Wednesday, 1 June 2011

India - The verdict

March 6-May 22

Saturday night was a final overnight train to Delhi; one which I didn’t get much sleep on due to intense paranoia about having my belongings removed from my side. Strange, as it hadn’t happened on any train up to that point, but this route has a reputation for theft, and also I had made it so far and didn’t want it to happen on my final ride. One final weary day in the capital, buying final souvenirs and saying final farewells. A final rickshaw ride. A final chai. Airport. Gone.

There are incidents of note that I have missed out here – the fact that I wasn’t allowed into the airport for a while because I forgot to print my e-ticket, for example – but funny anecdotes aren’t the purpose of this blog. I left over a week ago, yet whenever people ask me for my opinions on India, I find it difficult to give them an answer. I splutter out a few words that could apply to any country – rewarding, challenging, wondrous and the like – and then ponder internally what I really make of the world’s 7th largest country.

India is in the shape of a diamond. A rough diamond. I actually think this is a good starting point for my thoughts. India is not a polished country. Some aspects of it leave it in the Dark Ages. The amount of garbage stacked on the sides of every road is a case in point. Yet other aspects, particularly the effect of the communications industry in Bangalore and the new metro in Delhi, have ushered it ahead of much of the world technologically.

There are many negative aspects to travelling around India. Rickshaw drivers, you may have realised, are not my best friends. It is common knowledge that they see a foreigner and the rupee sign lights up in their eyes. However, they are a vital part of the transport economy here, and occasionally you will find a genuinely nice and honest driver, such as the one who drove us in Udaipur and bought me tea. They are often great to talk to about cricket, and also still cheap in the grand scheme of things.

Leading on from that, the amount of time and effort I put into haggling became a source of irritation and despondency. On my final day I was offered a wallet from that popular French brand with the crocodile logo. You know, Lockoste. Spelled like that. For Rs750: over £10, and over $15. However, bartering is an entertaining sport when you are in the mood for it, and often you can land yourself a bargain beyond belief.

The point I am trying to make here is that every negative is contrasted by a positive which often outweighs it. For every tout who is trying to scam you, there are a hundred wonderful locals who want to get to know you for the simple reasons of curiosity and engagement. Getting sick is a small price – well, OK, a moderate price – to pay for some of the most amazing food I have ever had the pleasure of eating. The chaos can seem overwhelming, but ultimately buses and trains and people will get to their destination. If you think with your glass half-full, things don’t seem nearly as bad.

The only thing I can think of that is negative with no positive balancer is the number of flies buzzing around annoyingly. But let’s not focus on the negatives. You don’t visit a country to try to witness negatives, after all. The reasons people travel to places are filled with relentless, often blind positivity. And there are so many highlights to reflect upon.

The food is phenomenal. Even the cheap street food is bursting with fire and flavour (though the flavour of the chilli probably masks the otherwise tasteless interior of a samosa). Favourite has to be the double chicken kati roll Chris and I had in Kerala. Home-cooked food was always going to be good, and the volume of quality nosh forced down into my stomach in Delhi and Dharamsala meant that, in spite of being sick for much of the middle month of my trip, I didn’t ultimately lose too much weight. The cheapness of the food undoubtedly helped me in that respect as well. One concern may be that I now think tea tastes strange without being loaded with sugar, but I’m sure I can wean myself off it.

One aspect of my Indian adventure which continued to surprise and delight me was the friendliness and openness of the locals I met. Everybody wants to say hello. Everybody wants to talk. I had reservations about the part of my trip where I was going to be alone for one month, but I never felt particularly lonely due to the sociability of locals and foreign travellers alike. There aren’t as many travellers here as there are in Europe or in Southeast Asia, but there are plenty of fascinating and wonderful people. My time in Mumbai, for example, was made by the people that I spent it with. Similarly, my time volunteering up in Dharamsala was a wonderful experience in part due to the affability and care of the people I lived with.

Volunteering was a delightful period of my time in India. So many smiles, and such a different experience to teaching in a more professional environment. Lots of new experiences during this time as well – from teaching on a mat whilst cows worked behind the wall, through drinking onion juice to cure diarrhoea, to witnessing an Indian wedding (anniversary). It gave purpose and perspective to my trip, and was definitely a highlight.

I don’t normally like summarising ‘highlights’ or trips. Sure, they may be one food which was my favourite, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the food was crap. The only place I didn’t like in India was Chennai; everywhere else offered something positive and memorable. But people have been asking me for my favourite place, or favourite thing, or favourite experience, so here are the three. If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I mention them, go read the other blogs.

Favourite sight or monument: I loved Merangarh fort in Jodhpur, and the Golden Temple in Amritsar was pretty special. Mysore Palace, in my opinion, is more spectacular than Buckingham Palace. But when people think of India, they think of the Taj Mahal, and with good reason. Breath-taking, and made better by seeing it with Kristina. Even the fact that I developed a split in my trousers as we walked around it can’t degrade the experience.

Most bizarre sight: A cow eating a traveller’s book in Gokarna. A monkey being walked down the street on a leash in Chennai. Seeing snow when I am standing in 35’C heat. Every day had a bizarre experience. A quintessentially Indian experience.

Favourite experience: The border ceremony was incredible to witness, especially with increased tensions after the killing of Osama less than a week before. The ambience and tranquillity of the Keralan backwaters was difficult to beat. Holi festival. The Bollywood movie (Double Dhamaal, in cinemas in June). So many amazing adventures. But it has to be Mumbai and that World Cup final day. Epic.

Things I will never do when I am at home as a result of this trip: Lie and tell my employers that I can’t come to work because I have diarrhoea. Think twice about using a squat toilet (do they even have those in the U.K.?). Complain that it is too hot. Have a three-day period without showering (it really does smell). I’ve grown up a lot on this trip. The main thing, I hope, is that I have learned to be patient. Impatience leads to a bare lawn: patience leads to a garden of paradise.

Will I be back? I never commit to anything, but I would like to. There is much I missed. Kolkata, Darjeeling, Kashmir, Hampi, Jaipur – and many, many more parts of India which are unknown until you traverse through it and talk to people. Due to commitments of others and myself, I couldn’t venture far off my itinerary, which meant that I had to regretfully turn down any offer – and there were a few – from a local to stay in their house, and be fed by their family. Most travellers spent three months in the north or the south. I spent ten weeks travelling its length and most of its breadth. That is how I travel, but you always want more time, no?

India has been the most challenging country I have travelled in. It has been the most spiritual and enriching country I have travelled in. It has been the cheapest, yet most fulfilling country I have travelled in. The variety of the country is unparalleled in our world. It possesses many characteristics of a continent, yet is often united by something as trivial as a game of cricket. In the future, India will become a global power. One has to hope that it doesn’t sacrifice its unique charms in order to achieve this goal.

It took a while, but I fell in love with India. Its people, its culture, its variety. One of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen. As time passes, this affection for the rough diamond will only increase. When I am sitting in a rocking chair, and my grandkid brings me a scotch and says, ‘Tell me about your travels’, I will enlighten and humour him with some wonderful tales. But when I get to this major chapter in my global adventures, I will use a quote from the American artist Beatrice Wood.

And then a great thing in my life was going to India.’

Love you all


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