A memory of Gilles RIP
Palolem, India 2013. I left the comfort of my laid back Palolem beach life, in my beach hut complex at Sai Valentine. Interesting how certain layout arrangements lead to very different patterns of socialization. At Sai Valentine, with our little palm-thatched, brightly painted huts, directly on the beach, each hut with its own little veranda and a hammock, all cheek by jowl, facing another row separated by a garden with comfy chairs around tables encouraging community sharing.
Our little community consisted of a Muslim family, a Punjabi family, two Belgian girls, Camille (Paris via McGill) and Tarik (Lebanese-Canadian), her travelling partner and lover, an Israeli girl, and the resident chairman, Gilles. All day long it was a matter of musical chairs, as people sat and chatted and moved on to be replaced by others returning from a swim, or a walk, or a meal. The only permanent member was Gilles, who, lucid early in the day, was amusing and entertaining, but by nightfall became nearly comatose. In one month here he has lost 12 kilos, he reported.
Beside our hut complex was a 100 metres of fishermen’s huts. All day l watched the men and women work in teams co-operatively, getting the boats into the water, manually dragging them over logs. And similarly, with greater effort, pulling them up at the end of the fishing day before pulling in the nets. Up to 15 men and boys worked as one person, pulling the boats back up, then pulling the nets out of the water again in seeming effortless teamwork. At the end of the day, they stretched out the nets in the sand and a dozen or more were seen mending the nets in preparation for the next day’s fishing. The fishermen and their families wandered throughout our complex always with a cheery welcoming manner. This natural blend of tourist and local working men and women is refreshing.
Several events have prompted a personal reflection on aging. I am asked how old I am by a surprising number of locals and backpackers.
On the train to Goa I slept in a six berth room. When I booked the sleeper I wondered why they went to such trouble to get my day, month and birth year. A family of five were already ensconced in the room when I got on the train in Cochin. My assigned bed was the lower berth, of three berths on each side of the room. I immediately realised why my age was so important when booking. To get up to the top third berth you had to have the agility and strength of a monkey. Opposite me on the lowest bed was the grandmother. While we chatted before bedding down, the father asked me how old I was. When I said I was 76, there was a palpable gasp in the room. After they recovered, we went around the room and everyone said their age. Then we came to Granny, who was a delightful, smiling woman, but frail and wrinkled, wizened with age, at 72!
At the beach hut complex, I had the strange experience of feeling the opposite of what I have often felt in our ageist society. For the first time that I can recall, my age was a genuine source of celebration.
Early one morning, just the two of us chatting, me over my morning coffee, Gilles drinking beer. I shared some personal stories and succumbed to his questions about my travel, family and life experiences. I asked him about his and the source of his drunken spree.
Thereafter, as he mellowed with one beer after another, to anyone who happened by he would say something, drawing attention to me. “Look at him! He is 76! I am 52 and I thought my life was over!” And he would regale them with some little anecdote I had shared. His incredulity and delight at my age somehow became infectious and in a variety of ways, in our small little community I became a bit of a ’cause célèbre’. My age became a talking point. For Gilles, who led the celebration with such gusto (he couldn’t stop hugging me and kissing me on my forehead), kept up the tempo by shouting, with his thick Gallic accent, “Look at him! Just look at him! There is still hope for me. There is hope for all of us.”
Fortunately it was done with such flamboyant humour that it wasn’t too embarrassing. In fact I was kind of enjoying the attention.
When I put on my backpack to head off to the bus stand to leave at noon today, I went up to the gathering of about 8 of my hut friends to hug, kiss, shake hands and say good bye. As I walked away I overheard one of them saying, “Look at him, he struts out of here with his backpack with the stride of a twenty year old.”
I guess it’s true, age is about attitude, not chronology. I really felt that today.
Sadly a month after I left India, Gilles died in a hospital in Mumbai, of cirrhosis of the liver. RIP Gilles.