Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Onion bhajis, very little sleep and a rickshaw full of weed-smoking Israelis

At 2pm I found my seat in Tier 2A of the sleeper train to Goa. It was a 15-hour journey but I had my blog, a handful of postcards and a very big book (Shantaram – the cheesy choice of book to read whilst travelling round India!) to keep me occupied.

Plying the corridors of the train were chai wallahs, coffee wallahs and a range of different food wallahs – employees of the train company – who walked up and down calling out and selling their wares. It’s a very effective system. Unlike the UK where you either walk to the buffet carriage or see one person whizz past you with a snack trolley, here you could literally eat and drink your way through 15-hours straight. Coffee, tea, onion bhajis, cheese sandwiches, cold drinks are available to you constantly throughout the journey up until about 9pm when the wallahs leave you in peace to sleep.

At about 5pm, a man comes through the carriage asking whether you'd like dinner and offers you the choice of three or four dishes for 50Rs. A couple of hours later, and your meal arrives in a small takeaway container. I had hot chapattis and a vegetable and paneer dish to go with it. The food was piping hot and arrived at your seat for you to get stuck in to. A damn good service – Network Rail take note!

After the 15-hour journey, I stood bleary eyed outside Madgoan station. It was 5.30am. Taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers and motorbike drivers were all touting for business. I saw the pre-paid taxi rank – it was going to cost me 600Rs to get to Palolem. I wasn’t too keen to pay that much so I decided to think about it. There were a few other small groups of tourists hanging about so it was pretty safe so I did what anyone would do: I put my bags down and bought chai whilst I pondered my options.

Whilst taking my time drinking my chai, I'd noticed a group of guys who looked like Israelis stood in a small group. (It wasn’t that much of a guess – thousands of Israelis travel through India each year as it’s one of the few places they can travel easily on an Israeli passport. Chatting to one of the guys later on, he put the number at 20,000 at any one time).

I headed over and asked whether they too were heading to Palolem and whether they’d be keen to share a taxi. I was in luck! They were, and whilst they were considering taking a bus, my offer to add an extra body into the equation of the cost of a taxi perked their interest. One of them jogged over to a rickshaw van driver and came back to announce that we could get to Palolem for 100Rs each.

The rickshaw van was like a small van: it was fully enclosed with two benches facing one another. Piling up our large rucksacks into the passenger seat next to the driver, we hopped in the back with some of our day sacks. Surprisingly, it managed to fit the five of us in the back quite comfortably, which was just as well as we had a 1 hour drive ahead of us. The guys were very friendly (we did exchange names but for the life of me I can only remember Raff) and we chatted for a little while before the tiredness took over and I busied myself looking out the window as they chatted in Hebrew.

No sooner had we got started (by now it was 6am) than out of a day sack came a piece of paper, a little sachet of weed, a cigarette and a roll up. By the light of a mobile phone, with one of them holding the folded paper in a v-shape, I watched one of the guys adeptly roll up a spliff. Given that we were in a rickshaw and it was dark, it was an admirable feat!

Opening one of the windows – despite there being a breeze rushing through the van anyway – they sat and smoked their breakfast spliff, kindly offering me some in the process. I declined as, even if I was a smoker, I felt 6am was a tad early to be getting stoned!

After a long one-hour journey, punctuated by our driver clearing his throat and gobbing out of the window at regular intervals, we arrived at the beach resort of Palolem. I didn’t have any accommodation booked and hadn’t been looking forward to trailing up and down the beach with my large rucksack. The Israelis were great though, two of them offering to look after my bag with theirs, whilst I went with the other two to find rooms.

It was just as well they did look after my bag as it took us a good hour walking up and down the beach to find anywhere with room. The beach is a long strand of yellowy sand with a palm-fringed boarder in which wooden huts of varying size, colour and quality had been built. The few places we found were charging 1,000Rs a night – double what I’d been paying for accommodation elsewhere. The boys finally found a place that suited them housing all four of them for 600Rs. I didn’t particularly like the beach hut set up there (the huts looked particularly shoddy) so I decided to carry on. The boys very kindly offered to continue to help me look, which was very kind of them and very much above the call of duty. Shortly after, we came across Presleys – a restaurant and bar with a few beach huts set out in a small, sandy square. The area was clean, the hut was clean, there were a few piglets and chickens running around and they were only charging 500Rs: I went for it.

On our way back to the others looking after our bags, the two guys who were with me stopped to read a sign in Hebrew. I asked what it said and they explained that in most towns or touristy areas in India, there’s a Jew House and the sign was welcoming them to the house in Palolem. The house is not a synagogue but a place where Jews can meet, get to know one another and enjoy a Friday evening meal together. They explained that when they had travelled to one town and couldn’t find accommodation anywhere, all four of them had stayed in the Jew house overnight. It seemed like a pretty good idea to me! Unfortunately, the closest sense of community us Brits have in Palolem is The Smugglers – an English pub serving everything from Yorkshire puds to bangers and mash!

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