From Mumbai to Goa: a journey aboard The Mandovi Express
After departing Mumbai, providing glimpses of India’s largest city in all its guts and glory, the 12-hour Mandovi Express heads southwards down the coast towards the tropical idyll of Goa.
With the same level of joy I felt on my wedding day, I’m eyeing the saucer of chicken curry coming out of the kitchen and rolling up my sleeves in anticipation. It’s chicken masala fry, to be precise, a leg portion pooling in rich gravy flecked with coriander with strips of raw onion, lemon quarters and green chillies on the side. I’ve been coming to Olympia Coffee House in Mumbai’s Colaba neighbourhood for more than 10 years, although the beloved spot has been around since 1918. In truth, jet-lagged and in search of breakfast, I came for its kheema pav curry, but it had sold out by 10am. But my dish is an excellent consolation. Wiping up the remnants with buttery roti, my fingers turmeric-tinged and stinging, I pay a bill of barely £2 and stroll out onto Colaba Causeway, making a beeline towards a Fabindia clothing shop to buy dhoti trousers for the train ride to Goa.
Bombay to some, Mumbai to others, the seven jungled islands that make up the city are like a thousand cities condensed into one. Banyan trees spread their roots around art deco buildings and moss grows on multiplex walls, while the long-established and the rootless live side-by-side in a state of yin and yang. Home to live jazz, literary festivals, dive bars, beach clubs, fashion houses, fishing villages, dhobi wallahs (laundry men), dabba wallahs (lunch box deliverers), mansions and slums, the curious and cosmopolitan city took hold when I first felt its heat on my skin — and I’ve never found cause to let go. My time in Bombay is fleeting so I prioritise my favourite activities: after my curry and clothes shopping I go for garlic pepper crab at Trishna; wander through Kala Ghoda’s art galleries; and enjoy a chicken roll at Bademiya, behind the famous Taj Mahal Palace hotel. Then, it’s a good night’s sleep at the Abode hotel, one of the few boutique-style hotels in Colaba, before catching the 7am Mandovi Express to Goa, a state famed for its golden coastline.
Perhaps it’s strange to come to a city for the sole purpose of leaving it, but taking the Mandovi Express down the coast is an adventure in itself; the embodiment of Indian Railways with its food, characters, views and history. Stretching 460 miles from Mumbai to Mangalore, the Konkan Railway is the one segment of India’s railway built entirely by Indian engineers, who conceived and completed a plan that had terrified the British. Fording 1,500 rivers, boring through mountains, enduring landslides and fending off snakes and tigers, they constructed 2,000 bridges and 92 tunnels to create a line that navigates the most spectacular landscape. Above all, it has the most praised pantry car on the network, with chicken lollipops, crisp pakoras and chicken biryani that draws rail fans from Kolkata to Nellore.
Departing from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus — more gothic cathedral than railway hub — the train is already at the platform when I scan the carriage numbers and board in sleeper class. A burst of rain throws up the scent of earth and florals as I watch commuters sail into the station on local trains, jumping from the open sides with satchels slung over their shoulders. With a shunt, our train glides out of the station and a smile spreads across my face as I settle in for the 12-hour ride.
There’s no hiding the truth from passengers on an Indian train, and this one carves through Mumbai, laying bare its guts and glories. Aerials and air-con units hang off high-rise flats, black and stained as though fire-damaged, and I spot more Indian flags than I’ve seen before, a sign of the country’s rising nationalism. Buffalo with centre partings lounge in the shade of rain trees, and patches of pink lotus appear in the mud. It seems cleaner than on my last visit.
And then the city’s gone, thrown off like shackles as the train canters through the countryside, wind whipping through the wide-open doors. I sit back and feel a sense of freedom as we tear through tiny stations, their red and blue roundels flashing by in a blur. There’s already a traffic jam of vendors in the aisles, skinning cucumbers seasoned with chilli salt and carrying trays of veg cutlet sandwiches and vada pav, the quintessential Bombay snack: fried potato patties mashed with garlic, chilli and coriander, laid in a bap and sprinkled with powdered spice. Less than £1 for two, they’re a perfect mid-morning snack. Biting through the heat, spice and crispness, I hear singing and clapping from down the aisle, accompanied by the thud and jingle of a tambourine. On cue, three hijras appear; members of India’s third gender, who earn a bit of money by performing, often on trains. I look over their joyful saris and jewellery, and one winks and waves while reaching deftly to pluck a note from a fellow passenger, adding to the collection.
A small man with orange-hennaed hair sits down opposite me, keen to chat. Subash Desai lives just outside Mumbai where he works in HR. He’s been taking the train for more than 10 years to Pernem in North Goa, where his wife has a home. I ask him why he doesn’t take the faster Jan Shatabdi train and he waves his hand. “I’ve taken it a couple of times, but it’s too early in the morning,” he says. “It leaves at 5.45am, reaches Goa about 3pm, and it comes back to Bombay in the night. Some find it good, but it’s very costly.” He points above to where a fellow passenger is asleep. “No berths, can’t sleep, must sit upright.”
At that moment our lunch arrives in foil containers and I peel off the lid and inhale the steam from fresh chicken biryani. “Also, the food is very good [on this train],” he laughs, pulling his feet into a cross-legged position and spooning up his rice. He points out of the window to where the scenery has transformed into forested mountains, lime-green meadows and rivers swinging wide. “This is the Vashishti River,” he says. “It’s one of the largest in this region, originating in the Western Ghats… many crocodiles, too.” In all the times I’ve travelled this route it’s never occurred to me that the inviting waters could be death traps where mugger crocodiles float like logs.
After the train passes through the village of Anjani, I pause in the doorway, watching hundreds of dragonflies hovering by the tracks. In the foreground, palm fronds are within touching distance, while waterlogged paddies gleam in the light and thick tropical forest is all around. Waterfalls crash down cuttings, sending spray into the doorways, and the rivers widen at every bend as jungles slide off the banks and into the flow. In the distance the mountains look blue, their heads grazing the clouds, and I feel a sense of awe at what was endured to build this line.
For a number of reasons, we’re delayed by three hours — not unusual on this route, where freight has priority and the occasional landslide or flood warning slows the journey. There’s a distinctly indifferent attitude towards the delay, with passengers shrugging, dealing out cards and handing out packets of masala nuts and fruit. I start thinking about the next few days in Goa, where I’ve booked a walking tour through Fontainhas in the city of Panjim, Goa’s pastel-coloured Latin Quarter. It was here that I first discovered Confeitaria 31 De Janeiro, a pocket-sized bakery owned by a woman named Gletta Mascarenhas. Fitting fewer than five people at the counter, with a wood-fired oven flaming in the back, it produces sweet and spicy Goan pork rolls, prawn empadinhas and crisp mushroom puffs, each one a mouthful of magic. Meanwhile, having never been to the old, inland village of Chandor, I’ve also arranged to see its Portuguese churches and heritage homes with a chatty chap named Pankaj, who’s been WhatsApping all afternoon, eager to show me around. And no doubt I’ll spend an hour or two feeling the golden sand between my toes in the coastal village of Majorda.
On the eventual approach to Goa, churches begin to pop up from within the jungle and the sound of crickets rings out through the darkness that fell so fast I didn’t notice. The signs of arrival grow stronger as bags are zipped, shoes located and phones unplugged from the walls. Outside, backlit palms wave in the sea breeze and I watch families in blush-pink houses winding down for the night in the cosy glow of hurricane lamps. At Madgaon, my stop, I descend the steps and step back to watch the train leave. Tomorrow, in Mangalore, the final destination, vendors will board, tea will be drunk, cards will be dealt, music played, politics discussed and a new world will revolve between these walls. But for now, the Mandovi Express creaks and carries on its journey down the coast.
How to do it
Tailor-made operator Luxtripper offers a 10-night Mumbai to Goa itinerary, including five nights on the Deccan Odyssey luxury sleeper train, from £6,995 per person, including international flights, day tours and private airport transfers.
Finnair flies from Heathrow to Mumbai via Helsinki with fares from £480.
Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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