Hot and Spicy

In my convalescence, Goa has been my nurse. Like much of India this time of year, the days are hot and humid, one after another, with gentle breezes transforming occasionally into strong ones the only upset. No rain, no cold nights. Early morning and evening it’s pleasant, but during the middle of the day, even lying still on the bed under the ceiling fan, I am damp from head to toe with a thin layer of perspiration. Just rest. We’re in a small village in the south of Goa called Agonda Beach, in a corner room upstairs with a balcony in a large guesthouse about 30 yards back, one row of buildings removed, from the main street. It’s our third lodging, the first two street-side and too noisy from traffic and bar music. Ideally we’d be on the beach, the sound of the waves lulling us to sleep at night, but our budget won’t allow for that. Our landlady is called Maria, and she runs the guesthouse with her husband, recently incapacitated from back surgery, and the help of her grown children. 

For the most part we confine ourselves to Agonda Beach, especially in the beginning when I’m still recovering from my illness. As Mark promised, Goa is indeed “better” than the other parts of India we’ve visited: it is cleaner, less crowded, with a higher income base which translates to fewer uncared for people and animals. The horn honking is ever present but not constant, and though we might garner an occasional second glance as we ride the Hero Impulse in and out of town (Mark will hate me for saying this, but sitting straight as a board in his stiff brown waxed cotton jacket, white half helmet and goggles, he looks remarkably like Snoopy the WW1 Flying Ace atop his doghouse), nobody stares or crowds around us here. In Agonda itself, there are women in fluorescent orange vests who comb the beach every day collecting garbage. The shop keepers, hotel and restaurant staff do their part to keep the streets litter free. But you don’t have to walk far to see the ravines full of trash. It’s not the case that they don’t pollute the land with waste here, it’s that they pollute it in less abundance, and there are little pockets of exemption. Goa in general seems more environmentally aware, with warnings not to litter or pay a fine signposted here and there, restaurants that ban smoking and shun the use of straws in drinks, and recycling bins for plastic, cans and bottles placed in heavily trafficked areas. It is a welcome change, as is the reduction in the number of street dogs. Here in Agonda, perhaps half the dogs we see are wearing collars, and a fair number of all the male dogs, collared or not, have been neutered, thanks to several local animal welfare groups. While we’ve seen one or two females that appear to be nursing, we’ve seen no puppies. Some of the dogs are thin and hungrier than others, but none that I’ve seen are emaciated, with that look of desperation in their eyes. What’s most striking to me however, is what I perceive to be a sense of community where the dogs are concerned. They hang out alone or together, depending on personality, running up and down the beach, playing, sleeping, trotting along; a motley crew of mongrels and pedigree, collared and unadorned, untouched and neutered. I have seen none tied up, they are mostly free to come and go, and some of them seem to make a point of doing the rounds – going from shop to hotel to restaurant, greeting the staff, resting in the shade, accepting and offering affection. While they may bark or growl occasionally at each other, they seem to get along regardless of whether they have homes or not, resolving any differences without the violence we witnessed elsewhere. My conclusion: with enough to eat, in general, they are free of the constant need to assert dominance, and what hierarchy there may be is not a matter of life and death.

Goa is a Catholic state, a result of centuries of Portuguese rule. We see churches more than temples here, and most shops have a wall or shelf adorned with pictures of J.C., a crucifix and the like. Many are clearly hedging their bets with Hindu gods and mini shrines alongside the Christian. I go downstairs one morning to retrieve a container of milk for my coffee that Maria has graciously offered to keep in her fridge for me, to find her husband leaning heavily in the doorway. It’s the first time we’ve met since his return from the hospital. While Maria’s son hands me the small carton, his father points to a room on the ground floor that has a fridge and tells me that is for guest use. His son is silently shaking his head, as if to say no, it’s not, just ignore him. When I thank them and turn away, the older man suddenly descends upon me with outstretched arms, showering me at first with thanks, then “God bless you, may god bless you, thank you god bless you god bless you.” I back away, nodding and thanking him in return as he continues to bless me with increasing volume, on my way up the stairs. Moments later the son finds me and says, “You can continue to use our fridge, it’s fine. My father is not himself right now.” He twirls his index finger around the side of his head and whispers, “It’s the pain medication the doctors gave him.” From the many Christian paraphernalia decorating their living quarters, beginning in the entryway, I gather it isn’t his religious devotion that is uncharacteristic lately, but rather his vocal zeal.

My days run together, punctuated by food that I can eat (many restaurants here have a “continental” menu), a walk along the beach in the morning or late afternoon, hours of reading and catching up on Sam Harris podcasts, and a cold beer before dinner. Cows roam freely here, as elsewhere, and I’ve grown accustomed to weaving a path through their settlements in the sandy ridges along the beach. Creatures of habit, they wander onto and away from the beach at the same points at roughly the same times each day. I’m not sure exactly what they eat, though occasionally I see them munching on fruit and vegetable scraps (restaurant refuse I expect) scattered in the sand, and they will graze through the debris piles (mini dumps) as they do elsewhere. There are a few bold characters who stand at the entrances to restaurants, all of which have roofs but are not walled in, their feet planted firmly outside but their necks craning inside and looking around, as if hoping to catch the eye of someone eating a large salad they can’t possibly finish. The staff are immensely tolerant of them, as they are of the dogs, offering them scraps and only chasing them away, gently at that, when they start to annoy the patrons. Again I’m touched by the sense of connection between the inhabitants, human and animal, in this village.

We take a few excursions, day trips on the bike, to see architectural, historical and cultural features in the area. My favorite foray is to a farm and spice plantation about an hour east of here. To get there we ride through Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary, where we see two or three signs with pictures of the animals that live there, leopard amongst them. I scan the trees in vain. Tanshikar Spice Farm is owned by a family, the third generation whose grandparents planted the coconut trees 40 years ago that started it all. As the grandson, our guide, explained it, first they planted the sun loving trees, which, once mature, provided shade for the sun averse smaller trees and bushes. They use only organic and sustainable practices to produce their spices for sale and what they grow for their own consumption (coffee, cacao, bananas, papaya for example), employing insects and planting/harvesting rotations in lieu of pesticides. Our entry fee of 500 rupees gives us a guided tour (fascinating and serene) and lunch (okay, a bit hot for my palate, but what I can eat is delicious, and all the ingredients come from the farm.) I highly recommend a visit if you are in Goa.

Our time here is coming to a close, and though I am ready to bid India farewell, probably forever, I’m glad I came, and particularly glad we ended our trip, rather than began it, in Goa. The rest of India filled me with despair, and while she is too small, too much related to have offset that completely, Goa (south, anyway), has done her best to carve out a corner of hope in my mind’s eye of memory. Wherever possible she replaced harsh with soft, impossible with maybe. As hard as it is for me, probably for many people, to spend considerable time in physical places that I find so disheartening, choosing to do so is a pointed reminder of the part luck plays in all our lives, an acknowledgment of the other that exists within me and the me that exists within others, and an oath in the face of that metaphorical place in which I have found myself quite unwillingly. It is the laying of one rock in a long bridge.

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