So, as the story goes, the author’s flight has landed in Goa and he’s standing outside his couchsurfing host’s house. When he dials her number, she’s asleep and a different girl picks up at the other end and introduces herself as Oksana - a Russian couchsurfer staying over at Karen’s.
“Well, I am not at home right now.. but are you hungry? Would you like to join me for dinner? We can return together afterwards.”
“My mother always taught me never to say no to Russian girls. Where do I come?”
Early next morning he meets his bubbly host, Karen, and is willing to tag along with her and Oksana as they take sixty five street kids to Art Escape – an eco resort on Benaulim beach that besides renting out accommodation, carries out a number of fun activities (art workshops, music events, sightseeing trips, yoga and craft workshops.) From here, we commence on our narrative.
There is something to be said about the extreme energy levels of a group of young children. I have pictured the hour long bus journey to be a poetic inspiration, in which I would come up with eloquent prose in my head as we pass by a lush background landscape, sea and churches. What actually transpires is a sea of children scaring the living daylights out of all my bodily senses. “How old are you?” I ask one chubby fellow who has decided that my thigh is his perch. Promptly, he bounces up and down eight times, causing permanent damage to certain areas extremely critical to my reproductive capabilities. I haven’t asked any children, Goan or Red Indian, their age since that moment.
A game of antakshari is gathering momentum at the back. With every passing song, the enthusiasm’s rising and spreading, and even kids who were hitherto looking out of the bus windows with sparkling eyes and vomiting massive amounts of breakfast into the surroundings, are now screaming about Sheela and her associated jawani.
When the bus passes over the bridge on Mandovi river, they rush to the sides and we wobble just as all buses do when sixty pairs of little knees and hands are banging at its walls. A Japanese tourist bus draws level to us, and when an old lady smiles at the commotion, nine year old Krishna stretches out and insists that they are being kidnapped. She is horrified.
Somehow, we reach Art Escape, unscathed. I have a feeling that Nostradamus’ prediction about the world coming to an end in 2012 might just come true on our return journey.
When I get down from the bus, with an armful of packets and newspapers in my hand, a man comes running out to help us. He has tousled hair and a long beard running down the length of his neck and hanging proudly in the air. We are introduced, after Karen and he stop hugging each other. His name is Darryl Noronha and along with Vinesh Iyer, he is the owner of Art Escape. Together they look like a pair of shipwrecked sailors, a la Christopher Colombus or Tom Hanks in Castaway.
The resort is right next to Benaulim beach, and at this hour, the sun’s beating down mercilessly. I walk into the resort and am immediately greeted with a variety of trees and some giant cacti. The kids have trooped in by now, and I am amazed to see how effortlessly Vinesh and Darryl are handling them. They are all sitting in a shaded area, thatched roof, small bar, chimes et al; this is where the resort’s restaurant will be in the ‘season’. The kids are cheeky but Vinesh is cheekier. They love him. He and Darryl are teaching the wide eyed kids how to make large beach hats out of used newspapers. The kids don’t want to scream anymore, they are all busy making their own hats once the duo passes them the secret. I walk around clicking pictures and smiling at strangers.
They are not the only ones at the resort. A number of their friends have come down to help add finishing touches to this lovely place. As I walk down between the cottages, a girl is painting a bathroom. Her hair is cropped, cropped short. Later, I meet Pranjali, who is teaching English to foreigners in the town and spends the rest of the time helping out at Art Escape. Soon enough a couple of Russians come down to the resort to pitch in with their services. The kids are roaming all around, proudly, in their hats.
Ganesh, all of 13, is an excellent painter. Very soon he takes out the water colours from our packets and has a horde of young ten year old customers waiting for him to paint their faces. Pranjali joins him in the pursuit and very soon there are no brown children left in the party.
I like Art Escape – it is a great place to live in, especially for those who don’t want to stay in a regular hotel and would like a different experience. Darryl is at heart an artist, and he talks to me about the art classes he holds for people coming to stay here. We talk about the various activities they promote – taking people for crabbing trips, fishing trips, to organic farms etc. We walk through the trees and I am particularly excited by one of the sightseeing tours they propose – the real Goa, where they take you around the countryside, show you old heritage Portuguese homes, and more. Darryl does not want to spell it all out beforehand, he wants to surprise and delight his customers when they come to live at Art Escape.
I meet the rest of his troop. They have all been successful people in their own regard, and yet the apparent detachment from civilization, even if it might be an illusion, attracts me. They are all sitting and laughing, Darryl, Sandra, another man with salt and pepper hair and great trekking shoes, Pranjali, Nisha and the two young chefs. Beer cans are passed out and there is some brilliant sea food that I roll up in my bread and chomp. Everyone is laughing, there is a nice breeze blowing and I get seduced into telling them that I would like to help them out too over the next few days. I am promptly offered another beer.
Nisha surprises me. She has completed her master’s from Australia and after working for a bit, she set out trekking all by herself, for months in the Himalayas. She’s just twenty five, and I want to interview her about her travels.
They are all wonderful with the children, playing, hugging and teasing them. I stand behind the trees, smoking and taking in the proceedings. There is a vibe about this place that makes me not want to leave at all. I look at Karen, who is happy, and this is what she’s been doing for years. I wonder why we sit in an office in a polluted city at all.
We take the kids to the beach in the evening. Some of us play football, and I show off by dribbling past five kids. When we troop back to the bus, we are all tired. As the bus moves, Darryl’s figure gets hazier and hazier. I know I shall be back one day, if Nostradamus’ prediction about the world coming to an end in 2012 does not come true on our return journey.
A boy comes and sits on my thigh. I don’t ask him his age.
P.S. People, if you are travelling to Goa, and are looking for a lazy, peaceful holiday, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to stay at the art Escape. Contact us if you’s like to book a package.