In the Jungle - How a terrible traveler turned a night in Goa into a nightmare

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Picture Courtesy : The Hostel Crowd
(Caution : Sensitive Content)

Yassin was shot in his face four years back during the civil unrest in Tunis. Driving through the streets just like any other day, he had found himself at the midst of a commotion. Moments later, a bullet had shattered through the car’s window and hit him on the face. His last healthy memory was a splash of blood on the windscreen as it took a few seconds for the shock to make its impact.

Our perception of time changes with the situation we are in. Right now, sitting at a cafe in Mumbai and waiting for a train that departs in four hours, a half of an hour seems like nothing. The minutes have wings and I would soon be on my way to another city. But for a dying man, inching towards oblivion with every passing second, waiting just for an ambulance to arrive can feel like an eternity.

It took the ambulance thirty minutes to arrive while he was left bleeding from his grave wound and another hell-bound thirty minutes for the ambulance to reach the hospital, making its way through the morning traffic. No surgery was ever performed on him to take the bullet out that has lodged itself at the back of his neck, as it was considered too risky a move. They left him on the hospital bed to heal on his own and on drugs, with anxious family members clinging on to hope, as political crisis fueled in the country between an Islamist-led government and a secular opposition. 

Yassin turned out to be a fighter who lived, even if it took him six months to completely heal. He is more alive than any other living person I know with a story to tell and with a bullet still residing in his neck that makes itself obvious at airport scanners every time he travels.

During my stay at the Jungle hostel in Goa, I was fortunate enough to meet Yassin and many such people who had their own interesting stories to tell. Until now, I had never really liked staying in hostels. Nothing could beat the comforts of a private room. But restricting yourself to such spaces in hotels also deprives you off the pleasure of meeting such intriguing personalities from across the world. 

So, when I decided to stay in Goa for two months on a budget, I chose a place I had previously stayed at during my visit in 2015. “Jungle” by The Hostel Crowd is situated within a real jungle which you can truly feel if you hike up to the nearby Chapora fort for a vantage point view. A redesigned Portuguese house, this place holds true to the Susegad lifestyle of Goa, where balconies are adorned with hammocks, common rooms have mattresses to lounge around lazily and time moves at snail’s pace as each day rolls from dawn to dusk. Here peacocks are a regular visitor to the neighboring wilderness and so are the rufous treepie that would fly into the kitchen during breakfast each morning to sneak a crumb of your bread while you are busy in conversation with your newly made friends.

It is the perfect place to relax after an activity-filled day and we would often spend the nights drinking beer, smoking a joint and listening to Yassin and his friend Khayyam jamming on the guitar. It is on one of these nights that I had an experience of bigotry and racism, the last thing I had expected at a place meant for open-minded travelers.

When I first met Sarah, I felt she is just a talkative woman from Detroit, who would tell you everything except the answer to the question you just asked. Being extremely talkative can sometimes be annoying, and yet not detrimental to anyone. But that was Sarah during the day. At night, after a couple of drinks, her chatter would start to border on offensive remarks to people in the hostel. As with drunk people, at such time, everyone would tend to ignore her banter and some even tried to avoid starting a conversation with her.

On the fateful night, I was sitting around the wooden table of the common room with four other travelers I had met at the Jungle – Pia from Antwerp, Adam from Clevedon, Tom from Birmingham and Yassin. Of late, the common room had become our usual hang-out place at the end of the day. Just like any other night, it was a friendly conversation between people who have found some connection between themselves and their life of travel, when Sarah suddenly barged in and almost immediately started verbally abusing Adam without any viable reason. Being used to Sarah and her rude banters, the rest of us were trying to ignore the situation when she suddenly slapped Adam on his face. It was the cue that things were going to get far worse than the other nights. As Yassin and Tom accosted her for getting physically abusive towards a fellow traveller, I along with Pia tried our best to calm everyone down, not wanting the situation to get any worse than what it already had become.

And then the worse happened. Sarah suddenly shifted her focus from Adam to Yassin and started abusing him about his religion. Being a Muslim, he has been subject to injustice at various places across the world, but even he vouches no one has ever called him a killer for just being from that faith. “You Muslims blew the twin tower”, “Bloody ISIS”, “I hope you get shot” and so on went her hateful remarks as she prowled around in a circle like a jungle cat searching for an opportunity to attack her prey. 

As she attacked the men and the men held her down forcefully to avoid her punches, I was torn for a moment between protecting a woman from getting manhandled or defending the men who were provoked by her. Standing between them, trying to push them apart was the most violent situation I have ever found myself in. It was only after the hostel staff interfered to keep her out of the common room, that I realized I had got nail scratches on my arms during the scuffle. 

The hostel authorities, who were awake the entire night to keep her at bay, asked her to check-out the next morning. An extremely stubborn woman, she somehow climbed the 6 feet high wall around the hostel, trying to trespass, even after they had closed the gates on her acting on their “rights to admission”. It was finally an ambulance that whisked the craziness away from all of us after 10 hours of chaos that shocked the entire hostel, travelers and staff alike. 

Travelling is a great way of meeting people from different parts of the world, with different perspectives of their own. Some are good, some great and some pass by like a gust of wind affecting your life like you had never imagined they could. Most of those memories would bring a smile to your face, but travelling the world may also bring you face to face with a few ugly experiences like the one we had that night or may be far worse than that.

Sarah left me wondering about life that should not be. I’m in Goa, a state that accepts people from different races and cultures with open arms. I live in a country that proudly calls itself secular and says we are united in our diversity. And yet what I witnessed has made me believe there do exist people so full of hatred in themselves that they don’t deserve to travel to such places and malign it with their bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

In words of Yassin, “When I look into the mirror, along with my own reflection, I see many other faces. These are the faces of people whom I have met while traveling the world. By touching my life, all of them have somehow become a part of me.” It is sad that now every time he looks into the mirror, he would also see Sarah, for she has not just touched his life, she has scarred him for a lifetime. And yet he faces each day with a brilliant smile on his face, as if life has been fair to him all throughout.

Dedicated to the Jungle Hostel and all the good people I met here...

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