Never say never: Goa

Astonished would not have described my look of having been dumbstruck on the back of the motorbike when I ordered Vibhu to stop, abruptly, as if an emergency. We had just reached the top of the hill with its flowered gates, some crumbly portals and a view of the bay when he slammed the brakes and we lunged forward. Startled, then annoyed, and then worried by my speechlessness, Vibhu almost slapped me to produce words, “What is it? Are you ok? Speak!”

“This is my street!” I answered, incredulously.

“What are you talking about?”

I had travelled to the other side of the world and then some, only to find myself on my street again, as if I had arrived right back in my historic, hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa in Rio de Janeiro. But I was not in Brazil. I was on vacation and in the capital of the little and touristy state of Goa on India’s Malabar coast, the seat of the former Portuguese colony that Pedro Álvares Cabral, the great mariner, was trying to reach faster by a suspected shortcut when he hit the great land mass that would later come to be known as Brazil.

“The Portuguese were astronauts, bhai! They were astronauts!” I mumbled in disbelief, just loud enough for Vibhu to hear, although it didn’t help him any to understand my surprise without any context. Imagine what is was like around 1500 to board a ship and embark on a journey to the other side of the universe? They left Lisbon and Oporto to reach Africa, South America, India, Indonesia, and even made it to Japan. Somehow, they did it, and I stood on a hilltop surrounded by a Portuguese city to prove it.

My incredulity turned to elation as I looked around and realized I didn’t need the map. I already had a natural compass for the city, immediately identifying the logic of a Portuguese city, its layout among hills and port. Navegar é preciso, I told Vibhu, as I explained the glorious verse of the ancient mariners, often translated as to sail [navigate] is necessary, and then I finished, ‘to live is not’. But I often reflected on the famous poem of Fernando Pessoa, wondering if the verse could  be interpreted as sailing is precise, whereas life is not.

Because if it were, I would never have gone to Goa.


It was the last place on my list of Indian destinations. Not only had I never been interested in the India of Colonization, Goa was a presumed tourist trap of beach-techno-rave parties filled with frolicking Europeans the color of steamed prawns. I imagined it had nothing to offer a man who had originally gone to India in search of its native sanatana dharma, the Eternal Tradition,  a man who became well-adapted to and adopted by a culture and a family — especially by an Indian family, which is a great blessing that can often be more intricately complicated and complex than found in many parts of the world. And it was navigating around the particularly treacherous straights of Indian family obligations that I felt I had no choice but to deliver a limit, insolently steering away from the rocks of the family desires that would beach me, forcing me to do what was wanted of me, not what I wanted to do. I grabbed Vibhu to take him from his Old Delhi streets so that he would see the sea for the first time. Off we went, fleeing without delay to Goa, the only place that came to mind in an urgent escape that could be arranged immediately and seamlessly.

Yes, family was disappointed, but what would family be if you didn’t disappoint them from time to time? We are born into this world, into a family, maybe in order to learn to navigate around them, and those unwilling to let go of the helm. If, that is, there is really a someone steering the boat.

It was not just the coincidence of having discovered the work of astronauts who managed to place my street on two opposite sides of the world that was astounding, it was being slapped in the face with the lesson of never saying never, because it is the trade winds and not the helm that takes you to the places you least expected. In my case, that place was the pleasant surprise that was Goa.

As an Indian, it only seemed logical that Vibhu did most of the talking, but the Delhi boy and Hindi-speaker was just as foreign as I was in Konkani-speaking Goa, and he was only succeeding at getting us more lost as we wandered on the motorbike, asking directions and getting nowhere. It is just like Brazil, I thought, where natives prefer to answer— even with the wrong information — than to admit they hadn’t understood you or didn’t know the right way. But as we only got more confused tearing through cocunut groves, I began to suspect our miscommunication had a different cause. “Bhai, let me try,” I requested, as we pulled up to a sleepy coconut vendor on one of the unmarked roads, “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Panjim?”

“Go that way!” The vendor was the first to have clearly understood the question asked, giving friendly and emphatic directions in broken English-Hindi-Konkani.

It was Vibhu’s turn with the panoramic face of incredulity: “What the hell was that?”

“What was what?” I responded, straddling the bike.

“Bhai, no. I think he didn’t understand you.”

“It is you they are not understanding here!”

A string of invectives from the streets of Old Delhi came from his mouth to insult me. I ignored them with my biggest and most sarcastic smile before responding, “The problem with animals like you is that you do not speak the most important and international language in the world: PORTUGUESE!”

Dismounting in the capital, we sat down in a typical South Indian restaurant in the old city center, where I began to explain that he had been pronouncing the place names incorrectly. I had figured out that although the language is no longer spoken in Goa, the place names and all the signs everywhere were still pronounced in Portuguese, quite the same.

“Bhai, the m at the end is like anusvara in Hindi and Sanskrit; it makes it nasal. It is {Pan-JEEN}. You are saying things like in English; it makes it sound like you are looking for a couple, named Pam & Jim.”

My explanation was confusing, so I politely requested a pen from the waiter to write on a paper napkin in devanagri script. The beauty of Sanskrit is that once the alphabet is learned, there is virtually no sound produced from the human mouth that cannot be transcribed.

“Oh! I get it!” Elucidated, Vibhu read and pronounced Panjim, Morjim, and many other places we visited in perfect Portuguese, but he couldn’t resist his turn to correct me, “No, bhai, not like that. You wrote wrongly; the letters are like this …”

Teri…” I returned to him the filthy language of insult in perfect Old Delhi Hindi.

The highlight of the visit to Panjim was when I intuitively asked him to stop at a beautiful  garden square, near the river, from where a few small spokes of quaint streets radiated with their old Portuguese houses. There was a monument in the middle, complete with plaques.

“Who is he, bhai?” asked Vibhu of the statue.

“I don’t….” I started responding, but then it was as if my thought was abruptly interrupted when faced with the Portuguese engraving. I choked in surprise.

“What is it, bhai? What does it say?” asked Vibhu, seeing a great joy well within me.

“It is very beautiful, bhai!” I turned to face Vibhu, “This man loved Bharat [India] very much—looks like even more than I do!”

Pulling at me like a child begging for sweets, Vibhu insisted I translate the words, “Tell me what it says!”

I swallowed a tear of joy before speaking and before Vibhu could see it— because boys don’t cry (especially when on vacation)— because they were words written over a hundred years ago by a man I never knew, but they could have been my own:

“I belong to these people who composed the Mahabharata and invented chess, two concepts that enclose anything eternal and infinite.”

“If it were up to me to bring together all races,  all castes, all privileges in one, singular and compact family, I would sacrifice everything to do so. That day would become the greatest celebration in my heart.”

Then I could not help but to add, “Me too.”

A moment of contemplation was seized. I thought of the histories of colonization, not only in India, but around the globe in all their complexity, their tragedies and injustice. About conversion and destruction. And yet about the exchange that, somehow, ironically, brought people together, bridging across more than geography to cross the divide of languages, uniting them from a past that cannot be changed, cannot be chosen, much like family cannot be chosen: it has to be accepted for all its good and bad moments.

The silence of reflection was rudely interrupted when Vibhu slapped me on the back: “And you didn’t want to come to Goa!”

Sternly looking at him, I barked, “Navegar é preciso; vivir não é preciso.”


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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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