Lessons from the past ?

February 17, 2010

A visit to one of the many heritage houses that dot South Goa is mandatory for tourists & travellers. They reflect the pomp, glory and grandeur of a bygone era. In these days of instant gratification, it is useful to be remined that these structures, conceived and completed more than 250-300 years ago, have stood the test of time and the elements and are, by and large, none the worse for it. The wealth on display in these houses in the form of floors from Italy, glass from Belgium, china from Macau and paintings from Spain and Portugal transiently time-port visitors to a period when feudal families monopolised the riches of the land and epitomised the capitalistic excessses of their times. However, scratch a little beneath the surface and it gets difficult to escape the sadness and melancholy that envelop these structures and also the foreboding of how quickly a particular situation can unravel. And a lurking suspicion that the priceless artefacts and treasures hide more than they reveal.

The houses themselves are in varying states of disrepair. The present economic status of the owner families is reflected in their upkeep. The motive behind welcoming visitors is all too apparent. It is monetary. The donations that the families seek at the end of the guided tour are a means of sustenance. A sad predicamen to be in and worse still, it reinforces the vicious loop that they have got themselves into. As an individual visitor, the decay that these houses mirror is so relatable. You almost believe, however improbably, that with a little more prudence and restraint, this downward spiral could have been avoided. Unlike for instance a Hampi where an entire kingdom collapsed bringing down in its wake, towns, families and individuals, the crumbling heritage houses of Goa resonate with untold stories of familial descent from glory. It is particularly ironical at a time when the rest of the country (or parts of the state for that matter) is basking in the riches of a neo liberliased economy.

These houses also fall into the familiar, unwitting and expedient trap of glorifying the past for gratuitious benefits. With some active and well meaning support from the state, the current absence of which is made exceedingly apparent to the visitor, things could still be a lot different and impactful. The ability of these private museums to illuminate and educate can be harnessed. A peek into the past which fails to educate is a huge opportunity loss for society. And a society which consistently fails in this endeavor is condemned to repeat its mistakes over and over again. This is not to suggest that an objective assessment of history is the panacea for all ils plaguing humanity, but creating an environment for doing so would be a step in the right direction. Studying history, of which culture and heritage are an integral part, which does not educate is an exercise in futility.
The other aspect which needs to be explored and strengthened is the ability of these heritage houses to create a sense of collective ownership. Pride and a sense of ownership in one’s heritage is critical for heritage to thrive and grow. A lot of heritage is intangible and embedded. These mansions are the last bastions and custodians of whatever little of our heritage that can be seen and touched. Rather than be seen as islands which have lost touch with the environment that they find themselves in, it is vital they engender feelings of pride and collective ownership among citizens. Again, this is an aspect which will need the sustained support of the state. A success story in this regard which the state government would do well to emulate is that of theWest Bengal government in making every Bengali feel that he/ she “owns” the Calcutta Metro.

A visit to any Heritage house, beyond appealing to the visual senses, should be informative, illuminating and uplifting. If not, they would have failed in their reason for being. Applying this yardstick to our backyard, I guess we have a fair distance to go.


January 28, 2010

Is urban life cluttered. Going by what people have to say after spending time in Arco, it would seem so. What is it that clutters life in the cities. And what is missing here that makes it appear uncluttered.

People come to Arco Iris for a holiday. Naturally, they tend to leave the workplace behind. Given the number of hours that people are spending at their workplace, it follows that time tends to hang, initially lightly when there is no workplace to go to. It can be argued credibly that people do the same over weekends. Yet, there is no sense of this “unclutter”. Could it possibly be that leaving the workplace is one thing and leaving work is quite another. These days, it is impossible to meet a working professional without a blackberry and/ or an ordinary mobile phone and/ or a internet enabled laptop. With these leashes firmly in place, is it not logical to continue to get the feeling of being tethered to the workplace. Thankfully, in and around Arco, the wireless signals fight a losing battle and most of them wireless devices are rendered impotent. The extent to which “connectivity” has inveigled itself into our lives is impossible to realise till we experience otherwise. It has been my personal experience that the “now and here” of mobile communication is so pervasive so as to make us blind sighted to the longer term. I used to be paranoid about responding to mails and unanswered calls. The feeling of self importance is heady and more relevantly, delusional. The world, as it has for so long, will continue spinning. As for telephone calls, the world would be a better place in the absence of these stark inanities which pass off for conversations between friends, spouses and well-wishers.

Then there is thing about “doing nothing”. A few times we have had guests checking in with noble intentions of checking out all the places around Arco and ticking off the list of must-dos and must-sees, only to surrender to the simple pleasure of “doing nothing”. The number of times that this has happened is revealing in itself. The pressure to be doing, or in the least, be seen as doing something is so intense that, guilt quickly dispels any thought of doing nothing. Even a holiday becomes a plank for outdoing the Joneses. Yet, given half a chance people are extremely comfortable taking up the option of simply lazing around or lounging with a book and a some beers. The prospect of doing nothing is liberating and actually experiencing it is thrilling. Less is more is truer than ever in today’s times.

Could it also be being closer to nature brings with it a sense of tranquility. For all the speeding that we do the fact remains that Mother Earth continues to spin at more or less the same speed. Is it that a little effort at aligning our lives to the natural rhythms makes our lives appear “less off-key”. The feeling of oneness in being woken up by the birds is refreshing, if not uplifting, and is less stressful than being rudely awakened by a shrill alarm.

All this is not to suggest that all is wrong with the fast pace of urban lives. As long as we are able to balance it with quiet, introspective periods doing things that we like and want to do, including “doing nothing”, life will be “uncluttered”.

Snake encounters

November 21, 2009

9 Pythons intertwinedI have never been much of a wildlife person. Preferred “being wild” to “in the wild”. Over the years, there have been the odd trips here and there with friends who have a deeper appreciation for the wild and her denizens. Without exception all these trips have been memorable and yet I remain unconverted. I have never bothered figuring out why this was the case and I am not going to do so now. So please continue reading the post without fear of being subjected to psycho babbling.

The last few months, since my move to Goa, I have had practical, real world, on the ground reasons for taking more than a cursory look at the world around me. To begin with, the place around Arco Iris is beautiful and the visual beauty will not escape even a blind man. More relevantly, Curtorim is a fairly heavily wooded area. It is natural that it has a far degree of wildlife presence in the form of birds, reptiles and a handful of mammals (not the big cat variety though, more like jackals and mongoose). The mammals, by and large, keep to themselves. You can spot the neighbourhood mongoose, friendly guy that he is, on a lucky day and the jackals make it a point to come as a pack almost every other night to Arco, do the ceremonial symphony and slink away. The birds, in and around the property are beautiful. Again, not much of a birder myself, but fortunately, been in the company of friends who are interested in avifauna. Thanks to them, I know that you can sight babblers, robin magpies, common kingfishers, whistling ducks, egrets, cormorants, the white heron, Indian owls and so on within a 500 metre radius of Arco. Since the property abuts the Corjim lake, I am told by local birders that one can spot upto 40 bird species within a 1 km radius. I guess, I have digressed. The point is the birds are beautiful and with the exception of the odd bat that manages to find its way inside the house, they largely go unnoticed by me.

The reptiles are a different kettle of fish altogether (nice turn of phrase, even though I am saying it myself) . I am pretty much petrified of them, snakes in particular. Unfortunately for me, over the last few months, we have had a couple of visits from them. Fortunately for us, we had picked up a list of snake rescuers with their mobile numbers (a lot of them volunteers) available in Goa and it was post a frantic call triggered by a snake deciding to drop by that we had a very friendly Forest Department official coming to rescue the bugger. He had a cup of tea with us and in true Goan fashion managed to find a link in his family tree to Beni’s. Brief though the interaction was, I realised that he sincerely enjoyed what he was doing for a living. He called us this morning to find out if we would be interested in accompanying him to Karmel ghat and witnessing the release of a few pythons, vipers and a cobra that he had rescued the last week. Yes, he had rescued about 8 pythons in the last week alone in just South Goa!!. I found the numbers unbelievable, but he reassured me that these numbers were par for an average week. This was too good an opportunity even for an agnost like me and I promptly rushed to join him.

In the Forest Department Office’s parking lot in Margao, I was mightily impressed with the grace, strength, sensitivity and dexterity of the officer as he transferred these giant snakes from their cages to the sacks which would be their transit homes till their release a few minutes later. He ensured that the cobra and the vipers would have sufficient moisture around their sacks to survive the trip back home. Being aware of the contents in the sack, I drove a respectful distance behind his Forest Department truck to Karmel ghat where he was releasing the snakes. Karmel ghat is about 25 kms from Arco (not far enough for me considering that they are used regularly by the FD for releasing rescued snakes) and it took us about 40 minutes to reach the place. FreedomOnce there we parked our respective vehicles by the side of NH 17 and he unloaded the 5 sacks and proceeded to take them one by one to the insides of the forest. Again, I followed in awe struck silence. He started by releasing the pythons one by one. In the wild, they looked even more magnificent. Silent so far, they started hissing ( I took it as their excitement to be back in their rightful places) and proceeded to find their way here and there. Their on ground speed took me by surprise. This coupled with their massive size made for an amazing sight. A couple of them snaked their way up trees and decided to have an afternoon siesta. It also, to an extent, explaines why wildlife enthusiasts go to extreme lengths to spot animals in the wild as opposed to seeing them inside zoos. At the same time, it was sad to see a couple of empty plastic bottle containers even this deep into the forest. I am no angel myself when it comes to such issues, but the line has to be drawn somewhere.

The officer left the vipers and the cobra for last. For my benefit, the officer added that the viper was a Russell Viper. I am not sure if I have the spelling right. He (ie Mr. Viper) made very impressive noises and slithered away and quickly made himself invisible (at least to my untrained eyes). I guess the officer saved the best for last when he released the cobra. Looks ordinary enough except when he spreads (is that the word for it) his hood. Manages to look elegant, graceful and fierce at the same time. Much like a Lara cover drive. In the middle of all this, I did manage to take a couple of photographs. Again, given my indifference to photography (at least in this case I have some philosophical underpinnings for the indifference), I am not sure they will do justice to the spectacle that unfolded this morning in front of me.

Before deciding to join the Forest Department official on the trip I had checked with him if it was within the rules of the department to let citizens witness these weekly episodes and he replied saying that it was one of the better ways of creating awareness amongst people about the need to be sympathetic to the requirements of these creatures. I cannot agree more. During the course of this trip, I realised that there are by and large only four venomous snakes in and around Goa and most of the chappies that we see slithering here and there are by and large harmless. Not that it converted me to a snake lover, but at least it helped me start the process of understanding them to a certain extent. A final word on the commitment of these officers and volunteers. Based on the couple of experiences that I have had with them, they are a wonderfully committed and passionate bunch of guys. They are rendering yeoman service to society without so much as even an acknowledgement. The least I could do was offer them the use of Arco Iris for conducting an awareness programme on snakes for the interested residents of Curtorim.

5 month reckoner

November 3, 2009

It is now 5 months since our move from Bangalore to Goa. Besides the obvious urge to spend some part of our lives away from the hustle and bustle of urban India, the prime objective for us in setting up Arco Iris as a homestay was to experience first hand and subsequently make available local experiences which reflect the culture and heritage of “rural” India in general and Goa in particular to the world at large. In the particular case of Goa, we wanted to explore life beyond the touristy stereotype of sun, sand, beaches and feni.

During this period, “discovery” of the life around us has been exhilarating and we are excited at the possibility of sharing this with our friends and guests. As you can well imagine, this is a continuous process of discovery which has just about commenced and will continue to unfurl as we move along. It is still, thankfully, some way from being a finished product in that sense. Our explorations have led us, for instance, to:

1. the almost 400 years old Rachol Seminary, one of the oldest in Asia and just about 8 kms from Arco Iris. There are currently about 70 odd seminarians along with the administrative staff and faculty housed in the seminary. During the visit you will have an opportunity to meet and interact with seminarians and understand their journey from a seminarian to a priest. The building itself is rich in history, having being owned by Muslim and Hindu kings in the past. The well stocked library, which is open for the public to browse, has an extensive collection of books on philosophy and theology ;

2. a boat ride across the Zuari with a local “Gondolier” !!. The Zuari can be reached by walking about a km from Arco and since there are a couple of fishermen resident there, one can go on a leisurely boat ride with them ;

3. a birding trip with a local naturalist and birder to the Maina, Curtorim and Corjem (which Arco overlooks) lakes. If you are lucky, you will spot species endemic to this region ;

4. a visit to and lunch at the Palacio de Deao (about 10kms) or Figueredo mansion (about 15 kms). The Palacio is a 225 years old palace in Quepem and the 400 years old Figueredo mansion is home to two charming Goan ladies who relish the opportunity of talking to guests who drop in for tea or have the lavish lunch that they serve ;

5. a heritage walk in Chandor followed by a visit to the 4 centuries old Braganza Mansion. Incidentally the Fernandes house is an Archaelogical Survey of India excavation site. The chapel in Chandor is the only church I know of where once a year during the carnival period (February or March) the Catholic priest performs a “puja” dressed like a Hindu priest ;

6. the bakery which prides itself on being the preferred supplier to the Rachol Seminary for the last few decades. To this day, they use a wood fired oven for the baking process. You will be encouraged to try your hand at making delicious Goan “pao” for your dinner ;

7. a chance meeting with the venerable Mr. Mathew Fernandez, a retired lecturer, now teaching Portuguese to whoever is interested.

Other possibilities include visit to a prawn hatchery, witnessing the process of restoring antique furniture and picking up a few restored pieces, viewing a second division football match at the local grounds, visiting local artisan and skilled workers like weavers, potters and toddy tappers at work. There is also the stretch of beach from Benaulim right to Karwar and further which is relatively unspoilt and waiting to be experienced. Right through this period what has been remarkable has been experiencing the welcoming friendliness of the local citizens.

Ponda is just about 25 kms from Arco and this means that almost all the wildlife sanctuaries in the state can be reached within 90 minutes. This is something that we are very keen to experience at the earliest.

Where do we live ??

January 30, 2009

The line “Where do we live ?” is a quote that comes in a James Patterson novel. What intrigued me the most and the reason the quote has stayed in my mind long after I finished the book is the answer – ” In your head”. I read and reread the quote and couldn’t help but admire the simple eloquence. I realised the truth of this statement even at that point and subsequent events have only reiterated the power of this statement.

In one of my posts, I have admitted my passion for running and something that happened to me when I was road running in Goa and the subsequent conditioning of my thoughts that made me realise the truth of this statement very clearly and without any ambiguity. The last time around that I was in Goa, I was keen not to miss out on my running which I otherwise do on the treadmill at home. I was also keen to do the round around the lake that overlooks Arco. Arco is located on one of the lake banks. However, the road that one needs to take to do the run is a lot longer and does not follow the contours of the lake completely. Actually but for about one km or so, the rest of the route meanders into the village church road, state highway etc and comes back to the lake bank very close to Arco. The whole distance is around 2.3 odd kms with about 0.5 kms around the lake. It is a very scenic route and you pass the local chapel, quaint old homes and miscellaneous shops. The traffic on the road is next to nothing. I did the rounds a couple of times and I developed my own milestones along the 2.3 km route.

The starting point obviously was the Arco main gate. Then I do about 0.5 kms and I lose the view of the lake. Another 200 metres and I get to the local school (this is the point where I hit the state highway). Another 100 metres and I am in front of the local chapel. Depending on the time of the day, I also get to see a few road hawkers peddling their wares. Then there is a lonely stretch of sorts which has a slight gradient. At some points along this stretch, to my left, I can catch glimpses of the lake. By the time I come to the end of this stretch, I would have completed approximately 1.7 kms of the 2.3 kms round. Here I take a left and get onto the road which will finally take me back to Arco as well the stretch of road along the lake bank (or should it be lake shore). This stretch has a fair number of small village houses, old deserted (they looked that way to me) Portuguese style homes a couple of small hole in the wall shops etc. But most critically for me is that fact that at around 2.10 kms I hit Carvalho’s Nest (refer one of my earlier posts which my ode to this cute little watering hole). Once I get Carvalho’s Nest in my sight, I know that Arco is only about 200 metres away. The couple of times that I did this route, I did 2 laps which translates to around 4.6 kms of running.

Now, coming to the whole point of this post, after I came back to Goa, this route has stuck in my mind and subconsciously each time I hit the treadmill it plays out in my mind. One of the drawbacks of treadmill running is the monotony of the whole thing. The landscape, the environment, the weather, etc remain the same and you have nothing much to egg you on other than the odometer and the timer. But after my road running in Goa, I tend to kind of keep track of the distance covered more in terms of the earlier mentioned milestones and landmarks along the Arco route. I keep telling myself, for instance, that I am 200 metres from the chapel, 100 metres from the school and, most frequently, that I am so much away from Carvalho’s. So each time I hit the treadmill, I am reliving the Goa road route around Arco. And the real revelation for me has been the fact that all this happens very subconsciously and I need to actually need to consciously pull myself back to reality. I need no further reaffirmation of the fact that one does indeed live in one’s head. I have read Hayden and Dravid talk about the powers of visualisation. I guess this is the closest that I will come to in terms of experiencing what they feel when they relive a perfectly executed cover drive or a brutal pull to mid wicket to chivvy them up before a match or whilst trying to overcome a difficult patch. How wonderful would it be if I had other experiences in my head to help me get through the myriad other daily routines that I go through, especially at work !!. Even more relevant for me to be able to do this is to have a bank of positive, uplifting memories that you can fall back during times of strife and despondence. Like most things in my life, easier said than done.