I arrived in Goa like a screw jostled from a machine, ricocheting from airport to airport, sleepwalking through glacial immigration lines, and filing claims forms when my luggage failed to join me. The Qatar Airlines staff told me it would “probably” arrive within three days, that such things were common. It was the first of many times I put my trust into strangers and hoped for the best.
I bounced into a taxi to Arambol, my mind rifling through the missing pack: a sleeping bag, malaria pills, a mosquito net… Important things. I looked to the landscape outside, hoping something might catch my attention or calm my thoughts.
I’d forgotten how dark Asia can be at night. Shadows swished as our headlights stirred the road, sliding snippets of strange stories before us: a man crouched on the side of the highway, hands on the back of his head, a picture of desperation, defeat, or despair; a group of tourists huddled around a barrel fire, laughing, as if the road were a stream, the parking lot a campground; a chain of vacated police checkpoints, their gates thrown open like a dare, or a threat. The taxi roared through it all, revealing secrets, judging nothing.
Thinking this a good opportunity to pick up the local language, I asked my driver how to say a few basic words. But in the snaking darkness, he wasn’t in the mood to teach, and I wasn’t keen to learn. So we fell quiet as my mind wandered back to my missing luggage. The medicine, the clothes, the gear…
A honking, blinking van burst through the silence. I’d heard stories of ambushes against just-landed travellers and had dismissed them as fear-mongering sensationalism. But on that black, empty highway, tired from my travels, mourning my lost luggage, and unsure of where my accommodation was or if my booking was confirmed, I was uneasy, unable to assess the danger.
Both vehicles stopped and ignited their hazards. The alarm car’s driver shouted as he stepped out of his vehicle, his words tripping over each other in staccato bursts. My driver responded with equal urgency, leaving the taxi.
Hidden in shadows, I was grateful for the dark.
They walked to the back of the taxi. More shouting. The car began to sway, and a scraping grated from inside the car, behind me. There was a thump, a few final words, and then the alarm car revved its engine and disappeared back into the dark.
My driver returned wearing one sock and stinking of petrol. Wordless, he lurched through a four-point turn and hammered the taxi back towards the airport. It took five minutes to extract an explanation. We’d stopped for petrol at the beginning of our trip, and in his haste (or exhaustion), he’d left the gas cap at the pump, sloshing gasoline over dozens of kilometres of unlit highway. He’d plugged the hole with his sock.
So we backtracked, screwed the cap on, and then back-back tracked towards Arambol. By the time we reached the village, it was almost dawn. We strained to find signs, people, any indication of where my guest house might be. We disappeared into narrow, labyrinthine streets for an hour. Searching, searching. Finally, a hand-painted sign pointed the way, and my driver nodded in its direction.
When the taxi reversed to begin its long journey back, I stood in a dusty open space in front of a four storey villa. The name of the guest house, God’s Gift, was embossed in pink all caps above me. There was an unlocked gate that led to a motorcycle and scooter-filled courtyard. Lost, exhuasted, frustrated, I began to wander.
And then, for the first time, I saw daylight in India. Sunrise melted night’s shadows, revealing a landscape I’d waited six months to see. Distant hills rose into red-pink cliffs covered in scrubby patches of green. Coconuts burst from palm trees that twisted between crowded buildings. A hazy cloud tinted everything pink. The sand, the walls, the sky, even the trees. Like the world had been dipped in tea.
A few days later, a friend told me that that sunrise was a gift from God. He was joking, but he was right. India has a way of turning darkness to light. Usually when you need it most.
I didn’t know what had called me to India. I didn’t know what I was searching for or how I would know if I found it. But I’d followed my gut this far, and now it was telling me to leave the hut. To see what else was out there. So I collected my bag, stepped into the courtyard, and let the pink dawn swallow me.