So the adventure really begins. After our 2 week break on the golden sands of Goa, relaxing as much as possible, getting acclimatised to the hot, humid heat of the Indian summer. We spent our last day at Boomshanka, soaking up the relaxing vibes and trying to memorise the beautiful sunset.
The next morning we embarked on getting out of Goa. Our aim is to go north which normally should be a simple task of catching a train from Margao. However, due to it being Indian holiday time plus the extreme heat of the south, it seems that the whole population of the south is also trying to travel north! We have already been told by a travel agent in Vagator that all trains going to cooler climates are booked up. It would have been tempting just to sit it out and hang out in Goa for longer, but with the season coming to an end all business are shutting up in preparation for the Monsoon. With this information in mind, we decide to go to the main Goan train station (Margao) and see if we can get a tourist quota ticket as a last resort.
Getting to Margao from Vagator entails two very sticky hot and squished public busses (changing at Mapusa and Panjim). This journey takes about an hour in total, but only costing Rs. 30 (50p) compared to Rs 900 (11 pounds) if we had opted for the taxi instead. So although not the most comfortable of journeys, the cost made it bearable.
Once in Margoa, we are confronted with more of the same news. There are no trains (even to Mumbai) until the 22nd June! We are not prepared to wait a month so we manage to book ourselves a sleeper bus to Pune that evening. Pune is just outside Mumbai and although it is not that far north, it is a start! Also, back in the Uk I made a contact in Pune over the internet who has offered us work helping him build a meditation centre and help on his farm so we decide that Pune is the best option for the time being.
The sleeper bus is like nothing I had been on before. It has double bunk beds on either side of the aisle with A/C. It looks comfortable and seeing as it is an 11 hour night couch I was happy to get my head down asap. The only problem is there were no toilets so I was consciously not drinking too much water with the fear that my grape bladder will haunt me! We do have a stop enroute and surprisingly the service station toilets aren’t too gory.
Our route from Goa to Pune was through the Konkan Hills; so very very bendy roads plus a manic bus driver, I was left feeling like I was on a small ship and felt I had to compensate my sleeping position every time we went around a bend. Despite this, I must have managed to sleep as the next thing I knew we awake with a sharp poke and are ejected, 6am apparently in the wrong part of the city. Al and I were literally turfed out onto the streets of Pune. I was rolling my sleeping bag up on the side of the road feeling rather dehydrated and groggy. Within seconds we were surrounded by autorickshaws asking us were we wanted to go. Thee truth is we had no idea…
Dazed and confused we took a rickshaw to a hostel recommended in the Lonely Planet to make things easy on our first day in the city before making a judgement call and moving somewhere better- This is a strategy we have agreed is best to ensure we are not stung as newcomers to a place, but also ensuring our non-reliance and deviation from the “sheeps trail” that is travel via Lonely Planet- The place is closed and the rickshaw is all too wannabe helpful. After waiting for the place to open it was too expensive and the guy stand-offish. We realise the rickshaw was out to screw us, so told him where to go and that we would walk the 2 kilometers to an area that is renowned for its cheap guest houses. Eventually we make it to Koregaon Park- the tourist quarter. Laura negotiates a 300Rs (4.50) per night double room with no AC (as this literally doubles the price at least due to the Indian ‘luxury tax’), I am beginning to feel the frustration of Indian people providing completely inaccurate and useless information and saying yes to EVERYTHING and then negotiating on what yes means. Finally we crash out for a few hours to catch up on the sleep we missed.
It is hot in Pune, but a different type of heat- HOT heat. It is 43C here and while the humidity is low the concrete jungle gives off this inferno from all angles. We feel bad entering a western type bar, but it is the only thing that looks like it has a) Air Con b) sells beer c) is near our accommodation (we are having an early night). We resist the American fare and head off to find some kind of cheap Indian food. Unfortunately Koregaon Park is an expensive area (so why does the Lonely Planet recommend it to backpackers!?), but we settle on a place where a main meal is Rs160, more than double the usual. We justify this away by trying the meat dishes that we wouldn’t eat from a street stall or cheap place, especially in Pune. The tandoori chicken and mutton dish I had were great, we were able to eat outside and soak up some atmosphere, listening to business dinners and the middle class do their thing. This is not hard in Pune as it is a bourgeoning city and IT hub, a base for the outsourced Internet/tech workers for the west.
We spend the first 2 days figuring out trains and what on earth we are going to do. After yet another frustrating conversation with a train ticket officer (telling us there are no trains…there must be a train sooner or later we think!) we decide to research train availability ourselves from an internet cafe. FINALLY we make progress and find an available train to Aurangabad on the 28th May, a train from Jalgoan (near Aurangabad) to Agra on 7th June and a train from Agra- Varanasi of the 9th June- on our own steam and the massively helpful cleartrip.com that allows you to see availability for the next 7 and 15 days and not just one day at a time (hugely frustrating). Armed with train codes and every detail we can think of, we embark on booking these tickets at the train station. Given the difficulty we have had so far, we couldn’t help feeling nervous that we will be turned away empty handed once more. We are on this occasion have a 100% success rate. SORTED!! We have a week to spend before our first train, so make a call to Umesh (my contact) who agreed to let us work for him, despite warnings that it may be to hot to handle.
The next day we have a wander around the city, the sights are far away, so we head to the shopping centre to get some Air Con and check out costs etc. This is the first place I have had a cheap and good coffee that has not been soiled by 50% sugar. We also want to pick up some authentic Indian clothing, which funnily enough the Indians call ‘Ethnic’- I thought that was a prejudiced western word. Despite looking for Laura we could find a good scarf of Salwar Kameez, but I do find a Kurta that matches my long linen trousers- perfect! So I am now all “ethnic” and hopefully can do a better job of ‘fitting in’ (impossible as a white person, but it’s about cultural effort, even though it attracts laughs and stares more than congratulations!)
We realise during this time that we are finally entering into real culturalhood, as we predicted. Goa is a bubble, an exception, people go there (Westerners and Indian alike to get drunk, take drugs, relax, have sex and break as many traditional Indian moral conventions as possible. We also begin to pick up on the Indian’s inability to tell you anything straight, nor say no to anything. There is also the ‘head wobble’ that seems to me anything from yes to no and everything in between. I’m starting to us this when I cannot be bothered to respond.
Later that day we meet up with Umesh, who instills excitement and reassures us that our preparation efforts were useful and that he is not dodgy, even though we still do not know where we are heading exactly the next day. He is a lovely guy, who invites us to stay at his flat for a night before taking us to his mango farm. We are so excited and definitely think our persistence deserves a Kingfisher tanda (cold). As we have already paid for one more night in Koregaon Park, we agree for him to pick us up the following day.
With everything a little fore planned we relax with a beer and pick up a great toasted sandwich from a street stall with green chilli paste (we discover with a massive mouthful) and tomato sauce. Rs20? You cannot go wrong. After wandering around Pune’s Disney World, which is literally a bouncy castle one spinning ride from the 70’s and small horses to ride we head back to sleep via a bar for a quick rum and coke.
One more sleep in the hottest room ever (thanks to a very slow fan) and then we are off to Umesh’s place! Bring it on.