Trivandrum, India: City Down South
My train is scheduled to depart Margao at 1 p.m., so I wend (OE: present tense of ‘went’) my way along the back roads from Panaji through Goa at a leisurely pace. It’s cheaper than direct taxi. And if Panaji is the crown on the throne of old Portuguese Goa, then Margao is the belly, the mid-section, the population base, the place where once-Portuguese Goa cuts the crap and stops pretending. India ‘liberated’ Goa—according to the billboards—over fifty years ago, after all, and I doubt that more than a few, if any, still falar a lingua. Only a third of modern Goa is even Catholic these days.
Trains rarely leave on time, of course, and this one is no different. That’s okay. I’m scheduled in to Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) at 0500, so a few delays might be nice. Trains are a good way to travel in India, BTW, dirt cheap and with stations usually centrally located, so convenient. There is a slight problem with etiquette, though. It’s rare. People pretty much sit where they want and do what they want as long as they look like they’re in the right class of service, for their caste, and their dress.
If your cellmates decide to take over your bunk to play cards all night, there’s precious little you can do about it. Or maybe Grandma will entertain the grand-kids and spread a picnic where you’ll later be sleeping. Tough luck. Or they may not even have tickets. The tea sellers pretty much stake out their turf with impunity. As long as they service the conductor and engineers, then I guess they got rights.
It’s really worth it to upgrade your service if the berths are available, just to buy some space and privacy. No class comes with meals, though. I found that out the hard way. I booked through an agent, so when they asked if I wanted meat or vegetarian meals, I told them veg, and when the caterers came through passing out trays, I simply took one, of course, twice or more. Later they came by to collect, but by then I was too stuffed and miserable to protest. I know not to travel on a full stomach, but if it’s included in the price, then… you know.
You might have the option, sometimes at least, but I usually take long-distance trains at night, not so much to save a night’s hotel bill, but to avoid an early early departure time or a late late arrival. The downside is that you’ll miss much of the scenery along the way. Frankly, I haven’t seen much spectacular scenery in India, anyway, and the countryside seems largely depopulated, not at all what I expected FWIW. This particular trip is something of both, half-day and half-night. It even arrives on time, surprise surprise.
It’s a mistake to think that to see any part of India is to see it all. Nothing could be further from the truth—for anywhere, really, but especially India. India is nothing if not diverse, and probably the most obvious change is from north to south. On this run the skin darkens, the features fiercen, and the language thickens into something that scripts almost do better than tongues: maintain a link with a murky past, in this case Malayalam, the script a direct descendant of the ancient Brahmi that likely evolved from the original Semitic, and spawned numerous SE Asian imitators.
The people in southern India are racially Dravidian, as opposed to the lighter-skinned Aryans up north, and likely the descendants of the original Indus valley civilizations at Harappa and Moenjodaro, if my theories are correct, civilizations which Aryans of the age could only dream of, but which they destroyed handily, what with their superior weaponry.
Ironically I don’t know but what I’d rate the south as possibly a bit more civilized to this day, or at least a bit more modern. Try to find a supermarket in the central core of any northern city. You’ll have no problem in Trivandrum. You’re unlikely to see anyone pissing against a wall, either. Neither region has much of a real central core, though. That’s the nice part about Goan cities.
Much of the attraction of the south, and Kerala state, is found at the beaches, though, so the city itself is fairly sparsely touristed. The zoo that supposedly inspired ‘The Life of Pi’ rates fairly highly, and is eminently enjoyable, as zoos go. Then there’s the signature worker-owned Indian Coffee House, near the railway station, with a snail shape that actually spirals you up inside it, and multiple franchises around town. It’s unique, dirt cheap, and fulfills a role akin to that of ‘The Pantry’ in LA. It helps define the place.
There’s also a temple that’s a major pilgrimage site, but that’s about it, that and a museum or two. Oh yeah, and you’ll be sweating buckets, every foray into the great outdoors to be followed by a ritual cleansing with fresh water and subsequent renewal of the spirit. Consider forking out the charge for a/c. On the other hand, there are lots of towns along the coast that sound interesting. That’s where I’m heading. C U in Varkala.