On the morning of my 24th birthday, I awoke to red ants crawling in my toothpaste and a broken toilet seat. I turned over and groaned; after a few days respite, my stomach was making its ridiculous gurgling noises again.
A very strange place for a birthday…
Our group of intrepid travellers was in a little village located in Madhya Pradesh named Mandu, and the unexpected location of a tribal wedding fair that succeeded in being both terrifying and exciting in equal parts (there are no photos of this fair because the drunk and stoned locals were much more touchy feely than usual. Think attempted hair/skin grabbing).
Luckily, our wonderful leader, Chetan, was there to navigate the crowds and the staring, and employed his patented subversive tactics when various sadhus tried to touch the white girls or offer us weed.
In case you weren’t already aware, I now find myself in India, one week into a seven week kaleidoscopic journey around the whole of the country.
When I arrived in Mumbai, I met my fellow travellers; a motley crew of Ozzies, Americans and a wonderful Swiss gentleman who tells us he hails from ‘Switzy’. The six of us will be together for the entire trip, but after two weeks, when we get to Delhi, we’ll switch group leaders and perhaps welcome some more travellers into the fold – and the same will happen again in Chennai, sometime in April.
I’ve been slowly forcing myself to accept that travelling with an organised group is not something to feel uncomfortable about; by having the crucial elements of transport and accommodation – not to mention the all-important route – already sorted, it leaves me with the luxury of absorbing everything around me.
Which, as it turns out, is pretty much a full-time occupation on its own.
So what do I think of India?
My first impressions of this country are presumably the same as most. Heat. Colour. Noise, everywhere, from the beeping horns and barking dogs to the constant “What is your name?” and “Photo! Photo!” from every direction.
I’ve never been approached so often in my life – and the staring is equally constant. While my first (aggressive) instinct is to stare back equally obviously, there’s a certain type of man (and they’re mainly staring with male eyes) who’ll take that as something of an invitation to get more close and personal. Which is definitely not on.
And so I find myself being the most smiley and friendly that such a distance can afford me to be, nodding my head and holding my hands in a ‘Namaste’ to pretty much every single person who looks in my direction.
The photo taking, however, is another issue entirely. I’ve pretty much resolved to never, ever, become a celebrity (however hard this may be to avoid).
It’s exhausting to turn up at a temple and immediately start furtively checking round corners for camera phones. I’m also now terrified of coaches, as they automatically mean hordes of youthful Indian men all hell-bent on the ‘one’ (ie seven) group photo(s), followed by a maelstrom of one-on-one shots and handshaking poses.
The worst one is being clicked at like some sort of animal, followed by the insults when you say no to yet another camera. I’m steadfastly trying to absorb every bit of Hindi possible just to work out what they might be saying!
Photography matters aside, India is proving to be exactly what I’d hoped for.
We’ve barely journeyed through one Indian state, yet in a single week we’ve explored Buddhist caves carved into the rocks, been blessed by priests and given puja, sailed down rivers on worryingly waterlogged boats, visited a silk weaving mill (and duly bought scarves for ridiculously cheap prices), ridden trains with homemade food from friendly strangers, and visited more temples than my camera knows how to cope with.
And it feels like I’ve eaten enough curry to last me a lifetime.
Unfortunately, such delicious food has also affected my ability to digest anything properly, and so I’ve been on the ‘plain rice and lassi’ diet for the past couple of days. But fear not, we’ve suddenly realised that my ailing gut could actually be being affected by my anti-malarials – for those who are wondering, I’ve been taking Paludrine/Avloclor, a combination anti-malarial pill.
After reading through the lovely little leaflet, I discovered that: “probable side effects include vomiting, nausea, diarrhoea, headache and stomach cramps” – or basically every single illness that can completely ruin a trip.
Although I’m somewhat wary of coming off the drugs, I’ve been assured that malarial mozzies only come out to play during monsoon and right after, plus we’re not even in a malarial zone at the moment anyway – and so I’ve decided to stop taking them. So now, except for an excruciating car ride this morning where my stomach wanted to climb out of my body, I’m actually feeling a lot better, so fingers crossed!…
The difficulties of India for a Westerner
I do also have to watch out for ‘feeling sorry for myself’ when travelling through India. It’s certainly easy to mope about your gut activities to your fellow Western travellers, but when you start to see more of the country it opens up your eyes to the incredible amount of poverty that lives alongside India’s more middle-class comfort.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop being shocked by the barefoot children in the middle of busy traffic, the old women squatting to defecate on the train platform, the bearded men sleeping on the pavement, or the mangy dogs collapsing from exhaustion in the streets.
But amongst it all, there’s an obvious humanity you just don’t see in the Western world: old men holding hands, children protecting their family goats, tiny babies who smile delightedly when you wave at them – and the mothers who let you interact with their kids.
There are the street children I somehow keep befriending – if only so they don’t steal my shoes outside temples – who have taught me various secret handshakes and howled with laughter when I use their dialect’s word for ‘monkey’ ( which I think was somewhat ruder than they intoned). They’re just the same as the group of eager school girls dressed in beautiful saris who clamoured for photos outside the Ajanta caves and waved goodbye en masse when we left.
There’s definitely a learning curve to India, but I’m pretty sure that the longer I spend here, the more I’m going to fall in love with it.
Back on track with the birthday fun!
Eventually, the rest of my birthday played out somewhat better than it started.
I was welcomed at breakfast with a posy of local flowers and a hand-drawn card, which used a napkin as its canvas. We visited Jahaz Mahal, an incredible site known as the Ship Palace, where a few of us became amateur historians and duly fell headlong into visualising the 15,000 strong harem belonging to the ‘pleasure loving sultan’ who built the place.
And in the evening, despite my self-imposed diet of plain rice and lassi, I was surprised by a luminous pink birthday cake that had ridden its merry way on a private bus from 50 kilometres away, as Mandu doesn’t have a bakery – and was also sneakily given a shot of whisky by my favourite Swiss traveller, who claims it’s the best cure for all ailments.
And seeing as I haven’t touched alcohol (or meat, for that matter!) for over a month, it went down somewhat burningly…
All in all, my first week in India has been a blast.
Sometimes shocking, sometimes surprising, and always surrounded in a riot of brightly coloured saris and patterned trucks – and the colours are only going to intensify with the nation-wide celebration of Holi festival next week. Here’s to it…