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Goa – For Real

Church in Old Goa
The Portuguese really left their mark on Goa. But then they occupied Goa for 500 years – shockingly up until 1961- before finally being driven out by the Indian army.
Riding into the city from the north we passed Mediterranean-looking tiled roofed villas in various states of disrepair surrounded by high walls with medieval looking crosses built into the walls and gates like identity badges.   While before there were Hindu shrines dotting roadsides and villages, now there were little mini-churches with ornate facades and crosses inside … many hung with the same garlands of marigolds and with the same small offerings we saw draping the Hindu shrines to the north.
The crosses are still of the archaic design you see in Spain and Portugal from the middle ages that used to adorn the shields of the crusaders and top gargoyle-covered Gothic cathedrals … to me they evoke a shameful legacy of inquisition, brutality and using religion as an excuse to conquer, exploit and subjugate.
On the first day of our two days in Goa, a few of us navigated the entertaining and dirt cheap local buses to checkout Old Goa, the now-abandoned inland city where the Portuguese set up shop in 1500’s to control the spice trade. They built a huge city that was more important than Lisbon or London at the time with a cathedral and many other lesser churches.  They were typically brutal to the local people with the same subjugate and convert tactics and (even an inquisition) used so devastatingly during the spread of colonialism.  And then they abandoned it all in the 1800s after malaria and cholera forced them to move back to the coast. 
It’s a world heritage site now with little life around it beyond tourists support services.  There were several churches and a cathedral that have been restored to various levels- and many had the original paintings on the inside, the usual VIPs buried in the floor and imposing gilded alters, evidence of miracles and angel sculptures supervising from above. Saint Francis Xavier is a mummified relic on display in the Basilica which was packed with Indian Christian worshippers trying to celebrate mass as hundreds of Indian and Western tourists were shuttled by the relics near the front of the church.
So after pink tourist hell and historical monuments, I was happy with my decision today to head into Panaji to check out the current capitol of the state of Goa. Off on the buses again- packed for rush hour.  Unbelievable how many people can fit in a bus. And it’s quite a system: There is a guy working the back collecting money and using a series of whistles and hollers to signal the driver when to stop, when to move on and when someone is about to be hit. He somehow squeezes along through a bus packed 3 deep across the standing room isles.  
Bus shrine
The busses themselves are decorated with flowers – strings of fresh cut marigolds and then fake flowers across the dash. There is a little shrine to the deity of choice above dash that has blinking lights and sparkles.  And sometimes we are grooving to music as we jounce along.

Panaji is delightful. It’s seated on two rivers, and was the fishing village where the Portuguese landed and gave thanks for safe passage before continuing on to Old Goa.  It has a lot of the brightly painted, tile roofed villas and buildings that are legacy of the Portuguese that are now historic hotels and government administrative buildings.  There is lively shopping and a good vibe. And I found a bike shop to replace my computer and broken water bottle cage – a relief.  A nice morning. I was glad I headed out- I feel like I found the real Goa.

Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate is a writer, former political consultant and two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate living in Seattle, WA