Snake on the Beach turns to Plastic

With less than a week left in Shiroda, I’m trying not to rush time at the beach. After swimming, I walk a couple of miles in one direction in the morning, and then the other in the evening, happy to still hear the noisy waves. For the first time since last July, I’m able to spend long periods of time without being reminded of my hearing loss.

In the cool of the early morning, the array of birdsongs float through our window. A rust-colored bird with incredibly long tail feathers, his crown ultramarine blue; a fat little chirper, bright yellow with contrasting black stripes. Later, an iridescent green beauty, the size of a robin, with an orange beak. Looking harder into the mango tree, we can see a tiny bird, no bigger than your thumb, feeding on the flowers, moving so fast, it’s impossible to photograph. When we have the camera, we don’t see the birds; when we don’t have the camera, we see them!

Martin has managed to come up with new dishes nearly every day for us. Though he’s not a vegetarian he seems to have mastered the cuisine. He has chicku trees in his yard and is harvesting the fruit and serves it for dessert. The sweetness and soft texture has no comparison to the grainy fruit we eat elsewhere in India and occasionally find at home.

Martin mentioned the fishermen accidentally capture sea snakes and throw them half dead back in the water for the hawks to feast. Numerous times, we’ve seen a hawk flying high in the air with a snake hanging from its mouth.
“Should we be concerned about sea snakes?”
“No, they stay far out at sea. Occasionally, a sick and dying snake washes ashore.”
“What about snakes around here, around the house?”
“Oh, yes, we have plenty of snakes There’s a viper who’s so poisonous if he bites you, you’re dead before you hit the ground.”
Gerard’s voice has a trace of anxiety. “What about cobras?”
“Of course. When we were building the new house five years ago, I was walking around the property and just about to step on what I thought was a stick. Guessing that it could be a snake, I gently stepped back and waited. It slithered away. I went to get my torch and by the time I returned the snake had slipped into a large bale of wire. Fetching my neighbor, a young brazen man came with his large stick and pounded on the bale of wire. The king cobra reared up, ready to attack. With a mighty blow from the stick, the cobra was struck dead.”

In an apologetic tone, Martin said, “We had to kill it, or it would have bitten one of the workers for sure.” He thinks for a moment. “When I was a child, the leopards, snakes, monkeys all stayed in their own domain. Now, because of deforestation and mining, they have fewer places to go, encroaching on our plots.”
“Yes, they routinely prowl for pigs and dogs.”
The fate of Blackie’s mother is still fresh in our minds.

Martin grew up in Mumbai, but he would visit his grandparents in Shiroda during school holidays. The remains of the old adobe style family house sit beside the larger modern concrete guesthouse. As a child, he’d sleep outside long before ceiling fans.

“What about the mosquitoes? I ask.

“Even with the heat and humidity, you had to cover up with a sheet.”

To get to the house, was an ordeal; no road for miles. Martin was of two minds: spending his holidays here; he loved nature and the fresh air, but there was little to do, no friends. At that time Indians did not go in the sea, they’re only now daring to venture further into the water than their ankles. Martin spent days on end roaming the beach and talking to the fishermen. Today, his feelings about being here are quite different. After spending thirteen years working in Dubai as a construction worker, he decided to retire. His time now spent in Shiroda is the reverse of what it was as a child. One month in Mumbai with his wife and daughter and the rest of the year, even the rainy season, here.
“Less pollution and I love nature. Just listen to all of the birds! Why would I want to spend more time in Mumbai?”
He still does not swim, but often goes down to the beach in the evening to chat with the fishermen while they’re preparing their nets for the morning catch.

Friends send us a New York Times article, “Pirate Days are Over: Goa’s Nude Hippies Give Way to India’s Yuppies.” It’s not telling us anything new. Over the past ten years, we’ve watched the increase of the wealthy young Indian tourist pushing up restaurant prices, turning sleepy cafes into raucous night clubs. The hippies are long gone and so are the characters. Like the Indians, the new westerners come with money, to sunbathe and drink. They’re not travelers.

But Shiroda has not yet caught up with the times. Without facilities, it attracts only day trippers from Goa on motorbikes. The beach is long enough to absorb them. The Indian visitors dominate, but they come locally by car or bus, and with their children. Not rich, they frolic in the water in their saris and salwar kameez.

On Sunday, a return trip to the local market, crowded with fruit and vegetable sellers peddling their goods to an enthusiastic crowd. Hindu women in saris, Goan Christians in their tight floral cotton dresses, two slender Moslem girls in flowing black robes and lace veils. Only three other foreigners were seen. With no wristwatch, I make the purchase of the day for 100 rupees ($1.25). Thinking of how many hands the watch must go through before reaching the customer, how can anyone make any profit, least of all the person who first assembled it? The plastic watch stirs memories of some equally cheap watch from Woolworth’s I bought as a child, loving it for its shiny white strap!

Walking on the sand at high tide in the morning, we’re horrified at how much plastic refuse there is now, discarded by tourists or washed up with the tide. Unlike Agonda, this beach is not swept by an army of saried women each morning. Fip flops, empty toothpaste tubes, whiskey bottles, ice cream wrappers – all plastic – entangling itself in seaweed. It’s a disgrace, ruining this beautiful beach. And how many other beaches? Plastic has infiltrated itself so much into our lives that it’s hard to think back to a time when there was none. As a young child, we went to the beach with a large raffia pick-nick basket, tin plates and cups strapped inside. Sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, a Cornish pasty still warm from the oven on a china plate, fish and chips in newspaper. Then the novelty of plastic began to arrive, jelly sandals, in shiny jewel colors that you could wear into the sea, clear plastic macs that folded up into a pocket-sized plastic wallet, guarding the ever-present threat of rain at the beach. My father’s portable radio with its red imitation leather lid that he’d place on his lap listening to cricket scores. We were in awe of plastic and its creative genius. Now, fifty years later, we cannot live without plastic even if we tried, while the reality of its threat to the planet is ever more real.

Gerard continues working on his writing, approaching it as he does a painting – first with a big brush, then revisiting, inserting the detail. He has amazing perseverance. I enjoy editing the writing, a little strange because the story has now caught up with me. I’m reading about how he felt when first meeting me in WH Smiths in Sloane Square, London and then taking me traveling for the first time to North Africa. Despite getting together with Gerard, it was not an easy time in my life, and one I’ve tended to brush over and never tried to come to terms with. Somehow, it seems constructive now, to be finally confronting this period through Gerard’s writing.

Sea of Tranquility

It was a relief to see Martin waiting for us at the airport in Goa, along with a car and driver. The drive back to Shiroda Beach was a disappointment. Expecting coastal scenic views, instead, we followed alongside the busy construction of a new highway for a long two and a half hours.

But finally, there was Martin’s house, hidden away from the road, a one-lane affair with just a little tar on it. His house, reachable only by a footpath that weaves through a neighbor’s front yard. The women smile as we walk through, invading their privacy. A little girl comes forward and shyly offers us sweet coconut balls.

‘Blackie’, the dog we adopted last year, greets us with a toothy smile. He remembers us from a year ago. I never knew dogs had such a long memory. Owned by neighbors, Blackie prefers Martin’s front yard and now we’re here he’s waiting at the bottom of the outside staircase for us to descend in the morning. Martin tells us how Blackie’s mother was killed by a leopard when he was born. The rest of the litter all died. Blackie’s owner kept him alive by feeding him milk from an eyedropper.

Once again, there are no other guests and we could pick our room. But there’s one big change. Bonnie, who cooked for us twice a day at a little restaurant across the road is in Mumbai, the restaurant sadly shut up. Instead, Martin will cook for us.

This is an almost perfect situation for me. We’re living in an island of tranquility on the edge of the jungle. Even the minuscule traffic from the road can’t be heard. The only sound coming through our window is the chorus of subtropical birds that entertain us all day long. There’s a pleasant irony that I can hear that bird calls but not the dogs barking at night. And you know, even in the jungle, there are barking dogs. Until any other guests arrive (which is unlikely because Martin does not advertise) we are pampered by our resident cook. There is no running hot water, but if it’s needed, he heats it in a cauldron on an open fire in the back yard. The roof is mine to hang our washing and lay out my yoga mat in the morning.

Martin is a man of few words which suits me fine. His English is very good and he and Gerard have a comfortable rapport. With me, he is less comfortable, but we can still communicate enough to suffice. He has no TV, radio or internet connection. Why would I want it? he says, preferring to sit on his porch in the late afternoon and evening, content with his surroundings. He is something of a natural healer creating potions from Indian spices. Everything to heal is in the kitchen, he says. He gives me a drink of black cumin and ginger in hot water to loosen the congestion in my chest. Each day, he rides his bike to the bazaar for vegetables and fruit to prepare simple tasty dishes. On Valentine’s Day, he surprised us with two chocolates served on a silver platter!

Gerard’s spending a lot of time working hard on his memoir, tapping away on the little PC he invested in for the purpose. I compose the blog. It feels good to be writing alongside each other, later taking turns in editing what we’ve both produced. For internet access, we have to take our computers to the little cafe on the beach. Open for business but without customers, it has WiFi but very erratic. It’s taken almost a week to post this blog.

There’s still plenty of time for swims in the morning and walks on the beach in the afternoon, with or without Gerard. B

Walking on the beach, a young Indian man eagerly bounds out of the water and tries to engage me in conversation. When I shrug his initial advance, he promptly tries harder. I point to both my ears and say, “Deaf!” It’s an immediate put-off. He says.”Wow!” shrugs and walks away. Another benefit of my hearing loss, I no longer have to deal with the persistent pestering – good natured or not – of Indian men.

I’m not missing Agonda as much as I expected. Holding on to the fantasy long after Gerard did, but the thought of all the buzz – street noise, crowded restaurants, loud music – is more than I could handle now. In Shiroda, peace and quiet is just what the doctor ordered! But I do miss the couple of good friends who have still gone back this year.

On the path from the beach to our guesthouse, I pass flowering bougainvilleas, butterflies almost the size of a small bird, pigs trotting and chickens pecking and I can’t help comparing this walk to the equivalent in Agonda, now through a maze of beach huts.

Over our morning chai, Gerard says, “In an ever-shrinking world isn’t it amazing that we can still find a place that suits our present needs. Five years ago this beach would have been way too quiet for us but now it couldn’t be better.”

For a week, I’ve tried to post this blog. Each morning, carrying the computer down to the one cafe on the beach, a green canvas shack with a couple of tables and a WiFi access point. We were duped into believing there was connectivity. One day early on, the signal was loud and clear and we posted the previous blog entry. It never happened again. Not a glimmer of connectivity. Eventually, we take a rickshaw to the local bazaar and find a cyber cafe but the girl at the counter refused to give the password to foreigners. Last resort, we walked out two miles to a cafe on the main road. Come in the evening they advised. Success! At 6 pm we were able to connect.

Flying through Delhi

Flying through Delhi

After my sudden hearing loss in July, for several months, it was questionable if we’d return to India again for the winter. But as Boston became colder and I began to adapt and feel stronger, I decided I wanted to give it a try. Two considerations were fewer destinations and flying when possible. A big concession for Gerard who loves trains, even Indian trains, with their inevitable delays of several hours, less than clean facilities, noisy children and snoring travelers.

Arriving in Delhi a month later than usual had some benefits. For one, we were not met by the thick blanket of fog of January mornings but the air quality was still very poor. We stayed again in Paharganj, the area of budget hotels, but managed to find a new hotel with the welcoming name, ‘Cottage, Yes Please!’

cottage-yes-pleaseIt was indeed relatively clean, the staff engaging and helpful. The noise and bustle of Delhi seemed louder and more distracting than I remembered, exacerbated perhaps by jet lag and a cold rain. Car horns, sirens, vendors chanting their wares, even a wedding procession complete with drums, horns and the obligatory bridegroom mounted on a white horse.

After nine months, we were all so pleased to see each other again. Even two-year-old Tania showed no distress at the arrival of the pale faces. We needed to replace our expired SIM cards, something that might sound simple but not in India. A lengthy procedure of identification checks, callbacks, all of which was expedited by Bhushan. Alone, it would have taken us three to five days. Tania maintained a constant, bilingual chatter. Initially, I could keep up, but as more people arrived and the noise level rose, I was losing it. After the umpteenth time of repeating at a shriek, her big sister Simrita clearly enunciated for me, “She’s saying, Auntie, switch it on! ” The switch turned on a beauty pageant doll dressed in a crinoline skirt of blue flashing lights who twirled to, what I think was, raucous Bollywood music. Over and over again Tania wanted the doll ‘switched on.’

The next day, while on the long metro ride out to the family in Gurgaon I was fascinated watching a young couple, the pretty girl who had the misfortune of a protruding overbite of large uneven teeth. Not an uncommon sight in India where most people cannot afford cosmetic dental work. This girl had the biggest and cumbersome brace contraption I’d ever seen, which drew further attention to her jaw. But her boyfriend, who incidentally was blessed with a perfect mouth of teeth, did not appear to even acknowledge her disfigurement but acted so sweetly and lovingly toward her. What a good feeling it gave me.

metro_5545cb0c-a27f-11e7-84eb-85ab3d3e2a90By the end of the day, the jet lag caught up and we were both exhausted. On the crowded metro back to our hotel, a man offered me his seat. Given the hour-long ride and my state of exhaustion, his kindness took on a greater significance. Relaxing in comfort, I immediately nodded off, sliding on to my neighbor’s shoulder. He didn’t react as Gerard nudged me awake with his foot, giving me a pained look. It got me thinking about how many times on public transportation that in the jostling crowd, the falling into each other’s lap is routine. The crush of humanity makes rubbing shoulders unavoidable and acceptable. On other hand, if a man tries to take advantage of the situation as an opportunity to grope, he is likely to feel the swift, sharp stab of a hatpin. The young Indian women of today are quick to rebut sexual advances, refusing to become victims. With its unfortunate tradition of abuse, India is beginning to fight back.

The following morning we trekked back to the airport for our flight to Goa, a mere two hours compared with a thirty-hour train ride. But of course, that does not reflect the time taken navigating airport check-in, though nowhere near the thoroughness of TSA, then the long anxious wait for our bags at the other end. Gerard is quick to remark that train stations are still a true Indian experience, while Delhi airport is the same as any other large international hub. But for me, it’s a relief to know that by the end of the day I will be in our guesthouse nestled at the edge of the jungle with the birds singing conducive to a good night’s sleep.