Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Food For Thought

One day, I saw two tiny, fair-skinned piglets running ahead of my car and thought: ‘By god! They really can sprint. They’re super-fast!’ They scuttled into a by-lane and I turned into my apartment complex and forgot about them.
 A couple of evenings later while returning home, I saw a woman walking her pigs. I stopped the car and approached them, wanting to take some photos. It was the stick in her hand and the way she was hovering in their vicinity that made me ask if the pigs belonged to her. Her name was Jennifer and I learned that she is a neighbour of mine. Lives in the same Wado or village.
Jennifer’s affirmative answer led to a conversation about them. I asked if she reared them, if she had a pig farm. She said she just had these two pigs – one male and the other female. She added that the sow, which is three or four years old, and had given birth to seven piglets, two of whom were on the street as we spoke,  would soon be meat which she would sell. The male, their father, was not quite a year old and the piglets were just two months old. I asked if she named them. Very matter-of-factly, in the most deadpan manner I’d ever seen, she uttered, “No”.
I have to admit that something turned in my stomach. I was now acquainted with this sow, with her drooping udders and hungry snorting, who would soon be inside Jennifer’s stomach and, who knows, even mine! The next time I have a hankering for bacon and eggs, I’ll be unable to eat, wanting to know whose pig it was, whether we have met or not. I was confused by the encounter and started probing my own food choices. But, taking my cue from Jennifer’s matter-of-factness, I clicked my photos and drove on home. 
I didn’t have far to go, but it wasn’t a comfortable ride home. I had questions. I needed to understand my own dietary choices. Re-think them, yet again. But this time with a whole new set of ideas and ethics.
Alighting from my car, walking towards the gate, I met a neighbour and we decided to drive down to Morjhim Beach for a quick walk. On the way there, I narrated this pig incident. He mentioned seeing her walking them every day and, like me, couldn’t  fathom how people did it -- rear them and then kill them. He said that he was grateful, for these very reasons, that he didn’t eat pork and chicken. My immediate neighbours, who don’t live in the Riviera complex but with whom we share a common boundary wall, raise chickens, who crow at the crack of dawn and often drop in for a wander in the Sapphire gardens. I’ve never asked but now assume that they probably eat them at some point too. I assume they farm the eggs for personal consumption because when they are particularly noisy, which is at relatively frequent intervals, my maid remarks that they must be laying eggs today.
It seems standard practice in these parts, in the relative rural environs of Goa, to rear the meat and eat it. Jennifer’s pigs are fed from the stuff she and her husband collect from hotel left-overs and their walk through the lanes of Bammon Wado, where we live, foraging for food. My maid who also lives in the same village revealed that these pigs are expensive to rear and that her family also used to breed and sell pigs when they were ready to eat. She stated, as an aside, that Jennifer was quite indiscriminate with regard to where her pigs fed. Often desecrating the gardens of her neighbours and inviting much wrath, but that she is aggressive and continues without care.  When Jennifer and her family cut a pig, they do so at home, themselves, and sell it on Wednesdays at the Siolim Parish Bazaar. A social acquaintance, someone I’ve only recently met, declared that this was probably the best meat to buy as it is fresh. But I would rather go into a store and pick up something I hadn’t seen alive and made acquaintance with. I’m squeamish about this whole idea of knowing the being I am eating, however brief the acquaintance. 
I’ve grown up on a non-vegetarian diet. There were no restrictions on what we ate except beef but even that was overcome while I studied in London primarily because, in the hostel I stayed in, not eating beef meant I would get an omelette on an average of three to four times a week. I’d complain and Linda Washington, a cynical fellow hosteller, fed up with the frequent groans, goaded me to try it,  insisting it was the Jersey cow therefore my devout grandmother, a Krishna bhakt, would have no qualms. Through her taunts, I interrogated my belief and realised that I didn’t know why we revered the cow and when I didn’t find adequate answers elsewhere, I decided to give it a try.  It was okay then but I no longer eat it as I find it very heavy to digest. But that is a personal choice and not because it is taboo or from any other inhibiting factors.
Aside from this, I eat pretty much everything, even though the preference at home is to be mostly vegetarian.  But because of my rather involved yoga, meditation and healing practice, I often face the query: “You still eat meat?” And to this, I’ve never had qualms in responding that indeed I do because a wise man once told me that I must learn to ‘manage’ all kinds of energy. And that is what I do. Depending on my engagement with the world, whether it is a lot of external doing and less contemplation for the day or week, or the other way around, my food is based on the kind of energy that I need. And this includes regular fasting too.
That very day, when I met Jennifer walking her pigs,  a friend shared, on our school WhatsApp group, an incident of how Asha Bhonsle, who had acute lower spinal cord pain and couldn’t bend, was at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where she prayed to be healed. She was instantly cured of her ailment, for right there and then, is said to have bent down spontaneously.  Ideas of faith and miracles did the rounds in the group, but while Faith is indeed part of it, the purity of energy plays a huge role. As a healer, I am familiar with how relevant it is that there is this element which must be present in the asking, the receiver and also of the environment the healing is asked in. Here the humility of Asha in pain, and the sacredness with which people visiting the golden temple imbue its sanctorum, created the perfect synergy.
However, there is a tendency to believe that the human being who doesn’t eat meat is purer than those who do. The Sikhs are known to be ardent meat eaters and many I know can’t go without their daily dose of tandoori chicken. Yet their temple precincts, as per this story, were the epitome of pure energy. And within the context of our conversation, my neighbour who doesn’t eat chicken and pork but chooses to be fish-eggetarian, was stumped by this anecdote because like many others he too believes that there is an element of purity in his diet, which isn’t possible in those who are heavy meat eaters. The issue of purity is another one altogether and a discussion for another occasion, but it is pertinent to ask ourselves what we mean by it in the first place. To my mind, purity simply is the honesty of intent, without rancour or guilt. An unconditional, non-judgemental, reverential acceptance of one’s being, its needs and desires, which creates a sacred connect with the divine forces of being. A sublime state that is dependent on integrity and faith -- not meat or fish or vegetables -- but one’s energetic capacity achieved through it or despite it.
Therefore the discipline lies not in my diet, but in administrating it. However, despite the lack of inhibition regarding meat in my diet, the dilemma of eating what is reared to kill creates another kind of question, adding a whole new twist to the very concept of eating compounded by the numerous popular diets doing the rounds which make eating itself a big issue. One diet recommends you eat according your blood type. Because I’m O+ and this is supposedly the oldest blood type, from an era where there was hunting but no farming, the genetic type of O+ accepts meat but wheat is taboo.
I recall, when I was around 10-12 years old and shikaar was still legal, relishing the teetar and bataer my maternal uncle would share with us, from his catch. We’ve also watched him fish in the rivers in Kashmir and eaten freshly caught trout. One no longer hunts for food so rearing and slaughtering the animals is the way things are done today, because killing is the only way that we do eat the meat.  Many friends speak of the idea behind eating fish as being less cruel in the kill -- but is it?  I do wonder because the oysters and clams are picked off the rocks they have adhered to in order to protect their spawn from drowning or getting swept with the tide. There are fisheries that rear prawns. And, how is putting out a net to catch  live and struggling fish any less violent than putting a knife to a pig’s throat?
Recent research also reveals that when we eat plants and fruits that have seeds, the plant poison secreted to protect the seed (which the plant deems essential for procreation and therefore aids survival of its species) can be harmful to ingest. Over time, this substance is believed to create a residue of poison in the stomach lining. And this is being linked to various stomach disorders and diseases that plague our generation. All this does make one have to think about the ethics of what we call food, doesn’t it? And also the systems of eating.
It’s no longer possible to take the traditional food-chain for granted and unquestioningly sing along with the popular 19th century jingle “To market, to market, to buy a fat pig. Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.” Animal activism has brought in a whole new dimension to food ethics which makes food and eating a rather perplexing issue.
I have a couple of favourite stories culled from traditional lore that speak of issues of natural selection and citing that it’s all the same matter whose form is a manifestation of the mind. Swami Ram, in  his travels with the Himalayan Masters, wrote of an interesting experience of meeting with a famed Aghori Baba. The Baba, on seeing how hungry Swami Ram and the Pandits accompanying him were, suggested they cut and bring the remains of a dead body lying on the river bank below while he got a fire going. The astonished threesome was stunned but compelled by some inexplicable force to do as he asked. The Baba then turned what could have been a cannibalistic act for staunch vegetarians, shattering their dharma, into a delightfully illuminating narrative on the question of energy which pervades all matter. He turned the bones into tasty rasagullas, highlighting the idea that we are all made of the same energy, in differing degrees of density, and it is a question of realising this and turning it into  whatever one chooses or needs. Aghori Baba was a self-realised master who was able to convert even the dense energetic matter of human bones into a vegetarian sweet dish - a feat that most of us cannot achieve. However, another way of looking at this reiterates the discernment, as mentioned earlier, of managing energy according to one’s needs.
Smiling Aghori Baba with long hair,
 ash on face wearing human bones
,rudraksha bead
 In another story, this time about Shiv Nag the cobra and the irrepressible Narada Muni of yore, tells us how the snake that eschews the natural order of things in learning to meditate and become a yogi creates havocs in the fields. This causes the rats to urge the cobra to return to foraging their kin because absence of the natural survival of the fittest and fastest was leading to an unprecedented rise in rodent population and to farmers losing their crops. Inspired by Narada and his wisdom, the Nag eschewed his otherwise violent stinging of children who trampled the temple precincts that the King cobra and his family lived in.  Unafraid of this now measly snake, the once cowering kids took to throwing stones at the pliant reptile, compelling Narada Muni, who visited him a year after the sermon, to say, “I didn’t tell you not to hiss!” There is also the much quoted logic of Krishna at the cusp of the mother of all battles when he says that the world is nothing but an illusion, echoing the mastery that Aghori Baba is said to have displayed.  Nothing exists  - not the killer nor killed -- but dharma must prevail.

 My question is: what’s the dharma in this instance? To my mind, it raises a similar dilemma: to eat or not to eat, or what to eat. So, if the human dharma is our own survival, which does necessitate some intake of food, is there any other ethic that must be involved in our decision making? Other than eating what we need as we need it? Eating for survival and not greed, managing the energy according to necessity, is that the mantra we should apply?

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Mynapi Waterfall Trek - Negotiating the Rivers of Human Terrain


I'm totally zombied out. Sitting in bed, looking at the sun dappled bamboo outside my window, I'm finding it difficult to express the experience I underwent yesterday. All through the drive back home, I kept checking in to figure out what I was feeling and drew a blank. Such as I often do when any event is overwhelming or extremely challenging. It had been a long and arduous day but I wasn't tired, even though my body was hurting. I was in a nirvanic – a beyond words, kind of space.
I woke at 5am to leave for Panjim by 6am, to meet Bianca and Bjorn and their team from Off-trail Adventures by 7am. I had to park my car at Patto Plaza, walk across to the other side of the Panjim-Ponda Road, meet the other trekkers at Heera Petrol pump and board the bus that would transport us to the location.
Strapped with a ten litre backpack, a fanny pack with my phones and emergency essentials, and carrying yet another bag with a change of clothes, more water and food, I ambled across, the ten minute distance, without demur. Ordinarily, I would have scouted for help, but I had signed up for a day long trail where I was supposed to traverse 18 kms, so this was just the start.
Picking up people along the way at Cortalim Junction, Verna and Margao, we reached Quepem at 8.40 am for a quick breakfast. Before leaving for the final hour-long bus lap towards the Netrawali Wild Life Sanctuary, where the expedition officially begins.
 Goa is so green in the monsoon that it's a delight for the eyes. And the emeraldic-leaf green of the paddy is a very special colour. Unlike any hue in my paint or thread palette. But, this agrarian landscape wasn't a patch on the virgin forests that unfolded as we tread the terrain of the Western Ghats.
It was my first hike of this kind and that too as I completing sixty years of age. It was ambitious but I had no idea of the agony my frame would go through as I negotiated smooth rocks, wet and slippery with slime, the possibility of leeches shimmying up my flesh unseen to suck warm blood and more. And, when I got home at 9 pm, fifteen hours later, the top of my thigh muscles were stiff – more like rigor mortis rigid, but it was my big toes that were wailing louder than the cicadas of the forest. Even the gentle touch of the light quilt I sleep with, was evoking yowls of pain. And to top it all, grasping at crevices to find a grip, at the very edge, before we glimpsed the Mynapi waterfall, I think I may have cracked the middle finger on my left hand. Or at the very least pulled a muscle. I had to put the full weight of my 65kg on hands and knees to scramble up. They're not used to it.
Today, I've tried to get up and about as I would a normal day, but if I sit or stand, it's really painful. My shoulders are speaking of their burden (which wasn't much more than a litre of water, light trekking sandals, a sandwich, a light raincoat-which was pointless to wear) and 10gms of salted Kaju. But, I'm inclined to think the load has more to do with feeling exhilarated by an situation and occurrences that tested me at so many levels and left me relatively immobilized. And, it is my inability to put this entire venture into any comprehensive perspective that’s keeping the mind in a spin. I've not really wanted to get on with my usual day or do anything other than look at the pictures and re-live those moments. Or search online for things like shock-proof sticks and dry bags so that I'm better prepared next time. And a better pair of shoes too!
 Yes, there has to be a next time. Being so close to nature, without the trappings of urban behavioural niceties, I felt the rawness of fear. I faced the power of the resolve: ‘I have to find a way’. I grappled on all fours, heaving myself up or slithering down on my butt. All very ungainly and un-lady-like, and in full view of strangers – all of them, mostly youngsters in their late twenties or early thirties. It was a no-holds barred episode. It was a getting in touch with yourself encounter like nothing else I have associated with. A revealing confrontation at that.

As we entered the sanctuary, leaving the bus behind, we strolled along a tarred, regular road but within minutes turned off to the left, towards the Mynapi falls. The signpost said 4.5 kms. Very doable I thought. Since the age of 34 years, when I'd become aware of the merits of some exercise, I've been striding exactly this much each evening - down Walkers Lane in Friends Colony (East), in New Delhi- topping it up with swimming and cycling, so I thought it was going to be par for the course. Yes, uphill for sure, because we were going to the waterfalls, but just a couple of years ago I'd done the haul from Gethia up to Nainital and back and also climbed up and down Matunga Hill in Hampi, at the crack of dawn, wearing plastic Crocs without a strap. That had been quite scary too because it had rained and the boulders in Hampi, well they’re something else. So I thought I was prepared. Doubt hadn't even entered my head.
As we entered the forested area, I could hear an uprising of some insects. It was as if they were wailing that their coveted greens were being invaded. I was told they are the cicadas – extremely small but very noisy. And yes, they could really cook up a racket. I was looking around eagerly, at flowers and the tall foliage, growing higher than us. Reminding myself to keep my gaze focussed on whoever was ahead of me lest I lose sight. We bent lower than low, crouching under boughs and leapt over fallen or felled tree trunks lying in the path. Trampled over a seemingly unending carpet of leaves, red, green, brown, blackening as they composted themselves back into the earth. The light on them glinting as if shining off silver. It was an overcast day, but no rain yet. I couldn't imagine what they'd look like on a sunny day. Even as the tall forestation probably doesn't let in much light anyway. But the mulching leaves fascinated me – especially the blackened ones.
An adept trekker classmate of mine had shared a few tips. She'd suggested changing into sandals as we crossed the rivers and streams, advising that it's best not to keep your feet in wet shoes and socks all day long. But we came upon a narrow rivulet within fifteen minutes and it was barely four feet wide, so I didn't change. I couldn't bring myself to stop to change and revert back into Keds after a minute’s stride. My socks and shoes were now wet and we later strode 3-4 kms in the river itself. With uneven rocks, often jagged and pointed, where I needed to lodge my feet in whatever gaps I could find, I cannot envision the state of my feet without the protective covering of my socks and shoes. Even though the wet and confined feet did eventually lead to unbearable pain and a mild infection necessitating antibiotics and loss of toe-nail. t didn’t make sense then, to fiddle around with footwear mid-way.
At first we rambled alongside the river. Vicinal to the soothing resonance of water rushing downhill. Gurgling and splashing as she fluidly opposes boulders and mud banks, insistently carving a path despite all the obstacles in her way. I was loving every minute so far. Then we crossed to the other side because the topography was relatively easier. At one point all we had, to place our feet on to cross a hilly edge, was a thick vine. Bianca kept encouraging us, saying it's very strong, don't be scared. But I was. Having her at hand-holding distance, should any of us topple or if it gave way, was little consolation but as I put one foot on it and then the other and crossed that two-foot space, and it didn’t break with my bulk nor after ten or more who came before and  after, I realised just how strong they were. And later, grappling for support among the boulders, as the flow of the watercourse got rougher,  I scanned the foliage on my side, looking for these vines to hold on to.

We kept crossing the gushing stream back and forth - guided by Bianca at the front, Prashant in the middle and Bjorn at the tail. I chose to stay with Bjorn. I couldn't contemplate attempting the hazardous slog through the water, flowing with quite a strong current at points, all on my own. I'd already slipped once and his strong, youthful arms had saved the day. So this is what I banked upon the rest of the way.
Every time he thought there was some stable ground, and let go of my hand. I took a dunking. I must have fallen at least five times. But being at the end, also gave me time to stop and take some photos. It was dicey taking my iphone out of its protective cover.  I only attempted this once in a while. The photos I have are mere trinkets of what I saw with my eyes, endured with my body and the unbounded beauty which gave me the strength and spirit to keep on track.


The youngsters that were part of this group didn't think this old aunty, would actually manage that final steep cliff which led up to the water fall. And honestly, if I'd thought about It, I wouldn't have. And when I do reflect back on the trek, it's this moment that keeps coming back.  I'm filled with such a sense of daunting. It was treacherous, to say the least. I'd be terrified attempting it again, knowing what a close call it is. That hard rocks and fast flowing water, awaited my fate some fifty metres or more down below.
But Bianca had come back for Priyam and me, the stragglers who were being assisted by Bjorn and Prashant. Just thinking that she's gone up with the others, descended, back-tracked to find us, then scaled up ahead of me, showing me how to do it, gives me the shivers. We were so close to the waterfall, in its full flow at the monsoon. I could hear the flowing waters, I was wet with its far-reaching spray And so was the almost ninety degree vertical cliff-rock we ascended – without any mountain-climbing skill or gear. It was just a short stretch but what a task it was!
At an extremely crucial point, one foot lodged as firmly as one can on a  narrow and precarious crevice and the other reaching to find its foothold, from behind me Prashant says "look up, look up, you’ll get a sneak preview”. I didn't want to take my eyes off the risky geography I was tackling. I didn’t have a secure foothold either but, I'm a sucker for waterfalls. There is something so magical about this cascade of water pouring down from the height of hillsides. Be it the Canadian Niagara or the famed milky Dudhsagar on the Goa-Karnataka border, I have made my way to them delighting in their majestic watery vistas. So I did look up - just one moment of perilous viewing before Bianca urged me to take the next few steps up, hold onto her hand and heave myself up to see it, in all its cascading glory. A bride’s lushly crocheted lacy veil, trailing through the steep rocks covered on either side - a mossy carpet of green, a vertical and hazardous church aisle with a deliciously refreshing aqueous pool at its base.

We had been walking for over three hours at this point. It had been arduous to say the least. Not because the hike was taxing in the physical capacity, but because it had required every vestige of courage, presence and sheer utter focus -  such that is not factored into the rituals of daily living. At one point Prashant and a few others pulled a log of wood, from the water, for us to move from one point to the next. And in one of my photos I can see him giving a young man a push to garner enough height to rise up. It was tough. I was relieved to have reached the scenic spot. I was ravenous and drained. So the first thing I did was to eat my egg and cheese sandwich, gulp down some Electral before I off-loaded my backpack and fanny pack to crawl my way down into the water. I wanted to get right under the fall but was advised not to as, being so forceful at this point, it also carries small stones down from the mountain.
I bathed and crawled back onto the mud splattered, wet and slithering rocks, on all fours. It was a kind of primordial reconnecting with one's animal self. Uncaring of anyone's gaze, of the mud on my butt and drenched hair- looking nothing like the carefully crafted urban visage I'm accustomed to recognising as myself. It didn't matter. I sat on a stone-free muddy spot, momentarily  secure of my seat and gawped at the flow of water, conjecturing with Joan and Jaffrey as to its height. Was it 300 metres, was it 200 or more, we couldn't decide but it was beautiful. Not as awe-inspiring as the Niagara, nor as wide and as gushing a river of milk as Dudhsagar, but tucked away in this nook, away from the prying eyes of the casual passer-by; away from the reach of those that don’t value nature’s bounty enough to refrain from despoiling, it was a sight to behold. Especially since one had trudged a difficult path to do so. I was exhausted but enthralled. I was mesmerized by this proximity to nature that had compelled a propinquity to my own  - that sense of provocation I have always been prone to. That never giving up attitude - no matter what. That slow but steady stride and this love for being among rivers and mountains and the grace of green that surrounds it - the natural habitat of the planet. Facets of my own nature that,  I don't often recollect, nor consider much, unless life mirrors them back to me, this way.
Priyam and I had taken our time getting there, so we had less rest than the others, before Binaca herded us off again. No, we didn't go back the way we had come. I think I would have died had we to do that, but the ascent up from the base of the waterfall was steep. Ultra-steep and there was barely enough mud to give our feet traction. At one point, unable to muster the spirit to haul myself up with the depleted strength of beleaguered thigh muscles and leaning on equally dog-tired arms, from behind me, Nalita gave a push up from my bums. It was effective and a relief not to rely on my fatigued form alone. It was an extremely narrow track and we had to keep moving single file. I was in the middle, not the end as before, so had no option but to keep travelling. But my vitality was flagging. I hadn't eaten much breakfast because not only was it early, I wasn't sure of how I'd fare in a bus through the Ghats on a full stomach. A sweet bun (local Goan bread) and tiny glass of tea had been enough. And with sips of water and the occasional salted Kaju, it had brought me to the falls.
 Lunch was going to take time to create its own energy. And the muscles were beginning to ache. Not to forget the toes. My god they hurt. But I kept moving until the trail widened a bit and the others could pass. When we stopped, Bianca took one look at me and said my lips were white. My remaining water was turned into Electral in a jiffy and I sat on a jutting rock, resting and sipping. I relaxed enough to see the misty view of the Ghats through the vines and took a picture from that spot. Too tired to lift my butt and move ahead of the dangling vines, I let them define the view – that was after all as I was seeing them, wasn’t it.
Joan, Lucy, Prashant, Jaffrey and Bjorn stayed with me till I felt able to resume the track. My legs and hands were trembling. They said we're half-way there. It's downhill now and that gave me courage. But I realised this wasn't true. Bjorn used the half-way there phrase three times later and when I said “but that's what you said an hour ago”. He smiled, telling me only right at the end, that is the only way to keep people going. If you think the end is in sight, you muster strength. And it's true. That was probably how I kept proceeding. Even after a massive cramp in my feet and legs, when I finally changed into my sandals and gulped some salts. It was only then that I  took a longish break. So long, in fact, that when we reached the bus, Bianca was beginning to wonder if she needed to get some medical facilities to us.

But the snails and flowers and unbelievably beautiful caterpillars and millipedes that dotted the landscape diverted attention from the rigour and pain. And then at the last lap it started to rain quite heavily, but the tree cover was so dense that I didn't feel much on me. We reached the bus dripping wet from head to toe. We'd crossed a few more brooks and gushes. Washing my face with the cooling freshness of the water, even our feet felt great to wade through them. It took some of the tiredness away. And the entire journey was dotted with such, always available refreshing, moments - even in the midst of hardship. It was quite an eye-opener to see just how much of what one needs is really always at hand.
 Tired, relieved, but mostly chuffed at having completed the journey in one piece, I changed my clothes and got onto the bus when everyone burst into applause. Joan sat down next to me and said "can I please take a selfie with the legend" and she's got one of me looking wan and exhausted - my hair like nothing I'd ever dare post in a photo. But then I didn't care. I couldn't. These social niceties were out of place where one's endurance, grit and resilience had been tested. When the body strong was more valid that body beautiful. When triumph was an obstacle course completed and not how presentable I looked at the end of it. If only one could make this more relevant in terms of the rigours of living. Not to care what experience does to our self-image, was a profound realization.
At the end of the whole journey, when we got off the bus at Panjim, Yogesh, Priyam and I sauntered up towards Panjim bus stand. Yogesh is a young strapping lad and he was the first one to reach Mynapi. He'd been so pickled by it that he told everyone again and again. Clearly all of us had markers of achievement along the way, each one a personal triumph. I shared that my limbs were aching but that I wasn't tired and Priyam exclaimed that's exactly what she was feeling too. A question of mind more thrilled than the body could cope with, said wise Yogesh.

It was Priyam' s first trek too. She’d come from Mumbai to hike up to Mynapi. But she was much, much younger and it reassured me to know that she was experiencing similar pangs of discomfort as I. She also shared that while she watched and waited as I struggled with the last leg but extremely treacherous and precarious ledges before reaching the waterfall, she’d thought to herself, this may well be her last day on this planet. Thankfully I hadn’t had the time to think about this, that I had preceded her, and urged by Bianca, didn’t stop to fear. Those tremors came as an afterthought.

We'd walked on the edge of experience. We'd staggered on the very ledges of life. Our accomplishment lay in embracing the foreboding that nature posed on our way and reaching home safe and sound. Barring a few leeches that had sucked the blood off Lucy and Jaffrey, the soon to be wedded couple, and a few others,  there had been nothing untoward and tragic that occurred. We all carried that sense of elation within – a palpable excitement of living through it - a shared journey, shared rigour and shared joys.

As I mulled over this extraordinary happening - I considered why this has been so rewarding but the other challenges where we have had to touch our primate selves in similar ways - the emotions that life can evoke in us, that others can raise in us - the rigour of relationships and more, why don't we feel this same sense of exhilaration, accomplishment and sense of our own power in them? Why do we cower and demur from these triumphs; making these expeditions in nature  hallowed goals. Quite honestly, it has to be the daily march through the dark alleys of being, traversing the rivers of human terrain which are the quintessential encounters we undertake that, test the spirit equally, if not more. Requiring as much of a leap of faith. Don’t they, every day?

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.