The end is nigh. At least for our time in India, as our 4 months has reached its conclusion. Tomorrow we are up at 3:30am (punishing ourselves until the end) to catch our first flight to Kuala Lumpur. For our final post we have each summarised our experience here in a country that is vastly different to anywhere else either of us have visited. First you get my (Toby) views and then Joe’s, before we wish you and India a warm farewell.
Summarising my experience of India is a fairly big challenge. I don’t feel as though I have visited two countries in the past 4 months, it’s more like 6 or 7, but the devoidness of new stamps in my well worn passport states the facts. India is a country so vast that its landscape, culture, religion, people, food – the list is endless – varies significantly. The past 16 weeks have most certainly been an adventure, taking in the majority of the ‘things to see’ – such as the beautiful desert forted town of Jaiselmer – to the places where you can count the number of Western tourists on one hand – like the ‘hi-tech city’ of Hyderabad.
This trip has treated me to incredible architecture, sublime landscapes (especially in Nepal), white beaches, red desserts, sprawling cities, one road towns and people from all walks of life. Being a bit of a foodie, India has spoilt me with culinary delights well worth the odd upset stomach. The flavours, spices, textures and variance of Indian food has been incredible, from street stalls selling quick on the go snacks, to huge vats cooking up enough for everyone at the wedding celebration we were guests at – I’ve scribbled down a few dishes that I will try recreate in the future!
India has in introduced me to ‘travelling’ via trains (exempting one overnight journey from Paris to Florence when I was younger), something I will be forever thankful for. Despite the majority of our journeys being in the cheapest class, the ease and smoothness of the trips exceeds any VIP bus, and they reveal the ‘real’ India – the back alleys, rural villages you’d never visit, dusty roads and endless plantations. It gives you a sense of the immense scale of the place rather then the time-space distortion of flying. There’s also the thrill of falling asleep (hopefully!) in one place and waking up hundreds of miles away. Surrounded by everyday Indians, who have no interest in trying to get your custom, you meet some great people who insist on sharing their food and want to know your life history. You also have to put up with Indians who want to shout conversations, play phone music, or try and sit on you – at 2am – but that’s all part of travelling.
Travelling India most definitely isn’t a walk in the park. At times it can be the most frustrating place – with what should be straight forward dealings proving to be a nightmare and leaving you feeling exhausted and half the time having got nowhere. It is also a country where being able the lift one’s eyes away from the foreground and move on is necessary, as the sights in the foreground can be horrific. With poverty such a norm here it isn’t really talked about as a problem, it is imbedded into the fabric of India and is there visible on every street, platform, scratch of space available.
The rich/poor divide in India is beyond extreme, with people living side-by-side who would struggle to communicate with one another, let alone have any form of shared national identity. One night we could be sat in a Dhaba eating a 50 pence meal surrounded by illiterate Indians and then the following evening be drinking £20 bottles of wine in a bar frequented by the upper classes with English suddenly flowing all around us.
The true start of our journey in the lofty peaks of Leh feels like only yesterday and yet also an eon ago. Since then we have traversed the country from the top to the bottom, crossing from right to left and back again, then back again! We’ve travelled approximately 8200 kilometres overland spending many a night being rocked to sleep from the trundle of the train. To say one has ‘conquered’ a country is never really possible and definitely not in India’s case – but we’ve done our best to sample India’s delights and her accompanying challenges with enthusiasm and open minds, and it has been a great journey, one that I would highly recommend. As St. Augustine says: “The world is a book and those who do not travel only read one page.” I’d like to think India has got us a few chapters in.
Gosh. 16 weeks complete already! Strolling along the empty beach here on the SouthEast coast I feel in a completely different place both mentally and geographically since we started in the Himalayan range in early Autumnal September! The sheer diversity of the world’s largest democracy is hard to convey!
A succinct way of expressing a travellers experience of India is that it is “An attack on all your senses, good and bad.” It is a beautiful country, especially the tropical South. I am easily won over by coconut palms set against a blue sky and I’ve been spoilt here. I’ve equally been treated to some inspiring buildings: Forts, palaces, temples, houses, churches – You name it, what we’ve seen here has set a standard worldwide. If one considers the food too, rich and sometimes heavy but nonetheless packing so many flavours then it’s quite possibly one of the richest countries I will visit in terms of the culture on offer. Every place has something a bit different to experience, whether it be the local history or the cuisine. For the latter Mumbai was particularly memorable.
It’s an experience but it can be hard work too. Nothing operates in a straightforward or logical sense, from the waiter at your table, to the tuk-tuk drivers or the entire operation of the Indian Rail network! The heat and the dirtiness can be tolerated, they are easy to adjust to – I think my patience has been tested most (and sometimes broken) when interacting with Indians themselves. Whether it’s loud chatter at 3am on a sleeper train or arguing over the cost of a piece of fruit! They rarely achieve in doing what they promised (travel agents, bus drivers…) and are always after those extra rupees in your pockets in an exhausting way which is so easy to see through. This point may sound petty but after four months of “Which country?” beginning every conversation and then a dull chat about what tat they are trying to hard sell on you – Enough!
Travelling in all classes and across all parts we’ve seen a lot of India at the ‘coal face’, and as well as being amazing to experience and sample it isn’t always pretty. I’ve seen two corpses and such desperate poverty that it perplexes me that a country seeks fulfilment in sending a probe to Mars rather than helping its poor or tackling the endemic corruption here. Half of India (600m people) don’t have access to a toilet. For every £1 spent on the poor only 27p will make it to the recipient. Again, India confuses me: No logic, no sense, and no evidence of urgency in doing anything about it. The role religion has on daily life here is also beyond the comprehension of a secular western mind. And the hollowness of it. Women are to be (supposedly) worshipped but we see them working all day on building sites whilst men crowd round the alcohol stores for their 5pm bottle of whiskey. I don’t get it, I doubt I ever could.
But these are bigger problems than two backpackers need to contemplate for too long. What a crazy place. The colour, the weather and that rich culture. I am so glad I came, and that I did it comprehensively too: Top-to-bottom, left-to-right and inside-out. Book a flight and sample it for yourself, if only for a week or two. You won’t regret it!
So that’s basically it from us! They’ll be one final post in late January to unveil the videos section (not been possible to do that on Indian WiFi), but this is pretty much it. It’s been a great 16 weeks and we hope you’ve enjoyed following the blog and seeing where we are at. We now head on for our next adventures: I’m staying in Australia on a working-holiday visa, with some mini-trips with friends already in the pipeline; and Joe is carrying on his travels from mid January with New Zealand them back into SE Asia. First our 30 hour journey to Sydney, with a nice 8 hour wait in KL airport, (I’ve downloaded The Nightmare before Christmas and A Christmas Story to get me into the Christmassy mood!) Here is a video that was sent to us when we left England many months ago and it seems only fitting to wish you all goodbye with it here
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
Toby and Joe