Embarking on a trip into the Indian subcontinent was not a decision that came about immediately. To tell the honest truth, I’d never even had the slightest interest in visiting the region and I’d perhaps go as far to admit that I’d always possessed an aversion to travelling around the area. Thirteen months before my shiny boots touched the soil of New Delhi on a muggy, humid September morning I sat in a hotel room with an Israeli couple whilst they drunk beer and I, like the hardcore backpacker I am, sipped lightly at a chocolate milk. I’d met the two of them in a tuk tuk on the island of Ko Samui in Thailand and, as is often the case when travelling in South East Asia, we’d decided to travel together for a while. This chance meeting changed the course of my trip. Coincidence is an extremely funny thing. I hadn’t even planned to go to Ko Samui. I very nearly got into a different tuk-tuk. They had almost missed the boat. But, guided by whatever reason or fate, we ended up sat on a balcony, swapping stories and sharing our travels. The two of them – a young couple from Tel Aviv – had come to the islands following a four month expedition though India and Nepal and had both been affected by the experience in different ways. Whilst they remained divided over their time in India, both were unanimous on Nepal. It was, to summarise their thoughts, an awesome country but both, they insisted were worth the effort of travelling. They urged me to go.
And so I did.
Though I gave the idea of travelling the two nations little thought, inside my subconscious the two Israeli’s had planted a seed that over the coming months germinated inside of me and eventually blossomed into a fully grown plane ticket to New Delhi. Something about their enthusiasm for the Himalayas had succeeded in a seduction of my hiking ambitions. I could think of nothing more epic, no tableau more fitting for a life changing epiphany than standing on the top of mountain and breathing in the sweet noxious scent of victory. Maybe with orchestral backing. My travel partner, Nicole, remained convinced until several days into the trek that we were embarking on ‘a casual stroll’ and so perhaps her expectations were a little less grandiose than my own, but she also, having spent three months the previous year working in Chennai, wished to revisit the country. Whatever the reasons, events came together so that, one day after my Australian VISA had ticked off its final seconds, both of us stood in the centre of India surrounded by traffic, bicycles, rubbish, cars and cattle wondering how a metropolis like Delhi and a city like Sydney could co-exist in the same universe.
Our route through India took us along the well worn Northern tourist ramble, from the ramshackle chaos of Delhi to the architectural magnificence of the Taj Mahal in Agra. We explored the Pink City in Jaipur and rode camels across the dusky sunset of the Rajasthani desert. Buildings of sloping marble gave way to lush green forests, the dusty cityscape surrendered to the impossible mountains that broke along the skyline and foods of every different colour and taste peppered the narrow lanes and alleyways that snaked through the landscape. It was entirely romantic, a picture perfect PG rated treasure trove, where every shot would have been worthy of a travel brochure – had my new Olympus not broken within five days of purchase – and every challenge a lesson. India was beautiful and ethereal, mystical and majestic, breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Also – and this is just a side note – India is also absolutely, completely and utterly horrific.
India’s DNA is a complete hybrid, unimaginable richness in every city (see the Taj, the Agra Fort, the Golden Temple) and soul crushing poverty in every street. The rubbish is such a prevalent force of nature on the nations landscape that it has become it’s own eco system. Millions of people depend on the waste to survive on a daily basis. Pigs and goats and dogs and cattle feed off the excesses and then, as dictates the nature of civilization, vaguely richer inhabitants eat those pigs and goats and dogs. But not the cattle. Cows are inherantly sacred to the Hindu religion, so great, horned beasts happily swagger around the crowded alleyways, mindless of the colliding motorcycles, screaming vendors and starving children. Culture shock can be applied as an affliction in many situations; there are people whom find the two week annual trip to the Costa Del Sol a trying and uncomfortable ordeal, but nowhere else on earth can such beauty and such hopelessness exist in a working society. The confrontation is impossible to avoid. From the second you land, to the second you leave, India will test you as a traveler, and your ideas of what and what is not acceptable in a 21st century world. It astounds you on both ends of the spectrum. For all the praise, or the criticism I can laud or leap on the country, I have yet to find such a perfect example of a concrete contrast.
Recently, the long and complex relationship between the United Kingdom and India surfaced in the news. Britain, faced with yet another fall into the inevitable Eurozone debt crisis, cut the majority of aid to a nation with one of the highest levels of poverty in the world. And also, as the majority of media commentators gleefully reported, it’s own space program. Such is the problem and complexity of India, but also, the irresistable lure that draws travellers to the country year after year, and, despite the endless grinding poverty, one of the factors that inspires enough loyalty to bring them back. I’m not sure that I found that in India. The country was undeniably stunning, and it’s unfair to judge a subcontinent on a small area. The experience added far more to the quality of my trip than I expected, the flavours of the food, of the life, the architecture, the challenge, the suffocation, the feeling of achievement. I absolutely believe that a trip to see the world can’t all be peaches and cream, because the world absolutely does not work in that way, though enduring the reality of that theory can be very unpleasant, but nessacery. It had to be done. I could lay on an Australian beach for twelve months, but I would have achieved little and I would have learnt nothing. India was an education. It was important. It was a real life ‘experience’.
Am I better person for it? Probably not. Am I a lighter person? Yes, absolutely, by around half a stone. In the Western world, there are two certainties; death and taxes. In India, there are three. Death, taxes and dysentry.
Exhausted, elated and slightly below a healthy weight, our time in India was over in a flash. We took our final taxi ride out of the city and boarded an early flight to Kathmandu.
And there, in Nepal, I found something completely different…
Music of the Moment – Lana Del Rey – National Anthem