International Writers Magazine:
A first Journey Around India
John A Cook
It's January and after many years wanting to go and a whole two
weeks planning to go, I'm now actually set to go - airplane tickets
in hand, visa for a month granted, Indrail pass for three weeks
rail travel purchased, passport and travellers cheques in my money
belt, Swiss army knife safely clipped at my side, injections received
and the whole range of pills, medications and hardware in my bag
to cover everything but major surgery.
from a travellers diary in India
Four thirty pm,
Manchester Airport. I join the long queue to book in for my cheap charter
flight, Monarch 301, to India. My travelling companions appear to have
brought more than enough clothes and equipment to cover every eventuality
and outdoor pursuit imaginable with two or three suitcases each weighing
in on or over their twenty kilos allowance.
My bag goes on the scales at six kilos and I still think that I've packed
too much. The girl asks for my hold baggage. I tell her she's got it
I bid a sad farewell to Janet and take my cramped seat for the twelve
hours journey to Goa's Dabolim Military Airport. Drinks and beef something
for dinner, buy earphones for the first film and we're landing at Bahrain
some seven hours later to refuel and re-cater. No sooner have I had
a quick look round the excellent duty-free superstore (obviously the
place to shop) than we're off again for the remaining four hours to
India. Totally uneventful. More food and drinks, watch Fools and Horses,
Hyacinth Bucket and sleep through the second film.
We land in Goa at nine thirty am local time, and I'm feeling a little
jaded as my body is telling me that it's now actually four in the
morning as far as it's concerned. The sun is already high in the
cloudless blue sky and continuing to climb.
A German Luftwaffe
flight has arrived just ahead of us and, as the officials can only process
one plane load at a time, we all sit around on the grassy perimeter
of the runway while the sun grows ever hotter. A lazing soldier, head
bowed over his rifle, guards the closed and padlocked entrance to the
"Arrivals Lounge". A most unprepossessing looking building,
Goa International Terminal.
An hour later, another soldier with a World War One Lee Enfield ushers
us all into the large, bare Arrivals area and makes a great play of
locking the doors behind us. No-one argues. He is, after all, the man
with the gun - even if it is tied up with string.
The Caledonian jet that left Manchester just ahead of us and which we
then overtook at Bahrain now arrives and disgorges its passengers, blinking
in the sunshine, to take our places on the grass outside. At least the
fans are working in here. Well, some of them are.
The immigration process takes about an hour, even with all the three
Everyone (well, nearly everyone - there's always a few wit-less and
pen-less ones, aren't there?) has completed the "Arrivals Immigration
Form For Foreigners" which is perforated into three sections, half
for Inwards and a quarter each for Customs and Departure.
Each passport photograph is carefully scrutinised, another form is filled
out in triplicate, visas are checked and rubber stamps are firmly slammed
down noisily on all papers in sight. The remaining half of the form,
duly stamped on both quarters, is returned with the passport.
Behind the immigration desk, another uniform takes the passport off
me again, re-checks the rubber stamps, tears the card into the two remaining
quarters along the perforation and places them both back inside. I could
have done that myself but I suppose it keeps another body in a job.
I join the queue to change some sterling at the airport branch of the
State Bank of India. I'm going to get used to joining queues in the
coming weeks but, as we're all British here, this one is quite orderly.
Only about half an hour, two forms in triplicate and three signatures
later, I head for Customs with a huge wad of notes at fifty rupees to
the pound. An easy conversion rate.
"Video camera?", all four officers ask in unison.
"No", says I.
This appears to disappoint them greatly as it means that they won't
have a triplicate form to fill out so they decide to search my luggage
Fortunately, I bought a carton of two hundred cigarettes in Bahrain
which is now sitting on top of my clothes in the bag so, as one packet
of twenty Silk Cut Extra Mild disappears into an already bulging uniform
pocket, my card is stamped again before being thrown in the bin and,
with a friendly wave, I am finally free to enter India.
Out into the airport taxi/bus park and a temperature not much short
of a hundred degrees. Being on a "fight-only" and not currently
heading for the beaches, I skirt round the representatives from "Manos",
"Inspirations" and "Sunworld", eventually spotting
a large gentleman sporting an equally large "Tourist Help"
badge. I head in his direction and tell him where I want to go. Vasco
He calls over a driver from the line up of white tourist taxis and "allocates"
him to me.
The driver's name is Sebbi Pereira and his car is a newly built 1950's
Fiat lookalike called a PAL Premier. We head out of the airport past
all the package holiday hotel buses towards Vasco railway station.
My first taste of Indian driving - outside Bradford, that is. I'm wondering
why all the cars have the wing mirrors folded in. I soon find out.
Sebbi is a cheerful little soul with a big grin who believes that if
you can see a clear road more than five yards ahead of the car in front,
you go for the overtake, even if the oncoming bus/lorry/car or taxi
is approaching you in the middle of the highway. The few inches gained
by the folded in mirrors make all the difference!
Motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians don't count. They're
well below us in the traffic pecking order and it's their problem to
get out of the way. Only cows have absolute right of way.
To turn right, you turn up the inside of the oncoming line of traffic
and then drift across the road when there is a space.
Roundabouts you take on whichever side happens to be clear at the time
and one way systems are ignored if the road surface is better on the
approaching traffic side. As long as everyone sticks to the same rules,
it seems to be OK. At least they drive on the "proper" side
of the road here.
The advertising hoardings that line the roads are real works of art.
They all appear to be hand painted by people up on rickety scaffolding
and must take ages to complete. The resultant pictures are often a magnificent,
if somewhat childlike, blaze of colour encouraging the purchase of cars,
motorbikes, pension schemes, fridges, generators and air conditioners
- to name but a few.
Vasco da Game railway station to confirm my train reservation to Miraj
and Bombay for tomorrow (booked by the Indrail people from the UK only
a week ago). I am greeted royally by the booking clerk, asked to present
my credentials and then wait with bated breath. A huge ledger appears
and, low and behold, there's my name on the list in immaculate copperplate
script. The system obviously works. I'm very impressed.
It's getting hotter by the minute.
Hotel next. Tell Sebbi to find me one near the station so we head for
the centre of Vasco and I book into the executive suite of the Maharaja
Hotel. Big double room, en suite, colour television and a monster of
an air-conditioner poking through the outside wall. Clean and comfortable.
Nine pounds per night.
Tell Sebbi to wait, change into my shorts and I'm then ready to "do"
Goa even though I've been up since early yesterday morning.
Turn on the ancient but very large television - table tennis. Blow by
blow, stroke by stroke, grunt by grunt account with action replays.
The All-India Finals - cracking stuff. Quickly turn it off and go in
search of some drying paint to watch.
The Grand Tour of Goa. Seaside, fishing port, coconut and banana plantations,
markets, ruins and then Old Goa, the Portuguese ex capital which was
abandoned following malaria and cholera epidemics which plagued the
city from the seventeenth century onwards.
There is now no trace of the old secular city itself but there are still
the most wonderful National Monuments of churches, cathedrals, ruined
abbeys and nunnery all grouped together, surrounded by beautiful gardens
and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. The Church of
Bom Jesus houses the remains of St Francis Xavier.
Everyone smiles and says, "Hello". No, that's not strictly
true. The children usually say, "Hello, one rupee" or "Hello,
one pen". It's soon to become a familiar greeting.
The most popular means of transport here is the motorbike (no helmets,
of course and no more than three standing please for safety reasons).
They range from mopeds through Vespa (Bajaj) and Honda scooters, small
Japanese and Indian two stroke lightweights to the now forty plus years
old design, built in Madras, British 350 and 500 cc Enfield heavyweights.
You can even catch a motorcycle taxi. Black frame, yellow mudguards,
cloud of blue smoke, baseball cap and shades. Flag it down and jump
on the pillion. Ten rupees a go.
Into the new capital, Panaji (or Panjim) for a pub lunch at an old colonial
hotel and then a tour of what remains of the old Portuguese quarter.
Back to my hotel for a couple of hours of shuteye before dinner. Turn
the TV on - table tennis - turn it off.
Two or three hours rest and I awake duly refreshed. Turn the TV on -
table tennis - turn it off. Downstairs to the hotel restaurant, open
but empty - not a good sign - so I head out into the darkness to explore.
Find a small restaurant/cafe just round the corner and it is packed
with locals. Obviously the place to eat.
Everyone moves along the bench to make room for me and I ask for "fish".
I've been told, "If you don't eat the meat and don't drink the
water, you'll be OK." I've decided to follow that advice.
The fish is supposed to be excellent in Goa, fresh off the boats and
so it proves to be. A large plaice-like animal (pomfret?) with a very
hot chilli sauce, rice and, of course, chapattis. The bill comes to
eighty pence including the pint bottle of Kingfisher, the excellent
local beer. I think I'm going to like India.
Everyone staring at me all the time is going to take a while to get
used to though. There's no animosity in it at all, they're merely curious
but it does feel a bit strange at first.
I wander my way back to the hotel but find the fruit and vegetable market
on the way (actually, I'm lost) so have a look round by the light of
oil lanterns. Talk to the stall holders and I am then approached by
an individual who asks,
"Want a nice Indian girl?"
"No, thank you."
"Nice Indian boy?"
"No, thank you."
"No, thank you. But do you know where I can buy a new watchstrap?"
This is obviously far below his entrepreneurial expertise but he gives
me directions anyway. There is a small wooden stall tucked away in a
back street and piled high with broken watches, springs, hands, winders
and batteries. The watch mender replaces the strap and pins for me,
offers to buy my watch, tries to sell me another one and then charges
me sixty pence. My first bargain and the first indication that anything
is possible in India.
I eventually find my way back to the hotel in the dark but I really
must remember to take the torch with me the next time I go out in the
dark. It can be somewhat disturbing underfoot. Turn on the TV - table
tennis - turn it off and go to bed, extremely tired.
© John Cook September 2007
Janet and John" <email@example.com>
*This is an extract
of a completed book on John's Travels to India in 1994.
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