Reminiscing the Caminhao of Goa
I vividly remember the worn down front portion of the classic Caminhão (brass paneled Chevrolet bus) lying entrenched in the sand and mud terrain, behind one of my relative’s house in Santacruz, Goa. Today only the steering wheel remains. Ventures me to reminisce this, once upon a time, classic mode of transport in Goa. A relic of the good old days gone by. Forgotten by few remembered by few.
My father (now long gone) used to tell me that in the good old days, for four annas one could get a “pao bhajji” and tea. And, hardly any passenger would complain if a bus driver stopped for quick pee and even the governor walked to Old Goa for feast of St Francis Xavier. Inflation was not a problem then. 1 anna (= 4 paisa) could buy a whole lot of food items and articles. One could have a bread and tea at an anna each and bhajji for two annas. Sugar cost 50 paise per pound (half kg) and jaggery and potatoes, about 3 annas a piece, per pound.
Though the cost of food items and other goods was low and often remained static for years, the people’s poor economic conditions constrained their purchasing power. Most people could not even afford to buy a bicycle and had to walk home after working in the main cities like Panjim. Very few families had cars and a few buses were introduced later in 1950s. On an average, there was just one or two buses on every route. The first Caminhão would leave from Panaji at 7am to Agasaim, taking about an hour to reach its destination, with regular and irregular stops. Any passenger could stop the bus anywhere.
The network of tarred roads existed only between towns, especially Mapusa, Panaji, Margao and Vasco. Beyond Cuncolim, the national highway was a kutcha road. The village roads were mostly kutcha roads. In Panaji, the Dayanand Bandodkar road along the river front was fully tarred up to Dona Paula, as the governor travelled on it from Raj Bhavan to the old secretariat. MG road, 18th June road, Rua de Ourem and the Altinho road from the old Secretariat were tarred, but most other internal roads were kutcha roads. The road from Saligao to Calangute had only two nine-inch strips of tar on either side for the Caminhão wheels.
In the early days during the Portuguese rule in Goa and latter there were the 1928 Fords, with a canvas top and no roll-up windows. When it rained, the driver would pull out two canvas panels with clear celluloid centres and attach them to either side of the vehicle between the top edge of the door and the metal frame supporting the canvas top. The taxi had a folding platform in the rear to which luggage was tied with a sturdy rope.
The other forms of transportation were the bullock-drawn ghado, the bicycle, and the brass-panelled bus called Caminhão.
There were only 14 or 19-seater Caminhãos in 1950s and even later. Very few families had cars. A few buses were introduced later in the same 1950. On an average, there was just one or two on every route.
Now imagine, with just one or two Caminhãos – public transport vehicles on every route. Add to it poor economic conditions during that era. With virtually no good and readily available means of transport and communication (no phones and WhatsApp J). But! People were generally happy! Life was simple, frugal and people enjoyed within their means. That was that. There was law and order and intra-personnel relationships were maintained and respected. There was trust, understanding and grace in relationships at all levels.
The lack of basic infrastructure determined people’s lifestyles and night life. The main towns of Panaji, Mapusa, Margao and Vasco had government-supplied power. A pall of gloom and darkness would descend over almost all villages, and even suburban areas after sunset.
The Caminhao was started by winding the engine with an iron bar from the front grille of the bonnet, to get the truck humming to life, as was done to the olden clocks. The Caminhão passed slowly through the doors of houses along the route, honking at every step “ponque, ponque, ponque“. There was one Caminhão for the people who were going to Calangute. And then back to Betim with the connecting ‘ferry’ to Panjim city. I have heard tales from the grand old men, that one such owner was also conductor-driver, known as “Buddkulo” (round earthen rice pot – he resembled that). He was short and chubby as a rice pot. It was an adventure to go in that rattletrap, the Caminhao. One had to wedge and elbow your way in. Nothing different from today’s public transport means, in Mumbai and Goa.
Ladies usually take a lot of time to dress. But during those day, due to the scarcity of transport vehicles plying on all routes the ladies in the village would make sure to dress in haste so that they do not miss the only Caminhão passing by the road or junction. They used to walk in haste toward the junction, sometimes even running and shouting, “Rav, re! rav, re!” (Wait! wait!). Thus were the days of old. Those were times when relations were closer and trust in on and another was present. Those were the days were the only means of communication was via postal letters, therefor, the emotional bonds between people were stronger, because the only time you could emote was when you actually met the person physically. Now all sorts of understood and misunderstood emotions can be conveyed via email, WhatsApp and Facebook. That too in a jiffy, with no thought given whether one will hurt the sentiments of the person on the receiving end of the communication. All these modern means of communication has given us groundbreaking possibilities of communicating with one another at any given point, at the speed of light; but it still remains impersonal most of the times. Modern communication means and devices have given us so much, so fast, but it also has abused human decency and respect for personal privacy, values and ethics. Today everything is bureaucratized, sophisticated, but so impersonal.
The Caminhão simply went through the red road and reached the goal it set out for. The Caminhão would carry loads of hand-carry bags, gunny bags laden with rice & coconuts, jaggery, fruits and what have you. It rumbled across Goan city and village roads, thus weaving its place in the history books of our beautiful Goa.
Mind you, back then the Caminhao was the most popular and fastest means of public transport – but that’s only after it left the bus terminal. Until then, one sat in the bus for at least an hour until the “Klinder” (conductor) and driver were able to round up enough commuters to fill the bus to its licensed maximum capacity. A full bus, however, did not prevent the Caminhão from stopping on its route, away from the watchful eye of the Police, to squeeze in a few more passengers. The Klinder (conductor) managed this by urging everyone to slide forward along the wooden benches that ran the length of the bus, or by pulling out car battery casings from under the benches and getting others to sit on them in the aisle.
The bumps in the road or the swaying of the bus did not shake up the passengers; they were packed in the bus like sardines in a can, leaving almost no room for them to be jostled around. Reminds some of us today of the daily train commute in the Mumbai suburban trains.
The driver too, would try to squeeze in a few more passengers next to him on the front seat. And with clever planning he’d sometimes get himself wedged between a buxom woman and the driver side door. The squeeze made it awkward for him to manipulate the clutch and brake pedals, but the thrill of steering the bus with his elbow nudging a bosom more than compensated for the hindrance. Perks of a tough job, I suppose ?!?
For the senior Goans who are much of age now and in their late 60’s and 70’s, the Caminhão remains as a sweet nostalgic memory. Most of them would recall travelling on these buses right from childhood to early teens to various places in Goa. They travelled in the Caminhao visiting relatives, attending weddings and going on annual vacations. These Caminhãos were unique in character and possessed their own charm and style.
The Caminhão plied from city to city and town to town, making several scheduled or unscheduled stops as it wound its way through picturesque villages, its engines whining at high pitch as it climbed the hill slopes. It made several stops along its journey – stopping for a whistle or for a loud high-pitched “Rav re !” from a lone passenger waiting along the way.
Some of the coaches were built in Goa on imported Bedford, Ford, Chevrolet or Dodge chassis. They were quite unique in their outward appearance. Each coach had a wooden framework, a wooden panelled dark brown varnished interior, and brass sheeting with wood trim on the exterior. Some passenger seats had leather upholstery while others were made of wood. The design of the bus did not allow any room for standing passengers. Fitted on the roof was a ‘carrier’ consisting of a metal railing that would hold and transport a gamut of goods – from paddy sacks and metal trunks to firewood and bamboo baskets containing vegetable produce. The carrier also held the spare wheel and a tarpaulin cover. The rear of the bus was fitted with an iron ladder for access to the top. The driver and passenger sides had doors, with a vertically hinged passenger door at the back. Some buses had a lengthwise and parallel seating arrangement. The side windows had sliding glass panels. Some of the engines needed to be cranked up to start. Most of the Caminhãos were fitted with quaint brass blow-horns that had their own appeal and tone. All classic, vintage stuff!
Powered by front engines and a rear wheel drive, some of these vehicles had steering column-mounted gear-change levers while others had floor-mounted gears: 3 forward and 1 reverse. The windshield consisted of two separate glass panels fitted with motorised wipers, with a dividing frame support and an overhead rear-view mirror in the centre. The instrument panel consisted of the odometer, speedometer, fuel and engine temperature gauges, and toggle switches for headlamps and windshield wipers. The headlight dipper was foot-operated, mounted on the left side of the clutch. Most of these vehicles had chrome-plated front bumpers and radiator grilles. The headlamps were mounted on top of the fenders. The front hood or bonnet consisted of double-leaf lateral flaps with a latch. The small buses had a 2-wheel rear axle while the bigger ones had a 4-wheel rear axle.
Known generally as the Caminhão, these buses were also called ‘carreira’ when they plied on regular routes with apparently fixed timings. In small, medium or large sizes, they plied all over Goa. The larger ones plied on longer routes like Panjim to Margao via Ponda, Margao to Vasco da Gama, Mapusa to Betim, Mapusa to Siolim, and Mapusa to Aldona, Tivim and Bicholim. The larger models were often hired for weddings and by schools to transport their students on picnics and to football tournaments. The medium and smaller models plied from Mapusa to Calangute and Mapusa to Candolim as regular private services.
Other than the driver, the Caminhão also had a conductor, called ‘kilinder’ in the local dialect, who was in charge of the passenger fare collection. These two. driver and conductor, had their own brand of communication and a private signalling system between themselves: a certain rhythmic tap on the side of the bus to reverse, a whistle here and a shout there to slow down, stop, leave, or to ignore waiting passengers, if extremely full. And as the Caminhão took off, the ‘kilinder’ would be the last to board. He had his own peculiar way and style of sitting when the bus was filled to capacity. He would place himself just barely on the edge of the side seat at the rear of the bus, with the rear door half open, one leg inside the bus and one on the riding step. On many occasions the conductor would sacrifice his modest seat in order to make space for one more passenger. He could then be seen standing on the ladder at the back with his fists firmly gripped around the rungs. It seemed that everybody who wanted to travel somehow got on board. No one was left behind.
Other popular Caminhão routes were from Mapusa to Old Goa via Porvorim, Betim to Panjim, and Panjim to Ribandar.
On long journeys, passengers made friends and carried on conversations, while some happily looked outside, enjoying the beautiful scenery as the bus trundled its way through peaceful and quaint villages, serene fields and hills. One would witness the typical scenes of Goan road and villages. Most memorable scenes were people sitting in the balcão (Portuguese style balconies) of their houses, others going about their various daily chores, small way-side tea-shops, taverns and small grocery stores. Other scenes along the way were school-children walking home from school, people on bicycles, motor-cycles and bullock-carts laden with laterite brick stones, firewood and salt.
The Caminhão was a friendly vehicle, with its distinct smell of all sorts, like gasoline smell, old leather, wood, spices, salt fish and the occasional ‘beedi’ or cigarette smell. It played its part in society. Families relied on it for transportation, kids travelling to school and visiting relatives. People also depended on it for picnics and weddings and at the ‘muino’ and ‘portonnem’. By the late fifties the first modern bus appeared on the scene plying between Mapusa and Betim. But by the early sixties, modern buses replaced most of the old Caminhãos. The Caminhão era slowly but surely came to an end as it was slowly phased out of service.
That was the golden era of the Caminhão in our beloved Goa that played a vital role in the public transport system of a beautiful era gone by. Today the Caminhãos are fondly remembered by the last of the old Goan gents and ladies of that era as a true classic. A classic historical piece to be passed on to the future generations in writing and pictures.