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Sailors Visit Tropical Ports

U.S. Navy recruitment slogan, freely distributed in New England on windshield-ice–scrapers, ca 1970


Goa is haunted by Europeans and lives untroubled by the fact. The ghosts of Portuguese sailors roam the shore, a pale yellow pathway bounded by palms on the east and the Arabian sea on the west, undulating to Africa. Content in their exile, they rub shoulders with the fishermen and flirt with the families, relaxed in the rhythms of life by the ocean. Forgotten by history, ignored by the chroniclers of kings, lost in mists of their own device, they smile and dance and live on in joy.

Century after century, kids from the Atlantic left behind what they couldn't have and signed up for adventure. Modern admirals freely use the myth of tropical harbors with their hot-blooded women to attract young men; did Vasco da Gama? Did the Vikings? the Phoenicians? Panjim could be the port they were talking about. And once you get there, take a few days off, head north a few miles, and then try to tell yourself that rounding the Cape wasn't worth it.

The wandering freaks were connected to those kids of long ago. Not to the civil servants, not the Jesuits, not to the millionaire traders or the ocean-going merchants. The colonialists had their place in the crumbling city of Old Goa, where once they spent a century building a richer metropolis than Lisbon and held it for another three and a half before the Indians casually took it away. Their spirits were howling at the jungle as they watched fifteen generations of work vanish slowly into the mildew and the forgotten backwaters of commercial history.

The miraculously preserved body of St Francis Xavier was the premier relic of the old order, and trotted out once a decade for display. In the 1970s, he still drew a good crowd. The wait was a couple of hours before the faithful got their moment filing past the corpse. Once, according to legend, he aroused such devotion that a nun bent over to kiss his feet and took a solid mouthful of toe instead. Certainly a big toe was missing, along with various other bits of limb supposedly sent back to Rome. To a skeptic, the corpus just looked like a crummy embalming job. Western infidels called him St Francis Xavier Cougar and the eastern youth learned to deride what their parents were taught to revere. The cathedral remained, huge, a stone Gothic monster out of medieval Europe, towering monumentally over a lost and dying culture, a heart transplant that the land finally rejected.

Official Portugal may have written the histories and had themselves mummified into textbooks, mourning the failures of the past, but the happy ghosts were still in the breeze by the palms.