart. Since then, I’ve had a rage inside me, and sometimes it spills out. Even here.”
One day Rhythm gathered all the knights of Paradise to his banner for a great quest of discovery. Two days had passed since the destruction of his techno rave, and he had decided to find a new beach, unspoilt, somewhere across the mountains. Here is a tale of the tragic impotence of these destitute kings!
It was the biggest thing to happen in the kingdom since Reiner the German, a legendary figure, discovered Paradise Beach. Phi, the noisy English countess of Paradise Cafe and a deputy of Rhythm, had been whispering about it the night before. She was sitting with a friend on the rocky outcropping at the far end of the beach where many people go to watch the sunset. “It’s a great beach,” said Phi, “No people, a good place.” Cat, who was taking photographs there, asked what she was talking about. “Can’t tell you!” announced the lesbian—a court secret!
The lords talked about it all night and worked themselves into a crusading fury. They spread the word: We leave tomorrow to find the Promised Land! In the morning Phi went around shouting in her hoarse voice a call to arms: “Eight o’clock, get up Paradise Beach!” Most people slept through it. She and Rhythm and a few other important figures met in the great hall of Paradise Cafe to wait for their mustered legions. Little Rhythm wore his usual white V-neck shirt, which looked more like a blouse on him. A few subjects drifted in. “You’re really going?” said one, and he looked around as if to say, “This is it?”
They waited an hour and a half. A total of seven disheveled warriors had pledged themselves to the cause, including its leaders. If Rhythm was disappointed, he hid it under his boastful egotism. “We’re going,” said Rhythm to the few courtiers hanging around. “We don’t know when we’ll be back. Who knows? We may stay overnight if we find the beach. We could be back tomorrow.” With that, little Rhythm led his six knights and squires up the mountain path, shorter and prouder than all of them, a Napoleon in pajamas.
I wish I could tell the Reader of the fanfare of conch blowing, but few noticed the departure of Rhythm and his army. Nor did many of his giggling subjects take note when the army returned that night an hour after sunset and Phi cried in noisy triumph, “We’re back!” having found nothing and given up the quest. They sat down in their familiar court just as the evening festivities would begin, and started lighting up joints under a pall of bitter disappointment and despondent blame.
They talked. The failure of the expedition was not any fault of their coterie. The fault rested with their subjects who in the hour of the kingdom’s greatest need had failed to answer the call of duty. Betrayers! Usurpers! Where were those good old boys they remembered from years past, and who were all these new faces, these Outsiders? The lords schemed quietly and then dispersed among the merriment, spreading bad vibes through their dashed hopes and scorn. The air had an anxious tension, like a high school dance after some incident of teenage insult in the hallway.
Into this situation we six unwittingly entered.
That night was our last night together. Tom and Tamara would leave the next day for a yoga course outside Trivandrum on the southern tip of India. Cat, Lola, and I would continue slowly in that direction after the festival, maybe not together, and we might never see each other again. We bought bulb-shaped bottles of rum from the Om Shakti Garden and mixed them with Coke on the sand bank as we watched the sunset and played music. Tamara and Tom and I lingered on the dune after it was dark. We looked at the stars and exchanged words about lunar colonies and gravity and fusion physics, the existence of God and the purpose of religion.
Beaming with drink, we went back to Paradise Cafe and sat around the speakers with some Israeli girls and Vicky the Canadian, talking and smoking and listening to music, and noticed the tense atmosphere, like the air before a thunderstorm, only as a vague static. Cat felt it more keenly. She was six years into a ten year plan to stop smoking, and she was the only one not on Soma in that Brave New World of Paradise Beach. “Maybe if I was stoned I would enjoy it,” she said later, “but now I just see all that’s wrong with it. Sorry if I’m being a downer.”
Cat sat down on the veranda, sipping beer among most of the lords and ladies of the court, and at some point, under influence of the drink, antagonized by the untempered and irritated comments of Phi and Jemal, the Welshwoman told the Englishwoman, “I don’t like you.” All the blame over the failure of the expedition, which was at its heart a childish rage over the loss of Paradise Beach to Outsiders—all that anger had found a scapegoat! Just as the Athenians took Socrates to trial over the loss of the Spartan War, so did the lords of Paradise turn on Cat and our party. Phi rose up like a tidal wave that washed, stumbling, over all those around her, and she screamed out obscenities in her hoarse, horrible voice. Jemal joined in the tempest.
Cat shouted back at the lords, as King Lear cried out into the storm, “This place is not real! It’s a bubble! You’re all living in a bubble!” and the evening dissolved into chaos!
Jemal informed us the next day (after Steve the Austrian found him lying on the mountain, too high on ketamine to get down by himself) that Cat was the most hated woman on Paradise Beach. Our entire party was despised and ostracized by any who noticed such petty politics. More insanely, we found ourselves under suspicion: five lords of Paradise suspected in their smoky paranoia that Cat was a spy! This secret council had spotted Cat taking photos and talking solemnly on their beach, and they thought she might be an investigative reporter or even a government plant—but planted by whom? Who could possibly care about Paradise beach?
I believe that Shane of Blackpool was one of the five. He was a shadowy figure, a squire of the kings who blew the conch every night at sunset. He had been coming to Paradise Beach for sixteen years. He spent the summer months at home, where he lived like a vagrant, selling comic books at festivals to save up money for the six months of Paradise, and all those drugs and all that fear over the loss of the only thread of stability in his life, which was the kingdom on the shore, drove him to his rampant intrigues.
We only learned of this distrust from Jemal, who was dispatched by the council to suss out the truth by whatever remained of his French charm amid his disconcertingly jocund character. He spent the evening talking to Cat and buying her beer at Manju’s in order to uncover her secret identity. Like most endeavors in Paradise, this one came to nothing, and the following day, the accusations dropped, and we were welcomed back into the fold.
Reader, we had been in Paradise for too long!
I didn’t meet Rhythm until the day before we left.
I was sitting at the table just above the veranda where there was a power adapter for the speakers, typing on my netbook, and a short man with a dark beard sat next to me with his Macbook. He had a white T-shirt on his puffed up chest and wore a blue sarong and was remarkably tanned. He said he was from Beverley Hills but that he had lived in Portland for a while and liked it a lot: “It’s got nice people, an active nightlife, youthful culture, and a lot of green. It’s a perfect blend.” We complained about Seattle, and he struck me as coolly sarcastic and a fun personality.
“You’ve found your way to the top table,” said Cat as I joined her on the veranda.
“What does that mean?”
She told me that I had been speaking to Rhythm. I was amazed. “That was Rhythm?” I mouthed. Little Rhythm, the high king of Paradise Beach, was there working all that day on the tedious task of mixing some new party playlists on his Macbook and equalizing the volume on all the songs. He took it very seriously and considered himself an expert.
“We’ve all heard these songs,” he said of the Beatles songs that Lola had turned on that evening. “Put on something good, something that we haven’t heard before.” (Was it the royal we he employed?)
Rhythm nodded his approval when I put on a Grizzly Bear song, and later when I played some West African grooves he asked to take some of my music.
He sat there all night overlooking the revelers, and I drank UB around the fire, Uplifting Beer from Bangalore. Jemal came with his black guitar and sat on the veranda playing Beatles hits that the gathered crowd requested, and I sat in front of him setting a melody on my harmonica with some techniques Martin had shown me. Finally Rhythm emerged from his cloister, bearing the printed lyrics for Sympathy for the Devil. “But there are no chords,” said Jemal. “So,” declared the king,—“we have the words, just work it out.”
We minstrels played for the king and his court. The man who was usually dressed like a wizard jammed a few circus songs on the guitar, and Jemal took over again and played until after 3 when we all went to bed.
”Yes, in a few days I leave. I’m leaving the paradise,” said the Austrian girl with the bladder infection.
“Eventually everyone has to,” said Tall Andy, looking up from his journal. “You can always come back. This is the beauty, no?”
This conversation, when I overheard it, profoundly disturbed me. O Reader, how can I express my happiness at leaving that place? I packed my things and set them in the great hall of Paradise Cafe as I said goodbye to Martin, Or, and the others. Lola and Cat would take the boat, and I would walk out. I wanted to. It was hot, near noontime, but I ran up the steep path to the ridge and down past the farms to the bus stop and sat there sweating in the shade by the water, playing my harmonica. I never once looked back.
In a few months, when the weather turns hot and steamy before the monsoon, Rhythm, Tall Andy, Vince, Jemal, Shane, and Or—those lords of Paradise, those tatterdemalion princes, will all return home to their jobs and their emails and their work contacts and their social events. The foreign envoys and courtiers will go home, and the serfs will find work elsewhere. The Baba will climb up to his cave with the other sadhus and meditate. The great eagle will still be there, snatching fish from the glittering surf, building his nest, and laughing at those who pretend to usurp his throne, knowing that in the end they are all but jesters.