Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Short Break from the Beach

Since it was Valentine’s Day, Tony, Jen, Gerard and I decided to go to Blue Planet, a renowned health food organic/vegan restaurant. To get there from the beach involved an hour long trek through the jungle of coconut palms and cashew trees all choked with a mass of flowering vines and undergrowth – butterflies fluttering by. The restaurant sat in an opening in the woods. The hike was well worth the effort – it was the best food we’ve had in recent memory, in India or elsewhere. It rivaled Greens of San Francisco. We savored the food for three hours before setting off. My relationship with Jen is one that develops slowly, and improves over time, as the British reserve fades. A good thing, since we’ve extended our stay to three weeks. I can’t believe it….three weeks at the beach!

Another day, the four of us walked across the headland over rocks and steep inclines to small coves with names like Honeymoon Cove, and Butterfly Beach – too rocky for swimming, but pleasant spots for a picnic.

Saturday is Market Day in nearby Chowdi. A little bus took us along with another 50 odd passengers (the bus capacity is 31+1) through the country lanes. On the way to the tailor (to pick up a shirt being made for Gerard) I notice a sign for an Aurevedic doctor. It took some persuading but I managed to get Gerard to take his place with a handful of other people waiting to see the doctor in what, with some stretch of imagination, could be called a waiting room, open to the street. After three-quarters of an hour, the doctor finally rolled in and began to dispense his diagnoses and patients at lightening speed. “When my turn came”, Gerard told me, “I entered a tiny office cluttered with papers and half opened pill boxes. The rafters were covered with thick cobwebs and brown dust. I thought I’d just reentered the 18th century. An elderly man wearing bifocals motioned me to sit down. I quickly realized he could speak little English. I showed him the red welts in various stages of irritation and with no hesitation he exclaimed, “Yes, rash!” I thought to myself I didn’t need to wait three quarters of an hour to hear that….I knew it was a rash.”

The doctor wrote out a prescription of a lotion and three different pills (no connection to the ones prescribed last year – and which had had no success this year). Somewhat relieved to depart the Dickensian chamber, we were back on the street filling the prescription, buying fruit and vegetables at the market, and left town.

A few days later, we finally managed to extricate ourselves from Fatima’s and the constant yoga crowd, to a small guesthouse at the end of the beach. A change of scene is welcome. It’s a peaceful spot, with birdsongs in the morning, not drowned out by the crows. Breakfast is served graciously in the ‘garden’, by Dominique and Rita, the owners of the guesthouse and who live downstairs. Best of all, Gerard’s spots have cleared up – maybe it wasn’t a rash after all, and some creature at Fatima’s was biting him.

This guesthouse has its regulars: a French couple who live in the mountains near Avignon, and have come here every winter for eight years; an Italian woman who stays long enough to decorate her doorway with seashells, a German couple in their mid 70s who travel in India every year and were once attacked in the North East Kingdom and have the scares to show for it. And then, Johnny arrives, an ex Buddhist monk from England and our friend from last year. We’ll be lucky if we can get a booking here next year.

As we were waiting for our room to be cleaned, a Russian couple was just leaving. Up until now, we’ve met few, if any, Russians. Some people draw the conclusion that they’re not friendly. To the contrary, this couple was very friendly and polite. He stood up and shook Gerard’s hand! From Samara, 1,000 km east of Moscow, they are traveling around Goa on a motorbike. During our conversation. Gerard quizzed them on why there is such an interest in yoga in Russia (his wife is a yoga teacher. He replied that since things had opened up there, there is a pent up interest in pursuits beyond the mundane.

Because this is a holiday destination, people here are not in a hurry - it’s easy to make contact. Among the numerous characters are “Brown John” a retired fireman from Lancashire who has a large Buddha tattooed on his tanned back and an even larger drinking problem; the English couple who look like the oldest hippies in Agonda; the man who bicycles back and forth on the road with a huge inner tube around his waist; the blonde who walks the beach daily wearing a pink bikini, a bottle of water balanced perfectly on the top of her head….and then there’s the local Goans..the breadman who delivers Portuguese loaves and rolls, blowing his rubber bicycle horn to announce his arrival; the little old man who hobbles down to Anita’s teashop every morning for his plate of beans…he’s been doing it long before the tourists came. His limited sight assisted by large coke bottle glasses, but not good enough to prevent him walking off in Jane’s flip flops instead of his own…and so on.

Lulled by the sun and surf, I’m entering a new phase (for me) of relaxation. My morning hike down the beach has slowed to a stroll; I’m more disposed to indulge in conversation over meals…perhaps I’m finally experiencing a little of living in the moment, resisting my habitual urge to project into the future - to visualize the next destination. A futile exercise since it always misses the mark.

Unknowingly, Jen and I chose an eventful Sunday to go to church in Agonda – a communal baptism of six babies and almost twenty boys and girls taking their first communion. The little girls in their white bridal dresses and veils; the boys in crisp white shirts and some with garlands of white flowers on their heads.

The Catholic Church is quite plain in its whiteness – a huge carved wood crucifix hangs above the altar, with Christ’s suffering body looking down on us. Along the sides of the church are pictures of the Stations of the Cross. Hanging plastic baskets of trailing flowers in multi pastel colors are strung across the ceiling.

At nine o’clock the church suddenly filled – everyone in their Sunday finery – a mix of Goan dresses – floral cotton or iridescent satin, Indian saris, black suits and peacock colored shirts. The service was highly interactive – the priest invited members of the congregation to come up and read prayers, the congregation responded in song. When he talked to the first communicants, the priest posed question to a small child the children and held the microphone to their lips for the answer. An electric keyboard accompanied the enthusiastic singing, sometimes with organ and trumpet, sometimes with piano. It sounded more like Portuguese dance music than the stately British hymns of my childhood.

A sweet Goan lady sat next to me and pointed to the page in the hymn book and then followed the words with her finger so I could sing along. With all the ceremonies the service went on and on….we crept out during communion. It was nice to see the local villagers getting on with their lives regardless of the tourists. They may serve us in the restaurants and shops but on Sunday they go to church.

In the evening there was a concert in celebration of the children confirmed that day, in the churchyard, a stage with a painted background and crooning singers. It was like any band concert on a Sunday evening at the beach in the summer. Ending with a rousing version of “We are the World” that we could hear all the way down the road towards our hotel at the other end of town.

Even after three weeks, it will be hard to leave Agonda. We have made so many friends here – both the local Goans, and tourists who like us are here each year, some who’ve been coming ten or more years.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Back on the Beach Again

Agonda has now become so familiar, returning is like a homecoming. Strange to feel at home somewhere so far away as India. But Goa is not really India – the Portuguese influence is still very strong and the people more Portuguese than Indian. At a tiny café that serves freshly cooked samosas and the best chai in town, directly across from the large white Catholic Church, the choir music wafts out over the early morning air - pretty but decidedly Portuguese.

Nothing much has changed here. There seems to be fewer tourists this year – a combination of the snow (cancelled flights) and the economy in Europe. But at the same time, after last year’s good season, there are more restaurants, more knick-knack shacks geared towards women wandering to and from the beach. Thankfully everything is still on a small scale – no high rise flashy hotels. And the lack of night life in Agonda appeals to an older age group like us.

Fatima welcomes us warmly at her guest house and we get the best corner room on the upper floor facing the ocean. But there have been some changes at Fatima’s. She has rented out her large roof terrace to a yoga teacher dressed for the part, who holds classes and discourses throughout the day. He’s attracted a fair sized group of young tourists. For some reason, he feels the need to communicate via a loud speaker and begins singing and chanting before 7 am. He stays on the roof except when he takes off for the beach on his motorcycle with two scantily clad female students on the back. Day long, there’s a constant stream of young people in yoga clothes going back and forth past our room to the roof. It interferes with our morning meditation in a way that a Hindu temple or mosque does not. Why does it put me out so much, I wonder? I’m supposed to like yoga. The invasiveness –into our space uninvited. Taken over by a yoga camp - if I wanted to attend, it might be different, but I am not encouraged – the good looking, well robed yoga teacher, the intensely earnest students... It’s all a little too trendy for me - like something out of Eat, Pray, Love. Maybe a room change is in order.

The sea is a positive constant. It is the most beautiful beach I’ve known. Unlike the never ending beach in Kanur, Agonda is a very large cove (3 kms), bordered each end by grassy bluffs. One of the reasons I love the sea so much is the buoyancy and lightness I feel when swimming. Perhaps a release from the stresses and worries that weigh me down on land. The soothing rhythm of the waves; the water warm and viscous on my skin. Like a dog, Gerard acts indignant at being coerced into water, but with a hint of a smile as he paddles around, betraying that maybe he’s quite enjoying it!

There are surprisingly few mosquitoes, but a spider has bitten its way across Gerard’s back and one of his feet. As last year, an allergic reaction has set in– the bites have become hideous red welts. The sea water is soothing, and he’s started to take the same anti allergen medicine prescribed a year ago.

Two of the couples we met last year are here as well: Richard and Jane and Tony and Jen from England. We all pick up where we left off. I’m glad I loaded Gerard’s paintings on the netbook; Tony spends a long time peering at them appreciatively with a magnifying glass. He ended up saying he was prepared not to like them because he’s not drawn to cities where he feels nature is obliterated (they live in an old cottage with Norman sections in a village in Norfolk).

At lunch with Keith, an elderly fellow (older than us) from Vancouver, who is remarkably healthy considering how many cigarettes he smokes, we talk about metaphysics. Keith was moving apartments and had a two week wait, so decided to do a little traveling in the meantime – that was two years ago! He says he’s learning too much to go back home. This morning we had breakfast with Manfred who left Germany last July to travel to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan before entering India via Nepal. He’s a nurse, enabling him to take off for long periods and still be ensured of employment when he goes back. Even though the prospect of going to central Asia is very appealing, he mentioned he felt forced to give up being a vegetarian for the time he was there. Like us these people are taking a break from the harsh reality of India in the ease of Agonda.

After two weeks or so, we will probably have had enough of sun and surf (Will I ever have had enough…?) and will be back on the road again.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

An Armenian in Kerala

Our next destination was Kannur, a town on the coast of Kerala. Gerard had discovered it in a blog on the internet and pulled it up on Google maps and could see a very long white we thought we’d give it a try. When we called ahead to make a reservation, the man spoke unusually good English – with an accent, but not typically Indian. He had a room with kitchen facilities and a washing machine. Strange, we didn’t really want that – the price was more than we normally pay but cheaper than anywhere else available in town. So we took it and he offered to meet us at the train station because our train was arriving after dark.

Waiting for us was a European close to our age. We should have guessed! He introduced himself as Sarkis, a Swede – but even then we couldn’t put the pieces together of who this man was...Sarkis didn’t sound Swedish. Anyway, we got ourselves to his house, to find that we were the only ones staying in a large sprawling complex of two buildings and five bedrooms. He offered us the pick of bedrooms, showed us the kitchen and gave us the keys, saying he’d return in the morning to negotiate the price.

It was pitch black and we couldn’t see the ocean, but from the roar of the surf it had to be close by. Tomorrow we would decide what we’d do next. The morning light revealed that we were right next to a long empty beach on a road with very few residences, not a hotel or guest house in sight. Sarkis arrived and after hearing we had been mediating, launched into a long conversation about spirituality and mysticism. It was hard to get Gerard and Sarkis to stop talking long enough to get down to the business of whether we were going to stay and if so, for how long. Another issue was how far off were the shops and restaurants because there were none in sight. He explained they were only a fifteen minute walk. We didn’t relish the idea of going back into town and trying to find other accommodation. Certainly none would have the beach frontage of this. So after some negotiation we agreed on a price for five days. “How do you find me?” he asked. “Are you a friend of Tulla’s?” (Tulla from Sweden had just left). ”No, we found you on the internet.” “But I’m not on the internet.” “Oh yes, you are,” Gerard said. He does not advertise, but we found him in a blog. (He’s clearly not terribly concerned about renting, and only does to friends - and friends of friends).

Gerard and Sarkis continue to talk. Over the next few days, the picture of who this man is slowly emerges. First and foremost, he has a strong pull towards the spiritual side of life and is anxious to share what he’s figured out. Gerard and he have a great time expounding. (And Gerard was worried that he would have no one to talk to in this empty house!) He lives with his Indian wife back in town, but comes over here twice a day (at least while we’re here). As the conversation broadens, there’s much more to this man than being a Swede implied. He’s actually Armenian, and his family fled in 1917 during the Turkish massacre to a remote mountainous region bordering Iran, Turkey and the Soviet Union. No one was quite sure what country it was. In the early 50s, his parents emigrated to the US and sent Sarkis to school in Calcutta (through the Greek Orthodox Church). After nine years he was restless and ran away. He ended up in Iraq unable to speak the language but got a job through a US company out of Kuwait. That was short lived - he met a group of Swedes en route to Afghanistan who needed a driver. Once he fulfilled his obligation, they would give him contacts to help him migrate to Sweden. When he finally got to Sweden with no papers, questioned by the authorities he was told his contacts were known drug traffickers. Nevertheless they granted him entry. After working for Volvo for a short time, he was stationed in the middle-east and stayed for 26 years working in all the major capitals there.

Sarkis met his India wife in, of all places, Yemen! Gerard was green with envy – a place he’s always wanted to go but it’s too dangerous. In his mid 40s Sarkis had triple bypass surgery and took early retirement. Now he spends the winters in India and summers in Sweden. (Swedes get good government paid pensions.) We still haven’t quite figured out why he built such a large complex down here when he had a house in town. If it was a commercial venture he doesn’t seem terribly motivated to rent the place. He says, his wife didn’t like the effect of the salt air… (Sarkis talks with a levity quite familiar to those of us who know Berge!) Oddly enough he’s exactly the same age as Gerard bar one week!

While all this unfurled, I have spent time on the beach – but feel somewhat weird being alone and surrounded by so much empty sand and sea. The water is warm and clear, without the undertow so many places on the west coast have. So far we feel that in Kerala the people are more friendly and the countryside less contaminated. When we walk down the lane to the restaurant, it’s clear the locals are not accustomed to seeing westerners and yet they are eager to say hello. Even though the population is supposed to be greater, it doesn’t feel it at all. Hotter than we expected, Sarkis says it’s one of the hottest spring in years. The weather is odd, even here!

Although the beach is empty for most of the day, at around 4 pm things begin to happen. A group of Indian boys, and old Englishman Jacob and slightly younger woman Lucy- (also English), drive up in a van and sit on the edge of the beach for the “English Lesson”. They come every day. Jacob has his story: he fought in World War II in Burma and instead of returning to England after the war, worked in Nigeria and then the middle east where he met may Keralitees. So when he reached retirement age he decided to retire in Kerala. Then there’s the man who comes to fly a kite, and the Indian headmaster who meets Sarkis on the stone wall outside the house to converse daily on spiritual matters. Today, the theme of their conversation is an article in the Hindu Times: Selfless Service as a route to Self Realization. The locals also turn out to walk on the beach and enjoy the spectacular sunsets, and young men play football at the edge of the water.

Two days into the stay the idyllic atmosphere changes. Having never had anything stolen during our previous four trips to India, this time I am a victim of stealing…not once but twice! Here in Kannur, during the night someone gets over the locked fence and takes my swimsuit off the line…and I later discover my shoes also gone. I still haven’t come to terms with losing my clothes in Trichy, and now the point is being driven further home.

I had so wanted this trip to be perfect. I’d planned and packed perfectly and wanted – and expected – everything to turn out the same. I was angry – an anger that undoubtedly came from a resistance to accept what is; frustrated over not controlling my environment. I knew I should let go, but I missed my possessions too much. I wanted to know why this happened to me, and what could we have done to prevent it, rather than focusing on how I was handling the unwanted/unexpected…or, why not me?

Everything that had previously seemed light and happy was now dark and threatening. I sort out solace in the sea and went swimming in my clothes like the Indians. But even the ocean was hostile, the waves menacing. For the first time, I saw young boys on the beach leering at me; in the lanes the men were hostile.

Finally the next morning – after a long night – my mood shifted. With difficulty I reached the realization that through adversity I have a better chance of learning something about myself than if I had a perfect trip. Why do I need to control? Insecurity...when those things I’m depending on for security fail me I become reactionary, a victim. I realized that the contents of my suitcase were a security blanket. Does a real traveler need this? I’d packed my belongings to protect myself from the uncertainties of traveling. But do I really need to always know where I’m going? It's time to move on...

Then Gerard lost his new sunglasses - also stolen. My own angst was subjugated in sympathy for him. I could now play a more familiar role. It is easier for me to help him deal with his loss than with the feelings of my own. The last couple of days have been spent looking for lost belongings and then shopping unsuccessfully to replace them. It has been exhausting. But then something sweet happened in the third optical store - with still nothing suitable for Gerard we asked the shopkeeper for directions to get back to the restaurant we used for dinner. He can’t help us, so he says instead, “I will take you there!” And he leads us behind the shop to where his car is. After spending half an hour in his store and not buying anything, he is happy to drive us to our next destination. And later in the restaurant, they bid us a fond farewell when we say we’re leaving the next morning.

Our host, Sakis, was very disturbed by what had happened. He was upset that his house had been broken into; the first time in the whole 15 years he’d owned it. Oh…wait; we’re not the center of the universe? The situation was upsetting to others too. The night watchman of courser also felt responsible for us and spent a long time searching the lane behind the guesthouse. Even the two resident cats wailed more than usual. The next morning Sakis brought Gerard a pair of sunglasses he no longer needed to replace Gerard’s lost ones and insisted on paying for the rickshaw to the train station. He’s a very caring person.