I woke that morning with the continued intention of reaching my beach destination at Malvan. My trusty map had told me that there was a beach there and that there was a fortress somewhere in the town. It was a fair target to reach.
As I rattled through the beautiful but varied scenery toward the coast, I began to warm to the idea of bussing the Konkan coast. Around me I saw no westerners, no tourist crap, no spoiled scenery and no help from the guidebook. As the jungle jostled with the roadside and cut though tiny towns, the idea that I was somehow in the process of discovering India’s ‘next big thing’ began to spur me on. I had found that the compulsion to explore every new, obscure corner of the continent was a pressing one. While the Lonely Planet guide was an invaluable one, the temptation to blaze your own trail and have a set of unique experiences that could trump any at the next traveller hangout was too great to ignore. I had fully entered the backpacker’s mindset.
Suddenly, the jungle peeled away and we leaped out into the harsh sunlight. The road jutted out across a rock-strewn plateau, deep brown and scattered with small tufts of yellow grass. Beyond, down toward the deep blue of the sea-and-sky horizon, lay Malvan. From here, it was nothing but a cluster of white buildings nestled between the gaps in the jungle, as if sheltering amongst themselves against the searing heat of the sun.
As I searched for the fortress along Malvan’s main street, I picked up various bits of food: cheap, sugary biscuits, a whole pineapple, some bananas, a packet of strange, salty hard biscuits that I suspected were designed to be fed to dogs. Perhaps they would have been a useful distraction a couple of nights back, I chucked to myself.
Malvan felt very undeveloped. Aside from the bus stand and some of the larger residences off the main street, much of the town had the lashed-up feeling that many of the houses that Alec and I had seen in Anjuna had – before they were pulled down.
The comparison did make me wonder how Malvan would cope during the monsoon: If Anjuna simply shut down during the monsoon season because there was no economic mainstay, what did Malvan do? Did it subsist entirely separately from the tourist infrastructure? Where did the money come from around here? Did people ever leave? It was an ‘ignorant tourist’ moment, to be sure.
At the end of the road that stopped abruptly at the sea, I found out how Malvan must bring the majority of its tourists. It looked as if someone had deposited a very wide, flat building several hundred meters off shore. At the jetty that struck out into the water, I joined the short queue of Indian tourists. A boat slowly chugged across the water towards us.
Our destination was silhouetted against the deep blues of the sea and sky of behind it, making it impossible to make out in the baking sunlight. It looked far too uniform and flat to be natural. Indeed, it was only as our small boat approached the island that this long form became more defined. Despite the sharp, angular edges of the island between the deep blue of the water and the deeper blue of the sky, there also stood palm trees jutting from the top of the profile, as well as a power line that bounced from rock to rock across the straits before disappearing into the island. The formidable cliffs repelled the boisterous waves that broke against them.
The island before us was what I had been looking for: Sindhudurg Fort. It had been built in the 17th century by the local king on a natural island that he had commandeered for military purposes. It was not hard to see why he had expended such mammoth resources to build it; it certainly lent itself to these purposes. As our boat drew alongside it, we begun to better see the solid towers that jutted out from the rumbling surf in its shadows. The walls were constructed of enormous bricks the size of a washing machines. The only clues before us to the natural origin of the island were the scattered rocks that jutted out of the water beneath them.
Our boat continued to chug around the imposing perimeter and in time arrived at a landing beach that housed a handful of other smaller skiffs and motorboats. The presence of an accommodating jetty and the colourful holidaymakers who wandered through the discrete gap in the walls felt like a violation of the fort’s integrity, as if a set of grappling hooks and barrel of gunpowder would have been a more appropriate way of gaining entry.
Still, I did feel like I was part of some kind of raiding force in Pirates of the Caribbean as I disembarked from the boat, moved up the white hot beach and weaved through the shady, narrow S-shaped chicane between the two walls. The entrance had been designed so that, from the distance that any invading vessel would have to keep at sea, it was invisible against the curve of the walls.
Inside, I wound back upon myself and up the narrow stairs that had no handrail to hold on to. I stepped up onto the high walls. Having conquered the castle myself, I could see that advantage that the defender had in such a place. Looking back out to where my boat had just arrived, I could see another small boat full of tourists slowly approach the beach. I pretended to light a cannon and let off a round, sinking the boat with all its crew. At least then I could explore the island on my own!
I began to circle the castle along the high ramparts that bordered it. They surrounded what was otherwise a natural and untamed island. To my left I looked out across the water: the green, shallow hills of the shoreline and the mighty, flat blue of the Arabian Sea beyond; to my right, there swayed a laziness of palm trees and yellow scraggy grass in between the bulbous rocks. It was only in front of me, beneath my feet and curling cunningly around the perimeter of the island, that there stood the gargantuan ramparts that made this island a fortress.
Stepping down from these high walls, I explored the interior of the island. Although the fort seemed unlikely to be invaded again anytime soon, houses did remain within the island, perhaps clinging on to the tourist economy here. In classic Indian style, the power line that had stretched over the expanse of water to the island was powering the small canteen right in the centre of the island. I suppose it was too much to ask for Sindhudurg Fort to remain unspoiled, wasn’t it?
However, it was easy to forget that I was on an island. As I moved through the undergrowth and smoothed rocks, I was almost surprised to be interrupted by a high wall with a small doorway at the bottom. Crouching through the doorway, I stepped down onto a shingle beach just as the latest wave was sucking the pebbles back toward the water with that crunching, sucking, grinding sound that is so unmistakeable. Before me lay a wide ocean, dotted with the profile of supertankers trundling along the horizon up to Mumbai, a hundred miles north. Above me towered thick brown ramparts that hugged my back and edged me toward the sea, which frothed white in front of me. Quickly, another wave ran quickly up the small beach, spilling over my feet and up my legs.
The fort conquered, our raiding party returned to the mainland. As the small boat chugged back across the water, I surveyed the area beyond Malvan whilst I still could. Separating the sea and sky’s shared deep blues was a strip of white and green that curved away from Malvan and far off to my right. I picked out a spot on the beach a mile away that I would swim at. Apart from the occasional human outline dotted along the beach, it looked deserted.
With my lunch in my bag, I set off down the beach towards my chosen spot. As I left the tiny waterside of Malvan and moved further down the beach, there lay lines of fishing boats similar to those I had pretended to fire a cannonball at earlier on. It seemed they were used to catch fish as well as transport tourists. Occasionally groups of people squatted in the shades of these boats or slept inside them, their feet poking out of the sides.
As I walked, I passed an assortment of dead sea animals that had been discarded from the fishing boats. Some were bloated and fly-plagued, others had been in the sun longer and had dried into a yellow parchment texture. Indeed, it was as hot on the beach as it was in the fort. Sun cream and sweat mixed on the back of my neck and, as I trudged on with the sun beating down on my head, I awaited the thought of a swim with relish.
Then that I saw the first pile of poo. It was sat on the beach near the water with a neat pair of human footprints either side of it. The owner was no-where to be seen and so I put it down to misfortune or the urgent call of nature and kept walking. But, not a minute later, I passed another. Further down the beach ahead of me, I saw someone producing a third.
It was at that moment that I stopped to examine my surroundings in closer detail. Sure enough, small shapes of people dotted up and down the beach in the distance. Each person seemed to be in the process of producing more piles of human waste in the shallows of the beautiful beach that I had spent the last half an hour waiting to wade into. From a distance, I could observe each individual emerge from the trees behind me, walk out to the waterline and squat down before, in time, standing up again and disappearing back into the undergrowth. There they were, literally shitting all over my chances of a good swim.
Suddenly the sea did not look so inviting anymore.
I walked to the nearest strip of shade that a beached canoe provided me and lay down my heavy bag next to a stray dog. I was tired and disappointed at this turn of events. Unfortunately, the steady wind had carved a slick wind tunnel beneath the canoe, so that a steady gust of hot, dry sand stuck itself to my greasy arms and neck as I tried to recline and take stock of the situation. As I sat there, sweating, sun burned and sand-blasted, I wondered about what alternative these people must have had to shitting in the sea.
The reality was that the village through those trees clearly had no sanitation system to speak of. From my perspective, the idea of shitting in the sea violated some pretty basic sensitivities that I had grown up with about the natural environment. But in this case, there was obviously no alternative. Indeed, the fact that they clearly fished in these waters for food only exacerbated the apparent misfortune of the situation.
I continued to muse upon this wretched situation as I begun the long walk back up the beach. To this day, I can never hear the phrase ‘don’t shit where you eat’ without remembering that beach. So much is different in India than elsewhere, as symbolised by the shit-covered beach and the phrase that had been so visibly undermined by that scene. The cultural baggage that westerners bring to this country is rendered utterly inappropriate by the lack of cleanliness, infrastructure, luxuries and basic safety that we enjoy in our home lands. These people were helping to destroy their greatest asset here through sheer lack of alternatives.
If tourism could be allowed to flourish here, so much economic and material growth could occur here. But until that process begins in earnest, the reverence that we have for the natural environment in the West will remain thoroughly out of place and indulgent. How could I reconcile the scenes that I saw around me every day with the cultural sensitivities that I had grown so ingrained in at home? How did this implicate the rest of my beliefs about society, individuals, poverty and money? Were they next in line for the chop?
These thoughts lingered with me as I returned to Kudal, where the clouds of toxic smoke from the rubbish fires greeted me in the hot evening air.