I time my morning routine around the arrival of the brown bread and apple pastry man at Fatima’s convenience store. Thinning grey hair and bespectacled, wearing white shirt and grey trousers, you’d think he’s on his way to the office – clutching his wares in a striped canvas carryall as if it is his briefcase. Via the beach, I generally arrive at the same time this stout little man is scurrying along the side of the road toward the store. Sometimes I’m too early – Shall I wait? Behind the counter, Fatima’s son, Stevie, responds with a shrug, “Maybe he’ll come…” Nothing is certain. But the flat rounds of whole grain bread scattered with sesame seed and the flaky apple pastries are worth the wait. Rather than handing them to Stevie he finds a little space in the crowded store, and lays out the goods with care. He’s the sole supplier to the village, and supplies nothing else.
Walking back from the store, I watch as the villagers crowd into the church – three days of continuous carnival drum beating has finally given way to the sobriety of Lent. In many ways, Goa is hard to recognize as being part of India, especially along the coast which has been given over to tourism. So I’m grateful to see the continuation of village life that has little or nothing to do with us.
The more we return to Agonda the easier our relationship with the merchants grows, but it’s still one of tourist and shopkeeper. Lakshmi bemoans to us her lack of business this year. Watching her call “Hello” to every potential customer passing by her shop, I understand a little about the difficulty and unpredictability of building a commercial business here, and that these vendors are living on the edge. It is critical for them to make enough money during the brief 4-5 month tourist season that the family can live on for the rest of the year. Competing with many others, she is trying to sell virtually the same selection of cheap tourist clothing and knick-knacks. With a cynical humor, she tells us if tourists don’t return her hello, but look the other way, she’ll continue to call out – “Come and look at my rubbish! Don’t you want to buy some of my rubbish?” Sunk in depression, she tells us she has to borrow to pay the rent on the shop. To make matters worse, her 15-year-old daughter sold a rug worth 2K rupees last week for only 1K. Lakshmi is still obsessed with her daughter’s mistake and the loss that she has to bear – $20 is a lot for her to lose. Her husband makes a little money as a construction worker, but she appears to be the main bread-winner.
As we had observed in Morocco, it’s common for husbands to go abroad to work. The local opportunities are few and far between. Next door, Elvira runs an internet café and handles plane and train bookings for tourists. She has a wonderfully calm sunny disposition and treats every customer as if they are special. Her husband works on oil tankers – 14 months away at a time. She is one of the many “grass widows” who live alone for most of the year. With two young children she says, “We cannot get ahead otherwise.
Meanwhile, our small guesthouse is a conglomeration of nationalities: French, Russian, Italian, Jamaican, German, Moroccan Berber, Israeli – and even Indian guests! It opens up the opportunity to meet and try to understand people completely outside our sphere of daily contact. Russians! Oh, what sinister impressions the word still conjures up – cold wars, spies, KGB. Gulag – all laced with a lot of vodka. But this Russian couple (see left) is studying Vedanta and Ayurvedic medicine, actively searching for a spiritual path. The Italian woman has been coming alone for years to study yoga, and now has virtually given up her architectural practice in Milan to teach yoga in the summer. An elderly German couple (a retired actor and school teacher) come repeatedly to revive and restore themselves in sun and surf. It can be a diverse group of people. There’s moments when on one side the Russians are reading out loud the Autobiography of a Yogi, on the other side the Italian lady is playing Osho (Shree Rajneesh), while we’re listening to Satsang tapes. Meanwhile, the French group is downstairs in the loggia smoking hash and playing Boules.
We’ve become much closer to an English couple who have also been coming here for the past four years. They’re antique dealers, which is obviously close to Gerard’s heart. He’s a great story-teller pulling chapter and verse from his multifaceted life, but the yarns about buying and selling antiques are the ones we can really relate to. I also love to hear him talk about his Cornish background and the tin mines where his family worked (my mother’s inheritance came from tin mines). Sparked by conversations with his wife, my childhood comes into focus and memories rush in. For a moment, I’m back in England. Thank God, it’s not England – but somewhere we can be assured the sun will shine today and we don’t need a raincoat to sit on the beach! Rather than stay in a guesthouse, they rent the upstairs floor of a private home up in the jungle and as the end of our stay in Agonda draws close, we visit them for the last time on their balcony.