Sent: Sunday, October 14, 2001 14:17
A land-rover, a bus, a train, an auto-rickshaw, 2 more trains, 3 buses, a ferry, a final bus and a 2km hike. 55 hours in total. This is the story of our trip from Mount Abu in Southern Rajasthan to Arambol in Northern Goa.
We start our descent from the cool heights of Mount Abu just after lunch on Wednesday, winding down the mountain road as though we are tumbling down the longest, most bendy python in the history of snakes and ladders, all the way back to where we started on the plains below at the railway station at mucky, scruffy Abu Road. As we round a corner on the descent a low grey cloud hoves into view and the skies open dropping heavy monsoon rain whose fat drops explode at the roadside like tiny atomic bombs sending shockwaves across the surface of the puddles while propelling miniscule mushroom clouds briefly upwards.
Abu Road station can not sell us a ticket for the train we hope to get from Mumbai to Goa leaving in 30 hours time, the train is full and we will have to try and get on it through the Tourist Quota available in Mumbai on the day of departure, which should work out ok because we arrive at 07.15 and the Tourist quota doesn't go on sale until 09:00.
The journey from Abu Road to Mumbai, 14 hours on an overnight sleeper, promises to be our only long journey in 2nd Class sleeper, the class of accommodation cheap enough to make it attractive to backpackers, yet sufficiently comfortable as to be bearable. What follows in the course of the journey is very different to our experiences in 2nd Class Air-con, the next class up, where peace and quiet had reigned in the chilled atmosphere.
We get on the train at 5pm and from then until maybe 10:30pm it's rather like sitting on a bench next to the pedestrian version of the North Circular during rush-hour.
Traffic in the aisle divides into four categories. Fellow passengers are the least inhibited group in their avid curiosity, stopping, staring and, the bravest, venturing the standard opener 'What country?' The prolonged blank-faced inquisitiveness of those who don't speak carries no malice but is nonetheless disconcerting, but those who do speak invariably dissolve the blankness with a broad smile. Some fellow passengers ignore us but apply the same level of detailed study to our luggage which is a little unsettling, but we have enough confidence in our locks and cables that we don't buy reinforcements from the hawker who passes back and forth during the evening touting padlocks and chains. Helen and Alex had their Teva sandals stolen in exactly this circumstance some months ago and ours are way, way too comfortable to lose, so we ensure that they are thoroughly hidden come bedtime.
The second aisle-traffic group are the beggars, who come at you from all angles. At stations children's hands materialise through the open windows, several times making Sausage jump, understandably, given that twice more in the course of this journey kids grab and pinch her through the train window. The able-bodied seem to beg through the window leaving the aisle free for the disabled and mutilated.
If ever the subject comes up when we are talking to locals the same refrain as that found in all the guidebooks is repeated, that some parents mutilate their children in order to secure them an income for life. It is hard to know what to feel as yet another eight-year-old proffers one or two mangled, useless hands, gently tapping your forearm while gazing at you with practiced, imploring eyes. I don't give to the mutilated in order not to feed the need, but try and give sometimes to the obviously disabled. Personally, the true horror lies in the nature of the emotional response that each person triggers in me. No matter how much I wish it was otherwise the worse the extent of the mutilation, the greater the scale of the reflexive emotional response, two mutilated hands feels more pressing than one, useless legs worse still and even whilst not reacting with cash the escalating emotional response makes me feel in some way complicit with the parents and their nightmarish decisions.
I try to appease my conscience with promises made to myself of donations to aid organisations, but it feels like a plaster on a cut, hiding the wound but not healing it. All of which may well sound like the precious rambling of a wet liberal given the total unimportance of my emotional discomfort relative to the lives these people live, but if the alternative is simply to look away from every instance and pretend the poverty isn't there then I prefer to continue to see the people and talk about them.
Traders and hawkers pass back and forth, back and forth, offering all kinds of drinks, snacks and fruit. The chai sellers all seem to have graduated from the same, tough school of chai vending where their larynxes were all forcibly sand-papered and each was taught to shout the word 'chai!' as though it is the deep, rumbling first spit of the morning, which can be a real shock if the guy arrives by your ear from behind and suddenly barks his call without warning.
The carriages are laid out like the 2nd Class Air-con carriages except that there are 3 tiers of bunks on the wide side of the aisle. We are once again sat on the narrow side of the aisle, facing each other, which means that we are a captive ring-side audience for the fourth and final group of aisle dwellers, the strolling minstrels.
The first trio consist of two blokes with Asiatic bodhrans, handheld drums played with a short wooden drumstick, and a third with a high pitched string instrument that sounds uncannily like the variety turn on the Good Old Days who used to play tunes on a garden saw. The two drummers position themselves leaning their backs against the pillars at the rear of our two seats. Every time someone needs to pass them in the aisle they have to turn inwards to allow them to pass which involves positioning their drums, which they continue to wallop, about 2 inches from Sausage, and my, ears. When they become aware of the discomfort they are causing us they continue to swivel inwards walloping loudly with increased vigour and evident delight and then feign innocence and look offended when we decline their request that we pay for the privilege of suffering their 10 minute, close-proximity timpani. The next pair are worse, being 12 years old and completely unencumbered of any musical talent, an omission that they perceive as no obstacle at all. A guy sat opposite me catches my eye and we laugh at their tuneless insistence on access to our Western riches. When a 10-year-old comes round banging two shells together the guy actually points the boy in my direction and we both laugh at his barefaced assertion of charm over skill.
It is exactly this kind of friendliness amongst the people around us that makes the journey pass tolerably, though the night goes slowly on berths which combine being narrow with a lack of length which means a return to the foetal position for me. We each grab maybe four hours sleep before the barking of the chai-wallahs rouses us at 5.30am on Thursday morning.
The train terminates at Banjara Station on the extreme northern edge of Mumbai and we have to take an auto-rickshaw to a local station to catch a suburban train into the centre. As the train rattles and rolls slowly towards the city-centre Mumbai slides by our eyes and makes the poverty we have seen elsewhere look like a picnic in the park. Even making allowance for the 'railway track = arse end of the city' factor the extent and the depth of the poverty within the scenes we pass is gut-wrenchingly extraordinary.
Shanties give way to shacks give way to tents give way to people sleeping wherever some overhead structure provides cover from the monsoon rain that continues to pour from the leaden sky. Hundreds of people squat weeing and crapping on the train tracks and we see the city trying to shake off the effects of the sodden night in track-side scenes where drainage, plumbing and sanitation are non-existent. Later, as we leave Mumbai CST station, we pass a woman lying on the pavement. It is a busy street, in rush hour, with lots of people passing in both directions. The woman looks about 80, but probably isn't. She is lying on her side on the pavement, half curled. She has open sores on her knees and ankles. Each sore is covered in hungry flies and many more are swarming around her mouth and eyes. She is too weak to swat them away and lies immobile and ignored by the passing pedestrians in a scene that will, rightly or wrongly, always summate Mumbai for me.
We have 15 hours to kill before the night train we hope to take to Goa and the first 3 hours are spent trying to get tickets for the damn journey. Tourist Quota is gone, it goes on sale at 8am, not 9 as the guidebook says and has all sold out by the time we arrive. We can get on the Wait Lists for various classes but only the list for First Class is short enough to give grounds for optimism. Then a guy appears and, in exchange for a thoroughly greased palm, promises to deliver us guaranteed berths in First Class. The fare outstretches our budget by a wide margin, but the damage is mitigated by the saving of not having to spend on an extra night in Mumbai before taking a train tomorrow for which second class tickets are available.
So we check our luggage into the station cloakroom and wander out into the heat of the morning tired, smelly and with time to burn.
Despite being in no rush whatsoever it still grates slightly that it takes the guy in the Indian Airlines office fully one hour to sell us two tickets for a flight from Delhi to Kathmandu which we will take after our fortnight in Goa. The slight air of slow motion strangeness is heightened by the feeling of being on the set of Abigail's Party back in the early 1970's in the midst of all the dark veneers and curvy plastic furniture.
A slow lunch and a kip in the park eke out more time and we return to Mumbai CST station in the early evening to meet our 'man-in-the-know' and collect our tickets. To our relief not only does he show up but the also directs us the Waiting Room, tucked away upstairs where we while away the remaining hours watching another Mike Leigh production called 'Waiting,' still in rehearsal, but already bearing all the hallmarks of his best work being full of gentle humour and slowly unraveling plot lines.
The Waiting Room is large, high-ceilinged with slowly turning fans and neon lighting that lends all the occupants a pallor they don't deserve. The four walls are lined with seats and in the middle of the room are two large tables surrounded by an inner circle of more chairs.
An older gentleman walks in. Were he not Indian (and who is to say that rules him out?) he might be your, or my, elderly uncle. His features, stature, and particularly his slow pace all bear the marks of the gentle encroachments of old age. He is wearing spectacles, a shirt and trousers and carrying a metal briefcase and a carrier bag.
He sits down on the inner circle of chairs, facing us, on the far side of one of the large tables. Very slowly, methodically, over the course of maybe the next 30 minutes, one by one he removes all his clothes, going over to the coat stand in the corner of the room periodically to hang his shirt, vest and then trousers, until he stands before us clad only in his loincloth which is the size of a large tea-towel. Seemingly oblivious to everyone else in the room he then makes to remove the loincloth, loosening the ends and adjusting it, without ever actually showing you the naughty bits, in a way that could make him a fortune in certain lap-dancing venues, before finally resecuring the cloth and continuing his peregrinations.
Next he retires to the large Gentleman's Cloakroom which gives off the Waiting Room and takes advantage (as I had done earlier) of one of the cubicles where you can have a strip wash.
Now things start to get really strange. He continues his meticulous wanderings, slowly, so slowly back to the central table. He is now washed, spruce and sporting a different loincloth. He produces a bottle of water that he uses to thoroughly douse the table, slowly anointing the entire surface area.
My/your semi-naked aging uncle then picks up a piece of discarded newspaper and, using both hands, slowly, so slowly, like he is polishing a particularly dirty mirror, he starts to rub the table with the newspaper. I hesitate to use the words 'clean the table' to describe the activity because Indian newsprint leaps off the page and onto your fingers with prodigious ease, so goodness only knows what is happening to the table-top.
At this point I genuinely believe that I am watching the sad meanderings of a mind, once astute, but now given to incredibly slow, undressed table cleaning in railway station waiting rooms.
But I'm wrong, so wrong, a circumstance that I have plenty of time to adjust to as my/your uncle carefully folds yet another loincloth, places it on the newly newsprint-varnished table and, audibly creaking, climbs in slow-motion onto the table top and lies down to sleep.
It is a wonderful reminder that context is everything. In a country where journeys take days, where heat is endemic, where men have an easy, at ease way with their bodies, in these circumstances of course my/your uncle will wash and sleep in the Waiting Room. It's only a novice westerner who would be surprised.
By the time we leave the Waiting Room at 10pm to board the Konkan Express to Goa of the 15 people remaining 8 are asleep on the tables or on blankets they have spread on the floor and the gentle kabuki of my/your uncle can be seen for what it is, the tortoise ensuring that he wins the race for the best sleeping berth for the night ahead.
Our 4-berth First Class Sleeper is exactly what you would expect, spacious, air-conditioned, comfortable, quiet and far removed from all the hustle and bustle of the previous night. We revel in the comfort, miss the bustle but not the hustle and both get really good nights sleep. All of which sets us up nicely for the morning when we have to fight our way onto the platform at Kilmarin station amidst crowds feting some sort of dignitary who alights from our carriage with acolytes literally prostrating themselves at his feet on the platform. We learn later that we have been in the presence of a living saint which probably accounts for the bemused expressions that greet a heavily encumbered Sausage as she directly precedes his holiness from the train.
The final legs of the journey are the polar opposite of first class tranquility as we catch four local buses and a ferry to reach Arambol. All of the buses should have a ring-pull on the roof and 'Sardines' painted on the side but we are always accommodated, together with our bulky luggage and after 3½ long, dirty hours we climb off the final bus in the centre of Arambol village.
If we had known during the previous 54 hours on the move that the final leg of our journey would be a 2km hike with full packs then we might have chosen another coastal village. But the broad beach we reach after a kilometre and the craggy headland a further kilometre on to which cling maybe 20 rooms feels like the unspoilt seaside village which the guidebooks have promised and we flop, exhausted, onto a proper bed believing that the long haul will prove to have been worthwhile.
Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages