On my first day in India in December 1968, I walked around the Gateway of India overlooking the Arabian Sea and knew I had made the right choice. Although I had to wonder as we drove in from the airport past miles of slums fetid with shit-smell and garbage, flimsy rag hutments lining the road, huge cement pipes waiting for installation which were used as dwellings – long, big-circumference horizontal slums, I eventually saw the apartment towers of Bombay, and knew that I was not in for two years of filth and pestilence. I went to India because I wanted to travel, an urge that had started many years before with my first contact with a French foreign exchange student at my country day school. He was irrepressibly – and now that I look back – insufferably French; but his was the reality that my French II Grammar and scenes of the Café des Deux Magots lacked; and with his European-cut clothes, mangled English, and long hair, I knew I was hooked.
Another way to look at it, said a good friend and colleague in Bombay, was that we early “development” travellers were offspring of the missionaries who went off to help in the colonization of the Third World – they too went with an overt mission, but at heart were young adventurers fleeing the steel mills, flat and empty farmlands, and isolated towns from Plainville to the Manitoba border; and, he added, “Peace Corps Volunteers are carefully vetted and chosen for a bus driver mentality – not smart enough to have their minds wander off the little white line; smart enough to right the bus if it does drift”. We were different – ordinary passports, chosen because of a selection algorithm that was as random as it was genius. We were a bunch of dopers, mad scientists, Korean War vets, and dog lovers who all were missionaries and foreign legionnaires.
So there I was, overlooking the Arabian Sea, surrounded by hawkers, strollers, beggars, touts, and layabouts, shit-eating grin on my face – “How could I be so lucky?”. There were some few doubts that crept into this panorama of exotic India. I saw everyone spitting red and, thanks to prejudice, bad or misinformation, was convinced that the whole country had TB; but these passed quickly as I moved into my flat on the 16th, top, terrace floor of Mt. Unique on Peddar Road. The apartment was breezy and the view spectacular. I could see the Sea, Nariman Point, Victoria Station, and the Towers of Silence. In December, the night breeze was still cool, and had the fragrance – or pungency – of Bombay. I didn’t care what the night breezes brought in from the city. I was only happy to be there.
I had a similar experience in Port-au-Prince in the 80s. I stayed at the Splendide Hotel, half-way up the mountain to Petionville and a ten minute walk from the Olaffson. The Splendide was an old Victorian hotel, with a long verandah overlooking the entrance and the drive; balustrades on the top floor with a view over the city out to the harbor. Most nights of the year there was a breeze from the mountains and with it the sounds of the voodoo tom-toms. It was again the same feeling I had in India – how could I be so lucky to be in such an exotic, romantic place – and this being the days of the Duvaliers, a peaceful, crime-free city. I worked little, following the rhythms of the Haitians – come in at 10, go home at 1, have a civilized lunch, siesta, drinks at the Olaffson and a three-star French meal in Petionville. It was one of the places in the world – Bucharest and San Salvador – where not only did nothing go wrong, everything went right beyond my expectations. In all three places, there was love, superb food, beaches or mountains, and the excitement of knowing that this would all pass. Haiti could never remain the Duvalier Haiti; Bucharest would soon lose its old-world charm and join the EU; and El Salvador would turn from dynamic, modern/old city into a crime nightmare, fueled by ex-combatants in the civil war who only knew how to kill.
My first Indian beach was Chowpatty Beach, a short strip of sand and palm trees in the middle of the city, more of a city block than a beach. In the evening it was the place for Indians to escape the stifling heat of their apartments and stroll with their families, eat bhel puri, nuts, and sweets. The sea was dead there, grey, stagnant, and empty; but at least for the Indians it was a respite and certainly a consolation.
My first real Indian beach was Juhu Beach, out towards the airport. To get there you had to drive past all the Indian clothing mills of the industrialists who made Bombay – Tata, Gwalior, Modi – and then past the goat-stinking Muslim area around the Mosque. To this day I cannot eat goat cheese because of that rancid, putrid, gagging smell; but perhaps the sight of the Arabian Sea was all that much more fresh and open because of it. The hotel/restaurant was modern, catered to the well-to-do of Bombay and served lobster thermidor, baked pompano, and great desserts. More importantly, the restaurant was on a large patio right at beach edge, the tables shaded by big umbrellas, and even in summer the intense heat was moderated by a light sea breeze. The beach itself was nasty – it was like Chowpatty, but more upscale; and there were camel and donkey rides, pin-wheel hawkers, nut-wallahs, and sweets. The air in winter was clear and bright, the colors intense, and the whole experience very Mediterranean. I loved it. As the winter faded, so did the colors, even with the breeze clouded in a hot haze, but it was getting out of the city, and we went there every weekend.
The beaches at Kovalam and Goa were more European beaches – that is, they were fairly empty except for local fishermen. They were open, the water was swimmable (unlike the waters off of Bombay where the sewage outfalls were not far from the beach), and it felt like a beach. The beach at Panjim (the Portuguese name, later changed to Panaji) was the hippy beach. There was a nudist end to it, and for clothes to come into town the hippies wore the same g-strings as the fishermen. The boys strolled down the main market streets of the town, barefooted, long, matted hair, and a ball-pouch and a g-string pulled tight up the crack. At first the local residents of Panjim, as many communities in India at that time, were very tolerant of the new foreigners. There was enough craziness in India to go around, and these white outcastes didn’t belong to any social code or Vedic stricture anyway; but the g-strings did it. The hippies were dressed and acting like the lowest-caste of Indian – these wealthy Americans, Germans, and French, who could go back to their life of luxury at any time, imitated those who were barely tolerated, marginalized, and abused. The paradox, the contradiction between these privileged foreigners and the fisherman finally broke the idyll. They were sent packing and the Indians reclaimed their beach.
I remember little about the beaches at Puri in Orissa, except that they fit my idea of a beach – big waves, pounding surf, empty, white sand beaches, palm trees, and a stiff salty sea breeze. You couldn’t swim there, however, for the undertow was among the worst in India, a great sucking force that no one braved. The beach was too desolate, somehow, to set up an umbrella and watch the rising sun – even if you could because any place in India that looked desolate and uninhabited was not; and within minutes you would be surrounded by curious children and horny teenagers.
The only time I ever really lost it was at a beach paradise near Galle, the southernmost town of Sri Lanka, home to tea planters who came down for Sunday curry at the hotel where we stayed. These mestizos, a mix of Dutch, Indian, and whatever else, Indonesian, Malaysian, ran the plantations up the slopes, kept to themselves, but enjoyed the meals and drinks at the hotel. It was a great place in the old British style – all mahogany and teak, planter chairs on long verandahs, sun shades, Tamil bearers, a delight. The beach which was affiliated with the hotel was about an hour’s ride. It was an idyll – turquouise waters, sugar sand beaches rimmed with palm trees, puffy white clouds, heaven. However, it was someone’s home, and they were curious about these white foreigners in scant clothing broiling in the sun. The ringed our little beach patch within about three feet, hunkered down and staring. After almost two years of this invasiveness, Eve-teasing, and worse, I jumped up, grabbed one of the boys, pushed him down to the water, trembling and enraged. He shouted, “This is our home”; and I realized my stupidity, and walked away. By that time the rest of his friends were letting the air out of our tires and things were getting very uncomfortable. On half-aired tires, we drove off. A beach idyll that went wrong, badly wrong.
Another fabulous beach was called Batu Feringhi, or Foreigner’s Beach about 10 miles outside of Penang. It was a real resort, old style – cement block hotel, basic amenities, long sand beach, warm waters, and all foreigners. The food was exceptional as it was back in town – Tamil, Chinese, Malaysian food, fresh, spicy, delicious. Only after a couple of days there did an old Aussie tell us, “Watch out for them sea snakes. Sea snakes’ll get you”. One of the most poisonous of all snakes or all things. Watching out for them in the water made it a lot less appealing.
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