Eight-thousand miles from the Ganges Restaurant on East 6th and 2nd Avenue, I stood watching the sun drown under the horizon. Grains of sand filtered through my toes, tumbling forth from infinite waves of the Indian Ocean.
Goa: it is more than a convenient crossword puzzle answer. Tucked into the West Coast of the Indian subcontinent, the tiny state is a former outpost of those seafaring people – the Portuguese. It was once known as the “Rome of the East” (Rome, minus pasta and Popes). To me, Goa was a breath of salty air after 13 hours locked inside in a suicide bus. My so-called “TV Luxury Coach” arrived from Bombay after careening down roads just wide enough for an oxcart. I sat awake in mortal terror watching the oncoming headlights pass inches from our front window, as the driver played chicken with monster trucks. Those long haul vehicles were driven by sleep-deprived maniacs who existed in an incessant narcotic buzz, continuously chewing betel nut, and staining their teeth vampire red.
Goa. I stood at the ocean’s edge in ripped Levis, my skin as a pink as a pork cutlet. This was 1984 and Bombay was not yet called Mumbai. There were no cell phones. No call centers. No IT professionals sporting Bluetooth earbuds. No billionaires living in their own personal skyscrapers. As for Goa, it had only been officially a part of India for a mere 20 years. I stood on those golden sands before Bollywood location scouts decided in would be a damn fine place to film pretty much every single buddy flick. I stood on the sands before well-heeled newlyweds began regularly flocking to Goa as the honeymoon equivalent of Hawaii.
My backpack was stashed at the hostel. Along the sand on this twinkly night were couples and young people who had come to the beach for the day. There were men wading in the water. Women stood shoulder-to-shoulder hiking up their saris to allow the surf to wash their feet.
This was my sixth day in India, having spent most of the others in Bombay at the home of Tarik’s parents. Tarik, my college teacher back at Pratt, had been the one to sell me on visiting India. And after Bombay and its noxious, jarring, captivating, horrifying, blaring, in-your-face, jib-jab, Tarik knew I would next need a strong dose of Goa. I sat on dunes to rest. The country of India was right behind me, but for the moment I might have been perched on the sand at Jones Beach.
A man in a green army shirt ambled over to me and said hello. He was on the beach with his army buddies. There were five or six of them that were occupying a plot of sand just a few meters away. Their combined English had gaping holes, so it was difficult to get more than the gist. They had come to Goa from some place in India. One fellow held up his palm and pointed at a spot in the middle. It could have been Hyderabad, but really, who knows. One thing that I understood was that they were all in the same army regiment and Goa was their R&R. They laughed and joked and pushed each other like a bunch of high school boys.
Then one of the guys pointed at the crock-pot. It was a covered cast iron pot that been carefully transported to the beach. I understood what was inside that pot was curry and that it was a specialty from their home. Over the millennia every region, indeed, every village in India has developed their own indigenous curry. Most are flavored with local spices and yes, most will singe the eyebrows off an unsuspecting visitor raised on mashed potatoes and Wonder Bread.
Let’s talk about spice. Wilbur Scoville was a pharmacist who was working at Parke-Davis Labs, and in 1912 he devised the Scoville Organoleptic Test. Clever fellow – he realized that if want to know how spicy something is, you have to dilute that something in water until it disappears from taste. For example, if you start with a full cup of Tabasco sauce, about 5,000 cups of water are required in order for a group of tasters to no longer notice the Tabasco on their tender tongues. Thus, Tabasco sauce is rated to have about 5,000 Scoville Heat Units. So, that’s 1 cup of Tabasco to 3 full bathtubs of water, and a laboratory full of whimpering tasters.
The bhut jolokia also known as the ghost chili is found growing in the jungles of Northeast India in the mysterious and rarely visited states that border China and Burma. The ghost chili is rated at more than 1 million Scoville Heat Units, 400 times hotter than Tabasco. It would take an entire Holiday Inn Swimming Pool including the pool noodles and water wings to dilute a cup of this pepper’s juice.
The guys were being hospitable. They knew that what was contained inside that pot was hot. Spicy even for them. A vindaloo of unknown origin waited patiently like a scorpion coiled in a basket.
“You want to try?”
Inside that crock-pot was the real India. The India of that came of thousands of villages with mothers and grandmothers who held recipes to their bosoms, shared only in secret. How could I not taste?
The spoon was handed over and I held it front of me. The guys were all looking now, their eyes trained on my face like Army snipers. I inched the spoon towards my mouth. After all, how hot could it be? I was a New Yorker. I had eaten spicy. The Taj. Passage to India. Mitali. The Ganges. Dozens of restaurants, each with their own shrimp vindalo and butter chicken. Damn, I knew spicy.
The millisecond the spoon hit my tongue, neurotransmitters rocketed through my brain, yanking down alarm switches that hung from the grey walls of every pain center. Dopamine collided with serotonin, knocking adrenaline flat on its back. It tried to stand up, but it was screaming in a pain that extended from my neocortex straight through my brainstem and directly into my scrotum. A noise emitted from my throat resembling the screech of the bobcat in terror.
The guys were quick to react. They knew pain when they saw it. Probably reminded them of an army training video on what do if you are a Prisoner of War: “Torture and You.” One of the guys handed me a bottle that they were passing around.
I quickly gulped, but my horror was redoubled. I had never tasted anything so evil and unremitting. It was as if all my misspent youth were bottled into one angry spirit. Little did I know that what had made its way down my gullet was feni. Made from the cashew fruit, feni is country moonshine allowable for sale only inside the state of Goa. (For obvious reason too.) With an alcohol content of more than 40%, all I needed now was a banjo and a wild-eyed half cousin hunting for coon, and then I’d go blind.
A spasmodic reflex: I spit out the feni and once again, screeched something. I supposed it was a word common to Telugu, Urdu, and Hindi, because the when I looked up, there were my six Indian army bros laughing so hard, they were rolling off the dune.
I needed something else. I needed water. And I saw it, sitting on the sand – a bottle of clear liquid. I pointed, it was handed to me, and merciful God of Gods, Krishna the Enchanter, the water did not hurt. I gulped, but then just as quickly as I started drinking it, I realized my grave error. My horror: I was dousing my insides with unfiltered drinking water. All of the precautions I had taken not to become sick, not to end up on my ass in a desolate latrine. But here I was, drinking stuff drawn straight from some miserable tap, a Disneyland of microbes and bacteria.
For the final time, I expectorated into the sand with a gasp. My newest friends watched in untranslatable delight as this white firangi erupted for the third time in less than a minute. Paroxysms of laughter. Gleeful delight. Backslapping the jester. Yes, I had made the trip to Goa worthwhile for these guys. Something to tell the boys back at the barracks about.
“You had to be there. And then he spat it out. Three times! Could have been some kind of a tic. Right onto the sand! Funniest thing I ever saw.