Nepal – March 2012

 

Border experienceAnyone for Baksheesh?

 

We travelled overland from Calcutta to Kathmandu by train and shared jeep. Firstly we paid a bogus departure tax to exit India and then Casey paid off a Nepali border official when she didn’t have the necessary passport photo for her visa. It could have been worse, the amounts involved totalled about £5.00 and mine was the first bribe I’ve ever had to pay.

 

KathmanduShangri La?

 

Budget travel in Northern India can and did wear me down a bit, so neither Casey nor I could believe our eyes as we trudged into Thamel, the Kathmandu tourist quarter. We grew more excited with every step as we passed bakeries selling coconut macaroons, pizzerias proudly proclaiming their imported Parmesan and guest houses with fully functioning hot showers! There seemed to be a general levelling-up in services and amenities in Kathmandu, whereas it had seemed like guest houses in India were in cahoots in a race to the bottom. While maybe not aspiring for excellence, Nepalis definitely achieved the easy wins like WiFi and clean bedlinen.

 

We guiltily enjoyed falafel wraps and pizza for a few days while we secured our trekking permits and I got my hands on a Chinese Visa. Not for the last time on this trip, I was struck by how many obstacles melt away in the face of an EU passport. I didn’t have any of the necessary flight bookings, hotel reservations, letter of invitation, contact person in China, nor recent bank statements but I still got the visa in less than four hours and with no questions asked!

 

 

Kathmandu is an elective hotspot for Manchester medical students so I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen for months and met some students I didn’t know in Manchester. There was no initial unease however and it made me realise that the shared attitudes forged at medical school make it very easy to quickly form a relaxed acquaintanceship.

 

Annapurna Conservation AreaTrekking in the Himalayas


 

We took a long bus journey to Pokhara and then began a six day trek in the Annapurna Region. I didn’t really know what to expect but I was astonished that the tea house trails follow robust stone paths and that so many communities live in the hills, often more than two days walk away from the nearest road. Life involves a lot of steps and, not for the first time in the developing world, I wondered how elderly people cope. Since these communities live miles from the nearest navigable road, I was surprised to find that the standard of cartography is terrible. Not only would each map label the same settlement with different names, but distances and locations also seemed to be arbitrary.

 

 

Nepal is governed by Maoists and socialist principles also seem to have made the trek into the Himalayan foothills. There is an Annapurna tourism cooperative and each tea house offers a set-menu with quite audacious fixed prices. Amazingly though, every tea house could freshly prepare adaptations of pasta, pizza, Indian, Chinese and Nepali food. The urban areas of lowland Nepal are plagued by power cuts yet even the most remote hamlet seemed to have reliable electricity. We were never more than one hour’s walk away from a tea house selling Coke and and a Snickers, which is amazing considering that all manufactured goods are couriered up into the hills by foot. People carry luggage on their head in India, but Nepali porters carry luggage on their backs with support from a strap slung across their forehead.

 

HoliFestival of colour…

 

We planned our visit to Nepal around Holi, the Hindu festival of colour, and made sure we were back in Kathmandu by 9th March. Unfortunately however, it takes place a day earlier in the Kathmandu valley than in India, so most of the event passed us by as we sat in a coach back to the capital.

 

 

I didn’t experience Eastern religions to resemble the stereotypes they enjoy in the West. I naïvely expected to find the whole Subcontinent in a permanent zen-like state so I was quite taken aback by the aggressiveness of attendants in Hindu temples and the rampant commercialisation of Buddhist sites in Nepal. I was also surprised to learn that many of the more unpalatable aspects of the culture – like the Caste system – are borne out of Hinduism. I’m not sure to what degrees their religious tapestries informed the national characters of Indian and Nepal, but Nepalese people appeared freer and more open than the Indians. Despite the country’s almost complete lack of any industry, the average Nepali seemed worldlier because they often sported daring hairstyles and fashionable clothes.

 

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India 6: The Ganges Valley & The Andaman Islands – February 2012

Heaven & Hell

 

Madhya PradeshKhajuraho

 

 

After the Golden Triangle, I followed the Ganges Eastwards towards the Bay of Bengal. My first port of call was Khajuraho, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its daring tenth century temple carvings. Khajuraho is a bit of a backwater yet an international airport is under construction and it has the highest concentration of international hotel chains that I’ve seen in India – I wonder who is visiting? I’m continually surprised by India’s diversity of landscapes and Madhya Pradesh’s wheat fields made me think of Little House on the Prairie.

 

Uttar PradeshVaranasi

 

This swathe of India, known as the Cow Belt, is both incredibly densely populated and also rather poor. It is the area where tourists encounter the most hassle and Lonely Planet warned us of the Varanasi Shakedown. This was more prescient than we expected and the friend I was travelling with had cash stolen from her handbag while she slept on an overnight train. Things didn’t improve when we arrived… rain mingled with the waste of the city’s many freerange cows to taint the pavement underfoot.

 

The banks of the Ganges in Varanasi are one of the holiest places in Hinduism so the city draws a lot of pilgrims and European ‘travellers’ (who are emphatically not tourists!) in search of spiritual enlightenment. Some of them seem to find what they are looking for and can be found chanting and playing guitars on the steps of the ghats. Many Hindus come to Varnasi to die, because they believe that they can achieve Moksha and escape the eternal cycle of reincarnation if they are cremated by the Ganges. This practice is conducted openly at its famous Burning Ghats.

 

 

We faced some outrageous scamming by tourist touts but we were also surprised by how easy it is to step off the tourist trail and into a local bazaar, where you are of little or no interest to vendors who don’t speak English. As well as the all-conquering Kolaveri Di and songs from Agneepath, Akon’s recent foray into Bollywood music followed us across the Cow Belt, blaring from mobile phones on every rail journey.

 

 

After passing through the Cow Belt, I am less convinced that the Western World is at imminent risk of being eclipsed by a rising East. The story of affluent young IT engineers from Bangalore is no fallacy, but it misleadingly diverts the commentator’s attention away from the existential struggles faced by hundreds of millions of people in the darker parts of India.

 

West BengalCalcutta


 

Calcutta is India’s intellectual centre and it literally teems with museums and galleries. It was the capital of British India for over two hundred years and is consequently decorated with a panoply of charming colonial era buildings. My effusive response to Calcutta’s historic centre disappointed me; it seems I have travelled so far from home only to be drawn to areas that are reminiscent of the UK!

 

 

My exploration of Calcutta was regrettably restricted by violent stomach problems that began in the infamous Varanasi. I managed to visit the Indian museum but I found it surprisingly underwhelming – I wonder if all the best antiquities were siphoned away to the British Museum?

 

The Andaman IslandsThe new Thailand, Bali, Cambodia etc…

 

Havelock Island was the closest thing to tropical paradise that I’ve ever visited. Palm fringed beaches are backed by verdant mountainsides and I felt like I’d stepped onto the film set of Lost. Reaching the Andamans is sufficiently arduous and bureaucratic to deter all but the most tenacious foreigner, so the islands have thus far largely evaded the blight of package tourism. Once you finally do arrive, the people are friendlier than on the mainland, there is much less poverty and you enter a bubble of twenty-somethings who have been searching for paradise. The situation is not too dissimilar to The Beach except that falling coconuts pose a greater risk than drug warfare. I suspect however, that life for the Bengali settlers is not without problems because more than once I came across local men staggering drunk in the afternoon.

 

 

It is analogy that cannot be taken too far, but I can’t help seeing parallels between the way post-Independence India has treated the indigenous inhabitants of the Andmans and the way Indians were treated by their British colonisers. It isn’t the first time on this gap year that I’ve observed a nation failing to recognise how its behaviour reprises that of its erstwhile oppressor. I wonder what hypocrisies are noted by tourists visiting the UK?

 

India 5: The Golden Triangle – February 2012

 

Delhithe New India

 

After my rather obscure detour through rural Punjab, Delhi heralded my return to the well-trodden tourist trail of Northern India. I have noticed that the centres of even mediocre Indian towns sprawl much further than the compact centres of British cities, but the scale of Delhi was astonishing.

 

Old Delhi and New Delhi are like two different worlds. The former is a warren of chaotic streets draped with a menacing canopy of archaic electricity cables, whereas New Delhi is breathtaking in its grandeur. What was formerly the British Viceroy’s palace is now the President’s mansion and it presents a fair challenge to Buckingham Palace. I find it very interesting that Britain built a capital for its colony with ceremonial buildings that rival those of Imperial London. The irony of Britain bequeathing its erstwhile dominion with a capital fit for a twenty-first century imperial power is unmissable.

 

 

Contemporary Delhi is different again and this is where you most clearly see the ‘New India.’ The monied are whisked from shopping mall to café on an excellent Metro system, undercutting the congestion and roadworks above. I saw the city through the eyes of a friend of a friend from St Andrews (and her chauffeur!) as well as some young professionals from Couchsurfing. I’ve been really fortunate on this trip to have met Indians from every walk of life; the lifestyles and attitudes of the different communities contrast starkly even though they live in parallel.

 

As I coasted out of Delhi, passing through unending construction works and business parks, I felt a sense of déjà vu for my visit to Istanbul. Putting the pace of India’s economic development, albeit very uneven, into the context of its colossal size relegates the self-important but tiny European nations to a marginal future.

 

While industrial might is imminent, resolution of the country’s social problems sometimes seems less certain. The position of women in Indian society still perplexes me. They are conspicuously absent from the Metro and tourist attractions like Delhi’s Red Ford, and in restaurants I am sometimes expected to order on behalf of female travel companions. Yet India was led by a female prime minister in the 1960’s and I’ve noticed that women pepper the upper echelons of the civil service. India is a country where a black market for antenatal sex determination testing still exists but women also have the infuriating right to walk straight to the front of any queue.

 

RajasthanPushkar & Jaipur

 

A friend from St Andrews joined me in Delhi and we took a very rattly overnight bus to Pushkar, a Hindu holy town deep in Rajasthan. It isn’t really on the mainstream tourist trail unless you’re Israeli, in which case it’s an essential pit stop on the classic post-military service tour of the Subcontinent. We even noticed a building fronted solely with Hebrew signage that looked like some sort of Israeli community centre! The Israelis are onto a good thing because serene Pushkar was the perfect antidote to three days racing around frenetic Delhi.

 

 

 

 

Next we took a train to Jaipur, the second corner of the Golden Triangle and the embodiment of bustling, colourful India. Rajasthan, with it’s rich curries and naan breads is also the region with the most quintessentially ‘Indian’ cuisine. It was here that I finally came to the conclusion that India is generally a louder place than home. A vehicle that isn’t honking its horn probably isn’t moving, desi pop music blares at top volume across the speakers on buses and even conversation in the home is several decibels higher! Do Indians never suffer from headaches?

 

 

Jaipur was the seat of a prosperous Maharaja, and the city is bejewelled with several forts, palaces and a charming early twentieth century cinema. We took this opportunity to go see our first Bollywood film, Agneepath, the box office hit of 2012. We weren’t the only tourists to have the same idea and the McDonalds beside the cinema was packed with tourists guzzling McSpicy paneer burgers just before the screening. I must confess that an Oreo McFlurry has never tasted so good! There were no subtitles and I was surprised by how much I could enjoy the film without understanding what was being said. Bollywood supplied the hyper-intensity of colour and sound that I expected of India but which reality cannot deliver.

 

 

 

AgraNone other than the…Taj Mahal

 

The Taj Mahal was the busiest tourist attraction I have ever visited. Ever. We got there at 06:40 (before it even opened!) and we still had to queue for half an hour to get inside – by 08:30 it was swamped. It is a lovely monument but I can’t help but think that India has plenty of other – more interesting – sights that are obscured by the hype surrounding the Taj. It was also the first attraction I’ve visited where women outnumbered men… where did they all come from?

 

 

I’ve covered literally thousands of miles on this trip and I devised quite a personalised route but I seem to be more predictable than I thought as I consistently collide with the same backpackers over and over again. The most interesting comrades were an elderly Chinese couple who spoke virtually no English. After bumping into them four times we started ‘chatting’ using the universal language of mobile phone photographs; it transpired that they were retired university lecturers from Shanghai.

 

I read a rather grim edition of the Times of India as I was recovering from my Taj Mahal expedition in one of Agra’s ubiquitous ‘rooftop cafés’. One story described a pupil in Chennai who stabbed his teacher to death, the kind of crime I expect more from American or British teenagers. The other surprising article lamented the fact that half of all Indians still lack access to a toilet after 65 years of Independence. My ignorance to the conditions of half the country, and the fact that I have stuck so rigidly to the well-trodden tourist trail, have made me wonder if how much of India I’ve really seen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

India 4: Punjab – January 2012

Chandigarh a Modernist dream

 

 

Le Corbusier designed Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab, in the 1950’s and I’d been itching to visit since I first stumbled across it in Lonely Planet. It is a large, clean and organised city, built apparently to demonstrate India’s faith in the future following the trauma of Partition.

 

To make the most of the city I hired a bike and cycled around its vast grid. No thief would have even broken a sweat wrenching open the lock I was given and I used sceptically as I thought about my Kryptonite D-Lock at home. But it seems like petty crimes are fairly uncommon in India; my rented bicycle was fine and I’ve never felt personally unsafe even though I carry a treasure trove of electronic goods in my rucksack. I don’t know if Indians are a more content and less covetous people but at the very least there seems to be great respect for other people and their possessions.

 

 

Indians also seem to be more alert. In Chandigarh people disembark from buses when they stop at traffic lights and then weave their way to the pavement through the queuing traffic… yet no-one seems to get killed? I think there would be carnage at home if we had such impromptu bus stops; have we developed learned helplessness or are we just too risk-averse?

 

Another Indian quirk is that shopkeepers never have any change and they scowl when you don’t tender the exact fare. Change is often given in one rupee sweets – even the cash drawers of supermarket tills are filled with sweets rather than coins! This situation perplexed me for a month until I found out that all the coins and smaller denomination notes are being replaced to combat a wave of counterfeiting from Pakistan.

 

 

Amritsar – Sikhism’s Jerusalem

 


Amtitsar’s Golden Temple is the nexus of Sikhism, the principal religion in Punjab. It is an absolutely beautiful, serene complex in the heart of the bustling Old City. It is my favourite Indian historical sight so far because rather than gathering dust as a museum, the building is used daily by thousands of people. Accommodation is provided for pilgrims and I stayed in the dormitory set aside for foreign tourists. This room was full of Americans waxing lyrical about how they embrace the local culture while casting aspersions on their unenlightened countrymen back home.  As far as I could see though, they never seemed to leave the dorm.  

 

 

Amritsar is the location of one of the greatest travesties of British Colonialism in India, the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh that triggered Ghandi’s campaign of civil disobedience. I’ve come across a lot of surprisingly sympathetic depictions of the British Raj so I was quite taken aback by the wanton disregard for Indian life displayed in Jallianwala Bagh. This visit really opened my eyes to the racism that was inherent in colonialism. A lot of Indians I’ve met subtly tested my knowledge of Britain’s conduct in India but they were usually satisfied when I acknowledged that it was exploitative and often inhumane.

 

 

Next I Couchsurfed with a group of newly qualified doctors. As I spent a really enjoyable evening with these cosmopolitan young adults – and also later when I stayed with a Punjabi family – I realised that I had done India a great disservice by not allowing myself to see past its poverty.  That some people live in slums shouldn’t be forgotten, but I’ve also come to see that it doesn’t negate the wealth of India’s culture, the warmth of its people nor all that the country has achieved. 

 

Almost all the young doctors intended to emigrate to America for postgraduate training and I thought it was interesting that they’ve entirely overlooked the UK. I also learned that a brutally accurate way of gauging the standing of one’s country is to observe Indian marriage practices. One British Gujarati now domiciled in India told me that American Gujuratis won’t marry their daughters to young men from his community because of the UK’s inadequate economic prospects. Its romantic eligibility status notwithstanding, I’ve realised that I’m very fortunate to hail from somewhere where emigration isn’t really necessary.

 

Constantly resisting touts made me very curt towards any Indian who spoke to me on the street. However in Punjab I was reminded that many people genuinely do want to help or are simply interested because I’m foreign. The brusqueness of tourists must seem inexplicably rude because I don’t think the everyday Indian realises how much hassle we receive.

 

Bakhatgar & BathindaFamily life…

 

After Amritsar I took several buses deeper and deeper into the countryside to stay with a family I met on a train. Sikhism is the principle religion of Punjab and I found it satisfyingly exotic that most men wear turbans. Sunglasses seem to be somewhat exotic for them because I attracted pointing and laughing every time I donned my pair.  Rather like Armenians, Punjabis have a very strong sense of regional identity. Their culture and scenery are both a bit distinct from elsewhere in India; I saw Muslim influences in the architecture of Sikh villages and the state had a vaguely Central Asian air.

 

I really enjoyed my night in the countryside, where I was engulfed by a tsunami of hospitality. Daily life is rather different to Annalong but the character and attitudes of the people surprised me in their similarity. Despite America’s supposed cultural hegemony I discovered that Western life is as novel for them as Desi life is for me. The people I met could scarcely believe that white Britons do not have arranged marriages and my village family found my lack of agricultural knowledge quite comical, particularly because I grew up in the countryside.

 


After having consumed more dairy products than I thought possible, I accompanied my host family back to their urban life.  They were very interested in the differences between the UK and India. I said that the circumstances are different but the natures of people are the same, I’ve met very nice and not-so-nice people in each country. When explaining that individuals at home live more autonomously at the expense of the family unit, I realised that I couldn’t frame this in a way that didn’t sound cold-hearted. Before my time in Punjab I had never considered the Western empowerment of the individual in a negative light.

 

I’ve come to realise that my attitude dictates how I experience India as much as what I actually encounter. The same chickpea breakfast that I bemoaned in an earlier blog post was absolutely delicious when eaten with my host family. I think that travelling in the developing world only becomes problematic because of the psychological barriers we ourselves erect. Discovering that I actually am perfectly capable of washing in cold water has helped me reach a point where I can accept India for what it is and see past things like dodgy plumbing. 

 

All of my Punjabi hosts were unbelievably welcoming and it made me realise that at home we are not only less hospitable but are in fact quite inhospitable! I owe a vast debt of generosity to travellers I encounter in Manchester in the coming years…

 

 

India 3: Andhra Pradesh, Delhi & Rajasthan – January 2012

Andhra PradeshHyderabad

Hyderabad couldn’t be any more different from Hampi, the historical backwater from which I’d taken my overnight coach. It is a vast, smoggy city of over seven million and while it isn’t an obvious pit stop on the backpacker trail, it did give me an opportunity to do some laundry and catch an onward express train. I hadn’t progressed very far north and Hyderabad is still considered part of Southern India, but I already felt a change in the ambience compared to Bangalore or Cochin. The Mughals, muslims who ruled much of India for several hundred years, really left their mark in Hyderabad, not least in its impressive fort. The city also has one of the largest mosques in India and the amount of burkhas on the streets reminded me of the Middle East.

DelhiSorry, did you say it’s only 4 degrees Celsius?

Travelling to Delhi took 24 hours and it was my first really long Indian railway journey. I unwittingly booked myself onto the luxury non-stop service and it was extremely comfortable – we were even served complimentary airline-style meals at out seats!

From speaking to middle class Indians that I met on this journey and elsewhere, I’ve come to realise that they don’t experience their country in the same way as outsiders. My gaze is immediately drawn to the slums but I think that they are less conscious of these aspects of India because they associate socially and professionally with people like themselves. No judgement is intended in this observation, I’m well aware that I don’t dwell on the social deprivation of inner-city Manchester even though I cycle through it daily.  Acquaintances on this trip often ask me how the global economic crisis has affected the UK and my struggle to answer this has exposed my own cocoon – the recession feels largely irrelevant within my community of medical student peers.

When I stepped out from my aggressively air-conditioned railway carriage in Delhi, I was shocked to find that it was considerably colder outside the train than in!  I don’t usually mind this kind of weather at home, but it’s a different kettle of fish when you’ve packed a tropical wardrobe and the buildings are neither draught-proof nor centrally heated. The next morning I woke up freezing at 06:00 and in a foul mood. I packed my bag and I was set to catch the next train to Goa until another backpacker intercepted me and convinced me to buy some thermals and give Northern India a chance.

RajasthanThe heart of backpacker India…

With the palaces and forts of its Maharajas, Rajasthan epitomises India for foreign tourists.  My first stop was Udaipur, where it was mercifully warmer than Delhi.  This genteel city came to international attention when one of its palaces was used in the James Bond film, Octopussy. It is well prepared for Westerners and it was nice to be able to have toast and porridge for breakfast for a few days as I still struggle to stomach curried chickpeas and chapatti first thing in the morning!

 

After a few days by the lake, I made my way to Jodhpur, another royal city in Rajasthan. It was an interesting journey: the dashboard of the bus was graced by a Hindu shrine, replete with burning incense!

In Jodhpur I visited the very impressive palace of the local Maharaja, where I was befriended by a cynical Indian tourist. He told me that he doesn’t recognise these contemporary regents as true Maharajas because they were complicit in the colonial exploitation of the Subcontinent by the British East India Company. Bizarrely though, he seemed to hold an unduly sympathetic attitude towards the British nation, telling me that it was Britain that taught the World courtesy. I smiled inwardly while I thought about the courtesy displayed in Manchester City Centre late on a Saturday night.

One reader of this this blog challenged me to reconsider my assumption that countries like India should emulate the West’s trajectory of development . This provided me with a rude awakening because I didn’t consider myself to hold such culturally imperialistic views, never mind exude them unintentionally in my writing!  However, I had already noticed that I automatically reference everything I encounter on this trip against a UK norm. I wonder if I’ll have overcome such ethnocentrism by the time I return home?

I can testify that a month in India has already done me some good – I’m definitely less uptight than when I arrived.  I’ve come to prefer squat toilets in this context, enjoy bucket showers (if the water is hot) and I can now eat more or less whatever is put in front of me. However, I have yet to assume the languorous air of most of my fellow backpackers here and I get impatient to move to my next destination rather quickly.  So after a few days basking in Rajasthan’s sunshine I gritted my teeth and boarded another train heading for the frigid North, this time to Punjab.

India II: Kerala, Pondicherry & Karnataka – January 2012

KeralaQuaint ports and tea plantations…

 

Fort Cochin was my first destination in Kerala – an historic port town with a vaguely Southern European centre that has drawn tourists for generations. It was very well set-up for visitors with plentiful WiFi, Western-style bakeries and postcards. However, this was my Southernmost point so far and I couldn’t take the heat! So the next day I boarded a bus heading inland to a hill station.

 

 

 

 

Munnar is the centre of Kerala’s tea growing country and the scenery has been described as the Sound of Music in India. The cooler climes fooled me and I went for a long walk through the hills without wearing any suncream – a mistake I’ll only make once! The Tata Tea Museum told the interesting story of the transition of ownership of the Munnar plantations from colonial hands to an Indian corporation and eventually into a workers’ cooperative. Socialist principles seem to be alive and well throughout Kerala, one of India’s most developed states, as it is governed by the Communist Party of India.

 

 

 

 

 

At this point I’d been in India for a fortnight and I’d started notice some trends: moustaches are ubiquitous on Indian men and a waggle of the head is the only expressive gesture you really need. The waggle of the head is used as a greeting on the street, to indicate agreement and simply to communicate benevolent intent when neither party understands the other. The gesture looks a bit like the shake of the head used to signal disagreement at home so I initially found it quite confusing that people would answer yes to a question while simultaneously waggling their head.

 

 

 

 

Another thing I learned in my first few weeks here is that sometimes it’s better not to know too much. The cleanliness of bedlinen in budget lodgings is often questionable and I quickly learned that it’s better to just switch off the light and go to sleep ignorant rather than investigate every suspicious stain or hair. The same principle applies to food hygiene and hand washing, although apart from the one aforementioned incident in Goa, this doesn’t seem to actually matter.

 

PondicherryVive la France…

 

I headed East after my sojourn in Kerala, to the coastal town held by France until the 1960’s. While still unquestionably an Indian town, it did have a different atmosphere to the other paces I’d visited. I particularly enjoyed eating croissants for breakfast for a few days! The old heart of the town has much French colonial architecture while the more modern commercial centre is identical to that of it’s counterparts in other Indian towns. I found it interesting that the contrasting streetscapes seemed to influence public behaviour in each area; the French quarter was much more subdued compared to the frenetic newer part of the town.

 

 

 

 

Pondicherry is dominated by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the slightly surreal Auroville, an international community established in the 1960s that embodies the Ashram’s philosophies. Auroville is a very interesting place, it describes itself as dedicated to human unity and comprises 8,000 inhabitants from 68 nations. It follows very forward-thinking social and environmental principles and it reminded me of both a Camphill Community and the People and Planet student movement.

 

KarnatakaBangalore & Hampi

 

Indian trains seem to be either permanently fully booked or run only on certain days so I have subsequently become very well acquainted with sleeper coaches. Once I overcame my initial scepticism I realised that they are great ways to get around; you enjoy a full-length bed with blankets and arrive at your destination early in the morning before the city gets too busy.

 

Bangalore doesn’t get a particularly flattering write-up in Lonely Planet and I really only visited as a stopover between two sleeper coach journeys. However, this was a very happy accident as it’s been one of my favourite cities so far. I met-up with a group of young Indians I met through Couchsurfing and they showed me the city through their eyes. It is clean, has good shops, parks and restaurants and is populated by a cadre of young Indian professionals working in the IT and BPO industries. (BPO = Business Process Outsourcing to you and me; call-centres, accounting and legal services for corporations headquartered in more economically developed countries.) Bangalore seemed tangibly more developed and more smoothly functioning than the other Indian cities I’ve visited until now. I felt like I was getting a glimpse of the India of the future and I liked it.

 

 

 

 

I stepped on board another sleeper coach and woke up in a completely different type of destination. The best way I can describe Hampi is as a 15th century, Hindu version of Pompeii. The now ruined city once housed 500,000 people but unlike its Roman counterpart, some people still live in houses built in and around some of the historic ruins – backpackers compete with residents and goats for space in the old bazaar!

 

 

 

Hampi was beautiful, but the modern village was composed of nothing but tourist bars and souvenir shops so after two days I boarded another overnight coach, this time headed for Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh.

 

 

India: Mumbai, Karnaka & Goa – January 2012

MumbaiNot quite what I expected….
I was nervous about arriving in India because I’ve never visited a country in the developing World nor have I ever been directly confronted by extreme poverty.  
 
However, I realised that my anxieties were unnecessary as soon as I left the airport. India isn’t a different planet; rather it’s just at an earlier stage on the path of economic development. I did encounter examples of extreme poverty in Mumbai, but I also spent plenty of time in very high calibre coffee shops frequented by the quite visible middle class.  
 
 

 

 

 

 
Mumbai has grand public buildings and lots of Art Deco architecture from the colonial era and I was surprised to learn that Indians drive on the left side of the road. Hearing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer playing over the tannoy in the airport in this predominantly Hindu country was one of the more unexpected familiarities! I was also pleasantly surprised to find that Indian food in India is surprisingly similar to the Indian food you find in the UK. 
 
I didn’t anticipate how safe I would feel in India. There is very poor street lighting in Mumbai, but there are always so many people waking around that I never felt at risk. In Goa I found articles in state-wide newspapers with rather trivial headlines like, Laptop stolen from car. I was ashamed when I sat in a café and saw TV news reports about the shooting of Anuj Bivde in Manchester. 
 
GoaPanaji & Palolem 
 
After giving details of my passport, tourist visa and my UK address at the reservation counter, I eventually managed to book a berth on a sleeper train to Goa. This journey was my first experience of the Indian Railways and my fellow passengers on this service comprised a mix of backpackers and holidaying Indians. I was amazed and slightly exhilarated that the train doors stay open while the train is moving and, just like in films, passengers pour onto the rails at each station. I was on an overnight train and woke up – not for the first time in India – with sore ears because the pillow was so hard! 
 
The next morning I alighted at the stop for Panaji, capital of Goa state. I immediately liked Goa much more than Mumbai. The people were friendlier, the vegetation is verdant and the Portuguese influence gives some of the towns a very quaint feel. Even a trip on the local buses puts you in a good mood because of the upbeat Konkani pop music blasting from the speakers…  
 
I visited Old Goa before I headed to the beach at Palolem. This UNESCO World Heritage site was once the grand former capital of the Portuguese colony but all that now remains is a cluster of impressive churches and ecclesiastical ruins. One of the churches is the largest in Asia and it’s clear that this was once a thriving city; it’s hard to believe that a town like this could wither and more or less be reclaimed by nature.  
 
 

 

 

 
 
I’ve not engaged with Indians in the way that I did with local people in my previous destinations, partly because I’ve not had any contacts and partly because I haven’t Couchsurfed. However, unlike the Caucasus and Middle East, India is awash with backpackers. So far it has been very nice to spend time with other young Westerners, who are usually at least a little quirky as most have quit their jobs to travel for an extended period. In these unfamiliar surroundings, an unspoken likemindedness is assumed when you meet other Westerners with backpacks.  
KarnatakaThe ‘new Goa.’ 
 
I had my fill of backpacker beaches after Palolem and I was eager to see more of ‘real’ India but much to my chagrin, all the trains to my intended next destination were fully booked for eight days. So I tagged along with other backpackers and headed a little further South to Om Beach, a less ‘discovered’ beach in Karnataka State.  
 
The cow is sacred in Hinduism and cattle roam free throughout India – especially on beaches! It is forbidden to strike a cow and I found it quite amusing to see a waiter use a glass of water to try to shoo an intruding cow out of his restaurant. 
 
 

 

 
I can’t claim to understand the cliché backpacker obsession with finding the most untouched stretch of sand. The prosaic reality of staying in beach shacks involves mosquito bites, power cuts, dirty bed linen, Olde Worlde sanitation and Delhi Belly. Strangely though, every restaurant on these mythical stretches of sand serves Indian, ‘Continental’ (i.e. European/Western), Mexican, Israeli (!) and Chinese cuisines. Perhaps not so remote after all.  
So with a fragile stomach, I boarded an overnight coach to Kerala…