Part 5/13 of Travel Writings: Listening to Maharashtra and Goa (2017-18). Music & the Earth International, 2022. Available here.
Day trips have an interesting effect on time. They introduce you to a variety of sights and sounds which extends far beyond the parameters of a single day. For me, 2018 began serenely, on Goa’s Benaulim beach, and proceeded energetically, as we toured our way through some of Goa’s most celebrated religious, historical, cultural, and ecological sights… and sounds.
Benaulim celebrated New Year’s Eve in a similar fashion as anywhere: with fireworks and techno remixes of the year’s most popular music. At least here, the human noises subsided after a while, and when the sun rose, the raucous song of dozens and dozens of crows ushered in the day. I walked the couple hundred meters from our cabin to the ocean, a bit nervous about what I might find. I thought of other beaches that I know well, and what I’ve encountered there on New Year’s Day in years past. Would the shore be filled with litter in Benaulim, too? Would the tired sounds of techno linger on the shore, along with the stench of stale beer and the yells of people in a drunken, post-party torpor? Would I reach the sea, only to encounter the very opposite of what I hope will take place in the New Year? The ocean drew me in, like a magnet, but even still, for a moment I wondered if it was even worth the risk.
I reach Benaulim beach, and in a second, my worries are dispelled. The ocean is beautiful, as is the shore that greets it. The water is a most serene shade of slate, and the sand stretches for miles, uncluttered. Some people walk along the shore, but they are not the kind that I was worried about. They are women in colorful saris, and children looking out at the ocean with curiosity, and men opening their kiosks for a new day. People, myself included, who are wishing each other a happy new year, with little nods and subtle eye contact. There are also dogs — some of the most tame strays I have ever seen in my life. They wander around the shore, unconcerned, as am I. I look at the rust red awnings of the open air restaurant to my right (the same place where I heard Rajasthani music a couple nights ago), and admire the way it complements the color of the Arabian Sea. To me at least, it seems a bright palette, and a perfect vibe, with which to begin 2018.
And the ocean gently found its way to the shore, and then returned to the mystery of where it belonged, just like the prana contained in each and every breath. How many times does this process of in and out occur in a day, whether by humans or crows or the sea? The word “infinite” acquires some approximate meaning when I ask this.
Big Foot — Museum
Legend has it, so it may very well be true: There was once a wealthy landowner in Goa by the name of Mahadar. He was an unendingly generous man, but unfortunately the greed of his neighbors got the better of him, and he ended up destitute. He asked the gods for nothing more than a small place in which to stand and pray. He was given a hot rock, where he stood on one foot in prayer. He was eventually taken from the physical world, into the spiritual realm, but the imprint of his (big) foot remains.
Big Foot is a whimsical place, consisting of a museum and an elaborate outdoor diorama of the Goa of centuries past. How many centuries remains a bit unclear to me, but let us say that the diorama was modeled after a circa 1900 Goa.
The museum, meanwhile, is a historic house, belonging to the Araujo Alvares family. The last name comes from the fact that Goa was for many centuries (about 450 years, to be precise!) an “Overseas State of the Portuguese Empire.” Much like the “Estado Libre Asociado” (“Free Associated State”) that I grew up in, I’m really not sure what that means.
As is quite common in geopolitics such as this, the family was deeply creolized. Judging from the photographs and furniture in the house, the Araujo Alvares family looked, and lived, in a hybrid fashion. They combined elements of Portuguese and “native” Indian trends.
The religious elements of the house were undeniably Catholic . That said, one of the rooms in the house, which belonged to one of the people who worked there, was undeniably Hindu, filled with dozens of small Ganesh sculptures. The furniture was unequivocally — almost eerily — European, but the music room contained a wide array of instruments that predate, and/or evolved independently of, European influence in Goa. Indian medicinal plants were stored in the kitchen, in vessels that are seen throughout the subcontinent. Indeed, the house was creole— one of an infinite array of aesthetic and social possibilities that can occur when two or more groups of people come into contact with each other.
Big Foot — Ancestral Goa
If the museum was an indoor, slightly stuffy testament to Indo-Portuguese contact, then the Ancestral Goa diorama was quite the opposite. It was a pre-recorded tour, that took us through various elements of a typical Goan soundscape. Information was interspersed with Carnavalesque music that prompted us to move from one scene to the next. The entire tour was outdoors, and at each stop we met a new set of delightfully stylized, human-sized replicas of people performing a variety of tasks. We “met” potters and fruit vendors and herbalists and textile workers and, yes, musicians. We also met a Portuguese woman who told us, in that bizarre automated voice that seems to be a defining feature of dioramas everywhere, about her wardrobe. She announced that her outfit contained elements of all of the places within the Portuguese Empire — China, Japan, India, and more. I was puzzled, because I did not know that the Portuguese Empire reached that far. But then again, is it not a defining feature of Empire to claim as much as you can?
I enjoyed the music segment. The model man outside of the “Escola de Musica,” for instance, was dressed in simple Western clothes, and was playing a violin. He reminded me of the Puerto Rican jíbaro, an iconic figure in the island’s cultural history, for whom music is essential and who (for many people) embodies certain essential qualities of belonging. This comparison that sparked in my mind amused me. Where does this figure fit, in the dynamics of community and place in Goa? I was reminded that, while we may be amused or awed by similarities between various places as we live and travel, in the end, we much embrace that no creole society is exactly like any other.
Big Foot’s Ancestral Goa is celebrated for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the biggest draw is the enormous laterite sculpture of Mirabai, the medieval poet who, much like the Sufi poets Rumi and Hafez, remains one of the world’s most profound historical embodiments of the cultural features and spiritual values of mysticism. The sculpture is set away from the exuberance that defines the rest of the diorama. Its silence sinks in deeply, and it invites one to (like Mahadar) stand quietly, and pray.
On the way out, we passed a settlement of parakeets and a garden of medicinal plants. We then heard Vedic chanting coming from one of the houses to our left (right next to the left-handed museum, for those who are wondering). What an interesting sound recording this is, I thought. It is alarmingly accurate, and well produced. It sounds almost real. Then I caught a glimpse inside. A group of Hindu priests — non-diorama ones — were seated in a circle. This was real, this was live — a living tradition. It felt natural to me, and I was reminded of why India remains so evocative, so home-like to me, though I grew up over fourteen thousand kilometers away.
Shanta Durga Temple
“Shanta Durga” means “Peaceful Durga.” Durga, also known as Kali, is one of the three primary Hindu goddesses. Along with Lakshmi and Saraswati, Durga is, to a great extent, responsible for the various forces that keep the universe, and human life, in balance. Her domain is that of creative destruction. As I understand her, she is the divine custodian of the idea that for new goodness to be born, the old must be destroyed, in a spirit of creativity and regeneration. “Shanta Durga,” the principle of undertaking this destruction peacefully, seems like the most wonderful principle with which to begin a new year. I’ll keep my reflections on the temple brief — because as widespread as religion might be, it still remains private, almost a secret, in my worldview. Perhaps it is this paradox — this destructive paradox? this peaceful paradox? this creative paradox? — that gives religion its Earth-shaking power.
Growing up in the Caribbean — in the Atlantic World in general, actually — one tends to associate the word “plantation” with all manner of horrible-ness. Slavery, industrial capitalism, monoculture, dislocation, hierarchy, exploitation, the collapse of self-sustaining social and environmental systems: the list goes on and on. When we arrived at the Spice Plantations, I assumed that here, I would encounter the same. Which non-essential crop ruined society here? — I thought. Would the tour of the plantation house begin before or after the tour of the miserable conditions where the laborers lived and worked? I was mulling over these questions in my private, Atlantic-steeped reverie when we were ushered into the gazebo adjacent to the plantation’s entrance. “A welcome tea,” a woman inside gestured towards a row of small glass cups. Each contained a few ounces of a delicious and settling tea made from lemongrass, ginger and cardamom. We were introduced to our tour guide, a woman who spoke with a lovely Marathi accent (which involved rolled ‘r’s that were far more willful and spunky than the Latin ‘r’s that I am used to). So far, this was not like any of the plantation tours that I spent my young adulthood refusing to go on.
Our guide walked us through the plantation, which was filled with tall coconut and betel trees, along with a number of other plants in the shaded understory. She introduced us to the growing practices and medicinal properties associated with turmeric, ginger, coconut, betel leaf and betel nut, pineapple (male and female varieties — who knew?!), lemongrass, pepper (which can be green, black, white, or red — once again, who knew?! They did, but anyway…), cashew, cinnamon, & black and green cardamom. Towards the end, we were unexpectedly visited by a friend — so large, and so much quieter than most people would ever expect.
She had four legs… and a trunk… and smaller ears than her African relatives… and looked like she had been smiling since the day she was born… in that nurturing way… that makes you feel like animals are way, way wiser than we are…
Her name was Ganga (named for the sacred river Ganges), and she was being led by a skinny elderly man who clearly knew her well. The two of them traveled to a shallow river, where she proceeded to sit down in the water and give herself a splash bath.
The visitors could not help but abandon their tour guides and watch this process. The sound of each splash, as Ganga brought water up her trunk and flipped it over her torso, was accompanied by a number of human “oohs” and “aahs.” At one point another sound joined the masala: the startled cries of a toddler who had just settled down on Ganga’s back, when a new spout of cold water drenched them both completely. He wailed for a little while, and we all felt sorry. But a few minutes later I spotted him by the side of the river, soaking wet and giggling with delight. Take it from personal experience: it really is very difficult to be angry with an elephant for long.
Suffice it to say that the Spice Plantations are not of the Atlantic variety. These are active, vibrant, co-cultivated plantations, where a wide diversity of species are nurtured and celebrated for their health benefits and cultural importance. This is perhaps the best thing about travel: it invites you to look at tired phenomena in new ways, to be humbled by the limitations of your own culture(s) and worldview(s), and to re-engage with that most elevated of human pursuits: working together for the betterment of all.
I began the day at Benaulim, and ended in Bambolim. I’ll keep my reflections on Bambolim brief, for several reasons. First, my time in Bambolim was by the shore, and really, the beauties of the sea are too profound to discuss more than once in any given piece. And second, I spent my time in Bambolim reconnecting with an old and dear friend. We walked along the shore, laughing about the absurdities of life with the kind of bemused dismay which I developed years ago, and which can lighten all sorts of loads. We returned to a state of mind that we acquired when life was both harder and easier — harder because growing up is so much worse than most people will tell you; and easier because at that time, we were under far less pressure to be “adults”… to demonstrate to the world that we had “figured things out,” or prove to others that our lives were okay because we had willed them to be.
Being by the sea, and sharing this sort of friendship, are both private and universal endeavors. They are not really part of a day trip itinerary. Yet in some ways, the day — multiple as it felt — had a dynamic harmony to it. The tours and the tradition, the history and the horizons, the sounds and the soliloquies… it is all part of a day. This day, or any day. नमस्ते.