Participant Observer Report
On December 20th my friend Claire Clark and I decided to go to the beach to get some sun and relax in the water. After all, it had been a pretty cold year in Paris. Our experience was fascinating and ever since that day I have been thinking to go back and do my participant observer report on that place. And so, today Sunday January 17th, I find myself at Auroville’s fisherman’s public beach about to begin my observation report.
January 17, 2016 1:40PM – 4:30PM
It is a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon. As soon as I park my moped, I find myself walking through the same beach entrance. I can see a big family coming out of their car heading to the beach just a few steps behind me. The coconut water man I saw only a month ago, is still sitting in the same place probably smoking the same type of cigar telling me exact same thing: Coconut water to refresh! The last time I was there I told him I would get one on my way out, and didn’t. I guess in a way I felt a little guilty so this time I happily accepted the refreshment for only 40 rupees. He smiled back at me with only a few teeth in his mouth. It was in that moment I decided to leave some change for him. He loudly said: Nandri, which means thank you in Tamil.
As I’m walking through the beach with my coconut in my right hand and my sandals on my left hand, I find the beach much less crowded than the last time I was there. I couldn’t help but wonder if Pongal Festival had anything to do with it. I carefully take out my big elephant blue blanket to lay and start observing the interactions in the beach. In less than 5 minutes, I have three teenager boys coming close to me to ask me the most important question of all: Can we take a selfie?
Once again, these teenagers made me feel like a celebrity; but celebrity for what exactly? Two of them ask if they can sit next to me in my blanket and I nod with my head to give them the OK. I now find myself around two boys eagerly wanted to take a picture with me. They start yelling to his friend to take a few, not just one selfie.
After a 5-minute photo-shoot they asked for my name. I replied: My name is Daniela. What about yours? I saw the window of opportunity to ask these boys why a picture with me was so fascinating. It was the second time I found myself to be quite the attraction at the beach and was wondering why. The boys start laughing amongst themselves, until one of them finally tells me that it is to show their friends. Very politely, I smiled and said I would like to lie down. They respectfully left. Here is where my observation truly began:
These three boys were wearing their swimsuits and the smiles in their faces. They must have been around 14 to 16 years old. I couldn’t help but to observe them having probably one of their best afternoons. They enjoyed themselves with just their company and nature, riding the waves and floating in the ocean like time wasn’t passing by. It reminded me of my childhood… and I immediately felt blessed for having a childhood where no technology interrupted my time with nature or distracted me from truly being a kid.
Looking to my left I can see a family approaching towards me. One male, two adult women and four kids; two boys and two little girls. The women were wearing long and colorful saris; one really caught my attention because it was turquoise and blue, two of my favorite colors. The other sari was a beautiful dark pink with yellow embroidery. The adult male asked me if I could take a picture with their children, I quickly replied: absolutely. The little kids are timid and don’t know how to approach me, so I grab the little girl’s right hand and asked her to sit next to me. The three others follow her younger sister. A lot of laughing takes place and more people start getting closer to us to witness who this “celebrity ” is. I must confess these thoughts also came to my mind. As we are sitting smiling to the camera, three older men start getting closer to us and take their phones out to start taking pictures of us. I will not deny that the whole spotlight made me a little uncomfortable after all this attention.
As the family waves goodbye to me, the three teenage boys come back running to my spot to ask me if I’m being disturbed by anyone. I was happily surprised by their concern and replied to them: No, nothing to worry! Nandri.
As they walked away, one adult male I had previously seen while parking my moped started walking towards me. I was a little hesitant I would have to once again take pictures with strangers, however I was happily surprised by our conversation.
– “Hey” he said…
“I hope you don’t take this whole attention in a bad way, all they really want is a picture with a white person. You know, skin color matters here, and you are white and nice. We want to welcome you to our country”.
(I must confess my heart dropped for a second when I heard how skin color is still such an important issue nowadays)
– It is not a problem at all, I replied with a smile.
– If you would like to get into the water, my family and I would be happy to watch over your things, he said.
– Oh thank you Sir, I replied. Not necessary. I’m planning on staying for just a bit longer to observe people’s interaction with their family and friends.
– Do you like the beach? He asked.
– I do. Thank you sir for offering help to watch over my stuff. Very nice of you. Enjoy your time with your family, I replied.
– Not a problem dear, we will be here if you need us, he replied and headed back to his family.
I laid for another hour or so; most of the time pretending to be asleep with my sunglasses on, that way photo-shoots requests would not happen. I was fascinated by the fact that all the teenager boys at that beach didn’t have any cigarettes, alcohol or cellphones with them. They were simply enjoying life. Laughing, running, swimming and playing with each other.
As I started collecting my bags, one couple came to me asking for one last picture. I accepted with a smile. I couldn’t help but wonder what the older man had mentioned to me about skin color and kindness just one hour ago. As a walked out of the beach, I had a lot of thoughts in my mind… I saw the friendly coconut waterman once again smoking his cigar and thought, what a better way to end my day with another refreshing coconut. This time, the coconut was a treat from the toothless old man.
Although the fisherman’s beach is probably not the most beautiful and private beach in Auroville, I strategically chose it for one reason. In this beach there are no tourists. There are no kayaks, no floaties, no paddle boards and no water bicycles. In this beach you get to see the real India. Men are the lords of the beach. They are barely any women present, and the few women that are there, are covered from head to toe and always accompanied by their families.
It is because of this reason I found the interaction to be incredibly interesting with the people I met today. Today I became the beach’s attraction because of my skin color and because of my gender. Today, I was a celebrity for about 2 hours and I absolutely hated it. Don’t get me wrong, it felt incredible to be able to get smiles and even some laughs from the people I met today, but not because of how I look. At the beginning we might find it cute and adorable, but the main issue still remains there… Why should skin color and gender be so important that you go from being nobody to suddenly becoming a big sensation for not apparent reason? At the end we are all the same: Male, Female, Black, White, Indian, or Hispanic.
The words the older man shared with me today will stay with me forever. Always reminding myself to be kind to others but most importantly, to prove him wrong. Skin color does not matter, at least not to me. If it doesn’t matter to me, why should it matter to them? Definitely something to reflect on…
– Daniela Moreno