We awoke late that morning to explore the old town of Panaji, another relic of the Portuguese presence on the sub-continent. The shaded alleyways beneath the heavy walls and thick roofs buzzed with bikes while restaurants spilled over into verandahs above us. Moving through the town, we sampled a number of the small cafes that sat in small gardens and behind white walls, reminding us very much of Fort Cochin’s own secluded eateries.
The same Catholic influences are also vividly on display in nearby Old Goa, where we spent the afternoon. In fact Old Goa is one of the oldest colonial settlements in India, serving as the centre of the Portuguese presence there from their arrival at the turn of the 17th century to the abandonment of the wider area due to an outbreak of the plague. Easy come, easy go, I suppose.
The very Ibearian influence can be seen here with the two large cathedrals that square up to one another from across the manicured green lawns. Inside, the cool shade reminded visitors very much of exactly the same sanctuary from the heat that worshippers are provided in the southern European climes that these settlers came from. Who knows, perhaps the decision to make the church a cooler environment to be in than anywhere else was a pragmatic move on the part of the builders? It certainly felt like the coolest place to be for us and we spent an unnaturally long time admiring the heavy, earthen tones of the gold leaf and masonry. This was officially the oldest church in India, having been built in 1605.
That evening, we continued up the coast from Panaji and on to Fort Aguada. Clinging to the deep red rocks of the jagged coastline, the Fort was constructed not long after the church in order to protect the Portuguese settlement here from naval bombardment. During the 17th and 18th century, a number of other European colonising nations also arrived in South Asia by sea, with the intention of similarly occupying the land and manipulating the local rulers through military and economic means, just like the Portuguese were doing. Of course, the Portuguese spent considerable efforts guarding against attack from the sea, when they perhaps should have been defending themselves against the locals, who were, naturally, unhappy with their plans.
Walking beyond the thick red ramparts that held against the sea, the beach opened out and the land fell away. The view out to sea was dominated here by only one thing: Sat in the surf a hundred yards out to sea was an enormous supertanker that sat at an angle against the coastline whilst the waves crashed against its hull. It stood fifty meters high at the stern end and several hundred meters long in its broadside stretch along the beach. Brown and rusting, the boat looked in sorry and dilapidated state and it had clearly been there awhile. Indeed, the clothes line that stretched across the various walkways and cables suggested that it had provided a home for someone, however basic. As we stood and stared at the sad relic, a local explained the situation:
The name of the vessel was the River Princess and she had ran around during bad weather in the year 2000. Having been caught in a storm and having her anchor break off, her Russian crew had bailed out further off the coast, leaving the crippled ship to drift away of her own accord, eventually running aground here. It quickly became clear that the ship had embedded itself deep in the sand and was slowly leaking fuel and chemicals into the sea, polluting the beaches that provided Goa with so much of its tourist income.
Of course, such a large boat would require a considerable salvage effort anyway, but it had sustained structural damage during the storm and continued to sink further into the sand month on month. Unfortunately, India’s lax maritime laws meant that the UK-based haulage business that owned the ship would only have been obligated to remove the ship if it had been blocking a waterway. The steady stream of silhouetted tankers that passed across the distant horizon proved that this was not the case and the company walked away from the wreck without culpability.
In order to try and raise funds for the salvage operation, various salvage companies had been allowed to cherry pick any valuable industrial materials from within the ship itself. However, this was only contributing to the physical degradation of the ship and further jeopardizing her structural safety whilst making the job even less lucrative for the eventual salvager. In time, the issue had become a political football for the Goa state governors who various blamed each other and their predecessors for the inability to remove or break up the vessel successfully. In the mean-time, the hull periodically belched chemicals onto the beach and dropped shards of metal and splinters into the sea. The guy who explained the story to us had no idea what was going to happen to it.
We watched as the sun dipped towards the horizon and past the hulking silhouette of the River Princess. It had a sad beauty to it, as it lay there while the rest of the world got on with its business. To ponder the future of the area with such a tourist eyesore cannot have been a pleasant task for the gentleman we talked to, nor anyone else who lived along the coast here.
[Thankfully, this video shows how the River Princess was eventually removed in early 2012.]
Joining us up on our hillside viewpoint was a coach load of cheerful Indians who were also enjoying the view. We had struck up a conversation with some of them and they gamely offered to give us a ride back to the bus stop in their coach. They were, they explained, Christians, with proud smiles, as if this was somehow the underlying motive for their generosity. As we drove back through the cool forests evening, the entire coach sprang into song: Down by the riverside, endlessly repeated. We were strongly encouraged to join in.