“Might be out for dinner.You can either come join us or let yourself into the house. Will leave the key under the door.”
I looked at the sms again. Let’s now go back to the part where the story should have actually started.
It was a dark, stormy night. Stormy because I hadn’t had any dinner and my stomach was letting out small roars, like a lion cub does, to convey its feelings on the matter. And dark, for my bedroom light had just gone off, and I quote ‘thwack’. It was my first time on the couchsurfing website a forum that lets people from different cities and countries connect, bond and hopefully stay with each other while travelling.
People insisted it was foolhardy for me to choose Goa for a solo trip. The way I saw it, I had always had the most holiday fun in Goa, so if I couldn’t enjoy being alone there, chances are I wouldn’t be much happier anywhere else. So I searched for some hosts in Goa and stopped at Karen’s profile.
Historically speaking, she had finished college, even before I was born. But as opposed to the rest of the people’s pictures sitting pretty on the page, she was neck deep in a marsh, only her face sticking out and looking bewildered. She had to be fun. So I inboxed her asking if I could stay over for a few days, and then gulped the remaining dregs of my tea. It felt like the right gesture at the moment, gulping the dregs. One must always be manly at difficult times like these. Julius Caeser must have done the same when he stood at the river Rubicon and screamed ‘Alea jacta est’!
She agreed to have me over at her place. Ten days later, I was standing at Delhi airport and reading that message you saw at the top. Leave the key under the door? Was she for real? She did not know anything about me except for the stuff she read on my profile. I replied saying that I would prefer going to her house, since it would be easier to steal all her stuff while she wasn’t there. As a post script, I added that dinner sounded lovely.
There are actually people in India who let absolute strangers enter and stay in their house even if they aren’t there themselves? Was this actually a woman, or was I falling into some kind of trap where I’d have four men jump on me the moment I landed in that Baga house, and send a crisp ransom note to my family in Kerala? A caring friend sent me a small two minute clip of Dil Chahta Hai, where a pretty girl called Christine robs Saif Ali Khan off everything, leaving him only in his boxers.
I am not very sure if my father would pay to have me back.
Four hours later, when I landed at the Goa airport, she called me up and said that she was going off to sleep and that I would find the house key under the mat. She also added that early next morning she was leaving with sixty five street kids to a beach where they would learn recycling, and that I could either join them or chill at home. And if I chose the latter, I’d have to let the dog and cat out once every four hours. I replied declaring that she now had sixty six kids who would love to learn how to recycle.
A hundred thoughts were flying through my head while I was in the flight. Her level of trust in a rank stranger astounded me. As a country, are we that secure? It also made me wonder if so many of us had actually become cynics. The simplicity of it all made it all complex in my head.
I never saw Karen that night. She was fast asleep when Oksana (a Russian traveler staying in her house) opened the door for me, and grunted when we walked into her room to see the bathroom.
Her house was lovely though, plastered orange and yellow all over, cushions galore, and lots of pictures. I stopped to stare at a black and white picture taken years back. As a twenty year old, she had been awfully pretty.
The dog seemed no different from her master. Without as much as a formal introduction, she leapt onto me and demanded I tickle her ears. Not that Karen ever asked me to tickle her ears, that would be very disconcerting, but we are talking about the act of instantly opening up to people. When I dumped myself onto my mattress, Shinzy (and henceforth we are going to call the doggy by her name) kept her paw on my stomach and looked inquiringly. “Lucky day girl, we seem to have hit it so well that we are even going to sleep together on our first date,” I told her. She lay there besides me for a couple of hours, smelling distinctly doggy-like. Thank heavens for blocked noses.
The next morning I saw Karen. Her entry wasn’t exactly likes the ones we see in the movies, no breeze or flying hair, no lilting music. She came out of her room, bustling with enthusiasm, full of beans ready to take on the world and a new day. When she saw me, she smiled broadly and we hugged, lightly. Within moments she was telling me all, about the website and her experiences with hosting other travellers, about her work with the gully kids, about the cancer that she had had and conquered. A few kids soon came running into the house, and she scolded them just like school teachers always do. Soon we were all carrying large boxes to the bus that would take us all to Benaulim beach, and even while we walked she kept talking. When we were back in the evening, the door was open and there was a new person cooking inside. When I looked puzzled, she laughed and told me that there were over fifteen people in Goa who had a key to her house.
Earlier, I had gone for a bath and loved the bathroom. All over the wall tiles, couchsurfers had used sketch pens to scribble musings, quotes and jokes. Some even wrote testimonials for her. A full length mirror near the shower just added to the vibe, not to mention that it made me jump in consternation at the sight of myself when I turned on the shower.
Over the four days that I lived in Goa, I have very fond memories. But the ease with which Karen let me and a hundred other people enter her house and world is a pleasant puzzle I am yet to figure out.