…. 4.15am on a platform empty but for the sleepers, their faces hidden under cotton dhotis. A black rat scurries across the platform. The train is in, silent and dark, and we sit and drink hot sweet milky chai from paper cups until the lights come on and the carriages are opened up. At precisely 5.25 the Shatabdi Express pulls out of the station. The sleepers are still lying under their blankets. Have they missed their train? Are they waiting for the next one? Or are these the homeless who have found somewhere to lie down for the night? The man in the seat opposite is reading the Times of India. There’s something at once very English and not quite English about the headlines and sub-headings: ‘CBI blames state cops for goof-up’ , ‘Ali Jani junction still worst snarl-up in city’, ‘Travel modes multiply, citizens juggle with smart cards’. They sound like clues to a cryptic crossword.
Next to him sits another man, dressed soberly enough but on almost every finger of both hands he wears rings, gorgeously glitzy enough to look like they have come from a pantomime treasure chest. There seems to be a gentlemanly dispute over the ownership of one seat. Four men take it in turns to sit on it while the others stand in the aisle.
The city stretches for miles. It’s nearly an hour before its lights give way to the still dark countryside.
When at about 7 the watery grey light creeps in it is to reveal a landscape veiled in morning mist. In the fields columns of smoke rose from dozens of red brick kilns. There are water buffalo and cattle egrets and the first of the field workers; there are haystacks ringed by brushwood fences to keep the animas out, fields of burnt stubble and, one after another, mobile phone masts. The mist thickens. It isn’t until mid morning that it finally clears.
We buy breakfast from the food sellers who board the train at the stations; hot spicy potato and pea samosas and chillied omelette and more sweet chai; a world better than the inflight meals from Delta on the way to India. The train has a pantry car. That’s a word you don’t hear too often these days. There’s a constant procession of food and drink sellers. A man plants a large plastic washing up bowl of samosas on the table in front of us.
10.40 and we’re on time at Ratnagiri. This is rural India. We travel through mile after mile of tree clad hills, through cuttings and tunnels and over bridges, past groves of palm trees and terraced rice paddies, dry now in February; over rivers where the women are washing clothes and hanging them to dry on the rocks and bushes.
Outside Nivasar the train comes to an unscheduled stop. One or two passengers get out to sit on the trackside. They seem to be expecting us to be here for a while but within minutes we’re off again. There’s no is no panic as they casually queue to clamber aboard as the train gathers speed. Outside the landscape is much hotter and drier.
12.15 and here’s lunch. The plastic washing up bowl again, this time full of aluminium cartons of fried rice. We give it a miss. At Nandgaon Road station there’s Bougainvillaea on the platform.
1pm and we pull into Kankavli. Somehow we are an hour behind schedule. How did that happen? It’s another of the mysteries of Indian rail travel. But now we’re in Goa and it’s lush, green and sub-tropical and everywhere there is water. The train crosses broad rivers, flooded paddy fields and lakes full of water lilies and suddenly it’s full of birds: cormorants, herons, egrets, kites, sea-eagles, kingfishers and swallows and too many other exotic species to identify. Half the train’s passengers get out at Thivim for central Goa. There’s a holiday atmosphere on the platform and in the now half empty carriage.
So an hour late we arrive at Madgaon and surprisingly painlessly organise a taxi for the 40 minute drive to Palolem. Unfortunately the driver is one of those Indians with a fatalistic approach to road safety and without any kind of sense, let alone good. We’d come across this attitude before in Cambodia. On that occasion we’d ended up colliding with a cow so we have no hesitation in reminding the driver that it is our lives at stake as well as his and that trying to overtake a lorry on the brow of a hilll on a blind bend is asking too much of whatever protective gods he prays to. When he stops at a roadside shrine to make his offering for our continued safety and finds it unmanned he decides to give up the fight and we are able to enjoy the remainder of the drive along a road which winds through the eucalyptus forests to Palolem. Through the car window the wafts of jasmine remind us of Kerala. It feels like coming home.
And so we arrive at the ‘cottage’ at Cafe Blue ….