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The Raj, the Taj and Goa at Large

Now in the tropics (yes the humidity had risen along with the temperature) and on leaving the airport arrivals hall, there was a white uniformed chauffeur holding a card aloft with my name in capitals. One hour later – the driving style much less aggressive than in any of the cities visited up to date – the car swung into the forecourt of the beach resort I had made arrangements with directly.

My first impression of the the Royal Orchid Galaxy Resort (I’d selected this mainly for its location in South Goa) was a good one. That impression lasted throughout my stay. Quite a young manager, Dhanraj Singh was standing at the entrance to greet me with a big smile (I found out later that the car driver had phoned ahead with an ETA – apparently his normal practice for arriving guests).

So very different from other states of India, Goa is much more ‘laid back’ in all facets of hospitality. I’d been hoping to find myself at a resort with a great beach-front location, low rise accommodation, spacious grounds, high quality facilities and amenities, good choice of food and as free from stress as could be wished for. Within the first hour, most of these became evident. Food and ‘stress-free’ would have to be assessed later.

My 1st floor chalet room was perfect – especially the brilliant bathroom fittings, power shower and clever lighting. All the space (large for a 3 star rated resort) was perfectly air-conditioned, fully adjustable and reliable. The mattress must have been just as good, because I slept soundly that first night.

An exceedingly spotless swimming pool, surrounded with the best, craftsman-made loungers I had ever seen and with the most comfortable topping I’d ever reclined on – all sporting huge parasols, were strategically sited, some in full sun, some in partial shade, others under frangipani trees, their delightful flowers emitting their light scent into the air.

No grumbles about the food, or the different nightly variation – some buffet barbecues taken on manicured lawns amid talented national and traditional dance performers. Themed evenings allowed guests to sample many dishes as well as applaud the different entertainers, be they a modern DJ or a classical musician.

Scattered nearby the hotel were some local restaurants that offered Goan specialities as well as fish & chips for the English and dishes of Russian origins (to cater for the now quite large influx of ex- Soviet States citizens). As I should, I sampled each and everyone at sometime during my stay, so that I could relate, at first-hand, what I found and/or could recommend.

I can say that all were clean and the food was of absolutely acceptable quality – even if, in some cases, too oriented to European palates. At night however, I issue a warning to those choosing to eat at some of the beach-front restaurants. Unfortunately, the beaches in all areas are plagued at night by roving packs of dogs searching for food. They will scatter when shouted at and I heard not of any actually biting guests. Do be careful.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I needed to ‘rate’ the Royal Orchid Galaxy Resort as to being ‘stress-free’. It was!

Around Goa.

There is more to this state than sun, sea and sand. The road infrastructure is in better condition than many other parts of India and because Goa is quite small, venturing away from the hotel is not only feasible but advisable.

I hired a car and driver twice during my stay, once for an entire day and the other for an evening. The day trip took in a notable Sikh Temple, perched on a hilltop, which is undergoing major refurbishment (interesting to compare the working practices of the tradesmen on site, with ours in the UK). The driver then took me to wander around and in, the churches of St Francis of Assisi, located in the capital, Panjim. After eight Franciscan friars first erected a simple structure in 1521, their effort was pulled down in 1661 and the present church built over the same spot. I found it quite a haven of calmness, despite the number of tourists being escorted by knowledgeable guides.

Nearby is the Archaeological Museum & Portrait Gallery, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). This is a fascinating glimpse back to an era of Portuguese dominance and ritual splendour. There are chiselled statues, carvings and hundreds of fine paintings to admire and for a few pence, one can spend a couple of hours in its air-cooled building.

Before sunset on another occasion, I stepped aboard a small ship, moored at a jetty in Panjim and, with a hundred or so others, cruised along the river Mandovi being treated to dance performances by artists in local costumes. These were interspersed with sessions of disco music, where passengers of all ages mounted the stage and wriggled about. Watching other boats and ships passing by, festooned with coloured lights against the now black of the night sky, was quite a sight.

Moored along the river, are Casino Boats – a Mecca for the gambling fraternity of many nations – but not an attraction for your truly.

Having become a shade or two darker after my leisurely stay in Goa, I packed my cases again and boarded an internal flight, this time a little northwards to Mumbai.

As previously with my Jaipur/Goa flight, Holidays to Treasure had booked my seat in advance and the Kingfisher Airlines system worked smoothly, as within an hour of take-off, I was wheeling my luggage through the arrivals hall, into the bright sunlight and squinting along the row of ‘name-boards’. Mine was prominent, so once again I was whisked away in an air-conditioned limo.

Up to this stage, I had used only three star category hotels to maintain a tight budget. For my three-night stay in Mumbai though, I’d decided to treat myself to some extra luxury by staying at the Le Meridien Hotel, located a mile or so from the airport. Sudhir had negotiated a very acceptable room rate on my behalf. Remember readers, if you don’t ASK, you’ll never GET!

From the moment I introduced myself to Neha Wasnik, one of the very professional managers at this prestigious property, she was (as were all staff) near at hand to advise and guide guests wanting to maximise their experiences whilst in this huge city of some 20 million souls (at last count that was!)

This hotel is five star at its very best. It’s very different too. Instead of the normal cavernous ‘lounge/lobby’ it had cleverly created a series of ‘sitting rooms’ (not unlike the average UK home), each complete with exquisite furniture (and a TV if you could be bothered). These comfortable spaces allowed guests quiet areas in which to read, or to have a conversation without being overheard, or to merely stand alongside the head barman, as he ‘builds’ you a Singapore Sling. My own long-forgotten memories of tasting my very first at the famous (infamous?) Long-Bar at the Raffles Hotel, Singapore, fifty-five years earlier, were re-kindled.

The many restaurants within the hotel, each offered a flavour (forgive the pun) of its own. Dishes were cooked to perfection and served by staff, dressed as appropriately to add authenticity. Whether a guest wanted to dine from a menu of cordon bleu delights, or merely a club sandwich from the pool bar, the service was identical and the food delectable.

That all the public areas reflected the overall ambience its designers and managers obviously wanted to create and maintain, came as no surprise. There was a meticulously kept Japanese-style indoor ‘garden’ complete with running water, overhead fans of the ‘punkah wallah’ style of a bygone era (but now powered by electricity), twinkling chandeliers and wide, winding staircases.

Enough said. I’d planned virtually every available daylight hour left of my tour to seeing as much of Mumbai (The Gateway to India) as I possibly could. Yet again, Sudhir had demonstrated his organisational skills in following my wish list almost to the letter. His driver was outside of the hotel at 8am and we set off into the traffic chaos.

By midday, I’d been to most of the city’s major sights. Victorian Gothic buildings from the days of the Raj that lined the streets near the port brought a smile and I’d stood outside the Famous Taj Hotel, which had almost been repaired to all its majestic beauty after the devastating terrorist attack of a year ago. Naturally, there is a visible police and army presence all around but not in any way obtrusive or a hindrance to people just wanting to look.

Down one quite narrow street lies the small but extremely interesting museum named Mani Bhawan. It is crammed with every kind of memorabilia showing the life and works of Mahatma Gandhi. There are intricate and beautifully crafted model displays and hundreds of original photographs. One small room where Gandhi often worked, still contained the spinning wheel he was so often pictured with. This is one place any visitor to Mumbai should not miss.

Before lunch at a corner cafe, I had time to stand on a bridge and look down on a quite phenomenal sight. Perhaps two acres of land had been altered to form a labyrinth of criss-crossing, concrete troughs about a metre wide and half a metre deep. They were all full of ‘milky-looking’ water, having been used by a multitude of Dhobi Wallahs (laundry men) who were swinging, swishing, slapping, dunking, scrubbing and wringing clothes and linen of every conceivable mix of a rainbow, before hanging the end product of their labours on lines above their heads. The whole vista was one of fluttering colour and sweating, half-naked men.

No visit to Mumbai would be complete without a boat journey into the bay. From astern, as it slipped its mooring, the promenade and its imposing buildings gradually shrank in size as the helmsman headed west to our destination of Elephanta Island at a ten knot rate of speed. The cooling breeze was most welcome, as was the company of tourists from as far apart as South Africa, North America and Australasia, as stories of ‘daring-do’ and places travelled, were tossed back and forth. I’ve always done my very best to instigate these kinds of encounters and dialogues – the results are invariably surprising!

Docking about an hour later to a concrete jetty, the sight that met us was revolting. Never, in all my years of travel, have I seen such a filthy, litter-strewn harbour. Sea water should be blue/green and smell of salt, not like dark brown soup smelling of**** (you guess!) Having passed that awful sight, passengers were directed to walk to the end of the jetty and turn left. What lay awaiting us came as a pleasant surprise – a narrow-gauge miniature railway. Grimaces turn to smiles when, as soon as we’d boarded and heard the sound of a whistle, the driver ‘did his thing’ and we were trundled along in tiny covered carriages for about a mile until he braked to a stop at the foot of the steps, which led up to the Elephanta Caves.

Now, there are steps and there are steps. Staring up at an angle of about 30 degrees at what artists call ‘the vanishing point’, guides then told everyone that -‘there were only ONE THOUSAND steps to climb – but it was easier coming down’! This guy had a real sense of humour – the number is less than 200. For those too daunted to even try, there were a dozen or so wiry-looking, turban-clad locals pointing to home-made palanquins (as seen in the days of Kipling). For $10 (if you bargained hard) two of them would ease a person into the bamboo structure, take up positions fore and aft, heave upwards, take a deep breath and begin the ascent.

I, along with most others, chose to climb each series of flights slowly and methodically, which gave us every opportunity to ‘window-shop’ at the hundred or so stalls lining the sides of the steps and displaying the product of their owner’s labours – crafts of many kinds – and – for a change – not over-priced – providing one engaged in a little light-hearted bargaining. Again, just like most others, I descended somewhat heavier than when I began (despite loosing perhaps a couple of kilos through perspiration).

Was the climb worth it? Personally, I was not impressed by the quite badly eroded and vandalised stone carvings of Hindu Gods. That the entire cave had been hewn from solid rock was, of course remarkable, when one considered the tools available a millennium and a half ago.

Following tourists everywhere are monkeys – street-wise monkeys – anything but cute monkeys – daring monkeys – thieving monkeys. Be warned. Don’t have any kind of food or drink visible or one (or more!) will mug you before you’ve realised it. There have been efforts to curb their annoying and sometimes dangerous antics but, to date, all have failed.

Overall, the half day trip to Elephanta Island was a disappointment. With the thousands of ‘tourist dollars’ flowing to it daily, I am at a loss to understand why those who profit to such a degree, don’t cooperate, clean the harbour and its approaches and maintain the whole island to a standard expected by those who pay to visit.

My last day.

With the Emirates flight not leaving Mumbai airport until evening and normal hotel check-out time noon, I explained the timings to Neha, who merely smiled, told me not to worry as she would inform the ‘bed manager’ of my deferred departure. ‘Why not spend the day relaxing by the pool, perhaps take a late lunch and then prepare for your departure at around 5pm?’ Le Meridian was certainly living up to its reputation of catering for its guests every need.

So, with a slight degree of sadness when I shook her hand, I climbed into the awaiting car (again arranged by Sudhir), joined the stream of traffic and within 15 minutes, alighted into what can only be described as utter pandemonium. Although I had researched many details for my tour, I had not taken into consideration that the date would coincide with the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. There were thousands upon thousands of white-robed people clamouring to pass a greatly enhanced number of security personnel and having done so, then massed at any check-in desk that displayed a flight number that matched their destinations.

Sudhir’s man had obviously seen it all before and with a ‘head wobble’ grabbed my suitcase and, with uncanny skill, forced a passage through the melee (with me right behind – before the seething ranks could fill the gap).

Having accumulated many 1000s of Air Miles, I’d used some of them to reserve a seat in Emirates business class cabin for my return journey to UK…and am I glad I did. It meant that I could spend the time to departure, in their superb lounge.

That time gave me the quiet opportunity to reflect upon my experiences of the past weeks. How could I put in writing everything I’d seen, heard and witnessed? Were there any adjectives left for me to use, that I’d not already penned or spoken into my voice recorder?

I’m racking my brains now and the only single word I can come up with to describe India is…..Incredible!

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