Goa – Portuguese Jewel

GOA – July 30, 2012

After about  a week of riding through the rural areas of northern and central Rajasthan (western India), I realized I wasn’t making much progress, mainly because I was limited to just three or four hours of riding per day, due to the heat.  I decided to cut short this part of the journey and headed east back to Delhi, where I arrived three days later.  My new plan was to put the bike on a train to Goa, way down on the southwest coast, where temperatures were cooler (mid 80’s) and the beaches were beckoning.  I would then work my way up the coast to Bombay, Jaipur, Agra, and back to Delhi.  With crucial assistance from my original bike posse in Delhi, I made the necessary arrangements, rode my bike to the train station, and crossed my fingers.

One of the clichés you often hear from Western economists about third-world countries is that they are under-developed because they lack entrepreneurial talent and initiative.  From what I’ve seen throughout south and southeast Asia, though, it seems that nothing could be further from the truth.  What they lack is access to capital.  The entrepreneurial spirit thrives in the ingenious ways they have come up with to make money.  They have devised these schemes not out of financial sophistication but out of sheer necessity.  Micro-lending, for example, was first developed in the third-world and for a while seemed to be the perfect tool to launch a new generation of very small enterprises.  For example, a woman in a small village got a micro-loan to buy a cell-phone and now charges her neighbors by the minute to use it.  Another resident bought several cases of packaged cookies and sells them one at a time as he and his 12-year-old son rush through the trains for the two minutes they’re stopped at his village.  Another bought an electric saw and just shows up at one of the thousands of rehab projects throughout India and becomes an instant (and well-paid!) cash employee.  In my situation, when I brought the bike to the railroad station for shipment, I knew that I’d have to have a crate built for it.  Not surprisingly, WHILE AT THE STATION, I quickly had my choice of ad-hoc carpenters eager to build it on the spot.  Total cost?  About $13.

Ingenuity in finding money-making opportunities is the DNA of a market economy and India and most of the third world has it in spades.   And they have it to a degree far surpassing developed countries like the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany.  In the developed world, only a very tiny percentage of the population is actually engaged in entrepreneurial activity and is reliant instead on large, long-standing businesses and government entities for a great bulk of its employment.  Even those we might classify as “entrepreneurs” get a great deal of government support in the form of SBA loans, tax incentives, local tax exemptions, farm subsidies, good roads, a reliable delivery network of trains and trucks and, perhaps most importantly, a bankruptcy code that allows one to quickly recover after a failure.  India and the third world have none of these.  The third-world entrepreneur has to risk it all to a degree unimaginable in the West.  If his business goes under, he can’t just walk away from his business debts as is commonly done in the West.  He could very well spend the rest of his life hopelessly trying to pay off those loans he received to start or expand his business.

I flew to Goa from Delhi and three days later my bike arrived, as promised.  In previous trips, I had had nightmarish bike-shipping experiences and had wasted weeks navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracies of South Africa, Mozambique, Panama and Greece.  (Greece was the worst, where I was prevented from picking up my bike until I paid an additional $800 in dubious “storage charges”, a pleasant term for extortion.)

 

SAND FROM THE RIVER – An Indian entrepreneur tells his story

I was riding through the idyllic spice plantations of eastern Goa, enjoying the stands of fragrant eucalyptus and pepper trees along the river when I noticed some unusual activity going on down a gentle embankment at the river’s edge.  I thought I’d drop in and see what they were up to.  I shut the bike off, grabbed my camera and walked down.  I started mingling among the 40 or so laborers and said nothing, just looking and trying to figure out what they were doing.

Three large, beamy dories, over- loaded to the gunwales, were being emptied, each worker balancing a load of sand on his head and carrying it up to a waiting truck, dumping it in, then returning for another load.  Every now and then they’d glance my way but kept about their business.  Then I lifted my camera and began taking some photos.  Instantly, chatter started and one of them called up to the apparent boss-man.  I heard the word “camera” mixed in and the boss-man quickly scurried down the embankment, looked at my camera and said with a tone of some urgency “Why are you taking photos?”  Not wanting to alarm anyone, I forced a big smile, held my hands up, palms out in a “we come in peace” gesture and said “I’m just a tourist, I take photos of everything!”   He wasn’t satisfied and looked me over with a stern expression, then said “Where from?”  I said “U.S.”  He said “England?”  I said “No, that’s U.K., I’m from U.S., America.”  “Ah, America?” he asked, “Rich people?”  I said “There are many rich people there, but I’m not one of them!”  He laughed and gave me a jolly slap on the back, a touch of empathy, one un-rich guy to another.

He relaxed a little, probably realizing a 67-year-old fellow in stained khaki shorts with bugs stuck in his hair couldn’t possibly be a threat to anyone.  He just grunted and stood next to me as we both looked out at the operation going on.  We chatted a little, then I turned to him and said “Why did you ask me that before?”  He loosened up considerably and said “People from the newspaper come down here with cameras and write bad stories.  They say we’re illegal.”  I waited for him to continue but that was all he had to say.  “Are you?” I asked, instantly wishing I’d learn to shut up occasionally.  “No, we’re not illegal, we’re hard-working people.”  We both looked back at the sand operation.  “Yes”, I said, “that does look like very hard work.  Can you tell me what’s going on?”

He pointed to the middle of the river, about 200 yards out, where one of his boats was anchored.  Six workers were standing in the boat and moving about.  “See those men?  One drops a bucket on a rope down to the bottom.  Another takes the second rope and drags the bucket along the bottom.  Then they bring it up and pour out the water until there’s just wet sand.  Then they dump the sand in the bottom of the boat until it’s filled up.  Then they use the long poles to pull the boat back here and unload it.”

I was a little astounded.  I don’t think you could design a less efficient way of gathering simple sand.  Lobsters?  Oysters?  Maybe.  Sand?  No way.  “Very good sand”, he said a little defensively.  “Very clean, good for building.”

“And you can make money doing this?” I asked, “Even after paying all your workers?”  He shrugged his shoulders and said “Workers very cheap in India.”  Seeing so many idle men throughout India, I could easily see his point.  I asked, “But why from the river?  Isn’t there plenty of sand you could just dig up somewhere on land?”  He smiled and said “Sand from the river is free.  Don’t have to pay the landowner!”

All in all, it made some sense.  He was simply putting all the pieces together.  Free materials, cheap labor, big market.  While we in the West might regard this as just more exploitation of powerless workers, I didn’t see any of them grumbling or slacking off, and were no doubt grateful for the meager income.  They were all just playing the cards fate had dealt them.

We chatted at length and after taking a few more photos, I put my arm around his shoulder and held out my hand.  “Thank you, my friend.”  I said.  “I guess I can go write my story now.  The paper comes out soon.”  By this time, he knew I was kidding, laughed and gave me a vigorous handshake.  “Be careful on that bike!”  he shouted after me as I headed up the hill, “They’re dangerous!”  Just then my foot slipped on the damp musselweed and I fell to my knee.  “So is walking!”  I yelled back as I got up and brushed off the mud.

***

I spent a wonderful week in leafy Panjim, the tiny capital of Goa.  I took many day-trips out into the beautiful countryside and beaches and found it an extremely friendly and liveable place.  Goa is now an Indian state (the smallest) and is about the size of Rhode Island in both area and population.  Its climate is mild and humid and has the incredibly lush green growth common in the wet tropics.  It doesn’t feel like India, though, it feels more like the countryside of rural Portugal.  It was one of the last Portuguese colonies to be liberated (in 1961) and fellow stamp collectors from the 1950s will recognize it as “Portuguese India”.  The Portuguese influence can be seen (and heard) everywhere, especially in the remarkable architecture in the villages and farm lands.

Here are some photos of the dredging operation and other scenes from the gorgeous Goan countryside:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/markrenshaw/sets/72157630965327836/show/

The towns of Goa also abound in Portuguese influence.  Here are some photos around the town of Panjim:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/markrenshaw/sets/72157630965496614/show/

 

 UP NEXT:  IT’S STILL BOMBAY, “MUMBAI” JUST SOUNDS SILLY

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Along the Sutlej River Plain

FARIDKOT – July 18, 2012

I was eager to leave the grit and chaos of Amritsar and packed up before dawn to start riding south to the small town of Faridkot, about four hours away.  I planned to spend the night there, not for any particular reason, but just because I could reach it before it got insanely hot and humid, which happens around 9 a.m. in this Punjabi region.  About an hour into the ride, I found myself in the flat, low wetlands of the Sutlej River plain.  The sun, a shimmering orange disc, floated like an ornament just above the horizon, its pale light filtered serenely through the morning mist.  The peaceful atmosphere was marked occasionally by the sudden up-swoosh of frightened marsh-birds, and the unfolding scenery presented an intoxicating, uncluttered beauty.

The mellow landscapes of rural India contrast so sharply with the harsh, choking grit of its cities that I began altering my plans.  I decided I didn’t really have to endure the congestion of the “must-see” cities and instead started looking at routes to bypass many of them.  The notion of “staying rural” took on special meaning after a random stop at a roadside dhaba, or tea-stall.

In the midst of all this tranquility, I happened to glance over at a gathering spot under a large awning alongside one of these ubiquitous tea-stalls.  I noticed a group of distinguished-looking Sikh gentlemen having tea and laughing as they have probably been doing for decades and thought I’d stop and ask for directions.  Asking for directions is my favorite way of initiating contact with local folks.  First of all, I’ve discovered that everywhere in the world people really enjoy helping strangers, and secondly, I’m usually lost.

I made a U-turn and slowly motored back into their gathering, shut off the engine and took my time removing my helmet.  By now, everyone at the tea-stall had stopped to look at the guy who didn’t look like anything they were used to seeing.  I hand-signalled the nearest fellow, asking if I was going the right way for Faridkot.  They all started milling around and took turns trying to interpret what I was saying.  We soon got everything squared away and I unpacked my camera, gesturing that I’d like to photograph them.  I started taking photos and everyone wanted to join in.  They were all so interested in who I was, where I was from, where I was going – their spontaneous fellowship was pure joy.

The eldest, to whom they all seemed to defer, asked one of the others to give up his chair so that I could sit down and have some chai with them.  He waved at the stall-keeper who promptly rushed over with a small glass of the sweet tea.  He then handed it to me and said “You have!”  I nodded in acceptance and reached for the glass but it was so hot I had to set it down immediately.  “Hot!”  I said.  They laughed and the elder then took two metal cups and with a practiced flourish poured the tea back and forth about 20 times to cool it off, then handed it back to me with a paternal smile on his face.  We all drank, took some more photos, practiced their limited English, drank some more tea.  One of the fellows called across the road to his two sons who were about to enter the small Sikh temple.  He wanted me to take a photo of the three of them, then gushed with pride when I showed him the photo.  He was clearly fond of his boys.

When we were done with tea and photos, the older gentleman, now my unofficial patron, gestured for me to walk with him over to the modest temple where a service was underway.  He wanted me to come in and photograph it.  When I stood at the entrance and saw everyone inside reciting and actively engaged in the service, I hesitated and looked at him as if to say “Are you sure?”  He waved me in and said “Go, go!”  So I just stepped in and began taking photos.  When we went back out, he reviewed the photos and smiled contentedly.  He wanted me to record everything.  I then took one of him alone, standing dignified, surrounded by his temple and family, the infinite rice-paddies stretching to the horizon – his harmonious, sufficient universe.

Before I got back on the bike, we walked back to the group and I faced them, pressed my hands flat together in front of my face and bowed respectfully, saying “Thank you so much.”  They all stood, returned my bow and were beaming with manifest good will.  I rode off along the sleepy river, grateful for such a fine morning.

Here are a few more photos of our roadside gathering and other pleasant scenes along the Sutlej River plain:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/markrenshaw/sets/72157630817502528/show/

 

UP NEXT:  GOA –  PORTUGUESE JEWEL

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