Monday, January 22, 2007

Journey to Goa

I was booked for the 10.50pm train for Goa. Having checked out of my hotel, I went down the road to the Beyt Chabad. They were to be celebrating the 4th night of Chanukah there. Every night of Chanukah, just before the large Chanukah Menorah is lit in the ground-floor courtyard, a lot of local Indians (especially little kids) gather around behind the large gate that separates the laneway from the courtyard. I guess it is a curious spectacle to them, as these strange foreigners light their big candelabra and sing songs in an unknown language. Before too much of a crowd had gathered outside of the gate, I noticed two innocent looking boys standing there eagerly awaiting the spectacle, having got themselves a front viewing position. One of them looked about seven or eight years old, and the other one looked a few years younger. The older one appeared to be looking after the younger one, with his arm around him in a protective manner. I asked them if they were brothers, and they were. I decided to take their picture with my camera, and then I showed them their picture on the little screen on the back of my digital camera. This gave them a bit of a thrill, which was my original intention of the exercise.

After the festive meal in the courtyard, I got some information about Goa from an Israeli guy, whose name I think might have been Binyamin. “Is your train going to Panjim or Margao?” he asked me. I had no idea. I took out my ticket, and saw that is was Margao. “Does it matter?” It did. Panjim is in North Goa, and Margao is in south Goa. We each took out our copy of the Lonely Planet, my copy in English, and his in Hebrew, and examined our maps of Goa. “If your train stops in Margao” he showed me “the best place to head for is Palolem.” I asked him about places to stay in Palolem.

“When you get to Palolem, you will see on the main street, a sign pointing you toward the Jewish House.”

“The Jewish House? What’s that? Is it like Chabad?”

“Yes, it’s like Chabad, but different. They’re from a different organization, but it’s similar. Anyway, you can go there, leave your bag there, and then there are lots of places to stay close to that.”

As it was my first time to take a train in India, and the CST station in Mumbai is so massive and hectic, I decided it was best to get there close to an hour early. I took a cab from Colaba to the train station. When I got in the cab, I said to the driver “CST station. 15 Rupees, ok?” He nodded and said ok. Unfortunately, I didn’t have exact change. When we arrived, I gave him a 50Rs note, and waited for my 35Rs change. He tried to pretend that the fare was 50Rs instead of 15Rs. We had a heated argument, and I initially refused to get out of his cab until he gave me change. Eventually he gave me 10Rs change. It was a stalemate, and I decided that given the discrepancy was now not even one Australian dollar, I would just ‘learn from the experience.’ I got out his cab, making a mental note to myself to have exact change next time. A porter in his 20s approached me. He was with a more senior man, perhaps his boss or supervisor. He tried to negotiate a fee for carrying my bags for me. He wanted 50 Rs. I knew it was way too much. The more senior man tried convincing me it was reasonable fare, as the train was along walk from where we were, on the other side of the station. I was happy to carry my own bags, but the problem was I had no idea where my train was, I had no experience with the Indian railway system, and the chaos and size of CST station in Mumbai result in it not being the easiest place to navigate through. I therefore reluctantly agreed. He picked up my large backpack and carried it on top of his shoulder. He would have carried my smaller bag too, but I insisted on holding onto that one myself. I think we had walked for less than 30 seconds before we came across these industrial looking trolleys, the kind you might move a stack of crates around within a warehouse. He put my bag onto this trolley. “What’s this? I thought you were going to have to carry my heavy pack kept the whole way. If I had known you were just going to have to push a trolley….” He just smiled, and we kept walking. It did prove to be a very long walk, and if he hadn’t had the trolley, it probably would have been worth the 50Rs. When we finally got to my train, he found my specific carriage for me. It was still quite early, and he decided to sit with me on the platform, just outside the carriage, as if it was part of the service to baby-sit me until boarding time. I told him it wasn’t necessary, but he insisted. We sat down together, and he asked me how old I was and whether I was married. I answered these questions, and then returned the questions back at him. He was 25, and wasn’t married, but would be getting married next year. “Oh, you have a fiancee?” He didn’t have one, but his parents would be arranging his marriage the following year to a girl he doesn’t know. After five or ten minutes, he told me he had to go. I paid him the 50Rs. He then, almost in an embarrassed fashion, informed me that there was another 10Rs to be paid as a “trolley charge.”

“Trolley charge?” I laughed “The trolley only made it easier for you! Hey, I really don’t mind that you ripped me off once, but you don’t think I’m going to get suckered twice in a row, do you? 50 rupees was pretty good fee for you.” He nodded and smiled, as if to acknowledge that he had been a bit ambitious asking for the dubious ‘trolley charge’.

I boarded the train, and found my bunk. There are many different classes of carriage in India. I was in “sleeper class.” Sleeper class means that it is open-air (not having A/C, which wasn’t needed this time of year anyway) with a pair of three tier bunks in each subsection of the carriage, with each bunk reserved for a specific passenger. Fortunately for me, in my subsection were three guys from Europe traveling together, who were also going to Goa. They introduced themselves to me. There was Paul and Marios from England, and Ricky from Holland. The passengers for the other two bunks were to be boarding at later station. Marios, a very laid back individual, noticed the vinyl upholstery on his bunk didn’t look that clean, and was futilely trying to wipe his bunk clean with a paper napkin. I had a large tube of anti-bacterial wet-tissues, and offered it to him and the others to take a few tissues each if they wanted to wipe down their bunks. The wet-tissues were very effective and much appreciated. We all then took out our bicycle chains and diligently chained our backpacks to our bunks. We discussed the possibility of theft, and I said I thought it was unlikely, given that there were four of us, and the odds are that all four of us would not happen to be asleep at the same time. In very little time, the three of them were all asleep and I still found myself awake.

I’m not sure how those guys slept so easily. There seemed to constantly be people walking up and down the train shouting out the name of whatever food product they were selling, such as chai, coffee, sandwiches, samosas, or omelets. I was using my small bag as a pillow, and it was feeling rather uncomfortable. I think it was the small shesh-besh (backgammon) set I had that was sticking into the back of my head. Eventually I managed to get a bit of sleep.

Somewhere in the night, I had what I believe was a Larium (mefloquine) produced dream. My Larium dreams start off as normal and pleasant enough, but always seem to have a horrifying and bizarre ending. To cut a long dream story short, in the dream I had helped organize a Chanukah party that had been great until an unwelcome guest had shown up whom I recognized as a perverted exhibitionist. I tried to evict him from the party, only for some witchy-women (who were confederates of the exhibitionist) to try and stop me. They had their hands on my face, and I was feeling suffocated and also had the feeling that they were digging their finger nails into my face. I awoke at this stage, gagging for breath, and though I realized it was dream, it felt so real that I had thought it must have been inspired my physical stimuli. I looked up and down the carriage to see if some beggar was aboard and had put their hands on my face while I was asleep. I couldn’t see anyone in the carriage who didn’t appear to be sleeping, so I put it down the Larium, and tried to get back to sleep.

When the morning came, with still a couple of hours to go until the train reached our destination, we unchained our bags and collapsed the middle bunks so the bottom bunk can be used as bench for sitting. This is the usual practice. Unfortunately, being the morning, I needed to urinate, which meant having to brave the train toilet, and its stench of decomposing urine. With the daylight, Marios and I were keen to look outside the train, but found the view through our windows a bit limiting. We went to section between carriages, where there was an open door to which we could look out from. I noticed that the air was very hazy. I wondered where the pollution came from, since we weren’t in a motor vehicle infested metropolis anymore. While there, a very hippie looking couple (from appearance, they were almost certainly Israeli) came to where were standing and asked if we minded if they smoke. We gestured that we didn’t mind. Officially, smoking is not permitted on the trains, but they were intending to smoke, holding the cigarette out the open door. “Be my guest.” When I returned to our seats, Paul, as he was often doing, was rolling a joint. He offered me, but I declined. An Indian man was there with his daughter, as they had boarded during the night and taken the two other bunks. The man offered me some Indian style chips, which I accepted, but felt bad, as I had nothing to offer in return. I made another mental note to pack food on the train with me for such occasions.

The train arrived at Margao around midday, and as it turned out, Paul, Marios, and Ricky were planning to go to Palolem. As Palolem was where Benyamin had recommended going, it was all the more reason to go along to there too. Between exiting the train, and walking to the carpark in the train station, we had befriended a Canadian couple. All of us wanting to go to Palolem, we looked to get a taxi-van to take all six of us, instead of trying our luck with the public bus service. I negotiated with a guy, and got him down to 500Rs, which seemed ok given that it was less than 100Rs (AU$3) per person. Well, in fact it was 100, since when it came time to pay the driver, Ricky paid him with a 500R note, and we all gave Ricky a 100R note, without change being returned from Ricky. The van ride to Palolem lasted for about an hour, and was very bumpy. During the trip, Paul took out the joints he had been rolling and had a smoke. He offered to everyone but no one took. I said I never smoked on account of wanting to preserve my short-term memory. This led to a discussion on the adverse effects of marijuana on short-term memory, and even Paul admitted that his memory is probably terrible from smoking pot at a frequency that generally exceeded once a day, although he required Marios to remember for him how often he smoked. The Canadian girl was from Indian heritage, though not her partner (presumably her husband), and I discussed with them some of the problems I had encountered from my night out with Sarita. They didn’t offer me any real insights, however.

The taxi dropped us right at the main junction of Palolem, and amongst a sea of other advertising signs, I noticed a big sign in Hebrew, transliterated as “HaBeyt HaYehudi 100m” and with an arrow pointing the direction. It was just how Benyamin had described. Wearing a large backpack in a place like Palolem functions as billboard on your back effectively stating: “Please come and approach me and try and persuade me to take up your offer of accommodation.” After I realized this, having had a number of touts approach me, I decided to do as Benyamin recommended, and go and take my bag to the Beyt Yehudi (Jewish House), before looking any further for accommodation.

I walked about 50m down the road, and then another “HaBeyt HaYehudi” sign with an an arrow that pointed toward the direction of the beach. The Beyt Yehudi resembled a large Bedouin tent with a small housing structure attached. The tent area was covered with rugs, mats, various cushions, as well as small tables designed for people sitting on the floor. I saw a few toddlers playing there, with haircuts to indicate they had religious parents. I removed my shoes before entering. As I did this, a guy appeared who was obviously the shaliach, stating it wasn’t necessary to remove my shoes, but I did anyway. He was a fairly tall guy, and looked very much like a hippy in all manner of his dress and appearance, except that he was also wearing tzitzit and long payes in his hair. I introduced myself to him in Hebrew. Because I said I was from Australia, and much more so because my Hebrew is inflected (or that should that be ‘afflicted’) with an Australian accent, and is generally of an appalling standard, he replied to me mostly in English, although I could tell that he wasn’t such a confident speaker of English either, so I did my best to reply to him in Hebrew. He was very friendly, said I could keep my bag inside. I asked what time they would be lighting the menorah, and he told me 7pm, and that there would be songs and food afterwards. I then asked him if he was a Breslover, and he said yes. He was somewhat surprised by my question. “You know about Breslover?” Not really, I said, “Just a little bit.” I added that I saw the film Ushpizin, and he asked if I liked it. I said I thought it was very good and interesting. He nodded with satisfaction. I left my large backpack there, and set out to find a place to stay for the night.

I found the others from the taxi-van. The three guys were staying in a beach shack for 300Rs total. The shack, with no bathroom, was suitable for only two people in that it had two beds. They actually offered me to also stay in there with them also! The Canadian couple had also got themselves a beach shack in the same group. The guy running it, calling himself Sammo, approached me. I asked if he had a shack with it’s own private bathroom, and he did, for 500Rs. I took a look and it seemed very nice. It had a balcony with chairs and hammocks, and two beds inside. The bathroom didn’t have much water pressure, but at least it seemed nice and clean. I figured I would stay there for one night by myself, and then see if I can find someone to share with for the following night. Sammo asked me if I wanted anything else, like drugs, women, etc, he could arrange it. “Everything’s possible!” he emphasized. I declined, saying the only service I might require is a laundry service.

By the time I had my room, I was so hot and sweaty that I was desperate for a swim. The three musketeers were all now taking a snooze in their hammocks, so I decided to hit the beach by myself. I had a swim to cool off, and then not yet having anything to sit on, I just walked around on the sand to dry off. I saw group of Israeli guys, some playing cards, others playing shesh-besh (backgammon). I approached the guys playing shesh-besh.

“So, are you guys playing for money, or just for fun?”

“We are playing for fun, but we can play you for money if you like” they smiled

“No thanks, I’m new here, so I’m not yet looking to make enemies by taking all your money.”

“Ok, you can play the winner, for fun” they laughed. The two guys playing shesh-besh introduced themselves. They were both named Asaf. Asaf-1 had dark curly hair, and Asaf-2 had lighter and straighter hair. After a game or two of shesh-besh, it was decided to play a game of football (soccer) on the beach. The playing personnel consisted of a mixture of those Israeli guys, plus some Indian teenagers. I played on the team with the Indian teenagers. Asaf-2 played on the opposing team and was a very skillful player. After we finished playing, some of us took a swim to cool off. While in the water, Asaf-2 told me he had been selected to play with a professional club when he was 17, but then he took up smoking cigarettes, and from then his fitness was never good enough for that level. He sighed when he told me this, looking downward, with a facial expression that said he was wishing he could go back in time and not make that mistake. I didn’t say anything in reply, but I couldn’t understand how a guy could have had that talent and opportunity, and then ruined it all by taking up smoking. After the swim, I said goodbye to those guys, saying that if they turned up to the Chanukah celebration that evening, I would see them then.


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