We woke early, as we had done on every morning of our trip. There was nowhere open for breakfast, and the tuk tuk journey back to Hoispet was quite a sombre one in many ways. Though Luke was stopping on in Goa for a few days to enjoy the beach, I knew that my adventure was coming to an end. I was looking forward to seeing Hollie again, but I knew that we both had a tricky few months ahead searching for employment when I got home. We in the western world should never take our good fortune for granted, but coming home from an adventure like ours does tend to make you feel quite hard done by. You forget that the cheap, nomadic existence you’ve been living is only made possible by the richness of your own country and the comparative poverty of the countries that you’re wandering through. When Indian people come to Britain it’s generally because they’re looking for a better standard of living. Often when British tourists go over to India, part of their reason for going is to escape the “rat race” that many poor people the world over would give anything to be a part of. One of the worst things I’ve seen on my travels so far is western backpackers in Thailand begging for money so that they can continue to avoid going home – their sense of entitlement swollen to the point that they feel that other people should fund their avoidance of responsibility. There are a lot of things I hate about Britain and the western world, but there are a lot of things I love as well, and I know where my home is.
We arrived at the station, and after looking at the questionable samosas being eaten by flies in the shop window, we settled on a bag of crisps each for breakfast. The usual array of weird and wonderful characters lined the platform waiting for our train, which was an hour late. The most notable group of people on the platform were a bunch of big butch men dressed in saris that were singing and clapping like some kind of drag choir – more on them later. The train arrived eventually, and we hopped onboard our 3rd class, no air conditioning carriage for what was advertised as a four-hour journey to Margao.
Four hours later the train continued to trundle along at a snail’s pace. There’s no difference in the layout between 2nd and 3rd class carriages in India, but the lack of air-conditioning, hygiene, and the fact that they allow double the amount of people to squeeze into a space of the same size makes for an uncomfortable ride. Luke was on one of the top bunks attempting to catch some Z’s – which must have been some challenge in that sweaty squeezebox – whilst I was crammed in to a seat across the aisle, facing four young lads who had been staring at me intently for the past hour. We stopped at another station and a stocky man in a baseball cap boarded the train. He was the width of a middleweight boxer, but somehow he was accommodated in the middle of the other four.
He joined the others in staring at me for a while, before cracking a smile and offering a few words of broken English. He asked me where I was from, then relayed this information back to the other lads in Hindi, who nodded their approval. He then asked me what I did – I’d already found that it was difficult to describe the role of “Mental Health Recovery Worker” to people who didn’t speak English, so for ease of explanation I promoted myself to “nurse” for the duration of the trip. I could have gone all out and claimed I was a doctor, but I was a bit worried that somebody would believe me and ask me to assist with a medical emergency. In any case Luke actually is a mental health nurse, so I decided that he could dig me out of a hole if my skills were called upon. The man then quizzed me upon what medical treatment might be given to his Uncle, who from what I gathered had some kind of tumour on his head. There was a sadness in his eyes when he asked me, and he seemed disappointed when I told him that I didn’t know what I would do. It put a lump in my throat to think that in Britain all he’d need to do was take his Uncle to a hospital and potentially receive life-saving treatment, free of charge. To lighten the mood, I asked the man if he liked cricket. His eyes lit up, and we began to exchange names of cricketers from our respective countries who we admired. The other four lads joined in, and we passed some time in this way. I enjoyed the conversation, and my only regret was that because of the packed train I wasn’t able to sit by the window and look at the scenery.
The Hoispet to Margao train route is spectacular, passing through dense jungle and high mountain passes. At one point the stocky man leaned out the window and nodded for me to join him. The other passengers made room for me and I looked out. The train was on a bridge on the side of a mountain, and below us the land dropped away steeply. As I looked downwards I saw a spectacular waterfall plummeting into the valley below. At the very bottom I could just make out the tiny heads of people bobbing in the river. “Dudhsagar” the man said. “Incredible India!” which is an Indian tourist board slogan that seems to be very popular and oft-repeated by patriotic Indians. I had no idea at the time, but it turns out that Dudhsagar waterfall is a famous Indian landmark, and as I didn’t have time to take a snap on my camera to include on the blog, I encourage you to google it.
Towards the end of our journey, the big butch men in saris that we’d seen on the platform came wandering through the carriage, clapping and humming. A reverent silence fell over the young lads opposite me, which I thought was strange – if young lads in England were confronted with the same sight they’d inevitably shout “TRANNY!” or something of the like. The butch men were approaching passengers one by one. I saw Luke pretending to sleep as if his life depended on it on the top bunk. They left him alone and approached me instead. The biggest one stood over me and began stroking my hair as the lads opposite giggled to each other, but their faces soon turned to fear when the bloke turned round to look at them. He turned back to me and I passed him 20 rupees, hoping this would be enough to stave off a more intimate homosexual advance. Thankfully he folded the money up, fluttered his eyelashes at me, and moved on down the carriage. After doing some research, I have discovered that these men were in fact not men – or women either, for that matter. They were what’s known in India and Pakistan as khusaraa, among other names. They’re variably described on the internet as “eunuchs”, “hermaphrodites” or transgender people. They travel around seeking work as entertainers, prostitutes, or beggars. In a country as religious and superstitious as India, the khusaraa are looked upon as lucky – Mothers will ask them to bless their babies, and couples to bless their new homes before moving in together.
The train sidled up to the platform in Margao about six hours after we boarded in Hoispet. As we walked back along the length of the train we passed the window that we’d been sat at. Half a dozen arms were thrust out between the bars of the window and I shook each hand as the train began to pull away.
We arrived at the hotel bathed in sweat and apprehensive about the quality of facilities we might find, having stayed in some absolute dumps along the way. We needn’t have worried – The Om Shiv hotel was clean, comfortable and possessed the twin luxuries of air-conditioning and a functioning shower.
We were knackered, but there was no rest for the wicked as the mighty Rams were in action that night in the first round of the Championship play-offs. We freshened up and went downstairs to locate a bar to watch the game in. There was a dingy door in the corner of the foyer marked “Bar” which looked as if nobody had stepped through it for years, and I opened it more in hope than expectation. On the other side a tall, smartly-dressed young man was standing to attention behind a well-stocked bar. As soon as the door opened he launched a “Good evening sir, what would you like to drink?” in our direction, and I found myself wondering how long he had been stood perfectly upright like that, primed and ready for customers. It reminded me of that scene in The Shining when Jack Nicolson wanders into the bar of the deserted hotel and is served whiskey by a ghost barman. Our misgivings were quickly forgotten as he served us copious amounts of Kingfisher, curry and chapatti whilst we watched the Rams. In fact, the only haunting thing about the evening was the Rams’ performance as they went down 4-0 at home to Hull City.
The next day would be my last full day in India.