From a hilltop overlooking the churches of Old Goa, outside the Chapel of the Lady of the Mount, we sat and watched the sunset, listening to the chorus of birds. Occasionally there was the faint sound of an engine or the carolling horn of a truck carried to us on the breeze, but otherwise just the sounds of the forest. A freighter nosed silently up the estuary which looked as vast and wide as the Amazon, until its rusted hull merged with the backdrop of foliage and was swallowed up by it. We sat on the low wall, the thick tangle of vegetation falling steeply away before us, and smoked in silence, taking it all in. A lone church bell began to toll in the distance as the sun slowly faded into the gathering dusk.
Old Goa was once a town of 200,000 people and the capital of Portuguese India, abandoned in the 18th century after waves of cholera and malaria decimated the population. The Mandovi River had been an artery for the spice trade, vessels laden with pepper and chillies and cardomom setting off for the voyage to distant Europe, but it began to silt up, changing its meandering course, and soon became unnavigable. The few travellers that reached Old Goa in the early 20th century reported that it had become a snake-infested wilderness, ruined buildings mildewing in the tropical heat, overgrown with creepers and lianas. The jungle swallowed up the town until only the two large churches remained, poking through the canopy of trees: the Basilica of Bom Jesus, built in 1605, which holds the remains of St. Francis Xavier, and just opposite it the white octagonal towers of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, built in 1661.
I thought of another Church of St. Francis of Assisi – Greyfriars Franciscan priory, in Dunwich, on the east coast of England. In the Middle Ages Dunwich was an international port similar in size to 14th century London, until the town gradually fell into the North Sea, the waves whipped up by winter gales biting deep into the soft earth of the cliffs. Legend has it that the drowned church bells can still be heard from beneath the waves on certain nights.
Debussy’s Le Cathédrale Engloutie of 1910 drew upon a similar myth: an ancient Breton one in which an underwater cathedral off the coast of the Island of Ys rises up from the sea on clear mornings to the sound of chanting, bells chiming, and the organ audible across the water. As the waves climb higher again the sounds are slowly submerged until only the faint tolling of the bell remains. Two years earlier Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, composed in 1908, was inspired by a black and white reproduction of a painting by Arthur Böcklin of the same name. The 5/8 time conveys the dip and splash of the ferryman’s oars out to the isle, the rise and fall of the waves, and also perhaps the act of breathing, in and out, life and death intertwining.
As we rode back along the banks of the Mandovi I could smell the coolness of the river beside us. The road passed between the two churches, leading to Panjim, which has become a bustling city with steamboats moored in the river which now operate as casinos. From the distant shore the lights of illuminated advertisements shone on the water in rippling colours, spilling together. Turning into narrow streets lined with colonial buildings that had a distinctively Latin feel, we pulled up outside a doorway decorated with tiles and seashells: Venite – an old Portuguese restaurant. Samba music played softly in the background. Tiny candlelit balconies just large enough to accommodate a table for two jutted out above the street, and we found one at the far end of the long room. At the opposite end was a wall covered in messages, one of which I noticed four years ago, but which dates from 2002:
Hi, I’m Jez. Yes!
Here I am, up on high,
My life on a thread.
I owe everything
To the unwavering support
Of two truly beautiful women.
I always give Jez a nod as I go up the stairs, in recognition.
In a restaurant in Chapora the waiter was operating in slow-motion, very much on his own plane. He was deeply stoned – he always smokes before going to work, otherwise he gets bored, although he spent much of the time sitting in a chair watching the cricket. The eldest daughter, who is lithe, pretty and tall, scolded him for messing up the orders, and he smiled slowly. She’s in her late teens and glides around on long legs that go on forever, with the air of a girl on the brink of something, who has reached a point where she’s just realised the power that her beauty gives her, without quite knowing how to handle it or how dangerous it can be, like a character from Tolstoy. Having brought drinks with a rather aloof air to a table of Russian tourists – the men unable to take their eyes off her, their two women shooting each other a narrow glance of warning – in response to a shout from her mother she coltishly ran flat-footed into the kitchen, a child again. Her father, who is the owner, has a wall eye, a wonky leg and is missing a finger. He gazes sometimes in the general direction of his beautiful, dutiful daughter with a kind of haunted awe, as if he can’t quite believe that he is responsible somehow for the creation of such a budding goddess.
That particular restaurant is always thumping to classic rock bands – Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Doors. Sometimes this music can feel like the bane of a place – in how many traveller hangouts around the world have I heard the plangent opening bars of “Wish You Were Here” with a sinking heart? – but in Chapora it feels exactly right; it somehow captures the edginess and rebellious vibe, the sense of being far out. And it’s not just put on for the tourists; the owner is Goan, and a genuine rock and roll fan, his collection extensive. He worked the stock market in Mumbai for a while and lost a bunch of money before getting out and opening up this place. “It’s so damn hot this time of year,” he complains. “If I’m in the kitchen all lunchtime I have to have three or four beers afterwards to recover.” Of the stoned waiter he laughs, and says: “That guy… sometimes he’s just not here at all.”
Music… there has been so much music. The old American guy we met playing a retro, folksy blues guitar at a bar one night who came over to join us for a smoke. (“You heard of Altamont? Rolling Stones, 1969? I was there, man…”) He was playing his way round India, then going to fly to Moscow and busk his way across Europe all the way to Ireland. He was 66 years old and had been doing it for decades. “I can’t afford to live in the US,” he laughed. “But here… well, freedom, you know?”
Or the gig at Aranya on the jungle hilltop, beneath a parachute canopy hanging from the trees, and only 15 or so of us in the audience, where a guy came and sat down with a guitar – very tanned, looked Indian but had something about him from elsewhere; a cosmopolitanism, a worldly knowledge. His first song was in French, the second in Swiss German, and I tried to translate. It turned out he was from Kerala but lives in New York. He sang one which I only remember one line of: “London, New York, Goa or Sydney, you can always come and find me.” Then another, with the refrain “No brown stag policy”, which means exactly what it sounds like: he’d been turned away from a local club with those words, as a lone brown-skinned male – just like the group of Maharashtran lads at the night market – and you could hear the hurt and anger at the injustice in him. Gradually, song by song, he revealed more and more of his character, and I marvelled at it – the beauty and depth of it, the shared emotions he described, the gift of being a musician, an artist, a storyteller. “Your vibe attracts your tribe,” as they say here. Then he sang a classic Bollywood hit from the 60s in Hindi: “You wrote your name, on a blank page in my heart…”
Something different in the air this morning – the perpetual susurrus of cicadas has begun. The palm fronds hang limp in the damp air, barely stirring. Although it has been months since the last rain, there’s a change in the humidity, which has jumped by 20 percent or more, a precursor to the monsoon, and the cicadas have felt it, emerging from their burrows. These are located at the base of a single tall stalk of grass – each has their own – and they climb up the stem to the very tip, ripening in the sunshine. Then, when the time is right, they emerge from their plastic-like exuviae, or exoskeleton, leaving it almost intact, and hop away. Sometimes you come across a small patch of these grasses, each with a perfect transparent mould of a cicada atop the stalk, like a miniature forest of insects. Cicadas have long been used in mythology to portray insouciance, carefree living and immortality.
A belief in Bengal amongst tribal groups who work on the tea estates where, when someone dies, their body is kept overnight in a hut and then burned. The ash is then scattered around outside. The first tracks that appear in it in the morning are said to represent the creature that the person will be reincarnated as.
“How can you not issue a permit? Is it my fault that the men of the village turned themselves into leopards at night and went into the forest?”
The official visibly shrank into his chair, and seemed to keep going, his spirit retreating far into himself somehow.
“That is possible,” he conceded.
Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey
Letters between Rilke and Marina Tsvetayeva. “The first dog that you stroke after this letter is me. Watch their eyes!” Tsvetayeva wrote.
Is it only when you’re in love with another person that you see them as they really are? And in the ordinary way, when you’re not in love, you see only a fragmented version of that being? Because when you’re in love with someone, you do indeed see them as a divine being. And suppose that’s what they are, truly. And your eyes have, by your beloved, been opened. If you should be so fortunate as to encounter this spiritual experience, it seems to me to be a total denial of life to refuse it.
“It’s like being in a spell,” she said… “You’re dizzy, but you don’t want the experience to stop. It’s too special.”
I had felt those very things in the Urewera forests. Once, at midnight, I stepped outside a hut on a high ridge and almost stumbled with vertigo. The stars were thicker than I’d ever seen — great clusters of light spangling the sky — while immense trees thrust upwards to greet them.
At dawn, I walked to a bluff with a view of mist-wreathed valleys and listened to kōkako, the soul of the forest, the bird that Tūhoe say mediates between wairua [spirit] time and people time. Kōkako seem not to simply sing their notes, but send them into the world as gifts, painting the forest with song, drawing the listener into the music.
In such times, the curtain between natural and supernatural feels thin, like a membrane allowing passage from one side to the other. The more I get to know te ao Māori, the thinner that membrane seems to get.
Kennedy Warne – Saana Murray — and an awakening for a Pākehā
Walking up the Whakatane River in New Zealand, Warne repeatedly thinks he can hear the babble of voices behind him, and scans the steep bluffs looking for its source, but sees no-one. “What ghost band of hunters or hunted was making its presence known?” he muses.
And I remembered my friend in Zimbabwe, who said: “When you go up the mountain, no matter what you see or hear there – a baboon playing a drum, or a face in a tree, or the voice of a loved one, or rock spirits that are watching you – you must not speak about it. Otherwise you will stay there, become part of the mountain too”.
There are places in our lives that exert a power over us, that will always be associated with a sense of something spiritual, as if it had reached in and touched something deep within you. It may be a memory of someone who you once sat with there – in a sunlit park amongst the daffodils beneath the swaying trees… or perhaps there weren’t daffodils – how could there be, at that time of year? – and you mentally added them later, but it doesn’t matter because you can see them in your mind’s eye, and they will always be there, around you. Or a sparkling day on a pebble-strewn beach before a sunken city, or a mountain top where you felt you could see the course of your entire life stretching out before you along the road that led you there, and continuing on into the distance. Somehow at that point the world stopped and simultaneously revealed itself to you, leaving you in awe at its beauty.
Just outside Zimbabwe’s capital Harare lies a small settlement called Domboshawa, overlooked by rounded rock formations that contain caves decorated with paintings by San Bushmen – the original inhabitants of the land. Some paintings date from 20,000 years ago, the most recent just 150 years old. Here the tarmac ends, and you bump over a cattle grid onto the red dirt road that stretches on through the bush. The hills grow larger as you continue, until you come to a small junction off to the right, which lies at the foot of a high, bare dome of a mountain: Ngomakurira. “The Place Where the Spirits Beat the Drums”. Though not officially labelled as a sacred site, that is exactly what it is – and not just to the local people; at some point I realised it had become a sacred site for me personally too. There beneath the trees a small trail leads through dry mopane scrub, heading uphill, until you emerge onto the rock itself, glittering with mica, streaked with patches of red and yellow lichen, populated by lizards who scurry from crevice to crevice, blue throats quickly pulsing. The trail leads through the shadow of a high wall, the mountain split by a giant cleft, and it is this that gives the mountain its name: your footsteps echo off the clifface opposite, your ragged breathing magnified, and your words come back at you spoken in dozens of tongues. You hear the echoes of the spirits.
Walking up once I could hear what sounded like an African choir. Snatches of “Alleluyah” and “Hosanna” were carried to me as they echoed around the mountain. The singing grew louder, and then I made out a lone figure in white, labouring his way up the hillside. He was an Apostolic, wearing the white robes of his church, clutching a tall staff, walking barefoot all the way up the rocks to the top, singing hymns in a deep baritone all the while. I nodded in greeting as we passed and his face split into a huge smile above a spade-shaped beard, but his song never paused.
From the bare dome of the summit Africa stretched out before you. Rocky outcrops known as kopjes studded the landscape, and you could make out small round huts that congregated together at their base, dozens of tiny villages. The clank of cow bells, distant lowing, shafts of golden dust thrown up by their hooves. Sometimes I’d sit and watch the sunset and then descend again – a steep course down the rounded flank of the hill, 45 degrees or more, praying the soles of my boots would hold. Once, when I was wearing a new pair of jungle boots, I found I had no purchase at all – they slid over and over again. I unlaced the boots, tied them in a yoke around my neck and descended barefoot. I fet the heat of the rock on my soles and felt the small crenellations of its surface, as well as something else, almost like a deep, slow pulse with every step. I never wore boots again for the descent.
Sometimes I’d head back towards Domboshawa for a beer at the hotel – Castle Lager, ice cold. Other times I’d turn left out of the site, heading deeper into the bush – the old Tribal Trust Lands – driving on for twenty minutes or so to where there was a tiny white building that stood alone which was marked as “Butchery and Bottle Store”. I once took a society beauty out there from the capital – she’d wanted to go for a walk in the bush, thrilled at the exoticism of the idea, so we went up Ngomakurira, then stopped off at the Butchery and Bottle Store afterwards. She had never been anywhere like it, and sipped her Coke with a faint air of distaste, sitting on a rock in the shade of a mopane tree and waving away the flies, watched by half a dozen children. The strange thing is, I cannot remember her face – only the face of the young African woman in the shop who served us, and her wide open smile. There are many forms of beauty.
And sometimes I would camp up there, just taking a bivvy bag. There was a wide natural platform that looked out towards the north-east, and I’d lie there smoking a pipe, my backpack as a pillow, hearing the ripple of the leaves from the sparse outcrops of trees that clung to the hillside, and the cicadas, and the sounds of the African night. And one night I heard a sound from high on the hilltop behind me, a repetitive rasping like a man sawing wood. A leopard. Staring sightless into the dark I followed the sound with my hearing, not alarmed but just awed. Somehow I must have slept, because I woke soon after dawn to the sounds of the villages below waking up: the crow of the cockerels, the squeak of a turning well handle, the sound of someone whistling. I remember taking the local bus back into Harare that morning, dusty, wild-haired and with a thousand-yard stare, and all the other passengers smiling in bemusement at me, until we entered the city and these villagers slowly fell silent, faces clouding a little, and they peered out through the open windows at the crowds and the traffic and the bustle with a faint air of misgiving. These memories that form our inner landscape of the world, where part of us somehow always remains…
Floating in warm water smooth as velvet, the delicate fronds of the gulmohar tree silhouetted against the pink sky. A little yellow-striped squirrel spirals up its trunk. And you think to yourself: I’m here, I’m in the present right now, feeling the water holding me, and this will become a memory that I will never forget, that I will look back on and it will fill me with happiness. I’m happy now. And then you wonder why you juxtapose past and future like this, imagining yourself looking back when it’s here, right now, all around you: the resistant sift of the water through your fingers, the rippling waves that lap upon you and sway your body gently… and you realise you are trying to describe it even as you are experiencing it, with some detached part of yourself that doesn’t contradict the present sensations but somehow enhances them, appreciating the beauty of the experience all over again in words even as it simultaneously happens to you, by sharing it. Where you begin and end becomes increasingly blurred, and there is only the now. By making it all the more real in your own mind, you bring yourself back to life.
And that life is here, in Goa… at least for now. The beautiful and surreal plants: the deep blushing interior of the hibiscus around the trembling pads of its pollen-dusted stigma – flower of the goddess Kali. It is traditionally worn by Polynesian girls behind the left ear if married or in a relationship, and behind the right if she is single or openly available. The trees that drop coconuts and mangoes all over the road; the psychedelic insects shimmering in iridescent colours; the scent of different types of incense from small shrines as you ride at night – suddenly you pass through an olfactory patch of gardenias or tuberose, and then, a few minutes later, the earthy notes of patchouli.
Riding back from the noise and traffic of Panjim slowly the roads became darker, and we went over a hill through the jungle feeling the coolness that the vegetation exhaled, the forest softly respiring. Four cows plodded along the road in the middle of nowhere. Two scooters riding along side by side, two young guys, one with his arm around the other’s shoulders, talking as they rode. And we came down from the hills, through small, darkened villages, over the bridge and then there was the water again, a chorus of cicadas from the trees on the foreshore, and the road that led down to the shining sea.
The road seen, then not seen, the hillside
hiding then revealing the way you should take,
the road dropping away from you as if leaving you
to walk on thin air, then catching you, holding you up,
when you thought you would fall,
and the way forward always in the end
the way that you followed, the way that carried you
into your future, that brought you to this place,
no matter that it sometimes took your promise from you,
no matter that it had to break your heart along the way:
the sense of having walked from far inside yourself
out into the revelation, to have risked yourself
for something that seemed to stand both inside you
and far beyond you, that called you back
to the only road in the end you could follow, walking
as you did, in your rags of love and speaking in the voice
that by night became a prayer for safe arrival,
so that one day you realized that what you wanted
had already happened long ago and in the dwelling place
you had lived in before you began,
and that every step along the way, you had carried
the heart and the mind and the promise
that first set you off and drew you on and that you were
more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way
than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach:
as if, all along, you had thought the end point might be a city
with golden towers, and cheering crowds,
and turning the corner at what you thought was the end
of the road, you found just a simple reflection,
and a clear revelation beneath the face looking back
and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse:
like a person and a place you had sought forever,
like a broad field of freedom that beckoned you beyond;
like another life, and the road still stretching on.
David Whyte – from Pilgrim
©2012 Many Rivers Press