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Trip 9 -- Western India

Message 3: Kochi to Mumbai and how to buy a train ticket in Panaji

Date: Fri, 18 Mar 2005 18:32:34 -0500
From: Seth Weinstein <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Subject: Back in New York/India update #3: Kochi to Mumbai and how to buy a train ticket in Panaji

The South felt like a different country. Arriving in Kochi, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, we were greeted not with the aroma of tropical sweat and raw sewage as we'd been in Mumbai, but with the fragrance of limes and palm trees. In addition to the usual abundance of Hindu temples, the South had churches - Kochi even had a Jewish synagogue. Signage on stores was carefully stencilled or in three-dimensional metal and plastic letters, rather than the freehand-painted characters in the North. The men did not wear turbans. Beggars were scarcer, and the people looked better off - Kerala's literacy rate is over 90%, as opposed to a national rate of 65%. The language was Malayalam, not Hindi. To approximate the appearance of Malayalam, you cut up smallish strands of cooked spaghetti and toss them in the air. It's beautiful to look at.

The coastal town of Kochi was taken over periodically by various European countries, and their legacies abound. The 16th-century St. Francis Church, India's oldest, was built by the Portuguese. It became a Dutch Protestant church a couple of centuries later, and it is now an Anglican church. Tombstones line the church's walls - on one side they're in Portuguese, on the other they're in Dutch, and there are memorials in English thrown in for good measure. Kochi's synagogue dates from 1664 and is still in use, even though there are only a few dozen Jews resident in all of Kerala.

Kochi's best meals could be had on the shores of the Lakshadweep Sea, where there's a small outdoor fish market. We'd pick out a freshly caught kingfish or butterfish and some tiger prawns - and, on one occasion, a bizarre kind of lobster with long, blue legs - and bring them over to one of the beachside restaurant shacks, where they'd cook it up in our chosen garlic or mixed-spice sauce. Here there was a great view of the sunset, and also of the giant Chinese cantilevered fishing nets that line the shore. They're all over Kerala but seem hopelessly ineffective: A team of men plunges the net, strung up between two huge wooden poles, into the water, then lifts it up to capture whatever might have been swimming by at the time - usually a few minnows and a discarded plastic bag. If they're able to climb into the net to rescue the minnows fish before the crows grab them, then there's dinner.

In Alappuzha, 90 minutes south of Kochi by bus, we spent one night at a place called Green Palace, a "co-op waterside farm" accessible only by boat. It fronted rice paddies and featured a continuous parade of three geese. We strung ourselves out on the hammock, waved at old men paddling by in canoes, sampled fish molee (a fish-with-vegetable-stew dish spiced with curry leaves, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, aniseed, and ginger) and egg roast (hard-boiled egg in a chile-garlic-ginger gravy) - we'd learned how to make these Keralan dishes at a cooking class in Kochi - and listened to the various birds resident on the farm. I don't know what they were, but they were a soothing orchestra: an insistent recorder (oo-WOO, oo-WOO), a staccato trumpet (aw-aw-aw-AW), a ringing tambourine (ts-ss-ss-ss, ts-ss-ss-ss), a bass clarinet (ma-ma-ma), and a piccolo (whee-whee-whee-WHEE). There were no car horns or motorcycles within earshot, and with only the sounds of the birds, the wind, and the water, it seemed much like these waters must have sounded like centuries ago. Until the hotel manager's cell phone rang.

But the main reason we went to Alappuzha was that it was the launching point for our 22-hour ride in a kettuvallam, or covered houseboat. Boarding just before noon, we set off for a journey through the backwaters (it was never "canals," "rivers," or "streams"; it was always "backwaters") around Alappuzha, passing clusters of houses too small to be called towns or villages. Children were helping their mothers beat the dirt out of laundry; whenever children saw us they'd wave and ask for "one pen." Women were diving underwater to collect mussels; people of all ages were bathing in these murky waters. There were mango, white-gourd, and palm trees. A young girl plucked a mango and hurled it at us, but it wasn't ripe enough to eat.

Our houseboat had a kitchen and two bedrooms - one for Erica and me and one for our staff of three. Suresh, the chef, cooked us up sambar (vegetables with lentils), ladyfingers, tuna, and cabbage thoran (a shredded-cabbage dish we'd also made at the cooking class). Neelan and Nanu propelled us through the water at a painstaking pace until we anchored in Vembannad Lake for the night. Neelan worked the bow, holding a 20-foot bamboo pole. Each stroke took about 20 seconds - he'd hoist the pole above his head, plunge it halfway into the water (the water wasn't very deep), then, clutching the pole for dear life, take five or six rushed steps toward the stern. He was at least 50 years old, maybe 60, with broken calluses on his hands and feet, and each time he took those rushed steps toward us he did it with a maximum of effort, opening his lips and clenching his jaw, consistently reminding us that he was missing one and a half noncontiguous teeth.

I'd realized that Udhagamandalam - nicknamed Ooty by the British - was nearby, at least in Indian terms, and it could be conveniently reached from the docking place in Alappuzha. We took a rickshaw back to the center of town (during which ride I got a two-millimeter piece of dust in my eye that required constant blinking for two days to evict); returned to Kochi on a bus that had the loudest, most obnoxious, and most frequently sounded horn in all of India - but then again, they all seem to; took a rickshaw to the train station nearest Kochi (on the mainland town of Ernakulam); took another rickshaw to the other train station in Ernakulam when we realized we were at the wrong one (the train we wanted leaves from one station four days a week and the other station the other three, and my timetable had it incorrect); took a four-hour train ride to Coimbatore, where we had a splendid stand-up dinner of the southern specialty, masala dosa (giant crepe filled with spiced potatoes); overnighted in Coimbatore; caught a 5:15 a.m. overcrowded train to Mettupalayam; and finally - this made it all worth while - boarded the toy train to Ooty.

The small meter-gauge train climbs for five hours, hanging precariously over valleys, chugging through tunnels, winding through eucalyptus forests, and passing rice, potato, and carrot farms, before arriving at the hill station of Ooty. It's a steam train two thirds of the way, up to Coonoor, and then a diesel train, and the sputtering locomotive pushes the train from behind. We hadn't reserved tickets, and so we were in the small unreserved second-class car with about a hundred people. Erica grabbed a seat that, according to Indian rules, had been "saved" by someone else. Standing her ground, she all but chained herself to the bench, asserting that, no, placing an empty Coke bottle on a seat does not reserve the entire row for one's sixteen children. I stood for the first three hours, but then many passengers left at Coonoor and we were able to sit in peace. Shortly before Ooty, a sign warned, "Beware of Over Head Structures" - which I thought moot for a train ride.

Ooty is in Kerala's neighboring state, Tamil Nadu. The language, Tamil, looks similar to Malayalam, except you substitute fusilli and tortellini and throw in a little bit of couscous.

We spent three nights in Ooty, in the maharaja's former summer palace. The back cottages, formerly staff quarters, and the front building, formerly guests' apartments, have been converted into a magnificent medium-priced hotel. We chose one of the deluxe rooms, in the front building; it had faded photographs of the maharaja's annual hunting meet, a tiled sitting table, and a working fireplace. The service was impeccable. Returning one night after a walk through Ooty's colorful central market, we heard a knock on our door several minutes later.

"Will you require dinner this evening?" No, thanks; we had just eaten. "Hot-water bottles?" Certainly; it was chilly at night up at 7,000 feet. "Would you like firewood?" A man came and built a fire in our fireplace.

The next afternoon I walked out to Doddabetta, Tamil Nadu's highest peak, about six miles from Ooty. When I returned to the hotel, the door to our room was locked.

"Madame has gone to the palace," one of the hotel staff informed me.

The actual palace, the back building of the complex, was the maharaja's building, and it's being incorporated as part of the hotel. A staff member had taken Erica to view it. They're eager to show visitors these opulent suites, which will feature the original antique furniture, wherever possible, and are being restored with modern conveniences such as hot water and showers. There will also be an elegant ballroom and bar. Rooms in this building will run to about $300, compared with the paltry $38 we were spending on our room in the front.

And as long as Erica and I stay together, I shall be very content indeed if I ever again return home to be told that "Madame has gone to the palace."

I didn't think I'd hop on another animal ever since the Calloo experience, but I was persuaded to take a pony ride through the villages around Ooty. Erica rode a real horse - she has riding experience and isn't a wuss with heights as I am. We also visited Coonoor, 12 winding miles and an hour's bus ride away, to spend an afternoon in Sim's Park, residence of several families of monkeys, and an evening in Coonoor's lively covered market. Returning to Ooty, we informed our hotel staff that we wished to visit a tea estate - Kerala's teas are every bit as noteworthy as Darjeeling's. They'd said they could help us organize an excursion the following morning; they'd hire a taxi for us. They said we could go any time we wanted.

"Where is the tea estate?" I asked - the taxi rate seemed high and I wondered if we could get there on our own.

"Nineteen kilometers away," the hotel manager said. "It's in Coonoor, near Sim's Park."

We had just returned from there! But the next day we went anyway, taking the toy train back down to Coonoor. It was a maintenance day at the tea estate, so the machines weren't in operation, which was disappointing. But they vaguely guided us through the process of picking leaves, drying them, cutting them, and letting them ferment. The whole process from plucked leaf to usable tea takes about 16 hours.

Then we headed back down the mountain by bus to Coimbatore, then by overnight train to Mangalore, and finally, on another train, to Goa, that surreal beach goer's paradise and hippie enclave that barely seems part of India. Elderly package tourists and tattooed, shirtless hippies with long hair boarded the train, and the two groups were not mutually exclusive.

We spent the first night in Palolem, one of the southern beaches, where we stayed in a beach shack and chilled out under the stars, eating fish curry and sausages and drinking Portuguese wine - the Portuguese were present in Goa from 1510 to 1961, and their cuisine, as well as their whitewashed churches and colonial houses, has made a lasting impact. Someone had written into the sand, "I can see clearly now." Hippie paradise indeed! The next three nights we spent in Candolim, closer to the centers of activity in Goa.

I'm not much of a beach goer, and I'm certainly not a hippie, but there was enough for me to do for three days in Goa.

I could buy train tickets back to Mumbai, for example.

I took a two-day train once from Chicago to Los Angeles. I booked the ticket on-line in about five minutes and collected it at the train station. But the overnight train from Margao to Mumbai had to be booked in person - the Indian Railways Web site will let you browse schedules and find out your status on the waiting list, but it won't actually let you buy a ticket unless you register, have an address in India, and are the heir to the maharaja's throne.

The most convenient location to buy train tickets in Goa is the upper floor of the bus terminal in Goa's capital, Panaji, which has no train station. You can buy them at a couple of little stations along the line, and at the Margao train station (which is a couple of miles outside of Margao), but the Panaji booking office is the easiest to get to. We passed through it on the way from Palolem to Candolim.

The Panaji booking office was a small room with seating for 20, blue painted walls covered with years of grime - not unlike the trains themselves - and two booking windows. A suspicious-looking schedule was hand-painted on one wall - suspicious in that, for instance, it listed one train as leaving both Trivandrum and Ernakulam at the same time, even though the two towns are about 100 miles apart. Unlike the frenetic queueing system used in most stations, the Panaji booking office had an orderly system that required me to take a number - or, rather, be given a number. No one was present at the numbers-giving window, so I reached in and started to rip off the next number from the booklet. That's when I noticed that you had to pay ten rupees to get a "token," and I saw the token-wallah coming back to his window. I quickly jerked my hand away.

"What is this?" he said, examining the half-ripped number.

I decided it would be easiest to pre-empt any discussion of the matter. "Is it ten rupees?" I asked, handing him the money with resolute eagerness.

He gave me token number 207; they were on number 159. A sign informed me that it took three to five minutes to serve each person, and so I went back downstairs, where Erica and I browsed in a supermarket and bought some snacks. I went back upstairs to check: number 168. More progress had been made than I had imagined, so I figured we should wait it out a little longer. We killed 20 minutes and checked again: 173. I revised my thinking and decided this was painfully slow, so we headed to Candolim - 35 minutes by bus - and I figured I'd come back at 8:00 the next morning, when they opened.

In Candolim we stayed in a friendly family house with a view of the ocean. The waters were too rough for swimming, unlike Palolem's, but the beach was less busy. We spent the first afternoon on the beach and booked a tour of a spice plantation for the following morning (Friday). The tour operator would pick us up at our hotel at 10:00.

I woke up at around 7 and got on the bus to Panaji, arriving at the booking office at 7:56. They had opened a few minutes early, and they were just handing out numbers. I got number 27 and took a seat. I knew I'd have to leave by 9:20 to make it back to Candolim in time to meet the van for our spice tour, so there was no guarantee that I'd get seen. But they moved along pretty quickly. They were already in the teens by 8:30, and they were past 20 by 9:00. I watched the numbers increase with breathless anticipation, my heart pounding in suspense. Forget Scrabble or camel polo or long sessions of Texas Hold 'em - this was an incredible game. I was up against the bureaucracy of the Indian Railways booking office, and I was ahead.

The number 26 appeared on the display. I stood up and waited in front of the number board, my gaze oscillating between the number board and my token, just to make sure I was really number 27. For just that moment, I was the envy of everyone in the booking office. I wasn't just another abused, frustrated Indian Railways customer. I was Next.

Number 27 appeared. It was 9:11 - plenty of time for me to take care of my business. I approached the window and surrendered my token and reservation request form.

There were several trains Erica and I could take to get to Mumbai. There were two on Saturday night, two on Sunday night, and a couple each during the day. Our preference was to go Sunday night, which would get us into Mumbai early Monday morning; then we'd have that whole day before flying back to New York at 2:20 Tuesday morning. While I was waiting for my number to come up, I had ranked our train preferences on paper so that I'd have them handy.

All the regular tickets for the overnight trains were fully booked. There was availability on the early-morning day trains, and he could sell me a special last-minute ("Tatkal") ticket for Saturday night - Tatkal tickets are sold only one day in advance, at a premium of about $7. Or we could be wait-listed on one of the Sunday-night trains; one train would have us in positions 5 and 6 on the waiting list, and with so many people always revising their schedules, there was a chance we'd make it. Or I could come back the next morning, Saturday, and buy a Tatkal ticket for Sunday night. He let me ponder these options while he served the next person, and then he took me again.

I decided that if there was a way we could definitely go Sunday night, that was the best option. So I bought the wait-listed ticket in three-tier air-conditioned sleeper. If the wait list cleared by Saturday night (which I could check by phone or on-line), then we were all set; otherwise I'd have to come back the next morning and buy a Tatkal ticket. Done.

Then I looked at my watch. It was 9:30. I'd be late for our tour!

I ran downstairs and caught the next bus back to Candolim. It left only a few minutes later, but it became clear there was no hope of my getting back by 10:00. Midway through the journey I left the bus and caught a taxi. I had him stop at the main office of the tour operator (John's Boat Trips), where I approached the young attendant and tried to say, "I was late returning from Panaji because I was buying train tickets, and you know how that is, so if the spice tour hasn't left, I'll just pick up my girlfriend in this taxi and we'll be right back." But instead I probably blurted out something like "I was in Panaji in a taxi on the train, and has it left yet?" Somehow he seemed to understand.

I got back in the taxi. A couple of minutes later I was running up the sandy driveway toward the hotel, and a van was approaching. "John's?" I asked. The driver nodded. He had already been to the hotel to pick up Erica, who had said she wouldn't go without me. The driver said he'd collect the other passengers and then meet us back on the main street. We'd get to go after all.

The spice plantation was an hour's drive away. A guide pointed at trees and challenged us to name them given clues as to their shape and smell - nutmeg, pineapple, cinnamon, allspice, and so forth - and then they served us a curiously underspiced lunch. The tour was supposed to include a visit to Old Goa, a tranquil town featuring a cluster of some of the more interesting ancient Portuguese churches, but the driver sped through when the others in our van seemed to show no interest. We got out and examined the buildings - beautiful wall paintings; a floor made of slabs of ancient tombstones, oriented however they'd fit; the relics of St. Francis Xavier; the facade of a church that's mostly in ruins. The town was small and tranquil and really looked more like a colonial Portuguese center of Christianity than like India; the only legacy to the Indian rule that preceded the Portuguese was one small gate remaining from Adil Shah's palace - the rest of the complex had been destroyed. From Old Goa, we took two buses to Mapusa, a town famous for its Friday market featuring local produce; the spice sellers were eager to market to us, and, inspired by the afternoon's tour, we stocked up. My dinner, out on the popular beach of Calangute, featured more of the spices I'd been looking for - the dish, sorpotel, is a stew of pig's liver and heart in a spicy vinegar-tamarind gravy. It's definitely a try-it-once-to-say-you-did meal, and nothing more.

I tried to call the Indian Railways check-the-waiting-list phone number, but it didn't work - sometimes it was busy, and sometimes it would ring 20 or 30 times and then go busy. I checked on-line and learned that, as suspected, we were still numbers 5 and 6 on the waiting list. I got up even earlier the next morning and was at the train-booking office well before 8:00. There was already a long line waiting for numbers, and the best I could manage was number 25. Progress was painfully slow - at 8:30 they were only serving number 8 - and so I took a brisk walk over the Ourem Creek and into the hilly, peaceful part of town known as Fontainhas, decorated with old Portuguese colonial villas and more white churches. I returned a half hour later, eager to run up the stairs and see the number board. They certainly wouldn't be in the low 20s, which would be the best scenario. Either they'd have passed me by, and I'd have to take another token, or they'd have made barely any progress at all.

A young man greeted me as I arrived at the top of the stairs. His official job was to shout bad news to people approaching the booking office. "Fourteen," he said.

I bought some samosas at the supermarket across the way, and I noticed there was a left-luggage office in the supermarket. I took time - I had plenty to kill - to ask all the right questions, ensuring that Erica and I could leave our bags there the following day and have a walk around Panaji before heading on the bus to Margao to catch the train. Was the supermarket open on Sunday? Was the left-luggage room in the supermarket open on Sunday? Was the left-luggage facility available to people who wanted to leave the neighborhood, or could it only be used while you were in the supermarket?

I ran back upstairs ten minutes later. Fifteen.

I sat down and read for a while, and then I noticed that the sounds associated with train reservations - people discussing their requests, the clicking of computer keys - had stopped. I looked up in time to see the two reservations agents hang signs on their windows: Communication Failure. The lines were down. They couldn't make any reservations at all!

A few people gave up; those with low token numbers waited around to see what would happen. I got into a conversation with a man who had lived in Goa for 50 years or so; he was passionately frustrated with the influx of tourists and the corrupt officials over the past 50 years. There were statewide elections that day, he said, but he doubted they would help. Because of the elections, no alcohol would be served in Goa that day or the next.

A half hour later they got one computer working, and I was served shortly after 10:00. Yes, Tatkal tickets were available for the train I wanted, in three-tier air-con class. There were also, it turns out, tourist-quota tickets available, but they could be purchased only at the Margao train station itself. I collected our two Tatkal tickets - 2,192 rupees, or a little over $50 - and returned to Candolim, all the while thinking that the whole process may in fact have actually been faster if I'd taken another bus to Margao and purchased the tickets there.

In the afternoon I took a long walk to Fort Aguada, a fort set up by the Portuguese, and climbed the hilltop lighthouse for views all the way to Panaji. The path back down to Candolim took an hour to walk but was gorgeous - it was just before sunset, and the path wound its way up, down, and around the rocky hill, a meandering cliffside path out of sight of the bustle of the beach. I got back to the beach to join Erica for the sunset, and then we had dinner at an out-of-the-way restaurant, Florentine, recommended by our van driver for the spice-plantation tour. The outdoor ambience was perfect, and the thick Goan rolls were to die for, but I still wished the fish curry had been spicier. I never had any food in India that really knocked my socks off. The spiciest food I've ever had, by far, was the lamb jalfrezi at an Indian restaurant in London called the Red Fort, in 1986. The second spiciest was a chili burger near the Apollo Victoria Theatre the following day. Nothing else I've ever eaten has come close.

We walked around Panaji the next day, happening upon a restaurant serving excellent seafood thalis, and then took the bus to Margao to meet our train. It got us into Mumbai at about 6:00 the next morning.

Being back in Mumbai was a fitting closure to our trip. We whiled away the early-morning hours at a breakfast spot we'd found our second day in the country, and then we took a bus up to the Hanging Gardens, known for its shrubs carved in the shapes of large four-legged animals, some more accurately than others. I could make out the elephants from far away, but I couldn't figure out how something that appeared more like a dog-chewed airplane seat was supposed to be a monkey. We went back to Rajdhani, our favorite Mumbai thali place, for lunch; that day's specials included two wonderful items, puneri misal - vegetables topped with curds, raw onions, and bhelpuri corn-flake-like snack - and dal dhokli, an unlikely sweet lentil-apple mixture.

In the afternoon we saw a movie called "Bewafaa." It was the archetypical Bollywood film. All of the singing was in Hindi, and about 98% of the dialogue was in Hindi, with a few words interspersed in English. The basic ideas were pretty easy to follow.

ANJALI: I love you!

RAJA: I love you, too!

ANJALI: Let me sing and dance a very repetitive ten-minute song about it!

The barest plot progressions - covered in three to five lines of dialogue - were usually followed by supporting songs, which generally followed the style of music videos: angled, rotating camera shots of the main character, who was invariably surrounded either by white dancers or by people standing around and having no reactions to the scene.

Erica was usually more astute than me at figuring out the more involved plot points, the driving forces of which were always expressed in Hindi.

ANJALI: [Hindi Hindi Hindi Hindi] Oh, it can't be! [Hindi Hindi Hindi Hindi]

ANJALI'S MOTHER: [Hindi Hindi] I'm sorry. [Hindi Hindi Hindi] That's how it is. [Hindi Hindi]

ANJALI: [Hindi Hindi] No! NOOOO! (bursts out crying)

ME: (squints, looks confused)

ERICA: Can you imagine that? Being forced to marry your dead sister's husband?

ME: (squints, looks confused)

But all in all, it was very enjoyable, if predictable, and the copious songs were memorable. We weren't hungry for dinner, and so we spent the evening walking more or less randomly and taking random buses to unknown destinations. We came upon a Muslim section of town, which featured a mazelike covered market with narrow alleys, sellers thrusting chickens in our faces, and children demanding money - or at least attention. Then it was time to fly home - nine hours to Paris and then seven hours to JFK.

New York City seems calm, clean, orderly, and ridiculously expensive if you've just come from India, particularly Mumbai. Where were the cows in the middle of the roadways? What happened to the honking and pollution of auto-rickshaws and motorcycles? Why didn't everything smell like a sewage canal? How come people are actually following the lane markings in the streets? Why are dogs on leashes instead of running free? Worse yet, where will we get a traditional Gujarati all-you-can-eat thali for under a dollar, and a cup of sweet masala tea for a dime? But it's nice to be back where you can drink the tap water, where toilet paper is common, and where there are sidewalks. And where it's possible to get a palatable bottle of local wine. I guess we can't - and wouldn't want to - have everything all in one place, and that's why we travel - and come home.