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Easy Come, Easy Go-a
... a journey to Goa by catamaran and back by train

Albert Botelho

Many summers ago, while I was browsing at the flea market in Anjuna to carry back trinkets for my friends, I saw a tee shirt in psychedelic colours which screamed, 'Goa is a state of mind'. And true to form, every time I set out on my homeward journey, I try doing precisely that. This time, to get into my ‘Goa mode’, I slipped into my comfort pants, lugged my walkman with a Gypsy Kings collection, carried a Gabriel Garcia Marquez tome for company and dashed off to Bhauchcha Dhakha to sneak out of grimy Bombay by sea.

Until a few years back, the sea voyage was an experience to behold. Time was when two decrepit steamers waded languorously in the Arabian Sea with a multitude of boisterous travellers. The gaiety was even more pronounced if you were to do the Goa-Bombay journey. Here the drama would unfold the moment the steamer docked at the Panjim jetty. The central characters were the commoners who’d huff and puff, with possessions in tow, to get a vantage position on the lower and upper decks.

The fun and games would kick off once the steamer set sail, hugging as she did the Goan coastline. The men would fish out hip flasks of feni from the most unlikely parts of their anatomy, stealthily smuggled on board so that they don’t get pulled up by the long arm of the law. Then the feni got passed around so quickly that it seemed as if liquids were required to salvage a dehydrated crew.

With the feni also came out a couple of guitars, and what used to follow was a magical evening with note-perfect renditions of popular folk tunes in Konkanni and Portuguese. The women on their part, chipped in by carting on board utensils full of lip-smacking food that befitted a royal voyage. If you were lucky to be part of the celebration, you’d be sampling the kind of divine cuisine that’s the trademark of a Goan marriage.

With the ravages of time, and presumably, the excesses of overindulgent voyagers, the old-but-graceful steamers slipped into oblivion. These ships got replaced by a modern avatar in the form of the catamaran. So here I was getting escorted into a boat resembling a mini cruise liner with the kind of hospitality that predicted balmy weather back home.

I took my appointed seat and for a moment, I felt I was taking the flight to Goa for the interiors looked straight out of an aircraft. To begin with, there were ushers demonstrating how to strap the lifebouy in case of an emergency. Then you had the public address system crackling alternately in Hindi and English about the duration of journey, the captain at the helm of the ship and other sundry matters about the voyage. Only the placid waters gently caressing the underbelly of the catamaran reminded me I was seaborne.

The bustle of an excited holiday-going crowd was silenced when the catamaran left Bhauchcha Dhakha at 10.45 p.m. Our very own cruise liner manoeuvred through the intimidating ships moored within puckering distance from the dockyard and before we knew it, we were literally flying over the waves on the high seas.

For entertainment, we viewed an Eddie Murphy movie that made us both guffaw and cringe with his assorted brand of humour. Come supper, and we were offered a choice of vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals. With the boat’s rocking gaining momentum, I decided to play it safe and opt for a veg. meal.

Supper was by no means a sacrament as it is treated back home. The food was light and simple. A sensible choice of menu I thought going by the evidence of seasickness in just about every loo. The seasick travellers were now weary enough to get a good night’s sleep. Sadly for us, the seats were not as comfortable as the rocking chairs that are a permanent fixture in the Goan balconies. And the 40 winks of sleep to be caught were possible only if you pulled out the luncheon tray from the rear of the seat in front and keeled over.

Several hours later, I awoke to the soothing strains of classical music at the crack of dawn. I caught a glimpse of a flotilla of trawlers casting out their nets for the day’s catch which I prayed would grace my dining table, later in the day. Another sight that warmed the cockles of the dreamy-eyed passengers was the vast expanse of the Calangute beach. I could see fingers being pointed towards the beach stretch, almost as if these holiday-starved souls were booking their places under the sun.

But the toast of the voyage was when we approached the mouth of the River Mandovi. As we sailed within handshaking distance of the river bank at Reis Magos, we saw the village poder, the guy who delivers piping-hot bread first thing in the morning, flailing his arms and legs, beaming from ear to ear, welcoming us to Goa. Our cruise of sorts reached its destination at 7 a.m with another welcome, this time a formal one by the catamaran crew.

I had all of 72 hours to soak in the goodness of Goa. Rooted as I am in North Goa, I didn't quite have the time to explore the exotic coastline, down south. But that didn't prevent me from checking out the chic eateries that line the Calangute-Baga stretch.

Frankly, I wasn't one bit impressed by the fare they dished out. Thanks to the clientele they attract, the chefs seemed to be at their wit’s end trying to cater to the gourmets from Europe and other parts of the world. Unfortunately, the trouble with trying to tickle everybody’s palette across the shores is that you end up not getting even the local cuisine right. After dining and wining in the shacks, I strongly feel that if you want to sample good local cuisine, think of imaginative ways of getting yourself invited home at a Goan’s dining table.

It was time to bid adieu to all things Goan. I decided to head back to the hustle and bustle of Bombay by the Konkan Railway. The only inconvenience of this journey is that you’ve to travel by road to Sawantwadi which is located on the outskirts of Goa to board your sleeper bogey.

The bus journey from Panjim takes a painstaking hour and a half. I had the misfortune of not booking a seat for this ridiculously short trip, and thus had the discomfiture of rubbing sweaty shoulders with others on the aisle. The bus crawled over hills, rivulets, paddy fields and other sylvan village surroundings. But then when you’re hurtling upcountry in a bus packed like sardines, I guess you tend not to notice the charm of village life.

On reaching Sawantwadi, I made a hasty exit from the bus and was pleasantly surprised to see a station that was clean as a whistle. I was instantly reminded that the Konkan Railway was but a few months old. The train left the station on the dot of 6.55 p.m. All the stations that lined the journey made a spankingly clean advertisement for the Konkan Railway.

Pray it stays that way.

In fact, the cleanliness of the state of things seemed to have rubbed on the passengers who behaved like a very tidy lot. That the Konkan Railway is infantile can be gauged from the fact that the train flits past one village after another without any breaks.

Our first major stop was Ratnagiri at 10.45 p.m. The journey thereafter is simply breath taking. If you have the benefit of a seat at the bottom of the pile of sleepers, you can catch the Sahyadris awash in moonlight. The only hitch being every time you catch your breath, the train enters a tunnel and it feels like you’re watching a spectacle that’s too good to be real. The Konkan Railway would well be advised to schedule trains by day for this Sahyadri darshan, that is, if they can manage to spare us shanties mushrooming on either sides of the tracks.

Tired of Mother Nature playing pranks by foisting tunnels on me, I hit the sack, and woke up only at 6 a.m. at Thane station. We made slow and painful progress thereafter, preferring the local trains to overtake us on their way to Chatrapati Shivaji station.

Over a short distance, our motorman had the courtesy to halt just before a station, stop at stations not scheduled on our itinerary and even park between two stations. A magnanimous gesture I thought, going by the way office goers were in a desperate tizz to get into their appointed seats in their favourite locals. This after all was Bombay, the commercial capital of India, a far shot from Goa and its lazy environs. Time I thought to get into ‘Bombay mode’ after my thoroughly spoilt days in paradise.

Sketch by Dominic Xavier

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