Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Oh Mondovi, River of My Dreams

Before I begin, I’m going to preface this blog post with a note about my mental state, which is in turn prefaced by this disclaimer – I’m very fastidious about sunscreen. At least 30 SPF, spending time in the shade, the works. But apparently Goa is only a few yards from the surface of the sun and has thwarted my careful efforts. Sarah has now taken to referring to me as “Cranky Lobsterboy” and I’m writing this blog post standing up letting five layers of aloe dry into a thick husk on my skin. (No, no picture, I just told you I was cranky.) So, disclaimer written, here we go.
Goa only became an Indian state in the mid-1980s, before that it was run by the militia who in turn took it from the Portuguese who had been running the show for 450 years (which still doesn’t explain why there are so many signs in Russian around, but I digress). We stayed in the capital city of Panjim, which akin to Bangalore, is not a particularly tourist-oriented place. But unlike Bangalore, Panjim looks like it has been plucked from Portugal, shaken out of any Portuguese people, dropped into India, and fallen somewhat into disrepair. It’s enough to almost trick the mind into thinking you should be looking for a boulangerie (or at least a place that sells aloe lotion. When you ask, shopkeepers generally smile knowingly at your lobster-esque appearance and shake their head).

One of the days in Panjim we took a long cruise up the Mondovi River to check out Old Goa from the river and poke around a spice plantation (the blog title is a little shout out to Rollaway, the band Sarah sings with who released their new album recently). Old Goa, just up the road from Panjim, used to be the capital city and was known as the “Rome of the East,” during which time it had a larger population than London. It was a huge trading hub and is dotted with massive churches left over from this era (1600-1800s). The city eventually lost its influence as a trading hub to other larger ports and in the mid-1800s was hit so hard with malaria and cholera that it was completely abandoned in 1835. Completely abandoned! I kept thinking of what London would have been like if it had been completely abandoned during the Black Plague.

Even now, Old Goa is only a shell of its former self (the guidebook recommends not staying the night here) and only the massive churches built long ago remain, though most are crumbling and some are in ruins. It’s a bit haunting to see them jutting out through the jungle as we cruised by on the river. Along the edge of the water, there is a bustle of fishing activities amidst the ancient stone walls and entranceways that remain.

Ok enough of the boring history lesson, onto the real reason we’re here:  describing how a pair of pale travelers with weak tongues did tasting the wares at the spice plantation. Fortunately I had not yet acquired my current *ahem* rosy hue, though by the end of our time at the Tropical Spice Plantation, I’m sure my cheeks were just as red. They seem to grow a little of everything at this massive place including pepper, basil, beetil, cardamom, vanilla, and many others. We got to touch and taste the spices on the trees, bushes and roots on which they grow, then sample the finished product in a traditional Goan clay pot lunch. Delicious and spicy.

With enough rice and water to soothe the palate, we did quite well.

On the ride back along the river we passed many of these fishing boats with the long bamboo poles sticking out. We, very naively, assumed the poles were spears and we very impressed that they could see the fish much less skewer them in the turbulent water. But as we watched, we realized that nets are attached to the poles and are thrown out and brought in by hand as the boat skirts the current.  I assume we didn’t catch on because our picture of a fishing boat is à la The Perfect Storm, with big nets hanging from metal arms manned by guys in Irish wool sweaters speaking with nearly unintelligible accents.  

Watching the Indian fishermen work the nets by hand seemed so labour- and time-intensive, but thinking about it, I realized I’d seen lots of examples of labour-intensive work and I think this might be indicative of a larger truth about the Indian economy and workforce. India has the largest gap between the rich and the poor of any country in the world, and combined with an extraordinarily low minimum wage, I’m wondering if this leads to enough cheap labour that buying the machines to do the work has, in many cases, become uneconomical.

I can think of lots of examples where this may be true. Fishing is done by hand, laundry is done by hand (often in the river and dried on the rocks), even moving dirt and rocks is done by hand where, in our minds, a simple wheelbarrow would have done the job faster and easier. If that is the case, it creates a situation of pretty extreme exploitation. The cheap, back-breaking labour is fuelling the massive wealth of the privileged Indian class. But then again there is so much poverty that paying the paltry amount for someone to carry your rocks around all day instead of buying a machine means those labourors can afford to feed their kids at night. It would be better to give them a decent wage, but when it’s the difference between feeding the kids and not, the lines of right and wrong start to get blurred.

But who knows, it’s only been a few weeks in India and I might just be a cranky lobsterboy westerner who’s realizing that the harder he looks at Indian society, the more complex the picture gets. Has anyone else whose travelled around India noticed this or had other conclusions?

1 comment:

  1. Such a charming place Goa! Enjoyed reading your post. Surprised about the Russian signs as well. Delhi used to be a favorite destination with Russian tourists (mostly shopping for leather goods).Looks like Goa has become a favorite too!
    Indian society does appear complex. Most of the development is at the macro level. At the micro level things are a lot messier and complicated. If you observe you will see a lot of paradoxes but I guess all that makes the place fascinating too.