The beauty of toddy tappers and chicken guts
Bardez is a taluka (region) in the state of Goa. I cycled about 40 kilometres of its backroads on my one-speed Atlas on a Sunday afternoon.
“Hello,” called out a man’s voice. I looked behind me, didn’t see anyone, spun around and still didn’t see anyone. I had parked my bike on the shoulder of a Siolim sideroad and at that moment was pointing my camera at a very picturesque laneway with a purple bike and an artfully painted coconut tree.
“Hello!” called the voice again, and I could tell he was having fun with me. I followed the trunk of the coconut tree upwards and caught sight of a half-naked man crouched in the tree’s crown of fruit and foliage.
“Hello!,” I called back, “Toddy?” He nodded, and carefully wrapped a freshly-cut shoot end with a length of trimmed leaf so that the white fluid oozing out of it collected in a narrow-necked clay jug. He was a “toddy tapper” – a cultivator of coconut sap. Many agricultural lands have coconut trees along their edges, and when you cycle by you notice that there are crescent-shaped cuts up the length of the trunk at one-metre intervals. Toddy-tappers use these notches as steps – they dig their bare toes into the two-inch deep cuts and climb up the trunk as easily as if someone is pulling them on a rope.
At the top the toddy tapper checks the level of the sap in round jug, and when it’s full he brings it down and pours the fermenting liquid into a larger holding tank strapped onto the back of his bicycle. When he has collected enough of the fluid, he or someone else distills it into a uniquely Goan liquor called feni.
I’ve tried feni a few times and people always say “drink it, don’t smell it.” Goans mix it with soda water or Limonca to make it more palatable. Apparently I’m not Goan (or man) enough to have acquired a taste for this rocket fuel and have made do with Kingfisher beer and excellent Indian-made white wine.
Like many Goans I’ve photographed on my bike rides, the toddy tapper accommodated my taking photos of him, and thanked me. This is a marvellous feeling – the sense that you’ve done something small and nice for a stranger – and taking a moment to display their image on the LCD screen seesms the least I can do to thank him back.
Tripping on a corner
On this day’s bike ride, I had ridden out of Porvorim northwards towards Mapusa, but instead of following the four-lane NH17 into the busy commercial city, I’d quickly turned left at the base of the Porvorim plateau and melted into an instantly peaceful land of agricultural fields and one-lane country roads. They took me into the hill-hugging village of Guirim, through Parra and then northwest towards Assagao and Siolim.
I remembered Siolim as being very picturesque and made it my mission to fulfill my promise to the sisters of “Jam and Marmalade” to return for a visit when I’d gotten my bicycle. As I approached Siolim I found myself on a busier beach road that whined with the sound of motorscooters being pushed beyond their horsepower by the bare-chested tourists that had rented them. I tried a couple of turn-offs to find a quieter approach and asked for the convent a number of times but gave up as the lanes became even quieter and drew me closer to the Chapora River.
In a few minutes I was completely away from the busyness and following a paved but narrow path along the river that only a bicycle or villager’s motorscooter could find. I stopped and silently celebrated having once again tripped into a stunning corner of Goa that could only be found by getting lost. I gazed over the wide, calm water; ate two bananas; chatted with a curious student; and breathed it all in.
When I continued villagers turned to stare, but it wasn’t an unkind sort of gaze. If you offer a wide, self-effacing grin, they’ll most likely grin right back, almost relieved that you’re not one of those sour-faced foreigners they see on the roadway, intent on getting to the next beach – the kind of person who isn’t friendly with an Indian unless he’s serving a drink or lugging your suitcases.
Chapora River, green and red
I followed the Chapora River east and under the new bridge that connects Siolim to Mojim and Arambol beaches further to the north. The river was very wide and green, but at the place where it flows past Oxel village’s chicken butcher, it’s stained dark red. A boy was standing on the cement bank and attracting hundreds of gulls, eagles and carnivorous sea birds. He reached into a blue plastic barrel and pulled out handfuls of chicken entrails which he methodically flung at the water’s surfac.
He didn’t smile when I took his photo and I could guess why: he’d been given a dirty job and simply wanted to get it over with. His attention was divided between getting the bloody guts and feathers out of the barrel, and throwing rocks at a sand-coloured dog that kept creeping up to the barrel’s base where loose pieces of intestine lay in the dirt.
I sat down a distance away and took it all in. I wondered about his life and the other people who lived into the village. Oxel had been in the news recently, but I couldn’t remember why. Most likely they were fighting greed, corruption and the ruin of their natural resources like so many other villages whose struggles were only occasionally newsworthy.
A little further along the river the path showed me little aspects of everyday life – oyster shells piled into burlap bags, hand-carved fishing boats, brown rice drying on a mate near a sluice gate, and paddy field chapels.
I thought about how here in Goa – like so many other countries I’ve cycled – people warn me how busy and dangerous it is to ride a bike, and how days like this made me stubbornly try to persuade them that they were wrong: that their country was beautiful and safe, if only they would get on a bicycle and see for themselves. Today, for the forty or so peaceful kilometeres I’d cycled over the day, I’d spent perhaps five kilometres navigating busy roads to access them. I considered this a fair trade-off. Even in my own cycle-friendly city of Vancouver, I have to deal with a certain amount of traffic to get to the good stuff.
Through my Girl Gone Goa blog, I’ve met two local cyclists – Luis and Anibel. For the past two weeks we’ve been meeting and dreaming and discussing how we can convince more people to ride their cycles. We created a Goa Cycle Club and I’ve been spending hours in front of the computer to get a website called Goa Cycles! running to act as an online meeting place and cyclists’ resource.
Today, I forced myself away from the computer to just ride a bike. I’m glad I did and tomorrow, I’ll be recharged to spread the word to Goans, Indians and visitors that in this part of the world, Goa cycles.