Where Do I Even Begin?

You’ve got to get used to India. You can read about it all you want and glean information from friends who’ve been there, you can research it until you feel you know it like an old friend, you can compile your lists of places to go and things to see, make notes of potential scams and try and brace yourself for the gut wrenching poverty people say you’ll see everywhere. But you’re never really prepared for India. You simply can’t prepare for India. I didn’t like it at first, I found it unbelievably stressful. You’re stared at everywhere you go. Everyone wants your photograph and they’ll either take it without your permission or they’ll ask for for “one photo please” which will actually be closer to twenty photos as people see what’s happening and they want a photo with you too and you end up standing there for fifteen minutes with a kind of grimace grin until your face hurts from smiling.

You learn the hard way that when a group this size asks you for “one photo” you’ll be stood there for a good fifteen minutes hoping your face doesn’t crack from all the smiling.

In Delhi, everyone wants to take you to a travel shop, and they want to tell you that India is impossible to travel alone and you’ll need a car and driver, and your hotel is closed or flooded or burnt down, and foreigners aren’t allowed to travel by train. You’re constantly on your guard, fending off people who claim they want to be your friend but you’ve read the stories, you know it’s not true, but you’re too polite to give them an outright, “fuck off!” There are people begging everywhere, both children and adults, sometimes whole families. Some kids can’t walk, they drag themselves along with their arms, their legs splayed out underneath them, tugging on your trousers. You can’t politely say no because a polite no means maybe and they will hound you relentlessly and if you give them money it won’t be enough, and if you’re seen to be giving anyone money then you’re a target, and anyway you read that giving money on the streets funds organised crime and they deliberately main and disfigure people to get more money.

Spice market in Delhi. Yep, I allowed myself to be lead into a spice shop when I was brand shiny new and didn’t know any better.

It sounds so heartless doesn’t it? You watch what other people do and copy them, waving off the beggars and the street kids with a dismissive, “nay, chello!“, no, go away, or just blanking them completely as if they don’t exist. You start to dislike the person you’re becoming. India is exhausting. You stop trusting everyone. By the time I got to Rajasthan two weeks in I was seriously wondering why I’d come here, I should just have gone back to South America, I loved it there, it was kind of a comfort zone. Which is exactly why I wanted to come to India in the first place, I didn’t want comfort zone, I wanted a challenge and I’d got a fucking challenge and now I just needed to step the fuck up to it and embrace it. Being in Bundi and Pushkar helped, I met a lot of other foreigners and realised that it wasn’t just me that felt this way. Like I said, you just have to get used to it.

Contemplating the meaning of life. Also, how to relieve that tourist of their sunglasses.

And once you get used to it you just can’t get enough of it. Travelling from state to state is like travelling through different countries. The food changes, the culture, the traditional dress, the landscape, the climate, the language. Each state is distinct from the next. Rajasthan, it’s hectic and dusty and dirty and hot. One minute your nasal passages are being torn apart by the stench of rotting garbage, filth and shit, then you round a corner and you’re met with the wonderful aroma of street food and spices. It’s all about street cows, men in bright turbans with fabulous moustaches, creepy looking marionettes, macaques that want everything you have in your hands, Hindu temples, chillum smoking sadhus, the most colourful saris and ornate traditional dress. Rajasthan, like Varanasi, is the epitome of India. It’s the India you see on TV and I fucking love it. After I left Rajasthan I actually missed it. The poverty is rife though, as you travel bus bus or train and gaze out of the window you’ll see homes built right up to the railway tracks where trains thunder past blaring their horns at all hours. There are hundreds of people living on top of each other, emaciated livestock, dogs and children picking their way through filth, piles of burning rubbish, people patting cow shit into flat discs to dry in the sun to later be used as fuel for a fire.

We were photographing this dude’s truck and he insisted we take his photo too.

It’s a stark contrast to Kerala in the south with its 100% literacy rate. Green and lush, it’s palm trees and coconuts and wet, tropical heat. You’ll see jungle from the train, and banana plantations, and large houses spaced out with cars in the driveway. It’s so much more chilled out, there are less beggars, no street cows. It’s all about peaceful backwaters, gorgeous tea plantations, Christian churches, national parks where you can catch glimpses of wild elephants. It’s much easier to be here and I do miss it, but I don’t miss it like I miss Rajasthan. Then there’s Goa, all beaches and spice shops and sarongs and foreigners, and men asking you if you want to buy drugs I’ve never even heard of. Booze is cheaper, parties are louder, you can wander around in shorts and a singlet rather than covering up in the long trousers and the scarf I’d gotten used to. Some people say Goa isn’t India, and I can see where they’re coming from with that. It’s not India, but its a welcome break.

The littering is hard to get used to, the rubbish strewn across city streets and places of stunning natural beauty alike. You watch in Western horror as a woman strolls out of her house and casually dumps a bin full of rubbish onto an already stinking pile which is currently being nibbled on by dogs, cows and the occasional goat, or as passengers on trains finish their food and toss the wrapper out of the window. I’ve had my rubbish taken from my hands by people as I’ve tried to put it in my bag on a train to take to a bin later on, they were as confused by my practice as I was by theirs. It’s ironic that Indian train stations have bins everywhere and no one uses them, they still just chuck their crap onto the tracks or the platform, whereas as bins at British train stations are rarer than rocking horse shit because we’re terrified that someone is going to put a fucking bomb in them so we just cram our pockets full of Snickers wrappers until we get home.

The postcard shot, achievable with an early start and liberal use of elbows whilst waiting your turn.

But as my friend Joe who I met on a train to Darjeeling once said: “Here they throw their rubbish on the floor. At home we put it in a bin and someone comes along in a truck and collects it and drives it to a landfill then throws it on the floor for us.” To this day I’m still not able to litter despite it being completely acceptable and, indeed, expected. I just can’t bring myself to do it. Hocking up a greeny and gobbing it onto the train tracks? Got that shit right down! It’s actually really liberating not to have to swallow my own infected phlegm when I’ve got a rancid cold and breathing through my nose is considered a privilege, not a right. No furtively trying to spit what you just coughed up into a tissue and subtly stuffing it into a pocket. Just get rid of it. And the only reason they’re openly staring at you is because you’re foreign and the backpack you’re sitting on probably cost more than they earn in three months.

The roads though, I don’t think my ear drums are ever going to forgive me. Horns blare constantly as motorbikes and scooters and tuk tuks and trucks try to get around the chaos that are the roads. They drive on the left here. Leftish. Well everyone sort of keeps left unless it serves their purposes better not to then they just mount the pavement or veer off to the right into oncoming traffic. I have a hard enough time jaywalking back home but in India I just have to adopt the nearest local and cling to their heels as they cross over, not looking left or right, just walking forwards and hoping my insurance covers me for crossing whilst terrified. Trucks have “Horn OK Please” emblazoned across the back of them, hand painted, and everyone obliges with gusto. The only time I don’t think they use their horn enough is on buses winding up to hill stations as they career around blind corners, dangerously close to a sheer drop, and you cling on to anything you can, not that it’d make any fucking difference because whatever you’re hanging onto for dear life is coming with you if the bus goes over the edge. I don’t know if I could drive over here. Two lanes become three lanes, or four lanes, or how ever many vehicles they can fit abreast. I kinda feel like there should be more accidents. I mean, there are a shit tonne of accidents, I just don’t understand how there aren’t more. Road rules seem like mere suggestions and right of way is a myth.

And the food. Oh my god. The food. It’s as incredible as you’d expect it to be. In the north it’s all about the chapati, you scoop your food up with that but I can only get through about two chapatis before I have to sheepishly resort to a spoon. In the south it’s a pile of rice served on a banana leaf, with some spinach and a veg curry and a spicy sauce, and you mix it all up with your hands and shovel it in, and they keep on bringing it until you beg them to stop, except I didn’t realise that I had to ask them to stop the first time. I now know what it feels like to consist predominantly of rice. I regret nothing. I had to be taught to eat rice with my hands too, it’s a fucking skill, I can pretty much do it now without ending up wearing most of it, I can proudly walk into a dhaba and order a biriyani which I can comfortably consume whilst being watched intently by several men. And masala dosa, I’m not gonna lie, I’d never heard of it before. It’s not like you can’t get them back home but our curry houses are more of a lamb rogan josh affair, or a vindaloo if you’ve drank too much Stella and suddenly stripping your tongue of all its taste buds is the most important thing in the world. The first time I had a masala dosa was in Mumbai, I’d woken up early and ravenous and I asked the guy on reception where I could get breakfast. He pointed me in the direction of Madras Cafe and told me to ask for a masala dosa because they did the best in Mumbai. A bold claim, sir. Not that I’d have anything to compare it to.

I duly rocked up, requested aforementioned breakfasty goodness and a chai and when this massive roll of what looked like crepe arrived I kinda just stared at it and thought, “Well how the fuck am I meant to eat that?” I glanced around the cafe and watched as people tore it open and used it to scoop up the potato filling, dipping it in the chutney which is a cold, slightly spicy, coconut sauce and the sambhar, which is sort of a hot tomato vegetable soup, but a tiny pot of it. Riiiight. Let’s have a bash at this then. I was still pretty shakey at the whole eating with my hands thing at that point but I managed to apply it all to my digestive system and that’s the story of how I fell in love with a food product. I can’t get enough of that shit. Guys, I could bang on about Indian food all day but there’s too much of it. Street food, food from dhabas with questionable hygiene practices, northern dishes such as palak paneer or aloo gobi or malai kofta with chapati, endless southern thalis, aloo paratha or chole puri for breakfast, a cheeky little kachouri or a samosa as you wander through town, even the ubiquitous Maggi noodles if you just fancied a quick and dirty snack. I shovelled everything I could get my increasingly greasy little paws on into my facehole, it’s a wonder I don’t have to be rolled onto a freight carrier to get me to the airport.

The warmth and generosity I was offered by random people I met was overwhelming. Unfortunately most of the people you encounter as a foreigner are in the tourist industry and damn right they want your money, that’s how they earn a living, and a lot of them are willing to obtain your money with lies and deceit. Not cool, guys. Not cool. But catch a few trains and meet a few real people and you’ll realise that 99.9% of Indians are honest and generous and genuinely want you to love their country. And I do. I fucking love India, and I love Indian people. I felt safe and looked after. The time I caught a 14 hour train in an unreserved carriage and I was looked after by a group of Sikh men who insisted I shared their food, and the time some people thought I’d been ripped off by a food vendor and pulled him up on it, and when I was again travelling unreserved and was guided to a spare berth when one became available by the men I was sharing the floor with. I love the head wobble, I still don’t have a bastard clue what it means despite accidentally adopting it. Does it mean no? Does it mean yes? Who knows? But I find myself mirroring it when I’m talking to people, and the more my head wobbles the more their head wobbles as we grin at each other with our wobbling heads and I realise how fucking ridiculous I must look.

And they’re a largely devout people. Of course there are atheists, and Jains and Muslims and Animists. Kerala and Goa are a Christian states. Up in Spiti Valley and Ladakh it’s predominantly Buddhist. But the Hindu religion with its pantheon of idols and all its epic stories, that’s everywhere. I can’t get enough of it, there’s so much to learn, so much mythology. The story of how Ganesh got his elephant head, how the sacred river Ganga was formed from Shiva’s hair, why this village has this name, why that town is sacred and has a temple built in that exact spot and why this place has a natural hot water spring. I now know the actual purpose of yoga and no, it’s not so you can have a nice stretch. And the temples! They’re everything from the genuinely awesome Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai to random little statues lying around surrounded by offerings of flowers, food and money. A gap in a rock, or a tree, or a kerbside. Stick an idol in it and paint it red and now its a shrine. About half the country is vegetarian because of Hinduism and eating beef is illegal in most states. I never got a definitive answer as to why the cow is sacred but I think it’s because she produces milk, and dairy is hugely important here as a food source. The cow is mother and she is god.

Nothing really compares to India, it’s an absolute assault on the senses, it gets under your skin and affects you in ways you never thought possible. The rest of the world pales next to India. I’m not literate enough to get my feelings across, the passion, I’m bursting with emotion just thinking about the time I’ve spent here. It’s a world of wonder, it’s many different worlds of wonder, a land of ancient history and rich culture. Subkuch milega in India, everything is possible in India (until it’s not possible, madam). I’ll miss the people, I’ll miss the food, I’ll most definitely miss the chai. I think I’ve developed a sugar addiction. Have I mentioned the food? I already miss train journeys, I’ve not caught a train for two and a half months, I fucking love train journeys here, hanging out in sleeper class, talking to people and sharing food, sitting in an open doorway watching the country whizz by, before crawling onto your berth for what passes for sleep on a train that stops frequently. I don’t miss the morning chorus of seventy people emptying the contents of their sinuses onto the track though. You can totally keep that.

Sleeper class on a train. The seat becomes the bottom berth, the back of the seat lifts up to become the middle berth and the upper berth is fixed. Upper berth is definitely desirable.

It’s been intense. India can lift you up to euphoric heights and it can crush your spirit all in one day. It’s hard and it’s wonderful, it can be frustrating but the rewards are boundless, it can make you cry for a hundred different reasons, both with joy and sadness. And have I talked about the food yet? My heart will ache for India. I don’t think India ever really leaves you, and when you’re home and someone down the pub casually comments on your tan and asks you, “How was your trip?” what can you even say to that? How can you explain the months of life changing wonder? So you just sip your pint, nod and reply, “Yeah it was good, thanks.”

Delhi, India
Stayed at: Stops Hostel Delhi

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