On this our sixth visit, Agonda has changed more than any other year – more beach huts, trinket shops and restaurants. So much for the “fine balance”…crass commercialism wins out again. Along the road beside the beach, the last empty space has been developed. A long blur of oversized blue and white cottages have been squeezed in. Cows stand beside the new development in bewilderment wondering where the scrub land, their last patch of grazing ground, has gone. But the beach and sea remain the same, as lovely and empty as ever! The town does not seem any more crowded with tourists; the increase in facilities not matched by a larger influx in visitors. Once again, more people competing for the same tourist dollar! There’s talk that the Mumbai Mafia has arrived and the locals finally succumbing to the allure of developing Agonda into a more sophisticated resort like the rest of the coastal towns of Goa. As everywhere in India an increase in food and gas costs has caused a spike in restaurant prices – but even more so here.
At first I’m put off by the changes. Agonda’s lost its quaintness and tranquility – and I say, “This is the last time we come here!” But after a couple of days the therapeutic power of the environment works its magic and I feel so healthy – a tonic of sea water, sun and fresh air combined! And I’m not the only one to benefit; we’re personally aware of many who’ve come to Agonda with a variety of physical ailments, emotional wounds, and mental worries – they relax and feel better.
But against the backdrop of such physical beauty…this is the world after all, and tragedies happen…two fishermen were drowned this year, entangled in their fishing nets. In nearby market town, Chaudi, a construction site collapsed, killing over 30 workers. One morning, I saw a cow wandering on the beach with a huge bloody gash on his side…the next day it’s worse. Perhaps the crows have been pecking at the wound. At first it appears he got entangled in a barbed wire fence. But then someone says he was probably nosing to close to a restaurant and the cook threw boiling oil at him. This would never happen in Hindu India, and if it did, the culprit would suffer the same or worse fate as the cow. For Christian Goans the cow is not sacred, although most Goans would never inflict such an extreme act of cruelty. Animals in general are not treated with the same respect as in other parts of India. Stray dogs are kept at bay with sticks. The monkeys have been frightened out-of-town. They still return to steal the guava fruit from a tree in the garden of our guest house. But if Rita catches sight, she brandishes her stick and they hide muttering in the nearby trees. (The Animal Rescue League has stepped in to address the very disturbing acts of cruelty on the cows.)
With a little negotiation we manage to get our usual room overlooking the far end of the beach, at only a nominal increase in rent. Where everything is more expensive, we probably have the best value in town! We settle into our routine, framed by our meditation schedule and two swims a day. A cacophony of noise greets us at dawn – pigs grunting, crows squawking, a mocking-bird playing call and response with Gerard. Wandering down the beach before most of the town wakes up, I buy our breakfast and lunch. Over our morning chai we watch dolphins leaping high in the waves. Gerard disgraced himself by forgetting his swimsuit. How could he ignore such a vital item! But the swimming must go on – and after an intensive morning search, he manages to find a magnificent floral substitute in the tourist shop.
As we’ve mentioned many times before, one of our main interests in traveling are the people we meet along the way. And this year has been no exception. Especially interesting is meeting those who also experienced the ‘60s first hand and live to tell about it. We were introduced to another couple from the west coast who were immediately so likeable that within a day or so we were exchanging stories from back in the day. Gerard was particularly interested in her radical activism, divulging that she was a Weatherman for a couple of years. Leaving US just before the Weathermen and SDS became radicalized, Gerard did not know that much about the movement. From political activism she moved into academia and then became connected, and still is, with Maharaji, also known back in those days as the Boy Guru. We laughed when we realized her best friend back home happens to be an old acquaintance of ours we have not seen for many years!
And then last night I sat next to a woman in a café who lives in Totnes – my native place, as the Indians would say! She came there via Zimbabwe twenty-five years ago, lured by the opportunity for farming that she no longer had in Zimbabwe. But now sadly, the farms are even disappearing from Devon. Six degrees of separation?
Then there are the regulars: our English friends who rent a house above the beach each year, in our guest house, the older German couple, Andre and Isabelle from the south of France, the Russian family studying Ayurvedic medicine and Vedanta. And then there’s Christina who lives in Prague and her mother from Poland, who has Alzheimer’s but after three consecutive years in Agonda is acting and looking younger than ever. A tall lanky Swiss, who makes Gerard look positively robust, sits on his patio playing classical music on guitar and violin. An Italian octogenarian, Boom-Boom as he likes to be called, still rides by on his motor scooter, beginning each day with a shot of rum even though his dark tanned body is supposedly riddled with cancer. We all get pulled back for one more season!
Among the three Goan women we profiled last year, Geeta is back in her store with a new husband and three-month old baby. Although it appears that business is not great, she’s still a lot happier than last year, clutching her new born son. Lakshmi is still trying to figure out how to make a living from selling cheap tourist clothing that few want to buy. Her three youngest children help in the store when they’re not in school. One night, her teenage son is attacked by a drunken Indian right in the store, and the next day his eye is half closed and swollen. A CT scan reveals it’s not permanently damaged. Meanwhile Lakshmi’s brother-in-law is dying in hospital from cirrhosis of the liver caused by a daily diet of vodka. Alcoholism has not escaped Agonda. Lakshmi is a sympathetic figure – a hardworking woman trying to make a living in a highly competitive environment who still has to deal with the unexpected costly traumas of family life. With a husband who does seasonal work at best, her only financial stability is from her eldest daughter who now has a job year-round at a high end resort.
On all our visits to Agonda, we’ve never felt the need to visit any other of the resorts along the coast. But this time, we take a day trip to nearby Pallolum – a series of naturally beautiful coves but cluttered with restaurants and shops, making it feel claustrophobic. It was a relief to return to Agonda.