Tuesday, January 16, 2007 India India

Going to Goa

Second class AC sleeper [Enlarge]

Train travel: romantic, luxurious, the best way to see a country. Well, we know from our time in Eastern Europe that this is not always true. However, no trip to India can be complete without travelling on the country's extensive and much-used rail network. There are two trains per day direct from Mumbai (Bombay) to Goa, one overnight and one during the day. We wanted to see the countryside as we passed it so we chose the day train, which was scheduled to leave Mumbai at 06:55 and arrive at Madgaon (Margao) station in Goa at 18:30.

Mumbai is the end of the line so the overnight train from Goa turns around here and becomes the day train back again. The night train was well over an hour late coming in to Mumbai. Although the staff on board do the cleaning up before the train reaches its destination so that the turnaround time can be minimised, the train still sat on the platform for ages while locomotives were shunted around and the final preparations were made.

There were five classes available on this train: 1AC (1st class, air conditioned), 2AC, 3AC, Sleeper class and 2nd Class unreserved, in order of decreasing luxury and increasing filth and overcrowding. On Indian trains the AC carriages are of course fully sealed, while the non-AC ones have barred windows with no glass—great for the view, but not so good for mosquitoes and dust. Most carriages are sleeper carriages, but the bunks can be converted to chairs during the day time. It gives the traveller the choice of lying flat or sitting, as long as one's travel companions can agree to do the same. We had chosen 2AC class.

If any trainspotters are reading this, you will surely already know about the amazingly comprehensive guide to the world's railways, including photos of the insides of the carriages, written by The Man in Seat 61. His page about India's railway is here.

An unofficial porter took it upon himself to show us to our seats, a job which we could have easily done for ourselves given that the carriages and seats are clearly numbered, and every carriage has a printout at the door which shows all the passengers' names and assigned seats. He then did that standing-still-and-refusing-to-leave thing until we gave him a 10 rupee tip, which he rejected—his price was 20. Eventually the engine at the front of the train took the strain and we were on our way to Goa, clanking and creaking slowly through the Mumbai suburbs. Madgaon is about 450 kilometres south of Mumbai, but as Mumbai is on an island, and the only train access to the mainland is at the island's north end, we spent the first hour travelling 180 degrees away from our destination. It was clearly going to be a long day.

The only disadvantage of travelling in one of the AC classes is that the windows are small, heavily tinted, and dirty. You travel in cool, tranquil comfort, but you can hardly see a thing outside. The carriage staff handed out sheets, blankets and pillows, and most other people in the carriage converted their chairs to bunks and lay down. We decided to do the same. Now only Glenn, in the lower bunk, could see out of the window, but Isla briefly fell asleep so it didn't matter.

After a while we got fed up with lying down so we re-built our seats and spent the time reading the paper, or trying to peer outside at Maharashtra state's scenery. We couldn't help noticing how many staff Indian trains have. British InterCity trains generally have around four staff covering the whole eight-carriage train: driver, conductor (sorry, 'train manager' in Newspeak), buffet car person and first-class steward. Some also have a chef. In India, it seems that every carriage has this many staff. All day long food sellers, drink sellers, blanket distributors, pillow distributors, troubleshooters, question answerers, ticket checkers, under-ticket checkers, deputy-under-ticket checkers and their mates scuttled up and down the train. Indian Railways is the world's largest employer, with over a million and a half employees!

We at last reached the small state of Goa, and holidaymakers began to get off at the stations in the north of the state. The staff were very good at coming to find people to tell them when they needed to get off—vital, because none of the stations had lit name signs and seeing anything at all through the tinted windows after dark was impossible. Madgaon is in South Goa, and the train made its last stop there two and a half hours late at about 21:00. Travel-tired after fourteen hours on the train, we were pounced upon by several taxi drivers and rickshaw-wallahs before we had even reached the top of the ramp up to the overbridge. We opened negotiations with one, but he refused to lower his outrageous price at all. We walked to the stands at the front of the station with him following us and trying to persuade us that we had no chance whatsoever of bettering his price, whereupon we quickly agreed a more reasonable fare with a less aggressive driver. In India it seems that there are always far, far more vehicles than potential customers, and bargaining for a fare is not hard. Driving at incredible speed, our rickshaw bounced over most of the bumps and potholes and we had soon covered the last six kilometres of our journey, to the coastal village of Benaulim. This will be our home for the foreseeable future.

Palm Gardens Restaurant [Enlarge]

Having helped the driver to find our hotel (shouldn't it work the other way round?) we pulled up at the impressive gate of Palm Grove Cottages, which was complete with a saluting security guard. The friendly owner showed us to our room, which is spacious, spotlessly clean, and has a balcony and air conditioning. Having had a shower we walked through the gardens to the restaurant for dinner. We started with a couple of cocktails at 75 rupees (GBP 0.87 / USD 1.70) each to celebrate the start of a much needed few weeks of complete rest, and as we had dinner under the stars and palm trees, we were very glad to have left Mumbai far behind. We think we're going to like it here.

Map of Day 052

Day 052
Mumbai to Benaulim

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.