2005-10-26 12:04:44 UTC
By Cynthia Gomes James
In Dallas, Texas
Cynthia_GomesJames at hotmail.com
"What do you mean there are no steamer boats plying
to Goa anymore?" I choked out the words upon
learning about yet another change in my homeland,
when I visited Bombay one year on Christmas break,
after spending a few years in the US. One wish I
had carried fondly, and so looked forward to, was a
leisurely twenty-four hour sojourn on the Bombay to
Goa steamer, just like I had done almost every
summer, while growing up in Bombay. It was to be my
way of sliding into a susegaad frame of mind, and
reliving old times. In my mind, if you couldn't
enjoy a steamer boat voyage between Bombay and Goa,
why bother to make the journey at all?
The decrepit old steamer boats I referred to, were the M.V.
Konkan Shakti and the M. V. Konkan Sevak which had at
different times been owned by Chowgule's Shipping Company,
and the Shipping Corporation of India when I was a child, and
were not even steam operated at that time.
They were in fact diesel-powered vessels that had changed
flags a few times. Actually, the Konkan Shakti and the Konkan
Sevak were not the first vessels to ply passengers on the
Bombay-Goa route. My parents recalled childhood voyages on
two dirty old black tubs which were steam powered and belched
soot and smoke into the Konkan sky. One of them was the S.S.
Champavati and the sister ship was the S.S. Rohidas, both
owned by the Bombay Steamship Navigation Company (BSN).
Later, Chowgule's entered the fray with the diesel powered
M.V. Konkan Sevak, M.V. Rohini and M.V. Sarita.
The M. V. Rohini, which was in the best condition
of the three vessels, had a colourful history that
ended with a dramatic demise on the low seas. It
was involved in a smuggling incident, and while the
operators were trying to evade customs and the
coast guard, the captain inadvertently sailed into
a rivulet in the middle of the night along the
Maharashtra coast. Unfortunately, while sailing
back out, the tide was low, and the vessel hit the
rocky coast, ending up as another sunken ship on
the ocean floor.
As for the M.V. Sarita, in addition to performing her humble
duty of ferrying thousands of seafarers between Bombay and
Goa, she also performed a more gallant duty during wartime.
Old timers from Panjim will recall that the noble Sarita was
anchored near the Mandovi Bridge for the duration of the war
with Pakistan, and every time there was an air raid signal,
her horn would sound the warning for the residents of Panjim.
Shortly after, the M.V. Sarita was renamed the M.V. Konkan
During my lifetime though, I only recall voyages on the
Konkan Shakti and the Konkan Sevak. These grand old dames
stoically sailed the Bombay to Goa route daily during fair
weather, usually from October to May, except that there would
be no sailing from Bombay on Tuesdays and no sailing from Goa
on Wednesdays. This day off allowed each vessel to have its
Biblical day of rest and rejuvenation each week. So on the
other days of the week, you could safely assume that the two
ships had set sail from Bombay and Goa respectively, unless
inclement weather or mechanical problems arose. The peak
season of course, was the steamy month of May.
My dismay upon learning that there were no steamer
boats anymore turned to interest, and my parents
enlightened me that the Bombay to Goa steamers had
been "temporarily" deployed to carry Indian Peace
Keeping Forces (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in 1987 in order
to assist the Sri Lankan government with the ethnic
conflagration there. Rumours had swirled that the
ships would be put back in operation on the Bombay
to Goa route later, but those sea warriors too
became casualties of the conflict, with the sounds
of hundreds of voyages silenced forever.
Upon being reassured by my parents that there was an
alternative way of making the trip by sea, I set about trying
to get a reservation on the spanking new catamaran service
being operated by Damania Shipping Company.
Actually, the term catamaran (sometimes distorted into
'kathmaram') is local speak for a passenger liner whose hull
is designed along the lines of a catamaran to produce a
hydrofoil effect that results in great speed.
As expected, the latest status symbol was a hot ticket, and
according to local lore, was booked up for months and months.
Everyone I talked to raved about the catamaran even if they
themselves had not traveled on it.
"Arre, why do you want to spend twenty-four hours on a dirty
old steamer boat and get bitten by bugs? If you take the
catamaran, you have breakfast in Bombay and you can have
evening tea in Goa. Plus, they give you nice, clean food,
they show the latest English movies, and the boat is
air-conditioned. What more do you want?"
My relatives and friends were all eager for me to try India?s
newest travel sensation, which was supposedly as modern as
what I must have seen in America. So they began making calls
to friends who had "contacts" ranging from a minister's
nephew, and a notorious hoodlum's driver, to someone who
worked for another local shipping company.
After numerous phone calls and vigorous string pulling, I
finally managed to get a "first class reservation" through a
friend of a friend in the travel business. I was still peeved
that I couldn't travel on a steamer boat, but decided to keep
an open mind about the only other marine option I had
available. I even managed to muster up some heartfelt
gratitude for the favours my friends had called in on my
And so, a few days later, I reported at the "departure
lounge" at Ferry Wharf (Bhaucha Dhakka) about an hour ahead
of the scheduled departure at 0730 hours and "checked in my
baggage". I was greeted by smiling, uniformed attendants who
showed me to my numbered seat among rows of 160 other seats
on the First Class upper deck all facing the stern and
confronted by a movie screen.
Right from the start I was struck by the vast difference
between this passage and previous excursions on the steamers.
There were no hordes of unruly people scrambling with
blankets and bed sheets to reserve a precious piece of space
that would be home for the next twenty-four hours! No red
clad coolies promising to do on-the-spot "reservations" for
you in exchange for a few bucks. No haggling with them about
the right price for the right spot.
I could spot very few Goans among the passengers
boarding the catamaran, and everything was
strangely quiet. It was as if all the passengers
had made a pact or signed an affidavit that there
would be no loud, unruly, steamer boat conduct and
chaos aboard the esteemed catamaran. The passage on
the catamaran cost about forty times what the
minimum fare on the steamer boat would have cost,
and so we were all acting appropriately high class.
As I settled into my comfortable seat, I smiled at the
passengers on either side of me. On my left was a coy young
Gujarati couple from Walkeshwar, who I learned were going to
Goa on their honeymoon. The bride had apparently tried to
achieve the look of letting her hair down on holiday, while
retaining the demureness of a newly-wed Indian maiden. Her
floral printed polyester blouse was buttoned to her
collarbone, and it dutifully covered her torso all the way
down to her bottom where it gratefully handed over duties to
a pair of crisp blue jeans and spotless Nike sneakers that
had probably been bought for her by her new husband. She
proudly displayed gold bangles alternating with green glass
ones, and a shiny new mangalsutra (necklace worn by married
Indian women), while a gajra (garland) of fragrant mogras
circling a loose bun, teased her neck. In hindsight, the
enduring fragrance of the mogras, which I missed sorely in
America, was one of the high points of my journey on the
catamaran. To top it all off, there was the customary
vermilion sindoor in the parting of her hair, like a bright
red flag that said 'stop' to any man other than her husband,
who might fancy her.
The proud groom wore a polo shirt with a Reebok logo, blue
jeans, and Nike sneakers, all of which appeared to be nothing
new to him. What was new about him was his mint condition,
blushing bride, and his air of having a grownup
responsibility placed on his able shoulders. His hair was
Brylcream groomed, and every few minutes he would carefully
run his fingers over it to ensure that each strand was where
he had placed it.
The honeymooners eagerly shared with me their itinerary for
the next nine days, looking at me expectantly, for my
opinions on the tourist spots they had chosen. They also
plied me with stories of friends who had honeymooned in Goa.
"We have heard that it is a lover?s paradise where you can be
absolutely free. Nobody minds if they see you holding hands
in the park, because Goanese people do it all the time."
I politely informed them that the correct term was Goan, not
Goanese. Then the groom leaned across his wife to engage me
in a conspiratorial whisper, "In fact we have heard that
Goans are so bindaas that they go even further than that
while in public -- you know, like in the film Bobby", his
hushed tone tasking me to keep this scandalizing tidbit from
his innocent bride. The shy doe with her downcast eyes and
perked up ears piped in, "But you must be used to all that in
America, no? The bold dressing and the free attitude? That is
why Goans find it easier to adjust there?" Oh Lord, I
thought, as I attempted to make a non-committal but friendly
response by smiling, raising my eyebrows, and shrugging my
shoulders, all at the same time.
On my right was an elderly Maharashtrian gentleman who was
making the journey to visit his son who had moved to Goa on a
He was a striking looking man with a full head of neatly
combed silvery hair that sprung from a high coffee brown
forehead. He was dressed smartly in a pair of well-ironed
trousers, a full sleeved pinstriped shirt and a hand knitted
woolen vest. It was clear that he had dressed well for the
trip on the fancy catamaran, but it was also apparent that he
was used to traveling comfortably.
I learned that he was a widower, and a retired officer from
Mazagaon Docks, the ship building company. Upon hearing that
I lived in Philadelphia, he was immediately interested in
whether I had visited Baltimore, and if I was familiar with
Edgar Allen Poe.
For the next several minutes we discussed his Poe favourites
and he wistfully informed me that he would like to visit
Baltimore someday. Our literary chat was interrupted when we
heard the captain clear his throat on the public addressal
system. In barely a moment, all the mellow toned
conversations ceased as we waited expectantly for the captain
to set us free from the hustle and bustle of Bombay.
The almost surreal voyage aboard this airtight
"seaplane" began with greetings from the captain in
English and Hindi, and announcements about safety
and survival procedures. Two strapping young men
who were easy on the eye demonstrated the use of
life vests and pointed out the emergency exits and
Now answer this question honestly: How many of us who
traveled on the steamers knew whether there were life vests
or fire extinguishers on board the Konkan Shakti and the
Konkan Sevak? And if we ever happened to find one of these
miracle lifesavers, how many of the passengers knew what on
earth to do with them? I remember seeing a few life vests on
the steamers being creatively used as pillows, foot rests,
card tables, or lunch tables on which home made bhajias
(fritters) or fish cutlets were neatly laid out on folded
newspapers. Ironically, the presence of safety equipment was
probably far more critical on the ramshackle steamer boats
than on the newer catamarans.
Once the catamaran crew was done with the announcements, we
departed exactly at 0730 hours, starting off on our
high-speed voyage along the Konkan coast, and the pleasantly
smiling hostesses glided around offering passengers soft
drinks, peanuts and magazines.
Shortly, everyone?s attention was directed to the big screen
as it flickered, and then came to life with a Hindi movie
that would serve as part of the on-board entertainment as we
skimmed over the 225 nautical miles between Bombay and Goa.
Faced with the choice of catching up on much needed sleep, or
watching a middle-aged Bollywood hero frolicking around a
college campus with a nineteen year old nymphet, I shut my
eyes and slipped into a reverie of my own.
Slowly I began to hear familiar sounds getting louder as they
made their way towards me through the corridors of my mind.
Yes, there was the long deep horn of the steamer as it pulled
out of Ferry Wharf, somewhere around 10 am, almost tipping
over with the weight of nearly a thousand people all on the
same side of the ship, waving to the unlucky ones who had to
stay back in Bombay. And then the journey commenced with the
sounds of half-hearted arguments over "reservations", babies
crying, husbands reminding wives to ensure that the bags
containing the lunch dabbas had made it on board, and mothers
cautioning heedless children not to lean too far over the
Once the chaos of departure died down, the hours of
the day unwound and stretched lazily, and the
senses were pleasantly engaged by the sights,
sounds, and smells of the languid trip to Goa.
All the sojourners on board breathed a collective sigh of
relief at leaving behind the madness of Bombay. The
successful escape from the big city, along with the prospect
of spending the next twenty-four hours together made us feel
like we were connected, and an ambience of camaraderie
pervaded the salty air. The twenty four hours ahead would be
the only ones we would share together, and for that one day,
we strangers were like family, out at sea, in the middle of
nowhere, bound by a common home and a common goal.
Instinctively, the knowledge of being at sea would make me
suck in a deep breath, and inhale the soothing breeze that
brought the smell of the sea, engine oil, and inevitably,
wisps of hashish from the pipes of sweetly smiling hippies.
On the return voyage to Bombay, the smell of feni or urrac
would turn heads, as people gave in to the impulse of trying
out the "good stuff" they had bought in Goa. The sea and all
the feelings it stirred in me made every journey on the
steamer feel like the first, and I never anticipated that
there would ever be a last one.
I was not alone in my fascination with the sea, and recall
always having had the company of fellow passengers who were
equally mesmerized by the waves, the wake, the horizon, and
the sky, and could spend hours leaning over the deck,
delighting in the feel of the ocean spray as it misted our
eager faces like a blessing.
This blatant worshipping of the sea would eventually draw out
the jealous sun in all its searing heat and dazzling
brilliance, as it vied for our attention.
For the passengers who had found spots on the
cheaper lower decks, or in the enclosed sections of
the upper decks, there was no quarrel with the sun.
For the people who had not been quick or lucky
enough to snag the enclosed areas, and for those
who had deliberately sought the open sections of
the upper decks for a more al fresco experience,
the sun and the wind gave them a voyage to
remember. As for the passengers who had paid top
rupee to be cramped in the few, microscopic cabins
on the steamer, they just had no idea of what they
As the morning sizzled its way into the afternoon, a flurry
of lunch activity would begin to stir among the indolent
travelers. Card games, Ludo boards, and the morning newspaper
would be put away to make room for a home cooked meal.
Little cloth bags and stacked aluminum tiffins would be
ceremoniously opened and the aromas of roast beef sandwiches,
fish cutlets, vegetable samosas, oranges, bananas, and
chappatis would rush out and mingle with the salty ocean air.
Parents would call out to children who had wandered off to
explore the ship, and families would quickly demolish the
fare that had been carefully packed at the crack of dawn.
The heaving of the steamer over the dancing waves
pretty much mandated that the entrees be dry, (no
curries or gravies), consumed quickly, and that you
did your best to hold on to your food during and
after the meal. Mealtimes on the steamer were also
an opportunity to bond with the passengers nearby,
as sandwiches were offered to the bachelor
traveling alone, or fruit was shared with the
children from the family traveling next to you.
There were many passengers who were brave enough to trust the
food that was served in the canteen (cafeteria) of the
steamer boat. Suspicious looking, bland, watery offerings
that lay on tired looking aluminum thalis.
I remember the cheeky galley staff making the rounds of the
ship just before mealtimes selling the 'john pass' (jevonn
pass) or meal coupon for a complete meal in the canteen, with
rice, a curry, a vegetable, and a dessert. They also had a
uniquely memorable and effective call for tea at daybreak,
accompanied by the clanking of cups and saucers, while
running an aluminum teaspoon across a rack of little tea
glasses, as they swaggered up and down the decks, jarring us
out of a tenuous slumber.
The canteen was a hub of activity even when it wasn't lunch
or dinnertime. It was the place to go to for biscuits, soft
drinks and beer, or just to enjoy the warmth. You could also
get the latest update on passengers who were being seasick
during particularly rocky channels as they, or their
relatives rushed to the canteen to buy a bottle of club soda,
or gingerade or a cup of black chai.
Most notably, it was the scheduled housie (bingo) games that
would attract the biggest crowd. An hour or so of playing
housie was the one organized activity that passengers could
turn to, for having something to do during the twenty-four
hours at hand. It was also common to find strangers just
hanging out with each other, exchanging stories about
themselves over tiny cups of chai brewed in the galley. And
for the young singles, the canteen was the venue where you
could accidentally meet up with the cute boy or girl you had
been eyeing earlier at the jetty.
After lunch was done, and the empty tiffins had been rinsed
and put away, the older folks would settle into the best
possible comfortable positions and have a siesta. For others,
it was time to stroll about, out of curiosity about the ship,
the passengers, and the ocean. The conclusion of lunch was
also the cue for groups of college students and other bands
of fun seeking voyagers to get the party going.
Goan revelers would belt out Konkani and Portuguese
folk songs, and English pop tunes, to the strumming
of guitars, and percussion courtesy of the nearest
piece of hard luggage. For city-weary folks like
me, the strains of the mandos and dulpods seduced
us into feeling like Goa was just around the
In stark contrast, were the dying-to-look-cool non-Goan
all-male cliques from Bombay, who stood out like scuba divers
at an archeology dig. With their loud Hindi film music,
enormous sunglasses, straw hats that they presumed were Goan
looking because they had seen a Goan Catholic character
sporting one in a popular Bollywood flick, and cheap filmi
looking boots, they determinedly set out to convince everyone
that they fit right in with the notoriously fun loving Goans.
The ultimate giveaway would be the tipsy dancing, one hand on
the hip, the other hand perching a beer bottle on the head,
and the singing of the absurdly un-Goan filmi ditty 'Hanv
Goencho Saiba, la, la, la, la, la, la.' ('I am the Lord of
Goa', literally, but actually a mistaken use of the title
given to St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa).
SADLY FERRIED BACK
The onset of evening would elicit a chorus of 'oohs' and
'aahs' as the multitude of city dwellers were treated to a
stunning sunset over the Arabian Sea. The spectacle would
last awhile as the weary sun slowly settled for the night,
sinking into the welcoming bosom of the sea. Quite often we
would pass by the sister ship making its way in the opposite
direction and we would wave and call out to the passengers
sadly being ferried back to Bombay.
Even as the dilapidated steamer continued its languorous
ploughing through the Arabian Sea, the evening would go by
quickly, with the anticipation of going to bed at night and
waking up within sight of Goa.
Depending on the season, travelers would pull on sweaters,
mufflers, woolen caps, and blankets, as the evening breeze
grew cooler, and bunk down on the dimly illuminated decks
after a quick dinner of leftovers, and making sure that their
luggage was secure. There were others who would spend the
night in the canteen, whiling away the hours smoking,
drinking, and chatting with other insomniacs. For a few of
us, the velvet night presented hours of magical moments as we
stood on the deck, watching leaping dolphins as they chased
after millions of diamonds that the moon had scattered into
The witching hours would bring us to charming stops like
Ratnagiri, Malwan, Vijaydurg, and Raigad, off the coast of
Maharashtra, where the steamer would silence its engines, and
dock just outside the shallow quays.
We would catch the sounds of voices being carried willingly
by the friendly night air, and oars coaxing the water to make
way for rowboats that carried passengers to and from the
ship. Sometimes I would doze off listening to the lulling
song of water lapping gently against the hull of the quiet
steamer as it waited patiently for these nocturnal movements
I cannot remember a single voyage when I did not
stay awake most of the night, walking around the
ship, gazing at the sea and the sky, enjoying the
wonders that I seldom experienced on land. Every
moment was too precious to waste in slumber. Just
how precious, I realize now in retrospect.
Much as I relished the night at sea, I would be impatient for
the morning that would bring the first heart stopping sight
of Goa -- the simple grandeur of Reis Magos and the Aguada
Fort and lighthouse, the pristine white church facades
nestling among lush palm groves and riotous gul mohar trees,
the golden strips of sand glinting in the morning sun, and
the grand entry into the mouth of the awesome Mandovi river.
The excitement level would reach a peak as children and
adults alike registered all the sights that announced
undeniably that we were in Goan waters.
Bags were hurriedly repacked, pieces of luggage counted and
recounted, women and children would make one last dash to the
famously inadequate restrooms, and sleep tousled hair would
be tamed, so as to look presentable for relatives waiting at
the Panjim jetty. As the steamer made its grand approach into
the harbour with a compelling blast on the horn, impatient
passengers would stream to the lower deck exit with their
baggage, trying to hasten their first moment on Goan soil.
"Your attention please." My nostalgic journey
within a journey on the catamaran came to an end as
the captain announced that lunch was being served,
and that we would arrive in Goa, shortly
As the hostesses began their rounds with our
catamaran-quality meals, I roused myself from my pleasurable
nap. The newly weds on my left were practicing how to act
like native 'Goanese' by shyly holding hands in public. The
distinguished grandfather on my right had nodded off over a
crossword puzzle. Watching the hostesses distribute the
shrink wrapped, super hygienic, well planned, vegetarian and
non-vegetarian lunch trays, and hearing their dulcet,
measured tones as they verified each passenger's meal
preference, I felt an urge to hear the sound of an aluminum
spoon clanging noisily against a glass, just inches from my
Once the lunch trays were collected, a general bustle grew
among the passengers as people checked their watches, bags,
hair, and makeup, in anticipation of arriving in Goa. I got
up and took a walk around the catamaran, squinting through
the glass at the magnificent ocean rushing by at a clip of
about thirty knots.
Tinted windows on the catamaran made a mockery of the vision
of Goa before our eyes. Where the open decks of the steamer
had allowed free communion between the seafarer and the sea,
the catamaran effectively isolated its passengers from the
ocean and its wonders.
As I shook myself out of my daydream and
disembarked at Panjim at 1500 hours sharp, I felt
strangely cheated. It felt unreal that I had been
in Bombay a scant seven and a half hours ago, and
had reached Goa without having seen the red-hot sun
melt into the sea.
I collected my luggage and walked out into the hazy, humid
afternoon, my spirits lifting as I was stopped by taxi
drivers with Konkani music playing on their car stereos,
asking me if I needed a ride. I turned eagerly towards the
calls of 'Chorrisam zai bai?' ('Do you want sausages,
madam?') and 'Aambe zai bai?' ('Do you want mangoes,
madam?'). Without skipping a beat, my heart responded, 'Voi,
Voi, mhaka soglem zai.' ('Yes, I want it all'). I paused for
a moment, and savoured the familiar sights at the Panjim
I saw the motorcycle pilots with their yellow and black
machines lined up across the street, and heard the sounds of
passengers bargaining with taxi drivers for mutually
acceptable fares. I scanned the riverfront, eagerly taking in
the sparkling whitewashed buildings, sitting like fresh
wedding cakes decorated with lacy wrought iron balconies and
topped with scalloped red tiled icing. In the distance I saw
the neatly laid out traffic island that commanded you to stop
and admire the impressive Secretariat building that presided
over the avenue adorned with gulmohar and acacia trees.
I felt a Goan breeze waft in from the sea and stroke my cheek
gently, as if saying, 'Assun di, chol atam, tum Goeam
paolem.' ('Let it be, come on now, you?ve reached Goa'). I
drank in a deep breath of my promised land and it finally
dawned on me that trips to Goa would never be the same again.
Where in the past, the spell of the holiday used to take hold
as soon as I left Bombay on the steamer boat, from now on,
the magic would begin only after I set foot in Goa.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The writer is an expat based in Dallas. She has
written earlier for Goanet Reader.
GOANET READER welcomes contributions from its readers, by way of
essays, reviews, features and think-pieces. We share quality
Goa-related writing among the Goanet family of mailing lists. Please do
send in your feedback to the writer. Our writers share their writing
pro bono. Goanet Reader welcomes your feedback at goanet at goanet.org and
is edited and compiled by Frederick Noronha fred at bytesforall.org