The first time I visited Goa I was barely 21. And no, unlike the cool guys from Dil Chahta Hai, I didn’t show up with my friends for an indulgent weekend. I was there with my parents, brother, sister-in-law, aunt, uncle, cousins, and my sister-in-law’s family. The occasion: My sister-in-law’s (brother’s wife) sister’s wedding. The boy was Goan Catholic.
I had traveled to Africa, Europe, and North America before this much-awaited trip of my life happened. But Goa was a place where my words lost their eloquence. It wasn’t just because the food was extraordinary. I had never seen anything like it before. My underage cousins would sneak into stores to buy feni (a fermented Goan liquor made from either coconut or the juice of the cashew apple) and none of the storeowners batted an eyelid. The hotel where we were staying had a discotheque on its first floor. It was the perfect venue for a vacation or, in this case, the 24/7 wedding celebrations.
I decided that one day I would want to see the land that gave Goa its unique, “vacationesque” ethos.Life happened, and I forgot about my Goan experience until April of 2010 when I was accepted inot a writer’s residency program in Portugal. This was my opportunity to live in Portugal and experience the culture, not just see it through the eyes of a tourist, the way I had three years ago when my husband and I first visited this country.
Several people warned me that Portugal was an unsafe place for a woman to travel alone, like India. A few friends I knew had had untoward experiences. When I reached Lisbon airport, my apprehensions weighed more than the five pairs of shoes I had packed for the trip.
To reach the residency, I had to take a bus or a cab from Lisbon airport to the main bus terminal, Sete Rios.
From Sete Rios, a 90-minute bus ride would get me to Evora where the bus stopped for a little bit, and I could stretch my limbs. From there, a 30- to 45-minute bus journey to Evoramonte where the residency director would pick me up and drive for 20 more minutes to the residency in Herdade da Marmeleira.
Sleep-deprived, I reached my destination. Since it was Easter Sunday, all the grocery stores were closed. I chuckled to myself, “Didn’t get mugged but died hungry.” A few minutes later, the residency director, like a clairvoyant, showed up with an elaborate tray of food. Enough to get me by for at least 36 hours if not more. I thought to myself, “How Indian of him.” And in true Indian style, the cost of the spread showed up on my bill two days later. I wondered: Do Portuguese, like Indians, feel uncomfortable being upfront about money?
As days went by I, along with my fellow residents, visited nearby towns and interacted with the locals. The pace of life was so reminiscent of Goa. It seemed as if every single footstep took its own time to breathe.
Vasco Da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer, is said to have massacred voyagers and merchants on the silk route between Asia and Africa. His forebearers, however, were gracious and helpful. The grocery stores opened the first Monday after Easter, and the residency director took me food shopping. I sensed the courteousness in the air and in every aisle. I didn’t want to be a rude tourist, so I said, “Gracias” after asking a question. The person at the counter just looked bemused. And he had good reason. I had thanked him in Spanish. A “thank you” in English would have been fine, my residency director pointed out. He added, “The locals are happy if you can say obrigada.” Obrigada is “thank you” in Portuguese. He was right. The way Indians appreciate a namaste or dhanyavaad (thank you) from foreigners, the Portuguese truly appreciate when you try to embrace their culture. They don’t seek a perfect diction or accent, just sincerity in the effort.
I found that out on my second visit to the supermarket.
I tried asking the two women working in the meat department if the meat slices in the deli section were chicken or beef, since I don’t eat beef. They looked at me, smiled, and conveyed that neither of them could understand what I was saying. Survival instincts kicked in. There I was, standing in the middle of the store, doing a meat dance: “Want cluck-cluck or oink-oink. No moo. Obrigada.” The ladies cackled uncontrollably and picked out the right kind of meat for me.
While shopping, my eyes fell on a certain kind of sausage that Goans use to make a curry. I had eaten them at my cousin’s place, the one who got married in Goa. My good friend, Carla, a local Portuguese woman and fellow resident, told me that cooking Indian food at home is popular amongst the Portuguese. In fact, one evening, she cooked an entrée with eggs that tasted exactly like a tomato-based egg curry my mother makes. Carla swears by Patak’s readymade curry pastes.
One Saturday morning, a group of us drove into the picturesque town of Evora to experience the farmer’s market. I had to pinch myself to believe that I wasn’t in India. Fruits and vegetables lay basking in the sun. The chorizo booths reminded me of the Aarey milk booths in Mumbai.
After shopping, Carla and I went to a bakery. I took out my wallet to pay for my purchase. In the United States, the tradition is that of splitting the bill, be it meals or drinks. But in Portugal, like India, people want you to feel welcomed. Carla refused to let me pay in her country. She treated me to custard tarts and chicken patties that tasted remarkably similar to treats from my childhood.
But I found most comfort in knowing that the Portuguese drink their coffee just the way Indians do—milky and sweet. In the western part of India there is a beverage concept called “cutting.” A savory concoction of milk, sugar, ginger, masala, and tea leaves is boiled together in an aluminum vessel and served steaming hot. The flavor of this chai is so strong that it is served by the half-glass, hence the word “cutting,” which means “half” in Mumbai lingo. These tea stalls are unimaginably inexpensive, and you show up several times a day. In Portugal too, coffee is served in “cutting”-style small glasses with the same philosophy.
The Portuguese call their bread “pao.” The word for bread in western India is “pao roti.” Paon means foot in Marathi and Konkani (languages spoken in western India). So, does “pao roti” mean “bread kneaded with foot?” Did Vasco Da Gama teach us the word or did he borrow it from the merchants on the silk route and take it with him to Portugal? It’s a mystery, and I’m still curious about the etymology of the word.
Towards the end of my residency, along with a fellow Austrian poet, I was invited to present my work. The local community was invited to the readings, which were to be followed by a potluck dinner—an array of international cuisines. I asked my residency director how many people he was expecting? He said that the Portuguese aren’t really punctual about time or stickler for their commitments.
And he wasn’t joking. Some attendees showed up after the readings but stayed back for dinner. All they needed was a little persuasion and a place was set for them at the dinner table. I was transported back to the time when I was a kid, and my mother always cooked for a couple of extra people. Somehow, an unexpected person (or two) always showed up at mealtimes.
By the end of my trip, I conceded that Portugal, like Goa, was a unique cultural experience—in terms of people, place, and philosophy. You can see the Portuguese influence in other parts of India as well. But Goa is its “Mini-me.” After all these years, I wonder if the energy in Goa is different because it still has remnants of the Portuguese rule, not English.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram(www.swetavikram.com) is a writer and marketing professional living in New York City. She is the author of two upcoming chapbooks of poetry: Kaleidoscope: An Asian Journey of Colors and Because All is Not Lost: Verses on Grief.