The Coconut Man
Goa, India, 2016.
he technique we used to exchange our names was ancient. Mine, Richie. His, Deepal. Written in sand with the simplest of tools. Sticks. As we sat on what used to support them. Tree Stumps. We were somewhere in Southern India. Somewhere near Goa, a place I learned of two evenings before at dinner. Where exactly we were: the street, the intersection…well, I don’t know. But I could take you there. On 2 liters of gas sold in recycled water bottles and a cheap 48-hour moped rental, we’d be there in 25 minutes. But we’d have to leave now. It was here that Deepal and me sat, smiled, and soaked sun. Here, at the intersection of a congested third world beachfront community, and magic.
It started several days before in the customs line at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. A wiry man with a thick tongue introduced himself in an accent that I wasn’t comfortable assuming. “Nice to meet you” and “Venice.” My name and where I was coming from. I didn’t want to give away my advantage. I stood with thong sandals, holding an Italian passport, speaking English. I was the mystery.
A Scot, Harry, with bags packed for 6 months of freedom before he would return to the roofs outside Aberdeen, where he worked for a neighbor. We reconnected at baggage claim, exchanged our money at a kiosk — something we knew better than to do — and, with our ambitions for adventure, shared a rickshaw into the city. When the driver excitedly asked “where, where?” we pointed at what looked like the city center, close to the Gateway of India, “here!” Off we went.
Off into our first Indian adventure, we were both excited to discover. Me, for the next 4 weeks. And Harry, for I still don’t know how long.
Moments after being dropped near the Gateway, we escaped offerings of city tours and water taxis to Elephant Island, down 3 steps into a popular lunch spot. We drank water from tin cups, ate potato and onion Dosa, and shared a glass bottle of Coca-cola. Too much sugar in this heat, we weren’t prepared to risk it. Jet-lagged, yes. Hungry, not anymore. We searched for a local hostel.
We settled on a shared room, a 12-minute walk from lunch. Again, at check-in, I displayed my Italian passport in exchange for room keys and suspicion. A balcony, air conditioning and a shower in the room came in exchange for weak wi-fi, squat toilets and permission to buy your own toilet paper. I won. We won. My Scottish roommate and I. Yet, I still wasn’t comfortable letting him on my secret and that night, I told him not to wait up as I was going for a walk. “Right on” he said, “enjoy.”
I have a friend, Manish, who studied with me at Brown, that is from Mumbai. He had previously extended an open invitation to his family’s home for dinner if I were ever in the area. From this invitation alone, I had committed to one day being “in the area.” Little did I know the experience that I would have.
A private driver contacted me through WhatsApp, scheduled to pick me up outside my hostel and transported me to dinner. To dinner, through a neighborhood painted with smiles on mediums made of the faces of malnourished nude children that play on sidewalks of trash with sticks and cereal boxes. I felt a new level of discomfort but held back. This was not my home, I was a visitor. No matter how strong my desires were to pull over and offer everyone water, I held back. Compassion was bubbling up inside of me and I was too green to understand how to express it. I learned weeks later, upon my return to Boston, what I felt and how it would impact my views of our world. Their world.
The rear passenger side door was opened for me and I was escorted through gates to an elevator shaft, up 20 stories and released into the foyer, where my old friend Manish greeted me. Marble floors and walls, gold chandeliers, and glass balconies presented views of Mumbai. Manish’s parents, sister, and wife joined us at the table. Other Indians — employees of the family — paid close attention to their guest, serving dinner, the appropriate cutlery, and water in glass cups. More Dosa. We spoke of my career in Europe, of our friendship at Brown and what I hoped to find in India.
“No one comes to India without looking for something” his mother shyly joked. For me, it was to understand the magic that appears in the eyes of the Indian when they smile. Victim to movies, I had asked Manish what it was about India that made it so special and he told me that there is a magic in India. Sold. At the time, I wasn’t able to define magic the way I would now. At the time, I was chasing a more intimate relationship with meditation, spirituality, and travel, hopeful that I’d discover my true calling. Myself. I had thought a month alone in India would provide me with the time, and deliver me with the tools I needed to understand what I would do next in life. The magic I left with was far grander. Still to this day, imprinted in my memory is the child outside my hostel. Nude, playing with just a stick and a pile of trash, wearing the largest smile I had ever seen. Me smiling just as wide back.
Manish helped me plan the next week of my trip and urged me to visit Goa. Known as a lawless beach town in the South of India, this is where Indians go to relax, to party. I still had four weeks left to find magic in the north, a detour south would not prohibit this. Tickets booked.
The weak airport wi-fi allowed me to search for the highest rated hostels in Goa. The Panda Backpacker Hostel had a 9.1 rating with wi-fi and Air Conditioning. So off I went. The taxi driver was unfamiliar with the address but knew Candolim beach. We decided, with confidence, that if we got close, we could ask around for proper directions. Our 50-minute journey began. With the windows rolled down, I held my camera out snapping photos and videos of the entire trip. Dirt roads, paved roads, one-way roads, we drove along the water and even through shallow waters until we got to a bustling Candolim Beach. What I’d come to understand is that Goa itself is a state with a population of over one million and that just saying Goa is like saying “please take me to Rhode Island.” Candolim Beach was a bit more specific. Still, it took us four sets of directions and two reversals to reach the end of a dirt road. The taxi stopped, my door was opened, and the driver pointed down a path “Go, Go. Left. Panda, You go.” I go. I went.
In the short time after leaving the taxi, my feet burnt orange from the dirt-sand, I passed a sad cow tied to a tree with drooping udders, and a family of piglets, but the parents weren’t home. The Panda Backpacker was indeed on the left, and I pushed the gate that read “please keep closed” open a bit more than it was. I made sure to close it, in case eyes were on the new visitor. I didn’t know their names at the time but Roger, the Hostel owner, and Paul, a local artist, sat sharing puffs of a rolled-up substance — either marijuana or tobacco — playing guitar on flat couches in an outdoor space. They watched me as I listened to them, and then I watched them as they listened to each other. When the final string finished its final reverberation, Roger welcomed me and set me up with a bunk and towels. Bottom bunk in room 2 on the first floor next to the kitchen. I’d share this room and bath with seven other travelers. I wasn’t sure if they were looking for magic as well. I returned to the flat couches, declined a Kingfisher and sat for 10–20 minutes as Roger and Paul mapped out the area for me. “There’s a beach shack, Mama Cecilia’s, down that way that you get a 20% discount at if you say ‘Panda.’ The town is a quick walk that way, they have groceries and ATM’s. Laundry is in here. Mopeds are 250 rupees per day. We’re going dancing tonight, want to join?” “Yes, sure do. Thank you.” Barefoot, I let the ground paint my feet a deeper rustic red and navigated the thick dry sand until I heard the waves of the Indian Ocean. It was 3 pm and I found a seat at an unoccupied table inside Mama Cecilia’s beach shack. Truthfully, every table was open with the exception of the table in front of me. It was a strategic decision to be within earshot of them. Maybe it would give me the opportunity to drop into a conversation. The group in front of me consisted of two men and a woman. The taller man was shirtless, seated, while the other man and woman played pool together, exchanging smiles and a cigarette. They were a couple? Yes, a couple. But all three were speaking German. Damn, no eavesdropping. I ordered Masala Papad, sketched my surroundings and wrote in my journal “Candolim Beach: baby banana vendors border the symphony of scooter horns. Find the magic.” The Papads were spicy from the second bite, and water wasn’t cutting it. One beer please. “Kingfisher or King’s Pilsner” — “King’s Pilsner, thank you.” It would take two more King’s to calm the heat in my mouth, but it was the good kind of heat. The kind that reminds you to hydrate, but also that you’re completely alive. At the time I finished my second beer, the taller of the two shirtless German men leaned back to offer me a cigarette, holding the open carton. When I declined, he then surprised me with an invitation to join their afternoon party. In English. Quickly, I confirmed that all three were from Germany. The couple, Sven and Joy, were on month four of a yearlong world tour. They would break up three days later when Joy ran off with a man from New Zealand who came to the hostel the next day. The tall shirtless man’s name was Kulko.
Kulko Ruslan was in his late 20’s and was on a three-month leave from the German Navy, spending all of it in India, Sri Lanka and eventually Thailand. The beach. Over the course of the next few hours, we shared more beers and snacks, played a little pool, and confirmed our interest in the night’s itinerary. I must also mention they were three of my roommates in room 2, which made for more comfortable bathroom exchanges later that evening. That afternoon we also met the owner of Mama Cecilia’s. What a man he was. Johnny (who goes by Bond), is a 50-year Indian man who is constantly shirtless, shoeless, and smoking cigarettes in jeans shorts that sit above his knees. He was loud, fun, loves to dance, was a bit persistent with women and was constantly quoting himself, that “the show must go on baby.”
It was Bond who made sure that my order was spicy enough. He explained: often there are two spices in Indian restaurants. The spice for the tourist and another for the locals. I had told him that I wanted the real spice, the one reserved for locals. He obliged. Tomorrow, he would reduce the spice level a little and would introduce me to a homemade cocktail from the fruit of the cashew tree, but tonight we were going dancing. Bond had organized this night.
Joy, Sven, Kulko, Roger, Paul and I met at the hostel after showers and introduced ourselves to other backpackers at the Panda. Everyone knew Bond. Directing traffic, Bond fit twelve of us on five scooters and off we went. A 15-minute drive to an outdoor lounge with a live band starting at 10 pm. Those of us who hadn’t properly met did so, and those who had recognized my thick beard and hair were surprised to hear me speaking English in return to their elementary introductions. We danced, drank, sweat and all made it home to the Panda around 2 am where Bond encouraged a night swim. Despite warnings from Paul, the artist, all of us toed the shoreline, some venturing deeper into the waves. It wasn’t until after that Paul explained two French men were found dead earlier that week after going swimming with the moon. Lucky? Magic.
The next morning, we rose in intervals and met for breakfast smoothies and lunch beers at Mama Cecilia’s, which would serve as our clubhouse for the week. More roommates joined: a French woman named Constance, a French man named Adrien, an Argentinian named Macarena, a British woman named Lily, Elizabeth from New Zealand and Rich from Vancouver.
Rich was a canvas, covered in arm and leg-sleeve tattoos of UFO’s, Planets and Space. To break the ice, I asked if he believed in aliens. “Don’t even get me started” he responded while leaning back with an eye roll. “I could go on for hours” he continued.
After I finished my brunch, I pulled a seat up next to him and told him my afternoon was free. Over the next few hours, and a couple Kingfishers on me, Rich educated me on the proof of alien existence, how they have infiltrated the human race, reptilians, and what I can do to prepare for the future. I now had a list of YouTube videos, documentaries, and books to read. The list was a bibliography of our conversation. He even left a note in my journal days later right before he left that read, “Aliens are real, and damn that shark was good.” We shared names, this experience, and the potential for me to join his forces in the future with extraterrestrial life. In the interim, I was curious to explore the roads of Goa on a 250-rupee per day moped rental.
Helmets were optional, as were shoes, shirts, and driving lanes. Gas was 10 rupees for a small water bottle, 15 for a larger size and 30 rupees for a gallon filled ¾ of the way up. It made sense. I spent my first moments with the scooter learning which way to lean, the sensitivity of the gas and brake, and how to set the kickstand. This occupied me only for a few minutes before I set off. I didn’t have a destination in mind, nor was I aware of east vs west so I went left out of our side street and continued on. I drove through neighboring town and vacant fields where children played cricket, divided into teams by who was batter only. The pitcher never seemed to change. I drove by evening soccer matches, roadside fruit stands, and hitchhikers.
On the second day with the scooter, I decided to stop. At the time, I was unaware that it was unusual for the white man to be driving these roads, nevermind to pick up the brown man. (I use color not to define but to describe, these were the local words I was told.) But I did so anyway. I delivered a man to a shopping mall, another home from work, and a third to a playoff soccer match. It was also this last gentleman, most likely in his 50’s, who explained to me how funny it was to see me transporting locals in this fashion. This was why everyone was smiling so big at me. Not magic. Well, maybe magic.
On my third day with the scooter, another 250 rupees, I allowed myself to get completely lost. No longer did I stay on straightaway roads in and out of town. I took lefts, rights, and risks. At one point, when I was 10km left, right and left from the Panda I decided to taste the local fast-food: coconuts.
While driving it seemed as if a vendor was never out of sight, but once I made my decision, it took over 20 minutes to find my meal. I had just exited a traffic circle and ahead of me was overgrown burnt grass green field that cattle had yet to graze through, and a horizon painted with tall coconut trees. Before long, the median of the road split, offering an opportunity to turn around. On the opposite side of the road was a man, seated on the first of three horizontal tree trunks. A man with no shoes, long shorts, and a fully unbuttoned shirt sat there, with a machete and a sack of coconuts at his feet. He was wincing to protect his eyes from the sun as I slowed into his patch of Goa and I realized his hair was stuck up permanently from the wind. Scooter hair. He had a dark, tanned face and a nervous smile. He reminded me of my Uncle Bruno, who spends his days during the summer on a boat, wincing at the sun, his hair styled by the wind, shirtless and wearing a tan well into the winter.
I placed the kickstand down and evaluated his selection. I had never chosen a full raw coconut before and the green shell confused me, so I smiled at the man and put one finger up. “I’d like one coconut.” The man, turned over a two-foot tall tree trunk, placed the top coconut on the flat surface of rings and sliced away at one end. Several hacks later, the man presented the coconut to me with a pink straw that bent two inches from my mouth. We sat. On the edges of the tree trunks, I sipped the coconut shell empty while the man watched. As he heard the wet air sound that the bottom of a straw makes when it hits air, he reached out his hand. I hesitated at first and then realized he wanted the coconut. I obliged. The coconut returned to the small two-foot vertical trunk and the machete to the man’s hand. This must not be over, I thought to myself and remembered Bond’s words, “the show must go on.” The man sliced the coconut in half and carved pieces of coconut meat as if he were disrupting a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. I was given the coconut again, this time knowing to pick the bright white pieces of meat off the shell to eat. It melted in my mouth.
Melted, in my mouth.
I motioned to the man that I would like another, but it looked more like a dance move one would have created at a bar mitzvah, so I decided to pick up a coconut and motion to my mouth. My hand was crumpled together, the way Italians prepare it for conversation, and I brought it to my mouth with my jaws opening and closing. Finally, I tried to penetrate the shell with my pink straw. The man understood and shaved me a drinking hole on coconut number two. Again, we sat. I drank. I returned the coconut, he carved. I ate. He discarded each empty shell with a cricket pitch into the field behind his stand and after the second discard we sat, silently, soaking in the sun to the soundtrack of passing motorists. Several more locals stopped by for a drink and a snack, smiling at me and talking to the coconut man, (Maybe they were asking the man for my story? At least in my fantasies, that’s what happened.) I’m not sure what the man told them, but maybe my story wasn’t interesting enough nor strange enough to keep the customers around for long.
After nearly an hour, I pointed to my chest and slowly said “Richie.” The man smiled. Again, “Richie” louder this time. The man responded fast, with words I could not detect, nor understand. This was my concern. Being thought of as the ignorant American tourist who showed no interest in learning or appreciating local language and customs. I grabbed a stick and bent over to the sand. I wrote my name, in all caps. R I C H I E. and gave the stick to the man. He bent over, we understood each other. D E E P A L. Deepal. My friend. I took my crumpled batch of rupees from my pack and asked in English how much I owed. Habit. He held up six fingers and then a first to signify 60 rupees. I paid him and again, I motioned to him, attempting to let him know that I would be back tomorrow. I don’t think he understood, because my finger rolls looked like I was asking for more of out my charades partners, but I was satisfied having verbalized my commitment to return. I released the kickstand from my scooter and raced back to the hostel. I couldn’t wait to invite everyone. Joy, Sven, Kulko, Macarena, Rich, Elizabeth, Lily, Constance, even Bond, Roger, and Paul. By the time I returned to the hostel, the group of four from New Zealand had arrived and energized the crowd. Three men and one woman. Justin, Miller, Pacha, and Elizabeth. Bond was in a shirt inviting us all to the night market and a thin Swede was taking orders for marijuana and psychedelics. The night market sounded interesting. What were the details?
Goa has many night markets of all sizes, but this one was the last of the season and the largest of all. It was 20 minutes away by scooter, had shopping, dancing, a rave scene, and street food. I was in. I chauffeured two of the women from the hostel, Macarena and Constance, on the second scooter behind Kulko, who I had grown quite close with. My first piece of business was to procure some beach dresses for my mother and sister but I got distracted by a bagmaker. Negotiated down to 100 rupees, I got a straw backpack that was going to be home to my goods and I got gifts for my mother and sister. I’m not much of a haggler and I only brought down the price of each dress 15 rupees, but I was satisfied with my haul and the amount of time I’d still have to dance. I tried local street food on sticks, fried pieces, and then moved into the rave area. I reconnected with my roommates from the hostel and danced. The sweat beaded on our faces almost instantly but remained quiet down our backs which made for a comfortable night. The nights were still warm but one could cool down nicely with a ten-minute break and water. As more and more faces we recognized took seats, we decided as a group to head back to the hostel. It was now 2 am and we were satisfied with the experience. On the ride home, we all were stopped by what appeared to be the Indian police, although no one could confirm it. Despite stories we heard of con men extorting tourists because one of the scooters had marijuana and psychedelics on it, we paid them a collective 200 rupees and continued home.
I had almost forgotten about Deepal the next morning until I saw the scooters and went to see who was lingering at Mama Cecilia’s. Kulko was by the pool table, Elizabeth was reading on a lounge chair and Joy and Sven were closer to the ocean in what seemed to be a serious conversation. I’ll leave them be, I thought to myself and invited Kulko and Elizabeth on a journey that I advertised as the quest for the best coconuts you’ll ever have in your life. It’s no surprise my career in sales the next year never took off. I played my hand too early. Despite my oversell, they agreed to join me. Kulko had his own scooter, which made the trip a bit more comfortable, especially when I got lost. Both times. When I slowed a third time, Kulko accused me of being lost again but I wasn’t. Deepal was just gone. The side of the road was deserted. No machete, no coconuts, no Deepal, just four tree trunks, three horizontal and one standing up. We had come this far, I had built this up, and now we were going to have to get different coconuts on the ride home. For such a light activity, I began to feel defeated. I turned and smiled at my roommates, determined, and said “He can’t be far, let’s find him” — a statement that, surprising to me, met little resistance. We twisted the right handle of our scooters and headed down a side road. With empty fields on each side and a row of trees approaching, the main road was lost in our rear and, soon, houses began appearing. One after another, surrounded by three-foot tall fences that sat on top of three-foot tall concrete walls. We drove deeper into the neighborhood until the road became a driveway, and several neighbors stood at the thresholds of their front doors, one with a child peeking behind her legs, with confusion on their faces. Naïve, or at least not recognizing their hesitation, I asked for Deepal. “Do you know Deepal? He sells coconuts. Deepal, the coconut man, does he live here?” Silence. More silence. I walked closer to a younger gentleman in jeans and a designer T-shirt, and asked him on a more personal level. “Do you know Deepal? We want to have his coconuts?” An odd phrase. This man did not, but another man came from across the road, spoke in his native tongue to the well-dressed man, shared a laugh with them and turned to me. “Yes, yes. Come.” He hopped on Kulko’s scooter and directed Kulko back the way we came. Elizabeth and I followed. Again, the order of white man driving and brown man enjoying the ride drew stares and smirks — even more now that we were riding down side streets. After five minutes we pulled off the main road to the front of a house. It protected a village of flat-roofed homes behind it, and an elderly woman sat out front with her granddaughter. The man from Kulko’s scooter called out for a friend, who took his time and then appeared in the doorframe. He stood there, blue shirt, blue jeans, gold watch smoking a cigarette. They exchanged words and the man, in perfect English with an Indian accent, asked, “So, you want to have the coconuts?” and smiled widely. I proceeded to explain my adventure yesterday, and how I brought my friends today to try these coconuts, and the defeat I felt when I found out Deepal was not there. The man in the doorway walked down the front steps and stood next to my scooter. Then he said “Okay, we go” flicking his cigarette to the soil, and jumping on the scooter behind Elizabeth. We were now 3. We now had five people on two scooters. Fortunately, we only drove 200m back to Deepal’s patch of land. When we arrived, the “man with the blue shirt and gold watch” explained to us that Deepal was coming and that Deepal was his brother. We waited. In the next 10 minutes, the grandmother from the previous home, which I’m led to believe is Deepal’s mother, and her three grandchildren walked over from their home to join the greeting party — which was now eight people. Moments later, shirt unbuttoned and blowing in the wind, his hair pushed back and his face tanned, Deepal arrived on his scooter with shopping bags. He had been at the mall. He parked his scooter and walked into the woods. Good to see you too, Deepal. Deepal returned with a sack of coconuts and his machete, carving drinks and snacks for the whole party. In the previous 24 hours, our language skills did not improve, but we were able to exchange smiles that said more. To Deepal, I came back. He may not have known what I had motioned, or that I kept my promise, but he didn’t need to. The collective adventure was enough for me, my friends got to try the world’s best coconut, and Deepal was left with a memory — or at least a few more satisfied customers.
I left Goa several days after our encounter. I sent no more travelers to Deepal. I spoke no more of him during my travels through India. You’d think I wanted to keep him a secret — my secret — but truthfully, I was gripped by what came next. The Taj Mahal, Paneek Paneer, the Ganges river. It wasn’t until I came home, and my family asked me for stories of my travel, that I revisited Deepal. I’d like to think that Deepal revisits me. Maybe at a family meal, when his brother swallows a swig of Kingfisher beer and chuckles “Hey Deepal, remember that white man who came to the home looking for you? Saying you had the best Coconuts in all of Goa? I wonder if he remembers that day.”
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