The long train to Goa

Trip Start Feb 19, 2006
Trip End Oct 01, 2006

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Where I stayed
Hotel Anukool

Flag of India  ,
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

My wake up call at 5:30 came at 5:22, sort of the way things work here in India, just not quite on time, a little early, a little late, but somehow it gets done. Didn't matter too much, I had already been awake for 45 minutes at that point, there was no way I'm going to miss that train. . .

Paid up my bill at the grungy but friendly hotel Anukool, and stepping outside into the relative quiet of 6 am, I saw taxis. Plenty of them. Around the corners of all streets they were clustered, their drivers asleep in the front seat with the windows open, or in the back, the doors ajar, and calloused feet sticking out.
One of the hotel staff insisted on helping me get going, so he kind of slapped the foot of one of the drivers to wake him. Stepping into the taxi I told him the Indian name of Victoria station, and he looked at me as if confused, so finally I just said "Victoria station" and he understood.
Many things, place names, and many city names are in the process of transition here from the English names, or in many cases the English bastardization of Indian names back to the original. It is good to know both, as some of the taxi drivers know one, some the other.
Jumping out at Victoria, I learned also the hard way about another scheme there is to make money. Red-shirted men with brass badges who ostensibly work for the travel authority look at your ticket and direct you to your proper car. Also they offer to carry your bags for you if you have many. All of this costs 40 rupees, and is not necessary. Though the tickets are sort of cryptic, the car number and platform number is pretty clear. Air Con coaches are the ones with windows, the others are just barred, with no glass. If you come here, be prepared to have many eyes on you. People just stare, and there are not many westerners in the train station at 6 in the morning, most are too lazy to get up that early and take the overnight train.
The car numbers are marked in white grease pencil on the side, somewhere on the car, not always in the same place but generally near the door.
Inside, I had hoped for a window seat, and I did have one for a time. A young Indian in western style clothing sat across from me and I watched the landscape go by, but he got tired and wanted to fold down the two seats to make his berth, as some of the seats are convertible. I had the top berth, and so I thought maybe I wouldn't get too much chance to look out the window. Not to mention the fact that the berths are not made for 6-foot americans. 5 foot 9 would have been about the max, so all kinds of contortions needed to be made to change position, to climb in and out. Like some kind of yoga, or some such.
After a couple of minutes, the only other westerner on the car got up, cigarettes in hand and went to smoke between cars. I joined him. Stephan from Austria and I each looked out of one side window in the outer doors, neither of us having a window seat. . The next time I came out there, he had actually opened the door and was riding hanging out of it. I opened the other and did the same, and so began the way both of us would spend the majority of our journey--hanging out of the door, watching the landscape and waving to the people, most of whom would cheer and wave back. And, of course, looking out for tunnels and signs and such that might take our heads off.
There are many tunnels, many very long tunnels on the way to Goa. Some of them take 10 minutes or more to go through. Blasted from the bedrock and tight, the walls, when we could see them in the pitch black, are very close to the train, so if one hung out of the door in such a tunnel, well. . .you can fill in the rest.

From my journal:

" India railway south. . People smile and wave and cheer as they see the train go by--2 trains a day--everyone is going somewhere. Women carry juge baskets on their heads.
Red clay ridges, nothing grows in the dry season except for in the valleys, rice paddies and peppers.
Hot and arid--burning patches of earth. Sell of farming, burning, train exhaust. Trash litters the sides of the railbed, tunnels, probably dug by hand.
Straw houses, and further up, brick ones. Thatched roofs, cows bathing in muddy pools. Everyone in a collared shirt and long pants, even when at work. Hauling rocks, but dressed for a night on the town.. ."

The air is dusty, and hot like a blast furnace. Every so often I venture back into the air con coach to cool down, drink some Pani (water) and maybe eat something. The food on the train, like everything else in India, is handmade. And absolutely delicious. There are porter-type men who walk up and down with everything from coffee to samosas, watermelon (kalingal) and chai, curds (yogurt-like) and other things that I have no idea of how to identify. They give you a meal for free at about 1 pm, but every 5 minutes or less one of the men comes down the aisle with food or drink, and the cost is cheap. 10 rupees (about 23 cents) for coffee or chai, 20 for pana or soda, and I think 30 for most of the food.
Most of the Indian people on the train keep to themselves or sleep, but some are friendly and want to talk. Smoking cigarettes between cars is a good way to meet some of the friendly people. I talked at length with a Nepalese businessman on his way to Goa for a three day holiday, and though his English was not the best, it is amazing how one learns to sign, and speak in simpler terms to communicate more complicated thoughts. He was a good man who knew how to make a joke, and gave me his card, telling me that he would be quite disappointed if I did not visit him on a trip to Kathmandu. My westernized seat partner also joined us for quite a while, and his mastery of our language is considerable. He was suffering from a hangover resulting from a long night with two (what else?) Americans.
All in all, we had quite the little party in the space between cars, and no-one ever told us not to stand there, not to smoke, not to hang out the doors. Though technically all of these are against the rules, no-one cares in the slightest, and to tell the truth, that space saved my trip. Otherwise I would not have been able to see so much of the country between Mumbai and Goa.

There are three stops in Goa province, one north, one in the central and and one south, and if one does not know exactly which one their stop is, it is a long way between them. There are many towns and beaches, and many more not on the map. Place names don't generally have a solid street address, just the name of an area, and then hopefully also the name of the nearest larger town. Without a guide, I had no idea which of them I was supposed to get off at, but fortunately my Austrian friend had the german version which had a detail map of the area. . Arumbol is up on the northern edge of all the towns and 25 km from the first Goa stop.

Exiting the train, I found a rickshaw driver who took me the distance to Arumbol for 350 rupees, quite a good price. In the growing dark I could see people hanging out, markets and cows in the small towns, and hills all round. Also everywhere burning trash. It seems that right around dusk is the customary time to burn everything from leaves and yard debris to plastic bottles and bags.
We crossed a couple of good-sized bridges and up and down a steep hill, the road narrowing as we went. A right-hand turn led to Arumbol, and it looked more of a driveway than a road.
Of course all the while the rickshaw driver was honking and passing with not even an inch to spare. You get used to this after a while, and let yourself trust fate to get you there. With all the crazy anarchy of indian roads, no-one ever seems to get into any accidents. They all know exactly the size of their own vehicles, and blow the horn profusely to let every one on the road know where they are.
Finally we reached my area. I also learned another thing: Not only should one have the name of the place they are staying, it is also good to have the name of the person who runs the place. As my rickshaw driver asked for more and more direction to the particular area, the road slowly shrank to a path, and then finally we could go no more. We were in a yard by a house, the people who lived there obviously curious as to how a determined rickshaw driver and his american fare had ended up in their yard with the pigs and dogs.
I asked, as did my driver for "Villa Elena Where?? " and they seemed to have no idea. Then I asked for "Prakash" and they lit up. . "Ahh, Prakash? This way!" and they pointed toward the darkness. "Lights! There!" they said, pointing again.
So paying my driver, and actually giving him an extra 20 for his determination, I gathered my bags and walked off into the warm night, beneath the palms, my feet in sand, the shooshing of the arabian sea a constant soundtrack. An subtle elation took me over, to be in such a beautiful place and also knowing I would sleep there tonight. . .
At length I came to some lights, and looked into the bamboo beach hut. A man poked his head out, and I asked once again for Prakash. He pointed down the beach perhaps 500m away, and so on I went, eventually coming to a gate with a bell. I rang the bell, and asked again for Prakash. To my relief, this finally was the man himself. After a cup of tea in the yard, he informed me that since I was a day early, my room was not ready, but he could hook me up with a bamboo hut for a couple of nights for the same price.
He showed me the complex on the way, a couple of restaurants, and a bar, all in the open air. The hut was just great, and I unloaded my gear, headed off to the " surf club" for a beer and there met a new friend, Turtle, of Kent England, with whom I would share many further adventures, not to mention many beers. . .

And finally about 4 am, I drifted off to sleep to the lullaby of waves on the beach and the gentle rustling of palms in the breeze. . .
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