Monday, March 13, 2006

Making it up as I go along

Having seen P. to Trivandrum airport on Saturday, I had ten days to fill before my flight. Some days before that, I had decided to swallow my anti-Goa snobbery and have a swift dash up the coast to actually see the place. (Sometimes infinitives just beg to be split!) I got the necessary sleeper bookings either end of the period taking me between Trivandrum and Margao in Goa and all that remained was to get the train and - make it up as I went along.

One error for which Indian Railways can catch you out is to board the train at a station later than the one you reserved from. The ticket inspector is unlikely to be imaginative about this flexibility and may assume that you are a no-show (and then re-sell your berth!). So, if you're going to edit your journey, do it from the end backwards - i.e. get off early. So, in this case, I was looking for ways of seeing Goa from the south up. But even before I reached Goa, Karnataka had a treat in store. My LP guide (aka "Solitary Satellite") has had to give in to the pressure of traveller's feet heading to Gokarna for some years now and admit that it exists as a potential lure. (For several editions, it seemed to keep this gem deliberately quiet - to preserve it, perhaps, from the hordes that a mention in LP is likely to attract). And, in their "Getting There and Away" section, it mentions a couple of stations nearby where express trains sometimes make unscheduled stops. When my train briefly paused at Kumta, I grabbed the couple of small bags I had with me (the Big Pack stayed behind in Trivandrum) and to the surprise of my compartment-mates detrained in the middle of nowhere! The beautifully secluded station on a small rise was staffed only by a station-master-cum-signalman and a reservations-clerk-cum-factotum. And not a rickshaw driver in sight to pester the unwary new arrival!

A gentle saunter down the hill past bee-eaters shining almost-emerald on the wires brought me to the main road and a wait of not-too-long found me on a half-empty bus heading straight for Gokarna. Described by the bible (LP, again) as the holiest town in Southern India (a Big Claim, it has to be said), Gokarna certainly is a one-off. Full of temples, priests, pilgrims and cows, wooden houses, temple "cars", priests' hostels, shops selling religious paraphernalia, bathing ghats, it has the trappings of a holy place. But there're also several peaches of beaches nearby and the high-water-mark of these is a motley crew of neo-(and not so neo-)hippies and other travellers in town, with their accompanying rash of handicraft shops, caf├ęs selling travellers' fare (peanut butter toast, nutella omelette, yogurt-with-muesli-and-honey etc.) and guest houses.

It's a strange mix for what is still a small place and not entirely an easy one. For the first time in India, I am advised to register with the police, who warn of the dangers of walking alone along paths between beaches - and never at night on any account. And in town, so the Holy Bible say, there's a division of opinion as to whether the tourists are a good thing. From my admittedly biassed standpoint, the greatest threat to the holy atmosphere of this charming place does not come from us but from the motorised Indian middle classes and their obsession with sounding their horns. I have found myself conducting a one-man campaign (using gestures, fingers in ears, verbal pleas etc.) against this gratuitous hooting - in vain of course, except rarely when I get a response and a brief exchange of views! India is going down the same path as many places, discovering the hard way that - for the Public Good - Private Transport is a Bad Thing. Driving down the narrowest of roads, zigzagging between cows, priests and pilgrims, and repeatedly sounding the horn (usually a penetrating air-horn, at that) shows far less sensitivity to the religious aura than even the most thick-skinned tourist does. But then, which of us can honestly say that, put behind the wheel, secluded from social pressure by our mobile metalbox territory, we don't undergo the tinsiest wee bit of a personality shift?

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