I want to break free, see I want to break free, God knows I want to break free
Cut to Chris Downer, an unique member of the human race, whose life reads like the plot of a 007 flick, minus the subterfuge but not devoid of beautiful women I suspect, given his obvious charm, high IQ and 100-watt smile. Sorry ladies, he’s taken! As the sun plays peek-a-boo outside, his story unfolds.
Who is Chris Downer? Nowadays he’s the manager of Bomras, the delightful Burmese restaurant on the Candolim strip. How he got here is a rather extraordinary tale – involving pig head deliveries, shag pad trysts, thieving taxi passengers and the sweeping of a factory floor. Perhaps what most sets Chris apart from the pack is guts – the courage to turn his back on conventional pursuits and turn life into an adventure. Along the way, he’s managed a wine venture, published a magazine and travelled the globe.
Has it always been easy? Heck no! Have there been pitfalls and setbacks and disappoints of every kind? Sure. But it’s been a terrific ride, and Chris regrets none of it. In the end, this is a story about freedom.
50% Parsi (mum) and 50% English (dad), Chris grew up in a village on the outskirts of Bangalore where elephants and panthers, from the national park next door, frequently sauntered onto their farm. From the tender age of 2, he stepped into the theatre scene by default, as his folks were immersed in designing sets and costumes. This, in turn, eventually led to the entire family going on national tours. “One of the highlights was bunking school with my parents’ blessings,” he quips.
Graduating with a degree in graphic design, he then began managing events, which is still one of his fortes. “Glamourous fashion shows with scantily clad women were the flavour of the day back then so I had super fun” he says cheekily.
Life in the village where Chris grew up did much to spark his imagination. He explains how his love for cinema was born in the village tent, where a movie played for months at a stretch and, if in Hindi, was translated by the local school master who had the habit of giving away the plot.
In 1995, he moved to the UK with an aim of pursuing a design career but before long opted for a less typical path: that of travelling across the planet. Fast forwarding to 40 countries tucked under his belt, he recounts some of his most memorable moments.
“I got a great kick out of telling my Indian friends that I was sweeping floors in a Melbourne factory. Another quirky experience there was driving a taxi at night; passengers who didn’t have any moolah asked to be dropped off 3 lanes before their actual homes and pretended to go get the cash but then, just jumped over the fence and disappeared. I even had women offering sex in exchange for cab fare”.
Next memory is of running a loading bay for a teaching hospital in the UK. “We had pigs’ heads delivered every week for the dental school as these are closest to human teeth.”
Chris often found innovative ways to get maximum benefit from limited funds. In 1997, he had a rented room in Melbourne but wanted to take off exploring every weekend. So, he struck a deal with an unmarried couple- both lived at home with their respective parents – where they turned his room into a “shag pad” in exchange for the use of their car during the weekend. What a great bargain!
Returning to the present, we move our chat to his take on the local vibe in Goa after moving here in 2010. He praises Goa’s ‘natural beauty and energy” and says it’s “perfect for outsiders like us who don’t fit into square pegs.”
And then the moment comes. Chris reveals to me his formula for life. “My life view is that nothing is concrete; true comedy is an acknowledgment of our mortality and so it makes sense to focus on the comic side of life rather than cater to our egos … I think the best way to spend time is to tie in with someone else’s happiness – family, friends, strangers; basically it makes everything seem worthwhile”.
A couple of years ago Chris and his wife Lee, who has the reputation of being able to work magic with food, opened a café in Calangute and, true to form, instead of hiring traditional employees they invited their international friends to come stay for free but work in the cafe as payment. The café was called Zanjar – Arabic for ginger and the name of the drink given to people needing strength to make the final journey to heaven, as written in the Koran. Because of a number of glitches typical of the Goan culinary scene (problems with the venue, legalities, etc) the café is now on hiatus, though the dream remains alive.
The next gig was setting up a magazine called Travel Goa with 3 other partners. Here again, Chris tapped his social network for article contributions instead of using seasoned journalists. “Pals would write about their unusual holidays and then I’d go onto an amateur photographers’ website like Flickr and get permission to use their pics. A classic win-win scenario”. Travel Goa made its debut last year and was well-received by the public, but then went into recess after some of the partners pulled out.
Chris then became a regional manager for Big Banyan wines (free booze, now that’s a perk I’d like). But the stork came calling and with the constant travel to distant parts of the state, he felt uncomfortable about leaving Lee home alone with his newborn son Luca. That’s when he decided to go into restaurant management. When asked about the changing trends in Goan restos, he answers, “The North Goan vibe has moved upstream to areas like Siolim and Assagoa, because today’s travel savvy tourists are interested in good food eg Ciao Bella, I95, Sublime.”
A large group of patrons stroll into the restaurant just then and start shooting questions about the menu so I reckon its time to exit. My fascinating subject leaves me with these parting words, “in life, in order to maintain happiness, always give more than you get”.