Each time I take the ferry across the Mandovi to Piedade on the island of Diwar I return refreshed.
From the time the passenger ferry glides across the Mandovi to where I wait under the shade of coconut palms in a light breeze wafting across the river, stirring the placid waters into shy ripples glinting gold as they catch the Sun, I delight in the languid pace of life before making my way down the sloping ferry ramp to the gangplank the ferry’s crew lowers to discharge passengers from Diwar for passengers to Diwar.
Eyes squinting in the harsh noon light, waiting passengers quickly make for the ferry after having waited in the heat of the afternoon Sun at St. Pedro in Ribandar, off the Panjim – Old Goa road. The Goa Institute of Management (GIM) that was formerly known as Santa Casa da Misericordia (The Holy House of Charity) or The Royal Portuguese Hospital lies nearby. It was also known as the Ribandar Hospital. Until 1993 it was the campus of the Goa Dental College before making way for the management institute.
Each time I pass the heritage structure by bus I wonder why it was not set back further from the road so people could admire its façade. The banks of the Mandovi lie only a few metres away. Occasionally a few boats can be found anchored to a small jetty that abuts the road as it passes by the former hospital. In the night it is not uncommon to find lanterns in the cabins of these boats. For years I would lookout for the lanterns as the bus made the corner by the former hospital on its way to Old Goa and beyond.
Sometimes as I wait in the Sun, watching the ferry leave the shores of Diwar in the distance, Redvented Bulbuls in nearby trees catch my attention, so do Kingfishers that perch on overhanging branches scouring the waters for sign of fish. Other times I watch large barges ferrying iron ore from Goa’s open cast mines that account for over 60% of India’s iron ore export, their massive flanks the colour of rust, an occasional burst of horn shattering the peace of noon as they keep to the middle of the river, sometimes going upstream, other times downstream of the Mandovi estuary.
Usually only a few people are about as the ferry sweeps an arc on the river after leaving Diwar before straightening up in the direction of Ribandar. On weekdays office goers returning to their homes in Divar ready their scooters, motorcycles and cars as the ferry glides to a stop on the gangplank making noisy contact with the sloping ferry ramp, occasionally jarred by the impact as it slides up the ramp to the sound of the engine winding down.
Once the ferry empties of passengers and their vehicles it is boarding time. The crew is at hand to direct the passenger traffic onto the flat-bottomed ferry. Then the levers snap into action as cables reel in, lifting the gangplank as the ferry pulls away in slow motion. Soon land recedes in the distance as the engine throbs to life, cutting through the water swiftly. Every once in a while I lean on the side of the ferry and rest my chin in my palms and watch absently at the wake the ferry churns up as it glides to its destination across the river.
The island of Diwar that was to my back as the ferry pulled away from St. Pedro now swivels to the front as the ferry makes an about turn mid river. A swathe of mangroves hides the island in the distance. Upstream of the Mandovi, tributaries that feed it now run steady after the heady monsoon months when runoffs coursing down the slopes of the Western Ghats mountain ranges into its tributaries swell the Mandovi, raising her water level upstream. It is late January now and the South-West monsoon is still a good five months away.
As the ferry approached the island of Diwar mangroves loomed large. Travelers heading to Piedade, a village in Diwar, got off the ferry.
Given a choice I would chose a ferry crossing over that by bridge any day even if it means sitting on the riverbank late in the night for the tide to come in and bring the ferry over like the night at Surla-Maina years ago. Returning home with my parents I spent the time squatting on the approach road with dozens of travelers watching for signs of the incoming tide while identifying the stars and constellations overhead in-between even as we made new friends that day. When the tide came in three hours later, bringing with it the ferry that would take us to Volvoi I was disappointed at having to leave behind what had been a perfectly delightful wait on the quiet riverbank where water lapped the landing rhythmically. Away from the highways Goa goes quiet in the night. Streetlights along narrow roads keep travelers company at intervals, welcoming them with their shadows that shorten to a point as they pass underneath the tube light, lengthening behind them as they move away.
Another time returning with my friend late one night we made for the Amona – Khandola ferry only to find the ferry anchored for the night, having made its last run for the day. Fortunately for us the crew was still around. A request and a sympathetic nod later we rode over the gangplank as the engine came to life. I don’t remember it sounding sweeter than it did that night under the stars. In the distance lights flickered beyond the banks, growing brighter as the ferry glided over the still waters to Khandola. It must have appeared like a hulking apparition to anyone out on the banks that night. A bridge now spans the ferry route.
Ferries between Panjim jetty and Betim used to run full in the days following the collapse of the bridge over the Mandovi in the mid-eighties, just two months after I expressed fears over its stability to a fellow athlete as we ran over it on our morning run from Campal to the incline beyond the bridge that leads to Maphusa. “This bridge will fall someday soon,” I had remarked to him as we willed our weary legs over it. Two months later it went down. Ferries were then pressed into service to take travelers over the Mandovi. Watching passengers and vehicles at Panjim jetty crowd the flat bottom carrier headed for Betim across the river I would say a quick prayer and will the ferry over the Mandovi safely.
The only ferry route I swore off was the one connecting Dona Paula to Mormugao. Actually I do not remember it to be a flat-bottom ferry; it was more of a boat that could hold about 25 passengers. One monsoon day the ferry nearly tipped over in the rough seas. We were thrown off our seats as it began to see saw in the tumultuous waves. As we scrambled to right ourselves, reaching for support to steady our footing, the waves deposited sea water in the boat. Someone passed a bucket and the seawater went right back, arms scooping the water furiously. Overhead the clouds darkened as the rain pelted us. Looking back now I’m inclined to believe that ample screaming and vomiting by passengers eventually convinced the wind gods into letting us survive the journey. It took me the threat of impending exams at school to eventually cast those memories away to the back of my mind.
Among the ferries I’ve ridden over the years the one over the Terekhol in Pernem is among the more memorable experiences I’ve had. The Kiranpani – Aronda ferry over the Terekhol bridges Goa and Maharashtra respectively.
Kiranpani perches on the very edge of Goa’s northern boundary with Maharashtra so, it was only natural that folks crossed over to Maharashtra by night, smuggling in essential commodities from across the border into Goa during the blockade by the Indian Army of the Portuguese ruled Goa. To get to the Terekhol fort we boarded the ferry at Kiranpani for Aronda across the Terekhol river, passing through a sliver of Maharashtra at Redi where Usha Ispat has located its Pig Iron plant. Then we crossed back into Goan territory as we neared the Terekhol fort. From here the Arabian sea swirls around a near 360 degrees. The fort is now a luxury hotel.
When we reached Kiranpani early in the afternoon we saw migrant labour busy in extracting sand from the river, depositing large quantities of it along the banks for trucking it out to construction sites. Demand for sand is high in the booming construction industry; more often than not the sand is extracted illegally. On our way back from the Terekhol fort through the portion of Maharashtra that separates the mainland of Goa from its other portion, a small one, we stopped at what was a small village shop for directions to an eating place that might be open for lunch. An elderly man stood behind a row of bottles that held confectionery among other things. He spoke Konkani well and was running his shop from a room to the back of his house.
“If you want we can make food for you here,” he said. Surprised to hear the shopkeeper offer us the option, but glad nonetheless, we nodded and went in and made ourselves comfortable on two planks of wood hewn into rudimentary benches. His wife, an elderly lady, got to work preparing lunch. Few places I’ve eaten since can beat the authenticity of that meal I had that day. Then we crossed back into Goa and hit the road.
From Kiranpani, Vengurla and Sawantwadi in Maharashtra are twenty-odd kilometers away. Pernem is the last stop for trains out of Goa, heading up the West Coast. Each time I take a train out of Goa or enter the state I make for the door as the engine hurtles over the huge spans bridging the Terekhol. The tone changes to a distinct metallic as I peer down at the river and wonder if the river is indeed so green as to have a golf course at the bottom or is it that my eyes are playing tricks on me. Coconut palms fringe the waterways, and in the distance every once in a while I spot ferries making river crossings.
For sheer visual drama few ferry ramps can beat the one at Narwe (Naroa) in Bicholim where the rail bridge over the Mandovi reverberates as trains hit the Konkan trail. The ferry ramp is fairly close to the bridge and passing trains make for a heady spectacle as if floating in the sky. As May gives in to June, and June to July clouds come in from the West in great numbers, spurred on by the South-West monsoon winds. In the backdrop of white puffs sailing in the sky, the sight of trains speeding over the metal spans high up in the sky stir imagination, and waiting at the Naroa (Narwe) ferry point for a ferry to take me to Diwar I’ve often willed trains into passing that way just so I can look up and marvel at the unfolding scene.
Looking up to watch a train pass over a bridge up-close is different from watching a train pass over a bridge in the distance where it becomes part of the landscape, an element that is as much a part of the bridge as the bridge is part of the earth that holds it up. But up-close against the backdrop of a summer sky, the pillars are transformed into fingers of an open palm nudging the train into taking wings and sailing away to a faraway land. In the silences to be found in the far corners of Goa, the real very often seems unreal. Out there landscapes make you their own.
The few times that I’ve taken the ferry out of Narwe to Diwar I’ve had only a traveler or two for company waiting for the ferry. The sparse numbers may have to do with the time of my journey as ferries usually run full in the morning and evening hours when the traffic is largely made up of office-goers.
As the train emerges from the tunnel at Old Goa on its way up North it first clatters over the bridge spanning the Mandovi at Old Goa before crossing over into Diwar. After a short run through Diwar among paddy fields it passes over the second rail bridge on the Mandovi, entering Bicholim at the Narwe – Diwar ferry point, where if let your imagination fall in step with the rhythm of the train chugging over the bridge you can see it sail away with the clouds.
On its run through Diwar the locomotive cuts through paddy fields and open landscapes where birds of prey circle in the sky and water birds emerge from mangroves along the Mandovi.
A large Egret will flap its wings and ascend before gliding to a stop in the thick of mangroves or a Red-wattled Lapwing will give away its location with its sharp cries. It’s not uncommon to find Serpent Eagles and Brahminy Kites glide overhead in the blue skies nor an occasional Shikra as it breaks cover and whistles past in a blur.
On electricity wires along the narrow road that splits a paddy field into two, Drongos, and Small Green Bee-eaters abound, and so do Swallows and Roller Jays.
In the late afternoon light the grass are a burnished gold.
On our way back home from Diwar we headed for the other ferry that connects Diwar to Old Goa across the Mandovi. We drove past pretty houses to the center of the village of Piedade, then turned right. I kept my eyes peeled out for a roadside inn I used to stop for a plate of pao-bhaji once in a while. Ganesh Naik ran a small eatery in his house from a room that fronted the Dumo Shet road. Soon enough after we passed a group of boys busy at cricket in an empty paddy field the inn emerged in the shade of a leafy tree by the road. A radio was playing film songs. We made for the other table to the back of the room. The one by the door was occupied by a villager in shorts sipping tea. There were only two tables in the small room.
“What bhaji do you have on the menu?” I asked Ganesh.
“I’ll need to check if there’s any left,” he replied before disappearing into the adjoining room.
Emerging from the room he said, “Patal Bhaji, sufficient quantity.”
“Ok, we’ll have three plates, with pao (a type of bread). Is the bhaji hot?” I asked. He nodded and went back in. We sat listening to the radio, occasional crackles bringing alive the silence on the road outside.
We asked for a second round of helpings and listened to a few more songs on the radio. Sated we made for the door, bending to avoid the sloping roof before stepping out. Then we made for the ferry, this time further upstream from the one we took out of St. Pedro for Diwar earlier in the day.
As the road slipped under the wheels, the rail bridge at Old Goa that trains on the Konkan Railway heading out of Goa take appeared to our left, its metal girders glinting silver in the evening light that cast grassy stretches in pale gold. Water bodies acquired a rich hue, tones that might have quickened the pulse of landscape artists. We stopped on the way to count a large flock of water birds that had settled on a bund that ran across a stretch of water in the backdrop of the bridge. There were one hundred and thirteen of them. We could not land a positive identification. We got back on the road and made for the ferry ramp. The ferry was mid-river and heading our way. It would now take us to Old Goa, in the backdrop of the railway bridge over the Mandovi.
Across the river churches and cathedrals of Old Goa peep out from among the mass of coconut palms fronting the Mandovi. On this very river, probably on this very stretch events that made history etched Goa with blood, irrevocably changing it.
On the surface there’re no knowing how deep rivers run or what stories they hold.
The setting Sun nudges our ferry on its journey across the river, and we are away.
Note: Goa operates ferries on twenty-two routes. Typically two ferries operate on a given route, crossing one another mid river. Routes with less traffic are serviced by a single ferry. Among the routes operated by ferries are: Calvim – Carona, Keri – Tiracol, Pomburpa – Chorao, Aronda – Kiranpani, Panaji – Betim, Siolim – Chopdem, Ribandar – Chorao, Kamurlim – Tuem, Ribandar – Piedade, Aldona – Corjuem, Old Goa – Piedade, Amona – Khandola, Vanxim – Amboi, Volvoi – Surla-Maina, Naroa – Diwar, Cortalim – Marcaim, Cumbarjua – Gaundaulim, Durbhat – Rassaim, Sarmanas – Tonca, Raia – Shiroda, Dona Paula – Mormugao, and Assolna – Cavelossim.