Sweat rolled down my back and my skin prickled. We were parked in a car off the shoulder of a dusty road in Goa, arguing, to my consternation, on the eve of my 30th birthday. It had taken superhuman effort for my two best friends from college and me to slacken the reins of our daily lives and hire a car to drive around Goa – and at that moment, it seemed a long way to come to find the holes in our decade-long friendship.
The trip had so far been as close to perfection as possible. We were shacked up at the gorgeous Marbella Guest House in Sinquerim, the only boisterous group among guests accustomed to its verdant peace and quiet. A was the designated driver and Z was in charge of the playlist and navigation. I’d chalked up a three-day itinerary that included the highlights from the Time Out guide (where I was working at that time). Marbella was a stone’s throw from the famed Burmese tea leaf salad at Bomra’s and the fresh strawberry crepes at Cafe Chocolatti, close enough to the Saturday night market at Arpora, and with enough leeway for spontaneous discoveries.
The pause in our idyll threw me back to weekend drives to my grandparents’ homes that were full of laughter, and the occasional, well-thought-out lecture to the hormonal teen held suddenly captive in the back seat. Long drives that showed how much we enjoyed each other’s company, and also how we shifted to accommodate our differences.
My last road trip through Goa had been with family, when I was in the fourth standard. I only remember 1980s and ‘90s Billboard tapes blaring from the stereo system in my lap, my mum’s carefully packed meals, and the warm winds ruffling beachside palm trees and our hair whenever we took a pit stop so that my dad could catch 40 winks behind the wheel of our beloved Premier Padmini.
This holiday in a way echoed our first girl trip on the loose from the city, although back then it was in the sheltered confines of a military-owned beach patrolled by soldiers who were quick to shoo away shorts-clad girls lying, in open defiance of the law, on a blanket under the stars. We’d carried my hostel stereo along with Tori Amos and Avril Lavigne CDs.
Like all our arguments, truce was finally declared after a moment of stubborn silence, and we rolled on, allowing the breeze and the miles under our wheels to air out the tension.
Road trips are great pressure-cooker labs, enclosed as we are in the same bubble, with a sensitivity propelled by proximity and the newness born out of the suspension of everyday reality. They hold great seeds of revelation – of how much we have changed by the yardstick of our remembered past, and of surprises on the journey that can be uncorked and revisited several times for years to come.
Reunited, we were brought closer to the now unthinkable night when we slid out of hostel by climbing down a bedsheet and then freefalling 10 feet; to a more carefree time that was marked by leisurely meals, conversations and shopping trips. The magic of those years allowed us to slip out of the straitjacket of our daily selves, to stretch and bend out of the forms we had grown accustomed to filling. A was still the first to wake up, and Z the hardest to drag out of bed. My endless baths were marginally shorter, but it still took all three of us sitting on my suitcase to shut the lid.
Being on the road gave us the space to have the big conversations – erasing borders and merging perspectives – to casually slip out a long-simmering thought while waiting at the gas station, to allow half-formed insights to unfurl while baking in the sun.
We did a lot that birthday. I introduced my besties to Arambol, my favourite beach in Goa. We got lost, several times, each time enjoying how well we worked as a team, and how little life’s troubles seemed to matter when we were together.
When Z passed away a year and a half after that Goa trip, her husband’s quote – that perhaps it was because we are riding in the silver lining that we can only see darkness around us – instantly transported us to another 30th birthday road trip, a midnight ride to their farmhouse outside Mumbai when our car’s headlights were swallowed up by the pitch-black forest.
Memories come in snatches. My friend, her head wrapped up in a gorgeous scarf, so beautiful and radiant you wouldn’t even remotely suspect any illness. The awful moment when our rented car got stuck in the sand and we spent a few crazy minutes figuring how to budget for a mechanic before it miraculously came free. Mornings that began with real Irish coffee. Posing against every artefact in the quaint Houses of Goa museum because we were the only visitors that afternoon. Tracking down the chef from the guide’s highly recommended Ernesto’s to his new restaurant, Maracas. Walking in the surf, sandals in hand. Z’s favourite musician, Bonobo, on loop off the speakers she’d carried from Mumbai. We returned with stories that had the satisfying result of making husbands jealous, and fuelling us to heat up the airwaves again with the long phone conversations of our college days.
Moments before we checked out of Marbella, my besties presented me with a memory jar – sand from Arambol, a mosaic tile from Velha Goa, the only three pebbles we found on Sinquerim beach, a shell from the guesthouse – a tangible reminder of all the memories I couldn’t tack down. Somehow, the constant soundtrack to that trip is the sound of the three of us bubbling up with laughter.
Every gang worth its salt has a name, and ours – with all the enthusiasm of college – was Cosmic Biatches, and the truth is, the sum of our friendship is a lot more than memories and, as we learned when we all moved out of hostel, unlimited by space and time. When Bonobo finally played in Mumbai a few months after Z’s death, it was on the night of her wedding anniversary, a surreal moment that had all of us mapping coordinates again to be stitched into the same patch of time.
A road trip is an oft-used metaphor for life: about finetuning your sense of when to take control of your journey and when to let go to the unexpected beauty of a detour, about savouring all the sights and the company on the grand ride into the unknown. On the eve of my birthday, a few hours after our blow-up, I walked out of one of my legendary baths to a room twinkling with fairy lights. My friends had trisected our room with presents that marked my passage into childhood, adolescence and hopefully, adulthood. That luminous moment, like the trip itself, lifted us out of the passage of time; we were at the bridge of all that had brought us together and all that was yet to arrive.
is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.
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