Pythons & Pop

Part 7/13 of Travel Writings: Listening to Maharashtra and Goa (2017-18). Music & the Earth International, 2022. Available here.

Pythons & Pop — Last Days in Goa

Pythons and murals and pop, oh my!

When I arrived in Mumbai a week ago, I wrote (with a sense of personal triumph) that while many people listen to sound, I plan to take this endeavor a step further and listen to silence. Yet as the days pass and India becomes more comfortable — more fluid, if you like — to me, I realize that listening to the world always involves both sound and silence.

The soundscapes of the last few days include:

The serenity of the forest at Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary and Zoological Park — kilometers upon kilometers of tall trees, which will likely lose their leaves as the dry season progresses. The crinkle of leaves that have already fallen, and the silence commanded by the massive bees’ nests that hung directly above us on a couple occasions, as we took a gentle trek through the forest. Woods like this have the ability to create a special kind of hush, a tranquility that comes from being surrounded by slender and stately beings that live and breathe like this. It is the kind of silence that perhaps we try to approximate sometimes in certain forms of music, but which is inherently very challenging for humans to accomplish. Not even the elegant silence that is possible in our most sophisticated recital halls can easily achieve this. This is the quietness of being alive in non-human form — more specifically, in plant form.

The path through the forest led inevitably to a zoo. Yet unlike most zoos, the animals at Bondla were not confined in cages, far away from their natural habitats. They were all indigenous, so to speak, to this region of India, and at the zoo they were given more space and access to nature than is customary. While we tend to learn about animals through the noises they make (i.e. the roar of a lion or the laugh of a hyena), in truth most of the inhabitants of the Bondla zoo were actually quite quiet. The leopard and the elephant; the jackals, crocodiles, bison, pheasants, civets, emus and pythons; even the monkeys (with a few vociferous exceptions) and the wild boars: The animals made very little noise. They were elegant (to return to this word), even when they were unattractive, even when they were strong, even when they were active. Such elegance is something that we humans strive for through dance, through music, through any other endeavor that requires discipline and style. I was struck by how naturally these animals seemed to reflect those goals.

At Goa’s Japanese Tea Garden — which did not resemble a tea garden in any way — I encountered the dramatic, yet intuitive soundscape of a different stretch of Goa’s coast. The outer perimeter of the tea garden — which was actually a verdant park with a few winding pathways that culminated in little plateaus that afforded a view of the ocean — descended sharply to the sea. In a formation that was not quite a bay, not quite a straight coastline, all the land around us sloped steeply to the ocean in a similar way — a similar style, if you like. The green faded as I lowered my gaze, giving way to deep brown rocks, and ultimately leading me to the water.

I have lived by the ocean my entire life, yet this seascape took my breath away. The water was a deep blue — a Pacific blue, almost — and the light was such that the line between ocean and sky along the horizon was not particularly clear. The two met in a sun-sparkled mist, a band of blue that created the impression that this water extended as far as eternity. The waves carried that vast, diffuse roar that they always do when surrounded by cliffs.

And then, at the Goa airport, the last port of call before leaving this state, this place that rings of spice and serenity and home: the multilingual chatter that makes travel so nice. The sounds of my own voice as I slowly, absurdly, but with slightly more patience than before, read the Devanagari signs that surround me. The distant, unmistakable beats of songs like Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie” and Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocketful of Sunshine” as Goa’s “young people” radio station plays from the airport speakers. People have said to me that I look like a teenager but talk like someone who’s old enough to have a mid-life crisis, but still… at twenty-seven, I think I still qualify as a young person. And in spite of the “music snob” side of myself, I found myself rather enjoying the experience. A-plus, young people radio station. I’m sure we’ll meet again.

And perhaps most of all, the world that is depicted on a beautiful mural above the place where checked baggage is screened. The mural is long, taking up an entire wall that is really quite lucky to have been chosen for this purpose. The center of the mural was actually a bas-relief: Not painted, but rather a clay-hued, slightly three-dimensional depiction of a group of women carrying large pots, perhaps filled with water. To the right of this bas-relief was a rural scene, in which sari-clad women performed their daily lives. To the left was a coastal scene, populated by people who I would not have placed as Goa-nese had I seen them anywhere else. I would have placed them closer to home — in the historical and ecological geography of the greater Caribbean.

The women were dressed in skirts and tops, and the men wore trousers and casual button-down shirts. One of the men had a guitar in his arms, and one of the women was playing a tambourine. I could almost hear the music as I watched them, though I could not tell you precisely what it sounded like. For the end of a trip is as much a beginning as it is a finale. I feel I have only begun to learn about the musical diversity, hybridity and depth of Goa’s music — just as nature’s quiet elegance takes years to fully appreciate. All in all, Goa has piqued my interest in the dynamic links between various forms of silence and sound, and the ways in which that dynamism continues to reveal itself as move through, and listen to, the world around us.

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