November 21, 2004

Dubai Mumbai Konkan Railwai



Arumbol, Goa

Ah, the time dilation of travel. It's hard to believe I left Paris only six days ago. Feels more like a month. Being on the road actively extends your life, I swear, at least in terms of perceived time, and that's probably what it's all about, innit?

Well, "extends" only if not "shortens". Today I hired a motorbike and bombed down Goa's coastal road for an hour, incidentally violating every motorcycle-safety law known to man other than "no headstands while in motion": no helmet! no protective clothing! first time on a motorbike in 18 months! unreliable Indian bike with unfamiliar gearing system! narrow Third World rutted pitted roads, occupied by pedestrians, oxen, dogs, autorickshaws, oversize pickups, and worst of all, other backpackers doing the same damn thing! Gorgeous, way-fun ride though.

(Dear Mom, if you ever read this; uh, just kidding, in fact I've never been on a motorcycle in my life, okay? Great. Thanks.)

Arambol/Arumbol/Harmbol (never trust a country that has only one way to spell a town name) is a classic backpacker paradise: spectacular beach lined by laid-back banana-lassi-and-chocolate-pancake cafes, spartan but livable hostels, fantastic expat-run restaurants, book exchanges, Internet cafes, stores selling knickknacks and saris and sarongs and other tropical wear, yoga ashrams, a paragliding school, and the inexplicably ubiquitous didgeridoo workshop1, all yours for as little as US$10/day - though at that price you'll be living in a rather spartan bucket-shower-and-outhouse place, and will be doing no paragliding.

So far Goa feels a whole lot friendlier than Northern India. The locals seem to live in a kind of bemused harmony with their visitors, and while vendors may desultorily hassle you, they're just going through the motions, they don't really mean it. The backpacker crowd is a slightly uneasy mix of twentysomething Israelis, for whom a few months bouncing around India/Nepal is a post-military-service rite of passage, and who, not surprisingly, tend to be exceptionally fit, in a trim-tattooed-dreadlocked way, and exceptionally full of devil-may-care-I-don't fuck-you attitude; low-key thirtysomething Europeans who come back every year (some with children, it's a family-friendly place); the Brits-and-Aussies-on-Parade type you see the world over; and Others like me.

Mind you I'm still on the fringes. The grand techno extravaganzas ended years ago, but the beaches further south have a package-tour-party reputation. We'll see. Also further south, this month, is one of India's more macabre and bizarre tourist attractions, which is saying something - the every-ten-year display of the dessicated corpse of St. Francis Xavier. How can I possibly resist?

But for now let me look back to far-ago yesterweek and tell you about:

Dubai bai bai

There are a lot of cool things about Dubai. It's probably the only country in the world whose population is 80% expat; this gives it a great polyglot feel, as the crossroads of Arabia, India, Africa and Europe, a dozen languages and cultures all jumbled together and feeding on one another. Women in full chadors shop for lingerie in Western department stores, Africans stop work for a cup of tea at a break cued by a muezzin call, Indian employers hold job interviews at a Second Cup(!). It's a wealthy, First World nation, whose highways and hotels and shopping malls put America's to shame, but the best way to cross the Creek that divides it is still to jump on an abra, an old wooden boat powered by a rattling 2-stroke engine that leaves when it's full (my longest wait: two minutes) and on which two dozen people sit cheek by jowl. Other, much larger wooden boats - dhows - still prowl the waterways from Dubai to Mombasa and Mumbai and Iran, carrying huge boxes and barrels of wholesale goods for re-exported, and are loaded and unloaded on the Creek, just across from stores selling Armani and Pierre Cardin.

The city is impressively if artificially green. The one public beach is terrific. The sheer quantity of bling-bling in the Gold Souq is jaw-dropping (though the rest of the markets don't even begin to hold a candle to those of, say, Marrakesh or Cairo.) The skyscrapers look cool. All that said, it does start to feel kind of like a giant shopping mall after a little while. If commerce is not your thing, the rest of Dubai's delights are quickly exhausted. Comfortable, civilized, gleamingly modern, yes. Soul? I didn't see any.

Back-to-Bom! ...er, for the first time

Mumbai: not so much a city as a raving, screaming, all-guns blazing full-frontal assault on every one of your senses, the physical ones of course but also those of taste, decorum, dignity, proportion, decency, wonder, and awe. Bright lights and tall towers, six million people living in the biggest trash-strewn bamboo-pole-canvas-ceiling or mud-brick-aluminum-roof slums in Asia, mutilated (darker-skinned) beggars weaving past designer-jeans cell-phone (generally lighter-skinned) yuppies, heat and noise and dirt and dust and smog, howling car and bus and motorcycle horns, neon-lit Victorian architecture, Ambassador taxis and air-con BMWs and cows and feral cats and dogs, street-food stalls and chic valet-parking cafes, and the masses, hordes, throngs, seething churning masses of people, people people people, everywhere everywhere everywhere, a colossal overwhelming fog of noises and smells and sights that threatens to redline every sensory organ -

...in other words, yep, your basic large city in India. But far more alive than the other two I've seen (Delhi and Calcutta). Also far wealthier - my Rough Guide reports the fairly amazing statistic that Bombay's 1.5% of India's population produces a good 40% of its GDP. And for all its horrific poverty - which is so mindnumbing that you quickly stop noticing it - it's, dare I say it, kind of fun, in its vestigial Raj architecture and signage, in Chowpatty Beach with its brightly lit stalls and mini-rides and children of all ages playing and blowing bubbles and enjoying themselves, in the constant churning unexpected sights the city throws regularly into your field of vision. It helps that it's on the ocean; the air is better than Delhi's, and the sea, dark and calm as an oil slick at night, helps you mentally shape a city that otherwise might be too immense to navigate.

Do bear in mind that I spent all of 36 hours there (am flying out too, so there'll be more) and first impressions are often misleading, but it's easy to see why Bombay is the setting for most of the Seven Great Indian Novels2; for all its wrenching downsides, it's a fantastic place, in the literal sense of the word.

The Konkan Railway

I managed to purchase a next-day Mumbai-to-Goa rail ticket despite warnings that people usually had to wait a week and despite the usual Kafkaesque Indian bureaucracy, hurrah for me. I wasn't particularly looking forward to an 11-hour train journey commencing at 7AM, and I picked up two books (Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now and Welsh's Ecstasy, both of which seemed appropriate) to go with my half-reread copy of Midnight's Children, figuring I'd have plenty of time to read all three.

Boy, was I wrong. The Konkan Railway is an absolute delight. Sure, Indian Railways' hygienic standards seem to have slipped some in the last four years, but it's still the only way to travel. I - we, actually, they tend to cluster people with Western names together, so I rode with two Spaniards and three Brits - sat in "3-tier A/C", one of IR's giddying profusion of classes, read, chatted, napped, and ordered from the constant flow of wallahs. There was a chai-wallah, a coffee-wallah, a samosa-wallah, a dosa-wallah, a cold-drink-wallah, a sandwich-wallah, an omelette-wallah (though he dropped out after noon), and (only once) a ticket-wallah, all of them marching up and down the length of the train, bringing food and drink to its needy passengers. Or - and this took up a whole lot more of the journey than I expected - we headed to the doors between cars, opened them, leaned out, and stared at Mother India, for a long, long time.

I'd forgotten how beautiful this country can be. Red earth, golden grass, deep green forest, winding shimmering rivers, all luminous in the tropical sun. Warrens of high rocky ridges, birds soaring above. Madman's checkerboards of small ox-tilled fields. The chemin de fer, the railway's iron road, carving a neat narrow line through Maharashtra, and the twenty-car train itself hovering at either edge of my vision, and the long rows of other faces, both pale and dark, peering out of the train's other doors, and the hot wind in all our faces. Eleven hours passed in a flash. I tossed my just-finished copy of Midnight's Children to a fellow-traveller, doubtless earning oodles of much-needed karma, grabbed my pack, and hopped off the train just before it started moving again, into the Goan tropical heat. There are worse places to disembark, believe me.


1I just don't get it.

2Rushdie's Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh, Mistry's Such A Long Journey and A Fine Balance, Roy's God Of Small Things, Seth's A Suitable Boy, Forster's A Passage To India. Am ruling out Paul Scott not due to any quality shortcomings but because he wrote about the Raj rather than India. There are presumably others I haven't yet read.

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