Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Letters from Portugal: First impressions of the Metropole

The colonial adventurers who travelled to the ‘Orient’ often had strange and bizarre stories to tell of the ‘exotic East’. Today, when we do not find these realities we assume that their demise resulting from modernity and development. However, these ‘realities’ were oftentimes figments of these westerners’ imaginations. Strangers to foreign lands, they tried to make sense of the differences they experienced as best as they could. Comparisons were made to what they already knew from home. Worse still, at times they were ill, sometimes violently so, and wrote in a delirium, or recollected their experiences from the time of the delirium. None of this, you will agree, makes for a coherent or dependable travelogue.

Things are not easier for the modern traveler. When we travel, we suffer the discomfort induced by culture shock and jet-lag. The speed of contemporary travel, when we can dine at home, and lunch half way round the world heightens our nostalgia for home. Finally, we are hostage to the frameworks that have already been put in place for us by those who have come to our land, or gone before us to foreign lands. The Goan who travels to Portugal is hostage to all of these challenges. There is definitely the nostalgia for home, but there is also this colonial baggage that we carry.

We recollect that statement originally intended for the now vanished City of Goa, ‘He who has seen Goa, need not see Lisbon.’ And then, we actually take it seriously! We come to Portugal, with these ideas buzzing in our heads and promptly seek to place the images we encounter, into little Goan boxes.

My own first trip to Portugal took me to the University town of Coimbra. The journey from Lisbon to Coimbra took me past the margins of the river Tejo. Fortunately I am not the only one to have imagined these margins to look like the beloved Khazans of Goa. Unfortunately though, the other person who made the comparison was another jet-lagged, home-sick Goan. Over the days spent in Coimbra, huffing and panting up the roads that led to the University perched on a hill over the old town, comparisons were made to the old Lyceum in Panjim´s Altinho. The aesthetic of many of the University buildings was so similar, and our Lyceum similarly perched on a hill. Added to this was the period of my visit. Travelling in June, the season was nominally summer in Portugal. But the weather that year was strange. We had almost daily torrential downpours that pulled wet curtains over the sun. Given the warmth that otherwise prevailed, the hill slopes around the university, like some tropical jungle, sprung verdantly to life. This fortunately, was no nostalgia-induced hallucination. Much of that foliage was in fact tropical. A good amount of tropical vegetation both from America and Asia that first moved in the course of the colonial ‘adventures’ now find themselves very much at home in Portugal.

It is perhaps when the traveler puts down roots; or stops to remain in the land for a while longer; when her interactions with the local turn from casual to quotidian. It is then perhaps that the old boxes suddenly seem insufficient. That is when a fresh struggle begins, to find new words to express a reality that does not quite fit the mould.

(A version of this blog was first published in the Herald dated 20 Feb 2011)

No comments: