In preparation for our trip to Goa, I had done some preliminary research, and while delving into its history, I was struck with a strange romantic notion that the past might hold some clues as to our future, and that we were soon to be embarking to a place that held innumerable secrets. I’m sure the secrets are there, but I the present has buried them in layers of rich, deep living that makes every moment a part of a history as important as any other.
I had indulged myself in a fantasy vision of what might lay ahead, perhaps letting some of the books I had read, or movies I had watched inform my flight of fancy. In my mind’s eye, it went something like this:
Upon a hill swept by a sweet ocean breeze lie wide cobblestone streets, sloping towards the ocean, lined with buildings adorned with whitewashed walls and balustrades, rolling into casual stalls of vendors hawking their wares above an expansive vista of the deep blue ocean. Gulls flew overhead, and the sun beat down, though with a measure of grace and mercy. The most prominent buildings were the churches, whitewashed and impressive in their gothic glory. The secret labyrinthine layers that once gave way to the formidable power of the inquisition now lay dormant, a footnote to a brutal past that most would soon forget.
On the crest of the hill, with the ocean to the west and the vast river to the south, lay a fort, a testament to the prowess of a once mighty empire, laid low by the will of the people and the march of history. An ancient lighthouse, the first in all of Asia, now sat dormant, looking like a cigarette butt plunged into a walled ashtray.
As I allowed my vision to grow, I sensed an almost Mediterranean luster to the scene, an image of time stood still. It was easy to imagine what intrigue may have transpired, what tragedy and triumph might have taken place and shaped the people of this land. Indeed, I felt as though a historical novel was forming in my mind, that this place would unlock a story to rival the classics of old Europe.
Whether that may yet come, I cannot say, but the truth is, the pace of India has made Goa a part of the India that is, blindly stumbling into the future, with reverence for the past but a willingness to embrace any salvation that may come from our ever-advancing civilization. If there is history there, it is easily lost to the mayhem of the full speed ahead, stop for nothing chaos that weaves the fabric of Indian culture.
Fort Aguada (meaning water) stood at a strategic point, overlooking the Mandovi River where it meets the sea, with a freshwater spring bubbling up from the ground, long since contained within several cisterns on the fort grounds, surrounded by brick walls, and guarded by a lookout and lighthouse. Being the first lighthouse in all of Asia, it was a key strategic point for the Portuguese forces, allowing them to guard the region from the Dutch and Marathas (local) forces.
For us, it provided an excellent opportunity to engage with living history, and let’s face it, kids love old forts. I have fond memories of visiting Fort York in Toronto, and Fort George in Halifax as a child. The sense that, at one time, these were places that decided the course of history created an air of mystique and wonder. In the forts of my youth, there were fully costumed actors, re-enacting the duties of the day, and often firing the old canons, which left an impression on my young mind, if not my eardrums. There was no such spectacle at Fort Aguada, but the entire fort was open for free exploration, ancient catacombs, dungeons and all. This was a place where I could allow my vision to come alive, untouched by the unstoppable onslaught of life in one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
The places of my vision exist, but they are walled by gritty shops and banners advertising the latest cell phone, or by resorts and hotels making the most of what space they may claim. All too often, an old shrine or chapel is just a part of an overwhelming scenery that makes any history seem irrelevant. The only living part of history are in the people themselves, who carry on the traditions of their ancestors, which in Goa may be Hindu or Catholic, often marked only by a tattoo of a cross or an Om at the base of the thumb. Even to them, history is only a footnote to the present. The present is everything history ever was, carrying us into the future. We are all only as real as what we will be remembered by.