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I bought two jelly doughnuts again. I’d been to the chai stall enough times to get a “good morning” and a smile. I also bought the paper and seven bananas. In India bananas are real, short and sweet, with delicate skin that takes a touch of patience to peel. Which is okay, because off-season Anjuna is a patient place.
I sat at a rickety table set up in front, just where red dirt lost the streaks of careful sweeping and turned to haphazard, diagonal streaks. And tire tracks. I spread the paper and read about the debate over when to have the vote. The problem with late September was the monsoon in the North. Would it harm turnout? But a caretaker government could only last so long.
I ate the doughnuts quickly. I hadn’t eaten doughnuts since high school. Warm nights drinking on a golf course and hand-me-down cars were long years in the past. And I certainly hadn’t eaten doughnuts in India. These were good, soft doughnuts, still warm the mornings I got there early, if I hadn’t been off at a club the night before. I didn’t even like the clubs, techno music and wooden bars. It brought me back, made me think of home, but I loved the whir of the engine on the old Enfield in the soft, cool night, riding home afterwards, dodging other Enfields. And cows.
The jelly was thin and it mixed readily with the white powder. The warm dough had been rolled liberally; the sugar was worked in, set deep in the porous surface. I ordered chai but didn’t have the guts to dip. So I sipped, and read why the actress had pulled her party out of the coalition. I could live anywhere I could read the newspaper. That eliminated half the U.S. Knight Ridder and Hearst.
A cow wandered by, gave me a look. A longer one to my doughnuts. I had a flash, to Trivandrum, eating dosas late at night, after getting off the Kerala Express. That had been 55 hours, down from Delhi. Those were the first good cows I’d seen. Big bony things, ribs jutting through white leather, horns bearing old paint and maybe a garland around the neck. They wondered about, pecked at banana peels lying in the street, ate wrappers and were shooed away by lathi-wielding tomato vendors. One got a whack on the nose and had to cede the ripe red fruit he’d stolen.
I rolled my eyes at the cow and finished the doughnuts. I got up and waved good-bye to the woman who ran the stall. She was selling three packs of Gold Flakes to a Norwegian girl with a belly button ring and plaited hair. There wasn’t much to do in Anjuna but smoke, or sit on the beach reading thick literature. Or walk along jagged cliffs, where erosion sucked slabs of red clay into the Indian Ocean, left the face mottled and photogenic. I’d spent days sitting on the cliff, taking different pictures at different angles; convinced myself a light change made a world of difference and sat up there well past sunset. I turned out to be right when I got the prints back in Panjim. I’d gone into town to buy barfi; none was sold in Anjuna. Only jelly doughnuts and Austrian gingerbread cake.
Panjim was the only city I’d been to on the sub-continent that had municipal trashcans. They were thick wooden affairs, painted a heavy green and lettered over in white script. English. Thank you kindly for your trash. Trash that never found the bin was dealt with in standard fashion—left about. At night women in blue saris swept the streets clean of refuse with brooms of bound twigs. They stuffed the bins with the coke bottles and cigarette packets they gathered. Then the bins were set aflame, and made a great spectacle, evoked a pagan ritual; flames leaping in a clear, dark night. Panjim was the city where quiet bars were tucked under Portuguese signs, in thick-walled houses where maize colored plaster chipped off and gave way to a pale blue layer beneath. Vines crept over walls and houses were set into jagged cliffs, which rose to stirring promontories.
Back in Anjuna, where bamboo and plaster huts lined the beach there were no receptacles. Banana peels, soft and supple, browned fast. I’d get home at falling dusk—my lens wouldn’t wait longer—and empty them in my room, always getting a smile in the morning when Thomas came to take out the trash. Twenty fetid banana peels and a newspaper. Maybe a film box. I drank tea in the mornings with Thomas and his family—Mary and two daughters. They had built four pretty guest rooms in their yard, where they grew vegetables and luscious purple flowers that cascaded on vines suckling white wash. I loved my room—the clean tile floor and a gentle breeze through barred windows. Mary told me to throw the banana peels on the ground. Not to worry, they’d be swept-up. Their daughter asked me why I read the paper, said I could get Time in Panjim. If I really wanted, though she thought it a bit hawkish. She wanted to know why the U.S. was bombing Kosovo. I’d resolved not to think about that.
I got a good earful on U.S. action. Arms sales. Furthered my resolve as I excused myself for the day and went for doughnuts. And more bananas.
No doughnuts. Shortage? Late delivery? No, of course not. I could block out foreign affairs but I still retained the notion of a battered truck with white sides, “wash me” fingered in stuck dust, making rounds. An open door and a driver in a down vest saying mornin’, asking about the game.
Day-off? Beaten to it by a Norwegian with incipient lung disease? Something foul was afoot. Should I ask? I thought of the later discussion. American looking for doughnuts. The Norwegian, appeared, trim and svelte, coming simply for cigarettes (another three packs!) and paid no heed to where the doughnuts ought to sit, the missing round white pastries with tiny wounds where the jelly had entered. You could judge doughnuts by the wound. If it was solid, without air bubbles, then the doughnut was as well. It would be full and moist.
I couldn’t ask. Just bought my paper and a couple extra bananas for the day. I walked off toward my cliff, camera around my neck. I planned a long day of sitting. Had an extra cup of tea since I wouldn’t have my sugar. Might have to go into Panjim later.
I ate the bananas as I walked down the red sand road. It was hard from late season sun. Two men sat in fleeting shade, lazily hawking Aryuvedic remedies to blistered Swiss bankers and rotund British-Midlanders. They waved and gestured toward the tiny bottles on a sheet. The menus on the cafes increased in length with proximity to the shuttle bus stop. The cost of the shuttle bus from Panjim was the same as the normal bus from Panjim to Mangalore. Price-distance equations failed. People bedraggled in tie-dye cared not. Ran about without shirts. Tattooed and shopped. Got high.
I had to make a right, start the gentle climb. First a few steps cut by many feet. A slight incline. Then a level, tall grass and a narrow beaten path. Then the free-for-all. Prospects and angles abundant. I finished the last bananas and arranged the peels to fit in one hand and walked toward the genesis of my climb.
A white cow sat, forelegs tucked under his bulk at the knee. Thick skin and well-fed. His eyes lounged at me, let me know he would oblige my littering aversion. Humor me. Take the peels off my hand. I held the bundle toward him, gave them a slight toss.
He caught the peels and started chewing. I noticed that his nose was white. Not right. Powdered sugar. My doughnuts had been stolen by the cow.
Jon Levy is a freelance writer in Berlin.