The Changing Face of Agonda

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Now after so many years visiting Agonda it’s hard to find a subject we haven’t already touched on. I dream about this beach when we’re back in Boston – and so far returning hasn’t let me down. The sea and long stretch of silky sand are just as alluring. At night I go to sleep to the sound of the crashing waves and in the early morning, the symphony of tropical birds is as enchanting as ever (until the raucous crowd of crows compete).

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And there’s our routine – my early morning walk down the beach to get curd and samosas, followed by tea at our seaside café, a friendly chat with other long termers, and then into the waves. Lunch is eaten outside our room to the selected sounds from Gerard’s collection of jazz and world music. In the afternoon we continue to work on the story begun here a year ago in this very room; and before sunset a final stroll down the beach. (Gerard has become so involved that he is now more co-writer than just editor of both this story and the blog)

But each year records more changes that threaten to disrupt the rhythm of our life here. Along the road bordering the beach there is still more commerce – ice cream parlors, beauty salons, a surf shop selling boards and lessons. Among the palm trees lining the beach the huts have multiplied like mushrooms overnight – some looking barely habitable, others elaborate with glass windows and chaise lounges on the porch. All will be torn down at the end of the season, material piled under tarpaulins and bamboo fronds to protect against the monsoon, and then reassembled for the next season.

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Everything and especially food is more expensive. You can’t blame the restaurants for a reasonable increase – but doubling the price of steamed rice since last year is unacceptable. The weakening Euro means there are fewer Europeans… and the collapse of the ruble even fewer Russians. Only the merchants lament the absence of the rowdy drinkers; fortunately it seems to be the peaceful yoga-loving ones that have enough rubles to still come, including our good friend Tatiana. While tourism is down this year, more Indians are coming to the beach. In fact last year was the first we really noticed their presence in Agonda at all. Families with children, bringing elderly grandmothers who from their scowls look like they’d be much happier left at home; young honeymooners, single men playing cricket on the beach in the evening, partying into the night. They’re treading further into the water – and all taking selfies.

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PUJA, LAXMI’S BEAUITIFUL DAUGHTER

And there are those who’ve left for good – “Boom”, the Italian professional photographer who loved everyone and everything, including morning rum and coke, finally succumbed to liver cancer.

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The rich Punjabi, who lived in the large house on the hill overlooking the street with his coconut palm grove stretching down to the beach, is gone, cremated in front of his house. And then the banana lady’s father died – for two days the bananas remained locked inside her stall, until with sad face, she was back in business again.

Our ears are assaulted by the ever increasing noise mostly from motorbike horns. Throughout India there are more and more motorbikes – and Goa is no exception. Agonda may be quiet relative to the other Goan beach towns, but even here, naïve and reckless tourists on rented bikes speed up and down the narrow road already crowded with cows, dogs, pedestrians and other speeding vehicles. Yesterday we saw two accidents – not fatal but still injurious. Returning from nearby Chaudi on the bus, we noticed two young tourists limping out of the hospital their bodies adorned with large white plasters, one with ugly road burns spreading up his arm. And in the evening, two Indians on bikes collided with a dog and landed bruised on the verge of the road. An astute traveler in Ahmedabad commented that the new music of India is the piercing horns of motorbikes. Everyone is diligent in following the quest for HORN PLEASE.

But the biggest change we see is trash. Agonda has become a dirty place – except on the beach that is swept clean daily. There is trash everywhere – plastic containers, tin foil wrappers from crisps, chips, cookies, chocolate; the night air is polluted with the toxic smoke and fumes of fires attempting to burn what shouldn’t be burnt. At least more of the plastic bottles are collected and recycled but the endless stream of plastic in other forms continues to mount along the roadside.

P1010581For eons Indians have dumped their trash wherever they felt like it and it posed little problem – but in the past 50 years with the arrival of plastic it’s now become a serious issue. Trash thrown into the bushes only a couple of meters behind the guesthouse has grown into mounds of plastic and an off-shore breeze picks it up and blows it on to the street and, further, toward the beach. This year we notice construction debris – broken pieces of concrete and tile thrown carelessly along the roadside. It is true that local and state governments have no conception of how to deal with the increasing amount of trash the tourist industry is creating here.

Gerard had a brief conversation with our landlady. He told her, “As accommodation prices rise so will the expectations of tourists. Soon it will no longer be acceptable to continue disposing your trash in the same old way.” At first Rita replied, “Well, yes…that man across the street…” He interrupted her, “No, it’s not just the man across the street, it’s the whole village, and the State. Unlike the rest of India, Goa is highly dependent on the tourist industry, making the problem more urgent here.” Rita listened with a blank expression. She really had no idea what he was talking about.

Obviously this is an issue that concerns not just Goa, but the whole subcontinent. Dry and dusty, that’s always been India. But now it’s dry, dusty and with an added layer of fragmented plastic. A recent article in the Goan Times discussed that because local authorities are incapable of dealing with this crisis, they are considering bringing in private contractors. But what will be the consequence of this? While there’s a scarcity of land protection policies in Goa, there are a few enforcements – segments of beach cordoned off for the hatching of turtle; how close you can build to the beach and what has to be dismantled at the end of the season. Will these restrictions survive privatization or will it be a capitalistic free for all?

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But today, we’re still enjoying Agonda. Good friends from England are with us for the seventh time. The four of us take a two-hour hike through the jungle, a path they’ve discovered to Butterfly Beach – an isolated cove that suddenly appears out of the undergrowth as we descend toward the sea. The American couple we met in Varanasi last year and then saw again in Agonda, have turned up unexpectedly. We learned that they’d preceded us in Gujurat, in both Ahmedabad and Diu, by only a few days. And when we mentioned how wonderful Nawalgarth in Rajasthan was, they said, “Oh yes, we visited it only a few years ago” – even staying in the same guesthouse! They have encouraged us to try Thailand. We’re concerned about vegetarian diet there but they’ve assured us it can be done. But all of this is a story for another time.

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Gujurat Epilogue

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The guidebook mentioned nothing about the Nioda Caves on the edge of town. The locals referred to them as quarries, if at all. No one seems to know much about their origin. To us they appeared to be beautifully and deliberately designed shelters for a large community.  One cave opened into another, and yet another. The morning sun shone through triangular-shaped entrances and rectangles cut into the ceilings, illuminating a magical space below.

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Deep tanks presumably for water in the corner; one cave appeared to be a meetinghouse with a raised platform along one side. Steps cut into the side of the cave seemed to lead to nowhere. The atmosphere was serene. Who were these people? Why did they decide to settle just outside the city walls? Later we searched the Internet – the only description we could find was that they were Portuguese quarries. An English friend staying in our guesthouse, who had visited the caves at our encouragement, confirmed this theory. Rationally it might make sense…the wheel ruts above the “quarries” where the stone was carted away. But then why were the walls carved at an angle? And what were the strange pyramid shapes hanging off the ceiling? Who would make an entrance to a quarry in the shape of a triangle? Whatever their original purpose the caves were a wonderful place to spend the morning.

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Ten people sitting around a large dining table; it’s the only place in town you can get a real cup of coffee one says – they all agree. It immediately strikes us we all have something in common: our age. We can all tell our stories without having to give the historical background. One way or other we were all there. Gathering together on Fernando and Alina’s front porch for breakfast is a morning ritual. Most have been coming to the island for years, finding it a suitable getaway from the winter gloom of Europe. By the time we’d finished our first cup of “special” cardamom chai another common thread emerged. All of them have travelled through India for decades but now in their sixties and seventies the crowds, dirt and noise have become too much. Yet India’s pull is still so great that they’ve sought out this hideaway – India with a European twist. There’s a beach but that’s not the reason they come here. So then what to do?

The Italian woman takes orders for pizza that she will make at the local bakery; the profit is spent on shoes for local poor children. Gerard asked her when she first came to India. “42 years ago!” The Japanese attends mass twice a day, and spends the rest of the time reading scriptures fingering her rosary beads. The Frenchman, his hat a spray of tall feathers spends the day, with his Asian wife, trying to catch a glimpse of pink flamingos in the salt marsh. Gerhardt from Austria tells a similar story- after thirty years of wandering through India looking for the Truth in a recognizable form is now content in his solitude to spend each day in the narrow streets of this old Portuguese town with a late afternoon jog on the beach.

They all seemed so familiar with each other, and to us as well. Through the year we’ve met so many people that could have been them. Different face, same story. As breakfast finished, each person got up and went their separate way. Sitting at the empty table we looked at each other, wondering.

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Bohra Mansions, Jain Temples and an Island in the Arabian Sea

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Gerard likes to look for places that sound interesting as a destination. Equally important is finding ones that are not yet overrun by tourism, and of course each year that gets harder This was one of the main reasons we picked Gujurat – the Sun Temple in the north, Palitana in the middle and Diu, the Portuguese seaside town in the South. But the consequences can be the difficulty in getting there in the first place; secondly, the scarcity of guesthouses and more problematic, when we call to make a booking no one speaks English. We learned that in the state of Gujurat, guesthouses are now required to fill out reams of extra paperwork for foreign guests. Now we understand why a number of guesthouses would not make a booking with us – too much bother.

After a heartfelt send off from our Rising Star family, one of the three brothers drove us to the bust station to make sure we made the right connection to Ajmer. A pretty train journey through the countryside and we got down in the small town of Sidhpur at 7 pm in the dark. A solitary rickshaw drove into the station – what a contrast to Varanasi, Goa and so many other places. We had no booking but I had my sights on one of the few listed hotels because it was named “The Marigold”, with visions of Maggie Smith emerging in the reception area. Arriving at a modern roadside hotel/restaurant, we were informed they had no vacancies. I began to ventilate…Gerard told me to take a deep breath. I guess the man at reception had a change of heart and said he had a room after all. After reams of paperwork, including finger printing, we were shown our room.

Why did we go to Sidhpur – a small town in northern Gujurat that few tourists have ever heard of? I saw a picture of the Bohra Victorian style mansions on the Internet and when I showed Gerard, he said, “We must go there!” With a little research we discovered that the Bohra Muslims are a minority sect that is not accepted by the majority of the Muslim community. They designed their mosques in a different style and the women wore brightly colored burkas instead of the usual black. Affluent merchants, they settled in Sidhpur in the late 19C and early 20C and built their mansions to emulate the style and existence of living in Europe.

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So the next morning when the hotel manager asked why did we come here, we tried to explain. He didn’t understand but helped us get a rickshaw into the center of town. In a pharmacy we found a young boy who actually understood what we were looking for. Back into the rickshaw, turning a corner in this busy dusty Indian town, suddenly the streets widened, almost boulevard like, lined with elegant Victorian style townhouses painted in pastel hues of pink, lilac, and mandarin orange. For a minute we thought we had been dropped into England or on a movie set. The facades had intricate, wood details and stained glass windows.

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The largest home known for its 360 windows is empty. In fact more than half are empty. The area seemed deserted with only the occasional couple of people on the street talking, or a woman sweeping a wide staircase. Apparently the Bohras primarily live overseas today and only return to their ancestral homes on important occasions.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a large new temple complex recommended to us. We were not impressed by its modernity, but we gravitated to the beautifully kept grounds. Suddenly gunshots rang out. At first we paid little attention. Firecrackers, cars backfiring – there’s often loud bangs in India. Then we saw a man in military uniform crouched behind a wall firing a rifle. Things were getting more serious. Had we landed in the midst of a terrorist attack? More military police appeared and herded us back toward the temple with other visitors. They dragged two wretched characters out from behind the wall, dropped to their knees, bound and gagged, one with blood running down his leg and then led them off in front of our eyes. Then the light dawned – this was a practice exercise! But it was no laughing matter. Gurujat is known for communal tension and violence – the worst in recent years, in 2002 in the town of Godhra when Muslim mobs set fire to a railway car filled with Hindu pilgrims returning from the temple of Ayodhya – 58 were killed. The incident sparked huge riots across Gujurat where literally thousands of Muslims were killed.

In the afternoon we took a bus to the next town – Mahsana. This time we’d been able to book ahead but New Janpath was on a very noisy main street and the room was grubby. For an hour we tried to find another hotel – up and down the long street on foot and by rickshaw. But each one either claimed it was full or if there was a room available, it was even grubbier than our original choice. It goes without saying none of them catered for western tourists. So tired and caked in dust we returned to Janpath. The Sikh gentleman behind the desk, distant and dignified in his deep blue turban, didn’t register surprise at seeing us again. And the room didn’t look so bad after the boy had changed the sheets and we’d got out the disinfectant wipes. And at night the constant rumble of traffic drowned out dogs barking.

After tea in the restaurant downstairs, we acknowledged two large portraits of Sikh Gurus on the wall. Our Sikh host was only too happy to explain that one was the first Guru, Nanak, and the other the last Guru, Gobind Singh. Then he told us the local Gurudwara was celebrating Gobind Singh’s birthday and asked us to join his family at the free langar (meal) tonight. Twenty minutes earlier than arranged, he knocked at our room with three young girls in tow, dressed up in their Indian party dresses. The somber Sikh had become a jolly grandfather. A nephew who spoke good English appeared and drove us the short distance to the Gurudwara. After a few minutes in the meeting room, listening to readings from the Guru Granth Sahib, we went downstairs to where servers were providing food to the congregation sitting cross-legged on the floor in rows. More of his family was enthusiastic to meet us. The women hovered around me until one about my age finally asked about my children, gesturing “big or small”? I said, “No children.” A look of incomprehension came across her face – there was nothing more to say; we no longer had any common ground. Turning to an elderly man, standing next to me, a poet who had published an impressive five books of social and political satire, we began to talk. He told me he’d written enough – now the time had come to live in the present and practice the good code of living of a Sikh. He talked a lot – but I guess it was in the here and now…

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The reason for visiting Mahsana was to visit the thousand-year-old Sun temple some sixty km out of town. It escaped the Mogul wrath, and is in remarkably good condition save erosion from acid rain on the soft sandstone. It was Sunday and the ocher monotone of the temple contrasted with the bright colored clothes of the Indian families enjoying a day out.

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Usually tanks, used for sacramental bathing, have little interest for me. This one on the other hand was so well designed that the sun and shadows of the numerous levels of steps was quite breathtaking.

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The next day moving on to Bhavanagar, yet again we were unable to get a hotel room. Finally, a very helpful young man explained to us that the state of Gujurat now requires guesthouse and hotel managers to keep separate detailed records with photographs and thumbprints of all foreigners. Understandably the smaller ones can’t be bothered. He arranged a room for us at a “better” hotel, which actually turned out to be a blessing. The room was clean and relatively quiet save for the small temple right across the street that enthusiastically rang gongs and beat drums at 4 am (to make sure we were up to do our meditation). They also took the opportunity to RING in the New Year! There was an excellent hotel pure veg restaurant downstairs. When I drew the waiter’s attention to a little mouse scurrying across the floor, he smiled and muttered – ‘Oh yes, the mouse’…he could have been Basil at Faulty Towers!

The bright spot of Bhavnagar was the hotel. It’s the least desirable town in Gujurat, perhaps India that we’ve visited. Nevertheless it was necessary to stop in order to go to Shatrunjaya, a mountaintop covered with over 900 Jain temples.

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The records go back to 5C AD but the existing complex only dates from the 16C. The guidebook mentioned the two-hour walk up the mountainside, but failed to be specific. In fact, there are 3,400 steps. There was the option of being carried up in dholies but pride wouldn’t allow it. As we climbed people chatted with us – why were we here, where had come from etc.

P1010396A helpful distraction – especially for Gerard! They were Jains visiting from Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu etc. and told us interesting details about Jainism. It was quite early in the morning, and large numbers of Jain monks and nuns were returning – running at a joyful pace in their white robes and bare feet. (For one month the visiting nuns are required to go up and down 99 times, 3 times a day. Jainism is a demanding religion of self-discipline and deprivation.) I didn’t have high hopes of Gerard reaching the top – but he did.

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The density and complexity of the many temples sitting on this mountain peak can’t be taken in on a single visit. Photography was restricted in many areas much to Gerard’s frustration especially after carrying his big camera up all those steps. But the effort was well worth it, a very unique place. And now we have to face the long trudge down, legs already a bit shaky.   Descending proved much more arduous than going up. Where are those dholies when you need them? We rode back on the bus to Bhavnagar, in weary silence. The next day our calves burned, and they still hurt two days later.

Out last stop in Gujurat is not really Gujurat but an old Portuguese territory now independent and controlled from Delhi. Diu is a small island off the south coast, sitting in the Arabian Sea. It is a favorite holiday destination for the Gurjuratis largely coming down from Ahmedabad, and when we arrived on New Years Day it was still crowded with families given the long weekend. Again finding accommodation wasn’t easy but we eventually took a room in a Portuguese homestay, “Heranca Goesa”. Unlike the Goans, our host seems more Indian than Portuguese.

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We thought Diu would be a pleasant place to end our long and dusty trek through Rajasthan and Gujurat. In addition to the harbor with picturesque fishing boats there are several beaches (though none as dramatic as the long stretch of white sand in Agonda), an old fort and some caves you can visit.

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Because it is difficult to reach by public transport, few western tourists come to Diu – although we ‘ve seen more here than anywhere else in Gujurat. Like Agonda there are “snow birds” that fly here repeatedly each winter from Austria, France, Ireland etc. – but they are an older group and the beach does not seem such a draw. Like summer folks on Nantucket, they meet each other for breakfast, ride around town on bicycles and converse for hours over dinner at a garden restaurant that serves decent pasta dishes. In the beginning it seemed to me a bit of a clique, but that’s not really true. These people know each other and don’t know us yet. On hindsight it felt that way in Agonda also when we first arrived. It just takes time to get to know people.

Gujurat has some fascinating destinations but it’s a tough state to travel in. Supposed to be one of the most successful up and coming states economically, it is hard for us to believe. Maybe Ahmedabad, the state capital and one of the hi-tech centers of India, is different. We will see when we go there to fly down to Goa (no trains available, 58 days in advance). But the rest of the state is poor, towns are drab and dusty, public transportation is not great, roads are not in good repair, and the added requirements on hotels for foreign travelers makes booking very difficult.   Everyone agrees it is a silly law, probably connected with terrorism but it’s not good publicity and is working against the state in terms of tourism. Foreign travelers are still an oddity and object of curiosity here, but everyone has been helpful and so friendly – at bus stations, at intersections trying to find a guesthouse, waiting for buses along the road etc. etc. These momentary experiences will stay with us as long as will the memory of the impressive sites we’ve visited. With all of India’s ancient monuments, its people undoubtedly are its biggest asset, and Gurujat certainly reflects this.