India part 3:sights, sunbathing and slums.


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August 25th 2012
Published: August 25th 2012
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And so to the final leg of my Indian adventure, one that would see me navigating huge sections of India to take in places and people seemingly from different worlds as the diversity of India hit me fully in the face. I tracked to the mountainous north of India with its Tibetan vibe and holidaying Indians, right down to the laid back beaches of the South and finished off on the west coast in cosmopolitan Mumbai. From Amristar I entered the state of Himachal Pradesh, which is nearly as north as you can go in India (you can actually go higher to Kashmir, but years of civil unrest and violence between India and Pakistan in this region sort of scared me off, what a girl). Rather than entering a new state, it was as though I had entered an entirely different country. The change in landscape and people was immediate as most of this region sits at least 2000 metres up so views of lush green valleys, soaring mountains and fast flowing rivers were all around, the air was fresh and the temperature dropped from near 40 to a pleasant 20, and the pace of life was altogether slower. The Himalayas were the backdrop while timeless villages dotted the slopes, evidence of the British era lingered on and stoned hippies wandered around trying to find themselves. It was quite a contrast to the rest of India with it traffic filled, people heavy cities.

McLeod Ganj

Sadly after giving it the big sell in the guidebook my first stop was a massive disappointment and second only to Delhi on my sh*t list. But first a brief history lesson if I may just to set the scene: In 1950 China invaded Tibet and took control of the independent state under the wonderful guise of 'improving the quality of life' of the Tibetan people. I hadn't taken Mao or the Chinese to be so helpful and empowering but there we are. All this scared the Dalai Lama so much that he fled the country and set up a government-in-exile in McLeod Ganj. I was therefore expecting to turn up and see monks in robes wandering around,Tibetan people living freely, monasteries lining the streets and hear prayers rolling across the hills, I even had designs on meeting the Dalai and pinching his cute cheeks. Instead all I found was Indians on holiday, hotels, restaurants, neon signs and techno music, souvenir stands and blissed out backpackers trying to study yoga or Buddhism. We (myself and 2dutchies) visited the Dalai's residency but the cuddly one was elsewhere preaching and the apparently interesting museum was closed. If I now start believing in Jesus the Dalai only has himself to blame. Instead we spent the rest of the day on a walk to the next town of Bhagsu to visit a not so powerful waterfall. The day was saved by drinking whiskey with 3 young indian guys alongside the waterfall,as you do. After a day I left there and headed on up to Manali with the dutchie Tom, a very switched on 19 year old that was also a good laugh, who I would end up spending 5 days with in total and so became my longest travel partner of the trip.

Manali

Manali is known as the adventure capital as you can do a range of activities here, plus it is set amid beautiful scenery so is nice to trek around. The people there looked and acted differently from anywhere else in the country as they were of Tibetan or Kashmiri descent and the food changed from indian curry to noodles and momo(dumplings). We did a 13km trek to Solang Nullah which gave a nice insight into the traditional villages and ways of life as we passed through. The wooden houses and weathered people were more simple and traditional as opposed to poor, women wearing shawls and men in felt hats etc, all growing the apples the region is famous for. The trek gave pleasing views and the cloud cover was so low, or us so high, that we walked amongst it a lot of the time which is always a wonderful effect. Manali will also stick in my mind for the travellers there, as it was stuffed full of stoners and hippies. Marijuana grows everywhere up here and is smoked openly by all, so the place is full of westerners in baggy trousers and ridiculous hair, talking about higher levels of consciousness and being one with the earth while pondering the ways one can transcend to a higher plain. Whilst checking their Facebook,cough. It was one of those places saved by good company and good conversation with Tom and 2 crazy Italians, but otherwise Manali was fairly uneventful.

Shimla

I stopped off here to break up the journey to Delhi, or perhaps delay the inevitable. I had heard bad things about Shimla, that it was basically like McLeod only worse, and in a way this was true. But the longer I spent in this place the more it grew on me, there wasn't a vast amount to do and yet I spent a good couple of hours in a great cafe eating vegetable pakora and sipping tea, people watching the Indian middle and upper class families on holiday. I found it quaint the longer I watched, there were ice creams eaten, families posing for pictures, kids playing with balloons or riding horses up and down the main street and an abundance of holiday type mood. It was a little like Brighton only without the sea, or the rampant homosexuality. I must also give a quick mention to the fact that shimla is the only place so far that has a no litter, smoking, or spitting policy with fines for doing any of them and it is wonderful, it makes such a difference and I can only hope that the rest of India follows suit. Eventually I stopped watching rich indians play and trekked to the top of a ridiculously steep hill to visit the Jakhu temple, a place perhaps most noted for being tormented by monkeys, they harass anybody visiting and are sheer entrepreneurs. I witnessed a monkey steal a woman's scarf and would only pass it back in exchange for a bag of food, literally hand for hand. It was like watching a mix of pure Darwin and Alan Sugar. This was about as good as Shimla got so I took the train to Delhi, the first part being the Himalayan Queen toy train. I was expecting the Orient Express but should have realised this was India as it was a fairly basic rickety old thing but the trip down through the mountains was very scenic and worth doing, I had a great couple of hours sitting at the open door with my feet dangling out watching the landscape go by. Eventually I got to Delhi and realised I had 8 days left, so upon deciding not to waste that long in a city I did a last minute job and jumped on a plane to South India, such is the spontaneity of travelling.

Kerala

Once again South India was like entering another country, and in a way it is just that. The language, landscape, noise, laid back attitude and pace of life is all so different than in a Delhi or Agra. It is surrounded by rice paddies and coconut groves, houseboats cruising down backwaters and sandy beaches. Its position along the trade route means it has tea plantations, English churches, Portuguese houses, Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques, plus working elephants replace lazy cows-the animals not the women. I started off in the city of Cochin, where I did the main attraction there and travelled through a section of the 900km waterways that traverse the land. It is a little like Venice in terms of the waterways being the way that a lot of people here move around, work and even go shopping. First I went on a houseboat and floated along the main canals lined by palm trees. After this we got into punted canoes and were taken through smaller waterways to see villages up close and watch them make all manner of things from coconuts, mainly rope from the hair and alcohol from the milk but sadly no bras. It was a full day trip which gave a good flavour of traditional life here that hasn't changed for centuries. Next I took the ferry across to the island named Fort Cochin to have a look at the stunning cantilevered Chinese fishing nets. Sadly they weren't in use that day but in a way it made them look even more serene and historical as they date back a thousand years, I imagine they would look amazing in full flight. After this I decided to treat myself with some well deserved beach time because as fascinating as these trips are, relaxing is not a term you can attribute to them. Yeah your heat bleeds right? I initially planned Goa but heard it was a little dead at this time of year, plus the northern sisters I met on the camel safari were a little way down the coast so I decided to stalk them instead and headed south to a place called Varkala. Here I spent a few lazy days working on the tan, it was great spending time with the girls again with the only stress being simply choosing when and where where to eat or how many games of cards I could lose. A holiday within my holiday really.

Mumbai

Last up was the city formerly known as Bombay. I only had 2 full days here so tried to squeeze in as much as I could but the heat, traffic and 17million population got in the way at times. I instantly liked the vibe of Mumbai though and it is an entirely different city from Delhi despite having more people and the biggest slum in Asia. Mumbai is quite cosmopolitan and glamorous as there is a lot of money here, the people don't hassle you in the streets and the architecture is stunning. Mixed in amongst the skyscrapers and towering apartment blocks are remnants of the past as majestic Victorian buildings can be seen everywhere. Most impressive is the Victoria terminus, which is technically a train station but looks more like Notre Dame and is very gothic, plus the court house, cathedrals and courts were very easy on the eye. There is the Gateway of India along the docks which stares at the pompous Taj Mahal Palace hotel, both built in the early 1900's, and I also took a ferry across to visit Elephanta island which has a group of cave temples carved into the rocks which was slightly underwhelming but worth the visit overall. As well as this I checked out the famous Chowpatty beach and Haji Ali mosque-the latter famous for being built across a causeway, which at high tide means it gets cuts off and gives the effect of floating on the sea. The best visit I made was to the Dharavi slum, but sadly-or perhaps fittingly-you aren't allowed to take photographs so you have to rely on my inept explanations instead. Dharvi is the largest in Asia and the one made famous by Slumdog Millionaire, although personally I found the slum term almost derogatory as it is more a city within a city and different to those I have seen in Johannesburg or Rio. It is true that there are over 1 million people crammed into just 2 square kilometres and the narrow sewer lined alleyways lead you through tiny houses piled on top of each other. But the slum also has an industry section with people having trades and businesses, so much so that the slum has a turnover of US$665million. People pay rent and bills, have electricity and kitchens, and the homes range from shacks to multi-storey concrete structures. There are schools,hospitals and even a gym(I was tempted to pop in and show them how it's done but it was very hot, I didn't want to cramp). Anyway, the term slum is only applied because the land is technically owned by the government and not the people living there so it was more like a suburb or something. Overall it was a fascinating visit and highly recommended.

Jerry Springer style final thoughts:

And so that's India done, 5 weeks in all which in a way has only just scratched the surface. If I had longer I would visit Ladakh, Darjeeling and more of South India, but overall I feel as though I have been here long enough and seen enough of a cross section of India to understand this diverse country. Or understand it as much as one can. I have known a lot of people who have been here and all have given me horror stories listing a million bad things about the place, but they always ended with a positive vibe and said to just go and do it and that it wouldn't disappoint. And now I understand what they mean, it is such a conundrum and contradiction of country that you either love it, hate it or feel both in equal measure.

For a start it is very humid but also gets torrential monsoons, the litter is appalling, the smells gut wrenching, the cities are overpopulated, the people in places are just downright mercenary and horrible, the poverty is disgraceful as the rich get richer whilst those that are born poor die even worse off, corruption is rife and religious tensions seem ready to surface at any moment. And sadly I can't see any these things changing anytime in the next few generations. But as with people before me I still encourage others to go, it is simply too fascinating and beguiling a country to be missed. The people in India (outside the golden triangle)are friendly and helpful, and I have not feared for my safety or felt in danger here. Everywhere you look there are elements of history and culture, be it British, Muslim, Portuguese, French etc, yet Indians still manage to maintain their own culture and way of life, as well as their spirituality and religion. And of course the food is mouth watering and delicious, with the greatest aspect being the variety that each region brings to ensure that it never gets boring. My favourite aspect of India is its diversity, I have never been to a country where each region or state is so unique and different. It's size is more like a continent and so each of the 28 states is like an individual country with different people, languages, food and culture etc, you could spend a lifetime travelling India and discover something new each time to step off a train or bus. It makes for a travelling experience like no other. India is a place to feel and experience, to absorb and try to take in-although with so much going in front of you it is a true assault to your senses as your eyes and ears are on overload. It is a place that inspires and challenges the imagination, a country that can at the same time time lead to soul searching or be soul destroying, in a way it is a country to visit and just survive.

And survive I did, despite being warned against it the monsoon was weak this year and I only saw one real day of incessant rain. I have only been ill once-a severe bout of stomach issues that lasted about 12hours-which suggests that the dreaded Delhi belly isn't so bad, or I may have just been lucky. India is definitely cheap, a good meal and drink can be had in a restaurant for under £3, transport is efficient and with prices that would make British rail weep. Accommodation is good and the only real expense, but at roughly £10 per night it is manageable. Aside from those first few days-which I now attribute as much to culture shock as much as delhi being menacing-the trip has been great,I am so glad that I stuck it out and can't believe I lasted 5 weeks because after 5 days I was ready to come home as it was all too much. This was as much down to those back home who I cant thank enough for helping me through when I was at my lowest and kept me going, it won't be forgotten. Now to start planning 2013! Until the next time people.


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25th August 2012

typical brit
...wearing socks and trainers.......

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