Deceptions of a coconut

By Connor Newson

A few weeks back I fell in love… Yes, this is a love story. However it is not a story between two people, it is a story of a man and his discovery of the marvellous coconut. But like so many love stories there are moments when not everything is as sweet it seems. And for me that sourness came unexpectedly within a matters of days after first being exposed to the greatness of an Indian coconut.

At this point you might be why I’m writing about loving the coconut, or maybe why it has taken a person so long to even try a coconut. After all the world is not so big when they’re readily available in supermarkets all over the world. Nevertheless, love is subjective and these drupes of healthy goodness are usually packaged or served with a delicious and unhealthy layer of chocolate around the outside – yes, I’m referring to the Bounty bar. So of course I’ve tasted the artificial essence of coconut before, but somehow I can’t ever recall eating an actual coconut – especially when its fresh from the tree itself.

The romance began on a warm evening in a small ancient town called Maheshwar hidden within the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Myself and two friends, Ellie and Connie, are taking a gentle stroll down the bank of the Narmada River, admiring the sun as it bounces off the water onto the Ahilyabai Temple that towers above the boats below. As is quite frequent in India, we stop at a street vendor for some tasty chai.

The fire is stoked, a pan is set, and a concoction of cardamom, black tea, ginger, masala, milk, and other spices are thrown inside. As the chai guy works his magic, Connie spots a horde of fury brown coconuts sat on a vendor’s table opposite ours. Already enlightened to the taste of coconuts, she wastes no time in approaching the vendor. Now I’ve only ever seen coconuts being smashed open by desperate shipwreck victims who are stranded on an isolated Island in the middle of the ocean… Hollywood. So I follow Connie, curious as to how she is going to take on this challenge.

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Fortunately for her, the trader kindly begins to tear out the thick outer hair to reveal the significantly smaller shell underneath. Moving away from his station and placing a small glass on the ground where he is now crouched, he grabs the nut firmly in one hand and hurtles it at the concrete below. With one fell swoop a large crack appears which allows the liquid centre to spill into the glass. Then, wielding a 500g scale weight, he begins tapping at the shell to break off the pieces one by one, revealing the brilliant white sphere inside.

Immediately I am captivated by the raw method of fending for one’s self. I am caught in the crosshairs of curiosity, eager to taste the pure fruit that has just been revealed to me. But first, a sip of some coconut milk. With the heat of the Indian sun bearing down on me, the water runs down my throat fresher than the streams of Mount Everest. And now for the coconut itself. I take some from Connie and dig my teeth into the crunchy yet soft white chunk. I am hooked, and the initial attraction is obsessive.

We spend the next twenty minutes drinking chai and munching on coconutty goodness whilst watching the sun burst into¬†shades of pink, red, orange, and yellow as it sets over the river ahead. The next morning we return, this time to open the shell ourselves to experience the arduous method first hand (simultaneously attracting a crowd of locals who were probably judging our inefficiency). The taste is as heavenly as the night before. I return once more before leaving for our next destination in India, uncertain on whether Omkareshwar would be as kind in fixing my new addiction. It was… But only temporarily.

Omkareshwar is 65km up the river with a huge temple built into the bank of its river. On our first evening we venture out to have dinner, treating ourselves (daily) to fresh and oily curry. Despite most places street stalls being closed this late in the evening, I manage to spot a friendly bunch of coconuts sitting in a basket outside a store on the way back to our hostel – one for me, and one for Connie. We cradle the precious things back to our rooms and devour them whilst reading our books.

The next day we leave the hostel and go for a walk, little did I know that my walk would soon turn sour. We arrive at what seems to be a market square with about fifteen wooden structures pitched up in a long row. To my surprise, every single one of them has a basket of coconuts waiting to be plucked. I waste no time in my choosing, other than to shake a couple of nuts next to my ear to decide which one sounds bigger – the hairy exterior can be misleading. I make my choice and we continue walking until we find ourselves perched on the edge of an elevated rock by the river, away from any noisy crowds and with a beautiful wide view of the river running for miles into the distance.

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As Ellie and Connie begin reading their books, I pull the coconut out from inside my bag and begin tearing out the straw like hair that covers the shell. My eagerness to taste the crunchy interior seems stronger with each one I consume. With the fury coating abandoned, I grip the nut tightly and force it down on to the rock at my feet. However nothing happens. I try once more, yet not even a hairline crack surfaces. I begin hammering down the nut hard against the ground until soon I notice my hand is slightly wet.

Finally there is a crack, but not where I have been hitting it against the rock. Upon closer inspection I notice a small hole at the top of the nut, and two other darkened circles that seem to have an unusual shade of mossy green. However, I continue to bring down the coconut with repetitive and heavy thuds against the rock until eventually it splits. All of a sudden my throat is wrenching at the stench unleashed. Thick white liquid leaks from the crevices as the shell falls apart, exposing a curdled creamy ball of mush that spills into my palm. Full of disgust and gagging at the repulsive smell emitting from my mouldy snack, I open my palm to let pseudo-coconut fall to the depths of the water like Jack from Titanic.

Feeling confused and rejected, I try to speculate on the cause for my mysteriously viscous coconut. Why would a coconut be so bad that its entire interior had managed to curdle? After a while we wander home, on the way passing the wooden shacks where just earlier I excitedly purchased the disappointing fruit. I avert my eyes and continue walking until I arrive at the store where I had bought a nut the evening before. I decide to confront my fears and buy one more coconut and take it back to the hostel, hoping the last was just a one-off.

Back at the hostel I ask for a hammer to assist the dissection. I place it on the floor firmly whilst simultaneously covering my nose with a sleeve. I raise the hammer above my head and prepare to slam it down onto the shell. Suddenly I hear a voice from behind.

“Are you going to eat that?!”, a German girl laughs.

“…Yes” I reply. “Shouldn’t I?”.

She senses my confusion and begins to explain her concern.

“Every day people buy these coconuts, and flowers, to lay in the river as gifts to the source of life that runs through the valley. After the coconut is gifted, locals climb into their boats and fish the coconuts back out of the water in order to sell again. In fact, once a year three-thousand coconuts are released into the river as gifts, and every single one of them is collected and put back into the system. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is a sour coconut”.

So there it is. The answer to my coconut’s deception. I had unwittingly purchased a coconut that had probably been circulating in and out of the river for months. Still, I have faith – or rather hope – that the one I hold in my hand right now is an exception like the one from last night. Before I can talk myself out of it I bring down the weight of the hammer onto the shell. Miraculously, the shell splits almost perfectly allowing the shell to be broken off with ease to reveal the pure white sphere underneath. Tonight I will once again enjoy the tasty snack. And so my love for a coconut persists. At least for tonight anyhow.

Acting for tourism amongst the beautiful islands of Krabi, Thailand.

By Connor Newson

A few days ago I arrived at a small village in a remote part of Krabi province, to teach English to the local community. Admittedly this was partly because I was guaranteed free accommodation and food which would definitely help my withering budget, but also because if I was going to volunteer then I would be sure to do something worthwhile. Little did I know that I was about to become an actor for EverydayKrabi.com in their promotional tourism film, and for a group of university students majoring in Tourism Communications with their final film project.

At 5.30am Teo and I (the other volunteer) were awoken at our dorm room and coaxed into a car with bleary eyes. “We need to leave now so we can catch the sun rise” explained A’om, one of the students. Five minutes later we pulled up to the pier of Laem Sak with four other crew members – Punpun, Pueng, Pam, and Floke. We waited by the sea until another car arrived. Dissaya and Toto (of EverydayKrabi.com) climbed out and unloaded the equipment as a fisherman walked by and jumped on a boat to start its engine.

I climbed aboard and watched as a wooden table, two chairs, a picnic basket, and various film equipment was passed from one person on the pier to the other on the boat. We set off into the darkness of early morning, still barely awake and unable to see much around us as we chopped through the gentle swaying of the shallow waves. Minutes later our boat had driven up the bank of an isolated beach that was too small to be called an island, yet large enough for it to need a warning light for passing boats.

The sky had begun its spectacular transformation after we stepped onto land. Above our heads the midnight blue skies merged with a concoction of wispy orange clouds that sprouted from behind the silhouette islands in the distance. Within seconds they had turned a bright candyfloss colour as myself and Teo took our seats beside the conveniently placed table in the centre of the beach. The sun then finally breached the horizon with explosive luminosity. Suddenly the famous Krabi Islands were no longer blackened obstacles in the dark, but beautiful rocky, green canopies seemingly floating on the calm blue sea in their own magical isolation.

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I was distracted by the sound of something more unnatural than rippling waves running up the sand. It was the sound of a Phantom 4 drone that had been launched into the sky, cutting through the air with its four propellers and an underbelly camera directed towards us as we sat in front of the colourful backdrop. I looked at the table in front of me – which was furnished with a table cloth and local sticky rice with banana and coconut wrapped in banana leaf, and a coffee, all laid prettily for a picturesque shot. “Action”, someone from the distance shouted.

We ate whilst the drone circled overhead, with other cameras following on foot for close-up shots. Unlike other roles back in England, I felt no pressure this timeas I was too tired to care and too focused on the much needed coffee in my hands. However, my morning caffeine dose was soon cut short –¬†literally.

“Do you mind if one of us replaces one of you?”, someone called after the cameraman called cut.

The crew explained that they instead thought it best for a female crew member to replace a male for this shot. I guess perpetuating the normality of using a heterosexual couple to sell a romantic breakfast at sunrise is better fitted for this particular scene. Nevertheless, I volunteered to stand out and observe for the rest of the scene.

After wrapping up we hopped back in the boat and sped to a nearby island. We pulled up to a tiny alcove where an unusually large ladder led to a cave inside. We climbed and explored as the cameras and crew followed, occasionally being directed to repeat certain actions. When Theo and I climbed back down, we spotted another crevice for which to squeeze through.

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Credit: Punpun

Inside a small stream ran by our feet as we crawled through the algae-covered ceiling that glowed from the shimmering water. Seconds later we emerged on the other side to a vast open marshland, looking almost untouched with towering rock faces and thriving greenery surrounding us. It looked like a location where The Beach could have been filmed at, the one with Leonardo DiCaprio, and it could easily be one considering their actual location isn’t too far from here.

After taking a couple of steps forward I found my ankles had been completely submerged in the mud. Attempting to move forward was messy. So we ran, trying to move quicker than gravity could take us, for that proved somewhat logical at the time. It was not. And just like that, we had been reborn as children, falling and throwing handfuls of mud at each other, playing in the marshy green paradise.

After a quick swim in the warm sea to rinse our caked selves, and a short journey by boat, we arrived at a private beach hidden inside the masses of floating islands. I relaxed in the sun as the crew figured out the most aesthetically pleasing angles to shoot. Shortly after I was sat on a picnic blanket with Dissaya, the girl from the sunrise scene, chatting away as various cameras filmed the scene.

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The lack of direction was relaxing, despite this meaning that I wasn’t really acting. Instead I was simply a tourist and I guess that is an accurate depiction for both tourism projects. The freedom in our movement limited the extent to which false representations of tourism could be made. After all, one of the most annoying things when travelling is to be sold something that is different to what you were originally told.