It all started far too well. We arrived at Heathrow bright eyed and bushy tailed, looking forward to two and a half weeks in India. Two weeks to be spent exploring Goa. Two standby returns to Bombay, via Zurich, for ninety quid each. You canâ€™t grumble at that. So we didnâ€™t. The lovely lady at the Swiss Air desk checked us in all the way to Bombay. Bags stowed, large English consumed, books and Duty Free purchased, we settled down for a marvellous flight. The flight change at Zurich went as smooth as you like and, before we knew it, we were touching down at Mumbai International Airport. Armed with a â€œRough Guideâ€ and oodles of confidence, we hit the streets of Bombay!
Unfortunately, it was half past two in the morning. Our train for Goa wasnâ€™t leaving until ten thirty at night! We needed sleep so, undeterred, we consulted the â€œbibleâ€ and were reliably informed that the Tourist Kiosk in the airport was the best place to obtain accommodation. We spoke to a very nice man and, within minutes, we were being whisked towards the big city in a taxi.
What the guidebooks fail to tell you is the fact that everyone is related and, due to high unemployment and low wages, even government employees will shunt you to their cousinâ€™s hotel if you have no idea where you want to go! Which is how we ended up in the Hotel Gaylord (honest) at three in the morning. Bewildered, knackered and spectacularly gullible, we handed over Â£20 for a room for the night. The concierge in the threadbare â€œbuttonsâ€ panto outfit led us to our room. The first one had a shower and toilet that were trying to escape into the bedroom. We traded that one in for another, with air conditioning and a more secure ablution area. After switching off the air con due to the noise, barricading the dodgy door with our rucksacks and murdering a few cockroaches, we settled down to a few hours of well-earned sleep. I was serenaded into the land of nod by Ruth swearing under her breath and opening and closing a large penknife in time to my snoringâ€¦.
At breakfast the next morning, we met a nice German couple and a rat. The rat scuttled across the dining area and disappeared into a cupboard and the Germans accompanied us on our tour of the city. Considering the state of the hotel, I wouldnâ€™t have been surprised had there been a doctor demanding sausages, a health inspector in the kitchen and the owner stuffing a kipper up his jumper as well.
Now, Bombay is a city of contrasts. Anyone who has been there will bear witness to that. I read somewhere that, at the same time as having abject poverty on every street corner, it is also, after Tokyo, the most expensive place on the planet for real estate. It is true that there are miles and miles of shantytowns overlooked by expensive apartments and hotels. It was into this that we emerged. For approximately 3 miles we stepped over shrieking, half-naked children, around piles of cow shit and between huts constructed of corrugated iron and cardboard. Without coming on too â€œDaily Mailâ€, it was interesting to see, amongst this third world backdrop of depravation, satellite dishes lashed to roofs and the poverty stricken populace huddled round flickering televisions trying to get a glimpse of Carol Vordemannâ€™s vowels.
We dined at a very nice place in the centre. Vegetable curry and a large Kingfisher seemed to be the order of the day amongst the backpacking fraternity that made up the majority of the clientele. After lunch we put in some serious sight seeing. This consisted, mostly, of people in the street and weird shops (the usual stuff â€“ so much more entertaining than museums). After a stray goat relieved itself over Ruthâ€™s leg, we decided to get a taxi and head back to collect our bags and find our train.
This was a mistake. In terms of â€œtaxis I wish I had never got intoâ€, this now rates third. At the time it was first. In terms of â€œmost suicidal taxi driverâ€, it still remains top of the list! Hurtling across the centre of Bombay at rush hour (itâ€™s always rush hour) at warp seven, with bits falling off the underside of the taxi, beggars disappearing under the wheels and a shit scared German screaming â€œ I donâ€™t vant to die in a cab in Bombay!â€ is not my idea of a relaxing holiday.
So there we were, rucksacks collected, standing in Victoria terminus. The place was a cross between Kings Cross and bedlam, with a little Beirut thrown in for good measure. Vagrants and beggars occupied floor space with travellers and backpackers (some were difficult to tell from others!). Businessmen stood and waited for their trains oblivious to the paramilitary police wandering amongst the throng, doling out beatings with sticks to those unfortunate enough not to be wealthy or gainfully employed. Twenty odd platforms laid out with, so it seemed, no rhyme or reason. Trying to find which platform our train was departing from looked ominous if not downright impossible. So, leaving Ruth with a fellow backpacker intent on receiving a beating by skinning up in front of the roving policemen, I went off in search of a railway official.
Eventually, I came across a commotion on one of the platforms. Pushing through the crowd I saw what appeared to be a uniform (not unlike that worn by our concierge from earlier. â€“ Job lot?) and, with a great deal of effort, managed to attract the wearerâ€™s attention. I, not speaking any known Indian dialect and he, not understanding tired dickhead, did not get anywhere at first. Then he plucked my train tickets from my grasp, looked at them and suddenly beamed back as if I had agreed to pay for his five daughtersâ€™ weddings. All of a sudden, we could communicate. Bemused, I was pulled by the sleeve and pushed into a little office.
â€œWas I Doctor Perkins?â€ he wanted to know.
The penny dropped. My initials are D. R. Doctor Perkins.
â€œWhy yes I amâ€ I told him.
Within seconds I was ushered from the platform, trailed by a levy of porters. A confused Ruth barely had time to look up before she, along with our two scabby rucksacks, was virtually lifted up and conveyed to a first class sleeper carriage on the Bombay to Margao night train. After rewarding our entourage with a fistful of rupees, and explaining things to Ruth, we both agreed that if there was to be a medical emergency I should keep a very low profile. Some things you can bullshit your way through. Delivering a baby or carrying out an appendectomy with a penknife are not â€œsome things!â€
After a cup of chai, a samosa and a bloody good nightâ€™s sleep, we awoke to the rhythmic thunking of train wheels. It was daylight. We were rolling through spectacular countryside. We were on our way to Goa. More importantly, we had left Bombay!
Unfortunately, in about two weeks, we had to go backâ€¦