We were now in Palolem, the south of Goa which once again boasted little more to do than beach and markets. With our new friend Luana we made for the bay which was beautifully lined with palm trees, coloured houses on stilts forming the picturesque backdrop. Again we had deliberately chosen a quieter spot and with the season ending we were able to soak up a few rays in relative peace. There is a small island off the bay where dolphins sometimes visit so at sunset we rented kayaks to battle the waves out. Despite seeing no suspicious splashing, it was nice to enjoy the calm of the setting sun from the water.
In the following 36 hours we experienced three vastly different worlds.
We were up at 3am making our way to Madgao station for our train to Mumbai. We allowed plenty of time to decipher the train station announcements however at 3am the station was busy but subdued, lots of people sleeping on the floor, a few men walking around with silver canisters shouting ‘chai chai chai chai chai.’ We settled in for a long wait as our train was already an hour late from its journey up the coast, so the sun rose and we were still anticipating our train. We were guarded by our new adopted pet dog who took to sitting at our feet and fiercely defending us from anyone who seemed suspicious.
Getting the train tickets had been an adventure in itself. The railway website is a slideshow of colours, flashing words and broken links, as if everything is trying to stand out, the result being an overwhelming experience. 20 million people are said to take the train in India every day and so they sell out, however there is special reservations, the tourist quota and also ‘wait listing.’ Despite booking 2 weeks before, we were wait list spot 6&7 of up to 45. These tickets have been reserved for officials but if they are not required they get reallocated, the lower the number the more likely. We were pretty confident, although it was only around 8pm the night before we found out for sure we had a seat.
An hour and a ‘bit’ later the Nevatryn Express pulled into the station. We were on AC sleeper 2 and luckily we had been allocated the end two beds so had the privacy of just our beds between each dividing wall, a curtain closing us off from the aisle. It was to be a 12 hour journey and we enjoyed the scenic coastline of Goa, recognising the bits of it we had visited, anticipating the journey ahead. We got a few games of Bananagrams in early then opted for the train breakfast, a rather soggy masala dosa. We had had a few peers around the curtain, as well as the Chai guy double checking every 5 minutes that we hadn’t changed our minds. Around 9am we decided to make the best of our bunks and have a little nap. Well. We had visitors non stop. Considering it was a private section we had one guy want to charge his phone, another come to see if our charging point was taken and proceed to stand there contemplating it when he found it occupied. We then had breakfast guy back to make a pre sale on lunch, then the chai guy, then some curtain peekers. With our dosing constantly broken we gave up, Tara had her foot on the curtain and we were both standoffish. Yes, two white girls on the train, what of it?!
The day flew by, descending into ridiculousness with the improv game posing the question what we would have done if we had missed the train. The most plausible outcome we decided on was to round up all the stray dogs and construct a dog sled to Mumbai.
The coolness of our comfortable carriage made you easily forget the heat, although standing in between the carriages, the doors were open, the heat and dust and smells easily accessible. When we got to the suburbs of Mumbai it was fun to stand there feeling part of the urban life as the train crawled into stations, picking up a little speed before the next one.
We arrived to Lokiyomak Tidak station in north Mumbai just gone 5, highly anticipating world number 2, the five star luxury of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This was no ordinary 5 star hotel. Saying that I’m not a frequenter of them. However this hotel is a first, opening in 1903 owned by Mr Tata after he was refused entry into a hotel in South Africa on account of his skin colour. It has the first (and second) licensed bar in Mumbai, was the first hotel to employ women, first hotel in Asia to have electricity and has the last word in luxury. It has hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono, George Harrison and Neil Armstrong. It hosts visiting royals and heads of states, Barack Obama, Will and Kate and the Queen.
The smell of the place was incredible, but the first thing you notice entering from a busy city such as Mumbai is how much space you suddenly have. It’s like entering a bubble from the city. The traditionally dressed staff did the check in in our room which was largely white and marble, then the butler arrived with our welcome drinks and to show us how everything worked. Following that our luggage was delivered and then the concierge phones to confirm our dinner reservations. Who are we?!
We showered, twice, to remove the layer of grime and for the first time put on make up and perfume to head down to the Harbour bar, the first licensed bar in Mumbai. We had a cocktail then headed upstairs to rub shoulders with Bollywood stars over dinner. By the time our heads hit the incredibly plush pillows, there was little memory of the mornings festivities, it was so far removed.
Breakfast was in the sea lounge which looked out over the harbour and the gateway to India. It was a lot of Ma’am’s (Ma’am as in Ham, not Marm as in farm!) and the most delicious spread of western goodies I hadn’t dared to crave.. Coffee, Camembert and croissants!
The transition from world 2 to world 3 was only a step out of the doorway and then the vortex was opened. We were back in our travellers clothes, in the prickly humidity of Mumbai, swerving mopeds and cars, the unrelenting horns. We made for the Chharpatri Shivri Terminius, or the main (once named Victoria) station. Mumbai is a very beautiful city. The colonial architecture spans the streets and big banyan trees droop throughout. A twenty minute walk takes much longer because of the density of people. Think about that double step you do in the supermarket when you and the other person both simultaneously misread which direction your going in and awkwardly laugh. Now think about how tiring it is to do that constantly, every step requires a 4 move ahead game plan. And the horn. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean watch out or Oi! It’s a substitute for looking where your going. Most cars are missing a wing mirror or two and tooting the horn is like saying, I’m here, make room.
The station was incredible. It took 10 years to build but looks more like a palace. The red brick and high ceilings are very regal, and inside the bustle continues pulling together the different corners of the city.
From the station we dived right into the Crawford markets. Here the local markets were an eye opener. A man on a bike nearly thwarted me with a collection of brooms as he cycled past nonchalantly, another man had a bucket of raw chicken parts on his head. Women layed out spices beautifully on squares of newspapers, fearless of the trampling foot traffic only centimetres away. I’m sure you could have bought anything here, but as with Indian shopping, you will find every commodity grouped together. Plastic street, followed by material street, steel street followed by fruit street. It is as if the Indian business plan is, ‘that works well, I’ll do the same’ and the marketing strategy is shouting louder. We traversed the markets winding roads for ages making slow progress amongst men with wooden carts, cows, weaving traffic, the occasional lorry and rechecking google maps as we laughed at the oddity of it all. Emerging to the ocean at marine drive, we hailed a cab to go further north.
In what appeared to be a nice neighbourhood we stopped at Mani Bhavan, or Gandhi’s Mumbai residence. He lived here from 1917 to 1935, post his time abroad, when he was becoming revolutionary against the British rule. From here he started Shatayara, his newspaper, did a lot of writings and lived simply until he was arrested. The collection showed a lot of his sayings, his writings and letters to head of state. Upstairs his simple room was on display and adjacent was a collection of models showing his lives work and the many protests and causes he peacefully supported during his time in India. His peaceful approach eventually winning independence from the British, although with division from Pakistan, in 1947. Oh, and where did this all take place? The Taj Mahal palace hotel! They housed freedom fighters for free during the struggle, the ballrooms were used for diplomatic talks and eventually, it was the place where Lord Mountbatten first declared the independence. Two worlds collide.
With such luxury awaiting us it was time to be poolside and have someone attending to your every whim. Our room had been serviced so we now had our own private Rangoli made from rose petals, and they had left us gifts of earrings, bangles and bindies. In the evening we joined the heritage walk of the hotel to learn more about the decor and art around the place. We were staying in the heritage or palace part, however we also got to explore the more recent addition of the tower quarters. With 110 years of history there was parts turned museum and gallery, and portraits which hinted at the luxury of the 6th floor VVIP apartments.
As the sunset over the harbour we sat in a booth in the Sea lounge watching the Gateway to India illuminate. A musician played on the piano, occasionally taking to some more karaoke style singing, much to Tara’s delight. It was a strange way to end a month in India, a world away from the world just beyond the window. From my air conditioned paradise Tara and I said our goodbyes, her enthusiasm (and organisation) such a blessing for our time together.
India had enthralled and exhausted me. It’s history was far beyond that I had ever imagined and I’m sure I have not come across a country with such a rich culture that dictates so much to everyday life. It’s baffling how these traditions, practices and religions impact so much on everything, everything has a backstory, an explanation. Without any apparent explanation, things work and 1.2 billion people coincide here for the most part with peace. It’s the first time I have ever felt claustrophobia from the heat, an inescapable presence. This country has so much more to discover and is firmly on the list for a second visit, I hope soon!
One final thing.. That head wobble. It was my mission to understand it, and one month is definitely not enough to unravel the complexity of this simple move. It will have to be an ongoing project. The verdict for now, it can mean anything. Whilst at first it looks like an exasperated yes, I guess it’s negotiable. Any thoughts?