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The International Writers Magazine: India Diary

No Problem Sahib
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.
Extract 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 there.

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.

Day One. Friday.
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 desks manned.
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 instead.
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 da Gama.

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" <>

*This is an extract of a completed book on John's Travels to India in 1994.

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