Saturday 11 April 2020

Arambol diaries - Vani

I met Vani last year.
Looking back, what were the chances of bumping into her if it was not destiny?

June 2019.
I was visiting the Yangshuo region in China and was staying in a secluded farmhouse for a few days, in a small village called Dahebei. Not many tourists venture into this part of Yangshuo. They normally stick to the other side of the river at Xingping or in the main town of Yangshuo. I seemed to be the only outsider wandering the area with my camera, when on the second day of my stay, I spotted a group of three riding around on their electric bikes. It was particularly the girl in the group who caught my attention. She had the most beautiful, dark complexion I had seen and striking, sharp features. She was gorgeous! We might have smiled as our eyes met. When I returned to the farmhouse in the afternoon, I heard voices in the lounge, in the otherwise quiet guesthouse. I walked in to find the trio from earlier in the day, having a banter over beer. They were putting up at the guesthouse as well.

We got introduced. They were a group of neuro-scientists from Hong Kong who were visiting China for a conference. The conference had ended early and they were now left with a couple of unexpected free days. Their plan to visit Yangshuo was made the night before, and the booking at the guesthouse was made while they were on the train. I was curious about the girl as I couldn't place her accent, neither could I catch the name her British and Polish friends were using to address her. Turned out, she was an American, of Indian origin. Having lived extensively all over the world, including the UK, she had acquired a pretty much neutral accent that was difficult to place. As if there couldn't be any more surprises, I also found out that she had been living in Hong Kong for about a year, that too in Fo Tan which was right next to Shatin where I stayed at that time. We exchanged numbers and promised to stay in touch. Only when she was writing down her name in my address book that I could actually catch her very Indian name - Vani Rajendran.

Dahebei village - unpaved tracks leading to the guesthouse

Nirvana Organic Farm - a quaint house sitting under the karst surrounded by nature

Back in Hong Kong, we met up a few times in the next few months. It felt uncanny at how well we clicked. We found common interests and beliefs which we could spend hours discussing. I also came to know that alongside being a neuro-scientist, Vani was also a talented musician, a clarinetist. In the next couple of months, she started venturing into the music scene of Hong Kong. She had started to play in various gigs. She was practising more and she called me up to say how nervous and excited she was to be able to live her passion. She invited me to all her performances, but unfortunately by then the Hong Kong protests were causing major disruptions on weekends. I never managed to attend any of them.

On one of our Hong Kong meetups - a blurry mobile click

By August, our lives were entering a new phase. I had decided to leave my job once my contract ended at work, return home and after a break start on something close to my heart. Vani had tentative plans to visit India too with her parents. We hoped to meet up. However, by November, she too had decided to take a sabbatical from her job. She wanted to pursue her music. Both of us couldn't help laughing at ourselves for being the most stupid people on earth, who wanted to give up a comfortable, stable life for a future of uncertainty.

Vani was planning to travel to India in December and stay in Goa. I planned to travel to meet her there while I also visited a part of India I have not been to before. It was in February that I finally landed in Panjim. Vani came over to meet me and also to see Goa, which she confessed, she had not seen yet. From Panjim, I would then accompany her to Arambol. By now her life had taken a major turn. The city girl I knew was gone. The girl who hugged me at the bus station had the unkempt look of a gypsy but under that, she was still the same person, smiling, excited and bubbly, but looking much more relaxed. She was genuinely happy and I loved her new avatar. She had joined a band of wandering musicians, named La Sambusa Latina, whom we both had met in Hong Kong. She was now living with them. They were renting a place in Arambol, a gypsy hub and that is where she was taking me. She warned me to keep an open mind and to prepare myself for a life that had shocked her when she arrived, something she herself was not prepared for. I was welcome to spend the rest of my holiday with them, but I was free to move out any time I wanted.

Needless to say, I took up her offer. Not only was it an opportunity to observe the gypsy life up close, I could also photograph her in her elements, which I had always wanted to do since Hong Kong, but somehow, had never materialised. I told her of my intent to write a blog about my visit which would not be complete without her and the people around us. She was more than excited to be a part of it.

Here from starts my Arambol diaries, my experience of witnessing the gypsy life first hand.

Beautiful Vani

Captured moment during our visit to Old Goa

Vani, setting up her clarinet before the evening performance

In her elements and full concentration. Looking out to the sea as she practises before her performance. 

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