Mumbai & Goa
07.01.2013 - 15.01.2013 40 °C
For us, India is best described by a cockney couple we met on the train who said “it’s an absolute ‘eadache, but we lav it!”(- best cockney accent, please!)
During our research prior to India, Louise had read a lot of information on forums and books on how she should dress and behave. This highlighted some key points like don’t make eye contact with men, don’t return smiles, if you have a conversation with a man keep it short and try and introduce the fact you’re married and dress conservatively. While this is obviously sound advice, it didn’t really help to make us feel relaxed. We’ve since accepted that although some men can be a bit starey (and some of Louise’s underwear hasn’t made it back from the laundries!), a lot of this advice is in fact a bit OTT and most people are very friendly.
First stop in India, Mumbai. Mumbai is intense, it’s packed to the rafters with people, the traffic is absolutely everywhere, the slum is the one of the biggest in the world, buildings rich in history tower over everything, the smells of the food permeate the air and you can’t escape the poverty or the rubbish. We’d booked our hotel online months before and it turned out to be in a less touristy part of town. When we arrived it was dark and the hotel offered us immediate sanctuary away from a world which we were unable to familiarize ourselves with. It’s fair to say we were both feeling nervous. The next day, we went for breakfast in the hotel restaurant next door. It was busy, but very quiet and we were being stared at intently by a few of the locals. All in all, it was quite intimidating and not the welcoming atmosphere we had become accustomed to in South East Asia. Still, we waded right hand first in to our dhal and chapatti then headed out in to the streets.
The heart of Mumbai (and seemingly every other Indian city, usually the colonial part) is Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Road, full of extremely impressive British built buildings. One of the star attractions is the Prince of Wales Museum, so called to commemorate the visit of the Prince of Wales (not Charlie but the one before him, can’t remember his name). It’s a very beautiful building and the museum wasn’t bad either.
The highlight for Louise was when we were walking through a room full of stuffed dead animals (delicious) and came across a whale jaw bone… did someone say Whitby?
After the museum, we took a trip down MG road, passing the very impressive Victoria Railway Terminus and ending at the Taj Mahal Hotel. We were tempted by a room, but the rates started at 30x our regular budget, so we gave that one a miss! Instead, we headed to Leopold’s Café (of ‘Shantaram’ fame – read it if you haven’t yet) and pretended to be in the 1980’s Mumbai mafia over a couple of fiery curries.
One of our main jobs in Mumbai was to go out and by some more appropriate dress for Louise. We took a walk round Colaba Market where vest tops and shorts were traded in for Salwar Kemeez and generally baggier, more concealing clothing. We knew there was a lot more to Mumbai than we had allowed time for, but after doing Hanoi to Bangkok to Mumbai, we were yearning to escape the big cities and relax a bit. So, looking slightly less like we’d just stepped off the plane, we made for the train station to take on the Indian railway system (for those of you who have seen the Indian Top Gear special, you’ll know what’s coming next)…
In total it took 3 hours, which considering we had our own ‘tourist window’, wasn’t that bad compared to the regular queues next to us, which didn’t seem to be moving at all. The process involves filling in a request form (which we only discovered after half an hour of queuing and subsequently lost our place), then when you finally get to the front of the queue, finding an available train, picking from the 6 classes of seat (if available), choosing from upper/middle/lower berth, then starting again if your request isn’t do-able. Once that’s done, there’s passport and visa checks and finally waiting for the 1980’s BBC style computer to print your ticket (even had the perforated paper down the sides ). All that done, we were bound for Goa on a sleeper train (2nd to lowest class) the next day! We had to do this, as we’ve been trying for a month now to register for the Indian Railway website to buy tickets online. More headaches.
Lonely Planet and other forums advised that ‘sleeper class’ was only for the more adventurous backpackers and most tourists opt for the higher classes of seat for reasons such as safety, comfort, cleanliness etc. What a load of rubbish (again)! The people were friendly, the bangra music blasted out from people’s phones, the smells of the food wafted past with the vendors, shouts of “chai, chai, chai”, “lassi”, “biriyani”, “samosa”, “cold drink” etc filled the air, beds were comfy and if Indian families were willing to have their kids run about, it can’t be that dangerous! It was a lot of fun and is now our preferred method of travel.
Next day we woke up in Anjuna (Goa) and headed straight for the beach. Anjuna is famous for its all night parties in the 1980’s and is the heart of ‘Goa –Trance’. We used the time there to sunbathe, swim in the big waves and just chill out, as we were both genuinely exhausted from 3 months travel and felt we needed a holiday from the itinerary. Chris also took this opportunity to photograph his imaginary trance album cover.
We dabbled with the party scene, but from the pictures we’ve seen online (5am beaches rammed full of ravers), it was a shadow of its former self.
If we had to pick some highlights out, it would be watching a couple of old hippies doing yoga demonstrations and seemingly making glass balls fly with their hands (one of those I don’t know how they’re doing that moments!), a masseur who promised a massage from him would make Chris “a 24 hour power shower” (no clue), but the weirdest one being a guy who offered to swab Chris’s ears on at least 3 occasions (I mean we’ve been offered a lot of unusual things by now, but really?). We both massively enjoyed it though and can see why so many tourists flock to the beaches year on year but it wasn’t why we came travelling so we headed for Panjim to check out the state capital…
Goa was occupied by the Portuguese for hundreds of years resulting in some very pretty architecture being left behind. Panjim is a small town and we managed to see the sights in 1 day, they were nice enough, but the town was more about the atmosphere than the buildings. We ran out of things to do a lot earlier than we expected, so we booked on to a 1-hour sunset cruise for the evening and grabbed some food to kill the time.
When we queued for the sunset cruise, we thought we’d bought the wrong tickets. In the daytime, the ticket office had looked like a typically run down sea-side resort so we were expecting something like a small boat with a couple of other tourists. We turned up to see the best part of a thousand well dressed Indians all hustling for position in the queues. We must have looked surprised as a couple of people kindly pointed us in the right direction, before we boarded our boat ready to go. The boat had 3 decks, the lower one was a disco where ladies got in free, but men had to pay 50 rupees, the middle deck offered different foods and a bar, and the top deck, where we were, was filled with Indian families, a DJ booth and a lot of dancing. The MC proceeded to call up “the gents”, then “the ladies”, “the kids” and finally “the couples” who all (it’s fair to say) absolutely had it to some filthy Indian style electro house beats. They were shameless but very competent dancers and we felt embarrassingly British as we stood at the back with our jaws dropped at what was unfolding. Louise shed a small tear and I think we both realized at this point that we were in India. We got befriended by a couple of Indian families who were also on holiday in Goa. They took it upon themselves to explain Indian lifestyle and make recommendations about places to see. The cruise only lasted 1 hour as promised and was a great introduction to an Indian party.
In the evening we went to the Lonely Planet’s ‘Top Choice’ for food in Panjim; Chris had a chicken dish and spent the night on the big white phone to God. Despite the other countries editions being reliable, we’re quickly learning to take the Indian Lonely Planet with a pinch of salt (and sugar).
The next day we took a local bus to Old Goa. Once at the front of the ticket queue, Louise had to stave off well placed elbows and loud Indian voices who thought they could muscle in for position. But she more than held her own. Don’t worry this is the norm in India, women are expected to push to the front of queues, which makes Chris’s life a lot easier! ;-). We were shoehorned on to an already crammed bus, Chris spent the journey with an Indian woman pressed up against him (she looked like she enjoyed herself, as she turned round with big smiles on more than one occasion), Louise spent her time trying not to put her bum into another women’s face. It’s a true test of balance and upper arm strength when the bus swerves around oncoming vehicles, bends and meandering cows. We thought we’d get some relief when a couple of guys jumped off, but they were replaced by 7 NEW PEOPLE! It took a while to close the door.
Old Goa is basically a complex of churches and cathedrals built by the Portuguese with the grisly main attraction being the embalmed body of a dead saint (Saint Frances Xavier, the pioneer of Catholicism in Goa). Chris was still feeling rough from the night before, so after seeing the big 3 cathedrals (including Se Cathedral, below, the largest one in Asia) we took another bus to Palolem for some more R&R and someone’s birthday...
When you think of a textbook beautiful beach, you think calm waters, crescent shape white sands, palm trees, islands, sunshine and a nice cold drink. Palolem has that beach. It’s one of the most beautiful spots in Goa and it also happened to be Louise’s birthday. Win.
We celebrated by having an hour and a half private Yoga lesson, which we found tougher than we’d expected. We were certainly ready for more beach time by the time we called an end to the session with 3 chants of ‘ohm’. We definitely enjoyed it and will be doing some more whilst we’re here. In the evening we had a candlelit meal on the beach and Chris arranged for some fireworks, although he doesn’t know anything about it, Louise just insists they were for her. We ended it with a big Skype session with family. All in all, Louise had a great day and Chris has his work cut out to top it next year!
Next stop on the itinerary was Hampi, so having run out of transport alternatives; we booked on to a tourist night bus to get there… :-S