India sticks with me. During the extraordinary trip in January through Goa and Kerala, I gathered such a treasurehouse of images, scents, tastes and experiences that I don’t think I will ever be able to fully assimilate them all. If you have a “Bucket List,” India should be on it. As, like, number one.
But let’s get to the point. One of the advantages of alchemy is that you can try, at least in some small way, to bring those experiences back to immediacy — from memory into real presence. Of course you can’t truly replicate anything; even a video or a photo won’t really explain how that breeze came through the trees right then and a glorious purple sari hung in a tiny booth shop lifted for a moment and brushed silk against your skin, or the sudden marvelous hot, rich and sweet shock of a Goan sausage as you eat it in a narrow street restaurant lined with plants clinging to an old rock wall, the chef an armslength away in a miniscule kitchen where he produces miracles. Your mind is the only thing you have to really reproduce those experiences. But you can do something almost as good, by cooking or writing or, like me, making soap.
Now I’ve tried this before. The first experiment (actually done before the trip) was “Monsoon Wedding.” The fragrance was the tricky part here, requiring the layering of scents of earth, spices, and flowers.
The second soap was an attempt at capturing the overwhelming sensory experience of Kathakali dance, a swirl of propulsive drumming, explosive colors, glowing light, and an absolute perfection of expression and gesture by the dancers as they told an ancient story.
There was another adventure I wanted to try to capture. As part of our stay in Goa, we visited the “Queen of Beaches” — Calangute Beach, bordering the Arabian Sea. Goa‘s been legendary since the 1960’s, first as a place for “hippie” travelers, and then as a draw for tourists from all over the globe.
Calangute Beach is one of Northern Goa’s crown jewels. It is a wide swathe of warm, soft sand that stretches for what seems like miles, backed by a vibrant arc of restaurants, shops, and little booths selling everything from T-shirts to incense to artworks. There are couples and families everywhere. You can rent a sun chair and order drinks and food from the restaurant right behind it, to be brought to you as you lounge. Music plays from every direction. Vendors selling scarves, jewelry, and toys wander past (I bought two worked-silver ankle bracelets; the UUH bought a really cool laser pointer that makes a stunning pattern of green stars). And usually it looks just like the pictures you’ll see posted on everything from TripAdvisor to Lonely Planet — bright sunshine, blue sea.
But sometimes it doesn’t. And that’s what really captured my imagination.
We went twice. Once it did look like a calendar picture of “The Perfect Beach” — you know, the image that you use as Your Happy Place when everything around you is going to hell at lightning speed and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. The other time was a little different. There was some cloud cover that gradually intensified, like a thick opaque silk slowly drawn along the horizon, and the entire color of the beach, sky and sea changed. The sky became first a blue-gray and then a cool steel gray, and the sea gradually shifted to match the sky. It was still warm, and the breezes gentle and comforting, but we had crossed some line from blue and gold to gray and white. It was like something had slowly, casually bled the color from a photograph while you held it in your hand.
The whiteness of the foam atop the steel gray waves became even sharper to the eye, because it was hard to pick out where the sea stopped and the sky began. And the grayness stayed as the afternoon went on, the sea and sky darkening further and further, until there was one moment at twilight when the grayness thinned and the moon burst through.
It was as fiery gold as a burning coal. I have never seen anything like it before or since. I think I stood up, involuntarily, when it tore through the darkening gray and hung above the sea like a torch. If I’d had a drink in my hand I would have dropped it (maybe I did, it’s a little unclear right now). And the moon stayed that way, burning and burning, as the light finally left and the sky turned to black and all you could hear was the music, thumping behind you, and the waves.
That image haunted me (in a good way) for months — the steel gray sea and sky, the brilliant white foam of the waves, and the incandescent red gold of the moon. So I had to try. I gathered up some olive oil, palm kernel oil flakes, shea butter and a bit of cosmetic clay for richness, and activated charcoal for the color. And it needed a fragrance that could try to . . . explain how extraordinary this event was — an incense scent, rich with sandalwood and cedar, with hints of jasmine and clove. For the glimmering white break of the waves, I used a pearly white mica mixed in a little of the oils and tightly swirled the top. In the end, I had “Moon over Calangute.”
The Ganesh carving usually sits on my desk, close at hand, but it seemed right for him to be here. Shri Ganesh is a deity of beginnings, a placer and remover of obstacles, and a patron of arts and sciences as well as writing. I dearly hope he’s cool with alchemy.
* I found this picture at Regina Williams’ site on Virtual Tourist. I have attempted to contact her for permission to use the photograph — I didn’t have a camera with me on the day everything went gray, and her picture captured it perfectly. I will remove it if there is any objection.