Stumbling through Goa

22 11 2010

Kali claps thunder hands together so close to my ears I smart… but it’s all blue skies and sandy beaches where I am … Shiva rattles loudly on the door… maybe 30 minutes and the sky will crack… the palm trees and gentle winds dance slowly in anticipation…. the 80 ft statue of Shiva perched behind me on the hill, watches.  His benevolent eyes loom large and seem to sense our ignorance… are we even meant to be here?  Van loads of men wearing black spill out at the base to walk their barefoot deference up the 150 steps up to the shrine.  Women and children carry flowers and turn incense in circles about their heads.  Seva is paid, pooja’s performed.  And we stand bathed in our naiveté; we are still a million miles (maybe somewhere just off the M25) away from even grasping what it means to be Hindu. Liz has attacked the issue with books and drags us into one temple or another on a more or less daily basis.  Where upon we dutifully feel awkward and proceed to stumble about without shoes on (in one instance stepping in cow dung) for about 5 minutes until we either a)  give up and retreat or b) sit and listen to the chanting (Bajans) before giving up and retreating. Our white skin and disorientation an embarrassment; and as the clear skies grumble at us – I’m sure that at last Shiva has found us out.

Hindu temples feel a lot like Georgian churches. There is an awful lot going on; lots of ritualised gestures made towards a statue or picture, things being whispered or chanted, offerings being made, music, cows, and the odd elephant jar about the place (scrub cows and elephants from the Georgia picture). It all appears highly meaningful and highly organised in a totally chaotic fashion. And it is all very confusing to heathens such as us.  So we simply stand with it and watch; as with our experience of India generally.

The idea that either ‘India’ or ‘Hinduism’ can be packaged up in one tight little word is a linguistic transgression.  As there are 1000’s of incarnations of the Gods and Goddesses so there are 1000’s of India’s; Keralan identity is as far removed from Karnatakan as Germany is from France. The people ask different questions, speak different languages, and eat different foods. The landscape becomes more rolling, the hills more pronounced, the roads worse the further along the Karnatakan coastline we cycle. And if Karnataka is a different country, Goa is a different continent.

The 100 km’s of steep hills that mark the southern end of Goa are threaded through with well tarmaced roads; gone are the potholes, gone are lungi clad men.  Affluence showing herself in the increase of traffic, the increase of toilet paper/t-shirts/jeans, the increase of waistlines, and the decrease of smiles. The Lonely Planet talks of the Goan beach bubbles- where masala chai and nepalise clothes perpetuate a backpacker’s mythology of ‘India’.  But is this any more or less ‘real’ than the ‘real India’ of the Bombay slums or the Keralan villages? Is Moss Side any more or less Britain than haggis in Edinburgh or afternoon cream teas in Devon?  We enjoy Goa – we love that even in this tiny length of coastline Mother India caters for all – Mandrem beach for the middle classes, Calungate beach for the package tour masses and Vagator beach for those who want to party… While Mother India lines her pockets, the visitor gets the ubiquitous south Asian beach experience – Thailand, Bali, Vietnam all offering the caress of golden sandy beaches, evening meals by candle light, nights in a beach hut, and cheap beer / Thai (fisherman’s) pants.  It offers us a warm eddy of ease and familiarity amid the continual and ever changing cultural flows we are being swept though.  Tomorrow we will close our eyes, stumble out of Goa and plunge into Maharashtra. Then it’s only a short hop skip and a jump to Mumbi .. surely?

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