By Armand Rodrigues
Our family home in Goa was about half a kilometre from the ocean. We could hear the howling winds and the waves crashing ashore incessantly. WW II was at its peak but Goa was a neutral port in this “Province” of Portugal. Shipping was at a standstill and foreign goods were not coming in and, so, we had no toys to play with when we were young. We made crude toys and devised our fun and games. Four to six of us youngsters would get together to play. A favourite pastime was going to the beach and visiting the cashew trees on the way. All of us had home-made catapults and a supply of pebbles in our pockets. On our way, we passed several vegetable plots in the midst of fields. Any errant pigs or crows raiding the sweet-potatoes, water-melons, gourds or beans, made for good target practice. Off and on we were able to down a white egret or two and take them home for a nice soup or chilli-fry.
A dip in the ocean was a lot of fun. We would go in up to our necks, wait for the huge rollers (waves) well above our heads, to start bearing down on us and, at the last moment, leap as high as we could to catch a thrilling ride back to the shore. We did this over and over again until we were pooped.
Quite often there were fishermen laboriously pulling in their nets by hand. They waited for the incoming tide and with the Konkanim version of “heave-ho” had to get their timing right. Their primitive boat had already been dragged ashore on top of logs used as rollers. The upper part of their nets had circular floats made from branches of softwood trees; the lower part grazed along the sandy bottom. The inverted “U” configuration had them haul their nets ashore manually, from both sides… For us boys, it was an adventure chasing escaping fish behind the nets. We had small baskets (called “kondools”) woven from coconut palm fronds, in one hand, and grabbed the struggling and slippery escaping fish with the other, tossing them into our “kondool”. It was a smorgasbord of fish: mackerels, sardines, pomfrets, king-fish, baby sharks, lobsters, were plentiful in season. We were careful to avoid stingrays, catfish and crabs, which carried a painful sting or a pinch with sharp pincers. If we collected a lot, the fishermen expected us to give back some of ”their” fish. Fish were not the only things that slipped away. One day a friend’s “khasti” (trunks) joined the escaping fish! When we had collected enough of fish or became tired, we took our “loot” to where a younger brother was minding our clothes. He could not join us in the “catching” game as he was not tall enough to be in the water. He was tasked with the job of collecting twigs and dried palm fronds for a fire. It was a real treat roasting some of the fish over an open fire. No seasoning was required as the fish came from a salty ocean. The aroma worked up an appetite in all of us. The remaining fish was taken home for a tasty fish curry or “rechada”(fish stuffed with spicy condiments) or fish-fry.
Then there were times when we became beachcombers. There was no telling what the ocean would disgorge on to the shore. Assorted shells and debris from passing ships and dhows littered the shore for miles. With the receding tides some of the detritus was taken back by the sea, never to be seen again. Arab dhows did a lot of trade along the coast. For safety reasons, they stayed within sight of land, but away from the treacherous waves, as their craft were fragile. But, from time to time, disaster would strike. A rogue wave would cause the dhow to succumb, disintegrate and send any floating commodities to stretches of the shoreline. Heavy items hit bottom. The hapless crew that survived the disaster swam ashore with only the clothes on their backs, with all their hopes of profit “drowned”. Insurance for the dhow or its cargo was unheard of in those days. The Christian villagers would help them with food that their Muslim faith allowed, and shelter. (Incidentally, Arabs were skilled sailors and navigated by following the stars. However, the dangers lurking on the high seas defied interpretation)
If bagged goods like rice, flour, lentils, copra, washed ashore they had already been rendered unfit for human consumption by the briny waters. But canned and bottles stuff was still useable. On one occasion we, boys, came upon 5lb. cans of Dalda Vanaspati (rarified butter) on the beach. “ Finders keepers” was the order of the day. We each lugged a heavy can home and considered it a godsend. On another occasion, bicycles were flung ashore after a stormy night. Finders could not believe their luck. There were fights when two people grabbed a bike at the same time, from either end. The one nearest to the saddle was allowed to claim it. Another time some fishermen thought they had a really good catch when their nets were unusually heavy. They had “caught” sewing machines sitting on the ocean bed! After scraping off the rust, the machines were in good working order. As tailoring was outside their line of work they sold them to the villagers, for a neat profit. Ripped sails were put to good use by the fishermen, in their flimsy shacks by the sea. Lumber from the wooden sides of the dhows, and their frames, floated to shore and did not go waste.
No doubt, the coastal villagers will have many an interesting tale to tell of what may have come ashore. Not surprisingly, it is highly unlikely that they would say a word about money in tin trunks salvaged.