Our travels took us next to Goa, which I learned is not a city in itself but a (small) state. The twelve hour train ride south was quite an experience. Luckily we rode sleeper class, which meant that the trip cost a big seven dollars instead of three, and we each had a bench long enough to lie down on. Vendors walked by selling everything from chai and coffee to samosas, lassi and sweet, juicy mangoes. Another key piece of equipment was a battery-powered spray-fan that I had brought from the US. We couldn’t decide which was more dehydrating: to be sweating buckets in the still, hot air on one side of the bench, or to be near the window with the wind sucking all the moisture out of you.
In any event, we switched frequently until we came to our stop: near Anjuna beach, one of the most famous “rave” beaches of the 1970s and 80s. The scene has since toned down, and Eddie actually came through in February when he was traveling with his sister. This time it was the low tourist season, and for good reason: practically 100% humidity and temperatures in the 90s made movement uncomfortable, and the storms signaling the imminent monsoon made the water occasionally too rough for swimming. But we still had fun hanging out for a couple of days, drinking excellent chai, jumping in the waves (although I got roughed up a couple of times) and watching the squalls pass across the ocean.
After a long two days of relaxation, it was back to work! I spent a week working at and learning from an NGO, The Energy and Resources Institute, and Eddie worked with Sangath, an NGO doing mental health counseling. We will devote another blog post to our experiences at these respective organizations, but at the moment I want to describe the city where we stayed for a week, if only to gloat over the beautiful photos I took there.
As both of our organizations were located within a half hour bus ride from Goa’s capital Panji, so we based our operations there. Some of you may know that Goa was under Portuguese administration (/rule, depending on how you look at it) for almost 450 years from 1510 until 1947, and they certainly left their mark. I could easily have believed that we were in southern Europe, among the beautiful gold, maroon and brilliant blue painted houses with wide white trim around the arches around their windows. Alleyways full of potted plants, motorbikes, cats and piercingly bright sunlight cascade down from a leafy hill in the middle of the city. We walked past a courtyard where a parrot was sitting in an old bell-shaped wicker cage, listening to a man wearing only an undershirt tune a dusty violin. It was too picturesque to believe! And I can’t forget the women with short hair (incredibly unusual in the rest of India) wearing those shapeless knee-length dresses with (ugly) flower prints that are so ubiquitous in parts of Italy and Portugal. One evening we came across a group of twenty people standing in a street singing a hymn before an image of the Virgin Mary and a trough filled with fire. Someone set off sparklers nearby. What a vision, in India!
Our excursion to Old Goa was a highlight of our time in Panji. A 30-minute bus ride from Panji, this was the capital of the Portuguese colony from its beginning in 1510 until 1759 when its malaria-ridden swamp site caused the Portuguese to move their capital. And they really did move it, brick by brick, leaving only whitewashed churches poking out of palm trees and overgrown jungle. I’ll let Eddie take over now: It was unlike anywhere else in India and reminded me more of Latin America than India: crumbling cathedrals with smoky murals and dirty gold leafing rising in awe-inspiring magnitude over the viewer. It was, as elsewhere, used to impress and convert the locals when a torturous inquisition couldn’t do the trick. The cathedrals seemed out of place in this country of mostly Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, and it drove home two points for the two of us. One, that such a sight would’ve also seemed strange and out of place several hundred years ago in Latin America when Christianity first started eliminating other forms of worship, a thought that drives home how there used to be something else widespread in those areas. Secondly, that the Christian form of worship – the devout seated in pews for an hour a week – is so different from bowing on a mat in a large open space (Islam) or popping into the ubiquitous temples for a quick puja (prayer) and darshan (eye contact with the gods) before continuing your daily routine. There is nothing like learning from contrasts. In addition, we noticed that the incomplete state of the city gave us an acute sense of what this colonial capital would have been like. We could imagine huge sailing ships pulling up to the dock full with spices, unloaded under the palm trees by gangs of workers.
In all, Goa was like few other places in India. The British ruled 300 million with 30,000 administrators and really didn’t impact the culture the way 450 years of occupation over a small territory did. The Muslims from Persia had a similar impact in the north, but seeing the familiar European influence really showed us the power of trade, cultural exchange, and history in creating our present world.