Beyond Borders- Mapping the Terrain
A Respite in Goa
I arrived first by train, then, closer in, by taxi, in the sea-side town of Benaulim, in the southerly province of Goa. I was tired of travelingI'd experienced twelve weeks of India's heat and frenzy and crowdsso it was a good omen, I thought, that I arrived at high evening, that favored time of day, when the sun uncorks the last and weakest of its wattage to drench the landscape in a cool burn of orange and silver. All around is movement. Birds sing full-throttle. Children speed bicycles. Huge white cows with long beige horns trot for home. The movement betokens a winding-down, the town giving off a final surge of joyful resistance. Soon, all will be stillness.
It is bliss to move in such a climate. You are alert but calm, aware but unconcerned. To stroll on the beach in that moment before the sun begins its irrevocable plummet is to live only for that moment. Could any sight hold your gaze more fully than the silver-light of evening tide rushing to meet sand stoked to a rich glinting? Up and down the beach fishing boats are parked, dark wood with the names and faces of Catholic saintsGoa is a Christian provincepainted on their bows, for luck. Nearby, nets are cast for drying and around their hems sit the fishermen themselves, busy at the business of mending holes with needles strung with coconut-fiber thread. They are oblivious to the tide and the sand and their shadows which stretch and stretch until, stretched out, they evaporate into night. Benaulim's peace is a gift. For the first time since I landed in India, I feel as though this country might have me, might allow me to sink in andconspicuous, sunburned, irritated tourist that I so frequently am here just, for a week or two, believe that I can belong.
That first night I had dinner at a sea-side shack: stuffed crabs, pomfret tikka, beer. I was watched forlornly by skeletal dogs collapsed on the sand and scratching at fleas a pace from my table; and circled as I ate by a goat and three chickens looking for handouts. A mob of sorts, but a decidedly subdued and un-pushy one; nowhere else I've been in India could I eat a meal out-of-doors without the heartbreaking intrusion of childrensometimes dozens at a timetugging my pant-legs and imploring me for money and food. After the meal, worn-out from my earlier eleven hour train ride from Bombay, I slothed back to my hotel room, a private cottage ringed by coconut palms. Not one sound disturbed my sleep: not the whhssshhhhh of the ocean; not the full-leafed flutter of cashew trees under a pregnant moon.
How quickly I fell into routine. The unhurried crowdlessness of Benaulim almost demands it. Otherwise, one day and its hush would melt into another. I could find myself here forever, lulled by this newfound sensation of ease. I accomplish little enough as it is. Mornings at 8:30 I amble to the beach. Outside Dominick's, another sea-side shack, I take over a wicker table and a beach chair, order up some breakfast while the tide sways in. No matter what I eat it is dreadful, slightly salty and tossed with sand. This is how it should be, a gentle-enough reminder that I am still in India, after allnot sitting dockside at a Hamptons marina. I cannot order up, like Somerset Maugham's fat ladies in Antibes, foie gras and whipped cream and Martinis from bow-tied waiters. Actual cuisine requires, should require, some effort: a trip into town, or at the very least, a brief walk further down-beach to Pedro's superior shack.
At this early hour the fishermen are returning already with their hauls and their boats. Ten men or more leap to the shore. Two remove the port-side outrigger. Five pull from a rope at the bow. Two push from the stern. One slathers slats of wood with grease from a bucket, which he places beneath the boat's sharp hull. As the boat is pulled further up onto shore, leaving the slats behind, he re-oils and repositions them toward the bow until the boat, finally, is left high and dry until tomorrow's dawn.
I read and watch the tourists roll in. Here in Benaulim they are Australian families, mostly, come on a cheap junket to pass the holidays. Or they are young refugees from more raucous beach towns further to the north. Or they are rich Indians, the men breaching surf in Speedos, the women in salwar kamises that balloon when they hit the water. The beach seems to gobble them all up. They walk, they swim, they lounge, but there are never more than a few human specks visible in the water or on the sand at any given time. This is such a stark contrast to the teeming streets of Delhi, say; or to Benares, the holy city on the Ganges, where every inch of shore is claimed by people bathing, praying, washing, splashing, diving, pushing their boats into the roiling brown river.
The tide burbles, bathwater warm and with barely a wave. I swim far, far out, to look back at the shore like a man-hunting crocodile; or to lie back, eyes closed, and drift wherever the meek currents will take me. Accustomed to combing my home shores for limited treasure, I am amazed every day at what the tides of the Arabian Sea leave at my feet. Corkscrew shells, some as long as my forearm and colored black, lavender, pink. Spiny ones, with coral-colored throats and long tails. Pointy, squat ones with raised white spots. Tiny flat ones, swirled with iridescence. Sand dollars. Star fish, making flower-shaped puckers as they burrow into wet sand.
I forego a sub-par lunch and walk off into the dunes to find Fatima, the fruit lady. She brings me two tiny bananas. A pineapple, peeled, cored and cut. And a coconut into which a hole has been drilled. She pours the coconut milk into a glass for me to drink, then kneels by my side. Holding the coconut in her left palm, she gives it a hearty thwack with her machete-like knife to cut it more or less in half. With the tip of the blade, she pries the meat from the husk and hands me the hunks of coconut, piled in their own coconut bowls. Although coconut palms abound in Benaulimyou hear the fruit, often, thudding to the soft groundFatima, a native of Karnataka, says, I must buy coconuts at the market. Goan coconuts are free only for Goans. In India, in Benaulim, such distinctions are paramount to whole classes of people who own practically nothingnot houses, not trees, not shoes.
All morning I wave and smile at a young German couple on the far side of Dominick's acreage of sand. Like me, they are engrossed in books and coconuts and itemizing the day's find of shells. In early afternoon I pull my chair over to their side, when the drum man comes. The German boy has purchased a tabla, and included in its price are free lessons for the duration of his stay in Goa. The drum man comes and begins to play. The German boy sits cross-legged beside him and tries to follow along. Another drum man arrives from up-beach and joins in, as does one of the owners of Dominick's, who saunters out from the shack with what looks like a pair of bongos. They play loud and vigorously, breaking a sweat and laughing. The German girl and I swill beers, basking in other people's effort.
Should we go for a swim? she sometimes asks me, her eyes half-lidded.
If you want to, I reply. Neither of us move.
Benaulim drones like a bee in a flowery stupor. In the evening, to the same silver sparkle that greeted my arrival, I rent a scooter and drive around. Women in frilly knee-length dressesthis is the fashion of Goawave at me as I zip past them, darting through the palm-shaded inland then finding again the open beach road. Short crops glisten in sunlight all the way to the shore. Then I hit sandy terrain studded with tents of woven mesh. Under each of these tents, neat rows of fish are drying on burlap. They are arranged by size and by type: fifteen tight rows of long mackerel, horizontal; five of smaller whitefish, vertical; twenty-five of two-bite sardines, horizontal. The sight beneath the tents is of a glittering geometry; the smell, of brine and an oddly mouthwatering fish ferment. If you stand around long enough, a fisherman will come over to explain the operation to you: the fish are gutted and dried for three days. Then they are salted and sent to the wholesale market in Margao, where they are sold as the makings of fish sauce. I walk over the hump of the scrub-crusted dunes to watch old women finishing the day's salting. They take a fish from a basket and dust it inside and out with a brownish rock salt, then throw it into another basket. Occasionally, they will take the time to re-order the top-most layer in the salted-fish basket, to press down firmly on the whole, and to cover with more salt. The women have white hair pulled into buns and dark, wrinkled skins. Bent in half over their baskets, ignoring me, they never look up and their hands, fifty years at the same work, never once falter.
Some days I almost forget that I am in India. But some things, even in Goa, are always the same. I am still conspicuous no matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise. And I am always assumed to be wealthy. By comparison, I amI own clothes, shoes, money for meals and trinkets. I have conditioned myself in twelve weeks of travel to give a fast No, thank you to any hawkers who approach. The argument of self-preservation is legitimate; it's rare that you ever want to buy anything that's being offered, and on any given day in India you can be approached by twenty, thirty, fifty hawkers. Here in Benaulim you are hardly pestered at all and so you soon let your guard down. Then it becomes likely that you will look by accident into the eyes of the lungi salesgirls who line the roads and patrol the beach. As long as you do not look at them, you can hold an image in your mind of a pestering hag, and keep your heart a callous. But really, they are only children, and small children at that. If you look into their eyes you are swept with a desire to give them something of your own childhood, which was probably not spent pushing goods on the streets for fourteen hours a day. You want to talk to them, to see if anything still exists of the child beneath the sales-womanly veneer. You want to buy something, hoping that your sale will compel them to take the rest of the day off to eat candy and startle livestock. Me, I've bought three silk lungis, recycled from old saris and re-dyed to look new. I bought them all from the same gorgeous girl, with huge green eyes, long lashes, and hair fashioned into tiny braids, who stands on a corner near my cottage. I paid Rupees 200 (~ $4.20) for the first one, Rs. 50the going price, I was told by my hotel proprietressfor the others. The girl did not complain when I offered her Rs. 150 less for the second and third lungis, although I know she recognized me from the day before. In neither case, Rs. 50 or Rs. 200, did my sale occasion her to abandon her corner on the street. She is a serious girl, all business, except when she cries after me, Hey, you buy my chicken? How about my sister?
Every day I ask myself, But really, how long can I stay in Benaulim? The answer is: maybe forever. Goa is brimming with Westerners come to stay. They rent cottages cheap, and sell jewelry and tie-dye at the Wednesday flea market; convince themselves in a bhang-induced haze that this is enough. I would stay for more, and for less. I would stay for the lungi girl: for the miraculous sea-green of her eyes and the way she appears suddenly at my side as I approach her corner; before I even remember she is there I can feel the fine hairs on her arm creating static on my own. And I would stay for the boy who sells bread at dawn from his bicycle, the loud circus-toot of his horn belying his shyness. And also for the newspaper boy who speaks a dozen languages though he's never left Goa, and who hard-sells the Times of India with a chipper, Nothing beats `Garfield'! But what excuse is this? How many papers and lungis and loaves can I buy? I begin to search for a sign that it's time to leave, time for me to reclaim India in all its crowding and brutality and, eventually, the mundanities I have left back home in New York.
One morning the beach at Benaulim is infested with jellyfish. They are as big as a man's head, amber-colored, with maroon spots toward the outer fringe of their gelatinous bodies. They pollute the sand, dying up and down the beach in a slop-shoddy zigzag. On spots where no bodies glisten I find bits of detached tentacle instead. Every wave peaks with a salad of foam and jellyfish. A few hardy folk make it past the stinging jelly front and splash delightedly a hundred yards out. They wave at the shore and call, It's fine out here! I try to get there a few times but the stings are brutal, sharp like an electric shock, leaving hot welts on my arms and legs. It's a small sign, but finally I am able to decide that it's time to quit Goa. Or maybe Goa has decided the matter for me.
The fishermen, usually taciturn, are happy as clams at the tourists' misfortune. They walk laughing from their boats, shouldering planks and nets and oars, and cry out, Yes, Madame, jellyfish! The lifeguard, a toothless fellow in Baywatch-style swim trunks, stands observing the scene from the sand. His expression is one of extreme concern. He babbles something incoherent at every passing beach-goer, rubs his arms to indicate that the jellyfish sting. He gives an inexplicable thumbs-up. Then he turns away to release a gummy laugh to the cresting, sun-bright waves.