Friday, 21 December 2012

The loves and learnings of 2 months in India!

- Top Experiences, love 'em or hate 'em: My first ride from the airport into Delhi. Old Delhi tour on a cycle-rickshaw. Trying out Osho Meditation, an experience not to be missed. Riding with Sam and Otto on a motorbike up to the waterfall. The Himalayas day trip with Sam, Arne and David, and an Indian Wedding. Diwali in Delhi. Eating true Indian style in a Mosque. A Camel ride through the Rajasthan desert, true 'Ships of the Desert'. Sleeping under the freezing cold stars in the desert and creating our epic 'F' Off picture! Sunset over Udaipur lake and a crazy evening. Pushkar Camel Fair. A Bollywood movie in Jaipur. The majestic Taj Mahal. Sunrise river trip on the Ganges in Varanasi, and another crazy night. Sunset on the backwaters in Kerala and our motorbike ride with the guys. Our epic-ly horrific bus-ride and train to Goa.  Goa's countless crazy nights out. Mumbai's slums.

- The people: Love 'em or hate 'em, some think they're rude but it's refreshing to be spoken to bluntly instead of beating round the bush. They smile all the time, and greet you on the street. Children run up to you for pictures and to 'ask your good name', 'where you from', old women smile and hold your hand, you get kisses and prayers from strangers in temples. The stares from the men, and even women can sometimes get too heavy, but overtime you learn to ignore it (it took me a week), and it just becomes a way of life over there; you get stared at, big deal! Yes you get the odd pushy tout (hell, more like thousands), the odd rude person, the odd stare that gets a little intense, but isn't that just like life in England sometimes? Over all, the people are India, and India is the people, it what makes this country so unique!

- The Highway Code: There isn't one! Take a U-turn in front of oncoming traffic, drive the wrong way down a highway, ignore road markings and drive on the lines instead of between them. Ride bikes, camels, cows, cycle-rickshaws, rickshaws and elephants down busy main streets. Hit other vehicles, other vehicles hit you, pile-ups in stationary traffic - but for gods sake just don't hit those holy cows! It's all perfectly legal and normal in India, no matter where you are! The fine and social degradation for hitting a cow is worse than a hit and run! Then there's the crazy beeping of the horn; noon, night and morning, all day everyday, an insect on the road to a human on the road, those horns are the beautiful music of India, and the worst thing about India, all in one go! Even the street animals know what the sound of a horn means - get out of the road, (or at least move around the car), maniac driver coming through!

- The Trains: A man once informed me on the train up to Rishikesh, that 80% of India's population use the trains. Figures then that apart from a few delays and often running on 'India Time' (that means whenever they can be bothered), they are the most efficient, (sometimes) comfortable and easiest mode of transport - as long as you book in advance, and on the lower classes are willing to fight for your seat, and are prepared to even be sat on! Oh and those Chai Wallahs, they can be a pain and a relief at the same time! But the trains are one of the best ways to see and experience the country, and observe the people, (and get observed back, don't even bother with a staring contest - they'll always win!)

- CHAI! Some are sweet, some are spicy, some are milky; but either way it's still Chai and it's still simply amazing! From a little street stall they hand you thumb-sized cups of deliciously sweet, milky tea. In cafes and restaurants it's normally tea-cups of milky Masala Chai (a hint of spice, cinnamon and nutmeg). On trains the Chai Wallah serves you sweet milk with a teabag. Whether it's on a cold morning in Varanasi after watching sunrise, a stifling hot afternoon, on a long and tiring journey, or at a roadside cafe, Chai is one of the things I will miss the most! It truly is India's finest drink, and as quoted by William E. Gladstone, 'If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you.'

- The Jungle on your doorstep: Cows, Monkeys, Elephants, Camels, Dogs, Cats, Rats, Rabbits, Chickens, Goats. You name it, they are all there and they will all be on the one street you're walking down! Being head-butted by a Bull, jumped on by a Monkey, almost falling off a Camel, chased by stray Dogs, feeding cute stray Kittens, hugging an Elephant that wanted to eat my skirt, Crows stealing leftover food from your hand, befriending Dogs (Lucy) and Goats (Nutella), Cows walking into restaurants and eating the menu - these were all personal highlights of my brush with nature while in India and something you can't experience anywhere else!

- Bollywood: Watching a Bollywood film in a theatre, which was in Hindi, yet still managing to figure out what was going on just by watching the body language. And watching as the whole theatre whooped, laughed, danced, cat-called all through the film, and having a go really was a great night!

- Sunsets and Sunrises: Whether it was in the mountains, desert, cities, beach, backwaters or rivers, India has some incredible sun displays! It's worth the getting up early or the long day just for these alone. My favourites? Sunrise on the Ganges to a soundtrack of prayers and chanting, and sunset over the Kerala Backwaters whilst on a bamboo boat listening to Bob Marley...pure bliss!

- My Favourite Places: 
Rishikesh - Spiritual, laid-back and beautiful, surrounded by amazing scenery, with some amazing people.
Jaisalmer - Tiny little streets of sandstone houses and temples inside a fort - mughal India at it's finest!
Udaipur -  Amazing scenery and a laid-back atmosphere, plus the first place near water we'd been in a long time, it was great to do our own thing here!
Pushkar - A tiny little place, where no traffic is allowed in the centre. Full of Camels and has a really cute Aarti ceremony on the lake.
Kerala - Backwaters, beaches, lush green mountains and tea plantations, fishing towns and wildlife reserves. Kerala has it all, it truly is Gods Own Country!
Goa - For it's chilled out beaches and (even though we didn't see much on the beach) it's party atmosphere, and quaint Portuguese architecture.

- Surviving India: especially on my own and with only one day of sickness over two months! YES!

- Friends: Meeting some incredible people and making some awesome new friends who I hope to keep in contact with and meet up/travel with in the near future.

- Slum Life: Coming face to face with poverty, but realising they have so much more beyond this. It's a thriving industrial community and they have so much spirit and determination. Through the poverty, the disease and the dirt, they just keep smiling and living as much as they can.

- Indian Wedding: Attending an Indian wedding, in India! Always something I've wanted to do and it was amazing! Experiencing Bollywood hysteria and a bloody good knees up, plus a cheeky photo with the bride and groom, hehe.

-The Colours: The Sari's, painted houses, glittering lights, tinsel, hand-painted trucks, the markets full of spices and bright powdered paints, India is a kaleidoscope of colours everywhere you look.

- The Spirituality: It doesn't matter if you're religious or not, the faith these people have in religion and their God's is enough to make you believe it yourself. The religious nature of their lives are spectacular. The morning and evening Pujas, floating candle ceremonies, temple offerings, bathing and singing, chants and prayers, it's the beating heart of India.

- Say Cheese! Being asked for your picture every 10 seconds. Being blonde in India feels like movie-star status. We should have started charging 10 rupees for a picture, we'd have made a fortune!

- How amazing everyone is at speaking English - even the children in the slums of Mumbai!

- The Chaos: It truly is like the documentaries...and ten times more intense when you experience it first-hand. To observe it, it just looks like a hideous mess, yet if you look closer and involve yourself in this chaos it all just fits together like clockwork or a jigsaw puzzle. It gives you a headache but it works, it breathes, it pulsates to the core. It show's you what 'living' should look and feel like - you've not seen life until you've spent a day amongst the pulsating chaos of India. India wouldn't work without it.

...And lastly, the everlasting smile India has planted on my face and engraved on my heart. I have seen and experienced so much, yet it has still left me wanting more. So I will return one day, and experience it all again. I'll end on a few quotes/excerpts from the book Shantaram, that when I read them, made me think of my own first experience of India and made me relive it all over again. It's strange how it grasps everyone with the same feelings:

The simple and the astonishing truth about India and Indian people is that when you go there, and deal with them, your heart always guides you more wisely than your head. There's nowhere in the world where that's quite so true.

The journey from the airport to the city (...) the first sight of the slums, as the many lanes of the motorway became one, and the trees disappeared, clutched at my heart with talons of shame.

Like brown and black dunes, the acres of slums rolled away from the roadside, and met the horizon with dirty heat-haze mirages. The miserable shelters were patched together from rags, scraps of plastic and paper, reed mats, and bamboo sticks. They slumped together, attached one to another, and with narrow lanes winding between them. Nothing in the enormous sprawl of it rose much above the height of a man.
It seemed impossible that a modern airport, full of prosperous and purposeful travellers, was only kilometres away from those crushed and cindered dreams. My first impression was that some catastrophe had taken place, and that the slums were refugee camps for the shambling survivors. I learned, months later, that they were survivors, of course...; the catastrophes that had driven them to the slums from their villages were poverty, famine, and bloodshed. And five thousand new survivors arrived in the city every week, week after week, year after year.

But the slums went on, kilometre after kilometre, relieved only by the awful contrast of the thriving businesses and crumbling, moss-covered apartment buildings of the comparatively affluent. The slums went on, and their sheer ubiquity wore down my foreigner's pieties. A kind of wonder possessd me. I began to look beyond the immensity of the slum societies, and to see the people who lived within them. A woman stooped to brush forward the black satin psalm of her hair. Another bathed her children with water form a copper dish. A man led three goats with red ribbons tied to the collars at their throats. Another man shaved himself at a cracked mirror. Children played everywhere. Men carried water in buckets. Men made repairs to one of the huts. And everywhere that I looked, people smiled and laughed.

I looked at the people then, and I saw how busy they were -- how much industry and energy described their lives. Occasional sudden glimpses inside the huts revealed the astonishing cleanliness of that poverty; the spotless floors, and glistening metal pots in neat, tapering towers. And then, last, what should've been first, I saw how beautiful they were; the women wrapped in crimson, blue, and gold; the women walking barefoot through the tangled shabbiness of the slum and with patient ethereal grace; the white-toothed, almond-eyed handsomeness of the men; and the affectionate camaraderie of the fine-limbed children, older ones playing with younger ones, many of them supporting baby brothers and sisters on their slender hips. And half an hour after the bus ride began, I smiled for the first time.

This was my experience of India - almost exactly - when I first arrived in Delhi. And I smiled, and even had a little chuckle, sat in my shabby pick-up van that was blasting bollywood music, passing from slums to city, chaos, noise...and yet still an utter beauty!

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