Chandrakant, the resident sou chef in the agency café didn’t have any Dom Perignon, so I celebrated with a Kashmiri soda bubbling over with unbridled enthusiasm.
As I drained the last of my celebratory drink, I came to my senses. Half of my salary had already been accounted for in the form of previous loans from understanding friends.
But I was determined to escape Bombay at any cost (metaphorically speaking, of course).
Goa was a unanimous decision that satisfied both my heart and the remnants of my bank balance. I felt a bit like Shackleton (definitely in spirit)... scale…well) as I planned my mother-of-all-shoestring-budgets three day Goa expedition. My guide - a Lonely Planet with half of South Goa missing (which sort of decided that I’d ‘do’ North Goa….Calangute… Baga…here I come).
Friday took its own sweet time coming that week. As the Madgaon Express whooshed to a stop at Dadar station, I
quickly boarded S6 and realized that I was not the only one to take advantage of a long weekend. ‘Packed to the rafters’ was the expression that came to mind. (Tin of sardines was a close second.) Helping a stocky gentleman with his luggage elicited a grateful smile and a promise of a seat after Sawantwadi, his stop (a good six hours from Dadar and only an hour away from Tivim, my stop).
And thus began my…well…Goan voyage, standing next to a disconcertingly large ‘bubble wrap’ package, swaying to the rhythm of the train.
As Panvel rattled past, Mr. Stocky Gentleman decided to get chatty. “Patil, senior constable, Charni Road police station…you from Nepal?” – An obvious reference to my pan Asian ‘chinky’ good looks.
“Assam…North-East”- I mentioned helpfully. “Ah…Assam Tea…”- Patil smiled. I nodded with an agreeable smile. Patil rattled on like a 6:45 Virar fast -“Assam is capital of Darjeeling; I’ve seen photos…so you make tea with Yak milk?”
Sensing that geography is not really one of Patil’s strengths, I steered the conversation to less choppy waters. Bollywood should be good, I thought.
Brilliant was more like it. Patil was stationed for two years in Bandra. A fact that automatically made him a buddy of Sallu Bhai (had invited him over for home-cooked biryani) and Sunju baba (almost did a small role in one of the M.B.B.S films at his behest but didn’t get leave…a jealous senior was the culprit apparently). An innocent remark had obviously opened a floodgate of memories.
Thankfully, the rhythmic effect of iron wheels gliding smoothly over wooden sleepers soon resulted in Patil emitting gentle snores with a smile playing on his lips. And with a huge sigh of relief, I started concentrating on the lush Konkan coast whizzing past.
As the stations trundled past with metronomic regularity, the Lonely Planet descriptions started coming to life. It started to drizzle as soon as we left Chiplun and by the time it reached Sawantwadi, the drizzle became a downpour. I woke up Patil and saw him off amidst a shower of abuses aimed at the unfortunate porter who had the gall to drop his luggage while clambering down the steps. He did however pause for a moment to shout out an invitation to visit him at his station.
I had barely settled in the recently vacated seat, when a pock-marked ‘Welcome to Goa’ sign flashed by. With a quickening of the pulse, I drank in the scenery. Swaying palm trees whispering to each other. Boats with tiny figures perched delicately on the bows gliding down rivers swollen by monsoon downpours.
A station with the demeanour of a Sunday churchgoer loomed ahead. Tivim station, like many small stations, had a comfortable air around it. Like those rare breed of people who disarm strangers with a welcoming embrace/smile and immediately make them feel at home.
“Take a bus to Mapusa first, and then from Mapusa take another bus to Calangute”. Instructions cannot get any simpler.
Mapusa bus station was a melee of shouts. Shouts of “Vagator…vagator…vagator” would quickly be overtaken by a fresh entrant shouting “Anjuna…anjuna…anjuna”…the buses would all the time threaten to take off any moment with sudden lurches. In sharp contrast, the passengers would sit in stoic patience, having experienced enough of this daily pantomime.
I clambered on board before the conductor could shout “Calangute” twice. A sudden gnawing reminde
d me that the last meal I had was a humble Vada-Pav in the morning.
As I cavorted merrily with fantasies of being introduced to the likes of Mackerel Rechado and Pork Vindaloo in their natural habitat, the bus deposited me at the bustling Calangute market. “Where’s the beach?” was a common question I guess. A few minutes of walking down the bustling road brought me to the steps leading down to the beach.
A sudden whiff of something delicious made me make my first acquaintance with Souza Lobo. The gaily lit restaurant convinced me that it’s out of my budget. A second whiff convinced me that budgets can be stretched.
The glowing lamps on the tables set right on the beach drew me like the proverbial moth. As I eased into one of the wicker chairs, a waiter materialized out of nowhere. Immediately sizing me up (as a slightly weary traveler, I must add …not as a rich tourist…there’s a difference), he flashed me a friendly smile. I briefly toyed with the idea of just ordering a lemon juice to refresh me and then maybe find something more in tune with my budget. But somehow the warm welcome emboldened me enough to ask Angelo (as his name tag proclaimed) about the ‘dinner special’. “I’d recommend the Grilled Lobster, Sir…it’s the Chef’s special tonight.”
Now the only time I had come face to face with a lobster previously was when I was proof checking a menu of a five star hotel. A fancy description (where I found two typos) was followed by an exquisitely detailed food shot of a huge grilled lobster resting on a bed of crisp lettuce. I remembered almost drooling over it.
The flame inside the little lamp on the table weathered the cool sea breeze with practiced ease, dancing around and casting tiny patterns on the checked table-cloth. The waves lapped at the shore gently. “No woman, no cry” was emanating from a shack further down the beach. I settled back further into the chair, buried my toes in the sand and ordered the ‘Chef’s Special’ without even a single glance at the right hand side of the laminated menu directly under my nose.
There’s something about the Goan air. Makes one feels rather contented. And rich.