Nominated for a 2012 National Magazine Award for Personal Journalism. You can read the full story from the NMA website here: Busted
“If you’re a dope user, you’re in the wrong place.”
His pale cheeks were the only part of his face I could see. A manicured beard covered his jaw perfectly. Yellow sunglasses slipped down his nose as he laboured through with my heavy hockey bag. A patch of authority was sewn to his hat and every article of clothing he wore. His suit so dark that it flowed seamlessly into his coal-black combat boots. That was the moment I felt fear, that stomach-imploding fear you get when you can no longer envision your future.
Before heading to the beach I decided to visit the stall ‘for smoking’. Near the path to the ocean, a crude little shack stood with a government logo, hand-painted in Oriya, on a faded wooden sign overhead. I signaled ‘two’ to the thin, moustached man behind the counter. The word ‘Bhang’ was written on the lassi shop window across the street. Except for the hum and honk of distant auto-rickshaws, the town was peaceful and for a moment it seemed like I was no longer in India.
They warned me at the hostel not to visit the beach at night by myself. They warned me twice not to visit the village on the beach. They warned me three times not to trust the village people. They said the people in the village were no better than beggars, thieves and dogs. But as I sat in the lassi shop, sipping the mildly mossy curd drink and crunching the unrefined sugar in my teeth, I watched couples and children remove their shoes and stroll down the sandy lane to the beach. The sun was setting, glinting off angled sheet-metal and turning the wood and white-clay walls of the houses a dark henna colour. My stomach tightened lightly, delivering the bhang into my bloodstream. A smile came across my face (and my mind) as I kicked off my flip-flops and walked to the water.
The road stretched over the prairies as though someone was at the horizon pulling on it as hard as they could. I’d been driving to the border for almost an hour and saw only old barbwire fences lining the road and a grain silo that looked like it hadn’t been used since I was born. The border appeared like a strange oasis in the barrens. I passed the Canadian crossing: a single toll-booth, a small building and two cruisers parked to the side. As I drove on, three tall tolls took shape and a modern glass building grew until it resembled a department store. Other than my truck and the rusted El Camino ahead of me, the three patriotically-painted Suburbans parked out front were the only vehicles in sight. The border guard took one look at me and pointed, “Just pull over to the side, sir. Thank you.”
All my earthly possessions were in the box of the truck. They mostly fit into one huge bag and were completely covered in mud or stunk so bad you wouldn’t dare touch them. Looking through my side-view mirror, I could see the officer glaring unhappily at the state of my belongings as he approached my window.
“Step out of the vehicle, sir. Thank you.”
“This door doesn’t work.”
I slid over to the passenger side while the officer waddled around the front with his hand on the bonnet. As I opened the door and stepped out, the officer held the door before I could close it and looked inside the cab. “Are these items yours, sir?”
I looked past the building onto the great expanse of frozen ground and mowed wheat, wondering who else they could’ve belonged to. “Yup.”
“Come with me, sir.”
The sun set to the left of the beach, over the mud and thatched-roof houses of the village. Palm trees seemed to imitate the gentle swell of the sea, but the layers of dead branches on the beach suggested times of more turbulent weather. Naked children ran in packs to and from the village, the younger ones chasing the older ones, dancing, singing and screaming. A few old men sat in the sand, their hands full of twine, fixing the fishing nets that stretched along the shoreline.
The townspeople started to leave the beach and I was about to follow when a young man sat down beside me with a piece of paper in his hands.
“Excuse me. Sir. Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” I replied, knowing he wanted something from me.
“Excuse me. Sir. Hello,” he said again. “Yes, would you be kind to help me, friend?”
The accent accompanied a peculiar bob of the head that is both unmistakable and incomprehensible to Westerners. Two parts no, one part yes, all misunderstood.
“Um, sure,” I said, giving in.
“My friend has send me a letter from Germany, but I, very sad, I cannot read a letter. Would you be kind to help me, friend?”
The letter looked as though he’d been carrying it around for years. I knew I wasn’t the first person he’d approached and that I wasn’t going to be the last. I felt like I’d been cornered by a telemarketer; a telemarketer in a worn dhoti and open striped shirt.
I took the tattered paper from his hands. It looked genuine enough, dateless, from someone named Dominik, but so faded it was difficult to make out the hen-scratch handwriting. As I read the letter aloud I could feel his big dark eyes on my face and his white smile beaming in the fading sunlight.
“Tank you, tank you. Dominik is my friend. He stays in my house, my family,” he said as he pointed to the village.
“Cool,” I said. “Is he there now?”
“Nono. He come, he came a long time ago. We go fishing together. He stays in my house, eating and sleeping, together my family.”
“Very nice,” I said as I got up to go, feeling it was best to nip it in the bud.
He jumped up and followed me, putting his hand on my shoulder. “What is your name, friend?”
“Ah, Chrees, like the God?”
I laughed, “Not quite.”
He laughed too. “You from?”
“Ah, Canada. It is very nice country I think. How many days you come here?”
We arrived together at the edge of his village, where the path returns to the town. He sensed I was moving towards the path and held me softly by the wrist.
“A few days,” I said.
“You are hungry? You come to my house, meet my family.”
“Oh no, thank you, I have to go.”
“Come. Please,” he said, pulling my arm gently towards his village. “Come. See my wife.”
“No, sorry, I really have to go.”
“Come. Please,” he said, insisting.
I resisted the pull with a smile and shook my head.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “Chrees. We meet again. Good night, friend.”