Friday, 25 November 2011


OH India, where to begin? I've been here for 5 weeks now and still haven't been able to bring myself to write anything about it on here. I've started writing things - observations, accounts, theories - but they've just rambled and gone on, and then I've given up. Also, internet isn't as readily available out here as it was in the other countries I've visited, which has made it more difficult, and probably says something in itself about the country. Anyway, I'm going to share some general impressions about India here - they're not really based on anything other than my observations, reflections and conversations with others, so apologies if they seem simplistic or ill-informed. There are an enormous amount of cliches about travelling in India and it's kind of impossible not to repeat them, which I am undoubtedly about to do.


1. India is amazing, beautiful, fascinating
Mumbai, the first place I went in India, was my first epxerience of this probably rather obvious and banal impression of India . On the journey in my taxi from the airport, which I shared with a Canadian guy who used to live in the city, I got some sense of the insane contrasts of Mumbai. He showed me the huge slums on the outskirts and all the people queuing outside the charitable cafe for free food. Further into the city, there were the massive, colonial mansions where the millionaires live. No question about it, Mumbai is an attractive city, with amazing bits of colonial architecture all over the place - the court buildings, Victoria train station etc - and some great art deco buildings dotted about, many of which are old cinemas.

Next were the remote village of Velneshwar, down the Konkan coast from Mumbai, and Benaulim in Goa, both of which had stunning beaches. From Benaulim beach, as you swam in the sea you could see one way towards mountains and the other way there was just a stretch of beautiful coastline. Hampi, in Karnataka, had the most weird and incredible landscape -  ruined buildings amidst enormous piles of boulders - and it was great to watch the sunset as we caught the boat across the river to our hostel. Ooty, an old hill station in the Nilgiri hills in Tamil Nadu, was a strange, old fashioned sort of town, but its setting was gorgeous green mountains and sloping tea plantations and on the trek that we did we got an amazing view of all this, as well as of the massive lake.

 2. India is completely different
Another obvious statement. But this is probably my biggest impression of the place since being here. I arrived in India having  got used to being in another bit of Asia, and it seemed like a much bigger, more unfamiliar world to get my head around. India is such an enormous, complicated, varied country and my sense, though I base this on no real research, is that the south east Asian countries I visited have been far more swamped by tourism. India has an extremely strong sense of its own identity, culture, customs, though obviously tourism is still a big deal in many parts of the country. (and of course I'm not saying that the SE Asian countries I visited don't have those things, - they just seem more striking in India). I caught a bit of a TV dance talent show in a bar in Trivandrum the other day, which seemed like a good example of this. The format of it looked like some kind of Western import, but the acts themselves were completely Indian. There was one act that consisted of a troop of about 10 middle aged, mustachioed men in shirts and lunghis, doing a kind of traditional Indian dance in a sort of comedy style. I'd never seen anything like this before -  the dance, the look, the humour were all completely new - and there have been lots of things like this I've observed since being here.

One of the best things about being somewhere so completely and utterly different from home is that, for a while anyway, the most everyday things are inherently fascinating. On the train from Margao in Goa to Hospet in Karnataka it was great to just watch and listen to all the sellers wandering up and down the carriages - the chai sellers, the man with his huge bags of bombay mix, the men carrying trays of pakoras, boxes of biriani, dal and thalis - as it was all quite exotic and unfamiliar.Other things that many locals probably take for granted, like temple elephants, or monkeys scampering up buidlings and trees, such as we've seen in Hampi and the Nilgiri hills, are again inherently interesting and exciting, just because it is all so completely unlike what we see at home. (I've had several sightings of monkeys now, and I'm really not sure the novelty is ever going to wear off)

3. Just walking down the street or through a market is a total assault on the senses
This has positive and negative aspects. One of the enduring cliches about India is how colourful it is, but it's definitely true. If you walk through a market, there are brightly coloured flowers, spices, powders, fabrics and there is a kind of vibrancy that you just don't see that often at home. Even the clothes and the shops you see just walking down the street are more colourful (though I am more than happy to admit that this observatoin could well be tinted by a bit of Western romanticism). As well as the horrific smells (more of that later) you also get some incredible ones, of street food, jasmine stalls, spices, incense.

There is also the incredible chaos. My first experience of this was in Mumbai, when Rory and I went shopping in the main spice and fabric market area the Staurday before Diwali (think Oxford Street on Christmas Eve and multiply it by about a hundred) . I'm glad we sw this side of the city but it was a bit of an ordeal - insanely crowded and at various points on the street and walking through the market we got stuck in crushes and couldn't move. Cars and motorbikes continued to plough down the streets, regardless of the crowds, sounding their horns repeatedly. And this sound, of incessant beep-beeping, is probably the most ever present one in this country. People do it constantly and seemingly for no reason. Sometimes, in a tuk tuk or a taxi, say, you don't notice it, but there are times, maybe when you're walking on the side of the road or trying to cross it, where it feels haranguing and REALLY annoying.

The other sensual assault is that of the bad smells. Hideous, putrid smells, of open sewers, or of cow shit mixed with human shit and rotting rubbish. Smells that make you want to heave and which force you to cover your mouth. And you get this everywhere - in the supposedly sparkly, Westernised Bangalore, in tiny little Ooty in the moutnains or in the rich bits of Mumbai. Obviously these smells tell of other things, of the lack of proper sewage systems here, of the huge volume of people who live on the streets and use the gutters as their toilets, of no proper rubbish disposal infrastructure. And these things point to the other thing about India which you can't ignore, which is of course the poverty.

I have more impressions and observations to share, but I am running out of time in this Internet cafe, so will have to leave the others - about the pain of being a woman here sometimes or about the tourism industry -for another time.
To be continued.

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