Travel changes everything. The harder the journey the more you learn and by God, India was no picnic… dust, dirt, and chaos. The swarms of people, the pungent air, the constant stares, the rats, the slums, the litter, sitting cross legged on the floor, eating curry with dirty fingers, horned cows and stray dogs roaming every street, the aromas of spices and incense wafting through the air, yoga lessons on the grass, crazy driving, incredible views and food and then there’s me and Tom (my best pal from uni)… a Scottish boy and an Irish girl lost somewhere amongst the madness of southern India.
Day one and a kind local invites us to his home to eat, but we realise too late he’s trouble and we are way too naive, that the world is not all rainbows and butterflies and not everyone is a misunderstood soul, when the “kind local” turns his back on you for the whole night and will only speak to your male friend, when he silences you with the infuriating words ‘ok sweetie’ and puts his hands up to quieten you, his exact and poignant use of pronouns when he refers to you as “she” and “her” are like punches in the gut and his use of flyaway phrases like “even she can teach us something” and all you can do is bite your tongue when you feel like screaming, “I’m right here you sexist twat.” He drives us back on scooters at 1.30am, insisting I ride with him, I can smell the whiskey off his breath as he says it. He drives too fast, a stray cow on the street turns his head and almost annihilates us. He topples his head back in laughter as I ask him meekly to slow down…
In Goa, we rent motorbikes and head off on a day trip to a secret beach with the ultra cool hippies from our hostel; one Indian, two Nepalese, one Mexican, one Portuguese, and one Guatemalan… all men, but this time they are the good kind. We scour the Indian countryside, stopping for a banana shake while they sip ‘holy water’, go skinny dipping (them not me) and we lie back in the white sands sipping beers on the deserted shores. Later, we take a quick ferry across to an island, the most northern point of Goa in the torrential rain for chai, returning at night to a restaurant delightfully known as the Happy Corner to bask in the sound of a cacophony of horns ringing from a Hindu Temple – Indian style live music.
Back on the bikes we hop, weaving down the twisted streets to Arambol to the candle lit beach bars for more beers. It’s all so magical. I am perched on the back of Julio’s bike and we talk and talk and talk as the wind sweeps through our hair and darkness closes in around us. He is a wise man who shares his story with me, with words of wisdom like ‘Never entertain jealousy and boredom is a great thing, because it allows creativity to come to life.” He has been bankrupt three times in his life. He is married but in an open relationship. His wife is working for the Red Cross in Myanmar, while he is setting up a hostel in India. This is why I travel, why conform when you could live like this, without rules or societal pressure, meeting people who live whatever way they feel like. This is freedom, this is life!
Only in India, have I experienced such highs and lows, an incredible day like that is followed by a brutal one… the rules of gender here are so misplaced, the men stare at me but ignore me when I ask a question, and address only Tom, ‘the man’, naturally it drives me insane. There are two prices for everything, one for foreigners, one for locals. Hassle and haggle all day long, a man putting a phone in my face to video me, they are like paparazzi and I am a caged animal in a zoo. Everyone is trying to rip you off, not many are kind just to be kind, everyone has an agenda. I know now how lucky I am to be born a white female from the western world. I have always considered myself working class, with two nurses for parents who have worked their whole lives to provide for me and my sisters. How blind I was, we live like kings and queens compared to the Indian version of working class.
Tonight we board an eleven hour sleeper bus overnight from Goa to Hampi. Packed like sardines on bunk beds. The conductor kindly lets us swap from two single beds to one double so as we are together, but then for his kindness insists we pay him a bribe of 100 rupees… everything has a price and though many preach about karma few seem to practice it. Curtains pulled, windows open on this non-AC sleeper bus, the wind cooling the sweat sticking us to the mat. Shoved and pushed, rolling around freely as the bus chugs on, we know this never would be allowed in the western world. It is like The Knight bus in Harry Potter. We giggle and chat, and try in vain to get some shuteye in this mad world as we are tossed around with every pothole and bump as we hurtle south.
We arrive in Hampi as the sun is setting, the local businessmen swarm us as we try and get off the bus, trying to push us into a rickshaw but we have our wits about us despite our tired eyes and we know it is only a two minute walk to the town. The monuments and temples loom splendidly on the hillside, long tail monkeys run across the electrical wires, while the weary people make their morning pilgrimage to the temple. Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site, the equivalent of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. We find a place to rest our aching bodies with a toilet that doesn’t flush and a mosquito net pockmarked with giant holes patched up dismally with plasters, we finally fall asleep to the distant wails of chants happening outside as the rest of the world begins to wake.
We make new friends with people who are staying at the same guest house. Candi a strong, beautiful Argentinian woman who takes no shit from anyone, she is travelling with her best friend the delightful Mati. They have been hitchhiking and couchsurfing their way through India. Then there’s John from London, whose kindness has no limits, all the beggars we meet, he buys them food instead of giving them money. I know instantly the three will be our friends for life.
The food is incredible. It feels amazing to eat pure vegetarian, handfuls of floury parotta and chapatti swabbing up the spicy curry; the Veg Thali, Channa Masala, Masala Dosa, Aloo Gobi, Dal Fry, all slapped onto a plate or banana leaf. Using only our hands, it’s a spectacularly messy and uncivilized way to eat but brilliant in the freedom of it. I love it, I gorge and revel in the joy of food once more. Although, be warned I nearly always found a hair in my dish!
A local bus to Hospet in torrential rain through ‘roads’ that can’t even call themselves roads. We sit on the floor of the train station for four hours. The station reeks of manure, I swallow down the vomit that threatens to come up my throat. The rain makes it worse. Out on the street you see the caste system at work, one massive fancy ass hotel and all around it pure slums. We sit wallowing in the stench, drowned in the rain and the electricity goes. Typical. Everyone is in barefoot walking through the muck and puddles. There is a young girl in a green sari with wide brown eyes huddled in a corner swaddled in blankets staring at me. The lights blink in and out when a group of young boys taunt us and get right up in our faces, I thank my lucky stars that Tom is here with me. I don’t know if I could have done it alone and that thought angers me, why shouldn’t I be able to do this alone? Because this world is so fucked up, that’s why. It breaks my heart.
But alas, we survive the sleeper train, three beds stacked on top of each other. For twelve hours we lay in our caves to arrive in Mysore, where out on the streets we see cultures clash as the Muslim women stroll in their black burkas contrasting brilliantly against the colorful saris of the Hindus. After sleep, we are reunited with the Argentinians and John, we get a tuk tuk to Chimean Hill, five of us squished in the back of one, I on Thomas’ lap, hanging halfway out the tuk tuk, with Bob Marley blaring No Worries on the radio. We climb 1032 steps to a temple. The hike is a pilgrimage, the colours dabbed on each step in a benediction, a silent prayer. We trudge on, chatting, lapsing into silence as we pull ourselves up the steep incline and concentrate on our breathing. It is a stand out moment, one that I will remember forever.
An overnight bus to Kochi, a man sits next to us asks us for our name and our caste? He asks what religion we are, we say none, he says how come? We say you don’t want to know… The European vibes of Kochi are a welcome break. The boys are playing football, when I bump into Carly an old friend from university in the most surreal moment ever, the world is too small! We go for secret beers and catch up on her life, her adventures in Madagascar and Reunion Island and I just think to myself wow I know some cool people.
Its mad how progress seems to have just stopped in the country, like the 21st century just barreled through and they just cant keep up… or perhaps don’t want to? The electricity consistently goes, the utter lack of sanitation, the people in the shops/markets getting pissed off with you when you refuse to cave to their inflated price and push for negotiation, the rickshaw drivers constantly hassling you. A local woman thrusts her few month old baby at me so as the family can take pictures of the white girl holding a baby. Over the course of the three weeks I’ll have been in over fifteen strangers photos. If you can learn to embrace/handle India, nothing will ever faze you again.
Another bus, this time to the Tea Plantations of Munnar and they are incredible, even in the misty rain. We scale the cliff edges in a jeep to see them, passing waterfalls and miles of greenery; it is nature at its best. Then in typical Indian fashion, the country goes on strike and fails to tell the tourists. All restaurants, shops, buses, tuk tuks, national parks – everything shuts down, we have no food and water for the day.
Our days are numbered, on our second last night we sit on a pier back in Kochi, feet dangling, reflecting on life, when a rat runs across my bare feet. There is a frog in the corner, an Indian man pisses on the side of the street facing us… this is India. Back to the hostel to lie on our backs and stare up at the spinning fan, life is a strange and wonderful thing.
There is only one last destination left before home, Mumbai. The city is huge and bustling, here there is the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. As I look out the dirty window of the local bus, we pass the shanty towns,there is just people everywhere. Twenty five million people in Mumbai alone. Coming from a country of less than 5 million I just cant comprehend this scale. Then onto an overpacked train, full of men, pressed against them, everyone of them unashamedly staring at me. I cannot wait to be anonymous once more, to blend in with the crowd. The train doesn’t stop, just slows down and people make a run and jump and hope for the best…
Our last night in India, we invite the 19 year old Egyptian kid from our hostel to the bar with us, he drinks a double tequila when he’s never drank before. He is drunk almost instantly, slapping his head, talking to himself, we have to bring him home and put him to bed. I whisper a goodbye to Thomas in the middle of the night, the end is nigh, he is off to Cambodia for a year while I will return home to university for one last stab at that dream career.
The time has come to go home. It’s been a whirlwind, a love affair, highs and lows, both easy and terribly hard… worth it though, so, so worth it. Already my glasses are starting to tint with rose. We only have one life, and you must try really hard to live it. I am back behind the bar pulling pints and dreaming of the dusty roads, the host of colours, the spice, the smell of India and the next adventure.
“I urge you to travel. As far and as much as possible. Work ridiculous shifts to save your money, go without the latest Iphone. Throw yourself out of your comfort zone. Find out how other people live and realize that the world is a much bigger place than the town you live in. And when you come home, home may still be the same and yes you may go back to the same old job but something in your mind will have shifted. And trust me that changes everything.”