The final chapter: Southern India

Wednesday 20th December 2017

Lying on the warm, black tinted sands of Varkala beach, joined by a number of sun-soaked European tourists awkwardly positioned like starfish under umbrellas, I find myself thinking about Varanasi again. Sitting next to me is my new American friend Rebecca, bubbly, independent and undeniably adventurous, who has just purchased a 200 rupee fictional book, ‘The White Tiger‘. Arvavind Adiya’s book vividly details his personal trials and tribulations to provide an organic, albeit hyperbolic, perspective and narrative on life and death. Rebecca excitedly bumps me from my subconscious reflective state to read a couple of paragraphs that have profusely caught her attention… and I am equally intrigued. In her clear narrative voice, tinged with her rich Tennessee accent, she started talking about the Ganges…

~ “India is two countries in one: an India of Light and an India of Darkness. The ocean brings light to my country. Every place near the ocean is well-off. But the river brings darkness to India- the black river. Which black river am I talking of – which river of Death, whose banks are full of rich, dark, sticky mud whose grip traps everything that is planted in it, suffocating and choking it? Why, I am talking of Mother Ganga, river of illumination, protector of us all, breaker of the chain of birth and rebirth.” ~

Adiya’s metaphor about light and darkness is a similar set of ideas that I have been trying to unpack in my own thoughts on; complex dichotomies and the tapestry of chaos and order. With this metaphor in mind I began to think about the new lens of possibility, culture, history, language and culinary flavours that the south has offered. Reading Shashi Tharoor’s compelling non-fiction work, ‘India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond‘, an analytically balanced and informative provocation about the future of India in the 21st Century – I have found a way to engage my polarised visions and experiences in northern and southern India. Tharoor’s theorising of India as a country of pluralism brilliantly engages and comments on India’s panorama of culture, traditions, politics, economics and social systems. Whilst I by no means intend to write a book review, by providing some transcription from his work I hope to contextualise my anecdotes and reiterate that the same challenges that are created by India’s multidimensional self, fuel its beauty and wonder.

~ “It is true that no other country in the world embraces the extraordinary mixture of ethnic groups, the profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages, the varieties of topography and climate, the diversity of religions and cultural practices, and the range of levels of economic development that India does. And yet India is more than the sum of is contradictions. It is a country held together, in the words of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, “by strong but invisible threads… there is the elusive quality of a legend of long ago; some enchantment seems to have held her mind. She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive.” ~

To begin, I reflected back on my last memory of Delhi, my departure day. After farewelling my British friends all morning it was my turn to embark on the next chapter of my adventure- southern India. I walked across the uprooted gravel road, stepping carefully around parked auto rickshaws, moving cyclists, a couple of expressionless cows and flea-infested dogs to my taxi. I waited quietly for my driver to finalise the arrangements, allowing me a final few minutes to collate and solidify this montage of scenes into my memory. I closed my eyes briefly to flood my senses with the sounds and smells of Delhi, taking a deep breath in to reflect on my new and informed understandings. Standing in the same place as my 6am arrival on Sunday 12th November, it was a surreal but humbling thought to think how much richer your life can be in the matter of weeks. Once a foreign capsule of exotic culinary flavours, disheartening poverty scenes, ‘differently abled’ beggars and a bustling network of human movement – India has now become a place of familiarity. To break my thoughts was a young girl, probably 4-6 years of age, tugging at a loose strap of my bag. With her rich brown eyes glaring back into my own she signalled with the touch of her mouth and the clenching of her small hands for food, money or pens. Covered in a thick layer of dust from head to toe, her soft brown sari no longer glittered like the dazzling models in the shopfronts behind me. Speaking in Hindi my driver tried to move the girl along but she persisted, and in her anguish was beginning to narrowly miss the rushing traffic behind her. To my relief the taxi driver unzipped his navy blue backpack and pulled out a bundle of bananas, which seemed to satisfy the girl who darted off into the distance.

To juxtapose with my dissatisfaction at my inability to assist this young girl, my mind jumps now to a collection of memories from the south. Scattered with a number of breathtaking ancient ruins, banana plantations, rice paddy fields, palm groves and quaint villages; Hampi offered a vast array of magnificent and unearthly landscapes. From jumping up and around boulders to summit the top of ancient ruins for a rose gold sunset, climbing 575 leg burning steps of Anjenaya Hill (monkey temple), to lake side diving and coconut rafts – my time in Hampi was picturesque and nourishing. Taking a rickshaw ride through the quiet countryside of Hampi, we stopped frequently at small blue pastel-coloured villages to give a number of curious and excitable children their long awaited pens- a sight that stops to warm your heart like no other. With smiles that spread from ear to ear and hands frantically waving goodbye, this small moment was just one precious treasure India has bestowed.

That same humid afternoon our rickshaw driver kindly and enthusiastically let us drive the rickshaws through the dirt and cobble infused roads of the countryside. Sitting next to Mr Paul (the name he prefaced), who spoke English very well, we conversed about a number of topics from the processes involved in rice plantations, schooling, life in villages and the acquisition of an Indian drivers license. As our conversation continued to flow smoothly between new ideas and questions, he softly asked: ‘Do you study back home?’ Now I have been asked this question a number of times, but depending on the English abilities of the curious individual, it has generally just ended in a kind sentiment or expression like “very good”. I responded to Mr Paul’s question with, “a high school teacher. English and History are my majors. But I am only a student, I am not qualified yet”. With a gentle nod, he responded back, “I am studying too”. To my excitement and genuine inquisitiveness I glanced at Mr Paul and said, “That is fantastic. What are you studying?”. With a small moments pause, a warm smile crinkled his cheeks and his eyes passionately lit up…’I am studying life, but I am not qualified yet. Only once my family is stable, I have seen my children grow up to fulfil their dreams and they remember me when I am gone, will I have mastered life and qualified’. His surprising philosophical ramblings were heart warming, and my eyes glistened at another precious moment that had unexpectedly unravelled.

The magic in India is that any singular moment can stretch your imagination. From interacting with small children who are helping their parents make a living from elephant printed trousers, to merely watching life pass by on the palm tree dotted backwaters of Alleppey. In India a number of your core memories arise from merely being a keen observer; sights that shock, excite, challenge and transform your understandings. There are also a number of difficult moments where the reality of navigating your travels ‘the local way’ resulted in: disputes over allocated train seats and bus route diversions that left us walking in a militaristic precision with rucksacks across a narrow bridge in simmering 30+ degree heat. Then there is the bedazzling 24/7 bombardment of photo requests, a community of stares that heighten your already apparent marginalisation, and of course the infamous Delhi belly. The silver lining within these trials is undeniably a sense of gratitude for the small fortunes that we take for granted back home. In saying that, it is these findings in India’s unique character that I have fallen in love with, a world that finds beauty, hope and a sense of mystery in its seemingly purified and formative identity. On a lighter note, these challenges also make for a unified communal bonding with travellers over the worst Indian toilets we have encountered, the frequent sharing of electrolytes and toilet rolls, to our collective laughs over the persistent and bizarre timings for photo requests and the suitability of naan for breakfast, lunch and dinner on repeat (it was literally our staple). India is a place of extremities in all facets of daily life, a spectacle that is presented unashamed, unmasked and raw before your eyes. It is a myriad of cultural traditions, stunning monuments, penetrating smells and colours and an intensity for life that will ensure whether you love it or hate it, you will never forget it.

Thankyou India, I will cherish these last 6 weeks forever. I will return.

Advertisements

G Adventures: Rajasthan to Varanasi

Monday 4th December 2017

Saying goodbye to my global friends whom I had shared 20 emotionally and physically exhausting days was by far the hardest aspect of finishing this whirlwind tour. From the 5.30am freezing highway wheel change, to the 17 hour sleeper train ride from Varanasi to Delhi, it did not take long for our tour of 12 to form an authentic friendship. Travelling with a group of strangers-turn-friends is an unforgettable experience, particularly in a place like India where you physically and emotionally see each other at your worst and best from day one. Travelling solo can be daunting, without the safety string of friends and family you rely heavily on your instincts and the good will of others. But travelling with a group can take the edge of this fear by enabling you to share an intimate excursion into a culturally, spiritually and psychologically foreign world with others. When the mayhem of India becomes too overwhelming, which at differing points along the way this sensation does hit you like a wave, your group is there to help debrief and reboot you emotionally. For India isn’t for the faint-hearted!

The G Adventures ‘YOLO’ turned ’18 to 30 somethings’ 20 day tour of Rajasthan and Varanasi is a tour I rate highly! It superseded my expectations with a packed itinerary that left no stone unturned, and plenty of opportunities to mould free time into adventures of your own choosing. Our tour CEO was knowledgable, professional and compassionate at all times, providing us with an abundance of opportunities and a culinary tour of a collection of hidden, but brilliant street food and restaurant scenes. Packed with everything you expect and want to see in the ‘Golden Triangle’ (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) with the added inclusions of Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Pushkar and Tordi Sagar in the state of Rajasthan; this tour captured some of the most breathtaking and diverse Indian landscapes – ticking off a number of the top 17 essential India ‘to-dos’ in the Lonely Planet Guide. With a local village homestay in Tordi Sagar and a camel safari in the Thar desert, under a constellation of stars, this tour does not fall short in capturing a bundle of magical and timeless memories.

A few highlights:

  • Camel safari in the Thar Desert
  • Hot air ballooning at sunrise over Jaipur
  • Zip lining over the Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur
  • Taj Mahal, Agra
  • Tordi Sagar village homestay
  • Amber Fort (night tour)
  • Sunrise and sunset boat ride on the Ganges, Varanasi
  • The quintessential local sleeper trains experience

Watch a short video on our 3 week adventure below:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=uruHs6iElrc

Varanasi: A dichotomy of life and death

Sunday 3rd December 2017

Backdrop:

Our arrival in Varanasi from Agra was an eventful, yet exhausting experience. Our planned itinerary listed an 8.30pm departure via a 12 hour sleeper train, much like the Delhi to Bikaner service. Prepared for a delay of some nature, as this service characteristically runs at least 8 hours behind each day, we were informed that our train was to be delayed by 16 hours. With our rooms no longer available we would have been expected to find comfort on the floors of the lobby- not impossible, but by no means desirable. Fortunately this original plan did not come to fruition, and instead we found relief in plan b: a 10pm departure for a 12 hour bus ride. Our small 14 seated bus was tightly packed with our rucksacks and extra baggage, ensuring that yet again feasibility would supersede comfort- but this was a small trade off. As a standard bus with a design layout functional for little sleep, a few of us took to the narrow aisles to form a precision of sleeping bags- it worked a treat! With a freezing 5.30am wait on the side of the highway as our driver changed a ripped tyre, and a couple of rollercoaster-replicated jumps later, we arrived to much relief in Varanasi- a city of absolute chaos.

The Ganges Experience

I had been eagerly awaiting our arrival in Varanasi with great anticipation for I expected it to be the most challenging, yet most rewarding spiritual and cultural exchanges. Known for its spiritual immersion in life and death, Varanasi sees the pilgrimage of thousands of Hindu peoples to the Ganga Ghats (steps on the river front). In Hindu mythology being cremated into the Ganges grants an individual an instant gateway into the liberation from the cycle of re-births, thus, it is a site of profound historical and religious importance. At sunrise hundreds of men, women, children and families bathe and vigorously wash their clothes in the holy water, a ritual they religiously live by. With mellow lighting many pilgrims line the ghats to perform puja (prayers) to the rising sun, whilst at sunset the tone differs with crowds gathering to watch the enlightening exchange of life and death at the Ganga aarti (lotus flower ceremony).

Spiritually awakening and vividly photogenic, a visit to Varanasi is not complete without a boat ride along the river, providing an ideal introduction and perspective on the ghats. Throughout the day the Ganges is ironically a lively place with yoga, the selling of flowers, the offering of blessings, and boats roaring up and down the western bank. Staggered along the Ganges are stretches of burning ghats, each of which have different processes and atmospheres. After winding through narrow, puddle-stricken alleyways we found our way one evening to the Manikarnika Ghat, the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated. Sitting up on a ledge just metres away from the burning firewood stacks, we silently watched several doms (the dead bodies at this ghat are handled by outcasts) chant down the ash filled slopes carrying several bamboo-stretchered corpses. Tightly wrapped in white cloth with orange and yellow flowers loosely spread across the bodies, we watched on as the corpses’ were doused in the Ganges and prepared for cremation. This site could easily have echoed a war-torn battle front, with fire pits scattered metres apart and men swiftly clearing ashes to prepare for new cremations. Sharing in our curiosity were locals commenting and informing us on the sounds and sights of the 3 hour long cremation process. Watching on as a bamboo stretcher collapsed into a wall of smoke, and the last structural remains of the body could no longer be identified, was a shattering reminder about the perishability of life. A dull ache momentarily ran through my body as the definitive nature of death became physically clear and tangible. Unlike the lotus flower ceremony, which was a colourful and lively atmosphere, our unexpected visit to the Manikarinka Ghat was a deeply humanising however, confronting experience.

Varanasi is a magical and humbling place, but by no means for the faint-headed, for the ‘City of Light’ shares an intimate and complex relationship with life and death that is both liberating and emotionally draining. Just a street back from the Ganges you will find an abundance of energy and celebration as several wedding processions flood the street with music and dance. Amidst this radiating energy is the solemn and surreal rush of men weaving the streets and traffic to transport loved ones to the burning ghats for cremation. Varanasi is a place of constant noise pollution with the energising music of weddings competing with the rhythmic chants of funeral processions, all amongst the daily combustion of traffic and human movement. It is equally a combination of smells, from the burning of incense in rituals, the endless trails of cow ‘landmines’ to the general rubbish floor decay, and the spread of flowers in market stalls. With the sudden and shocking news of the death of my high school teacher, a gentle soul who I held in high esteem, in the backdrop of my mind; Varanasi’s confrontation with life was an emotionally exhausting encounter. Our visit to Varanasi was fittingly our penultimate destination on our tour, and as much as I feel that I have been awakened and enriched by my time in Varanasi, I was relieved to return to Delhi.

India is a dizzying spiritual whirlwind, that every once in a while requires you to take a deep breath, reflect and allow yourself to ponder the scattered insights, observations and encounters that any singular moment contributes to. India is a place that is host to a complex set of emotions and senses, many of which can disrupt your enjoyment and fund moments of uncertainty. My time in India has been a spellbinding adventure through highs and lows, one in which has made me undoubtedly richer for it. India is a world that shares a complex and innumerable set of dichotomies including; the need for patience in a place that is grossly impatient and disruptive – and this requires a period of adaption to cultivate peace and happiness. But ultimately, India requires you to subvert into a subconscious state of mind, one in which disrupts notions of comparison and conclusive judgements, to simply immerse and engage in the colourful, exciting mayhem and surprises of India. A world that continues to warm my soul like no other place.

Taj Mahal

Monday 27th November 2017

After 14 days of travelling through the beautiful desert state of Rajasthan the day finally arrived for our group to visit the majestic Taj Mahal- and it did not disappoint! Agra, the city namely on the map for the Taj Mahal, is a tourist capsule. With approximately 11 million visitors each year to the Taj Mahal, Agra is a bustling and thriving world of its own. It is however a place that requires caution, as like most parts of India, it carries with it a high risk of theft. But don’t let this deter you, Agra is an interesting microcosm of great value. A place that has the beauty, wealth and energy of the Taj Mahal, yet just around the corner some of the darkest and most dismal slum communities we have seen thus far. There is an element of pride attached to the Taj Mahal that locals are excited by, and this is energising.

The site is captivating, particularly in view of its historical context and origins. I won’t spoil the intriguing story that the monument bestows, but if you do intend to visit the site it is worthwhile to get a local guide who can direct your attention to some of the important and intricate structures that are missed by the excited tourist eye. Best viewed from a distance, there are a number of archways, gates and intricate garden spaces for you to find a space to capture your ‘shot of India’ and absorb the atmosphere and excitement. But just be prepared, yet again we were swamped with persistent requests for photos. You would think that the Taj Mahal alone would fill the storage banks of most SD cards… but apparently this is not the case.

The inside of the Taj Mahal is quite small, and due to the amount of visitors to the monument your viewing inside isn’t the most enjoyable. Guided by military personnel and with sections marked by railing, a tight dark space is the world you enter into when you take your first, cotton-shoe-covered steps inside. If you can get past the congestion of human movement it is a noteworthy and worthwhile part of your Indian experience.

India on a shoestring

Sunday 26th November

A short moment on the train from Jaipur to Agra has provided me with the opportunity to briefly and loosely reflect on my experiences of India thus far. Speaking in general terms, I can easily say that this trip has been overwhelming positive and exceeded my expectations. Sprinkled with an abundance of rice and naan bread, masala tea, temples and forts, sleep-deprivation, cold showers, freezing mornings and nights, Bollywood music, photograph requests, begging and constant undesirable staring – India never has a dull moment. With a mix of moments that excite, inspire, challenge and confront your understandings and sensibility; India is a place that continues to surprise me and nourish my soul. From its vast terrain to its spiritual immersion, each destination has its own unique character and architecture that grants you a new insight, and continues to enrich your experience and enjoyment.

Trying to find a starting point or a singular moment to explain and synthesise into a romantic and thought- provoking narrative has me rooted in a writers freeze. Maybe it is because it is the third night in which we have had 3-4 hours sleep, or because my time in India has expanded my thinking beyond imaginable terms. This in combination with my struggle to sequence the right words to capture an authentic and tangible snapshot has made my usual writing opportunities more challenging than normal- but I will try my best! I want to ignite your senses, challenge your expectations, expand your imagination and truly capture India’s inherent beauty that is tarnished by the over-projection of grim sights of poverty, garbage and pollution. But at this point in the trip it seems this expectation is too large. I am waiting on the tool of reflection to guide me, which for a place as psychologically challenging as it is physically, may require some more time. So in the space between there and where I am now, my loose summary will have to fill the void.

From Jodhpur our journey through Rajasthan continued east to Udaipur, Pushkar, Tordi Sagar and Jaipur, with our final destinations Agra, Varanasi and a return to Delhi, completing the golden triangle. With stunning sand dune-summited sunsets with a masala tea, to a local village homestay, to witnessing a mesmerising Puja ceremony over the golden skies of Pushkar to a sunrise hot air balloon ride over Jaipur – this list falls short of the reality we have lived. For what I am continuing to learn is that whilst these recreational activities have been brilliant in their own terms, it is the smaller seemingly insignificant moments that are equally powerful. Our village walk through schools and dilapidated homes, to the navigation of cows, traffic and people in the streets, to the rickshaw rides that have seen young children desperately plead and clench onto your chair and the witnessing of children senselessly robbing a sleeping man on the side of the road…it is these challenging and dismal settings that are equally important. There are some situations that leave you lost for words and cannot be described in this post- moments that have broken me and challenged my reasoning for coming to India. At times there are just no words to explain or reason with why certain things work the way they do in India and this is undoubtedly one of the hardest things that confronts you. But to overcome this I believe that we as tourists entering a world completely foreign to our own need to subvert our own reality and our own insular thinking to view India through a lens of abstraction – for it isn’t comparable to other places and nor should it be. By viewing India through a lens of abstraction I believe that our expectations and predilections can be sidelined to enable oneself to embrace and appreciate the awakening and enlivening world in which it is.

Jodhpur: The Blue City

Sunday 19th November 2017

With only one day to explore the visually striking blue city, our time in Jodhpur targeted a visit to the Mehrangarth and the local fruit and textile markets. The rickshaw ride through town that followed the stomach-curling 6 hour bus ride, situated us back into the shattering reality of the immense great divide in India’s population. Desperately looking into our rickshaw were women with their young, fragile babies begging for food and money- a sighting that never gets easier to be around or temporarily ignore. The hopeful desire to help is immediately met with restraint as our leaders day one cautionary instruction comes to mind (effectively any offerings promote a culture of begging and contribute to the continued abuse of children by black market circles). It is moments like these that rival your optimism and work to undermine your enjoyment of India, but if you can try to resist suffocating your emotions with this dismal reality, you will enjoy your time in India. For viewing India through this lens is essential for understanding India’s network of socialisation and its economy – but it doesn’t have to be a damaging tone to your trip.

With a hue of blue tones woven in the structures and aesthetics of dwellings and buildings, Jodhpur has easily mastered a refreshing, Mediterranean sensibility that distinctly sets it apart from its neighbouring cities. Why the ‘blue city’? To define a city by one singular colour seems problematic considering that the bustling streets of India can easily be associated with an abundance of other colours and complementary tones. From the markets to the Rajasthani women’s clothing, an array of colours enliven the dull, impoverished environment to create beauty in the midst of the ruined backdrop. Jodhpur is commonly known as the blue city for its association with the Brahmins, India’s priestly caste. The prevalence of blue colours that decorate the city is seen as a tool for distinguishing class and Brahmin properties, with the rich blue seen as an assembly of royalty and heritage across the city. The blue city is a photographers paradise, with contrasting points between the sandstone buildings, the dusty desert landscape and the blue dwellings providing a sense of ‘coolness’ (temperate) and refreshment in the midst of the Thar desert.

With an itinerary that seems overpacked with visits to forts and temples, a small group of us decided to take to the sky to see the Fort and the city from a different perspective. With 6 spectacular zip lines over the architecture and lake of the fort, the zip tour provides you with a new breathtaking view, and exhilarating experience of one of India’s most majestic forts. I would highly recommend the zip line tour as it provides you with a greater appreciation of the intricacies of the forts structures, and the diverse landscape of the Indian terrain.

To finish our day in ‘epic’ terms yet again, our group joined in a blue-lit rooftop dinner with scenic views of the fort- an experience that yet again seems to be nothing short of magical.

The Golden City

Friday 17th November 2017

With yet again an early start, we left the relaxed desert town of Bikaner for a journey west to Jaisalmer, the closest city in Rajasthan to the Pakistan border. Situated in the heart of the Thar desert, Jaisalmer is known as the ‘golden city of India’ because of its majestic, sandstone architecture and rolling sand dune landscape. Our 7 hour journey by local train was a slow, but surprisingly comfortable ride through the rugged, arid terrain of the Thar desert. The fresh air ravaged through the old, country train making it yet again, a cold, sleeping-bag-essential journey west. Boarding the train in the same terms as the local, we witnessed the great divide in wealth simply through the carriage luxuries and capabilities (first class AC, two tier AC, three tier AC, chair cart, sleeper-class, second sitting, general class). After our sleeper-class trip from Delhi to Bikaner, we experienced life in the general class- a ticketed and non-ticketed, equally unreserved ‘first in, first served’ operation. Our train journey did not replicate the stereotypical desperation of people clenching onto the peripheries of the train, characteristically understood to encapsulate transport experiences in India. To note, the general class is the category responsible for creating anguished and desperate measures to board the train because of the sheer human populace and inability to guarantee departure. Despite its contextual bearings, our trip to Jaisalmer was unexpectedly an enjoyable, quintessential experience.

Arriving in the early afternoon we went to see our first real sighting of water, Gadisar lake, an artificial body of water built by Raja Rawal Jaisal. The popular tourist site is atypical and peculiar in the desert landscape, but nonetheless, its presence was pleasant, casting a refreshing breeze amidst the whirlwind of dust and smoke we had collected in Bikaner and Delhi. A magnificent, artistically carved archway funnels you through to the tranquility of the lake, where we split into groups to pedal-boat around the borders of its geography. With just enough time we quickly hopped on rickshaws to summit ‘Sunset Point’ where, as its name precludes, we watched the spectacularly rich, red sun fall among the intricate Jaisalmer architecture. With a birds-eye view of Jaisalmer, we watched the sun transform from a bright harsh ball of fire to a soft, soothing golden light that trickles across the sandstone buildings to capture a stunning snapshot of the golden city. To accompany the picturesque views were some beautiful local children who were joyfully singing, dancing and flying kites around us. A handful of playful children sat around me, inquisitive and excited to see tourists- requesting for selfies, scrolling through images on my phone and practicing their English. Their curiosity, energy and willingness to converse with strangers is just one small part of what makes India such a magical and eye-opening journey. The monumental Jaisalmer Fort glimmers in view of the dramatic sunset backdrop, a sight that cannot be missed!

As the last living Fort in India, Jaisalmer Fort stands ominously on Trikuta Hill, ensuring that its dominant centrality is visible for several kilometres. The protected monument is home to a number of small markets and 3000 people, making it a bustling, commercialised site. With stunning views and architecture that transports you back to its historical capsule, the Jaisalmer Fort is a site that excites your intellectual curiosity and emotional admiration.

Bikaner

Wednesday 15th November

After a midnight sleeper-train departure from Delhi, we sleepily arrived in the chilly desert town of Bikaner at 7am. Travelling on a sleeper-train is a quintessential experience as you subvert your social status to a position of relative equality – one in which we all collapse to the same simple desire of getting from ‘A to B’. Suspended by a loose chain in the middle of a a 3-tier bunk bed, the shallow, tight space metaphorically resembled the lack of personal and spatial freedom we had experienced in Delhi. With our locked baggage tightly squished around our arms, we were naturally hyper-vigilant and conscious of our personal security. For we were no longer in a vacuum of a tourist and local persons dichotomy, instead, together we attempted to sleep through the same discomfort, disruptions, sounds and smells of an old, rusty Indian train. Nonetheless, this experience wasn’t a negative one, instead, it was a timely reminder of my reason for travelling to India – to immerse oneself in a cultural and social perspective different to my own, with the intention of expanding my understandings.

After a bumpy (bordering on a rollercoaster sensibility) and freezing rickshaw ride from the station to our ‘hotel’, we arrived to a lush, cobble-stoned fort that seemed to be a world far removed from the dusty, cow filled streets outside the gates. With religious statues and walls painted with stunning mosaics we collectively sighed with relief at the grounds in which we stood- this place would be a dream to call ‘home’. Our enjoyment was short lived as we quickly repacked for our night camping in the Thar desert. Travelling by jeep to our camel safari was unexpectedly an informative anecdotal encounter. Our Indian driver Kripal, showed a genuine interest in wanting to share his story with us, in the same terms as he was inquisitive to learn about our own unique beginnings. His stories, or ‘real incidents’ as he corrected us, were enthralling- surprising us with new knowledges and unexpected climaxes and resolutions. Without the artistic license of Kripal’s oral storytelling, I will attempt to share some of the magic Kripal imparted upon us in our trips around Bikaner.

In response to some pressing questions from our camel safari adventure, Kripal shared with us his own humble beginnings. As a youth, Kripal was kicked out of home with “no capital” and expected to make an economic and familial life of his own. Navigating a strenuous work schedule, Kripal completed a Masters of Commerce to escalate him into a Government position as an accountant. After 20 years of working as an accountant, Kripal courageously decided to change careers to a professional driver – enabling him to improve his English language capabilities and learn about the world around him. Unlike other drivers, Kripal insisted that the objective of his work is to teach others about India, and to leave with them a tangible and meaningful memory. He believes that through the sharing of stories we all can expand our minds to look through a lens of imagination and curiosity – for only then can we begin to wonder what life would be like in another persons shoes.

With an abundance of questions about the biological zoology of camels including: their lifespan, cognition and sensual understandings- Kripal shared with us his own experience of owning a camel (50 000 rupees). His work as an accountant required him to relocate up to 200kms between towns which wasn’t an easy feat to traverse. With a concern that his 20 year old camel (lifespan of 25 years) wouldn’t make the distance, Kripal left his beloved pet behind to spare him the physical trauma of relocating. Kripal used a plethora of humanising terms to explain his love for his camel- captivating us with his enthusiasm, passion and authentic happiness. To conclude his heartfelt story, Kripal explained that camels through little guidance will remember trained routes for a lifetime – so to his and our wonderful surprise his camel navigated the harsh terrain, and 200kms, to arrive back with Kripal once again…

Throughout this trip there have been frequent, unexpected moments that have imparted an authentic and nuanced understanding of people and place. Aman’s refreshing breath of optimism in conjunction with Kripal’s compassionate disposition, have been encounters that have enhanced my experience of India. I only hope that these encounters will continue to nourish my soul for a lifetime.

I have fallen in love with India!

The magic in human experience

Tuesday 14th November 2017

Days on tour are undoubtedly tiresome, with a dense itinerary that strives to cover large geographical terrains through local modes of transport (sleeper-trains, rickshaw, jeeps, camels, taxis and bus) – no singular moment is ever wasted. Travelling as a group is a unique cross cultural and humanising experience. With a mixture of diverse travelling anecdotes , purposes and future aspirations, travelling with new people offers an insight into the unique social, cultural and psychological worlds of others. Travelling bridges the dichotomy of personal and collective human experiences through interactions that foster the sharing and imparting of new knowledges. For when our own personal stories are woven with the unique anecdotes of others, we have the opportunity to expand our perspectives and visions of the world.

Today we met a humble and inquisitive seventeen year old gentleman from Delhi, whose story is one of many heartfelt and powerful interactions I have been fortunate enough to encounter. Whilst my loose paraphrasing will by no means capture the organic beauty of this young boys optimism or voice, I hope that his story will ignite in you a sense of hope – for this was the beautiful essence that Aman imparted upon us.

We meet a young boy in the corner of a dusty, wet and rubbish filled street just off the main road in Old Delhi. With cows slowly wobbling around us and the occasional cyclist weaving through the group, we find ourselves to be in a world completely foreign to our own. In this moment the reality of where we are begins to sink in, a ruined site of slums; the homes, communities and the complete world of millions of Indian peoples. It is a difficult position to be standing in, as tourists who have the luxury to escape and transport ourselves into a world absent from the vulnerabilities and sufferings of these people. I look in my own hands and my friends to see DSLR cameras and smartphones that these families could only dream of- luxurious items that we simply take for granted.

To fracture the emotional density of the dismal setting, our eyes are shifted to a bright-eyed, confident and intelligent young man. From the minute he spoke I was captivated by his energy and enthusiasm. At the tender age of six Aman was kidnapped from his home (a small village that he is unable to recollect) and abandoned at the metro station in Delhi. Left to defend for himself, Aman was found by another young boy who directed him to the Salam Balack Trust (which translates to ‘Salute the children’). At six years of age Aman worked three jobs in an attempt to make enough ‘capital’ to return home. In his youth he oscillated between a focus on staying in school, and a rebellious pursuit to temper with drugs and alcohol. Despite his seemingly irreparable beginnings, Aman has consciously subscribed to a spiritual and optimistic mindset- one that carries with it a hope of returning to his family. With the support of the NGO foundation ‘Salam Balack Trust’ Aman hopes that he will one day become a tour guide which will enable him to traverse vast landscapes in the hope of reuniting with his family once again. For in supporting and guiding tourists through a personal and physical discovery of India, he too hopes that this will provide him with the opportunity to find his loved ones yet again- a hope that he will hold onto until he parts from this world…

In a place like India, ‘being prepared’ takes on a multidimensional landscape- from the emotional readiness of ‘seeing’ humanity through a lens of trauma and poverty, to the physical expectations of manoeuvring crowds, animals and vehicles at a relentless pace. My small time in India already has been so much more than I could ever have imagined, for amongst the relentless metropolis of chaos is an underlying vision in the stories of Aman (and some other anecdotes yet to come) for a world in which we can all grow and learn together harmoniously.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑