It is around 8 in the evening in this village in the Western Ghats, on the border of Maharashtra and Goa. It has been pouring incessantly for hours now. The hills around and the deep gorges below are shrouded in mist. Just the kind of day when a reckless tourist might miss a step and endanger himself. If he does, Gabriel Almeda will be in business.
Almeda, 57, is a rubber plantation owner from Sangeli village near Sawantwadi in the Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra. This lush green area has some of the most treacherous terrain, dense forests, rapidly flowing rivers and inaccessible valleys. Accidents are common. When they do happen, Almeda and his team of 20-odd rescuers, some of whom are his family members, are the first to be contacted. In the last two decades or so, they have rescued 30 people and have taken out 50 dead bodies.
Only a few weeks ago, a video gone viral had shown two visibly drunk youths climb up a concrete fence on the edge of a valley. In the end, both fall and disappear into a cloud-covered gorge. Three days later, on August 5, Almeda and his team recovered the bodies. The morning after we reach Sangeli, Almeda takes us to the Kawale Saad point, where the boys keeled over. People come here in droves through the year for a view of the waterfalls in the valley below.
It is only when a gust of wind blows the clouds away that one can fathom the depth of the valley (over 700 feet), and sense how perilous any search and rescue mission might be. Below is a carpet of impenetrable forest, woven with streams and rivers. It is also rich in wildlife and, for the rescuers, bears pose a great danger. At times, Almeda carries a licensed shotgun to protect himself and his team.
To reach the pit of the valley, Almeda and one team member rappel down with the help of ropes and pulleys, while others manage the rudimentary equipment they use. Till date, the team has rescued two persons and fished out over 10 bodies from this point alone. There are around 40 such locations, where the team has carried out rescue operations. Rajashree Samant, the district disaster response officer for Sindhudurg, says, “Almeda and his team have proved to be extremely skilful and efficient. They do it as a social service and have never ever taken money for the work they do.”
“I started doing this when I was 17,” says Almeda, whose plantation across 80 acres ensures a well-off, if humble, lifestyle. “I was on my way back from school and on a river bank, I saw a crowd gather. A woman had drowned and her body was stuck on the opposite bank. The river was swollen, and the police were struggling to retreive it. I swam across and brought the body back. That day, I felt that I was not afraid of anything, especially death. Perhaps, it is the mountains, valleys and rivers which give us this strength or maybe it is the feeling of having done something,” he says, when we meet him at his 150-year-old home, coloured a vibrant pink and surrounded by betel and coconut trees. On the wall is a photograph of a young girl in a pink top and blue jeans. That’s Eliza, Almeda’s daughter, who died when she was 20. “She was braver than me,” he says with pride.
In May 2010, Eliza drowned after having rescued two girls from the river, and before she could save a third. “The river was not in spate but, at one point, a deep pond had formed. As the girls started drowning, Eliza jumped in and pulled two of them out by their hair. The third girl dragged Eliza into the water and they both drowned. I reached the spot 10 minutes later, a delay I regret the most in my life,” Almeda says.
Vaman Narvekar, 67, a friend and a member of his team, believes that Eliza’s death has driven Almeda to more such rescue missions. “He has changed after Eliza’s death, he talks less, at times becomes pensive. But his dedication to helping people has not changed, rather he wants to do it more, as if he is looking for closure,” he says.
For the residents of the area, Almeda is nothing short of a hero. “Whether it is people falling into valleys, drowning in rivers, or caught in a building collapse, Gabriel and some of us are always there to help. People call us as we know the terrain very well. Among us all, he has the gift of reading the situation quickly and take decisions at lightning speed. Once he is around, we know that even if one of us gets stuck, he will rescue us,” says Narvekar.
Almeda’s deep knowledge of the area comes from the treks he would take as a child with his grandfather. “My grandfather taught me to swim, climb the hills and mountains, and the skills of surviving in a forest. Above all, he taught me how to love and respect nature and understand to what extent a risk can be taken,” he says.
To save lives, however, the team has very basic equipment such as ropes and pulleys, when ideally they should also have proper body belts and clamps. “It is only recently that we have got a set of walkie-talkie sets and the licence to operate it. Local political leaders have now promised to get us modern equipment. In 2013, the administration organised practice sessions for us with the National Disaster Response Force,” says Kiran Narvekar, a team member.
Almeda believes both the government and tourists need to be more responsible to avoid accidents. “We have not understood that the forces of nature are stronger than humans. The new obsession of taking photos and selfies has taken many lives. Tourists should always understand that these areas are unknown to them so every step must be taken with caution. The government should put up warning signs, dangerous regions should be earmarked and entry restricted,” he says.
Whenever Almeda goes out, his wife Maria says she allays her anxiety by praying. Almeda’s brother, son and nephew are also part of his team . “Someday, I will have to retire and then I hope our next generation will continue doing this,” says he.