Writing from: Barefoot and sitting in an internet cafe in Palolem, Goa having just escaped from an auto rickshaw which squeezed four of us into a three-person seat…
The night before last a sleeper train to Goa saw me and my three companions (codenames for the purposes of this blog M, Mr Tea, and Ruppee3naans (his choice)) rumbling away from the sticky world of scents (green stuff in the heat, leather, dust, cat food, filth, spice, sweat, traffic traffic traffic, desperation, incense, my own fear of traffic catastrophes) to the beaches of Goa.
Not to say that we couldn’t hack the city (even though it was scary, hairy, and blarey) but we decided fate was well and truly shoving us beachwards. Pootling jet-lagged from the airport into the blinking heat and heavy sunlight of the city of Mumbai isn’t a breath of fresh air thing. The chaos and life and living and sadness swirl around with the incessant pace of the place until you are not sure where to turn, but are damned sure it shouldn’t be homewards.
From landing to lying on my upper-berth sleeper train bunkbed, with my barefeet waving in the air-con while I spilt the day into my travel journal, we didn’t stop for breath.
Hotel plans went out the window when rooms were full and touts followed us through street after street offering us hotels similarly named to the one we were looking for but clearly that was all they had in common. I am sure we could have found somewhere, but sitting down out of the earshot of the money-hungry “You need room?” “Hotel Volga? Mine the same but Volga 2.”, “This hotel closed but here is one of my friend” our thoughts turned to sand and sea.
We rested our weary selves in Leopold’s. Anyone who has read Shantaram will know this is where the main characters (arrogant Western bastards just like us but with better lines to say) hung out to compare their tragedies. To me it was a bit charming and a bit well well well that we ended up there and not somewhere else. It wasn’t part of the plan to end up in a place so revered by the author of a book I had so recently waded through. It was a nice way to start. Sitting in there and spying copies of the book on the counter and having a moment of “guess what?”. So with cool glasses of Kingfisher and a plate of veggie curry (oh the food, the food, this is why I am here. The chilli I grazed on while waiting nearly made me lose my voice) we formed a mad dogs and English men (and lady) plan to what-the-hell it and see if we couldn’t swing a train to the coast that night.
And here I am coastside so it must have worked.
The rest I am doing in flashes since there is a world outside and I am not about to sit in here sharing it all with you when I could be out in it feeling a bit lost but a lot alive.
- My first happy Indian head wiggle from a waiter who seemed to be apologizing to us for our inability to just pick a damned table to sit at.
- A carpet of Indian families and folks from one end of the station floor to the door, eating, sleeping, chatting, waiting.
- The “Happy journey” and ear to ear smile of the flower-shirted man at the ticket office, to our heart-felt thanks, as he sent us off with night train tickets he managed to wangle after some secret behind the scenes shenanigans.
- Night train food seller songs “Spring rollllllll, chickeny rollllllllll” “Soup. Soup. Tomato soup.” “Cheese sandwich?” (that one got me sitting up straight. Cheese sarnies and curry. I was born to eat here). “Chicken lollipop! Chicken lollipop? Chicken lollipop?” insistent look, shake of head, shrug.
- A volanco-hot thimbleful of chai from a fingernail-down-side-of-cups-is-my-selling-call seller at VT station (look up VT, I am not taking the time to type it out. Oh…)
- Winding a centre-pull ball of yarn while sitting on my bunk and causing people to lean from their bunks to give me ‘crazy English’ looks.
- Three goats peering from the doorway of a shop.
- A plastic goddess wobbling amongst musicians in the back of a pick-up truck.
- Folding up my odd (and every so interesting) socks for the last time and tucking them away for chillier climes.
- Biting the inside of my mouth during traffic almosts. They can drive out here. Boy can they drive.
- The legend Puncher Repair on a tyre in front of a repair shop, which was sadly deflated.
- An invisible snow-globe of pigeons in the middle of traffic madness.
- The feathered-finger wingtips of huge birds of prey circling on Mumbai’s traffic-fume updrafts.
- The soft folds and nothing colour of so many sleeping streets dogs I cannot touch but want to.
- The conspiratorial smile of my travelling companions who are just as overwhelmed and excited as I am.
- A squat-toilet ain’t so damned scary rush of pride.
- Colonial splendour with mould on its face.
- A pavement hairdresser.
- A dragonfly landing on our table napkins and trembling still for a photo.
- The procession of street eBay outside the station.
- Writing my journal on a night train in a strange place when all I want to do is sleep but have a head so full of things I need to write it down.
- Passing an elephant as we arrived in Goa right out of the airport. His face was painted bright pink and he had his head down in a happy little charge.
- Lying on the beach last night watching stars through palm leaves and thinking “this is why we’re here”
- Running into the sea at 2 am last night in my underwear (I know)
- Watching a cow go into a restaurant and talk to the chef for a while before leaving.
- Waking up under a mosquito net (thanks Babb) bite free.
- Did I mention the food? Can I do it again? The food, people. The food!
I have yet to really get into the heart of any really poor areas. Mumbai’s slums seems poured between the cracks of the less scary shops and buildings. I am not as scared or shocked as I thought I might be, or maybe will be. We have a long way to go and so far, though mind-scrambling and hold-your-breath far from home at times it is an adventure I am not giving back for the streets of my lovely London. Not just yet.
Here’s just one reason why: