Why I Had to Leave India Early

Finishing a tour prematurely has an element of ego crushing to it. It’s never happened to me before, in all of my excursions, and I’ve always considered myself someone that can endure the most grotesque of surroundings. But with India, I’ve had to admit defeat.

The tour had an auspicious start. I made a friend the instant I left the airport, she showed me Bombay, we had beer during the day, laughed constantly and enjoyed one another’s company. She then went on to travel with me for 3 weeks, where we then became more involved and eventually fell for each other completely.

We toured South India together, a beautiful, welcoming region with much to see and do. We rarely encountered troubles, met some incredible people and had some of the best 3 weeks of consciousness in my 25 years on Earth. I’ve never been as happy.

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Things took a turn for the worst when Meetali left. My health deteriorated, everything seemed more irritating, and people got nastier. It’s as if she placed a curse on me when we departed ways. The climate inflamed my skin to such a degree that I couldn’t focus on anything else. Endless heat rashes and bites from 10 different species of insect infected my body and prevented me from enjoying the present moment in any way. I had to stop everything I was doing just to attend to the irritation.

I became ill in Mumbai after visiting Meetali and attending a wedding. I was due to leave for Gujurat, but ended up in another hospital bed after throwing up all over the roads and having my stomach weaken me to a state of paralysis. For days I was instructed not to leave Meetali’s flat or eat food outside.

The final straw came just under a fortnight after this, when I headed to Uttarakhand from Delhi. I’d obviously digested something dodgy in the capital, as I was now awake all night due to my bowels, running to the toilet every hour, unable to sleep. This new illness also left me so weak I couldn’t even talk on the phone properly. Once again, instead of enjoying India, I was glued to a hotel bed. I’d decided enough was enough, and I couldn’t go on travelling if I couldn’t physically travel.

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A total disregard for hygiene and the disgraceful sanitation levels across India are what often lead to illnesses such as these. Every single travel writer has used the same annoying words, that India is an ‘assault on the senses’. ‘Assault’ is too weak a word to describe it, and in India it’s more of a gang rape on the senses. If you’re in any Indian town and you don’t know where the train station is, just follow the scent. You’ll arrive to a glorious shitfest with men, women and children defecating all over the rails and pissing on the platform. This despite the railway station providing toilets for people to use free of charge. Poverty isn’t to blame, but cultural habits. Many African countries are just as poor but don’t have the constant stink of faeces lingering in the air wherever you go. People expulsing excrement out in the open pollute their surroundings despite having access to a toilet.

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And if you enjoy migraines, you’ll love India. The moment you step out onto any street you’ll be greeted by incessant honking and blaring traffic. Indian drivers believe more honking will actually make any car in front of them magically disappear. A few minutes on the roads in this country and you’ll be questioning the sanity of the human race.

I travelled with a couple for a few days in Uttar Pradesh, from the US and Czech Republic. They’d been travelling together for 13 months, around Australia and over South East Asia. In those 13 months both of them had not once been sick. Yet, after just a few days travelling in India, they were frozen on their beds after catching a debilitating illness, which led to a lot of vomiting. After 8 months in Africa, and 12 different countries, I never became as ill as I did in India. I never saw as much open defecation and such a high tolerance for filth.

I decided I’d had enough and would come home before I caught something fatal or just completely lose my mind. The last straw came in Uttarakhand where I went out to buy medication and within minutes developed a headache from the pointless beeping of cars. I’d walk through the street with one hand on my stomach, the other hand on my head, dodging cow and human shit in the roads and grizzly Indian men loudly and vulgarly spitting at my toes.

In fairness, India does have its wonders, and with some patience a traveller can be overwhelmed with a sense of awe at the majesty of some of India’s sights. The glorious Taj Mahal, despite seeing it a thousand times in pictures I was still taken back by it. The backwaters of Kerala, the beaches of Goa, the hills of Munnar, the spiritual excess of Varanasi; all of these are worth seeing, and I’m still happy I came on this trip and explored the areas I did. And to be fair, most of the problems I faced with people, health and lack of hygiene came from the north (Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, West Bengal), and not the southern regions, so bear this in mind also.

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What keeps me travelling isn’t happiness, or confusion, or trying to escape from something. It’s curiosity. I’m genuinely curious what it’s like on the ground in all countries around the world, from Ethiopia to Turkmenistan. This curiosity will keep me travelling in the future, even at the sacrifice of happiness, and even if I expect to get annoyed by it. Places like India may be uncomfortable and down right difficult on the gut, but one can’t deny how fascinating and beautiful this country is.

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My problem is I love my home comforts. I enjoy my Grande Starbucks Latte, my fast and reliable Wi-Fi, my swanky Central London bars and nice restaurants. The issue is my curiosity only just outweighs my need for comfort, and it’s that which keeps me backpacking to places like India and Sudan.

It’s only when one goes abroad to foreign lands and realises the extent to how backwards some countries are does one appreciate one’s homeland. India is a magical place, and it hosts some of the finest scenery I’ve seen in my time. But little differences show the traveller that things just aren’t right in this place; like women having their own carriages on trains, sending the message that Indian men just cannot be trusted. Or Indian cinemas cutting out naughty swear words, showing Indian citizens that they will be treated like infantile babies instead of mature adults that can think for themselves. Or women getting hidden away whilst they get frisked and searched before entering a shopping mall; because the sight of a woman being touched would send any Indian man into a sexual frenzy, according to the people who make these rules. Third world governments have a tendency to distrust their citizens, and patronisingly restrict them from many things we take for granted here in the UK.

For instance, on my flight home I flew with Saudi Airlines, and every movie I watched blurred out the legs of every woman on screen, even if no flesh was showing and they were wearing unprovocative clothing. The very idea that the Saudi Arabian government have resources and people working tirelessly to cover up the legs of women in films shows that they have an issue in getting their priorities right. Again, a backwards government with a mismanagement of priorities will produce backwards thinking citizens.

As much as I’ve enjoyed travelling these previous years and writing to you all, it’s time to slow down a bit and hang up the backpack. I doubt I’ll do another big trip within the next 4-5 years, as I’ve done more than many people in the world would do in a lifetime, so it’s time to be less greedy.

I already have an idea for my next tour, despite how far away it is. South America has been a continent I haven’t explored at all, so here is a place I’m happy to sink my boots into and get to know much better. My rough plan would be to start in Patagonia, right at the bottom of the continent, move on up to the top, onwards through Central America and Mexico, right through to New York City. This will be a crazy adventure, and one that may take up to a year to complete. But this is another 5 years away, and in the meantime little trips here and there for a few weeks at a time will be enough for me. My next destination will either be Vietnam or Bolivia for a few weeks, but I doubt I’ll blog if it’s only a fortnight of travel.

Thank you all for reading, and being a part of this. It’s a joy knowing other people wish to share these experiences with me, even if it’s vicariously behind the glare of a screen. Don’t let me put you off visiting India, as it is a huge country and some areas are definitely worth visiting, and you won’t face much trouble if you go to the right places. I look forward to further adventures, but in the meantime I’m perfectly content with my overpriced lattes and spoilt western existence. Happy travelling!

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The Journey to Varanasi: The Most Spiritual (and Annoying) Place in India.

After a week in Bombay I started to get itchy feet again. First the wedding happened, with events going on for a few days, then a bout of food poisoning that left me bed ridden for days. Once I finally booked a ticket out of Bombay, I was delayed yet again by an error on my train ticket.

I was due to leave for Varanasi at midnight on the 14th, yet due to the lady behind the counter screwing things up, she instead put the 13th on my ticket, meaning I had already missed my train, lost 2000 rupees (£20) and would have to book another.

I was at Meetali’s flat when I realised the cock up, and we promptly took an hours trip to CST station to sort it out and get me on another train. Little did we expect what lay in store for us when we arrived.

We were directed to the office of the Head Ticket Collector, a tall, beefy looking man and the only guy in the office wearing a suit. He sent us away to buy a general ticket to Varanasi, and return back to him so he can change it into an air conditioned sleeper for me.

As we sat there waiting for him to return, one employee in the room started yelling at us very aggressively. Meetali had her feet crossed on a chair and I was leaning on the table. Now, any civilized human being with even the most basic manners would have said, “Excuse me, would you mind not leaning against that or having your feet on the chair”. But this Neanderthal decided to scream, shout and pound his chest like a caveman who’d become aggravated because we’d eaten his food.

Things got worse, as eventually we met the head ticket collector outside who invited us back in again and was meant to sort our tickets out so I could leave that night. The guy who yelled at us initially told this man what happened, about how we dared to lean on a table, and all of a sudden hell broke lose.

We were promptly thrown out of the office, and removed from the train station, as this primitive man decided to scream and cause an unnecessary scene to make his day more exciting. Due to his ape like etiquette and prehistoric brain, he couldn’t fathom why a woman would place her feet on a chair, or why I’d casually lean on a table. The way both men were yelling at Meetali and I, you’d think they were about to pull a punch. She even told me afterwards this could have happened if we hadn’t left. I was shocked by what she said, that these men could have easily beaten us over something so small.

I lost my temper for the first time in years, and started yelling at the guy for how he was treating us, especially how he was treating a woman. He continued, screaming and spitting in my face until security was called and we had to leave the station, ticketless. I then remembered the words I had been told and read countless times before my trip started. Something all travel writers love to write it’s become almost cliche: “Indian people are friendly”.

This sentence annoys me for a number of reasons. Firstly, you cannot generalize a country of 1.2 billion people. Secondly, my own personal experience suggests something very different. I’ve met some friendly Indians, and I’ve met some despicable Indians. I’ve met Indians of gracious manner, showing me hospitable warmth as they invite me into their homes and exchange congenial pleasantries. But I’ve also met some callously rude Indians, who’d spit at my feet, push me out the way, shout at me unnecessarily and behave more like chest thumping primates than evolved human beings.

I finally secured a ticket to Varanasi, and arrived after a pleasant 30-hour train journey from Mumbai. This was more bearable than the previous trip, as I splurged out a little for an AC berth and actually found myself becoming too cold during the journey, despite the heat outside. I figured if there’s a heatwave in the north that’s killing people by the hundreds, I wasn’t going to moan about spending an extra few quid on an air-conditioned berth.

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A guy spoke to me on the train, an engineer who worked in Pune. I was sat by the door staring out at the countryside like Michael Palin in a documentary, when he approached me and said “What is your good name?”. I then decided to make an effort and have a conversation with this nice man, as that’s what good travellers do.

As I sat down beside him I realised I only understood 1 out of every 5 words he spoke, which made conversation hard to endure. The beastly sound of the train didn’t help, and made me miss a few more words of what he was saying. It usually went something like, “efiub uewn wieubg very difficult wufuiew uwehfieew wiuehfbv vuwef good times……..fuinfuwf runeg wofvnbo wifwf you understand?”.

I also got the feeling as I said my words very slowly and carefully that he found me equally as hard to listen to. So we sat there, chatting away whilst he pretended to understand me and I pretended to understand him.

On arrival in Varanasi, I got a manual rickshaw for the first time, which requires a man to exert physical effort and manually pedal the bike instead of placing a foot on an accelerator. The guy who was on the train with me told the driver where I needed to go.

“He says 60 rupees”, he told me.

This was almost twice the going rate for that distance. I’d been told it was 10 rupees per kilometer, and my hotel was 3km away. But the guy looked a mess; smutty unkempt hair and ragged clothes that looked decades old and teeth so stained and black I thought they’d been smudged in crude oil. I agreed to 60 rupees (60 pence).

When we arrived at the hotel, I paid him and found a look of confusion on his face. He then yelled something in Hindi to me, which I didn’t understand. I then got another guy off the street to translate, and found out the driver wanted an extra 10 rupees. He justified it because the hotel was on a slope that he had to climb up, which wasn’t even that steep to begin with.

Still, the guy was in a state. His face looked torn and his teeth could have given any dentist horrifying nightmares. He also made exaggerated ‘wipe sweat off forehead’ movements, in order to prove he struggled to get me there. Despite my anger at him not keeping to our deal, I gave him another 10 rupees. I’ve seen other travellers haggle with the poor, and it’s completely pathetic. A rich white westerner arguing over 10 pence, something they wouldn’t even pick up if they saw it on the ground back home.

Varnasi is a place of intense spirituality. I enjoyed the festivities in the evening, and the place did feel ironically alive despite themes of death hovering over the town. It certainly had character, and it’s one of the most interesting places I’ve visited thus far. The Ganges are used by Hindus to wash away their sins and to cremate their deceased relatives. Pilgrims travel for days to reach Varanasi when they feel they’re close to death, given that it’s seen as an auspicious place to die.

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The town itself was the dirtiest I’ve seen in India. Rubbish tipped everywhere in a display to match that of Glastonbury festival on a Monday morning. Cow shit littered the streets with unwashed children covered in a blanket of flies. As cows are holy to Hindus, there seemed to be more in Varanasi than anywhere else I’ve been. It is said there is more cow waste in this tiny city then in the whole of the state of Goa, and treading in it is completely unavoidable. This excrement is not something to be repulsed by, but something to gaze upon with divine holiness. I think this is where the phrase ‘Holy Shit’ came from.

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Eating out proved difficult, as many restaurants would have 100 items on their menu, only to serve 5. Most of my time eating out consisted of conversations like:

“Can I order some lemon pancakes”

“We don’t have” 

“OK I’ll just have beans on toast”

“Not possible”

“Ok just tell me what you have on the breakfast menu”

“Bread and butter, you like?”

“Anything else?”

“No”.

I then had to remind myself that I’m in one of India’s poorest and most desperate regions.

I walked around the main ghats in the morning, watching people bathe in the filthy Ganges, seeing dead bodies be cremated and sent off by their families. Now I’d attended an Indian wedding and a funeral. I found it odd how, in the midst of this extremely emotional and private affair, these people would welcome a young curious foreigner to gaze upon the burning corpse of their dearly beloved.

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I stood there watching a cremation, when an elderly gentleman approached me and began jabbing away in my ear. He started throwing out facts about the ritual, and about the area. He went on for about 12 minutes whilst I just stood there, nodding and trying to give the best possible signal that I wanted him to leave. I knew what was coming though, as every act of friendliness in Varanasi comes at a price. 

“Now, all new comers to these rituals must provide a donation. Please give”.

I said no and he asked me to leave. He was definitely lying, as I’d read about this scam countless times online. I then said I would leave, gladly, as the cremation had finished. He then followed me:

“Ok no donation necessary, but at least something for me for talking to you and giving you information these last few minutes”

I stopped, turned around and gave him my angry eyes and said, “Kindness shouldn’t have a cost. Now fuck off!”.

This may seem harsh on my part, but imagine if someone tried to scam money from you at a funeral back home. The moral indecency and avaricious behaviour of people like this gives India a terribly bad name. He then started yelling at me as I walked off, screaming obscenities and punching the air. Indian people are friendly.

Varanasi was without a doubt full of the most annoying inhabitants in India. Everyone wanted to speak to me, to be my friend, show me around, give me knowledge; knowledge I could easily find online. I spent the entire day experimenting with humanity, trying my best as Diogenes did in Ancient Greece to find ‘an honest man’. But it was futile. Everyone in Varanasi I met was either a liar, a cheat, a charlatan or just generally awful in character.

Varanasi seemed to abide by that typical Indian rule of, ‘the holier the place, the filthier it is’. The Ganges, the holiest river in India, is considered to be the 6th most polluted river in the world. Reports have suggested that the water has a fecal coliform MPN of 88,000 per 100ml, compared to a desirable level of 500 per 100ml.

As I watched these Indians bathe in shit and burn corpses in broad daylight in front of dozens of spectators, I realised I hadn’t eaten the whole day, and it didn’t look like I was going to either.

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After 2 days in this holy city I moved on to Agra and Delhi. The India I was experiencing now was the India people always talk about back home. Desperately poor, full of lying scum and dishonest cheats. South India was not this bad, and I feel it’s the places more used to western tourism that breed the worst people. It’s not an Indian problem, it’s a global problem. You’d find the same detestable behaviour from Bangkok to Cairo. Agra, Delhi and Varanasi are hit spots on the tourist trail, and from my travels I have learnt that the more tourists a place gets, the higher level of moral decrepitude occurs amongst the local population. I was to finish with this region shortly and move on to the Himalaya regions. A region with a cool climate, friendly people, Buddhist monks and solitude. This was the India I started to crave.

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Living in Hospitals and My First Indian Wedding.

Recently I spent two days in Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal, and India’s 2nd largest city after Mumbai. I wish I could tell you how much of the city I saw, the sights I visited and the museums I learned from. The truth is I spent 90% of my waking hours in a shopping mall and the remaining 10% in hospital.

My skin had now become so bad I looked like I should have been quarantined. The pain and irritation was now so agonizing I couldn’t think of anything else. To walk just 500m down the road became an exercise of marathon like proportions. I’d have to stop 200 meters in just to scratch and sit in the shade whilst the stinging pain subsided.

On my second morning I went straight to the hospital after waking up, desperately searching for a solution to all these rashes, bites, spots and burns. I’ll say now that Indian hospitals are incredibly efficient and easy to use. The guy at reception just told me to write my name down on a shriveled piece of scrap paper and said to come back in 90 minutes to see the dermatologist. No form filling, no registration, no time wasted.

This was my second hospital visit this trip, and both times I walked through the door I was seen almost instantly. This time, as the place did seem quite busy, I had to wait 90 minutes. Still, if you wanted the same treatment in England in A&E, you’d be waiting 3 hours at least, sometimes double. The difference is, in England you aren’t hit with a gigantic bill at the end of your treatment, one usually so big that regular Indians cannot afford. No wonder it wasn’t so busy.

The doctor examined my body, and after thorough inspection told me his concerns:

Well, I can tell you now you’re going to need a lot”, he said worryingly after a giant exhalation of air.

He started to scribble on his notepad, and eventually took up 2 sides of an A4 page to write down my conditions and everything he wanted to prescribe me. He then spent 15 minutes detailing exactly which medication to take, which lotions to apply and when, and also to stay out of the damn sun. “You’re just not built for this climate. You must stay indoors!”.

I had to hide away in an air-conditioned shopping mall for the 2 days I was in Calcutta, and watched 2 movies at the cinema to pass the time. So much for my crazy Indian adventure.

In the evening I could walk out and enjoy the last few remaining hours of daylight. The only real sight I saw was the Victoria Memorial, built by the British to commemorate our Queen. It was a wonderful piece of architecture, a monument so grand and beautiful it could easily be a top tourist attraction in India if it had been built for an Indian princess instead of an Imperial ruler.

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Meetali was now back in Mumbai, and invited me to attend her niece’s wedding. This would involve changing my route completely, and breaking my number one rule of backpacking: No Flying!

But I couldn’t say no, not to an Indian wedding. It would be an interesting experience, as well as a great opportunity to meet some of her family. So I ended up buying a last minute ticket to spend a few days back in Bombay.

The morning of my flight, I took a cab to the airport at 5am. Driving there was a depressing sight, as it only just hit me how impoverished this city was. Slumbering bodies lining the streets so abundantly you’d think a massacre had occurred and they’d all been gunned down. It was a depressing scene, and homelessness on a level I’d never seen before. Calcutta was in a serious and desperate state of poverty.

After I parachuted into Bombay and greeted Meetali with a torrential shower of kisses and affection, we took a rickshaw back to hers and prepared ourselves for the pre-wedding function.

Our first night involved a series of prayers at the flat of one of Meetali’s relatives. We walked in late to the display of a Buddhist monk saying a few prayers, which went on for over 30 minutes, with only a respectable silence and burning incense filling the room as he sang.

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After prayers I was then introduced by Meetali to around 300 of her family members. “And this is my aunt”…”This is my mother”…..”This is my aunts cousins brothers fathers son”. Too many people, I thought. Too many names. Too many handshakes. It overwhelmed me, and I felt like a politician campaigning for office.

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Nevertheless, every person I met was highly friendly and more than happy to welcome this strange looking foreigner into their home. We all left for the rooftop where the eating and dancing began, and I noticed something quite different from other weddings I’d attended to back home; No Alcohol!!

How on earth was I to muster up the courage to get up there and dance to songs I don’t know in front of people who think I’m odd and weird enough already. I would have done anything for a beer, just one cool delicious beer. I didn’t know exactly how to behave or whether I should be myself. But then I remembered some advice my friends back home gave me before the wedding started. Conversations with 3 separate friends went something like this:

I’m nervous about meeting the family. What if I fuck things up somehow?” 

“Don’t worry, just be yourself and you’ll be fine”

“Ok, I’ll do that”

“Actually, I forgot who I’m talking to here. Do not be yourself. I repeat, DO NOT BE YOURSELF!!”

“Yeah, that’s probably a better idea actually”.

They were right. My usual mix of deadpan, sarcastic, emotionally insensitive humor probably wouldn’t be welcomed by these elderly Indians as much as back home. Just be polite and courteous, Adrian.

“Also, not a drop of liquor. You can’t let them see you drunk if you ever want to see Meetali again”.

Instead I sat there watching and it was only until Meetali and her brother came and dragged me off my seat that I found myself dancing and flailing my arms about in a series of dance moves I made up that very moment.

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Eyes were on me, the tall ginger foreigner, and Meetali became hugely embarrassed as she said I kept dancing like a woman. I had already had my masculinity downgraded by her, as when we travelled together she witnessed firsthand my pathetic, girly fear of insects; which each time she had to take care of as I left the room in a panic.

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On the day of the actual wedding, we arrived at the venue where the ceremony took place and hundreds of people gathered. Once again I was overwhelmed, as I’m not one for big social functions. At any event with large numbers of people meeting each other, you’d find me in the corner awkwardly sipping away on a drink just praying not to get into a conversation with anybody. I kept drinking juices and water excessively, not because I was thirsty, but because I was nervous and didn’t know what do with my hands.

During the wedding, there were two people I felt sorry for more than anybody else there; the bride and groom. They had to stand on a stage greeting every single guest, which consisted of a large queue that snaked around the entire venue. They stood there for over 3 hours whilst guests greeted them, exchanged pleasantries and took pictures, whilst they continued to plaster on big wide smiles for the cameramen to shoot. I was watching my own personal hell play out before me. I’m never getting married, I thought to myself.

After the wedding was finished, I woke up one morning and was suddenly hit by yet another new bout of sickness. Meetali and I were in bed, and whereas initially I thought was just tired, now I began to think something more serious was happening.

Fuck, this is going to be bad”, I said to her.

Shall we go to the hospital”, she replied.

I’ve had enough of hospitals now, I’ll try and let it pass”

But it didn’t. My condition was worsening yet again, and India was beating me up and doing everything it could to make this trip as miserable as possible. In the midst of this new illness I began to look up flights back to London, as I just couldn’t take this anymore. I’d started to hate this trip.

We both went to hospital in an auto-rickshaw just 10 minutes drive away. On the way we told the driver to go slowly as my stomach was in a bad state. As we drove, I felt something. Something was about to happen. My stomach knew it, my brain knew it, my entire body knew it. I told the driver to stop within the first few minutes and I got out to throw up. Nothing happened, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn’t as sick as I thought I was.

As we drove on, my stomach started to become aggressive. Like a volcano about to erupt, I knew something bad was coming. I didn’t have time to stop the driver, and almost without notice I placed my head out of the side and threw up all of my insides onto the traffic of Mumbai; painting the street yellow and orange with the produce of my stomach. The driver stopped and I got out, vomiting and crying as my condition deteriorated and tears of anguish strolled down my face.

We arrived at the local hospital, now my third hospital visit within just over 3 weeks. I lay in bed motionless, unable to move my body at all. I was given all sorts of medication, injections and assistance to help me recover.

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After I was discharged, I had to remain inside Meetali’s bed for 3 straight days. I couldn’t leave the flat or eat outside food, as my stomach was extremely sensitive so I had to be careful what I ate.

I decided to continue the tour despite my fragile state. India and I were doing battle, but I couldn’t let her win. Give me everything you have, I said, and so after a few days of recovery I started to plan the next stage of my tour. I was to head onwards to Varanasi, the most holy city in India and one of the most spiritual places for Hindus to visit. But yet again, before I even left Mumbai I was hit by another problem involving my ticket, which involved Meetali and I being thrown out of the train station and exchanging verbal blows with the staff of Indian railways. India wasn’t done with me just yet.

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The 20 Hour Train to Bhubaneswar, and Why I Hate Indian Luxury Hotels.

There comes a point in my travels where I feel like the whole thing was a complete waste of time. I came here for an authentic, local experience and to get to know Indian life on a deeper level. Instead, I find myself locked away in luxury, air conditioned shopping malls, surrounded by middle class Indians taking selfies and playing on their smartphones. I should have stayed at home.

I don’t go there to shop, I go here because it’s one of the only places in the city where my body isn’t in agonising pain. Even when Meetali and I spent some time in a mall in Chennai, she told me Indians have the same idea.

Look around, do you see anyone in the shops? Do you see anyone with bags?”

“Now that you mention it, no. I didn’t notice this. Then why are they here?”

“Same reason you are, for the air conditioning. It’s too intolerable outside, even for them, so they need to come here to escape it”.

I found that amusing, that Indians don’t come to shopping malls to shop, but to cool down. Looking around all I saw was people hanging out, bagless and disinterested in the retail establishments around them. Empty shops with lonely, frowning shop assistants staring out the window morosely.

My first day travelling alone was spent in a high-end shopping centre in Chennai. There wasn’t much else to do in the city, and due to the suns vicious hatred for me I had to lock my pale skin away in an air conditioned mall for the afternoon until it became cooler. I’d started to develop serious heat rashes and had bites covering me, so stepping outside into the blazing sun wouldn’t help.

On the way I took an auto-rickshaw with a garrulous driver who conversed with me in crumbled English.

“Where from?”, he asked.

I’m from England. I live in London”

“Aaahh. In-gland…vely cold. India….hot!”

 So are you from Chennai originally or somewhere else in India?”

He caught my eye in the rear view mirror and smiled.

“Yes, vely hot in India. Vely vely hot!”

It was hopeless. I had given up trying to interact with the locals here. Friendly and approachable as they were, my questions usually went unanswered, and were greeted with a simple innocent smile and the very limited lexicon of the English language they could speak.

Now that Meetali had departed, I decided to take a 20-hour train ride from Chennai to Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa in the North. The ride was 550 rupees (£5.50), a steal for a distance of 1200km. Now I was alone, I could partake in some challenging and masochistic travel without the guilt of allowing her to suffer. Plus, at £5.50 for over 1200km of travel, I couldn’t say no.

However, it wasn’t without its pains. The day was bliss, as I had a lot of time to catch up with my writing, read some books, stare out at the beautiful countryside and do some thinking. Then night fell and I knew I had to sleep. I felt disgusting, sweating abundantly all over my mattress, and discovering I’d received a whole new swathe of bites all over my legs and stomach. I am clearly not suited to this tropical climate, and the bugs here are enjoying a buffet on my body. I felt like I hadn’t washed in days, my face feeling sticky and revolting. I couldn’t even bear to look at myself in the mirror, as I knew if I felt this bad, I must be looking horrendous. All I could think about was a shower.

The train was also extremely hot during the day. So much so that when I ordered some ice cream from a vendor coming down the aisle, I observed it melt in a matter of seconds. I ended up drinking most of it, as it had simply transformed into a runny liquid mess.

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As night struck, one man took my backpack onto his bed and used it as a pillow. He carefully and precisely positioned the bag at the end of his mattress, handling it with great care as if it was a family heirloom. He then gently rested his head on the back of it, staring at me for a full 30 minutes. I was reading at the time, and occasionally looked up to see his curious eyes gazing back at me with a mixture of interest and confusion. What the hell was I doing here, he must have thought. I tried making conversation after too much uncomfortable eye contact, only to receive the response, “In-glish….no good”.

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I was woken at 4:45am by a man tugging at my ankles who said I was in his bed. There must be some confusion, I thought. This bed is mine! I paid for it, you fool. I was dazed, confused and delirious. It turned out the train had reached Bhubaneswar and I had to get off.

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This agitated gentleman was on his way to Calcutta. I frantically put on my shirt and packed up my belongings, as a dozen gaping Indians observed me panic and attempt to escape the train just as it started to move. The carriage was silent, most of the passengers still asleep, but the hustle and bustle of the platform outside tricked me into thinking it was 2 in the afternoon, not 4:45 in the morning! I heard the chaiwaller scream like a broken record, his voice echoing the words I’d become so used to on these long train journeys: “Chaaaaaaaaaiiii…….Chai Chaaaaiiiii……..ChaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAIIIIII”

Shortly after arriving in Bhubaneswar I took another train to Puri, which took 2 hours and was more enjoyable given the amount of space in the carriage and the early morning temperature. I got talking to a family of 3 in the berth next to me, the man working for Vodafone in Calcutta. They only spoke Bengali and the man spoke a little English, and he attempted to make conversation with me but I deemed the interaction futile. I still maintained my politeness, but my eyes would always slowly make their way down to my book to give the signal I didn’t want to talk.

I arrived in Puri and found a place for 300 rupees (£3) that was a real dive. I didn’t care about the accommodation, as I knew I likely wouldn’t be staying there the night as I was heading to Calcutta. I came in drenched, so much that as I filled out the standard hotel guest form drips of sweat rained down from my forehead and onto the pages. I apologised to the guy as he wiped it off with his cloth, smudging the ink of my writing in the process.

“I’m sorry. It’s……it’s just this fucking heat. Apologies for the mess”.

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I went to visit the beach in the morning, until the temperature became so punishing that I had to hide away in the shade somewhere. I went in search of a nice hotel to sit in their lobby, enjoy their air conditioning and have a coffee.

Now, here’s the problem with Indian luxury hotels. Unless you’re a guest at their establishment, they’ll treat you like trash. As I entered I was instantly given a cold, wet cloth to wipe the sweat from my perspiring face, and a cool glass of water. I sat down and ordered a coffee and began to write in my journal.

As the waiter served me the drink, he asked for my room number.

I’m not staying here, but I’ll just use your restaurant and order some drinks”

He made a face and looked puzzled.

Er, one moment please”

He ran away and went to go speak to his colleagues, as I sat there pretending to ignore them as they all muttered and gossiped about me, looking confused and not knowing what to do.

Shortly afterwards a large, formally dressed man approached me. I assumed he was one of the hotel’s senior staff.

 “Excuse me, are you a guest of this hotel?”

“I’m not, but I came in just to order a few drinks and maybe some lunch”

“This lobby is for guests only!”

The lobby was empty, completely abandoned, and here was this demeaning savage peering down on me and complaining that I’d given his hotel some business.

Soon after, an elderly crow faced woman approached, and pretty soon there were 7 staff surrounding me, staring in disbelief. They were shocked by my actions, stunned at my infiltration of their tourist establishment. The woman began to speak.

You can’t just come in here and use our lobby if you’re not a guest!”, she growled standing over me as I still had my laptop on my knee.

“So I can’t just come in and have a quiet drink, mind my own business and hand money over to you, am I right?” 

“It’s company policy. Guests only!”, she barked.

I’d had enough. This scowling old wench had tried my patience, and was treating me like I’d crashed a wedding and raped the bride.

We’ll have to ask you to leave”

“OK, sorry I wanted to hand my money over to you and give you some more business”.

I slammed my laptop shut and left the premises, furious. In every country I’d been to around the world, hotels always allow non-guests to come in and use their facilities for a price. In Africa, you could buy a latte or two, and sit there the entire afternoon, enjoying the air conditioning and fast wi-fi without any hassle from the staff. Try the same in India, and you’re treated like a fugitive. This wasn’t my first time having this issue. I left the delightful air-conditioned lobby and apprehensively creeped out of the door and within seconds began to sweat again.

As a slap in the face, they charged me 100 rupees (£1) for a tiny cup of filter coffee that usually costs over half that. I shortly afterwards phoned Meetali to vent my anger; the poor girl having to endure 7 minutes of fuming and cursing from over a thousand miles away. She listened with admirable patience and advised me on what to do in future situations. Her voice of calm reasoning put me at ease, and made me realise not only how lucky I was to have met her, but also how lucky I was that she endured my occasional vents of frustration.

I’d had enough of this town already, and that evening took a 10-hour overnight train to Calcutta, again in the dodgy ‘sleeper’ class. I slept like a baby, despite spending my second night on one of these rattling boxes with gazing Indian families. I arrived in Calcutta and started to plan the next stage of the tour. As I reached, I yet again was admitted to hospital and began to question the viability of this trip. I’m now back in Mumbai and recovering from a separate illness that left me bed ridden in hospital again for the third time in 3 weeks. There’s doubts arising in my mind as to whether this trip can continue given this wretched, crippling climate and my feeble health. As much as I love India, I’m starting to think India hates me. I may be back in London sooner than planned.

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Reflections on South India, and Travelling Through the Land of Tamil.

It’s been almost one month since I left London and flew to Bombay, and so far India has blown me away. She’s taken care of me, excited me, frustrated me and inspired me. As I entered Bombay I knew not a soul in the city, had no expectations and did not know where this trip would lead. So far, it’s gone better than I could have imagined and we’re not even half way through yet.

South India surprised me because it was the complete opposite to the India described to me by Westerners before I arrived.

I’m warning you, beggars and thieves everywhere. Keep an eye on your pockets”

“There’s people dying in the streets”

“Indians have a habit of staring, so be prepared for that”. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, it’s very naïve to generalize by saying the word “Indian”. People in Bihar have a very different culture to the people of Tamil Nadu. Keralans speak a different language and worship different Gods to the people of Punjab.

So we’re left in a similar situation where the India people described to me was not the India I’ve experienced in the past month. Whilst travelling South India I’ve witnessed poverty, but little desperation. I’ve been asked for money from beggars just as much as I would have in London. I’ve experienced very little hassle, dealt with honest business owners and never been in a situation I’d deem dangerous. It strikes me how different India actually is to the India people describe.

Things have changed now, and for the past few days I’ve been travelling solo. Meetali was due back in Mumbai for a wedding and to start work again, and had only planned to be with me for a few weeks. I thought I’d be able to cope, being a self-confessed loner that enjoys the wonderful freedom that comes with travelling alone. I can finally do what I want, when I want, and how I want.

Truthfully, I struggled. For the first time in 3 weeks I had nobody to wake up to. I had nobody to cuddle at night, and kiss as I woke up. I had nobody to laugh with, to play with and grumble with. I ate alone in restaurants, accompanied only by the thoughts of other writers through the books I was reading, as well as my own thoughts, which at the time were filled with emotional distress.

I went from saying a few thousand words per day, to saying merely a few dozen. I spiraled into a depressive mood of anguish and a crushing, unbearable sadness, one that usually follows the death of a loved one. I was in mourning for someone who hadn’t died. Just like that old cliché, sometimes you don’t fully appreciate something until it’s gone. And then once it’s gone you’re left with a wretched loneliness so debilitating you can’t sleep. Happiness is truly best when shared.

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Meetali and I moved on from Kerala to the state of Tamil Nadu, with our first stop being Kodaikanal. The night before we departed we still hadn’t decided where we were going. We lay down on the bed in our hotel, thumbing through our guidebook and poring over maps to decide our next destination. Meetali was constantly on the phone to hotels in the town, only to be let down as it turned out they were all full because of the high season.

My back of the napkin calculations told us that Kodaikanal was just 70km away, so if we left at 10am we’d reach by lunchtime. Perfect.

What a stupid mistake that was. Because there was no direct road from Munnar to Kodaikanal we ended up taking 3 separate buses, across 8 hours and had finally arrived as the sun had already set.

I was in such a mess, and close to breaking point. The driver turned out to be fed up with his career of navigating the streets of Tamil Nadu and instead took up the role of resident DJ, thumping out incomprehensible tunes and piercing our eardrums with his audio garbage. With the heat, the noise and the strain of the day, I was close to throwing my bags down and yelling at the sky.

There reaches a point in every backpackers journey, where after a day of stress the need comes to treat oneself. This was one of those times, as I felt the smallest nuisance could tip me off into a Hulk like rage. I desperately needed a time out. I wasn’t happy.

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We’re going to this 5 star hotel for dinner. It’s 800 rupees (£8) for the buffet”, I said to Meetali.

It’s like half your daily budget, are you sure?”

“At this stage, I just don’t care. I…..I just can’t deal with all this right now”. 

We went to the best hotel in town, The Carlton, and eventually my grumpy frown converted into a gleaming smile as I indulged myself in some delectable cuisine. The waiters were a little too hands on, ingratiating us like royalty, and obviously on the hunt for a bundle of tips from us wealthy tourists. But after a long day of hassle, I was happy to be treated like a king. Kodaikanal was a very scenic town, though the avalanche of tourists made visiting the most picturesque sights quite a battle.

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We moved on to Madurai, an infernal city with oppressive heat and pretty temples. Meetali caught a cold in Kodaikanal due to altitude and chilly weather at night. I’m usually a very shallow, squeamish person when it comes to women. A simple sneeze can turn me off somebody, and I’ve usually gone off girls in a matter of seconds, ones I would usually be heavily infatuated with just moments before. I’ve gone on multiple dates with girls I’d be madly attracted to prior, only to get half way through the night and be utterly repulsed by everything about them. It’s one thing about myself I can’t stand, but my dysfunctional, neurotic mind doesn’t always agree with what I’d consciously want it to do. Attraction is rarely, if ever, a choice.

Despite her illness, and how ‘bad’ she looked (her words), I still found myself heavily enticed by her. Me, attracted to sick girl! Looking at her worst, sniffling and sneezing away, making grotesque sounds, what’s happening!? We spent the entire day in the hotel room, with me playing the role of personal man slave, running out to buy medication and supplies when we needed them. I’m surprised I didn’t run away in fear of catching the illness myself.

We took a night bus to Pondicherry that evening, and luckily it was my first sleeper bus to not break down since arriving in India (third time lucky!). We went to meet an old university friend of mine I studied with back in London, who was now living in the town and invited us over. He agreed to show us around, but then a family emergency came up and he had to leave to Madurai on short notice.

He put us in the hands of two friends of his, Babu and Vinod, two young Tamil boys with a fondness for smiling. Babu didn’t speak a word of English, only Tamil, but we still found it easy to communicate through the universal language of body movements and hand gestures.

We agreed to go to Auroville, an experimental township with spiritual values just outside of Pondicherry. I had an idea that this would be similar to Danny Boyle’s ‘The Beach’, where a group of hippy travellers set up a community and live off the grid, giving the finger to the avaricious side of society. It’s actually very similar. The township founder, Mirra Alfassa, stated in her first public message about her creation, “Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity”.

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Half of Auroville residents are foreigners, from all over the place. The French are the biggest group, then Germans, a few Brits, Latvians, Koreans, Italians and Americans. I didn’t see many whilst we were there, a few passed us by but I didn’t get a chance to talk to them. The area is huge and we only saw a small part. No money is earned or spent in Auroville, as it’s a cashless community. It really is a hippies dream.

During the day Vinod invited us round to a friend’s house, a girl he had always liked and was kind of his girlfriend. He took us for a walk in the forest whilst his girl went to the shop to buy milk to make us tea. We felt we were being spoilt. This is too much trouble, I said very Englishly.

When we got back to the girl’s house, we sat underneath a staircase on a dusty, unwashed mattress sipping chai and eating coconut biscuits. I realised something like this would never happen back home, a complete stranger inviting a pair of strangers into their house for a cup of tea whilst hardly knowing them, and hardly saying a word. We exchanged about 60 words with this girl in the 30 minutes we stayed there. She was naturally very shy.

These two young boys were incredibly nice, and despite coming from poor families still insisted on paying for things. We treated them to breakfast, lunch and dinner, much to their objection. We offered to pay for petrol for the motorcycles they drove us around on all day, but they got there before us. They cheekily paid for our breakfast the following day without us knowing, and Meetali almost rugby tackled Babu to the ground so he couldn’t hand the money over. Even when Meetali went to buy some candles and incense in Auroville, the 18 year old Babu took his wallet out and offered to pay. Meetali had to aggressively insist on paying.

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We went for a walk along the beach with the boys in the evening, and they rode us around on their motorcycles, me terrified as usual. In the midst of this frenzied traffic, they seemed so calm and at ease on the road. With dozens, hundreds of other motorcyclists, rickshaw drivers and cars inches away from them, aggressively beeping and missing them by a hairs width, they drove side by side, laughing and talking to each other so casually as if they were having a Sunday morning catch up over brunch. Meetali was unfazed by the roads, scrolling through her news feed and whatsapping her friends whilst I held on for dear life and spoke to God for the first time since I almost got a girl pregnant. Are Indian people fearless or just easygoing about death?

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Meetali and I headed to Chennai, where we then said our goodbyes at the airport at 4am. Tired and sleepless, I shed no tears, and it only really hit me later on in the day, that I was now alone. Solo travelling has its benefits, but if you find somebody you feel comfortable around and can relate to on a deeper level, then it sure beats talking to yourself most of the day. Some experiences like backpacking are truly at their best when shared with someone special.

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Navigating the Beautiful State of Kerala

Kerala is a destination in the world I’ve wanted to visit for over 7 years. I first heard about Kerala from a guy I used to share an office with when I was 18, and he was a local from the region. He used to show me pictures, and share with me stories of its beauty and natural charm. I knew I’d have to visit someday. I promised him I would.

He was one of the first Indians I became friends with, and also my first introduction to the famous Indian head wobble. He used to waggle his head at me as he spoke and I had no idea why at the time. As a naïve 18 year old with very little understanding of the world, the only thing I could think about as he did it was, “What the fuck is wrong with his head?”

Meetali and I were now on the road to Kerala from Karnataka, and the monsoon greeted us in traditional fashion. We entered as the downpour fell and the rain pelted our bus as if we were under siege. Soaked vegetation made for a lush humid smell that tickled my senses and led me to breath more through my nostrils than through my throat in order to fully enjoy the scent.

It was funny on this particular bus, as Meetali tried to buy us tickets and the guy didn’t speak Hindi or English, then he asked if she was Indian, which she took offence too. Imagine that; an Indian asking another Indian if they’re Indian.

Travelling with her has provided such an insightful understanding of what it means to be Indian. As we move from state to state, she finds it as difficult to interact with the locals as much as I do. She can’t read the road signs as they’re usually posted in the local language, and the fluency of Hindi and English down in the Southern states varies massively. In other words, she feels as much of a foreigner as I do, and it’s her country.

To describe someone as ‘Indian’ is just as vague as describing someone as ‘European’ or ‘African’. The diversity and cultural richness of this country is seriously overwhelming, and it is that which makes travelling here so incredibly rewarding. With just one visa you can travel a country with the geographical and cultural variance of an entire continent!

We moved on through Kerala and took a charming train ride down by the coast, which I think had to be one of my favourite journeys I’ve ever taken. We booked sleeper class, the lowest of the low, the cheapest of the cheap, to travel for £1.50 over a 6-hour ride through break taking scenery. I was expecting crowded berths and a constant struggle for survival, but we were instead greeted by a charming family who gave us bundles of advice and shared conversation with us throughout the journey.

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The train ride was incredible, with beautiful scenery passing us by. Luscious coconut trees at every turn and gleaming lakes surrounding by blossoming greenery. I sat there reading my book, listening to music, downing chai and darting my eyes out of the window every few seconds so as not to miss another grand spectacle of nature. Meetali sat opposite me, fully enjoying herself too.

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Every time I looked over at you, you had a giant smile on your face. You seemed so happy”, Meetali said to me afterwards.

That’s because I was. I was in a state of blissful ecstasy, feeling euphoric and at peace with everything in the world after such a romantic and pleasurable train ride. Someone could have come by and punched me in the face and I would have cuddled him. I’d reached the Buddhist stage of Enlightenment.

Meetali and I were enjoying each other’s company, and much to my surprise hadn’t run into much conflict. I expected us to be at each other’s throats after a few days of constantly being around each other. One incident occurred in Coorg, Karnataka before we reached Kerala, where I told her I was going for a walk and wanted to be alone. That didn’t go down well, as she took it personally, so I had to explain later on so she could fully understand.

I’ve always been a loner, and being around other people for too long makes me ill. I prefer silence and stillness to clamour and chatter, and it’d been a while since I’d had that since she’d been travelling with me. She took it the wrong way, as if she’d done something to upset me, and now I had to explain that she’d chosen to travel with a weird, solitary recluse that loathed the company of other people. After this conversation we began to understand one another much more intimately.

Now I should add, that when two young individuals of the opposite sex travel together for many weeks and share the same hotel room, as well as the same bed, things are bound to happen. I didn’t intend for them to, and for the first few days I managed to restrain my desires and be a chivalrous gentlemen.

Even friends back home who saw our Facebook pictures together would constantly bombard me with messages:

“Are you fucking that Indian bird?” 

”Dude, are you banging that chick?”

”Any action yet mate?”

I kept letting the boys down back home, insisting that I hadn’t even tried and nothing was going to happen. I’m a nice guy now. In full control of my sexual desires.

But one night of boozing had to ruin all that and turn me back into a licentious monster, unable to control my most primitive of urges.

Now we’d become close. Too close. Dangerously close! I’ve never let a girl get as near to me as she has, and it’s something I’ve tried to avoid as much as possible. Not only because of my deep distrust towards anything with a vagina, but due to my distaste and aversion towards the very idea of monogamy. My entire love life up until this point had been an ongoing series of drunken flings, one-night stands and filthy pornographic displays of depravity. I had no intention of changing that by coming to India.

Now our relationship had developed, I felt more at ease around her. There were no pretensions or false displays of masculine supremacy. Now we were more emotionally involved, I felt completely comfortable at all times. For the first time in my life, I began to care about someone.

We moved onto a picturesque town called Kumarakom, and decided to spoil ourselves by staying in a splendid lakeside resort that overlooked Vembanad Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Kerala. Even with a huge double bed, en-suite and a view of the lake just metres from our window we still only ended up paying 750 rupees each (so just £7.50 per night).

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In one of my previous posts I described how to annoy a backpacker by using the word ‘Holiday’. Now my status as a rugged, adventurous traveller had been diminished and I was now at the stage of ‘Honeymooner’ by staying in such a place with my new partner. Now my friends had begun teasing me back home.

Mate, how’s the holiday coming along?”

“Hope you’re enjoying the honeymoon”

“Your pictures look lovely. Are you playing Bingo and doing karaoke this evening?” 

Fuck you all, I replied. I wasn’t stretching my budget by staying in nice places, as Meetali and I would split the cost of the room, and due to the off-season we secured bundles of cheap deals.

I say ‘We’, in fact Meetali was the one driving the hard bargain, as I’m useless at negotiating and haggling. She’d always be the one taking care of business whilst I stood awkwardly in the background stabbing at my phone. Her bargaining skills would have put Del Boy to shame.

Whilst in Kumarakom we took a boat trip around Kerala’s fabled backwaters, some of the most beautiful in the world. For just 1000 rupees each (£10), we had our own private boat with a driver for 3 hours sailing across a series of intricate canals and lakes in the region. We passed tiny Indian women bathing their young children, glaring at us as we peered over our sunglasses and inspecting their private lives.

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From Kumarakom we drove over to Munnar, a pretty little hill station that’s home to Kerala’s most famous tea-growing region. The British used to come here on holiday during Imperial rule for a respite from the heat, and because we do love a good cuppa!

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The bus journey to Munnar had my head spinning and my stomach churning. The road was winding, twisting, turning and the bus had the same effect on me as alcohol, without the good parts. Throughout the journey I had to rest my head on Meetali’s lap as she calmly stroked me back to health. I was disorientated after the ride, and all I wanted to do was lie down and shut up.

As we arrived at our hotel, the receptionist who checked us in, a small, thin, bumbling old man required me to jump through a lot of hoops just to secure the room. “Fill this form…..now this one…..get your passport….now go back upstairs and get your wife’s ID”.

Meetali was upstairs, and I trundled on up and down a narrow spiral staircase to first get my passport from the room, and then her ID. After a while, I’d had enough. I went upstairs and lost my temper.

“FUCK THIS GUY!”, I screamed, throwing my passport against the wall unnecessarily.

Why is he sending me back and forth, back and forth!? I’m drained and exhausted and he’s making me do fucking laps!”

Meetali went downstairs to deal with him; she was the calming breeze during a furious heat wave.

Shortly after returning she went back out again.

I’m going for a walk”, she said, avoiding eye contact. 

“Oh ok. Do you want me to leave the keys at reception if I go?”

Whatever”, she replied tonelessly.

I knew I’d screwed up. She’d had enough and couldn’t deal with my childish temper tantrum anymore. She was gone for hours, still after dark, as I wallowed in miserable regret on the balcony of our hotel room overlooking the hills.

After she came back we had a talk, and I apologised for my immature behaviour. I expected something like this to happen, as backpacking tends to bring to the surface the very extremes of our emotions. When you backpack with another person, and see them all day, every day, without break, you eventually get to see the real them. There’s no escape when you travel with another individual. It’s not like meeting an acquaintance for coffee for 2 hours on a Saturday afternoon where you can pretend all is fine, even if deep down you’re dying inside and want to flood the coffee shop with tears.

When you travel with someone you see them at their best, at their worst, and in their extreme states of tiredness, sickness, happiness and misery. It’s for this reason I think every couple that’s thinking of getting married should backpack together. If you really question whether the person you’re with is one you can spend the rest of your life committed to, take them backpacking to India and experience them at their extremes. You’ll discover more in a few weeks than you would otherwise in a few years.

 

 

 

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Stepping Outside Of My Comfort Zone

Travelling often involves placing yourself in situations that make you feel uncomfortable, and there is nothing that would make me feel more uneasy than travelling with another person. I’m a solo traveler, and I enjoy the freedom and flexibility that comes with that. So recently that all changed, and in the last 10 days I’ve been travelling accompanied.

Just before I left Hampi, Meetali (the girl I met in Mumbai) decided to pack up her bags and travel with me. I had reservations at first, as I can’t imagine a more tortuous living hell then travelling with another person. I couldn’t say no, however. She’d been so great in Mumbai and we did get along very well, so I hesitantly agreed. If travelling is about stepping outside of your comfort zone, then this was me going as far out as I’d ever gone.

We spent a lot of our afternoon in Hampi napping, as the heat made the smallest of tasks lead to a drainage of our energy reserves. We were drinking 5-6 litres of water a day, and it still didn’t feel like enough. Each time we’d down a litre, the water would leak right out. My body felt like a sieve.

Hampi itself was beautiful, and I made it my home for a few days as I waited for Meetali to come down from Mumbai. I sat there reading in a café, obscuring myself from the furious heat of the day, when a pair of hippie looking British guys walked in and began a conversation.IMG_5683

“Have you tried the food here mate?” 

“Yeah it’s alright, you should check it out”

“Yeah cause we’ve been travelling India for 5 months, so….”

I paused and waited for what his point was. There was none.

Backpackers like to present themselves as anti-materialistic, spiritual, anti-establishment human beings. Yet instead of comparing material goods like our parents generation (“My car is better than your car”), they instead get into the emulous contesting game of “I’ve been to more places than you”.

“I worked with impoverished orphans in Cambodia” 

“I stayed at a local guys house in Peru”

“I trekked the jungles of Uganda…without a guide! You get to know the locals better, you see.” 

I’ve seen this happen countless times in hostels; a group of dreadlocked, bead-headed bohemians that claim to hate the ‘Keep up with the Jones’s’ mentality of the baby boomers, yet still try to out-do each other and compete on how many exotic experiences they’ve had.

I slapped my book shut and left the café.

In the evening the weather became more pleasant. Meetali and I walked down by the river and sat there, enjoying a comfortable silence and taking in the sounds of the nature around us. Birds calling, rivers flowing and the wind whispering. It was a meditative experience and we must have sat there for 15 minutes without saying a word, just focusing on our surroundings and the beauty we found ourselves in. It was a rare occasion in life where the present moment takes up 100% of your attentive focus, and every anxious worry, every past regret and every future concern just seemed to melt away in those precious moments.

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We decided to take a night bus to Bangalore to meet the mother of one of Meetali’s friends and stay with her. Given my previous experience on the sleeper bus, and the frustration it led to when it broke down, I was sceptical of getting back on the thing. It’ll be fine though, what are the chances of my bus breaking down twice in a few days?

You guessed correctly, and as we approached midnight and we were just drifting off to sleep in our berths, a leathery-faced conductor shone the light in our faces and said we were to vacate the bus as it had simply died on us.

He reassured us by wiggling his head and saying another bus would come in 10 minutes, but it was hopeless. We were all stood outside on the dark road like evacuees hailing down rickshaws to take us to the next town.

Meetali wasn’t having any of it. She marched her tiny figure over to these men twice her height and began yelling at them in Hindi. The height difference was so wide, and her neck was reaching back so far, she looked like she was arguing with the sky. Small girl, strong character.

As we reached Bangalore, we both felt sweaty, unwashed and icky. It’d only been an overnight journey, but Indian trains and buses trick you into thinking you haven’t washed for days. We hopped into a rickshaw to drive to Sangita’s house, the mother of Meetali’s friend, who had kindly agreed to host us.

We spent the morning talking to Sangita who made us a delicious chai and breakfast on arrival. She was a fantastic host, and made sure we were comfortable at all times. Sangita was a well spoken, well travelled, jolly old Indian lady with a talent for hospitality. We sat around with her daughter, Sapna, discussing Western views on Indian life, which they believed to be heavily distorted.

They all agreed Slumdog Millionaire didn’t help the country’s reputation for its depiction of India’s poor. Most of Western media would portray India as an impoverished wasteland. Many parts are, but there are also people in America suffering from abject poverty. Take a walk down Skid Row in LA or some areas in East London and you’ll discover many people who have fallen off the rails and been forgotten by society.

Meetali works in film production in Bollywood, and said that when she worked with Michael Richards (Kramer from Seinfeld), he always insisted on filming the impoverished parts of the city. They didn’t film inside the opulent middle class neighbourhoods, the mansions, the swanky cocktail bars. No, they wanted the slums, the impoverished humanity, the filthy streets.

Meetali and Sangita were laughing at my line I said to Meetali in Mumbai.

“And then he said ‘Where are all the cows?’ ha-ha-ha”.

This was in reference to when I asked Meetali about the lack of cows in Mumbai, which was what I expected when I first arrived. Cows congesting the streets and shitting on the roads.

“Ha-ha, and what else did you expect? Snake charmers?’, Sangita replied sarcastically.

I felt like such an ignorant traveller, proven wrong once again by first hand experience of the world.

In the evening we all went out for dinner, but rather than a traditional Indian restaurant, we went to a more continental place and ate burgers and pizzas as they played the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys. I didn’t even bother pretending that I wasn’t enjoying the music.

On the way back, Sapna offered me a ride home on her beast of a motorcycle. It sounded like a roaring lion every time she revved it. I was pumped full of adrenaline, sitting on the back of this thing, holding on tight, as Sapna navigated and criss-crossed the chaotic streets of Bangalore.IMG_5768

We shortly moved onto Kerala, which is a place I’ve most looked forward to on this trip across India. The state is famous for it’s scenery, pristine beaches and intricate backwaters. It’ll require an entire blog post to discuss this incredible state, which I’ll update next week.

We rode around a lot of the day on a two-wheeler, which made me so happy. I felt so free and wild riding around on this thing. We eventually decided to have massages for 1000 rupees each, and what a mistake that was. Just the day before I’d had an uncomfortable experience with a group of young Indian teens wishing to take my picture.

On arrival in Kerala, one of my first experiences was to have a group of young boys approach Meetali and I, and ask for a picture with me. It’s rare to see a lanky, flame-haired giant in these parts, so I agreed. As Meetali took my photograph with them, one of the lads hands slowly moved from my back, to the area boys aren’t allowed to touch. It was held there for 4 long seconds, and a second longer and I would have run a thousand miles.

So I thought a girl/woman would be massaging me at this place in Fort Cochin, and then I find out a bulging Indian man would be fondling my body for the next hour. As I came in, I pulled my shirt slightly and gave him some rather uncomfortable eye contact.

“Off?”, I said.

“Yes yes, take If off” he replied.

I then started slowly taking my trousers off and he nodded his head some more without blinking.

I then went to lie down with my underwear on, until he stopped me by saying:

“Take those off too”

I pointed at my boxers incredulously and he said “Yes yes, off” with a gleaming smile. I took my clothes off slowly as his eyes navigated every inch of my body.

He then got some toilet paper on a string, and wrapped it around my genitals. His hand gently brushed the lower end of my man sack, and I flinched whilst gritting my teeth. I was terrified.

As I lay down on my back with my face up and my eyes clenched together, I found it incredibly hard to relax. When one thinks of massages, one thinks of ultimate relaxation and soothing sensations. I felt stiff, awkward, and violated. All I could think about was “Please don’t touch my dick…..please don’t touch my dick…..please don’t touch my dick”. His bear like hands aggressively clawed their way from my ankle right up to the upper thigh, inches away from the ‘No Guys Allowed’ Zone.

He kept getting closer each time, and I was preparing myself to escape. But then my mind started to panic about what could happen next. What if the door is locked? What if he wrestles me to the ground? What if I never see my family again? SOMEONE HELP!

After the longest hour of my life, he told me to get up and rinse myself in the shower. I stood there washing myself like a dirty whore who’s just been violated by a seedy old man. I almost had the urge to sit down in the corner, crying and shaking. I couldn’t tell if the liquid streaming down my face was water or fresh tears of anguish.

As I left, Meetali was there sitting on our two-wheeler we rented for the day, waiting to drive off so we could go have dinner.

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So how was it?, she asked.

“Let’s never speak of this again”.

She burst out laughing.

HAHAHA! I KNEW you’d hate it! Oh my god I just knew you’d feel uncomfortable with this. I’m so sorry, all I could think about was you in there and it was stressing me out!”

We laughed about it over dinner, and even she agreed her masseuse was useless. “She had no clue about the human body”.

‘Who does’, I thought.

Now that I’ve rubbed my genitals against the commuters of Mumbai, had my behind molestered by a few boys wanting to take my photograph and a large Keralan man slap my arse cheeks like his own personal bongo drums, I should start to do my best to avoid giving Indian men signals that my body is desperate to be fondled.

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The Train from Mumbai to Goa, and Why I Left Goa So Quickly.

I left Mumbai before I even got started. I figured since I’m flying out of there it’s wise to leave as soon as possible, then come back a few days before my flight to see the sites.

I was also looking forward to getting out of this loud city and seeing some more of the peaceful countryside. Mumbai was incredibly noisy, and reaffirmed the view that the poorer the country, the louder the traffic. The linguistics of honking are different wherever you go in the world. In developed countries, it simply means “Fuck you, and your stupid driving”. In India it casually means, “I’m here. Watch out for me”.

Today would be my introduction to the Indian railway system, built by the British during Imperial rule (You’re welcome, India). I arrived, ticket in hand, snacks for the journey, and made my way to the carriage.

And here we have the first problem? Which carriage? This train was huuggee! There must have been over two-dozen carriages, as far up the platform as the eye could see. I paced up and down with my backpack, scratching my head, looking like a typical clueless tourist. I decided to ask people.

“Excuse me, where does my ticket say I should go”

“You go that way”

I stopped another person.

“Where’s my carriage”

“In that direction, yar”, he replied, pointing in the exact opposite direction as the previous guy.

It was hopeless. I had 4 minutes left until departure and was getting desperate. My shoulders were now in pain from carrying all of this luggage up and down the platform. I asked a third guy.

“Hey, I’m really desperate, this train leaves in 3 minutes and I don’t know my carriage. Where is it?”

“This way, I show you”, this kind man replied with a head wobble.

He walked me to my carriage and wished me a safe journey, with just 2 minutes to go.

Trains are often my favorite mode of transport as they are often the most interesting. Every plane journey is the same, and air passengers are often the least talkative. I guess the reason is because you can’t escape on an airplane, so the pressure to keep talking and avoid silence is more intense once you get started. On a plane you’re so close to the person talking to you, a range that’s typically pre-make out distance. On a train you can simply hop off. You can head to the dining cart, or simply walk around and explore different areas. On a plane, you can’t just jump out if you realise the person next to you is an intolerable bore.

For the most part, the train journey was pleasant. Food was served frequently, tea sellers came up and down the aisles constantly, and the views outside were aesthetically wonderful.

The only bad view I received on the journey was just as we were leaving Mumbai and I was eating my breakfast. Just as food was entering my mouth and I took everything in from outside, a half naked small child was squatting and defecating on the tracks. One of my weaknesses is that I’m very squeamish, and just talking about bodily functions can ruin my appetite completely. It’s one thing to talk about ‘loose motions’ when you’re eating; it’s another to be eating your breakfast and having to see fresh feaces dribbling from the anus of a young boy. Once again, I was back in the ‘Turd World’.

I decided to get some sleep after having such a lack of it the previous day. It was just my luck that I had a belching brute of a man in my compartment, who often burped so loud and so often I assumed it was his native tongue. I sat there staring at him, peering over my spectacles with judgmental contempt, and then scribbling down that contempt into my travel journal. I attempted to make conversation occasionally, in the hope that talking actual words would prevent him from making those grotesque noises. Alas, he continued. He continued burping, and sneezing and belching and snorting. He then let out one giant belch that deafened my ears and caused a vibration in the carriage. I got up abruptly and left my bed.

One thing I love about trains in the less developed world is the leniency applied to dangerous activities like hanging out of the carriage. I loved spending time on this journey, as the train was going full speed through the countryside, just hanging out of the door and holding on for my dear life. The wind in my hair, the playful cheekiness of it all, knowing that I’d receive a huge fine for doing this back in the UK.

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I arrived in beautiful Goa just as the sun was setting, which may sound romantic and ideal, but to a traveller it’s a terrifying prospect. I had nowhere to stay, I didn’t know where I was, and one rule I’d set myself on this tour was: ‘No staying out after dark!’ I hopped into a cab and asked to be taken to Vagator, where I knew they’d be plenty of hotels and guesthouses.

The region itself was beautiful, but I had no interest in staying long. I had planned to meet someone in Pondicherry in 2 weeks, so I had a deadline to reach. I also wanted to see more of Kerala, which I heard was astonishingly beautiful.

Goa itself has a reputation as a hippie destination in India, and I had no interest in travelling with these people. The last thing I wanted when I came to India was to hang out with a pair of white dreadlocked Surrey folk wearing colourful garments and outdoing each other on how many locals they had interacted with.

I was only in Goa for a day, not only so I could reach Kerala sooner, but to also avoid the guitar strumming, pot smoking, campfire surrounding, kumbaya singing hippies that are prevalent in the region. You typically find these people dressed head to toe in traditional Indian threads, whilst they ironically surround themselves with locals wearing Nike and Manchester United football shirts.

I had a Dutch friend I met in Africa and travelled with for a while recommend I go to Hampi, a destination he emphatically suggested I go to.

“Don’t even look at pictures before you go. It’ll be a richer experience”, he told me many months ago.

So after my first night in Goa I booked a sleeper bus to Hampi that would take me there by morning. Ironically, there wasn’t much sleeping at all. Firstly, our driver was obviously in a rush to get somewhere, as he appeared to be risking the lives of dozens in order to get there on time. The only time Indians will be in a rush is when they’re behind the wheel, and this guy was no exception. Missing motorcycles by inches. Breaking suddenly. Overtaking when there was clearly no space. I wanted to ask him if he was ok. If everything was all right at home. Whether he had considered therapy.

As if the Gods were testing my patience, the bus broke down just after 2am. I was sleeping at the time, but because the bus was stationary, and the windows were open, we were ambushed by a hive of mosquitoes that were ready to feast. I panicked. Abruptly leaving the bus and running outside slapping myself made for great entertainment for everyone on board. I quickly doused myself in insect repellent and waited for them to fix this bus.

It’s now 4am, and we’ve been stuck for 2 hours. My patience is draining, and I’m powerless. Another bus is coming down the road, and there looks to be some space. The driver tells me it’s also going to Hampi and that he’ll put me on there, as well as a few others in the bus. I was saved, and back to happiness once again.

My god that happiness was short lasting. I was ushered to the back of the bus and tried to rest my head and finally get some sleep. Just as I feel my body shutting down, I’m hurtled through the air as the bus goes over one speed bump after another. I’m in pain. My guts are being tortured and my heart and my liver may have swapped positions in the chaos of it all. This went on for hours. Speed bump after speed bump, and the best I could do was hold and anticipate each one as the first wheels went over the bumps. There were so many, on this main road, it was like someone had put them there as a sick joke.

I arrived in Hampi furious, drained and desperate for some shuteye. However, like most of my experiences travelling, the fury was balanced out by the splendour of the town. Hundreds of architectural ruins, temples, and boulders all did their best in improving my mood. I felt taken back by their majesty, and very abruptly forgot about the misery of the previous night.

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That’s what travelling does to you quite often. One minute you can be angrier than you’ve ever been, seething with veins popping from your head as you try your best to stay awake despite no sleep. Then you arrive in a town as magnificent as Hampi and the anger just melts away. Travelling brings to the surface the extremes of our emotions, that which we typically wouldn’t expose ourselves to in the everyday humdrum of life. It’s this reason why I think backpacking can be such a rich and wonderful experience; not just for what you see on the outside of this incredible world, but also what you observe when you peer in to the depths of your own character.

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One Day in Mumbai and First Class Indian Transport.

Long haul flights are usually associated with jet lag, tiredness and muscle ache. The flight from London was without a doubt the best flight I’ve had in years. Not only because I’m used to Ryanair, a budget airline in the UK that provides short haul flights across Europe. Little leg room is provided, and the clientele usually consists of a group of working class Brits pounding down Carlsbergs on the way to a stag do.

The Emirates flight provided a whole row to myself, with 2 empty seats next to mine. Coming off a flight without aching muscles is a luxury for someone with legs the size of stilts.

My fellow passengers consisted of two British girls in front of me on their way to Dubai, our first stop on the way to India. One of the girls was scrolling down her Facebook ‘likes’ shortly before take-off, for a picture she had taken before with her friend, both of them raising wine glasses to the camera with the caption “Obligatory airport selfie”. I wanted to ask her what the hell was ‘obligatory’ about such a photograph.

A few rows behind were a group of British guys, who were also heading to India. The air hostess asked them where they were going and how long for.

“We’re going for 3 weeks and traveling north from Mumbai to Delhi”

“Wow, that’ll be a nice holiday”

His face curled up as she said the last word.

“Har-har. It’s not really a holiday, I wouldn’t call it that. We’re travelling”.

If you wish to insult a backpacker, the easiest way is to mention their trip with the words ‘Ho-li-day’. Backpackers always like to believe they’re going on some grand adventure. A journey. A quest! Using such a lazy phrase typically associated with plump middle class folks of the Western world baking themselves on a beach resort isn’t going to go down well.

Before I left London I had drinks with a friend who tried to wind me up.

“I’m going to tell people you’re on holiday in India, not that you’re travelling”

“Doesn’t bother me”, I replied.

“Really? I thought you hated that word?”

I told him I didn’t, but deep down I was seething. How dare he insult my courageous ‘Great Indian Voyage’ with such a patronising tongue.

Before departing for Mumbai, I’d got in contact with a girl from Couchsurfing, Meetali, who agreed to host me for the night and show me around the city. I was terrified of meeting her. I was completely exhausted and was worried I’d come across as cranky and rude. I didn’t want to speak to a single human being after getting off that flight, which only allowed me 1.5 hours sleep because of the change in Dubai.

She’d also read my blog online and said she enjoyed my writing and couldn’t wait to meet, which also concerned me. The last thing a writer wants is to have someone meet them for the first time with high expectations. Meeting someone whose writing you’ve read is always going to be a disappointment, as a writer typically expresses themselves best through the written word rather than the vocal one. And seeing as my vocals were not working as well due to my lack of sleep, I was worried she’d be utterly disappointed by my entire character.

When I came out of Arrivals alone I was expecting an onslaught of hassle. I expected to be thrown to the lions den and shoved around like a piece of meat as people fought for my business. I came out of the airport, expecting the pack of wolves to pounce, yet I was met by a group of indifferent, bland Indian faces that didn’t seem to care one bit about my presence. I felt totally unwanted.

I met Meetali, and we decided to take a rickshaw to her place. She could see the terrified look on my face as our driver dodged in an out of traffic, often within inches of a crash.

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“Driving in Mumbai is a traumatic experience” she said to me.

Despite feeling close to losing my life for the umpteenth time, the drive gave me such a boost of adrenaline that I was fully awoken by the time we reached her place.

“Do you want to rest or freshen up a little?”

“No. Let’s go straight out and see Mumbai!”

“Aren’t you tired?”

“I should be, but I’m not. I think I’ll manage”

The first place we went was Leopolds, the café made famous by Gregory David Robert’s book, Shantaram, which I happened to be reading at the time. From there we went to try something called ‘paan’, a collection of sweet ingredients in a betal leaf that happened to taste like soap and shampoo. My mouth felt extremely clean after digesting it.

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Everywhere we went in Mumbai had a different smell. We’d be driving around the city on an auto rickshaw, and every few minutes we’d be hit by a new fetid stench. Rotten fish, rancid meat, body odour and death. It seemed every street we turned had a different smell that characterised it.

Shortly after we went to the Taj Mahal Hotel and the famous imperial monument, The Gateway to India. Whilst in the Taj we just sat in the lobby, chillin and enjoying the air conditioning. Meetali made me laugh with a conversation that started as:

“I think all of these people think I’m a hooker”

“Ha! Why?”

“You’re the foreigner sitting here on a sofa with a young looking Indian girl in a plush hotel. I can tell from the way they’re looking at us”

Either I looked like the type of person that regularly used hookers, or she looked like a typical Mumbai prostitute. I can see where she was coming from though; in a lot of countries it’s not rare for a young, attractive girl to sell her body when there are no other options to make an income. It can be a rational choice in an economy mired in stagnation. I remember a bar in Uganda that was swarming with exotic looking women, each coming up to my table every 5 minutes asking if I wanted ‘Suckey suckey, or fuckey fuckey’.

Shortly before we visited the Gateway to India, I was complaining to Meetali about the lack of attention I was receiving from the locals.

“Where are the stares? The harassment? The nuisances and chants that have usually accompanied me in third world countries? What does a man have to do to get noticed?”

I was surprised, given the warnings people had told me about India. You’ll get stared at, questioned and photographed. Soon after we had this discussion, a pair of men approached us and asked to take a picture with me, as well as one with me and their kids. And right after that, another family asked for the same with their children. I was enjoying my 4 brief minutes of attention. This is the India I was expecting.

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Meetali was incredibly generous and a fantastic host. She exhausted herself during the day and went out of her way to make sure I was satisfied. Many times she offered to pay for things, and I often had to force money into her bag to pay her back. She helped sort out my train to Goa, which would have been a huge stress had she not been there. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to greet me after my long flight and spend time with on my first day in India.

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We went back to her place in the evening and decided to take a train instead of the rickshaw and taxi’s we did on the way to town. She told me we should travel in first class, but I suggested we ‘go local’ and see how cheap second class is.

“Are you crazy! You do not want to go second class, it’s horrible”

I shrugged and gave her a smug expression. I’d been in Africa for 8 months, honey, and I thought my tolerance for filth and chaos had gone up since. I’d travelled on some of the most revolting, decrepit forms of public transport. I’m sure I can go second-class in prosperous Mumbai. How bad can it be?

After much protest, she convinced me to go first class, and it wasn’t at all what I expected. People crammed into tight spaces in one giant orgy. Commuters were hanging out of doors, and dozens of sweaty bodies packed into a small tin carriage. Men in suits and smart attire were leaning out of the carriage and holding on for their lives. That was FIRST CLASS!

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I looked over at Meetali, her small petite figure drowning in a sea of Indian men. Because of her height, her nose came right into contact with the many open armpits of Mumbai’s commuters. She didn’t have to be there, as women have their own carriage she could have used.

“And you wanted to go second class”, she said with an ‘I-told-you-so’ look.

The train ride was tough, and we came back to Meetali’s place exhausted. Heads pounding, legs aching, skin burning. I was still on only 1.5 hours sleep and I felt like I could collapse at any moment. The day was full of adventure, and I couldn’t imagine a better introduction to this country. Given how tired I was I could hear a faint whisper in the air before I drifted off to sleep. A whisper that characterised the entire day and gave me hope that things will work out over the next 3 months. Just as I placed my head on the pillow, and my body shut down from exhaustion, I fell into a slumber as the words entered my thoughts and gave me some reassurance:

“Welcome to India” 

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On Route to Bombay

I don’t always look forward to Mondays. Still exhausted from Saturday night’s debauchery, I lethargically slip out of the warm duvet I’m so desperate not to leave. I’m comfortably cocooned in these sheets and my bed feels like a womb. The bitter after-taste of beer and whiskey still lingers in my throat and even at this point at 8am on Monday morning, I still feel slightly drunk.

Tomorrow won’t be the same. When I wake up tomorrow morning it won’t be to drag my aching body into an oppressive open-plan office to bash away on a keyboard all day. They’ll be no standard office pleasantries like ‘How was your weekend?’, where I’ll have to pretend like I haven’t been drowning myself in alcohol and poisoning my insides every night. “What did I do this weekend? Ah you know, just saw friends, went out, nothing much.”

I returned from Africa 14 months ago, where I travelled from Cape Town to Cairo overland in 8 months. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about this trip. I can’t imagine a more profound and life changing experience than what occurred during that time. Not only does it make you appreciate other forms of living, but it helps to put everything into a broader perspective. You see people with nothing who appear more mentally balanced than people who have it all. You witness any prejudices you have completely vanish as you start to rely more on personal experience to dictate your judgements.

Coming back from such an adventure is a strange feeling. Every day I would experience a level of sheer intensity that would render the very act of sitting still an arduous challenge. When you’re immersing yourself in such a different culture to your own, and travelling hundreds of miles across varying landscapes and breathtaking scenery, being settled in one place again can feel like incarceration. Life was becoming too predictable. My routine was enslaving me into a lifestyle that in hindsight appears ludicrous. The hankering to travel and explore new boundaries wouldn’t subside, and my eagerness to escape the farcical tyranny of office life grew ever stronger.

Returning from a trip can be just as exhausting as the journey itself. Everybody wants to meet you. People want to hear your stories. You’re the talk of the town. For 2 weeks, You. Are. Hollywood! I’d have people I hadn’t spoken to in years all of a sudden reconnect as they wanted to hear more about the trip. This blog helped quite a lot as I never felt the need to repeat many of the stories I detailed on the last tour. Many friends stayed fully informed through my writing.

Since returning I’ve been working for an investment bank in London on a short-term contract, and at least now I know it’s not what I should be doing for the next few decades. The most rewarding jobs are the ones where you can make a difference in peoples lives. Where at the end of the day, you feel you’ve helped somebody or enhanced their happiness. Banking and many corporate jobs just don’t provide that level of humanity, and it’s that which I think leads people to question the meaning of their line of work; “What is the point to all this?”

Whilst in banking I’d earn enough money each month to drink myself into a comatose, semi-conscious state to help me forget about how I earned the money in the first place. It just wasn’t a sustainable way of living.

It’s been almost two years since graduation, and it’s astonishing to me just how despondent and confused everybody my age is about life. Some of my close friends have been bought to tears by the existential attacks that frequent them on a regular basis. Straight out of university, you have a bunch of young adults earning high salaries who believe they are massive failures. They feel their work is meaningless, and that they’re wasting their lives.

London itself can become a toxic city if you stay there long enough. Eventually you end up becoming just like everyone else: “Too busy! 

Those virulent words, “Too busy”, sweep through the capital like a virus. People fall into the very easy and pernicious trap of thinking their work matters more than their relationships. Conversations with friends and acquaintances usually go something along the lines of:

“Wanna meet up and get lunch or a coffee?”

“I can’t now. I’m just soooooo busy”

“Ok, so when?”

“Let’s meet in 3 weeks on Thursday at 12:40. But I can only spare 30 minutes. My company needs me!”

People will often complain about not having enough time, yet spend any free time they do have binge watching the latest Netflix series. It can be comical hearing people grumble they don’t have enough time, yet simultaneously hear them chatter about their previous evenings five-hour self-indulgence in Game of Thrones.

I didn’t want to fall into this trap of continuing for years at something I know won’t bring lasting fulfilment. Continuing down a path that would only produce eternal regret and a feeling of ‘What if?’.

So with my recent contract ending, and my next project starting in September, it only makes sense to go on another adventure. From September I’ll be working like a dog, but on something far more enjoyable than banking or any other corporate claptrap.

So tomorrow afternoon I venture off into a country I’ve been waiting for years to visit. A country of such extremes it can shake any man into submission and test even the most patient of Zen-like characters:

INDIA!

The seventh largest country in the world. The second most populous nation on the planet. The world’s largest democracy! India actually has more people than the entire Western Hemisphere combined. Almost 1 in 5 people on Earth is Indian. Knowing this, it makes sense to get to know this country on a deeper level.

Funnily enough, my last trip was meant to be a tour of India. After flying to South Africa, the plan was to head on out and explore India. A few chance encounters and a zest for spontaneity led me to travel 12 African countries instead. I’ve been waiting for this trip for years. 

People have asked me why I chose to travel to poor countries rather than rich ones. Why not backpack Australia, or America or more of Europe? It’s not just the fact that a day or twos travel in Australia can buy you a week of travel in India, but out of all the countries I know of, India is the one that’s changing the most rapidly.

It’s currently one of the poorest in the world, yet within a few decades will become one of the richest in the world. A country like Australia or the US will not change much in the next 10-20 years. India and many other countries in the region will be hardly recognizable within the next decade, and by the end of our lifetime be completely transformed. This is a good enough reason for me to get to see the country in its nascent stages of development.

Secondly, out of all the countries on Earth, India is by far the weirdest, most eccentric place I can think of. I’m always attracted to strange people and peculiar places, so I may have finally met my match. This is a land where a man was legally allowed to marry his dog as atonement. A land where cows in some regions are required to carry an ID card. A country containing over 700 languages! In terms of linguistic, genetic and cultural diversity, only Africa is ahead of India. And Africa is an entire continent compromising 54 countries!

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Not only does India provide cultural diversity, but also a rich cocktail of geographical magnificence. On this trip I expect to cross scorching deserts, explore lush jungles, hike the Himalayan mountain ranges, view beautiful sunsets on pristine beaches, all whilst never crossing an international border. India truly is a continent in itself. 

So what should you expect from this 3 month tour?

To be honest, I haven’t a clue what’s going to happen. I’m flying out with no plan, nothing booked and a tremendous amount of optimism. There’s always that lingering feeling of doubt and fear whenever a new trip starts. I’ll openly admit right now that I’m terrified. “What if I can’t find a hotel?”….”What if I lose my stuff?”…..”What if I can’t find a bus/train to my next destination?”.

All these questions naturally flood my mind, but they arise whether or not I want them to. What I’ve learnt from travelling, which can be applied to life in general, is that no matter how bad things get, things always seem to work out in the end.

I’ve been placed in many desperate situations, both in travel and in life, where I’ve felt scared, vulnerable and uneasy, yet I’ve realised that all feelings are transitory and eventually my situation will work out.

I’ve spent nights on the dusty roads of Botswana hitchhiking as the sun goes down, terrified that I’d be sleeping on the streets. I’ve been left stranded in remote parts of rural Kenya with no transport links to get to my next destination, and had to hitch a ride with a couple of khat chewing Somali men. I’ve been mugged and beaten half to death in Sudan and spent the night in a Khartoum hospital. Knowing how difficult travel can be, I still approach it with a sense of overwhelming optimism and hope. The majority of people are kind and approachable, and will go out of their way to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable trip.

So with that, it’s time to hit the road and begin a 3-month tour that will without a doubt be another memorable experience to talk about for years to come. I know already it’s going to be a crazy journey full of excitement, anguish, despair, exhilaration, frustration, education and awe. I can’t wait to share it with you all, so let’s hit the road. India awaits.

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