“Heyyy…Evora…Evora…Evora!” sang the bus driver as he tried to get more tourists to get on the bus. We were on a holiday trip to Portugal and Evora was a “must-see” destination. The trip to Evora was going to take between one and a half to two hours from Lisbon. It was around eight in the morning on a beautiful day in the month of June in 2007. Evora has been declared a World Heritage site. It is one of the most charming Portuguese cities, with its rich cultural heritage and its painstaking preservation of historical monuments. Old narrow streets from a distant era easily connect to open market squares with shops and amenities.
The day passed slowly. Several hours later and after many pictures of the city walls and the timeless ruins of the Roman temple (the temple of Diana) we were looking to return to the present, and find a place to try some "Caldeirada" (spicy fish stew and potatoes).
Portugal’s checkered history (wars, famines, earthquakes) has led to its melancholic character. The bittersweet “fado” songs flow with tears of joy.
Life in Portugal has always revolved around the sea. Portuguese explorers redefined the concept of the Earth, with the discovery of India and Brazil.
Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India by sea, studied in Evora. He was the first to find a “route” that was completely by sea and one that did not need to cross the dangerous Arabian countries and the disputed Mediterranean. Getting to India was necessary to bring the popular spices like cinnamon and pepper. This came to be known as the “spice route”.
Vasco da Gama started from Lisbon in July of 1497 and after a long journey landed in Calicut, India. This was a world event of sorts, as it marked the first wave of global multiculturalism. He led 4 ships with 170 men from Portugal to India, around the Cape of Good Hope and back, a distance greater than a spin around the equator. How did Vasco da Gama find the directions?
The onward journey took more than 10 months. There were many challenges along the way, especially since they were not welcome anywhere in Africa. Once they had reached the eastern coast of Africa, Vasco da Gama was lucky to find an Indian pilot who knew the monsoon winds and guided them straight to the Indian coast. This was a journey “out of sight of land”, and required precise knowledge of nautical directions and local weather conditions.
Was the expedition successful?
The experience in India was not smooth. Vasco da Gama lacked negotiation skills. He led by force. Being a merciless torture expert he successfully avoided mutiny on the ship. But he was not a merchant. He could not establish a long-term trading relationship.
The return journey turned out to be more painful and more costly than he could ever imagine. They sailed “against” the monsoon winds. It took 132 days to cross the ocean from India to Africa (compared to 23 days for the same segment on the onward journey). Two ships were lost and more than half the crew died. Many of the surviving crew were terribly sick.
Vasco da Gama’s brother Paulo da Gama fell sick and died.
I guess it does not matter how glorious the onward journey is, if the return is a disaster. In a modern analogy it did not matter how quickly we were able to put a man on the moon, what mattered most was to bring the man back alive.
The loss of his brother must have devastated Vasco da Gama. He chose to stop en route for his brother’s funeral, and spent more than a month brooding. He let his deputy return to Portugal to inform the king of the news of the successful discovery of the sea route to India. When Vasco da Gama finally returned to Portugal he was given a hero’s welcome.
The next expedition to India was led by Pedro Alvares Cabral who led 13 ships and a thousand men. However, on the Atlantic ocean they went too far on the west and accidentally discovered Brazil! There were several expeditions to India after that and the investment into the expeditions was recouped many times over. But the loss of precious lives makes it hard to estimate the true costs of these ventures.
Back to present times, I would say without my spicy food - I am dead. And while we sat in the charming little restaurant in Evora, enjoying the delicious spicy food, I had to salute those brave explorers who actually died in the quest for these spices.