Firstly, thank you for all of those who read the first post, provided comments and words of encouragement and have been “pestering” me for this long awaited 2nd instalment. Due to the shear size of India and it’s likely correlation to the size of this blog I have decided to first take you on a journey through our initial two weeks in the South.
India was a country where I didn’t know what to expect. In speaking with others that have been to India it very much seemed to be a “love it or hate it” kind of destination for tourists. Since backpacking through Latin America in 2011, whilst reading the novel ‘Shantaram’, I had been very keen to visit India, yet didn’t truly know what to expect.
Having heard many stories I knew it was going to be an adventure and one in which I would likely be hassled (or harassed – depending on your definition of the two), experience amazing flavours on the taste buds, at times be over-charged, meet some very generous and friendly people and experience the infamous ‘Delhi belly’ first hand. All of which happened across the course of the month.
For us the Indian adventure started in Sri Lanka prior to departure. Our plan was to travel overland from India into Nepal and us such we hadn’t booked any onward travel from India. Proof of onward travel wasn’t mentioned when applying for the electronic travel visa online (a process which provided the Indian government with enough information that they could probably sit a job interview on my behalf) so we thought that it would be fine.
When checking into our SriLankan Airlines flight from Colombo to Trivandrum in the south of India was when we heard the dreaded words “Sir, can we see your proof of onward travel from India”. Doh! After explaining our plan to cross overland we were told that we needed to show proof of onward travel, it had to be a FLIGHT and we had to show it within 20mins before check-in closed or we wouldn’t be able to board the plane. To cut a long story short we got online, after multiple attempts managed to buy a flight (that was later cancelled) at the check-in counter just as they were closing. We were upgraded to Business Class for our troubles (or for being a tourist?). Either way we were on our way to India and the EPIC Adventure continued.
After a recommendation from a work colleague we were heading to Varkala Beach in the state of Kerala, in Southern India. This was the only thing we had pre-booked before leaving Australia as we knew that after completing the cycling trip in Sri Lanka we would be more that ready for some beach relaxation time. After trying to navigate the large bus terminal in Trivandrum we were on a bus and en route met some other backpackers from Spain who had been in India for a couple of months. Feeling a little apprehensive about our upcoming month in India I asked one of them what his number one tip for India was, to which he responded “100% patience… there are no rules”. This turned out to be invaluable advice, which over subsequent days and weeks we had to put into practice.
Now back to Varkala Beach… the warm Arabian Sea, the delicious Indian curries (both veg and non-veg), fresh seafood and super friendly locals ensured our 4 days here were very relaxed and refreshing. The setting of the beach is spectacular with most the shops, restaurants and accommodation sitting atop large red cliffs that look down onto the beach, coconut trees and ocean below. Almost a Santorini meets India vibe. We staying in a quiet place south of the main tourist area and would almost have the beach to ourselves each evening as we went down for our routine swim. The humidity was extreme so we didn’t venture to far from the beach where we frequently needed to cool off.
This time allowed us to plan a route trough India and book train tickets in advance so we didn’t have to always try and get TATKAL (emergency tickets available 24hrs in advance). Those that have been to India should be able to relate to the hassle of getting train tickets. Although we’d been given pretty extensive advice about this, had access to fairly good internet and that fact that Charlotte and I are both educated professionals with a fair bit of travel experience it took the best part of 2 days to actually figure out how the whole system worked and get our train tickets (both online and at the station once our Credit Card was blocked). In the end we had it mastered and even managed to get meals delivered to our seat from a 3rd party vendor after ordering online.
Leaving Varkala we ventured to Alleppey to visit the Kerala backwaters. The backwaters are an extensive network of interconnected canals, rivers, lakes and inlets, inhabited by small communities scattered along its banks. We spent the day being canoed through the backwaters observing people conducting themselves in everyday activities: hand washing clothes; fishing; collecting mussels; working the rice paddies; and chasing goats. We saw a sea snake, swam and tried a local coconut based alcohol (nearer the end of the day when it was at its strongest). Alleppey as a town had a great vibe, everyone was very nice and friendly and we had some great (cheap) southern Indian cuisine.
Before we knew it we were back on the train, this time for a 14hr journey. The rail system is what moves India, whether that is passengers or freight. Indian Railways is one of the world’s largest employers with 1.4 million staff! It moves 8.397 billon passengers and over 1 billion tons of freight annually across a network of 7,112 stations. On a daily basis that is 12,617 passenger trains and 7,421 freight trains. It is on these trains that we were able to meet locals, learn about Indian culture and religions, try new foods and catch up on sleep. In total we spent 72hrs on trains in India – 10% of our total time in the country.
It was on a train in Northern India where we meet an intelligent young man of 24 years (they print everyone’s ages on the carriage list!) and the conversation still sticks with me today. He was temporarily moving home after resigning from his government job in New Delhi. His near perfect English, friendly smile and open nature meant that we could ask many questions about life in India. It turned out that he had resigned to make him less appealing for marriage, as he wasn’t ready for that just yet. He was accepting of the arranged marriage culture (to which around 90% are married in India) but had already set expectations with his parents that there was to be no dowry. As they had made it clear to him that the dowry was their right for spending so much money to raise him he had decided that he was going to pay it to his parents himself, rather than support this tradition. He was in a well paying job in New Delhi and donated a significant share of his earnings to those that needed it more. He loved his country and was never going to leave. Progressive in his thinking one would hope that this is the future of India. We also enjoyed other locals sharing their food, stories and photos of their family with us as well as their genuine concern that we were OK, not lost and enjoying their country.
The 14hr train journey led us to Patnem Beach in Southern Goa. It was here where we had decided to spend the week doing a 1-week yoga intensive course. We were commencing at the same time as a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training Course (YTTC) but were told that it would still be suitable for beginners. In hindsight this may have been a bit over ambitious as most had been practicing yoga for 10+ years, could bend in a million different directions and were in India solely to complete the teachers training. We on the other hand had cumulatively attended 9 yoga classes in our lives, were the most inflexible we had ever been after all the recent cycling and were just passing through Goa for a bit of ‘relaxation’. I found the 4 swims a day relaxing but the course was intense. We started each day at 7am going through the full Ashtanga Primary Series for 2hrs followed by 1hr of breathing and mediation. Between breakfast and lunch there was 2hrs of anatomy and alignment, a yoga philosophy class and another 1.5hrs of yoga in the afternoon pre my final sunset swim.
The Kranti Yoga Village was a great environment with a lot of positive energy, lovely students from all around the globe, delicious vegetarian food and a layout that promoted socialising. We spent the week in this little bubble, felt amazing by the end of it and were starting to see and feel the benefits, both physical and mental, of a daily yoga practice. It was hard saying goodbye to everyone at the end of it but I have no doubt that we will cross paths with some again.
Feeling all limbered up; we were ready to be thrown into the hustle and bustle of Mumbai (formally Bombay). Mumbai was a city that had it all – and with a population of 23 million I’m not surprised. Mumbai is the financial capital of India and has both ends of the wealth spectrum. With the world’s most expensive home (at US$2b), a number of slums and homeless and everything in between. On the first day we were talked into a private guided tour of the city. This turned out to be a great way to see the key sights (and sit in an air-conditioned car in between) and ask the guide many questions we had about the city. Highlights included the Ghandi museum, Fishermen’s Village and Dhobi Ghat – dubbed the world’s largest outdoor laundry. In the afternoon we took a ferry to Elephant Island to explore the ancient Hindu cave art until the sun went down.
The next day lead us on an organised tour through the Dharavi Slum. Similar to the Fevala tour in Rio we took a few years ago we were a little hesitant on witnessing this type of living without being obtrusive. Thankfully the tours were well run and the organisation was respected amongst the community through giving 80% of profits to run educational programs for the local population. Despite what most people may think a slum is not defined as a place where the poor live. It is a collection of illegal buildings on land that is government owned – some slums are highly desired places to live; the poor people of India live on the streets. 40% of the Mumbai police force, along with other professionals, live in the slums and while the conditions are not what we would consider completely desirable the sense of community and caring was clear and celebrated. What was most interesting and unique about the Dharavi slum were the commercial activities that went on inside. This involved a massive recycling program (plastic and aluminium), manufacturing, ceramics and tailoring to name a few, with a total annual turnover of US$1 billion – larger than some countries’ annual GDP.
From our experiences thus far India was an incredibly diverse country. It was diverse in every way, shape and form with varying religions, language, food and cultural practices from one region to the next. We were very excited to see what the North had to offer.