An afternoon in Panjim
The Victoria Terminus: this is what railway stations ought to be like. The outside is a riot of gargoyles, the inside a riot of human energy. The constant chaos of an Indian city is recreated in perfect miniature in this microcosm. Outside the taxis hurtle round corners to discharge their passengers and pick up unwary stragglers. Porters stand like dogs straining on leashes at the pavement edge, ready to battle with each other to be the first to pick up someone’s luggage. Through the door and onto the concourse mills a crowd as if in limbo: a moment’s pause between two worlds. Then through and on to the platforms, past lines of offices, each with their own attendants, ledgers and clerks. The over-sized luggage counter; the post-office; the parcel-office; the cargo handling office; there are even police and customs-esque counters. In the middle of the platform lie piles of boxes and mountains of bags, codes are markers roughly stamped on their surface, consigning them to some destination deep in the interior. There are the sellers of drinks and of sweets and, of course, the passengers themselves. There they stand in groups dotted up and down the platform. There they sit or squat. There they stretch out, lying on a bench or on a pillar’s foundation stone or on the platform itself. And running between them with luggage and parcels and barrows and energy are the various wallahs that make the place hum. Indeed, there is so much going on that one almost fails to notice the other side of Indian life. The piles of rubbish and the stray animals eeking out an existence bereft of hearth and fire. A dog with both eyes quite red and inflamed; another, snuffling around and pouncing on the crumbs of poppadoms, with a gigantic wound in its bottom revealing square inch after square inch of pink muscle where its haunch had been ripped away.
The train is late and it looks like my Goan adventure is off to a shaky start. My plan to go as basic as possible transport-wise also receives a blow when I am thrown off my bunk on the grounds that I have been upgraded to an air-conditioned carriage. I am not happy about this: the windows in the air-conditioned carriages are so discoloured that the outside world, when visible at all, looks as though seen through a tank of sea water; the other problem is that the air-conditioning units keep one up at night, breathing freezing air from which there is no escape. A further knock to my plans is received at Karmali Railway Station (not train station as guide book after guide book insists in calling it): I had hoped to take a bus into Panjim but can find nothing of a sort. I must swallow my ‘roughing-it’ pride and get into an auto-rickshaw (which, interestingly enough, are all equipped with doors in Goa).
I am dumped at the footsteps of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. It is shut. The sun is getting up and the clouds, though keeping their rain to themselves for now, are keeping the humidity high. I have no idea where I am and my bag is proving heavier than I would like. Still, an Englishman should never appear to be at a loss when abroad, so I set off with purpose in my stride hoping to find a respectable looking hotel. I soon found my bearings and strode down a road towards a hotel recommended in the guide book to find myself standing outside a completely different one. It was also in the guide book but it is funny how bearings can be found and lost and found again.
The owner of the hotel proves a friendly enough woman who bustles towards me and obliges me when asked if there is a spare room. The friendliness is just an act of course, there to disguise an utterly ruthless streak as she sets about asking for a most unlady-like sum of money. I point out to her that it is the off-season in Goa now: the rains are hard, haphazard and appear to have been successful in keeping tourists at bay (there really are remarkably few Europeans about). She shudders at the mention of the ‘off-season’ phrase and implores me not to be so misled. It is the holidays in France after all. Perhaps this is true, and I am half inclined to concede the point, but I am at a loss to understand the relevance. Seeing my hesitation she cleaves to the point: they all come to Goa. She is right off course. The place is absolutely swarming with the French and I am amazed that I could have been so blind up until now. Indeed, one’s tongue becomes quite sore from being dragged along the ground the place is so replete with young mademoiselles of the joli variety. I surrender after she backs down thirty rupees, the room is at least clean and I really don’t want to have to carry my bag all over the place. Next stop lunch.
This is where I begin to doubt the veracity of my guide book. It particularly recommends this particular restaurant and off the things on the menu it picks out one dish above all others to mention as being delicious. Well, delicious it may have been, but probably only to people who enjoy eating tasteless and tough lumps of chicken well marbled with fat. Still, the lime soda pepped me up and I left ready for the afternoons walk. And so that is what I did: through colour lanes of rickety looking houses, up steep and slippery staircases, past peculiar front gardens and round the back of massive temples. I visited the Archbishop’s residence and would have stayed longer at the Chief Minister’s house had not the pointlessly paranoid soldiers on guard began playing with their guns and motioning me (through hand gestures and surprisingly unpleasant throat sounds) to leave. I hurry on and find myself back in front of the main church again. It looks shutter than ever.
It is time to venture further afield. I clamber aboard a boat which takes me across the river and onto a bus which takes me to Candolim where I can change to another bus to get me to Fort Aguada, which the guide book recommends as worth seeing. After I shoot past Candolim I alight from my bus and trudge back to try and get a bus to take me on to the next leg. I am soon being bounced along in another bus that hurtles along narrow lanes all the while sounding as if it is about to rip itself apart. Then, all of a sudden it stops. I alight and find myself in the middle of nowhere. I must walk the rest of the way: just under two miles along a pleasant enough road that meanders up the hill affording me quite lovely views of the hills, beaches and sea. I arrive at the top and at the fort quite invigorated by the walk just in time to discover that the fort shut ten minutes earlier. I potter around the outside and then decide to find the hill path that the guide book mentions as a quicker way to reach the bus stop. I had rather thought I had found but as I neared the bottom of the hill it disappeared into dense thicket. I ploughed on and soon sent a family of wild pigs scrambling for all their worth up the hill. One squealing piglet found himself to be trapped on the wrong side of me but being a pig of pluck soon dashed after his brothers. My entrance into the village (not on the map of course) was not, therefore, without due style. As I leave the village I spot a rather good looking beach nearby and so head off to visit it in the knowledge that I will be expected to visit at least one whilst in Goa. I reach it swiftly and indeed it is impressive. There is a splendid rusting hulk of a (very large) ship a little out to see and the beach looks clean and deserted. Deserted, of course, because there are red flags up preventing people from taking to it, what with the wind, the rough seas and the general wild feeling of the weather. I still have not been rained on. I take in the views and return by bus to Panjim (once again overshooting my staging posts and needing to back track to find the right bus). To make amends for my poor beach attendance I decide to go to Panjim’s town beach on my return to the city. It is dark by the time I get there, which is just as well for I am told that the beach is filthy. I quite liked it and, after I walked back to the hotel along a promenade and serenaded by the sea in the balmy night I had a quiet sense of well-being about me. My first day had been I bit of a triumph I thought: a lot of ground covered quickly and much taken in. I was enjoying my Goan adventure.
It rained very heavily during the night.
The churches of Old Goa
Sunday morning came and I was up and out before the sun rose too high in the sky. But a service was already in full swing at the chapel near the hotel and also at the Church of the Immaculate Conception when I made it there. At least it was open, though, and I had a good look as I queued for communion. I waited until the end of the service to see if I could take a picture. Such things were not to be allowed though. So off it was to the bus stop and finally I managed to take a bus to my intended destination and no further.
Old Goa is a peculiar town. It is empty of people and of houses, but filled with large churches. Some were impressive and some, frankly, were not terribly nice at all. Some held the remains of St. Francis Xavier and some were but shells themselves. But wandering around the town one could for a moment forget that one was in India. The palm trees and the heat did their best to remind you. So too did the cars on the road and the buses with their melodious horns. So too did the rickshaw-wallahs and the sellers of cut-price tat. But the churches, with their massy stone walls and simple (and obviously European) architecture and the wide and empty streets that ran between them seemed a far cry from the rabbit warren of lanes with their temples and mosques that living in Bombay has brought me to know. It is silly my trying to write something for each church when pictures can do it so much better.
Leaving the church town behind I went to two nearby villages. The first, Carambolim, housed a temple to Lord Shiva. Important though the temple was supposed to be, I could not help but feel that Lord Shiva was getting a bit of a rum deal when his temple was compared to but the simplest of churches down the road. The temple certainly lost ground to the magnificent Santana church. When I first arrived and walked around it I thought it a ruined relic of a past age. Certainly the guide book suggested such was the case. The walls were obviously built to last, but neglect can wear away at the strongest of edifices and in places the church had begun to crumble. The windows were smashed; the elegance of some of the carving lost to the weather. Trees grew from the roof and from the tops, while verdant creepers sashayed their way across the stonework. It looked quite at peace with itself, settling into its slow decay. I was slightly surprised then, when I completed my circum-perambulation of the building to find a side door open. I peered in and found not an empty, dank and decaying interior, but a church: a living and breathing church with alter and pews and pictures and pulpit. It even had microphones and plastic chairs.
I wandered outside again, away from the last of the churches of my trip to Goa and, as the final minutes afforded to me before my train arrived, I watched the local villages working in their rice paddies. Oxen (or water-buffalo) pulled a plough; women stand calf deep in mud planting out the rice; children scampered about carrying this and carrying that; young macho men gunned the engines of their motorbikes as they rode up down the narrow paths between the fields. The women in the fields looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back and said namaste. Giggles filled the air. My taxi driver honked his horn: a single doleful cry. I picked myself up and walked away from a scene of utter bucolic serenity. A train was waiting and so was Bombay.