Here I am, sitting on my bed for the night, the top bunk of a set of three berth bunks, within an 8 berth bunk section of our Sleeper Class train cabin. My face inches away from a set of three very ancient looking, inch-thick with dust fans, the man next to me (only a metal grate between us) doesn’t look so inviting and I think he might be a snorer. From my top bunk view, I can count fourteen – yes fourteen! – pairs of dirty bare feet. Including Jakes. This could possibly become my worst nightmare, very quickly. Ugh.
This morning was spent casually; the lead up to our first-ever Indian railway adventure looming. We needed to prepare. Jake woke early to fetch chai and we spent the morning packing up our backpacks (and locking them twice!), which we’d done a fantastic job of emptying and sprawling over the entire guestroom over the course of the previous two days.
We visited the supermarket to stock up on snacks for the journey, but our options were as followed: about 30 different types of sugary biscuits with not-s-enticing names like “Milky Fresh”, “Fabs”, “Hide and Seeks” and “Velvet Browns” and some savoury crackers that were advertised on the packet as “we’re still very sweet!” … we left the supermarket with, of all things, three post cards and no food four our journey.
We took a bus from the Fort to the mainland of Kochi, with the assistance of a lovely Indian woman who told us which bus to catch and then when we should get off, before attempting to walk to the railway station. We got lost. Hot, sweaty and with our packs making our knees hurt, we caved and hired a tuk tuk to take us the rest of the way, which was 20 rupees well spent, considering we would’ve probably never made it otherwise.
Luckily next to the railway there were several little market stalls, and we were able to stock up on bananas, water and chai to stave off hunger for the next 16 or so hours.
The station was a sprawling mess of chairs, people, little shops and eateries, waiting rooms and signs with no English translation. A couple of king young Indian boys assisted us with finding where to go to catch our train, which we were grateful for – even the officers at the station had not been able to assist us, and the Information Counter looked similar to any sort of Indian ‘queue’ – a mass of people fighting over one another, pushing in front of and around each other to get the attention of the one staff member. Yeah, we were not even going to bother with that.
All sorts of people are traveling on this train, and it’s fascinating to observe how people operate. We walked in to our carriage to find about 4 people crammed into seats 21 and 22 – our seats – all of them staring back at us as if to say “yes?…Why are you looking at us?”
When they find out that someone else has actually paid for these seats, they are forced to scuttle away and find another seat that might possibly, just maybe, somehow be available for them.
At each stop this happens over and over, I’m watching people walk through our carriage scouring for an opening – somewhere, any seat – that might actually not already be occupied. This is our first train trip, of course, and I think there’s a lot more to learn about how this complex system operates.
On the train after having been forced to use the latrine and wee in zig-zagging motion through a little black hole, I suddenly had a flashback to that moment when we booked our tickets and were told “Yes, oh yes, very comfortable and clean, oh yes” by the lovely man who was now obviously very deluded. Lovely and clean – my ass it was! – but I can handle toilets flooded with urine, dirty feet and dusty fans, cramped spaces filled with strange men, sleeping in the same clothes I’ve worn all day and using my backpack as my pillow. This is an experience I’m oddly loving, and furthermore, what better way to people watch and gain a little more insight into the culture, from way up here in my no curtain, fan-only, sleeper berth.
Speeding along, the fans ware spinning, the breeze was nice through the open windows, and the train hummed along the tracks. People were sleeping head to foot with their carriage buddies, people were chatting, drinking chai, reading, listening to music, watching movies, relaxing, playing with their children on these lovely and clean bunks.
Already, I love Indian trains.
Late in the night, we are bombarded by a group of Indian boys – the same ages as both Jake and I – who are also traveling to Goa “for to enjoy the life.” We spent a couple of hours sitting with them in the bunks chatting and laughing, whist they took a hundred-plus photographs of us and the ‘ring leader,’ as I shall call him, spends a good portion of time giving us a personal viewing of the eight thousand photographs of himself on his mobile, “giving pose” – as he described it – in eight thousand ridiculous different outfits. Every time he showed us another photograph of himself in unflattering tight pants and a trout pout facial expression, he asked us “How is this, you think?”
We didn’t get much sleep on the train and arrived at the awful hour of 4:10am. What a fucking night mare time that is to arrive into a new destination – learning curve; we won’t be doing that again. Thankfully the rowdy boys were getting off at the same stop and they woke us up. How they knew it was the right stop I have no idea – no announcements, not large signage saying ‘welcome to your destination,’ no obvious anything that might possibly indicate we were there.
Regardless, we got off and walked out of the station into the black night time sky, where just two tuk tuk drivers were waiting. “Where you go?” they asked us… “uuum… we don’t even know!” I responded.
So, we sat there in the open air at 4:30am, alongside a hundred odd sleeping Indian bodies, eating biscuits and reading our guide book, trying to decide where to go. Eventually we decided we’d settle on Agonda, and then tomorrow move along to the next destination, with a plan to spend about 6 nights in Goa then move on to Mumbai by train.
We waited and waited for a more reasonable hour, and eventually at 5:30am, we took a taxi to the bus station with the hope of their being frequent buses, as per what we’d read.
We were wrong. The bus station was still dark and full of sleeping bodies and clusters of men, and no buses were leaving until 7am.Shit.
I turned around and suddenly, like a shining beacon of hope, there it was – a 24/7 coffee house. No matter how bad the coffee is, we’re going there! I was almost skipping with joy – along with the 20kgs of baggage on my back – at the fact that we would not have to endure that dark, dodgy bus station.
We finally caught a bus that was headed for Agonda – an hour or so spent packed in with a hundred odd other bodies; school children, farmers, women with baskets of vegetables and one lady who spent the trip tying long beans together in bunches with string. How foolish I was to think that an early bus would be less crowded. This is India, Emily!
During the bus trip, we were informed that our bus did not go to Agonda as promised, and we would have to catch a very over priced tuk tuk the rest of the way. Seeing as it’s low season, we should have guessed the issues that we were about to face here in Goa.
Arriving into Agonda early morning, we checked in to a cheapy but fine guest house with a view looking out over the swirling ocean waves. Hungry, we walked into town hoping to find a little café in this quiet stretch of coast… and that’s when we began to slowly realize that literally, everything in Agonda is shut. Not just for the morning, not just for the day. For the entire low season. Every shop, restaurant, eatery, book store and touristy place was covered with blue tarp. Monsoon season here meant not one place was in business, besides three tiny convenience stores that were not very convenient. We felt trapped.
Our only real option, seeing as we had already handed over all our clothing to be laundered, meant hiring another overpriced tuk tuk to take us to Palolem – the super touristy area that would have a few shops and eateries open at this time of year.
Palolem was okay, but felt more like a Thailand tourist strip – complete with flimsy knock off clothing, bongs and pipes in the window sills of shops and staff sitting lazily outside the doors begging us to come in.
We ate a dodgy meal, wandered the beach aimlessly, saw a motorbike accident, watched several badly injured dogs struggle to walk around the main area, bought a pineapple for dinner (since nothing would be open), wandered through a couple of shops and then, when we’d had enough; more exhausted than I can describe after the train journey, we took another over priced tuk tuk back to empty Agonda.
We spent the afternoon and evening relaxing to the sounds of the ocean and rain, eating delicious pineapple and crackers with vegemite and reading the Classifeds section of The Hindu newspaper – the Wanted adds for Brides and Grooms is an interesting read, to say the least.
We were planning to spend 6 nights exploring Goa, but after realizing today that low season here means basically EMPTY, we booked ourselves a sleeper bus to Hampi – departing from Panji (Goa’s capital) tomorrow night. I’ve read a lot of good things about Hampi and I think it will deliver a lot more than Goa has…I guess, what this simply means is we’ll have to come back to India again. When everything in Goa is open.