I met Kirill at the German Bakery in Arambol, the hippy-chic beach community in Goa. Mind you, there are dozens of German bakeries (all, invariably, named ‘German Bakery”) strewn across ex-pat neighborhood across India and Nepal, as if some entrepreneurial genius had created a German-style ‘Let’s bring “real” food to the East” Marshall Plan to incubate a cinnamon bun economic development program. Some travelers have speculated that the bakeries were all connected by some hidden central processing facility, because the pastries were so uniformly uninspired. Or perhaps, the bakers were too baked on Manali hash to notice that their taste buds had long since faded into the distant haze of Goa’s previous counter-culture glory.
But it was at a beat-up, though up-beat bakery, in a tight cluster of shops where Arambol’s singular, narrow one-lane road meets the beach, where I met Kirill while taking a break from my evening wanderings along the Arabian Sea.
I was in a mood to talk with someone, and Kirill struck me as an intriguing prospect. He was Russian – as apparent and obvious as I am American, and as easy to spot as a dread-locked post-Army world-traveling Israeli – and yet, there was something distinctly … different. I couldn’t place it at the time but, in retrospect, I think it was Kirill’s absence of arrogance which all-too-many other Russian travelers exude.
Sometimes it’s easy for me to jump-start a conversation, other times I (yes, even I) am more tenuous. One of the ‘tricks’ I began using a lot was quietly mumbling ‘Hello’ or something similar in Russian, which was inevitably met with a surprise-filled “Oh, you speak Russian??” Mind you, I used this primarily with fabulously gorgeous Russian women and, one day, I made the horrific mistake of sharing this conversation ice-breaking technique with my buddy Vlad, the Ukrainian-born Aussie. Vlad, with good reason, subsequently and mercilessly gave me shit about it for weeks. Which I wouldn’t have minded so much my silly attempts had worked better.
I was grateful that Kirill’s English was significantly better than my Russian, though his patience for my stumbling attempts seemed, at moments, to max out. Kirill, as I came to learn, was a musician from St. Petersburg, Russia. We spent many evenings hanging out, with his girlfriend Elina, bass-guitar playing friend Dima and their friend Igor. Igor was a loud, gregarious guy, the manager of St. P’s FedEx (I kept thinking of Igor as Tom Hanks’ Russian counterpart in the film Castaway. Igor had a little taste of mafioso, who’d give the gift of an expensive black SUV to a friend-in-need, a guy who couldn’t be fired … I liked him immediately).
Travel friendships developed quickly, deeply and are all-too-often ephemeral, fading into the increasingly distant memories of an adventure once-lived, in a lifetime which feels unreal, surreal. And maybe, likely, that’s how my friendship with Kirill would have transpired, expired, were it not for the fact that, a few months later (and just a few months ago), he suddenly appeared in San Francisco, conducting a series of house concerts for Russian ex-pats across a dozen U.S. cities.
I picked him up near the San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, and then drove to Golden Gate Park. We walked and talked for hours, smoking a little White Rhino he had already resourcefully acquired from a local dispensary. And, as we walked, there was a moment when my entire body suddenly loosened up and relaxed in a way that I had forgotten possible. A body memory that came flooding back, a reminder of how, just a few short months prior, I had been so deeply in the flow. Here I was, with my Russian friend who I had met in India, transforming a fading memory back into the present.
He explained in insanities of Russian politics and the ridiculousness of Putin’s manipulative antics (think George W. Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ times 1,000). I looked at Kirill, and saw an unquenchable human spirit. Here was a man who grew up in communist Russia, whose literary heroes were Steinbeck and Jack London. His every moment in America was a joy, and he longed for the opportunity to bask in the freedoms of America in a way that few native-born Americans can or will ever fully appreciate (myself included).
Kirill is a true Russian hippie, but that’s not exactly the right word. He embodies the of the counter culture, but in Russia, that means something so much than here in the West. Here in the States, hippies are a dime a dozen. In Russia, it’s all about machismo – it’s a country that will squash the softness right out of you. To live there, there’s a brutal daily reality in which showing any indication of softness is to subject yourself to exploitation. Dog eat dog, defined. In that context, Kirill’s artistic genius, his love and poetry, shine all the more brightly.
Here, then, is Kirill’s latest music video, the aptly named “Nobody dies in paradise” … I don’t understand all the lyrics, but I do remember some of the moments when he filmed in Goa and Hampi, with his friends – now my friends – and so appreciate how well he’s captured and, well, immortalized, the spirit of Goa.