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When Pigs Take Flight

January 31st, 2015 · 1 Comment · Road Less Travelled

Shelley Buck’s sudden  introduction to recycling during her visit to Goa turns out to be unexpectedly intimate.

By the time I arrive in Goa, my eyeballs are creamy again and my skin color’s no longer yellow, but I am still weak after the bout with food-borne hepatitis. A quiet stay in Goa—known for its broad beaches and slow-paced, almost Latin, lifestyle—is part of my recovery strategy.

I know vaguely that Portugal acquired Goa as a colony during the West’s great age of sea exploration and that this coastal territory remained under Portuguese control until the 20th century. I know too that in 1961, only a dozen years after its own independence, India used military force to seize Goa. The fighting was over in a couple of days, and Goa officially became part of India.

So we are surprised, arriving thirteen years later, to be halted at a border control station when we reach the perimeter of the former Portuguese colony. On a table I can make out a half-dozen aging hypodermics with rusty-looking needles laid out in a metal dish, like museum specimens. Behind this ominous display, white-smocked figures stand ready to administer an ad hoc injection to anyone arriving at this now-internal border without the required cholera shot. As I watch, another Western traveler, yellow as saffron, inches ahead in the line to get his health certificate examined. Eyeing these well-used needles and hypodermics, I imagine that anyone arriving at this location without a cholera shot stands a good chance of acquiring needle-borne hepatitis while entering Goa, if not already ill with it. My own cholera vaccine is up to date, so I manage to escape the needles.

I’ve heard Goa hosts a unique fusion of Indian and Western cultures, which developed as Hindus and Roman Catholics rubbed elbows during the place’s centuries as a Portuguese-held enclave. Portuguese Goa was surrounded initially by Indian states and later on by the British Raj. This history is reflected in the languages still widely spoken—the local Konkani, English, and Portuguese.

The body of Paris-educated St. Francis Xavier, a co-founder of the Jesuit order, still rests in Goa, where the saint came to proselytize in the 16th century. Ironically, Francis arrived burdened with his own colonial baggage. Born in Portuguese-held Navarre, he had seen his homeland overrun by Spain. When he embarked as a missionary to Portugal’s colonies in Asia, he was leaving behind a once-prosperous noble family dispossessed by the Spanish conquerors, and down to its last castle. Did this at-home experience of foreign conquest soften the saint’s approach to his missionary work, perhaps causing him to encourage the blending of cultures when he arrived in Goa? I confess I don’t know. The issue is complicated, and I realize I won’t sort out the cultural mix in a day.

Blended or not, I immediately discover it is at least easy to tell the Catholics  from the Hindus. Although women of both religions wear saris, for Hindus, the color of mourning is white; for Catholics, it’s black. I see a lot of both. Also Hindu women wear a red dot on their foreheads, which marks the spot where the third eye is located. Catholic women don’t wear these dots.

More recently, Western travelers of another sort have sought out the white-sand beaches that stretch along Goa’s Indian Ocean coastline. These newcomers take more interest in the third eye than the local Catholics, but the new visitors from the West don’t wear red dots. Often—to the consternation of local Hindus and Catholics alike—they often don’t  wear much of anything.

For the local youngsters, who have gotten used to the latest Western influx, the newcomers’ odd customs and lack of dress pose less of a problem. “Hello Hippie!” the kids holler cheerily at us as the blue VW bus rolls past.

The bus bumbles along southwards. We pause in the afternoon at a village called Calangute, taking lodging with a family that rents out rooms. No red dots here. These are meat-eating Catholic Goans, not vegetarian Hindus. The mother directs me to a well behind  the house where I may enjoy a somewhat private sponge bath. Her practical daughter also points out the privy. This wooden structure sits high and majestic near the rear of the family’s courtyard where pigs and poultry roam freely. Portuguese Goans are clearly not vegetarians.

Later, I seek out the privy, urgently. From beneath the opening in the bench on which I sit, I hear an ominous snuffing sound, as if the outhouse’s accreted contents were preparing to explode. No, it is more like snorting. Gingerly moving off the hole and looking down, I notice that the back of the privy building is wide open. Light flows in, golden in a haze of floating dust. And something’s down there!

Even as I have raced for the building’s front door, a pig has taken note of my movements and has hustled to the opening in the structure’s rear. Now I see the animal just beneath me. The pig’s mouth hangs open as it stares upwards, waiting intently for me to produce its dinner. Later, when I must  race to the privy again, I spy a pair of pigs rocketing in the same direction. No flower power frolicking animals these! They are as intent and purposive as the B-29 bombers in the World War II propaganda films my history teacher showed us in high school.

This was not quite the cultural encounter I had in mind as we crossed into the former colony this morning, but nothing is complicated for the pigs. After less than a day in Goa, I have already become known as a good provider.

©Shelley Buck Used with permisson. Shelley Buck is the author of the travel memoir, East: A Woman on the Road to Kathmanduavailable from Indiebound, independent bookstores, and online. You can read more about her adventures in Goa in the Winter, 2015, edition of Narrative Magazine.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Margaret Murray

    I love this writing. Learning the history of Goa is tantalizing too, especially when Shelley Buck compares the women of Catholic and Hindi backgrounds I wasn’t prepared at all for that pig though! Or our narrator’s shocking (to me, a squeamish westerner) encounter with it.

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