The train station at Margoa signifies the beginning of our long journey across seven or more states. It is familiar (we were here a year ago) and relatively clean and less chaotic than most Indian train stations. But it is crowded. Backpacking tourists wander around in a daze, trying to figure out what’s going on; Indian families camp on the platform with piles of baggage and small children, ready to rush on to the train as it pulls in, and if lucky grab a place in general seating. We’re privileged – in sleeper class we have an assigned seat – we just have to figure out where it is. Indian trains stretch forever and are always full. Generally, there are 22 cars with 74 seats in each sleeper car, and who knows how many in general seating.
We enjoy an Indian breakfast standing on the platform – idli (rice pancakes) with hot sauce served on a paper plate with chai masala for just over a dollar. It feels good to eat real Indian food again- and the price is right!
The guide book prepares us for a wonderful train journey through a wild stretch of the Western Ghats and across the white water of Dudhsagar Falls. But the mist is heavy and we catch only glimpses of the valleys below the mountains through the bars of the open train windows. Later, the vast plains striped with cotton fields on the other side of the Ghats are more visible but less dramatic.
Train journeys are made entertaining by a constant stream of food vendors and chai wallahs – all chanting their wares. We do not go hungry or thirsty. Beggars include colorful transvestites who swagger down the carriage, pinching men’s cheeks and brazenly demanding rupees. A dirty brown boy crawls through sweeping the floor with his tee-shirt, stretching up his hand to the passengers above him. More troubling is a man with no hands and only one foot who opens his shirt pocket with his stump for you to put in a coin.
Our travel companions are all westerners – atypically the Indians and westerners have been seated separately. Italian, French and British voices mingle. It’s daytime, but people lay across the two tier seats trying to sleep – a tangle of bodies with feet extending in midair. We chat with two intriguing men sitting across from us. One, an Italian freelance photographer who divides his year equally between London, Florence, NYC and India. His likeable appearance, personality and campy behavior all bear an uncanny resemblance to a good friend back home. The other is strangely striking – part Brazilian, part American. With an English ex-wife, he still spends most of his time in London – and sounds a lot more English than I do.
It’s fascinating to meet people and then bump into them again later. We see this odd pair from the train twice again in Hampi. We’re now old friends, although neither has shared his name with us – keeping a little mystery. The Brazilian/American tells us how he accidentally became a major Ralph Lauren model in the 90s. Sitting in a café one day, in London, he was picked out by a modeling scout. Now I see it – he has the Ralph Lauren look!