Monday, September 4, 2017

1967 - India - on the coast of the Arabian Sea Coast

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Ruins of Portuguese fort, Bassein (Vasai), India
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Fishing boats - Bassein  (Vasai) India
Like many people back then I got married straight  out of college.  We joined the Peace Corps.  It was 1967 and the peak of the Vietnam war.   At that time married men and grad students were exempt from the draft.  I do not claim that the two year exemption was unwelcome but it wasn't draft dodging but curiosity, desire to see something of the world, and doing some good that motivated me. 

Like an idiot 30 years ago or so I threw out the couple hundred aerogrammes my parents had saved, so my recollection of my two years in India from 1967- 1969 is faint  particularly since I never went back (though  my son Jesse visited Bassein abut 10 years ago).

We were assigned to a town about 30 miles north of Bombay - a fringe suburb then.  Some commuted to Bombay (the town Bassein was at the end of the electric commuter rail line.)  Others farmed sugar cane.  And many fished.

Margo and I accompanied deliveries of fish to rural schools - the price of the new marine engines provided by UNICEF as part of its Applied Nutrition Program.  We visited village schools and talked about nutrition - recognizing quickly that the local diet was much healthier than an American diet.

I was assigned to a fisherman's cooperative.  The township manager sent me to find Pedru, down by the ruins of the massive old Portuguese fort.  On my way I passed a Catholic school, then a Hindu fisherman's sahakari (cooperative) society with an ice factory and fleet of trucks.  The next building was the St. Peter sahakari society.  That was a turning point for me: Bassein (Vasai) was like the Brooklyn I knew from high school in Crown Heights- divided by clan.

High points of my first year (later for the second year) were fishing trips.  I stayed out as long as five days on open fishing boats using gill nets and bag nets.  The men wore lungis.  They chanted as they let the nets out and hauled them in by hand.  The catch was iced in the hold and we stayed out until it was full.  

We ate around a single huge platter of steamed rice with a brutally hot fish curry.  The bread was sorghum - dipped in salt water to soften it!  As a special treat the boy would clean and throw on the coals a pomfret.  But more often we ate skate which had little market value. (It's good BTW.)

There was no cabin - just a canvas tarp on poles for nap time and night time between setting and hauling nets - every six hours as the current reversed direction, and the tide rose and fell 3 meters or so.  We slept back to back on the teak deck - no mattresses.  I brought a cotton Sholapur blanket with me and spent some chilly, damp nights.

My Marathi was halfway decent so I could understand the chants - especially the teasing stanzas they made up as they hauled nets with  callused hands that protected them from stinging jelly fish.

When we landed - sometimes far from shore - trucks came out on the mud.  Women with wicker baskets on their heads took the dripping wet iced fish to the trucks for shipping to Bombay markets about thirty miles south There was no highway bridge across the Bassein river, so the trucks had to go about 25 miles east to Thane then south to the city.