Lower expectations

(Otherwise titled: ‘And then Granny-ji farted in the back of the bus)

We must stop accepting the first offer of a tour in order to find our way around somewhere. The woman at our hotel in Panaji (or Panjim, no one seems to know which to use), fresh out of the Little Hitler School of Hospitality, suggested we take a tour.

It was only 250 rupees a head. It was only when I had paid it that I thought, gosh that’s cheap, I wonder why.

She hadn’t shown me the itinerary, told me the name of the company, or given me a receipt. She merely wrote a few places on a scrap of paper – it included a couple of temples and a couple of churches in Old Goa.

We were picked up at 10 am. The bus was a pretty, old thing, its sides painted with peacocks. On the go, it creaked and threw out black fumes. Less pretty inside, where the seats had been covered with thick plastic, which generated even more sweat, particularly when we quickly realised there was no air conditioning. I mean, a tourist bus in India with no air conditioning. Unbelievable!

The door was held on by a piece of string.

The guide, in his scruffy jeans and falling-apart sandals, was helpful in accommodating us two westerners. Everyone else was Indian so he spoke to them (a lot) in Hindi.

He handed us a piece of paper with the itinerary. We were with Express Travel Agents & Tour Organisers – Approved by the Government of Goa.

We were joined on the bus by Indians, some from Mumbai, some who couldn’t speak any English, including a sweet old lady we shall call Granny-ji and her husband. She smiled a lot, and after lunch had gestured for me to sit next to her on a wall, which I did until I noticed the large ants that were crawling around.

So, this is the chronological order of our tour stops. It’s just as well we keep an open mind.

*Fun Science Museum. Remember, low expectations. Well, we actually had fun! It was good – a mix of childhood games and magical illusions.

*Miramar – ‘a lovely golden beach of soft sands, along Blue Arabian Sea’… we drove past it so fast I had no idea it was on the schedule until afterwards.

*Basilica of Bom Jesus, Old Goa – nice to take a photo of, some saint’s remains are there.

*Se Cathedral, Old Goa – nice to take a photo of, the largest church in Asia.

*Shri Manguesh Temple – average Hindu temple, ten minutes enough.

*Shri Shantadurga Temple – average Hindu temple, ten minutes enough.

*Margao (Bypass) – we are still unsure what on earth that meant. We went past it or around it and four people got off to catch their train to Mumbai, but why was it on the itinerary? Not a clue.

*Colva Beach, longest beach in Goa. People swimming in jeans and shirts, no one just sitting in costumes on a towel. At least it was clean and we got an ice cream.

It was the three things that were not on the itinerary, however, that proved to be most memorable: a wax museum, an aquarium and a house of horrors, all of them utterly bizarre and only fit to be closed down.

The wax museum in a scruffy old building included some random historical figures like Mozart and Einstein, as well as some Indian figures like Mother Teresa and Gandhi, whose birthday it was today. Initially we had an English-speaking guide provided to us (not that we asked for it). She didn’t tell us anything that wasn’t on the information boards in front of the wax figures. ‘Gandhi,’ she pointed. ‘Gandhi.’ (They always say it twice.)

And suddenly she seemed to have a better offer and off she went with no explanation, leaving us to carry on. It was fine, you really didn’t need a guide and it only took three minutes in all, from start to finish. Madame Tussauds it was not.

(Above: Bizarrely, bits of crab in front of the waxwork of St Xavier)

On the way back from Colva Beach, we made one last stop. A very sad aquarium, tanks with a single fish and nothing else – no rocks, no greenery, an albino terrapin with no place to get out and bask, one fish which looked like it had grown too big even to be able to turn around in the tank.

We exited past a revolting statue of a man in beach shorts holding a child. It was filthy. Surely no one even takes a photo next to this? There were other such things in the garden, women holding fish, a woman gaily kicking her legs in the air on a bridge. All surreal (in a bad way).

And then we were shown the house of horrors. (In effect, our third that day.) It was so basic it belonged to an eternity ago, yes it could make you jump once or twice but there was no variation on a theme, it was just mechanised bodies moving towards you with a bit of screaming.

As we headed homeward bound, Granny-Ji, with her long grey hair and bright green sari, farted in the back of the bus.

The Indians seem to have no worry about farts and belches in public places. There was the ‘maid’ at our last place in Alleppey who burped like an old man every two minutes. On the train there was a young man lying on the seat who was snorting a dry sniff every couple of minutes, and then he topped that with a fart for all to hear. Not a care in the world. Not a flinch. Didn’t even open his eyes.

The road back to Panjim was bumpy, there is a lot of road-building going on. In some places the traffic-calming measures are a set of 20 small humps. It gives you what is known as an Indian massage. We worried that it might trigger more outbursts from Granny-ji.

Anyway, we were dropped back at our hotel. We couldn’t see the guide in order to give him a small tip, maybe he was too embarrassed.

Good God, if these were the highlights of South Goa, I think we need to move on quite soon.

[Luckily, our second day in Panjim was taken up with exploring on our own and we found that we like the place – lots of old houses, a Portuguese influence, an old quarter, a lovely church, and we found some nice cafes and restaurants.]

…………..

It was the kind of day that David finds he needs a beer. A long cold beer.

Wifi here in Panjim has been difficult. It doesn’t help that our hotel is the Indian equivalent of Fawlty Towers. When we first arrived, we noticed that there were only about five sheets of toilet paper left on the roll. I have asked three times now – in person and on the phone. ‘I’ll send the boy,’ is always the answer. The boy never arrives.

I have never had to beg for toilet paper before, but finally it is delivered on the fourth nagging.

At the end of our odd day, we ask if we can sit in the restaurant for food. No, the menu applies to room service only. We order noodles, a Kingfisher beer and a lemonade.

The food arrived – as a takeaway from somewhere over the road. Could we have it here in the lobby, as there is a table and we could continue with the wifi?

No.

Banished to our room, we take delivery of the food. No beer.

I call reception. No beer? No, it’s Gandhi’s birthday – a dry day. Ok, but could you not have told me that when we placed the order? We only found out when we got to the shop and it was closed.

And there was no offer of an alternative drink.

[The plates and cutlery were still outside our room in the corridor 24 hours later….]

The next morning, at breakfast we were making use of the wifi connection in the small restaurant when we vaguely heard a woman say ‘Good morning, Sir.’ We didn’t look up as we had been aware that two other guests had arrived.

‘GOOD MORNING, SIR,’ she repeated, at greater volume, directed at David. It’s enough to make a grown man stand up and take his hands out of his pockets.

She’s scary, that one. Each time we see her she seems to think she is in charge of telling us what to do (like that tour of South Goa). I don’t think we will take her advice again.

Our three-star hotel certainly has the most comfortable (bug-free) bed we have had in many many weeks, but (as well as the wifi issue) the catering is lacking. We are not offered tea or coffee in the morning. Yesterday I had successfully asked for cold milk to go with the cornflakes. (It’s the first time I have seen a cornflake in three months. Sometimes it’s difficult to face idlee and curry at 8 am.) Today, however, no such luck. The boy (their term) scurries off to get some (he has to take the lift downstairs) but comes back emptyhanded. ‘Sorry, ma’am, we have no cold milk.’

But you have hot milk right there at the buffet…?

He stands there staring at a cupboard for a bit and then stations himself back in the corner, standing and waiting. Suddenly, five minutes later, he remembers that he also has an order for two black teas and he has to leave the room again, only to return with two teabags, and he puts the kettle on.

…………..

The last time we had to lift our suitcases (on the train from Kochi to Goa) we realised that it was time to send a little home to lighten the load. This is the second time we have done this, the first in Cambodia (happy to report that the parcels have reached their destinations). So today the first mission of the day involves a walk to the nearest Post Office.

We arrive with our parcel unwrapped because, in Siem Reap, the post office wanted to see the contents for themselves.

There is no queue at the Parcel Packaging Centre so we walk right up to it. Could we have this parcel packaged here? No, we don’t do that. No, silly me, of course you don’t.

We are directed to the back of the building, outside to a tiny shop, the Xerox shop, behind the small chapel.

The man invites us in and we sit down. He doesn’t say much. He trots off to the back room, returning with an old shoebox with no lid. He tries the things for size and prods at it until he is satisfied. It’ll do.

He gets a piece of paper and straps it to the top using string. David is watching this in astonishment.

But wait, this is a skilled craftsman – he is not finished yet.

First he gets out his roll of gaffer tape. That’s more like it, I’m thinking. But it’s like he has never handled it before. The ends are all messy and twisted and at one point he tapes down his hand.

Next, he picks up a ragged piece of muslin which he wraps around the shoebox. Again, I am more reassured about the likelihood of my parcel getting home.

But it turns out that he needs to apply a plastic window for the documents – proof of ID and a form to say what is in it. In order to apply this, what does he do? He is going to use a sewing machine of course.

He retreats to the back room, giving us a chance to look around. It’s what your great grandfather’s shop would have looked like, there are stacks of old paper on the floor and on random shelving, some of it tied with string. It has all accumulated a layer of dust and cobweb like it belongs in an ancient attic. I feel sure he knows where everything is.

An older man comes in. He stands in the entrance, looking like he has forgotten what he has come in for. He says a prayer.

The parcel-wrapper re-emerges and walks outside, muttering something. The new man explains that he is working with a secondhand sewing machine and the string is broken, so he has gone next door to use theirs.

Another man comes in and buys two brown envelopes. He helps himself from the shelf, pays and leaves.

The next customer is an older woman who requires the photocopying service. The ancient photocopier (from the 1980s perhaps) actually works. While she waits, the electric fan (which has been put on for our benefit) scatters some papers to the floor.

The man also requires a copy of our ID – I show him a picture on my phone. He tries to copy it but each time he places it on the photocopier it turns from vertical to horizontal and he really can’t get to grips with it. It also only comes out black. Fortunately he says that David’s driving licence will suffice for ID so he copies that instead.

Our man returns. Success! He has the muslin with a plastic window attached. Now all it needs is for the muslin to be wrapped around the box.

The two men do this together. All the edges are folded the way we would fold the edges of wrapping paper but instead of using Sellotape they hand-sew it in place with white cotton.

It takes for ever.

The men chat happily without a care in the world, they feel no pressure to finish the task any faster than the time it will take to complete. India, we are reminded, teaches you patience.

Job done. 150 rupees (approximately £1.50), keeping someone in work and recycling materials to boot.

Now it’s back to the Post Office. We remind ourselves to count to ten.

The man at the counter is none too happy that he can’t see our passport. I suggest I could email the image of my passport to him. We point out that the other man said the driving licence was ok for ID. He repeated his request for a copy of the passport and I said the same each time. ‘There was a problem, it wouldn’t copy.’ This exchange was repeated three or four times, until he just seemed to accept it.

A queue starts behind us. Inevitably the ripe old man immediately behind me is in my personal space, but I smile, and say ‘Sorry, we could be some time here!’ He doesn’t understand a word but smiles slightly.

Can I pay by card? No. Of course not, I knew you wouldn’t, I was just having fun. Cash it is.

Finally, we walked out into the blazing midday sunshine. Sending a parcel back home had only taken two hours.

…………..

And then… a train ticket!

Booking a train in India is notoriously difficult. I had hoped it was easier now that there is online booking. Nope.

I had already tried booking online. I had wasted an hour of my time, on a flimsy internet connection. There are plenty of trains running – it’s working out the details of where you are leaving from, where you are arriving (working out which station is where – it’s the difference between arriving at Kings Cross, Paddington or Euston in London), what class you want, and whether your choice of train actually runs on a specific day.

I had tried emailing a company who specialise in Asian travel and had helped us in Vietnam. Even they were flummoxed. (‘If you impossible to change the date you can directly to buy the ticket with IRCTC website. We highly apologise for the inconvenience.’)

We look around for travel shops – there are usually loads in a town when you are not looking for them. We ask in Thomas Cook. We are clearly the first people to have asked that question. They suggest some bloke ‘round the corner, next to Mustafa’s’ but they can’t remember his name.

Instead we cross the road to Quest Travel, though we are actually next door at the Lokmanya Co-operative Society who, it turns out, book trains!

We are ushered upstairs. There is a slight whiff of toilet at the top of the stairs. A sign on the door says ‘Please flush after use’.

In the office, half a dozen balloons are static-stuck to the wall, a couple of them feeling a little deflated. Maybe someone had a birthday a week ago. Also on the wall is a tiny Ganesh statue surrounded by half a dozen yellow marigolds and a lit incense stick.

A couple of wires dangle from the ceiling. A computer cable is taped to the edge of the customer-facing desk. In places, it has given up holding the wire, but many small strips of brown tape are still there.

We perch on light beige plastic chairs, which are clean at the front but grubby underneath.

There are three young women in blue uniforms, one of them looking after us. Any time they need anything they summon what we can only assume is the new boy as they seem to tease him in good humour.

We soon establish that we need to return the next day because the booking system for the trains will be released in the morning. I am not sure why the Indian rail system does this. I know trains get booked very quickly here. Maybe it is because they keep back some tickets for those who need to travel at shorter notice – and for tourists who are less organised.

In true British fashion, we are at the office for 9.30. Actually we are there with ten minutes to spare, allowing us time to notice the dead dog on the street outside. She looks like she has gone peacefully, rather than being knocked down by traffic on the busy road nearby. Strangely, I feel relieved to see a dead dog rather than one who is badly injured.

In the office, the first question we are asked is whether we got the message from the hotel. No. (Doesn’t surprise us.) Luckily the message had not been vital, they wanted us to come along to the office anyway – but the schedules are not out until 10.30. Of course they aren’t.

We go away to have a coffee in the nearest cafe, a lovely locals’ place, chosen for its proximity, though it turns out the coffee is perfectly drinkable.

At 10.30 we are back. We are informed of the price and David sits with cash in hand as if payment is imminent. A more senior man offers coffee. Yes, one please. Black. Ten minutes later, one milky coffee and a carton of mango juice are produced with a smile.

So anyway, eventually, we have our train ticket in hand, not quite Old Goa to CST (the historic main terminus in Mumbai), but near enough (Madgaon to LLT).

The commission for the agency? 40 rupees (about 50p) for two hours’ customer time.

Next stop, then, is Mumbai.

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