Thursday, 23 August 2018

The Portuguese Men of War

This wasn't a good Sunday for me to get my walking-pedicure on the beach. Somehow, I'd also started out without the usual sense of abandon when in the proximity of the waves. There's something irresistible about the ocean's waves crashing onto the shore-line, especially in the monsoon. Swollen with rain, there seems to be an urgency to the forcefully rising and falling white crests that rush at the sandy seaboard. The higher they surge, the faster they swoosh inland and the more wicked they are, the greater my heart surges. It's almost as if the recklessness of the waves, rushing in and running back, over and under each other, without a care of what they carry aground, equally indifferent to the torment they may cause, pulling back into sea, things and people that matter to us, inspires a sense of freedom.  Observing their powerful coming and going, one after the other, without a pause, can evoke a lack of inhibition in me.
The week gone by, I'd been running alongside the sea. Enthused by the energetic waves, I'd just felt like jogging, instead of the usually lazy saunter at sundown. And no matter how much I'd try, not to get wet, the watery crests would have their way. Greedy tongues, frothing at the tip, would reach higher and higher, as white foam slithered up the gentle slopes of golden sand. Deceptively lazy from a distance, they have strong currents that send them out and up, which also pull masses of sand, back into its depths. It wasn’t easy keeping my balance on the undulating sandy terrain at Candolim. Even walking, if my step falters, sea water soars upwards, wetting me through and through.  In one such instance, my iphone, though covered by a leather pouch strapped around my waist, tasted the salted waters, never to recover from that fatal sip. But this evening, I couldn't muster the energy to run.

Barefoot is my preferred mode on this favoured stretch of the Goan coastline- from Candolim to Sinquerim. And truly, it's the best pedicure you can get. It certainly beats the nibbling fish. If you can even stomach the idea of sitting with your feet inside large, transparent, fish-bowls, watching inch-long fish feed on your dead skin - not to mention the creepy feeling as minutely scaled, marine creatures munch on your epidermis! I've seen people seated three in a row with their naked feet inside transparent, glass fish-bowls, on the ground floor lobby of Mall de Goa in Porvorim, who’ve paid 150 rupees for ten minutes of this treatment. As I passed by, I became squeamish, just seeing those gobbling fish in action. I much prefer the sand exfoliation as I run or amble through it. Though I do miss the chit-chat with Prem Singh and Rishi at Silhouette, at The Oberoi in Delhi, where I’ve regularly had my feet cleaned and massaged. Aside from nature’s sand-pedicure, it's the only other place I’ve had the confidence to entrust my toes.
This evening, the usually benign coastline was hostile. I didn't know it when I stepped off the wooden steps of Palm and Sands, a resto-bar at the edge of Candolim, but, I was just naturally inclined to walk slowly - with measured steps. To my mind, I was just getting into the mood to run, but that day, it wasn't even a remote possibility.
A new hobby, I've recently taken up, is picking up stones left behind by the waves. It's probably a kiddish thing to do and collecting has never really been a pastime for me. But, the pebbles are all marked in unusual ways. And, as I stoop to gather some, run into the water to wash off the sand, touching, feeling and examining each that I put inside the collecting-bag, I realise that every piece of that shingle I’ve picked up, has a story to tell. Each portion of dismembered rock, caressed by the sea has been marked by its journey. There are histories they carry in their grain, size, texture and hue. This fascinates me.
I keep a small plastic bag handy, and carried it onto the seashore that day too, hoping to find unique ones that inspired with their look and feel. Hopefully, different to the ones I'd already got. Just as I bent down to scoop up a smooth, dark one, which I'd spied from a distance, I found myself looking at something I'd never seen on the beach before. Mind you, I'm hardly an old-hand at these things and living beside the sea is new for me. But even so, in the past year, at least, I hadn't seen anything quite like them. I knew that Jellyfish can come up with the monsoon tides and we were bang in the middle of the rainy season, but the jellyfish I'd seen were large, fleshy, translucent and whitish. They took on the colour of the yellow-brown sand and weren't exactly easy to spot. So, what were these tiny blueish things? They had a jellyfish aura about them, but so small and so many all at once? What brought them here and surely it was an aberration rather than the norm - at least it 'felt' like that to me. If I hadn’t been looking for nuggets, before the sun set, I might not even have noticed them.
I put the dark, rounded stone, in my bag. Then spotting a yellow, plastic straw nearby, I picked it up and ventured to hesitantly prod one of those odd-looking, unfamiliar creatures. There was a pop, like a balloon burst. On hearing that sound, not much different to a rubber burst, I thought it may have been a discarded condom. Momentarily, a trifle embarrassed, I quickly moved back. Stranger things have been thrown into the ocean and washed ashore, so it was possible! But as I walked on, looking to add to my loot, so many of these purple-blueish tinted, transparent creatures, were amassed that, unless it had been, a large, happy, beach-party the night before, these were not the remnants of such an event.
 I stopped a fellow walker and asked, but he didn't know either. In fact, he hadn't even seen them. I caught sight of the familiar red and yellow life-guard uniform, in the near distance. Two young men, one with surf-board in hand, were heading towards us. We approached them, pointing to the creatures asking: "yeh kya hai?" They said, it’s the Blue-bottle jelly fish and warned us to not even touch them, adding that they’re very dangerous. Dead or alive, this species was considered extremely poisonous.
 Oops! I didn't have anything under my feet, other than the sand which the jellyfish had claimed with their lethal tentacles. It was too far out for me to return to the resto-bar to retrieve my chappals, if at all they'd be any help in negotiating wet and loose sand. The stranger-turned companion was wearing sandals and commiserated with me for my unshod feet. It started raining a short while later when he ran for shelter, but I put on my plastic, orange coloured, knee-length raincoat and continued. I love strolling in the rain, and venomous marine life or not, I wasn't going to turn back now.
When on this stretch of the sea-side, I like to go right up and touch the uniquely textured, reddish-black laterite walls of Fort Aguada. The ancient turret, which juts out into the Arabian Sea, has so much character. Passing through time, sun, wind, rain, moonshine and changing tides, its walls have weathered with age and sport a gouged and rugged air. I feel as if their souls beckon. And wonder that, were I to look hard and long enough, would they spill all - telling of the gory and glory of those who’d navigated these waters. Standing mutely, at the far end of Sinquerim they’d surely witnessed history made and undone. But, I didn’t have time to ponder today. Despite my determination to complete the walk, I was distracted by the toxic blue limbs which I've been doing my best to avoid contact with. I touched the rocks in gentle acknowledgement and headed back towards Candolim.
When I'd started, around 6.30pm, there were few people around. The sudden shower drew most of them under shelter, so I was virtually alone, aside from two resilient fishing enthusiasts. I stayed as far away from the water as I was able. The tide was coming in, rising higher and higher, pushing me up, higher and higher inland, but I couldn't bring myself to take a chance with these rough waves throwing up dreaded aquatic life. I rarely, if ever, pace through dry sand, preferring to kick my way through the swash. But this evening, not a drop of sea touched my toes, neither had I ever ventured so high up-shore, nor so carefully, on this stretch of the coast.
Each step I took was fraught with danger. I questioned why there were no picture signposts warning us of this menace, or for that matter any signs to inform. Children had been sitting close to the waves, playing with the sand, enjoying their wetting, as indulgent parents looked on. One child was almost going to step on one of those dreaded blue creatures with his naked feet, when I passed by and hastily lifted the bemused child out of the way. The two men fishing, and most people roaming that stretch were also barefoot like me, and probably, clueless.
On my return to the restaurant, I searched for information on the internet. I was most curious about these odd-looking things. NDTV, Times of India and Hindu, all reported the sighting of the tiny, but highly poisonous Blue-bottle jellyfish, also called Physalia utriculus or the Portuguese-man-of-war. It is found all through the beaches of Australia and inhabits the Indian Ocean too. These news reports emphasized that the Candolim stretch of Beach had been unexpectedly affected. Stating that right up to Baga and even at Morjhim, local fishermen and tourists had been unsuspectingly stung. Warnings had been issued and the life-guards alerted, but no-one on the seashore that evening had been aware, not until the stranger-turned-brief-companion and I, started spreading the word. Both of us were scared and one way of dealing with our fear, was an unspoken but mutual acknowledgement that, telling others was a way to wrest control of this dread. It reminded me to watch my step. I walked with concentration. I didn't have time to meditate on the vastness of a limitless horizon. I didn't have time to let my thoughts tumble as I watched wave after wave take a crashing bow. Head down, afraid, but being careful, I strode on.
The Blue-bottle jellyfish, were no more than an inch long. Their bodies are transparent and oblongish, like tiny, tightly inflated, amoebic balloons. They have dot-like bluish stains on the upper length, suggestive of feint vertebrae markings. It's highly unlikely that they have this mammalian feature, but these marks seem to be more than just adornment. Possibly serving like a fortified seam, to sustain the air within their fragile bodies, protecting the sheer membrane from being torn by lashings of sea. On the lower part, of it’s essentially see-through body, were dark and densely coloured, indigo blue clumps, spread-eagled in an ungainly sort of way. This is the area of their form which contains the dreaded poison. Some had larger blue appendages surrounding them and others had barely any at all. I later realised that where I could see less of the indigo patches, these tentacles had penetrated the surface - holding tightly onto the golden grains. Most likely, as terrified as me. Apparently, they can see and hear us and were probably holding out against the power of the mighty sea which had unwittingly carried them, to this place. However, I did wonder, if by plunging their toxic feelers into the sand they had now rendered that patch of sand poisonous. Would it ever be safe to stride with naked feet again?
In the water, when these jellyfish float, buoyed by their inflated bodies, the indigo-blue limbs, which I'd seen gathered as clumps, unfold and dangle below the primary body-form, like vertical ribbons of uneven length. Pictures, I found on google, made them look exotically delicate and quite beautiful too. But, all through my forty-five-minute stroll, I had to watch my feet, carefully avoiding contact with these fragile beings, for fear of being stung in retaliation. I didn’t want to hurt them nor be infected. I knew nothing beyond the chance warning given by the life-guards. I had no idea what could occur if any of them were accidentally trod underfoot or if I brushed passed one without seeing it. My subsequent internet search revealed that, if anyone does get stung, a quick wash with sea-water should be followed by a generous cleansing with vinegar. They're inclined to leave their tentacles in or on their victims’ bodies, attaching themselves to it, which vinegar dissolves. And finally, but most importantly, is a must visit to the hospital. Depending on each person's physiognomy the impact of their sting can be a mildly irritating allergy to life-threatening cardiac arrest.
After the demise of my last iphone, I'd taken to leaving all phones and other technical paraphernalia behind. It was meant to allow me to be as carefree as I wanted to. However, if there is one thing Goa has shown me, in the last six months since I'd moved here, is that carefree as I understood it in Gurgaon wasn't the same carefree here.
In a gated complex, within its secured, mile-long, walled perimeter, it was easy to cycle or walk in the rain, there was no peril in the swimming pool either. Here, green snakes lie camouflaged in the paddy fields and don't announce their presence like the gently croaking frogs who reside there too. They crawl up, onto the narrow roads - some get run over by vehicles at night to be seen mutilated early the next morning. And that's how I've identified their secret habitat. If I happen to amble alongside these fields at sun-down, it's with considerable trepidation that I tread the narrow roads. Vying for space to pass along the slender, tarred passage, honking trucks and buses push me right at the edge and I'm wary, lest I haplessly trample an unseen, snaking green, who may then bite back in self-defence. Trekking in the rain, is even more hazardous as the roads are slippery, but the vehicle drivers - especially the motorcycles and scooters don't have a care. If I want to cycle, I must rise early and hit the road by 6.30 -7.00 am. It’s a planned endeavour where I wear a helmet and gloves for a better grip, as well as proper shoes - quite unlike the spontaneous cycling sprees with rubber chappals, in Gurgaon. There, I'd be able to ride at any hour - even in the dark, which is unthinkable here, particularly for a novice like me. And now, on the beach, where I'd otherwise felt able to hang loose, these creatures of the sea were staring menacingly at me.

Walking beside the ocean, has often prompted me to open my arms to receive the wisdom it's spirit might share with me. Striding with utmost concentration, I didn't do so that evening. I was alert to everything that could vaguely resemble the Blue-bottle jellyfish. My eyes were focussed on the sand, visually sifting through the tide borne debris of discarded water-bottle caps, drifting twigs, transparent fish-net, seeds, stones and coconut husks. With furtive but frequent side-glances, I also kept an eye on the rising flow, inching its way up the sand, striding higher and higher up the sloping coast, keeping myself away and dry. If the Blue-bottles could sting on contact, then I didn't want to be in harm's way. I might avoid stepping on them if I strode with care, but I had no way of seeing what the swollen and rushing waves carried and would unthinkingly throw at me. I dreaded the idea of splashing through them and being stung unsuspectingly. It wasn’t worth the risk.
At the end of that arduous exercise when I sat and recounted to Venetia, the proprietor of Palm and Sands, that treacherous but mindful gait I'd undertaken,  that I did truly begin registering the wisdom the ocean and its creatures had carried forth.
I'd been wondering how to make all the requisite adjustments in my new abode. Spiritual precepts were evolving and I was trying to pay more and more attention to my feelings - those vibrations that are mostly inexplicable, but which muster matter into form. How was I to keep pace with this increasingly vibrant inner world and participate meaningfully in the external one, was the dominant quest on my mind. And here, was an experiential example of how it could be done – mindfully, watching every step with focussed attention.
The limitless sea of consciousness, I understood would always be there, beside me. I didn’t have to keep looking deep into its greenish-grey waves to recognize the wisdom of my own soul. This kind of looking does open the mind, but daily living requires concentration. Meditation can be a walk, writing, cooking or sewing, all things done - mindful of the job, where rooted in the doing is sometimes enough. Each moment thus, if we can feel its power, can be rewarding in its own way.
A few days later, Venetia accompanied me on a walk down Candolim Beach- just to catch a glimpse of the Portuguese Men of War. Both of us wore closed shoes. A middle-aged man, was approaching us in the opposite direction, carrying a stick – possibly to ward of the dogs. Venetia saw that his feet were unshod, so went up to apprise him of the surge in the blue-bottle jelly fish. He looked down to  where she pointed and seeing a string of them lining the golden  sand, he said you mean these things are poisonous? And stomped them all with his big bare feet, adding that this is what they did when they were kids and that they were only lethal while in the water. The moment the blue-bottles came ashore, they couldn’t breathe, and lost their sting. This was contrary to what the newspapers reported and the warnings given by the lifeguards. 
I was in awe, but we never saw him again. I have no idea if that moment of bravado had proved fatal, or not, but I cannot forget the blue Men of War and the fear they brought forth in me.