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Published: January 17th 2008
A Taste of Things to Come
Sunset silhouettes at Benaulim provide a taste of things to come.
© L. Birch 2007
Thirty-two days after our arrival in Hampi, we said our goodbyes and crept out of town in the early hours of a December morning. It was 5:30am and we had a train to catch that left Hospet at 6:30. Creeping out into the pre-dawn darkness, we made a secret rendezvous with a share-taxi driver from our friend Piru's village and prepared to leave town. We were trying to be surreptitious but our departure did not go unnoticed and there was one final encounter with the 'Rickshaw Mafia' before we finally got away.
The bus to Hospet cost 10 Rupees but outside normal operating hours (the buses didn't start running until 6:30 in the morning), you were at the mercy of the Rickshaw Mafia who would often charge outrageously inflated prices. There was one other option and that was to take a local share taxi - crammed with people and provisions - for just 20 Rupees. However, the 'Mafia' had wised-up to this little loop hole and had forbidden share taxi drivers to take foreigners. One driver, who had ignored this unwritten law, ended up being roughed over by an 'unknown' gang of thugs. As a result, most share taxi drivers
The Western Ghats
On its way to Goa, the train passes through the Western Ghats - a chain of forested mountains that line India's coastal plains.
© L. Birch 2007
refused to take foreigners - which is why we were surprised that Soraj had agreed to take us.
We were just out of town, had just passed through the security gates when a rickshaw driver spotted us. He shouted for us to stop and, alerted by his calls, a half dozen other drivers came running to join him. I willed Soraj to keep going but instead, he stopped and allowed the pursuing men to catch up with us. As soon as they did, a heated discussion broke out between Soraj and the other drivers. Fearing that we might be hauled out of the taxi and forced to take a rickshaw at any moment, I sought to intervene by leaning out of the backseat and playing the indignant sahib. "You have no right to stop us, leave this man alone and let us pass." I said (or something to that effect). It might have worked once but not anymore. A burly Indian man with a red tikka
spot on his forehead was doing all the talking. "I am not speaking to you." He said without even a glance in my direction. There was sufficient malice in his tone for me
Riding The Vasco Express
Hang from the door and look back along the length of the train.... it doesn't happen on British Rail.
© L. Birch 2007
to decide that any further intervention on my part would not be a good idea. However, to our surprise, Soraj re-started the engine a few minutes later and drove away with a final curt nod to the other driver. The burly man made a point of checking our vehicle's licence number before we pulled away: I hoped that Soraj had not earned himself a beating on our account despite his assurances that there were no problems.
When we arrived in Hospet, it was to discover that our train - the Calcutta to Vasco Express - was delayed by three and a half hours. Feeling aggrieved that we could not have had an extra hour in bed, we went in search of the waiting room, ignoring the pleas of professional beggars strung out at strategic intervals along the station platform.
The train journey was colourful, entertaining and wonderfully filthy. Inside the train, there was a never-ending parade of beggars and food sellers while outside the train, the landscape of India in all its squalid and beautiful glory, slid past the window; shattered looking industrial towns surrounded by rubbish, an isolated farm on a sun bleached plain, fields
Goa... Where Else?
Sun, sea and sand... the perfect recipe for a Christmas in India.
© L. Birch 2007
of rice and yellow sunflowers. The train broke its journey at Hubli; a big industrial city out on the plains. Everybody piled out onto the platform to buy food and snacks; idlis, dosai and rice flour pancakes, stacked in grubby plastic bowls and being served up with curried dips in what looked like conditions of dubious hygiene. Call me overly fastidious if you like, but I decided to forego lunch. Buying food from a place that looked and smelled like a toilet did little for my appetite.
After Hubli, the countryside became more rural and wooded. The journey saved its best scenery 'til last. A couple of hours out from Hubli, the train entered the Western Ghats - a chain of forested mountains hugging the coast - and began its long, slow descent to the coastal plains far below. The journey provided stunning views of jungle covered peaks and deep valleys. Crossing the Goan state line, we passed the dramatic Dudh Sagar waterfall before eventually sliding into Margao with nightfall. With a population of 94,000 people, Margao was Goa’s second largest city and was destined to be our nearest supply center for at least the next month. From Margao,
Home Away from Home
The Fernandes house in Benaulim, our home away from home in Goa.
© L. Birch 2007
a ridiculously crowded bus took us to our final destination - the small coastal village of Benaulim.
It was 7 o’clock when we arrived: we had been travelling for 13½ hours and felt tired and desperately in need of a shower. Ordinarily, we might still have had to check out the accommodation options on offer but fortunately, we had done our homework back in early November when we had sourced and pre-booked a room in anticipation of our return to Goa. Which was a good thing really. Prices were already heading skywards but - on the strength of our intention to stay at least a month - we had gotten a good price for our room and one that would remain fixed for the duration of our stay.
Our hostess, Maria Fernandes, met us at the door of her house. Brushing aside apologies for the delay in our arrival, Maria told us that our rooms were ready and that we could book in and complete the requisite "C-Forms" next day, once we had recovered from our journey. Upstairs, we let ourselves into the spacious room that would be our home for the next 4-5 weeks, dropped our packs and collapsed gratefully onto the bed. After a brief rest, we made an excited inventory of our new accommodation. The bedroom was huge, big enough for the large double bed, coffee table and chairs with room to spare. The adjacent dressing room had a built-in double wardrobe, wash basin and full length mirror while the tiled bathroom had a western style toilet as well as hot and cold water.... We felt as if we were staying in the lap of luxury. Reaching our destination, we decided as we unpacked our bags, had never felt so good.
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