Wednesday, January 31, 2007

At The Beach, Still

When I stopped in Seoul last September, between Mongolia and India, a friend asked me if I was “ready to be hot.” “I am,” I said, “and I plan to put in ample time on the beach.” Arriving in Mongolia at the end of August, I had expected Montana weather, days with a warm, bright sun balanced by cool air, and fresh, chilly nights. I packed accordingly but I ended up buying a puffy, military-green jacket with a Fubu label on the zipper pull and a Tommy Hilfiger label on the breast pocket for a few dollars at the black market in Ulaan Bataar, then woolen long-johns to wear beneath my jeans at another market up north, and then yak wool socks at Khovsgol Nuhr. A month and a half later, in tropical Singapore, I ditched the cold weather clothing, certain I wouldn’t need it in steamy India. I arrived in Delhi and spent a month under the relentless sun of Rajasthan, but when I veered northward, all the way up to Kashmir, I was forced to replace the things I’d abandoned along the way. So, out of 3 months that I’d expected to be warm, I spent 2 cold. I’m not complaining, but by the time I got to south India, I was more than ready for weather conforming to my initial expectations.

Cabo de Rama fortress wall

Reaching Goa, mixing sand and water with warmth, you’d think my days would have been full of savored contentments. The weather was perfect; during the daytime it was hot in the sun, but not so hot that you couldn’t cool down in the sea or spend comfortable hours with a book in the shade of a palm, and in the evening, after showering off the saltwater day, it was just cool enough to be comfortable in linen pants, a t-shirt, and my white pashmina, a fifty-fifty blend of finely spun wool and silk. On the first beach I inhabited, Palolem, I prepared for sleep in my ocean-front, plywood hut by folding my large Rajasthani sheet of leafing blue paisleys block-printed by hand on white cotton in half on my single bed and then overlapping the white pashmina with a heavier, pure wool, black one. They were each a bit longer than the bed and three-quarters the width, so together they formed a covering just heavy enough to keep out the 4am chill. I lay down with the sound of the waves grasping regularly at the sand about 10 yards from my porch, and as I meandered off to sleep I often asked myself why, in the midst of this idyllic place, I felt so anxious.

ah...a dog's life

Aside from the unwanted attentions and unanswerable questions raised by my economic position in the community, I was tormented by (or tormented myself with) a discouragingly familiar problem. For as long as I can remember, a part of my mind has been constantly churning with the question of well-used time, and the churning itself has destroyed the capacity to use time well. Every activity is left undone or inattentively undertaken in the presence of my demand that it reveal its value instantly. Hoping to escape this self-defeating habit, I set myself only one rule before undertaking these months of travel; thou shalt have no other motivation for action than attraction. I hoped that by denying other motivations, like obligation, perfection, market value, or necessity, and acknowledging impulse as the only legitimate cause for action, I could escape the feeling that there is always something more valuable to do with my time than what I’m doing at any given moment. After all, if the only justification for an action is my wish to undertake it, then the only time that can truly be wasted is the time I spend on things that I don't want to do. There is still the problem of wanting to do more than one thing, but you have to start somewhere. Kooky, right, but I thought I'd give it a shot.

Cabo de Rama

It was easier to follow my commandment when I was moving frequently, because the rigours of getting from one place to another were accomplishments in themselves, and there were a variety of things to attract my eye and mind. But at a beach, where there isn’t much to “do” except relax and enjoy, I was again prey to the anxiety that whatever I do is slipping away nearly unnoticed because of my preoccupation with "doing something." After a few days on the beach, I was unable to enjoy anything because I couldn’t shake the thought that while I did one thing so many others waited. "If I lay in the sun too long I'll miss swimming. If I go swimming I won't have time to take a walk. If I eat now I may not be hungry at dinner time. This is a great book, but I'm missing a lovely day. If I swim now, then I'll have to take a shower, and I'll miss the sunset. If I take a nap now, then I won't be tired tonight, and then I'll stay up too late and oversleep in the morning." I know, tough decisions; the absurdity of spending any time at all agitated over how to best spend days set aside for nothing but leisure irritated me even more, and my frustration with myself only made the whole problem worse; my preoccupation colored my perception of the community I was living in, leaving me a double source of annoyance, myself and the people around me.


Soon enough, I was thoroughly paralyzed and apprehensive, so I asked myself, or rather the parishioners ranged in the pews of my imagination, what the hell was wrong with me. Somebody, perhaps a grumpy uncle, or grandparent, delivered the stern admonition that I was simply doing too much “navel gazing.” Whoever this character is, he’s never suggested a positive remedy for any condition, but I sometimes tend towards agreement. By this point in my acquaintance with myself I've accepted the fact that there are multiple characters living in my head, so I directed the question to a kindlier member, instead of putting it to the mass, where the least considerate are always the quickest and the loudest. She responded in a white-haired, widow’s way, “but my dear, Christmas has come and gone; the New Year is approaching, and you are all alone,” her protective instincts guiding me away from my own trove of half-formed fears and toward a good, solid story, allowing me once again to mine nature and its signs for an explanation.

Margao church

Well, you can tell from my last post how inconclusive that line of thought turned out to be; after chasing my own tail for three weeks and failing to scold myself into a better mood, I finally gave up on thinking myself out of my hole and remembered the approach that has always worked best, action. One morning I packed my bag, hired a boat-taxi, and travelled 20 minutes northward to the next habitable beach. Agonda's shoreline is longer and straighter than Palolem's small-lobed-ear shaped beach, and the waves are less gentle. It may be because of Agonda's austerity that it is far less populated. There are only two resident hawkers (both selling sarongs) on the whole great, long stretch of sand, and the beach huts are spread out among palms and some sort of native evergreen thickly populated with large crows. Slightly further back from the beachfront lodgings are brick and plaster bungalows, and behind those is the main (and only) street of the small village. The village is populated by generally friendly, healthy locals and long-term foreign residents who are both models of and/or cautionary tales against relaxation.


When I got off the boat, I spent a few hours walking the length of the beach checking out the various forms of lodging. Finally, resolved to have my own shower and stable quarters after weeks of living in a shifty hut without a bathroom, I settled in a room slightly back from the beach facing a dirt lot full of coconut palms. All 4 of the rooms in the lime-green rectangular building were occupied; I was on the end, Elad, the young Israeli man of banana lassi fame was in the next room, and 2 older Israeli men occupied the last 2 rooms. On the other side of the coconut grove sat a few other buildings. One of them housed Elad's sister and her friend, and another housed Daniel, a writer from Denver. Within a few days of settling in Agonda, I had more conversations than I had in 3 weeks in Palolem; I was living in a neighborhood, make-shift and temporary though it was, and I started to feel better.

pig and bird in the coconuts

Still, when my 32nd birthday came, 3 days after my arrival in Agonda, I left my room in the middle of the night, went to the beach, sat down, and wept in an excess of self-pity. I had heard through the grapevine that Daniel travelled with a library, so the next day I went to his room. I asked him to lend me something (at a loss for a better word) "uplifting." Pulling a suitcase from underneath his bed and unpacking its contents, it turned out that "happy" books are not Daniel's specialty; but I simply, at that time, could not read any Kafka or Camus. After long deliberation, I chose a handsomely bound collection of the works of John Steinbeck, from which Daniel recommended his second novel, To A God Unknown. Now, this book wouldn't be my recommendation to someone who wanted to exit a serious mood, but I wasn't looking for the paper version of a Hollywood movie either. I didn't know what I was looking for, and I figured that Steinbeck would at least provide the refuge of a familiar voice. I was right; although the novel itself is violent and disturbing, the narrator's voice has a solid, calm (if ominous) rhythm, and I found, as I often do when I read, unexpected parallels with my present context. Printed at the beginning of the book is a hymn from the Rig Veda, a sacred Hindu text, and the novel's title is taken from these lines. The story is set among homesteaders in California where a priest, Father Angelo, observes the incorporation of the native religion into Christianity in much the same style attested to by the strange Jesus shrines here in southern India.

Cabo de Rama Jesus, or saint, or something

During this trip I've been intentionally selective about my literature, only undertaking things that demand my attention through one coincidence or another, in order to avoid reading simply for the sake of distraction, and the approach has paid off; every time I've opened something, I've found some serendipitous connection. The other thing I picked up in Agonda was an outdated, abandoned copy of Vanity Fair, a glossy I always enjoy, which happened to have (in the wake of Mel Gibson's bad behaviour) an article (which I probably would have skipped a week earlier) about American anti-semitism. There are tons of Israelis travelling in India, usually in large, boisterous, cliquish and impenetrable groups. Elad was a rare free-agent; he had come to India for 6 weeks to join his sister, Shiri, who is midway through a much longer stay. On my first day in Agonda, he and I happened to be entering our rooms at the same time, and we exchanged courtesies.

While travelling, I've gotten in the habit of lying about where I'm from; when someone asks, I just pick someplace in America, because I'm not from anywhere at the moment, and I never have had a hometown. It's just a form of polite greeting among travelers, and a form of wealth assesment from many Indians (in which case I don't pick someplace in America). I figure most people don't want to hear the 10 minute list of places I've lived, so I often say I'm from New York, both because I plan to live there next and because everyone, everywhere, knows where it is (with the exception of my waiter last night, who asked me if New York is part of Europe). New York was the answer I gave Elad, but instead of letting it go at that he asked "where in New York?" "Uh, Brooklyn" I replied. "Oh, where in Brooklyn?" Not prepared for his alertness, it took me a second to come up with, "Ummm...Park Slope." That satisfied him for the moment, but we had lunch together the next day. About an hour in, he asked me a question about New York. At that point, I had to admit that I've never actually lived there. To my amazement, he was slightly pissed off about the lie; and to my further surprise, I was revived by the evidence that he actually cared.

Fatima's shrine at Cabo de Rama

Maybe what I had been needing to bring me out of my month-long malaise was some companionship. I had a few long and interesting conversations with Daniel, from whom I learned that people can get even more ridiculously, needlessly paralyzed than me, and spent nearly 2 weeks in the company of Elad, Shiri, and their mother Irit, who arrived in Agonda shortly after me; it was nice to have a mom around, even if she wasn't mine. I don't know if my lifted spirits came about just because a person can only go around like that for so long, because of the relaxed atmosphere in Agonda, or because of the people I lucked across, but by the end of my first week there I was happy to accomplish absolutely nothing for days on end.

Goa rice paddies

During all that contented sitting around I learned a lot about the habits of pigs, which thouroughly tainted my enjoyment of pepperoni and bratwurst, and far too much about the mating activities of dogs, which I will never think of in quite the same way. I rented a bike for a few days and saw some of the inland towns of Goa, and visited the coastal Portuguese fort,Cabo de Rama twice, once with Elad and family and once with Talia. Near the end of my stay, Talia and I rented a kayak, learning to navigate waves for an hour, and then stopping to watch the sunset, laying on the kayak, legs trailing in the warm water. Before Agonda, I had tried a hammock maybe 3 times in my entire life, and each time I'd found it irritating and uncomfortable, because it's hard to do anything sitting in one; so when Elad bought a hammock and suggested I buy one too, I declined. After he tied it up on his porch I tried it out, and a few days later I bought one of my own. Now, I'm carrying it in my backpack and I tie it up wherever I can. I consider my hours swinging in a hammock without thinking I should be doing something else my chief accomplishment for the month of January; I'm grateful to Elad for the suggestion, and for caring where I'm from on a day when I didn't even care that much myself.

So This Is Christmas...

In search of sun, sand, and a break from the rigours of travel, I spent the holidays on a beach in Goa, a small state on the southwest coast of India. Portugal held Goa as a colony from 1510 until 1961 when the Indian army forced them out, 14 years after the British relinquished their claims in India. Thinking of Christianity as the native religion of my own country and as a foriegn one in India, I was startled to realize that Catholicism reached Goa very shortly after Columbus reached America. In Old Goa sits the Basilica of the Bom Jesus (Good Jesus) where the incorruptible remains (although they looked quite withered to me) of St. Francis Xavier are entombed. Xavier, who died in 1552, wrote a letter to King John III of Portugul detailing the corruption of doctrine by the natives and the need for an Inquisition in Goa; although the office was not installed until after his death, the Inquisition remained for nearly 300 years. Today, a third of the population is Catholic but the marigold wreathed crucifixes placed here and there are suspiciously like Hindu altars to Ganesha or Laxmi.

the incorruptible remains light box display

Apparently, the Inquisition failed, because the symbols and practices of the old, familiar story appear as a natural element in India's miraculous chaos of textures, colors, and sounds. The charmingly piecemeal Nativities around town (so variously crafted and painted that even matched sets appear mismatched, placed on sand and bits of false greenery under roofs thatched of coconut fronds) proved no stand-in for distant loved ones, but I did see some amusingly bizarre observations of Christmas. On December 23rd as I sat on a step on the main road to Palolem Beach I heard a loud rendition of Jingle Bell Rock irregularly punctuated with feedback. A large truck that could have been a cattle hauler with its broad, fenced in, flat bed rolled toward me along the dusty lane. As it passed, three dark, shriveled men, all wearing Santa hats, bobbed their heads lazily in the cab. In the bed of the truck 6 Indians sat on cushions, some reclining against the slats of the fence. One young woman was flanked by 2 men, and 3 other men sat facing them on the other side; the young woman was singing into a microphone while the men tended the electronics and kept the speakers from tipping over. This group occupied about two-thirds of the truck-bed while the last third was set apart by a red curtain. So, as the truck passed by onlookers, the crowning glory of the pageant on wheels was revealed, a living Nativity (Indian Mary and Joseph with a 10 year old Jesus wrapped in white and sitting placidly on a pile of hay in front of the curtain) plus an emaciated Santa wearing a frighteningly immobile plastic mask and (last but certainly not least) a skinny boy of the same age as Jesus wearing a dirty t-shirt and shorts, just along for the ride.

These motley exhibitions, cobbled together out of available bits and baubles, simultaneously tender and careless, embody the haphazard nature of Goa itself. While the old traditions remain and the native population endures, the state’s beaches, tourist infrastructure, and familiar cultural elements, make it a popular place for foreign travelers during the holiday season. Tourism provides 25% of the state’s income, and locals roam the beaches selling bananas, papayas, coconuts, jewelry, massages, boat rides, books, magnets (for what purpose I have no idea), sarongs, and ear cleaning services. It is the cheapest place in India to buy alcohol, and restaurants grill up the day's catch every evening at sundown, often organizing "parties" where tourists engage in what must look like frivolous leisure at best and total debauchery at worst to the modest locals.

soldiers patroling against a Christmas terrorism threat (Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men)

The mixture of midnight mass and holiday indulgence, tradition and a mad amble to make as much money as possible at whatever cost during the short tourist season is, as far as I can see, Christmas in Goa. In the past few years I have heard globalization referred to as “the new colonization” several times, and although I'm not sure what that means in terms of hard facts, the comparison suggested itself often during the peak of the season; the high concentration of foreigners painfully sharpening the contrast between the rich and the poor. Indians from all over the country, as well as Nepalese and Tibetans, come to Goa to work in and around resorts for a pittance, while we westerners lounge on sun beds or towels oiling our skins, ordering food and drink, reading, swimming, sporting, and listening to digital devices worth the amount that our waiters make in a year.

While my guilt over my position in the world pecking order was exacerbated by Dickensian ideas about the meaning of Christmas, I was unable to stem my growing imperiousness, and I found myself in a most uncharitable mood as the holy day approached. The service on Palolem beach, often sullen and disorganized, grated on my nerves, and so did the constant approach of hawkers. I often noted similarities between my expectations (time-efficiency, rationality, objective truth, precision) and the colonial tensions examined in A Passage to India. Like any American well indoctrinated with the idea of human equality regardless of economic position, I corrected myself, thinking that I’d be none too fast either if I were working for nearly nothing, but in the end, that truth didn't soothe me, and I wondered if the amazingly irritating manners of the waiters and hawkers of Goa was a form of passive resistance to economic dominance.

My anxieties are always tied up, in one way or another, with time, and I came to resent the amount of my day spent in fending off demands on my attention and my wallet. Walking from one end of the beach to the other, a 15-minute stroll, I was sure to be approached at least 10 times, if not more. “Madame, dolphin trip?” “Just you come look my shop.” “Drums?” “Coconut, banana, pineapple.” “You need room?” Every day, again and again and again. Well scrubbed, respectable-looking children between 7 and 12 sometimes approached and forced first a handshake and then a certificate on their target. The certificate proclaimed that the child really is deaf, dumb, or disabled in some way and has official sanction, granted by their school, to beg. The first time I saw one of these official beggars I was sad, the second I was indignant (that begging was the skill being taught to them), and finally I became resolutely oblivious. By the end of my second week on the beach I generally declined to make eye-contact with anyone; if someone stepped in my path I walked around without looking, and I sometimes made a dismissive hand gesture, as if I were brushing away an annoying insect, to more persistent pursuers.

Honestly, I had developed a thick callous over my compassion by my third week in India, but this single-minded determination not to be bothered seemed so much worse with Christmas approaching, as if I were inviting the tribulations (and only slightly hoping for the transformation) of Ebenezer Scrooge; but in the end, all my 1st world guilt got me is a clearer understanding of what I am, a person who enjoys the things that money can buy and doesn’t plan to give up her own comfort for the sake of others. In fact, the poverty of India allows me (whose means are limited in my native country) to spend 6 months free of responsibility, living as if I had been born to a life of ease; I am free because others are not.

You can probably tell by now that my Christmas was unusually disheartening. Poverty and inequality is so vast and systematic in this world that I wasn’t (and still am not) able to form useful questions about it, much less answers. I spent 22 nights on Palolem Beach, wanting to move but strangely paralyzed. A few days after a typically anticlimactic New Year's Eve, I relocated to a nearly empty beach, sparing myself the constant reminder of the disproportionate amounts of money in pockets, shedding any lingering illusions about the brotherhood of man, giving up on trying to justify my luck, and getting down to relaxing and enjoying it.

Ok, I'm Back

The beach, the holiday season, travel weariness, all sorts of personal and public events and dilemas, and various technical difficulties have conspired to keep me from writing anything coherent for some time. By now, the scenes of the following posts are far behind me; I'm in Bangalore where, after a day of searching, I've finally located a computer that can load this page, so I'm going to spend today, and maybe tommorow, bringing you (and me) up to date. My departure for the far off fairyland of the USA is scheduled for February 19th, but I'm trying to extend my stay. An old travel friend, Talia Winch, joined me in Goa about a week ago, which puts a new spin on the travel experience. Extending my stay involves a trip to Sri Lanka to renew my passport, which is about to expire, and to obtain a new Indian visa. If I can get all that together in time, I'll be heading home at the begining of April, or so I tell myself. A few nights ago I chased a frog around our room, and I was pretty excited when I finally caught it.

Talia got caught up in the fun and took this picture.

Friday, January 12, 2007

In Lieu Of Words

And as evidence that I'm not being held hostage:

I ordered a banana lassi and I received something like rancid Gerber. Of course, like sour milk, it took two to make sure it was really bad.

With all the fun to be had, breakfast took over 2 hours to accomplish, as it nearly always does these days. I'm not complaining.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Just A Note

Well, I received an email from my gentle mother today asking if I'm being held hostage, so maybe a few other readers are wondering where I've gone as well. The sad and happy fact is, I'm on a beach. The spotty local electricity supply has its benefits and drawbacks. Electricity or no, I've never managed to do anything structured on a beach, and this stay is no exception; I have made it through several worthwhile books, acquired a tan, lazed in a hammock looking at Orion, held a few sparkling and many dull conversations, started and abandoned several posts, consumed a lot of fruit, and witnessed the variety of light on the Arabian Sea.

I'm hoping I will find some words soon.