Our Indian Odyssey

And so, at last, our trip to India has finally come to an end after about 16 weeks spread over 3 separate visits.

L: Chinese fishing nets, Fort Cochin; R: Sri Ranganathaswarmy Temple, Trichy

We’ve visited 12 out of 29 of the Indian states (plus 3 Union Territories) as well as 14 out of the 36 Indian UNESCO world heritage sites (although we feel a little cheated on this statistic as UNESCO has sought fit to group many separate Indian sites e.g. Rajasthan forts and Chola living temples (in the South), as one site rather than individual sites).

We’ve travelled to the most southern point of India (Kanyakumari), seen its highest point (Kanchenjunga), been into the Thar Desert, trekked in the Himalaya mountains, paid homage to Mother Ganges (river) at Varanasi, crossed its border with Bhutan (at Jaigon) and been right up to its more controversial border with Pakistan (at Attari-Wagah).

L: River Tungabhadra, Hampi; M: Varanasi; R: Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi

We’ve used over 20 forms of transport to get around from camels and ropeways (cable cars) to many different types of rickshaws to spankingly modern, clean and, most importantly of all AC, metro systems in Delhi, Kolkata and Jaipur to name but a few cities. We’ve spent approximately 190 hours (almost 8 full days) on India Railways. That is a long time but this is a massive country after all. According to the timetable, we should only have spent 168 hours (or 7 days) on them but what’s another 24 hours or so among friends?

We’ve seen countless cows wandering the streets as well as numerous wild dogs and of course you’re never far from a pesky monkey waiting to steal something from you. And on the food front, we’ve pretty much eaten curry every day and yet would still go back for more!

We liked this monkey: Hanuman, the Monkey God

We leave India with some regret, excited of course about the next adventure but sad too as it has been a great experience. True there was the odd day when some things didn’t quite work out the way we had thought and of course the odd dodgy hotel room (with even more dodgy plumbing).

Apart from the real rip off merchants/scammers in Delhi and Mumbai (where there must be whole schools dedicated to the art of how to con tourists), we actually felt the haggling and hassle was not too bad. That’s not to say of course that there won’t be many a rickshaw driver or hawker who will have gone home pleased that they squeezed a few extra rupees out of us but generally we bargained hard and did ok (we think). On the hassle front, being in a pair made it so much easier and also stopped me getting hassle as a female. There was a lot of staring however which you just had to do your best to ignore.

We met one French solo traveller near the end of his 8 week trip who was clearly exhausted and felt he had had way too much hassle even in simple transactions of buying water (whereas we had found that the price of water all over the country was pretty much fixed at 20 rupees (or 15 rupees in stations)) so not quite sure why this was so difficult for him. Mind you, he was also struggling with the food, surprisingly not so much with the spiciness of it, but more the fact that he didn’t like vegetables (in a very stereotypical French way). India is heaven for vegetarians and so he was in some trouble if he wasn’t going to eat vegetables.

We were lucky too as we stayed healthy throughout our visit. Yes, we had the very rare day of not feeling on tip top form but weren’t struck down by anything that lasted more than a few hours. Obviously all those years of eating curry in the UK (and for one of us in particular, eating it several times a week) must have been good training! Also staying vegetarian also helped but then with so many delicious vegetarian options, why would you need to eat meat? Except of course if you are French and take pleasure in announcing that your countrymen eat vegetarians for breakfast.

For me, it was a fascinating return trip. 25 years or so ago I’d visited on my first big solo trip outside of Europe. I remember all my senses being totally assaulted by the colours, the smells, the noise, the food etc. I’d enjoyed the experience then but had been travelling on my own and on some days had found it a little overwhelming. It was also really dirty then: the amount of peeing in the street had initially shocked me and open defecation on railway lines had been a common sight as the train was pulling out of the stations. There was also a huge amount of quite persistent begging and, as a young woman, I also remember getting groped on a number of occasions.

L: Market stall selling coloured powders and scented oils; M: Masala Dosa; R: over-filled food shop

Roll on 25+ years and this is, in many ways, an unrecognisable country. It’s much cleaner and there’s many more public toilets although you still see a fair amount of road-side peeing. However, Prime Minister Modi has a huge initiative in play regarding toilets particularly in rural areas and so hopefully this problem will decrease. One quite effective measure to stop people peeing in a very narrow alley in Delhi was to place pictures of all the gods (of all religions) on the walls, the idea being that if you are Hindu you can’t pee in front of Ganesh, Vishnu or Brahmin, or in front of Mohammed if you are Muslim or in front of Jesus if you are Christian etc etc.

Different approaches to instructions not to pee or spit

However, it’s a fact – there is a lot of rubbish and sadly, there are way too many people just dropping litter as they walk (or drive) along without a second thought. But there is evidence that there is change afoot here: there’s a lot of government advertising campaigns about keeping the country clean and some states are more successful at this than others e.g. Sikkim. But more work has to be done at the grass roots level but hopefully that will come with time and more education. The big cities have an army of rubbish sweepers and you see rubbish carts too although they always seem very full. Like the rest of the world, plastic refuse is a big problem here although when we were in Mumbai we saw some successful plastic bottle recycling industries so that’s a positive and hopefully with these initiatives, things will improve.

There were far fewer beggars on this trip than I remember from before and the ones we did encounter were far less persistent. Religious centres seemed to be key places where beggars gathered but their total numbers were far fewer than in the early 1990s. I guess the biggest change of all in this intervening period is the economic rise of India and the internal growth of the middle class. Back in 1991, it seemed that people were either very wealthy or very poor; now the huge numbers of the middle class are squeezing both ends of this scale. As a result, India felt a safe country in which to travel and probably because I was travelling with my husband, there was no unwarranted attention.

With the rise in wealth and the huge increase in the population, the amount of vehicles on the road is at crazy levels and many of India’s cities are among the most polluted in the world. When we first landed in Delhi back in November 2017, the news channels were describing the smog in the city as deadly. However even here though there are some glimmers of hope in the form of electric rickshaws in some cities.

On the subject of cars, one abiding memory of this trip will be the driving. On first blush, 3 or sometimes 4 cars abreast on roads with only 2 lanes and/or cars overtaking in the face of oncoming traffic all seems rather crazy and chaotic to say the least. It also seems to be “ok” to use either carriage way (when the road is partitioned in the middle) even if your own lane is not that busy: in these circumstances, when you meet oncoming traffic, the accepted form seems to be to take a very indignant approach and the moral high ground even though you are clearly on the wrong side of the road. It really has to be seen to be believed.

As a passenger, as you get a bit more used to the driving, you soon recognise that there does seem to be some order in all this seeming chaos. However, it’s not always obvious that the constant beeping is necessary (especially when the traffic is literally stationary) but that just seems to be an integral part of any road journey in India. Having said that we did however see the aftermath of one nasty accident near Orchha when a motorcyclist had been killed by a car so the dangers are very real, worse at night when unfortunately many vehicles don’t use any headlights at all even though all cars clearly have headlights so it remains a mystery why people don’t switch them on.

When you are lucky enough to have in-depth conversations with people (that don’t involve an invitation to a shop or something similar), you realise that India doesn’t really look to the West anymore. When I was here last, it felt like the UK was still a big deal to many Indians and people were interested in following western fashion and trends especially anything coming out of the US. But move on a quarter of a century, India is a powerhouse and looks to China rather than the west in terms of who it needs to keep up with (to the extent it feels it needs to keep up with anyone). And with this many industrious and entrepreneurial people around, it certainly is a country to watch. Even though the UK is no longer a big deal, we still found many people positively disposed towards Britain: at Shimla (ironically the city in which one of the most difficult decisions of all (Partition) was made by the British government), Peter even found himself being personally thanked at quite some length for all the good things that Britain had done for India.

L: The Viceregal Lodge, Shimla (where Partition was decided); R: a post box (a relic of the British Raj)

As well as these differences, there were a lot of similarities to the India I first encountered: the beautiful colours of the ladies’ clothes, the fantastic street food on tiny little street-carts, the chai shops, the rail journeys and of course the cows roaming everywhere. It still is an attack on the senses, perhaps not quite as vivid an attack as I remember but then I’m sure that’s as much to do with me (and a certain familiarity with Asian and African countries as a result of many intervening trips) as with the country itself.

L: Mobile stall crammed full of snacks; R: musk melon seller

I remember the photo requests from my earlier trip. I always thought that it was rather a shame that immaculately dressed Indians would want a sweaty foreigner ruining their photos. But now with the rise of the mobile phone and the birth of the selfie, the number of requests is out of control. Hardly a day has passed without a selfie request: we’ve completely lost count and don’t want to think about what use is being made of all these images of us. At the same time, Indians have adopted the approach of no photo being complete without themselves in it: while we would wait for ages to try and get some people free shots of various sites, everyone else around us was busy taking narcissistic photos, sometimes not even pausing to look at the actual monument itself.

Making fuel from cow pats

As before, the level of bureaucracy is high. When checking in to each hotel, it felt like time had stood still as we still had to complete the formal register (an enormous tome requiring information about when you arrived, from where and to where you are departing). True today the information is then uploaded to a central government website, but the written registers look identical to those used a quarter of a century ago. And if applying for anything formal e.g. a permit to travel to Sikkim or to buy a SIM card for a mobile telephone, quite often we were required to provide our father’s name and occupation (or in my case, my husband’s).

The ridiculously large hotel registers

And despite having seen and done so much, perhaps unsurprisingly in such a large country, we leave with still many sights left unseen e.g. Kashmir, Ladakh, Leh, Dharmasala, Goa, the caves at Ellora and Atjanta (which we’d knocked off an early draft of our second trip’s itinerary in favour of something else, only for this to haunt us as at one point it seemed that the only sight everyone we met (including in Bhutan) was raving about was these caves!). We also didn’t make it to Rishikesh or Haridwar (although I can “claim” these from my earlier trip). But this just means that maybe we’ll just have to fit in a return trip in the future. By the time we left, it was getting pretty hot and with the rains only just around the corner, it was a good time to move on.

Bathing in the ghats at Orchha

So namaste India. We leave you with lots of great memories and with the constant ringing of car horns “honk honk” in our ears.

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