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.