A Fine Balance…

We’ve found life to be so simple here that it was an easy decision to stay for another week and skip the planned trip to explore Ganpatipule, another beach town five hours north of here. Others who’ve been there tell us, “After Agonda, why bother?”
Crabs eggs in the sand
It’s not just the lovely beach and warm water; there seems to be so many interesting people that pass through here…and not only once, they continually return.  Our Polish neighbors have explained to us that there’s a whole Czech community here that dates back to the late 60s beginning with a political activist who came here after he was expelled by the Communists.   Now it has become a well-trodden path between Pragueand here!
The other night, while eating dinner at Fatima’s, a man across from us said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” Pretending my mouth was full, I struggled to place him – unsuccessfully.  “Two years ago, in Almorra!” he prompted.   “Of course…that little restaurant with a hole in the floor where the food was passed up from the kitchen below!” We’d spent only one meal with him talking about how to get to the next town up in the Himalayas. A Dutchman with a Russian wife, spending the summers in Siberia teaching yoga, he’s been coming to Indiafor the last twenty years.  He discovered Agonda around that time.   

What is so special about Agonda?  All these people returning year after year, ourselves included…Somehow it has managed to maintain “A Fine Balance” (Gerard just finished reading the book) between a simple fishing village and a tourist destination.  While other towns in Goa have gone completely commercial, this town has remained “mom and pop”.  Unlike other tourist spots along the coast, here the village extends right down to the beach. Each morning, when I go out for breakfast at around 7.30 am the school children are lining up outside the Catholic School next to the Church, led in morning prayer by white robed nuns.  This morning, Ash Wednesday, Fatima and her daughter-in-law have already been to church. Serving in the little restaurant they are dressed in their decorative Sunday best, ashes smeared on their foreheads.  


There is the ongoing conversation: how much longer can it possibly last?  Each year there is more commercialism. And with renewed threats of a large development at one end of the beach… Surprisingly, the locals are not in favor, even though it would mean more money and business for them.  So in the meantime, we just enjoy it while we can.

For the past month the weather here has been pleasantly mild, for Goa. But as of yesterday, realty struck with the temperature at the beach soaring above 100F with high humidity.  It’s finally time to begin traveling, north from Goa to our next destination, Mahabaleshwar, a hill station, which promises to be decidedly cooler

World War II in 2012

Meeting people in Agonda is simple; daily we hear all kinds of interesting stories personal and otherwise.  Last night over dinner we met a 71 year old German lady from Frankfurtwho, without provocation, launched into a tale of her childhood completely disrupted by war. Lydia’s father served in the First World War and refusing to serve in the second, was imprisoned by the Nazis.  As she related horrific first memories of Frankfurt being bombed and stepping over dead bodies lying in the street, it suddenly struck us that we were hearing yet again the impact of the War from another perspective. 

Maria and her daughter, Christina

Isn’t this so familiar to what we heard three days ago from our Polish friends, staying in our guesthouse?   Over dinner Christina and her mother, Maria, talked about the horrors of occupation first by the Germans and then the Russians.  Maria’s husband was imprisoned by the Nazis; then after the war served briefly with the British Artillery Corp, was repatriated back to Polandand thrown into jail by the Russians. 

A few days before this, we heard Audion’s chilling family history of his father’s collusion with the Germans during the French occupation.  Audioin’s great uncle became the Secretary of State under General Petain in the Vichy Government, opening the door for Audion’s father to follow suit.

Lydia’s first memories in Frankfurt are of the city library being bombed just before she was going to enter the building.  Up until it was rebuilt in 2005, the remains of the arched entryway to the library remained as a ghostly reminder of that day.  She could never get the sight and smell out of her mind.  How could one forget such terror at only four and a half years old?  Maria in Poland, now in her early 80s, who was robbed of a marriage, now refuses to speak either Russian or German, even though she knows the languages.  Even her daughter, Christina, who is quite multinational, has a difficulty with the Russians in spite of loving the culture.  Audioin was born long after the War in France, but grew up in a family of denial because no one wanted to admit to his father’s collusion with the Germans.  This was compounded by the fact that his mother fought in the Resistance, festering an air of dysfunction in the family which resulted in a complete breakdown of communication.   

It’s amazing to us that even after 60 years people are still carrying the burden of World War II.  For Gerard, Vietnam has had its impact – although quite distant – and to meet contemporaries that are still playing out the effects of WW2 seems amazing.  I was less impacted than some British families because due to my father’s blindness he didn’t serve in the war.  Nevertheless, I still have strong memories of bombsites and rationing and my father’s stories of his experience during London bombings.  But for these people, it’s more like a wound that’s never healed.  Public, political and national tragedies, after all, consist of a multitude of private, domestic and individual tragedies.

Graham Paige on the Beach

Koala Beach

 Kola Beach is a very picturesque cove with a look of the South Seas and an atypical (for Agonda) high end clientele. To get there, we waded across an estuary and climbed up over a steep headland offering an elevated view of Agonda and down again on to a small beach.  A strip of sand is bordered by the sea on one side and a fresh water lagoon on the other.  Framed artistically by leaning palm trees, surf spraying over stark black rocks.  The scene is so perfect it looks landscaped – at the edge of the beach, canvas white and green “huts” are distributed among the trees and a palm-canopied café with comfortable bamboo chairs face the ocean.  There is an air of exclusivity, confirmed when we discover the price of the huts.  Sitting among the privileged at the café, we feel like crashers to a celebrity wedding.  


As the sun begins to sink in the sky, a throng of men, women and children emerge from their huts and march toward the lagoon.  It’s time for the evening swim.  Have we broken through the time barrier and landed in postwar Britain at a Butlin’s Holiday Camp or a Communist Russia summer retreat beside the Black Sea?  It’s time to return to the plebian familiarity of Agonda.  As we reach the estuary the tide has come in – hoisting cameras and water bottles on our heads we wade across not knowing how deep the swirling waters are.  The sun sets over the water as we complete the journey back up Agonda beach and arrive at our guesthouse in the dusk.

Dinner after Koala Beach 

We’ve only met one other Argentinean before in India– he was a crazed pothead in McLeod Gunj who thought the lack of Internet service was a sabotage attack of the Indian Government.  Herman  is quite different.  He and his wife have been on the road for twelve years, driving an old Graham Paige car made in the USin the late 1920s.  During this time she’s given birth to four children, the first an 11 year old boy was born in North Carolina enroute to Alaska, the last Wallaby in Australiatwo years ago.   The car is in pristine condition, and has been customized for their needs.  The four children sleep on a wooden platform fixed to the roof of the car, the parents sleep in inside the car.  A trunk is fixed to the back of the car and opens out to form a table with shelves to hold all their cooking equipment.  On one side of the car, sits a cooking stove.

Zapp Family and Graham Paige

Herman and Paloma Tinkering 

Herman wrote a book describing the first phase of their travels – to Alaskaand then through South America – self published it in China.  He says proceeds from the book, “Spark Your Dream” finance their journey.  His wife handles a web site and publicity.  While in the US, the family was on Good Morning America, and NPR.  All along the way, they attract people who support their venture, charging nothing to fix the car, providing free passage from one country to another by boat etc. Herman quotes “The worst the road, the friendlier the people; the better the road, the more distant the people.”

They are living at the far end of the beach where there are always several trucks and campers lined up.  A large hut made of palm branches provides temporary lodging beside the car.  One evening we were invited for tea Argentinean style – strong yerba matte brewed in a small clay pot and drunk communally through a metal straw.  Reminiscent of a scene of the late 60s along California’s Route 1 without the drugs. They are natural parents and genuinely enjoy being with their children 24/7 – homeschooled by mother, Calendaria, in Spanish, and only speaking English with Herman.  Infectiously enthusiastic, Herman only speaks of challenges not problems.  Four young children, an old car that constantly needs maintenance and cramped living space (the car) would probably drive most of us to insanity…But they don’t just cope, they thrive! Their website is worth checking. http://www.argentinaalaska.com/

Gerard Entertains

Same, Same…But Different

Agonda Beach
Returning for the fourth year, Agonda has the comfort of an old friend – the conversation is easy to pick up again. Like the expression that many of the merchants use, Agonda is the same…yet different.

Dominic and Rita

Each year there are more beach huts and restaurants but so far the character remains the same. Our guest house – the home of Dominic and Rita – is only a dusty walk away from the beach.  Families of pigs trot through the yard, large monkeys with black faces lurk in the bushes eating the leaves, and an early morning bird chorus fights with the noise of the crows.  It’s not difficult to create and maintain a schedule here, with plenty of time for swimming and walking on the beach in the morning and late afternoon when the sun is less fierce.

Gerard, the ‘Swami of Mundane Things’ according to a good friend back home – manages to find things to repair in the room – towel racks, squeaky hinges, and after, Salou, the cleaning girl has cleaned the room, he discretely asks for a rag and disinfectant and continues to wash the bathroom down again.  He’s even been pressed into service to relocate a flying cockroach bigger than your thumb from the curtain rail of our bedroom

Salou on her way to work

Meanwhile I grab my shopping bag and head to the greengrocers to buy deliciously fresh fruit and vegetables. Taking a break from eating out three times a day –  fresh yoghurt in clay pots from the corner store with fruit for breakfast and at lunchtime a huge vegetable salad with samosas fresh cooked in the vil vvillage each morning.  

The two English couples we first met three years ago are here again.  We all look slightly older and grayer….but everyone in high spirits to be back in Agonda…Without effort, we pick up where we left off.  The old couple from Swedenwere enthusiastic to see us.  Ingrid crippled with arthritis, had a stroke last year, but still musters the energy to come down here.  Gerard was particularly pleased to reunite with Johnny, who we have known for the last couple of years, a very sweet Buddhist from England who’s had more than his share of hurdles to negotiate. One being an over production of iron in his system which is slowly poisoning many of his organs. He’s found that the weather and the overall atmosphere here have been very healing.  Unable to travel through Indiaany more he’s content to stay here into the rainy season in May/June.  Many hours have already been spent sitting in the shade of an Indian style covered patio at the guesthouse listening to each other’s story.

Gerard and Johnny

Our immediate neighbors in the guest house include a Polish woman who works in films, right now translating from Czech to Polish, a Jamaican woman living in London, and an Italian lady who comes every year and does yoga.  A new arrival is “Snake” with a huge snake tattoo winding up his arm.  He’s traveled extensively in Indiasince 1971 and is an  goodsource of information.  We like the diversity of  those who find their way to Agonda.

A Buddhist couple from Francea little younger than us come to Indiaprimarily to be with the Dalai Lama. Oudwan is French.  Danielle is an interesting combination of Chinese, French and German.  They have wonderful stories including being married by His Holiness 20 years ago while onboard a plane enroute to India.  The way they describe their experiences with the Dalai Lama is very similar to our own with our spiritual Master.  From Bihar, where there’s a huge Buddhist center, they’ve taken a rest in Agonda because Oudwan has a persistent tendonitis like condition in his legs.  This prevents him from walking far or carrying anything.  Swimming was recommended as therapy. 

Lunch at Blue Planet

We had lunch with them at our favorite and only organic restaurant that is pleasant walk into the jungle.  Over the meal, they both told us their background which left Gerard and I with our jaw on the table.  Like our friend Johnny, they’ve had way more than their share of personal problems and have not come out completely unscathed.  For those of us who have blinders on, it’s a sharp reminder of how many wounded people have to pick themselves up daily and get on with it…with enthusiasm.

Danielle and I hike to a nearby cove, leaving the men behind relaxing.  Nice to have someone with my energy to hang out with!  We have birthdays two days apart and as a fellow Libran and fervent believer in astrology, she analyzes my personality with uncanny accuracy. 

Fatima’s General Store cum Restaurant

Every few evenings, we wander up to a restaurant cum general store, which is a central meeting place, partly because it is one of the oldest and least pretentious in town.  A sliver of a building, with a dark interior, steamy with the cooking that takes place in a tiny area in back…cramped with a couple of wooden tables and benches… a wall of yellowing photos of long gone hippie visitors.  When Agonda was a simple fishing village with few if any other restaurants this was a stop for the locals.  It’s still frequented by the locals and the travelers who’ve been coming here for twenty years.  Newbies like us go there to feel the remnants of the old days.. Sometimes the conversations can be provocative sitting on the steps outside where the air is cooler.

One night Fatima, our original guesthouse owner celebrates her 58th birthday with a party.  Everyone who has had any connection with Fatima – a large percentage of tourists as well as locals – is invited and fed a festive dinner in her open courtyard.  The local Catholic priest formally announces her birthday while she and her husband (uncharacteristically wearing a dress shirt instead of his usual white singlet) stand stone faced beside the priest.  In front of them is a chocolate birthday cake sitting on a pedestal under a crocheted sky blue doily.  A huge display of flowers surrounding the numbers “58” is made entirely out of cut fruit.  A small home made hot air balloon is lit – at the first attempt it rises up and lodges dangerously in a palm tree. A boy climbs up the tree and shakes it loose to fall on the ground below.  But at the second attempt, it soars up into the sky and far away.  The evening is completed with desert –cornstarch custard with mixed fruit…..an Indian favorite adopted from the British that Gerard enjoys for more than me.  I developed a permanent aversion after being fed too much lumpy custard mixed with canned fruit as a child.

Without evening discos and bars, Agonda continues to appeal to an older group like ourselves.  But I notice an influx of young people and with it the WiFi connected devices.  Back packers now also travel with a large screen Apple laptop. They seek out WiFi enabled cafes – of which there are several this year – and sit on Facebook, search the Internet or watch movies.  I can see how computers can be a useful ally for the solo traveler – an undemanding companion to hide behind when you’re eating alone in a restaurant among strangers.  But if so, then can’t they also be a too easy substitute – a wall between you and the opportunity to meet others when traveling?  We have both commented before about the impact of guidebooks.  As helpful as they are, they have reduced the need for face-to-face exchange of information among travelers.  Computers have now compounded this trend.