Where was I when the tsunami hit India? I was strolling on a beach, of course. :o(
While in Goa, I was interested in checking out the Olive Ridleys, an endangered species of turtle, which lay their eggs en masse on two west coast beaches. I had read about the phenomenon several times in the newspapers, knew that this was their nesting season, and was hoping to catch see some of them while we were there.
So the day after Christmas we set off in search of the Olive Ridleys. We hire a taxi and set out for Galgibag beach, one of the more remote beaches on the west coast, where turtle nestings had been reported. On the way, Donna stops at a church. I sit on a bench in the church courtyard and catch some Kodak moments with the local children (left).
An elderly woman comes up and sits down beside me. She starts off with the usual which country you are from? Then, she looks at me sternly and says: Be careful. People are wicked here. It is not like in foreign countries. Watch your camera, your wallet. They will try to steal. And the police are the worst. They will land you in trouble.
I thank her for the advice and promise I will be very careful. It isn't anything I hadn't heard before. I've heard that the cops in Goa are notoriously corrupt; they routinely pay to be stationed there, because the level of corruption makes it a very lucrative assignment for them.
We resume our search for the turtle beach. The driver stops several times to ask for directions, and he finally pulls into one that he thinks is the right one. We wander up and down the beach, but there are no turtles in sight. A local villager, paddling in a weathered rowboat, waves to us, and we ask him if he knows where the turtles are.
No turtles here, he says. Turtle Beach, one more over. He points across the water. We ask him how we can get there. He offers to row us across for a fee. I jump at the offer, although Donna is not convinced. Are you sure this is safe, she asks, warily eyeing what looks like a home-made row boat that has seen better days.
--Very safe, he assures us. No problem. I will take you.
--And you will show us where the turtles are, yes?
--Yes, yes, the turtles, he says, though I'm not quite sure he understands what I'm asking.
We get in and he rows us across to the other side. It's no more than a 5-minute paddle, and the water is very calm and peaceful. When we get to the other side, he gets involved with some other people who are awaiting to be rowed back, and it becomes apparent that he's not going to show us where the turtles are. So we set off to explore the beach on our own. It's a beautiful beach, very clean, with virtually no one on it except for an occasional fisherman or two.
The tide appears to be low, and at one point I venture out to a rocky area, teeming with giant crabs, starfish, and other fascinating marine life. When I glance up a couple minutes later, a wave has come in and I see only the tops of the rocks. I wait for a moment for the water to go back out again, but it doesn't.
As most of you know, I will happily take part in any air sport -- jump out of an airplane, bungee jump, hot air balloon, parasail. But, if you throw me in the deep end of a pool, I am convinced I will die. So I have a moment of panic as the rocks around me get more and more submerged. Finally, I make a mad dash for the shore, crawling from rock to rock.
We cover the entire length of the beach without any turtle sightings, so we decide to head back to the pier. The tide is coming in so rapidly now, that we can't walk straight down the beach, we have to walk diagonally to stay out of the water.
Local villagers stare out at the unusual tides
When we get back, there is a small group of locals standing on the pier looking intensely out at the water.
We tell them we are ready to go back across.
--We cannot take you across right now.
--The water is not safe. It is too high.
--When can you take us across?
--Maybe, 5 o'clock.
--5 o'clock?!! [That's hours away.] No, no, 5 o'clock is not ok. We need to get across now. Our taxi is waiting for us on the other side.
--We cannot take you across. Tide is too high.
--But why didn't you tell us the high tide was coming in, before you took us across??
--This is first time....
--First time? This is the first time you've had high tide??
--First time, high tide like this...
We sit down on a rock and wait helplessly. The water does look rough, and is higher than when we came, but not having a reference for what is normal high tide here (and not having a clue at this point about tsunamis) we don't know whether to believe them or not. A few minutes later, one of them walks back to us.
--We cannot take you back across today. The sea is not safe. We can only take you tomorrow.
By this time Donna and I are freaking out. We've seen nothing on this beach except for a few shacks. The old lady's words--People are wicked here!--are ringing in my head. I'm wondering what kind of scam we've gotten ourselves into. But if they just want our money or cameras, why not just take them and get it over with, there is no need to keep us overnight!
--Is there another way that we can get across, back to the other side?
--May be possible -- vehicle, taxi.
I'm thinking: Here it comes. They are going to charge us exorbitant rates to taxi us back to the mainland.
A much larger crowd has gathered on the pier now, and there is a lot of commotion, intense discussion, pointing, and running around. I'm starting to think that if they are really scamming us, they are very good actors, because it's starting to seem real to me.
Throughout all this, we have been the only foreigners on this island, and communication has been difficult. But at this point, seemingly out of nowhere, an Australian bloke, who introduces himself as Michael (at right), walks up to the pier. I have to admit I am relieved to see someone who speaks English. He turns out to be a local wanna-be, hangs out on this island frequently, and is staying in a motel just across the river. We ask him what's going on.
--They have never seen the tide this high. They cannot take the boat across right now. It is too dangerous. These are lovely people. They are good people. But they cannot take you across right now.
--Is there any other way we can get back to the mainland?
--There is a small bridge. You might be able to hitchhike out.
I would never hitchhike in the U.S., much less in a foreign land where I don't know the language!
--Where do we go? Where is the road?
--Come - I will be your guide, Michael says.
Michael and his truck
We follow this eccentric (perhaps a little tipsy?) character into the village, where, beaming, he tells the locals I am their guide today! At the first intersection, he flags down a truck, convinces the driver to give us a lift, and tells us to pile into the back of the truck. The trip takes about 20 minutes around the perimeter of the village, and over a very narrow one-car bridge. It's the bumpiest ride I've ever been on, but transportation never felt so good!
The truck drops us off a few minutes walk from our taxi. We happily give the driver as well as our our guide Michael a few bills, and they both disappear. Donna and I nickname our Ozzie guide "Michael the Archangel." He seemed to appear out of nowhere; it all felt surreal somehow, as if we were in a play, and the script read, "Michael: enter stage left." He told us he did some business in the area, but we were hard-pressed to imagine what kind of business he could possibly be doing on a remote fishing village.
On the taxi ride back, I get an urgent call from Chitra, filling me in on news of the tsunami, and urging me not to continue with our trip to Kanyakumari.
As that information sinks in, Donna and I begin to feel deeply embarrassed about acting like such spoiled little American princesses, demanding to be taken across the river, assuming that they were trying to rip us off somehow. The fishermen were bewildered (and probably frightened) by something astonishing that they had never seen before, and here we were whining because we couldn't get back to our taxi in time!
Lesley - I forgot to assume good intentions, like you always remind me to...