Back to your regularly scheduled recap of the India trip…
Goa, India | Days 16 – 20
From the desolate rock heaps of Hampi, I headed to the hot crowded beaches of Goa to meet up with V and her family. A little something I learned about myself in India is that when I’m headed someplace called Goa, I fall squarely into the last of the four classic literary struggles: man vs. self. Because it’s called GOA. And it takes every ounce of my little soul to not constantly say thing like “Guess where I’m Goa-ing?” And I don’t love myself for it. Mostly because I veer straight into the freebie puns. The ones where you look at them and you think to yourself, “Don’t do it. You’re better than that.” But GUESS WHAT. Turns out I rarely am. And so, on a Saturday morning in January, I hopped a train in Hospet en route to the southwest beaches of India. Goa… Goa-ing… Gone.
The train platform that morning was crowded with tourists leaving Hampi. It was early and dark and the train was late.
Occasionally something will happen in India that would be equivalent to relative lunacy in America. As I waited for the train, watching crows crowd the telephone wires and trying to avoid the staff industriously emptying trashcans, my hotel sent the driver who’d dropped me off back to the platform to track me down and tell me I was 350 rupees short on my hotel bill. (That’s around $5.) In general, I have no problem paying bills in full. In this instance, however, I had given the hotel all the pertinent information to charge me for the missing cashew / Kitkat / beer mini-bar fees when I checked out that morning. They simply overlooked it and I didn’t realize it hadn’t gotten factored in. In America, I’m under the impression the sentiment at that point would have been good luck and good riddance, but in India the hotel called my driver, the driver found me on the train platform, and said driver tried to extract the 350 rupees from me.
Problematic things about this:
1) Are you kidding? No. You screwed up. We parted ways. Deal with the clerical error on your end.
2) I didn’t have 350 in small bills anyway, and he couldn’t break a 500. While my innate sense of fairness will chime in, in a small voice in my head that says, “Well, you do actually owe them that money even if it’s completely their mistake and it’s a little insane they stalked you down on a train platform to make good on it,” it certainly draws the line at overpaying.
3) The 180 rupees I wound up giving the guy was every last bit of my loose change and India was recently demonetized. That meant that for the duration of the day, nobody who was serving 20 rupee cups of chai or hawking 30 rupee bags of Lays potato chips could make change for a 500 either. So in spite of the fact I technically had plenty of money, I had no money.
4) It was a seven hour train ride and I hadn’t packed snacks.
5) I had left the hotel at 5 that morning to catch that train and ALL I wanted in my life was one (or twenty) thimble sized cups of the chai that were available from the men lugging thermoses up and down the platform. Their ongoing cries of, “Chai! Chai!” took on a slightly taunting tone in my ears.
And so I stood there, 180 rupees lighter, uncaffeinated and irritated, waiting for a train that was running an hour behind.
Annoying as all this was, it at least gave me a lot of time to puzzle my way through my compartment assignment (not that the extra time would prove to be useful). My ticket claimed 2A. The signs on the platform indicating which section would be where when the train eventually pulled up jumped directly from 1A to 1B. Common sense would dictate that 2A, listed or not, falls between 1A and 1B, but I didn’t want to take any chances. In India, standard operating procedure is to aggressively ask for directions, and as the train finally arrived, there happened to be a man who was obviously a guide nearby.
He was: Good looking. Good English. Good timing. And helpful, the hallmark of India. If I had anything resembling an Elizabeth Gilbert-esque Eat Pray Love moment on my trip, this was to be the one.
He broke away from the British couple he was directing to point me down the line of cars in the right direction. We didn’t exactly pinpoint 2A but I figured he’d gotten me close enough, thanked him, and kept moving down the line. I showed my ticket and asked, “2A?” to the people hanging out the doors of the train. They indicated I was headed the right direction and continued waving me to the right. I would realize after the fact that they had no idea what I was asking, nor did they know where 2A was either.
I was running out of train and realizing conditions on that end were far from first class. I needed to be back in the 1A, 1B area.
That’s when the train started moving.
If there is ever a genuine ‘OH SHIT’ moment in travel, it is absolutely when you still have no idea where on earth you’re supposed to be on a train, you’re dragging more than one bag behind you, and your mode of transportation just began abandoning you. In that moment the ‘where’ of ‘where am I supposed to be on this train’ disappears entirely in favor of ‘BE on the train’. Wheres can be sorted out later. I started running toward the nearest open door (it wasn’t particularly comforting at the time, but, it’s India so I was definitely not the only person jumping on the moving train as it pulled away from the station). The people standing in the doorway helped pull my bag up and I successfully leaped on the train to join them.
I was slightly exhilarated, mildly traumatized, hungry, and it was barely 7:30 a.m.
It wasn’t easy and it took some time and creativity but I eventually worked my way to the section of the train I was supposed to be on and, with great relief, took my very cramped upper bunk. Hungry or not, money or no, uncomfortable or not, I had a seat and I would get to Goa. Feeling encouraged by this, I decided to take another chance on chai.
I was in the middle of getting shot down on that front and desperately hoping the chai wallah would take pity on me and give me the chai for free the when the guide I’d asked directions from showed up in my section.
“So you made it onto the train?”
“More or less.”
As I obviously had no change and was also obviously demoralized by my inability to acquire caffeine, he paused to process the situation then quickly bought my chai. 20 rupees may be less than 50 cents but he was wholeheartedly the hero of the hour.
And over the course of the next six hours, as the train rattled through the countryside and I intermittently read and napped, he commandeered a better seat for me, shared his food, explained the demonetization of India from his perspective, disappeared to find someone somewhere in the bowels of the train to break one of my 500s, pointed out sights along the way, flattened pennies for me on the tracks when the train stopped to let another train go by, made interesting small talk, and offered me a ride with his group for the stretch between the last train stop in Vasco de Gama and my final destination of Goa.
His name was Joe and he saved the day. Nor was this to be my last encounter with Joe.
It’s hard to write my way back through a day that exists mostly as individual snapshots in my mind: straddling my bag as I tried to stay out of the mist of toothpaste froth in the connecting section of the train as seemingly every human in that car brushed their teeth at the open sink, being handed strips of dried chocolate something or other that closely resembled housing insulation, hopping off the train to stand on the parallel set of tracks as it stopped in the middle of the countryside, being waved over to the window just in time to see a waterfall rush by below, following a backpack and a pair of camo shorts through the crowd exiting the train station, laughing as the British couple dramatically lamented their inability to buy alcohol that day due to a religious holiday.
But I did it. I wrote this blog post. So there you Goa.