H. N. 35 was marked in clear bold letters on the wooden planks making up the door. I wondered if this place was a home before it was converted into an inn, but I could not remember ever seeing it as anything other than an inn in the decade and half of my intermittent travels to the Volvoi ferry point. Moreover it is not uncommon in Goan villages to find a room in the house converted into a shop, or an inn. Other times the inn becomes the house, the family living in a room to the back.
The folding doors are characteristic of Goan inns. Unlike apartment residences where doors open to admit visitors in before closing behind them, shops need to keep their doors open all times and folding doors take up little or no space.
The inn was beginning to crowd with passengers awaiting the 10:50 a.m. river ferry to take them across the Mandovi to Surla-Maina on the other side of the river, and from there buses awaiting the arrival of the ferry would take them to Bicholim and beyond, to Sanquelim.
I’ve traveled by the Volvoi ferry several times, heading back from Sanquelim, and each time I’ve resolved to avoid the Volvoi ferry if I could, less for the ferry itself than for the road leading to the ferry point at Maina-Surla. Mining trucks making their way back and forth between loading points down river and the open-pit iron ore mines at Surla have turned the roads between Surla-Maina and Sanquelim into dusty bowels, reducing the traveling to bumpy rides.
I had little to worry about this morning, for I wasn’t taking the ferry anywhere. I had come in for a bit of quiet, and a bite of Pao Bhaji for breakfast.
From where I sat, my back to the makeshift kitchen, I could see the door that led into the small inn by the riverfront in Volvoi. The inn was set back from the mud path that led to the river. On the outside two pillars held up the sloping roof fitted with Mangalore tiles. A large window from where the innkeeper conducted his business lay to one side. Beneath the window lay a wooden bench where elderly village folk gather for a casual chat in the evenings, at other times passengers awaiting the ferry rest on the bench in the shade of the roof. The inn faced the approach road to the river, but if one sat by the window to the front of the inn, next to the door, one could see the river and the activities nearby.
Across the approach road from the entrance to the inn, a fishing canoe lay covered in dried coconut fronds. The last time I was here two fishing canoes shining from a vigorous application of cashew oil lay drying in the Sun. I could smell the cashew long before I saw the canoes.
I had scootered down to the narrow riverfront at half past ten for a breakfast of Pao Bhaji, a combination of vegetable preparation and bread, favoured by Goans for a quick bite. The quiet of the riverfront at Volvoi is inviting, though of late sand-dredging in the river has introduced commotion unique to dredging activities.
"Most of the dredgers have been brought in from Orissa," a passenger awaiting the ferry was telling another as they watched workers walk past the inn to their boats in the river. As the boats began to fill with sand dredged from the river, workers on the boat filled baskets with sand and passed them on to other workers who carried them off the boat, walking down the planks leading from the boats to the shore.
“He’s handling the customers all alone,” I replied. The old lady did not seem convinced with my reply.
“He’ll bring you tea. It’s just that he has many passengers to serve, and all are in a hurry like you are to get to the ferry before it sets off,” I explained, smiling. This time she muttered something under her breath, returning my smile. In the noise of passengers stepping into the inn for a cup of tea or a pack of biscuits, or to make a call from the PCO her reply drowned out.
“I have to catch the ferry. What if I miss it?” she asked me in a brief lull in the conversations to the front of the inn. I had no answer to that except an acknowledgement of her concerns.
The old lady sat sideways on the wooden bench constructed from metal angles. Only a little time remained before the ferry would sound its departure. With the clock edging to the time of departure, the elderly lady grew even more irritable and there was still no sign of her tea.
“Tell him you’re getting late,” I said to her, motioning with my thumb behind me where the innkeeper was washing glasses.
“Cha maaglele re (I had asked for tea),” she called out to the innkeeper in Konkani, the local language.
“She’s waiting for tea,” repeated a middle-aged woman who had tuned in to our conversation. Soon it became apparent that the middle-aged woman and the old lady were traveling together.
“I’m yet to make tea,” the innkeeper replied from behind me, before walking up to an old Philips refrigerator to the back of the inn. Meanwhile another lady steps in to ask for a pack of biscuits. Opening the refrigerator he reaches in for a cold drink someone had asked for, then reaches for a pack of biscuits on the shelf of the glass cupboard facing the window.
Seeing the refrigerator open the old lady gets up from her seat. “Maka ek thand di,” she says to the innkeeper. (Give me a cold drink). Tea is now history.
He hands her a bottle of orange drink. Zen sells well in villages in the heart of Goa. Locally manufactured it has caught on among villagers in the last few years, considerably cheaper than Pepsi or Coke. However I find its Cola flavour strange to taste, orange is okay though. The youth has finished calling from the PCO. He turns to see the old lady accept the cold drink from the innkeeper but says nothing.
No sooner she had taken a sip from the bottle she drew her head back as if stunned by the experience. “It’s too cold,” she said to the youth.
“You should’ve have a taken a slightly warmer one,” the youth replied.
The old lady went quiet, and attempted another sip.
“For old people it is difficult to drink something this cold,” the middle-aged woman said to no one in particular. The innkeeper heard her but did not break stride as he moved from customer to customer, each hurrying him into completing their purchases, each worried that the ferry would depart without them.
“Don’t worry,” said the middle-aged woman to the old woman, “you drink it warm. The ferry will wait.”
The old woman is not convinced. She looks out the window to check if the ferry is still around. It is. She turns her attention to the orange drink. It’s still too cold for her. She hands the bottle over to the middle-aged woman and that is that!
The refrigerator opens again. A customer who’s just walked in asks for a cola.
Goa feels the heat in October and sales of cold drinks goes up after the lull in the monsoons. I cannot remember the last time I saw a Philips refrigerator. The innkeeper tells me that he bought it second-hand for Rs. 2000, a year ago. “Somebody I knew bought it from somebody they knew in Margoa, then they sold it to me. It’s running well,” he said.
“I owned a Kelvinator before this one, had it for many, many years. I could not repair it anymore so I let go of it and got this one (Philips make). This one is old too, but has not given me any problems yet.”
Just then a call sounds outside the window. In a matter of few seconds the inn empties out of customers as they hurry out to board the ferry. The innkeeper walks up to the entrance and watches the ferry pull out as its sets off for the other bank. Silence returns to the inn.
The innkeeper walks over to where I sit and says, “Now I will get you your Pao Bhaji.”
“Sure,” I smile.
When I had walked into the inn earlier in the day he had asked me if I had a ferry to catch. When I told him I wasn’t taking the ferry he asked me if it was okay if he attended first to customers who had a ferry to catch. I told him to go right ahead.
He returns to the back of the kitchen to whip up Bhaji. I sit still watching out the window.
I eat the Pao Bhaji in silence. The Pao is fresh. In no time I finish both. Then I ask for another plate of Pao Bhaji, then some tea.
Time passes. The wall clock shows 40 minutes past eleven. Voices of sand dredgers float in to where I sit. If I listened carefully I might be able to hear the water lapping the banks in the distance.
The next ferry is scheduled for 11:50 a.m. Until then I have the silence of the inn to myself. A fly buzzes somewhere in the inn. At times when the ear tunes in to a sound in the silence, the sound, more often than not, ceases to be an irritant.
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