|By Kedar Uttam, Sweden [ Published Date: February 17, 2011 ]|
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A couple of days before Christmas, I was making my plans to arrange a short trip to Mangalore for a best friend’s wedding. It was rather difficult to make a plan since the time was too short to buy tickets for good prices. Apart from the reason of hating to miss my best friend’s wedding, there were few more reasons to visit Mangalore. Especially that it has been long since I enjoyed the Mangalorean December and the Mangalorean Christmas. However, all my efforts to search for the best ticket prices and suitable dates were in vain and I decided to drop the idea of visiting Mangalore. Unexpectedly, a teacher of mine called and asked if I wish to join her and two of her friends to Portugal and Spain. The teacher said that she is in search of more sunshine, which is the rarest thing you can experience in Sweden during winter. Sunshine! I said "yes". I needed it as well. I also felt lucky because Portugal was one country that I always wished to visit. This wish was granted when I had least anticipated it.
I asked myself as to what made me always wish for Portugal. Is it the consequence of the consistent brain wash made by our history school textbooks, which glorifies a lot about Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer? Was it an expectation that being in Portugal would make me feel Mangalor(ish)? There are a few churches in Mangalore, which were built by the Portuguese. Will visiting similar churches in Portugal make me feel that I am in Mangalore? Is it the variety of seafood in Portugal that would remind me of Mangalore or is it the Portuguese surnames such as Pinto, Alvares, Fernandes? Is it the South West coast of Portugal that would remind me of the South West coast of India? So many questions popped up. I was eagerly looking forward to the trip hoping that there would be some answers for these questions.
In the country of Vasco da Gama
We landed in Faro, a city in Southern Portugal. Faro is located within a beautiful region called Algarve. On our landing in Faro, we rented a car and a global positioning system (GPS) device, and drove to a hostel that we had booked. The hostel was damp and cold and we had nobody to receive us at the reception for at least half an hour. After a while, there appeared a middle-aged, French bearded man, who was the first one to greet us in the hostel. We felt relaxed when we saw him entering the receptionist cabin. When I saw this man, I imagined that he must be from Goa. Then I told myself "come on, you may not find Indians in a city like Faro". He collected our passports and went to this office to photocopy them. With our passports in his hand, he asked in hindi "aap me se koi hindi baath karte ho and he translated what he said in English (does anyone among you speak hindi)?" My teacher pointed at me. He told me that he hailed from Rajkot and had settled in Faro since long. During his conversation, he addressed me as Beta (son). That is when I forgot all the dampness of the hostel and felt at home.
Since I spoke Hindi, my fellow-travellers asked me to enquire for restaurants with the Rajkot gentleman. As per the directions given by him, we started looking out for good restaurants. Unfortunately, only two restaurants were open since it was the Christmas day. One was an Indian and another Chinese. All agreed for the Indian restaurant. But Samer, my fellow-traveller double-checked with me if I really wished to go to an Indian restaurant. I responded with a helpless face "only today". I was tired of my own cooking and of the Indian restaurants in Sweden and so was eager to have traditional Portuguese food. Nevertheless, the Biryani at the Indian restaurant was as good as the fried rice sold by mobile canteens in Bangalore. We set out on an evening stroll around Faro city. We walked along the Marina, enjoying the breeze from the Atlantic Ocean, which we had initially confused to be Mediterranean Sea. Our knowledge on geography was not as strong as the ancient Portuguese navigators. We got it clarified through another tourist there, and we hoped that his geography knowledge was better than ours. I was fascinated by a railway track that rimmed the Marina, because I was able to imagine travelling on a train by the edge of the ocean. However, to my teacher, the railway track was something that spoilt the aesthetics. The view of a moving train and its lights, with the sea and the sunset in the backdrop was lovely though. By late evening, we ended up in a café in the old town, which is enclosed by walls from the medieval period. There were a group of people in the café, who smoked, prayed and energized each other at the same time. They seemed to be some religious group having discussions on spirituality. On enquiring, we understood that they were serving some disadvantaged and needy people that day, and were sharing their experiences from the service. In a couple of hours, the café was filled with smoke from the cigarettes that were spent during the intensive discussions. We decided to leave since we had to start early the next morning.
The next morning, we headed off in the direction to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. On our way, we crossed several beautiful towns and villages such as Lagoa, Lagos. There were avenues of orange trees in almost every town. Some of these towns seemed so much like Goa. Perhaps, a bit cleaner than Goa. I saw some churches on my way and shouted "oh, that looks so much like Milagres church in Mangalore". The word "Igreja" was engraved on the walls of these churches. I wondered if this is how we have a word in tulu called "ingrej", which means church. Along the highway, we could see vendors selling oranges and clementine. This reminded me of the Jackfruit vendors on the way to Dharmastala from Mangalore. The lady vendor from whom we bought the oranges taught us the Portuguese word for ‘thank you’ and it was "obrigado". The oranges and the clementine I had there were the best ones that I had ever had. Obrigado was simply inadequate to thank Portugal for such oranges. In the backseat of the car, my teacher was enjoying every bit of sunlight that was passing through the window. We arrived at a place called Sagres Point, which is the Southwestern tip of Portugal, and supposed to be quite a significant place from the viewpoint of so called discoveries made by the Portuguese kings and navigators. This is also the place where Prince Henry, the navigator had established an observatory and the first school for navigators in Europe around 1418.
The place has a fortress overseeing the rough and vibrant Atlantic Ocean. There was also an old chapel. What inspired me the most was their effort to maintain the chapel in its original form. Unlike the efforts back home, where a historically significant old church located in the campus of my school, was demolished to build a new one. Something exciting in Sagres point was a maze like structure. Do you remember one of those circular toys where you had to try to put a tiny metallic ball into the center of the maze? This was something like that. The structure was atop, close to the sea cliff and was rather lousy in appearance. As you are closer to the structure, you hear the roaring sound of the sea. Once you enter the structure, you move as if you are the metallic ball of the maze, yourself trying to find the center. The noise of the sea starts getting louder and louder. The moment you are at the center, you notice a red-painted well-like circular enclosure, with a metallic grate on which you could stand to experience the mysterious roaring sound that attracted you to the center. Every 50 seconds, there is a great noise and vibration generated inside the well. You could get scared to death with this sound and vibration and might feel that the well would suck you into the deep hole. Nevertheless, there is a feeling of freshness with a relaxing light spray of water on you. I searched for a scientific explanation on this formation in a book on Coastal geomorphology by Eric Charles Frederick Bird. They are called "Blowholes". Fredrick Bird explains it as "where the hydraulic action of incoming waves and the compression of trapped air within a cave puncture the roof, a blowhole develops, and water and spray may be driven up through it as fountains of spray".
At Sagres, we set our next destination on our GPS device as Lisbon. We named our GPS as Sameera. For two reasons; the first one being that it had a female voice, second is because the person who drove the car and received instructions from Sameera was my colleague and co-tourist Samer. On our arrival at Lisbon, we visited a downtown restaurant, which served the best seafood. The seafood they served was quite simple and pleasing to the stomach. We had the liberty to choose the fish that we desired to relish. Although I enjoyed the Portuguese cuisine, I kept wondering in my mind as to why they were so fascinated about the spices in India if they were reluctant to use them. There was some answer to this in Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s book called "Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants". As Schivelbusch explains in his book, during the seventeenth century, spices lost their power in world trade. The market had reached its limit. Seasoned dishes no longer attracted the European appetite. With the French playing a key role, European cuisine changed to become very much like the one today, more optimum or reduced use of spices.
The next morning, we visited Padrão dos Descobrimentos. This is a monument in Lisbon that is dedicated to those Portuguese explorers, who had taken all the pain to search for new destinations and opportunities. It was interesting to understand from the monument that the exploration team then had comprised of all professions and positions, including explorers, artists, scientists, cartographers and also missionaries.
Destination Spain: The joyful Malaga
Quite tired of the traffic in Lisbon, we were eager to move out of there and resume our journey to a city in Spain called Malaga. Malaga is located within the Andalusia region of Spain. Sameera had to direct us for a distance of nearly 650Km. We reached Malaga by night and set out to explore the city center. The Christmas lights and decorations, and the Christmas market were welcoming and it was a celebration everywhere. The city was so lively. I told myself "now this is what I call Merry Christmas". Children playing and running around in the streets, restaurants emanating the aroma of delicious food, street entertainers who could easily inspire a primary school teacher back home interested in preparing children for a fancy dress competition, everything added value to the festive atmosphere in its own beautiful way.
The spiced up life in the party atmosphere of Malaga was disturbed by the rains next morning. We, however, managed to visit the historical Alacazaba. Alcazaba is a (Moor)ish fortification located in Malaga, constructed during the 11th century. The word Moors is a name for the Berber tribes, who originated from Algeria and Morocco. The word refers to all the Berbers or Arab, who conquered the Southwest of Europe such as some regions in Portugal and Spain. It felt as if the architecture in Alcazaba challenged the modernization of Malaga. Alacazaba still appeared so well-designed and pleasing to the eyes than the modern-day concrete structures. My teacher was of the opinion that the Arab occupation has never in the history damaged the cultural fabric of the country that was conquered. It was more peaceful occupancy, with soothing architecture, rose gardens, fountains and orange trees. The serene atmosphere in the Alcazaba made me feel that what my teacher said is true. However, what occurred to my mind at that time, although not so relevant to what my teacher had mentioned, were the lessons that our history textbooks in schools had ingrained in our minds; especially the way how we are asked to memorize the number of times some Ghazni king had his conquest expeditions to India.
On our way back from Alcazaba, we visited the museum of arts and popular customs. This museum gave us an opportunity to go back to the old times of Malaga and understand the day to day activities in those days, such as vine-making, the traditional kitchen, cheese-preparation and so on. The building in which this museum was located dates back to the 17th century. The architecture of this building was a mixture of Moorish design and Italianate style. Malaga is also the birthplace of the great painter Pablo Picasso. Due to our time constraints, we were, unfortunately, not able to visit the Picasso museum.
The winter in Portugal and Spain seemed like the spring in Sweden. On our way back to Sweden, we were happy that we had recharged ourselves with enough sunlight to continue until the spring. When I returned, a friend of mine gifted me with Paulo Coelho’s book called "The Alchemist". The central character of the novel is a shepherd from Andalusia. Paulo Coelho, during one of his interviews (made by Laura Sheahen, for Beliefnet), had expressed about his unwillingness to sell the novel rights for making movies; the reason being that he wants the film to be formed in the minds of the readers. However, in his interview, he mentions that it was important to have the Alchemist as a movie since it was his first international bestseller. My trip to the Andalusia region has added value to the Alchemist reading experience. Perhaps, I would not be so eager to watch the movie.
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