My introduction to the ways of the Goans started with a spool of thread. Now, when I think of thread and India in the same moment, it’s Gandhi that comes to mind; teaching the common population to become self-sufficient by spinning their own cloth, thus lifting them out of their desperate poverty.
Well, in Goa there’s still a method of making money with thread, but it’s probably not quite what the father of India meant.
A cockney Indian commentary
“Hello darling, you just look?” she shouts across the sand.
“Have a butcher’s at my stuff!” her friend echoes eagerly.
We shake our heads. They look somewhat angry, slightly sad, and altogether a bit confused at our reaction.
“Why you break my little heart?”
And there’s the well timed tug on the heartstrings of tourists that’s been played out time and time again.
The beach in Calangute echoes with these strange colloquialisms, picked up from the British tourists who’ve apparently chosen this Indian coast as the latest Costa del Sol. After two months of covered shoulders and knees, with total commitment to being polite and respectful, it’s somewhat of a shock to see white bodies on such obvious display – particularly when said bodies are in their fifties and still wearing a thong bikini.
Despite embarking on this journey with the mantra of positivity, my British cynicism just can’t help exploding sometimes – and these tourists really are the worst.
I simply don’t understand why someone would pay for a £600 return flight to India’s southern coast, just to spend two weeks flaunting their pasty skin in the baking hot sun in front of people who, judging by their wearing of saris on the beach in 40 degree heat, clearly find such behaviour completely disrespectful?
With this in mind, I planned to keep my shorts on, sit under an umbrella, vow to only be in the sun long enough to get sweaty (ie. really not long), and then make a graceful exit back to our hotel.
Impromptu beauty sessions – on the beach
But within minutes of setting a towel down on a sun lounger, I learned that this would sadly not be the case.
Being surrounded by beach peddlers, offering an array of merchandise that stretched from the expected (sarongs, beach dresses, bracelets and keyrings) to the downright bizarre (poster sized maps and marble elephants the size of your head), does not a peaceful sunbathing session make. And the impossible problem with these situations is a result of my other intrinsically British quality; a distinct inability to say no and be rude at the same time. Which has put me in a lot of interesting situations in India.
While I was attempting to stop a toothless old woman from cracking open a coconut with a machete – “oh they do look delicious but no, thank you” – and simultaneously smiling my way out of buying an armful of scarves – “I’m sure they’re very nice but I don’t want them, thank you ever so much” – I suddenly felt a stinging sensation on my left leg.
Beside me, in the sand, was a woman busily making her way across my skin with a taut stretch of thread and a determined expression.
“Oh! Um..sorry, it’s ok, I don’t need… wait, what are you doing?!”
My plaintive efforts to stop her were of no avail; apparently you simply can’t get your hairy legs out in Goa without someone deciding they need to immediately relieve you of said hair.
And so there I sat, valiantly striving to not be like the typical tourists that particular area of Goa seemed to consist of, yet mercilessly pulled down into the depths by way of a leg threading session.
Leg threading: exactly as painful as it sounds!
The worst part was that it just kept on going, as the sun beat down on my little beach umbrella and I attempted to reapply sunscreen to the bits of leg she’d already attacked with her thread spool. The sand around us began to be littered with little cast off strands of white string, and I hoped there were no eco-friendly hippies in view to chastise me.
Two months in this country and I still find it physically impossible to drop litter. Which becomes a problem when you get through at least 3 bottles of water a day, and the sight of rubbish bins, when actually tracked down, are a talking point.
As she worked, of course, more peddlers began to surround us; we were evidently there with money to burn, and it started feeling like social situation, with little boys settling down onto the surrounding loungers, dogs crawling underneath the sagging material for a nap, and various chattering women crowding around my head, legs and pretty much every available spot around my body.
I started to feel a bit hotter, and it wasn’t just from the sun. So I decided I had to turn this situation around to my advantage – if only so I wouldn’t feel so ridiculous and on display – and I started having a chat with my leg threader.
The life of an Indian threader
It turned out she didn’t live in Goa; like most of the other peddlers, she spent seven months by the beach, living in rented accommodation, then headed back inland to Karnataka, where she made her money farming tomatoes and daal.
During her time in Goa, though, her builder husband has to find temporary work, while she works the beaches, paying a teenage girl to look after their three children aged six, four, and two – “and this is four, inside – five month’ she said, patting her belly with her hand, while pulling in my awkwardly twisted leg, tight against the curve of her stomach.
I was in the process of asking her whether she enjoyed a life so clearly fraught with complications when our beauty session was interrupted.
“You don’t pay me! Get away! Get away now!”
The voice belonged to the owner of the Love Shack, a beachfront joint where we’d enjoyed scrambled eggs and pineapple slices for breakfast, only an hour or so ago. When he’d served us our food earlier, this guy was all smiles and sunglasses, even appreciating my slight derision at the zombified Yoda tattoo on his forearm.
Not so happy now, apparently.
“You speak in English!” he shouted, as the girl threading my friend’s legs on the next lounger over (that’s right, they were steadily gaining customers) bowed her head and looked a tad uncomfortable. Not as uncomfortable as my friend/her victim was, but still.
As he continued shouting, she started to reply in Hindi; I had no idea what the situation was about but definitely started to think that we’d inadvertently embroiled ourselves in a bitter battle between locals, tourists, and more locals.
Turns out I was right.
Beach front politics
Apparently, the sarong sellers and coconut tray holders who wander the Goan beaches are rightfully entitled to coercively flog their wares to tourists, because it’s easy for them to move – and be moved – along.
Not quite so with the threaders, the henna tattooists, and the masseurs, though. In return for spending calculated time at one sun lounger covered with a sweaty tourist body, they are required to pay rent to the section of sand they’re working on. In a word, this woman was supposed to pay rent to the Love Shack, but she hadn’t.
The argument quickly gained heat when a large sari-clad woman lumbered over and grabbed the thick rope of bracelets belonging the woman who was being shouted at. It got somewhat ugly; my friend’s leg was hoisted aloft as defence against the bracelet stealer. But the large woman was clearly the ‘Big Mama’ of the beach, and she had an authority that the threader definitely didn’t. Once she’d snatched the bracelets successfully, presumably as recompense for the lack of rent payment, and she was on her way again.
“Under the seat, under the seat!”
After the beach had calmed down, both my and my friend’s threaders asked us to pay them most of their pre-promised money in secret. They were still merrily threading away when I surreptitiously slipped my cash onto the sand. The notes disappeared before I could blink. She barely even looked my way when I handed her the remaining few rupees in broad daylight – the ‘appropriate’ payment for a threading session, and one that the large woman would evidently find acceptable.
I knew I’d probably overpaid with my secret money, but there are moments when you don’t know who’s telling the most truth regarding their situation – and regardless of other falsehoods, my lady was definitely pregnant. I’d felt the baby kicking.
Clearly, there are problems with the way people earn their money in India, particularly when there’s so little demand for so much of the same product – I’m talking Ali Baba trousers by the truckload, handmade paper notebooks that are eaten away with mildew, and bracelets that leave rust on your skin the minute they’re worn.
In many regions of the country, we are the primary source of income, which means the fighting and brawling between sellers intensifies when the tourist season dies down. In Goa, people have to relocate in order to follow the tourists and their significantly fatter wallets. So when I’m faced with a woman with four children and a violent overseer, I don’t really mind forking over a few extra quid.