Reflections on India and Helpful Tips

When I first started blogging about my journey in India I described India to be like marmite, “you either love it or hate it”. Boy was I wrong. India is a constant whirlwind of emotions. One minute you love it, taken aback by the incredible landscapes that make you gasp out loud, other moments you are aghast by. Here, I entail all of my emotions and reflections on the past few months in one of the loudest, brightest and most colourful places in the world. Where there is no middle ground, you are just thrown in the deep end with all the sights, sounds and smells, awake and alive around you as if suffocating you in this kaleidoscope of activity. As well as this, I list helpful hints and tips that you really need to know and wish someone had told me before hand- which the lonely planet seems to glorify or skim over.

The man with the moustache

Places
India is a vast sub continent that is as big and diverse as central Europe. Each state (all 28 of them) seem to take up the characteristics of an entirely different country. You can snowboard, camel ride, surf, sunbathe, drink teas in tea plantations and eat street food in hectic cities all in one majestic country. The range of activities and variation in landscape in India is incredible and is one of the things that makes it so astonishing. Being here 2 months and seeing 10 states and 29 different places means that I have seen and covered a vast amount of India, although I feel I have barely scratched the surface. Many tourists wander into the depths of India for months; some on yoga retreats and in silent ashrams, some simply exploring the large scope of rural life that encompasses India on the back of a roaring motorbike. I, instead, have seen and explored the major tourist destinations of India, creating my own memories as I go.

Sunset over Hampi On the beach

From the banana trees and golden sands in Kerala, to the dry humid deserts in Rajasthan and to the lush mountainous greenery in Dharmshala, India is ever-changing and breathtaking. I urge you all to visit as many states as possible, allowing yourself to comprehend the ever changing landscapes and weather.

Going for a Winter Stroll

People
India is country with the second biggest population in the world and is hot on its heels to overtake China’s population in 2020, which means people are everywhere and anywhere, piling out of buses, trains, shops and houses. There is no living or breathing space in India, people and houses are piled on top of each other, behind each other, side by side as if dominoes or stacks of wood for a fire, constantly rubbing shoulders with one another. Queuing up for a ticket at a counter or a meal is not a queue which is known in western terms, but seemingly a conga, forcing yourself one way to make sure someone doesn’t push in and crying aloud when someone tries to. People are curious, interested in people they don’t see often. Because India is so vast, in many areas of India, (apart from particularly tourist areas) there is a little chance you will see other tourists (although easy to spot when you do), so people are fascinated by you, interested to learn what you think of India, wanting to know your view on Obama and telling you what certain things are to help clarify your understanding.

Blonde White Girl?

On the whole, people in India are kind and willing to help. They are kind and caring people willing to share their food with you and happy to invite you into their family and their life.
Although a seemingly positive overview, I have not taken into account the gender inequality and harassment I will discuss in the safety section. Also, be wary of the small minority (that may seem like a majority at times), that are just trying to make money out of tourists by; robbing, cheating or scamming you. Be wary of known scams in a certain area for eg. that your hostel has burnt down, a new “best friend” who wants to be your tour guide, saying your train ticket is invalid so you have to buy another one, or an opportunity to resell gems that are tourist traps and victimise tourists. Some may overcharge you, not give you the correct change or mislead you under false pretence to aid themselves, be strong and insistent in your view, ignoring when necessary and sticking to your guts when needs be.

Religion
Religion is an important and influential aspect in India’s outline, embedded into each and every Indian’s way of life. India has 5 main religions; Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism and Christianity although there are a number of sub religions that bond and unify people together either through the festivals they celebrate, their daily rituals or even the colourful marks on their forehead, forecasting what religious tribes they are a part of. You would think that religion separates people here because of the large number of religions here, but that is not the case. Religion bonds people together. Whether it be discussing certain aspects, visiting a certain holy shrine or celebrating a religious festival, the variety of religions in India cements all of the nation together in faith. You may not be a religious person when you arrive, mocking aspects of how the world started or created, in favour of science, but you definitely will feel some sort of influence or affect when you leave. You will be influenced by the spirituality that surrounds you, the value of family togetherness, the essence of goodness and the overwhelming power of love: for one another and for each other’s gods. The overwhelming desire to please certain gods and deities consumes families and their day to day thoughts and actions. Insulting someone’s religion or actions in relation to a God and the afterlife is a sin itself and if wanting to cause serious damage, is how you do so.

 

India is an incredibly spiritually place anyway with it being home to the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa’s Missionary, Sikh’s biggest and most well known temple- The Golden Temple, the birthplace of Krishna, where Buddha found enlightenment, as well as the Holy Ganges that purifies all internally and externally- it is hard not to feel the presence of such a powerful being around you as well as inside yourself. Being a little bit of a Buddhist myself, meant that seeing the effect of religion on families, people and spiritual gurus made me rethink certain aspects of my life. Its made me reaffirm what I believe in, what I want in life, and how I see myself and the world. I’ve realised I have very similar values to Buddhism and I found myself nodding enthusiastically to many of their messages. I intend to use these moral sayings into my daily thoughts and actions centring my wish washy beliefs I had before into something strong, unifying and beautiful.

praying

Culture
Like I have briefly mentioned before in my people section, in India’s culture, sharing is caring. Strangers will share food and hardships of the day, swapping jokes and thoughts on the newest cricket player and what difference he will make to the world cup. Like I said before, there is no privacy in India, and so a conversation between you and a local means a conversation between you and all of the people in the surrounding area. Even if they actually do not say anything or make any input, they are listening and their reactions are part of the conversation. This theme of sharing and lack of privacy is further highlighted through the traditions of family and their role within each society. Each member of the family has a stereotypical role within the family hierarchy and has a certain role to play. What determines their popularity in the family circle (which includes family, secondary family and extended family) is how well they follow these certain roles and how well they look after each other. Family is a tight knit community ad once included, you are part of that family forever. We had a certain situation which allowed us to fully learn and establish the value of family ties by being invited to a wedding in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. After chatting and sharing food with a kind family on the train, they quickly invited us to their wedding. What followed was us meeting every member of their family, welcomed in through music and ritual, dancing and being photographed with them as if long lost relatives. Their kindness was overwhelming and the experience allowed us a snapshot into culture in India.

cutie

This kindness which is embedded in Indian culture is also exemplified through the daily actions of Indians. They will stop what they are doing and help you- whether it be spending a whole day directing tourists in traffic in Manali, or simply trying to find your hostel for you and asking others for the location. I don’t know is not an option here, it is either yes or I will find out for you- which can be irritating at times as some people don’t give you a direct answer but simply shake their head or point absent mindly in what they think is the right direction. Nonetheless, their kindness is refreshing and through the dark and oppressive times in India you may come to at points, you draw yourself to these memories and moments like a moth to a flame.

street party

I have spoken about this inexplicable kindness to others but in this section I must cast your eyes on the situation of castes or classes. This situation is not as bad as it has been before, and a nation that has been torn apart by bloodthirsty monarchs and greedy empires, I do expect there to be some level of resentment within the country. However, it is not towards the past that the nation has shared together, but they hold some level of resentment towards each other. It seems your level of importance is characterised by your occupation, your family and your place of birth, (which can be argued is in other places around the world). These three things, although alterable, are unchangeable. Immediately people ask of your occupation to suss out who you are and what your wage is like. Labourers, bus and train station sweepers or toilet attendants are given no recognition or batted an eyelid towards. They are seen as servants and are of a different level to most of middle class India (I am not including rural villagers here), completely disregarding them as humans. When giving attention to these people, as well as those who are disabled, these people are surprised and incredibly happy. Not because I have given them money or affection, just a simple human gesture. People with these jobs in the UK could argue they are treated in the same respect, however once they have seen the inequality and treatments of the people here: they will beg to differ.

poverty in india

It is the financial inequality that is the most shocking (yes the treatment towards disabled people is horrific and would infuriate my mum to her wits end due to the lack of support they receive), although this is further down to the unequal distribution of wealth. India is one of the places where you can quickly become a millionaire, however a quarter of the population live below the poverty line, living in squalid slums with tin roofs and satellite TV’s, circling around fires made out of burning plastic. If you haven’t been to Asia before, seeing the conditions of how people live and die might come as a shock to you. To recognise that not everyone has a perfect life with a glossy future and a number of options. But this is real India, the nitty and brittleness of it. Of kids still happily playing and laughing at their elder brothers body whilst he washes himself with one tiny bucket of water, or mothers gossip whilst hanging out their laundry. For millions of people it is not something that is new, but a way of life that has been for generations. Neighbourhoods are made within slums, invoking communities and families.

You will see street children, mothers, elderly or disabled begging- whether they live in a slum or on the street, it is a sorrowful sight to see. Especially with the fact that I can go home and curl into a comfy bed knowing I am safe and sound, easily forgetting the memories of a 4 year old girl in Calcutta hugging my leg, wishing to be taken away from the life she leads. Yes it is hard to see, but it even harder for them, so keep this in mind. I never took any photos of slums and instead of money, gave sweets to children and food and water to anyone else as they might be begging for a local gangster, who controls them and their income, which is not good to encourage. Although culture in India at times may seem alien and distant, even sometimes overwhelming, embrace it- any other way will frustrate you.

Language
India is such a large nation with so many states that are seemingly smaller countries in themselves, there are a number of languages that are spoken in the land. Officially, there are 29 languages (on record), however, I am sure that there are hundreds of languages spoken in India, varying in what area, district and religion. The countless amount of people who live in the rural areas amongst paddy fields and personal chickens, I am sure there is an abundance of languages due to the influx and variety of people who live there. Most people in India speak English due to the fact that there is such a vast number of languages, although I always find the polite thing to do is to learn some of the native language. In this case, it is hindi. However in the south, hindi is not spoken as widely as in the north, rather Tamil is spoken.
Useful phrases I have found are:

Thank you- Danyavad
Your Welcome- Abkar Swagate
Hello/Goodbye- Namaste
Your Name- Abkar Nam
I want the bill- Bill Kijeye
How much- Kit na
Discount- Cum Kejeye
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, -ech, do, cha, tin, pash

Food
Food in India is a bizarre and delightful culinary journey that will leave your taste buds tantalising and wanting more. Being an avid fan of spicy food, I easily adjusted, however even if you are a sweet sort of person, India has such a wide range of cuisine- you will find a dish that can satisfy your needs. You will find yourself become accustom to the use of such an array of herbs and spices, so much so, that even in your tea (the most popular drink in India)– you have masala spices in the tea which enrich the flavour of the tea leaves, the creamy texture of milk and the sweetness of sugar, creating a combination that is overpowering, but will never make you look at English breakfast tea again in the same way.

Masala Chai with a view

Food in India has such a diversity, in each area of India and each state, it is hard to keep count of the number of dishes you will enjoy. From coconut based dishes in Kerala; to fresh seafood in Goa, kati rolls in Calcutta, clay pot tandoori dishes in Punjab, resourceful thick curries in Rajasthan and Tibetan food in Dharamshala, India is every food lovers dream. Some dishes are characteristically more well known in various areas of India, so be wary of this if you become attached to a certain dish (I am attached to my beloved Uttapam). I have eaten at a number of places, expensive middle class restaurants, bus stands, street food, on trains, and backpacker cafes, mainly eating meat in most places I went. I did not take note of the guidebooks that shared horror stories of Delhi belly and travel bugs, I instead took caution to the wind and threw myself into the burning sizzling saucepan. Some guidebooks recommend waiting a few days allowing your stomach to adjust to the cuisine in India- which I think is definitely a good idea to do so. I feel when ordering meat, it is about instinct. 9 times out of 10, expensive restaurants have nicer and much more sanitary kitchens then other places, although you can get ill from pretty much anywhere, (I got ill from Pizza Hut- an international chain in Agra). Just be sensible and only order seafood by the coast, stick to what and where locals eat and if you feel unsure about a place- don’t eat there.

 

I have predominately focused on what it is like being a meat eater in India, however, for many Indians, meat is not an option. You will find many places signposted, “Vegetarian food only”, to highlight to vegetarians no cross contamination will be here, so if you want to be safe, eat at these places. In a number of places, especially Rajasthan, meat is scarce, so adopting a flexitarian attitude is beneficial. You will not be restricted in choice or options if you decide to eat as a vegetarian, as there is an abundance of dishes, (much more than non veg) to please your stomach. Favourites of mine are: Malai Kofta- the sweetness of a korma combined with dumplings, Jalfrezi- a popular at home and Dal Mahkani- vegetables in a creamy rich tomato sauce. All dishes are accompanied with rice; roti or chapati, (a flatbread both similar), doughy naan, or loose paratha (my favourite). As well as a side for a spicy dish, Raita is ordered, a creamy mid yogurt dish filled with salad and onions. For a budget option, choose a Thali- which combines 3 small dishes with papad, (poppadom), either chapati, roti or naan and rice. Don’t feel you will get bored of vegetables, an array of all sorts are used as well as paneer, a cottage cheese, is heavily used.

dal

These dishes can be easily washed down with a chai, a kingfisher or a lime water (sweet or salt depending on your preference). Breakfast is quite a strange ordeal in India and varies dependent on the region you are in. In the south, dosas are common, which are a crisp like pancake texture or uttapams,a faijta like texture, or idli with a sauce of sambar, which is a white circular spongey texture, whilst Kulcha is popular in the North, a omelette without the egg served with chickpeas. As you may have noticed, carbohydrates are in every dish with a topping of vegetables and a splash of spicy sauce. I urge you to not hold back when eating food in India, as some tourists stick to chains such as Burger King or dishes like vegetable Biryani. Go out and explore! Let your tongue do the tasting!

Transport
I have taken every form of transport in India. Trains: in all classes, chair, AC chair, sleeper, 3rd class, 2nd class and 1st class, metro, buses: private and public, planes: both domestic and international, motorbike, jeep sharer, auto tuk tuk/rickshaw, human powered rickshaw, taxis- short or long distance, boat; engine and human powered, bicycle and even camels- if you count that.

nap time

Transport is a vast network of interlinking channels allowing members of the public to get from one area of the country to another. I have spent hours that calculate to weeks on trains whilst I am here, but it is one of the only ways to get around on a budget. Some tourists decide to take chaffered cars or multiple domestic flights, which although comfortable, do not allow you to see the real views of India and share beautiful moments with locals. Trains in India are incredible. They dart long distances around the country, some passengers are on trains for 42 hours or so. I advise booking trains in advance, as most of the public take trains on a daily basis. Using the app clear trip- which can be downloaded onto a smart phone, is a vital necessity. Otherwise, booking through tour offices is another option, although a hefty commission of 100 rupees will be added on each time. If trains are booked up, do not fear and follow the example of nervous passengers by prebooking all your trains (allowing no flexibility in your journey and experiences), instead use taktal or go through the tourist quota, or if necessary, get any ticket that is available and upgrade on the train.

 

Each class varies in pricing, ranging in comfort and luxuries. For a backpacker and for long distance, 3A is a great choice. However, if there is a large group of you, then sleeper is a much cheaper option. I found travelling as a woman, sleeper is acceptable in the day, although long distance over night trains, splashing out that little extra bit for comfort and security in 3A is worth it. The trains in India will surprise and baffle you. Each section of the train is well thought out including coat hooks, fans, bed bunks and water bottle holders. The people are a massive highlight of the various journeys I have made, sharing religions, names, advice, food and giggles with each other. I have tried to solve rubix cubes and cats cradles with locals on trains and received useful recommendations and wedding invites on trains. Unlike England, train passengers introduce themselves to each other immediately or join in conversations, whether observing or just nodding when appropriate. As well as the passenger, the constant influx of sellers and hawkers is an enthralling experience in itself and should be enjoyed by all visitors whom go to India. Food sellers that create dishes in front of your eyes out various hidden bags, chai boys that shout in a sing song voice, and people that sell all kinds of goods. Beggars, musicians, transvestites and entertainers ask for attention and money. The train seems to be a small capsule of India and is much easier to digest for many travellers.

Ladies Waiting Hall

The metro is a great way to zip around big cities like Delhi and Mumbai. The characteristic pictures of passengers overflowing on trains are normally of those from the metro so hang tight to yourself and your valuables. There are ladies only sections for your own safety- although they get as equally packed, one woman when leaving the corner gave me her seat and it seemed to be the biggest gift anyone could give me at the time! The metro is much more efficient in Delhi, connecting all areas of Dehli rather than the suburbs of Mumbai, so keep this in mind when travelling around these two big cities.

Government buses can be caught from any bus stand and are normally a long and uncomfortable journey. Private buses are similarly the same distance but pricier, (although are still generally public as they stop for anyone meaning technically you have paid for their fare), as well as stopping at food places in the middle of nowhere. Some private buses are sleeper, which have little booths with beds in, pick this option if travelling overnight and with all sleeper options pick above positions to avoid sharing with strangers and midnight groping.

For the upper middle class and upper class, planes are the only option to get around India and with such a large number of airports in India, it is a quick but expensive option to do so. Scooters and motorbikes are the most common form of transport for Indian families as they are quick and efficient. I have seen numbers of people and various forms of belongings or produce on these bikes dodging every type of animal on the road; warthog, pig, camel, goat, dog, elephant, cat and cow- so it can be quite dangerous, especially that 13 people die from a road accident every hour in India (although the roads don’t seem as dangerous as Vietnam!)

Jeep shares are a cheaper form of a taxi and are very entertaining. They are jeeps (funnily enough) with a fixed destination that is then filled to the brim with passengers, almost overflowing at times, for a cheap price. 17 passengers is the maximum amount of people I have been squished next to in one of these, although more has definitely been fitted in before. It gives you a giggle, how much you are tightly packed- although it can be quite painful at times.

An auto tuk tuk, or more commonly known as a rickshaw, is a tuk tuk similar to those in Asia. These vehicles can easily zip in and out of traffic and although a small engine, are a more consistent and a cheaper way to get around (although fairly open so be ready to face all the elements). It is virtually impossible to find a tuk tuk who will put the meter on for a tourists, rather wanting to charge a ridiculous price, so get your bartering hat on, but do with a smile and remember- walking away most of the time means they’ll give in and take you. There are human powered rickshaws that are led by bicycles. Only in Varanasi, were these a more popular option than auto powered rickshaws, because of the size and age of the drivers, which is normally pretty shocking. Be a little more generous with these drivers, they deserve it.

Taxis are also an obvious choice to get around and they vary in style, some as a classic white Honda, others in cities like Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai with black and yellow vintage Italian stallions. Once going into one, try to ask for a meter and if not, state your price before, during and after. With both auto rickshaw and taxis always head to pre paid- where normally an official or member of the police gives you a ticket with the correct amount in it. Pay the official and don’t give the ticket to the driver until you are at your destination and have checked you at the destination. Luggage charge is 10 rupees per item, and waiting charge is 30 rupees for an hour, and there is a night charge from 11 to 5am which is an extra 25 percent. Many drivers will try charge you more and quote these terms, so be prepared to repeat this information and stand your ground. When deciding to take a taxi long distance, it is better to organise through the agency first hand. There are a number of companies that are safe and track their transportation as they go- this is a must do when travelling in Delhi by taxi.

Taxis in Mumbai

The only time I travelled by boat is in major tourist areas: Varanasi, Mumbai and Alleppey, two engine, one human powered. These are necessary modes of transport to see the beautiful areas of scenery and landscape, thus I have no helpful information on boats as a mode of transport to and from major destinations.

Mumbai Boats

Bicycles can be easily hired out in small tourist locations and are a fantastic way to see the ins and outs of a city, although not the areas surrounding it. Places which are highlights to see on a bicycle are Hampi, Khujaraho and Fort Cochin.

Finally, I also travelled by camel in Jaisalmer, slow and steady but a must when visiting and all part of the experience. Other animals you can ride are elephants, yaks and horses.

Smelly Breath

Shopping
Clothes around the world, in stalls and shops in Europe and on an international scale, are made in India- so you will find clothes in India on the cheap. The variety of choice: backpacker style clothes (loose baggy trousers and colourful T-shirts), saris, kaftans and silk blouses are a plenty- as well as the fashionable expensive shops. Embroidery is popular and is carefully adorned on clothes, curtains and even cushion covers. Furniture and jewellery are also significantly cheaper here. Some of the furniture are beautiful architectural pieces that are so magnificent you will easily splurge on for the international delivery back home.

Pashminas and scarves are a popular option for tourists, just always remember to check the quality of the products before you buy anything, as a lot of fabrics are mass produced. In all places in India, there will either be a bazaar or an eager man wanting to take you to his friends shop- although be careful of this as you will end up paying 40% of his commission on top of the original price, even if it is a stranger who sees you entering a shop and decides to make a beeline before you to make a quick buck! Remember that shop keepers see their shops as their lifeline and their income, taking out products to show you as their duty, so always barter with a smile, any other way shop sellers may find your attitude offensive to their products.

Helpful hint: Some shopkeepers see certain nationalities as wealthier than others, British, American, Canadian and Australian especially, so I chose to adopt a Slovenian nationality (they know of eastern europeans to be tough bargainers) and hilarious fake accent, to get a certified discount, which worked for me so feel free to do so!

Safety
India is always in the news. Whether it be for human rights, health care, sex trafficking, child labour, corruption, gender inequality or rape- we hear very little positive news about India. When any friends, family or even strangers hear of your wish to go to India, their immediate reactions are of fear for your safety. As a young white blonde haired women, my safety throughout India has been the first and foremost important thing throughout. Attracting a lot of attention because of my alien looks, means that I have had to deal with unwanted attention on a daily basis. Because of the repressed males and uneducated behaviour around women, society is off balance. Men feel at times, that they have the “right” to treat woman as a commodity, touching them inappropriately.

Being assaulted 4 times, followed home 3 times and being propositioned more than once, I feel like a target to the lewd stares and comments continuously. Someone with a weaker stature would have left earlier, but that doesn’t help the situation. Unfortunately, all Indian men think western women are whores, (that’s the honest truth), so thanking compliments and ignoring assaults is the worst thing you could do. Men here have very little respect and restraint if you say you are married (and wear a ring), if he is not present with you, then it is not real. Therefore, sticking up for yourself is the best option. Being fierce, feisty and a feminist (the triple 3), meant I had no problem slapping men, telling men they can’t sit next to me, or even to tell men who decide to sit underneath my berth in an entirely empty carriage to move.

But future travellers, try not to flirt for discounts, or adopt in any other similar attitudes, this will give them the wrong impression towards foreign women, and will hinder our safety on the whole, a lot more. If possible, try travel India with a man, or a large group of women. Never walk alone at night, down alleyways in the day, don’t talk to strange men, as answering questions is seen as a turn on, travel in ladies carriages, certified taxis and upper berths. A lot of this advice is obvious, however at times you may just think someone is a lot more honest then they seem. Whilst giving this advice it is hard not for yourself to turn into a negative cynic, just be cautious with your friendliness.

Although I have spoken about the safety of women, foreign men get propositioned as well, so the same guidelines go to you. And remember, his idea of a “friend” may be very different to yours. As well as this, drugging and robbing is quite common. I have heard many stories of strangers spiking foreigners on the train, so when taking food off strangers, make sure you have sussed them out as people, or politely decline to avoid the situation altogether. Always have your valuables locked away (either hidden on yourself or in a locker with your own lock in the hostel), padlocks on backpacks and rucksacks, wallets in front pockets and phones out of pockets. When sleeping on transport, sleep with your bag tightly wrapped around you, you never know who might be watching you.

At times, I feel this continuous physical and mental awareness for my own safety was exhausting and had put a downer on my trip. Belongings are replaceable but the continuous misogynist and sexist behaviour you have to face daily is disheartening – in this situation, think of the positive moments you have had in India to lift your mood.

Entertainment
Indians adore the cinema. For many it offers escapism, the ability to delve into a glamorous life filled with beautiful women, beautiful lives and beautiful men. The Bollywood Cinema is a multi million dollar industry and is a vital entertainment for many. A must do is to visit the cinema and see a Bollywood film in Hindi, the musical songs, the over dramatic characterisation and acting skills, as well as the audience’s ever-changing and loud reaction is hilarious and will keep yourself entertained.

Indians adore music, (playing in the street for wedding processions, on their phone or in transport vehicles) and Indian music is very unique. Mixtures of Hindi and English conjoined with obscure beats, make this style and when listening to it, many burst into song or dance. There are opportunities to see traditional dance of Kathakali, a short version of the original, which immerses history and culture into dance.

musician for wedding marches

Festivals are in abundance in India. Every day there is a various celebration for something. Conjoining your trip with a festival would be ideal as they are an explosion of music, dance, rhythm, colour and life. Each festival is celebrated for various reasons and mean different things, so a little research beforehand wouldn’t go amiss. The two main festivals in India and are widely celebrated are Diwali, the festival of lights and Holi, the festival of colour.

Holi

I was in Mathura for Holi, one of the best places for the festival because of it’s huge religious significance. However, we found the place to be aggressive and violent. Stepping outside the hotel, immediately we were swarmed by a group of Indian men, very enthusiastic about Holi- giving us paint and dancing joyfully. They asked for pictures and we happily obliged, until some men arrived who weren’t covered with paint and began to target us and repeatedly assault us. These type of people use Holi as an excuse to grope, cheat and rob, to take advantage of tourists who want to celebrate. Friends told me of being covered by cement in Pushkar, a bag hidden over her head and being groped whilst her boyfriend was harassed, or in Varanasi where friends were asked to be taken pictures with and whilst posing, men searched into the depths of their pockets for wallets. Unfortunately, these types of people ruin the experience for everyone and so, make festivals unsafe. If you can, find an area that is exclusive to tourists and celebrate there. Other good festivals are: The Desert Festival in Jaisalmer, Yoga Festival in Rishikesh and the food festival in Goa.

Holi Close Up

I hope these tips have helped you prepare for your trip to India, and although nervous- if you are cautious and wise with what you do, you should be just fine.

 

Mumbai, Bombay, Mumbay or Bombai

“Middle class Mumbai” is what this city should be called. It seems a large proportion of Mumbai is made up of the future generation of young educated intellectuals who go on marriage apps on their smart phones and drink breezers on the sly on the weekends in one of Mumbai’s top exclusive clubs. We were constantly told to be aware of the dirt within a city, however, apart from the abnormally sized rats, Mumbai seemed to be as equally as dirty as the rest of India, no worse or less. Although I mention the large proportion of middle class that are prominent within Mumbai, those who are suffering in poverty are also here too. However, our experience of these people was limited as we spent most of our time in the city centre, behind windows and doors of Mumbai’s black and yellow cabs nipping around Mumbai- not seeing the truth behind its glossy veneer, its lows as well as its highs.

Taxis in Mumbai

Sun Rise over the Docks Mumbai Skyline

Colaba is the main hotspot for tourists because of its shopping, hotels and food. You will find saris, necklaces, shoes and pashminas flung in your face pressurizing you to “Look! Looking is free!”, so head out of this area as quick as you can. There are many sights to see in Mumbai ranging from interesting and educational, to traditional and local, so I advise heading out of the tourist areas as quick as possible. Walking past open squares with pebbled stone streets, buildings that imitate holy churches and cathedrals, and parks that could easily be Kensington Gardens, one can easily notice exemplars of colonialism reflected onto the city of Mumbai (without paying an extortionate price for the Prince Of Wales Museum- which is awful).

The Modern Art Gallery is magnificent. Whilst I visited, there was an exhibition displaying various forms of media in connection to the nation’s pride, joy and favourite pastime: cricket. Displays showed how towns and villages united together to play “gully cricket”, how tight communities became emotionally, but also physically close because of the lack of open spaces and how uncomfortable and damaging it could be. Many exemplars of work highlighted the strength and geniality of the nations favourite cricketer: Sachin Tendulkar. He is seen in the nation’s history as legendary, put on a pedestal because of what he was like on the field, as well as off the field.

Chilling at Crawford MarketCrawford Market, although advertised as a great market, is not at all. Rather selling limited produce and RSPCA’s worst nightmare of caged animals, there is little else. Instead, pass taxi drivers leaning on their Italian old cars smoking beedis, table cloth sellers on every corner urging you to choose a colour and children pleading with their parents for new toys, and walk to The Gateway of India, a large example of colonialism. The best time to visit this attraction is early in the morning to watch the clouds turn pink, and to have the attraction to yourself. As we walked to the train station to catch the metro through Mumbai, we caught a glimpse of what life is like for those who are not so lucky. We passed families sleeping in the street and washing in the toilet, a little girl squatting in a prim rose garden staring aimlessly at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, adjacent to The Gateway Of India. This extreme poverty and luxury in one single snapshot made me shudder. I wanted to catch this powerful image on camera, but I thought against it. Although slums are a large part of Mumbai and millions live there, to see homeless families on the street whom couldn’t afford to pay for rent in a slum, made me recognize and apprehend how poor these people really were.

The Gateway to India Gateway of IndiaWith this in mind, head to the Dhobi Ghat, reachable by train. It is a place bordering on the suburbs of Mumbai where it seems the entire city’s washing is done. Small basins are split and surrounded by rows and rows of colour coded washing and washers washing themselves. It is incomprehensible to understand the vast amount of laundry here, until you have seen it as well.

Dhobi Ghat with Skyscrapers

From here, make your way to Mahalaxmi temple, famous because it hosts the Goddess of Wealth. We took a wrong turning and began to walk along a path within the sea, surrounded by wasteland and dressed goats munching on plastic. One side of us were beggars raising their hands up in hope, the other side was shops selling religious knick knack. Realizing we were walking to Haji Ali Dargh, we turned around. I felt a little relieved as this journey seemed desolate and dank. Each side of the path were in desperation for your money, framing the final destination of the mosque, in a negative light. Finding the right temple we were greeted by fragrant smells of brightly coloured flowers, sweets and savory smells of Uttapam. Here we were given stickers of the Indian flag, (it being Republic Day), welcomed by others and asked to be photographed for various family portraits. Passing many barefoot and elderly to reach the temple, I noticed that all were encouraged to unite together in prayer. As I bought a beautiful lily to leave on the shrine of the Goddess of Wealth which so many had queued up for, and travelled lengthy fares to get to, I couldn’t help but notice the change in atmosphere and mood in both places of worship. Hinduism seemed more vibrant, more receptive to all and carefree.

Outside the Temple

The National AnthemAs it was India Republic Day, we thought a visit would be not complete without seeing the Gandhi museum. His house in Mumbai has been turned into a museum showcasing various stages of his life and his vast collection of books. Already aware of the great fortitude and lengths that Gandhi went through for others and his nation, the museum still took me by surprise. His house was filled with various quotes that seemed to encapsulate life in a nutshell, and the struggles that Gandhi has faced, and many wise words that others should adhere too.

Gandhi StatueMake sure you head early morning to the the Sassoon Docks, a part of the naval area meaning no photography is allowed, where you will see fishmongers arrive on shore from their multi coloured boats, hands and decks full of fresh fish. Fish here are an assortment of all different shapes, sizes and colours. We even saw a bloodied and battered shark being pulled along with pride on a wooden cart through the entire market, being eyed up in envy. Women balance plastic bowls on their head from all colours of the rainbow, carefully selecting what fish to have for the meals over the next couple of days after haggling in auctions that attract large crowds. Fisher women sit in circles and peel shrimps in a frenzy, looking at me curiously whilst I stroked the shiny scales of their catch.

Another attraction whilst in the city of Mumbai, is attending the cinema. Like I have posted before, there are two types of Hindi films; one for the light hearted involving song, love and dance. Whilst the second concentrates on more serious issues that are thematic and are relevant to modern society. Being a lover of fight-club esque films, and bought tickets to see the movie, “Baby”, I was enraptured within the first few seconds. As the movie began to unfold, the plot became clear: a terrorist organization was trying to attack India who had links with Pakistan and the Middle East, who were Muslim. Someone was deeply perturbed by this imagery, (or someone was overly patriotic) which meant it took quite a while for the audience to settle. This then raised questions on the representation of Muslim’s in this Hindi film and how moral the perception was, one can only point out that it’s banned in Pakistan because “it portrays a negative image of Muslims and the negative characters in the film also have Muslim names”, and allow the viewer to make their own judgement.

Sitting in the dress circle, (the cinema seemed to be the size of a theatre), which meant that from a safe distance we could see the action off screen, and not be part of it. Also, just for 70 rupees extra, you got the best seats in the house! As the movie went on, the audience became one; all on a journey together, reacting to certain parts of the movie with excitement, delight and surprise. Jeers and howls were made whenever the good guy did or say something impressive, whilst claps of applause were made when he asked for a alcoholic beverage, (which I thought strange because of most people not liking alcohol because of their religion, and the consequences it brings). Both being professional female actresses, we were shocked by the female leads, who couldn’t act and had very little depth of emotions. As they fluttered their eyelashes and let out large sighs of exasperation, I cringed at her acting, as well as her character. However, this being a serious film, I’m sure the portrayal of women in other Bollywood films would be even more horrific. Although a large language barrier, phrases were spoken in English and the slapstick humour, facial expressions and body language were able to read, making the viewing of a Hindi film at the cinema, an unforgettable experience and one I urge you all to do- plus the cinema to locals is a way of life not just mere entertainment, so really it’s a cultural exchange!

Elephanta Caves, Mumbai Taking A Break Mumbai Boats

Due to lack of funds, we decided against a Bollywood tour, (who knew they would charge a similar price to Universal studios in LA) and only being spotted in Colaba to act as a hostess for a wedding, not as a Bollywood extra, we spent our final day in Mumbai getting a rickety boat to Elephanta Island to see some beautiful caves. I looked around the boat filled with other Indians acting like tourists as well, which made me think, how remarkably different Indians are within their country. It being so vast and a sub continent, it seems each state resembles a different country. Although vast continents like Australia or America have different ways of life and accents, they do not have different features making people seem as if a different nationality, or have different languages or different cultures which India has. Seeing so many different types of people under one country is overwhelming.

Historic Hampi

Hampi seems to take the form of a movie set from an American Wild Western film, or from Indiana Jones. Massive boulders dominate the countryside, forcing towns and villages to merge around them. Water filled paddy fields surround the landscape, where groups of workers pluck long stems of rice from the mud soaked waters, the sun on their backs. I was looking forward to doing some rock climbing, although catching sight of the sheer mass of these boulders, I thought against it. Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site. Temples, the royal palace and ruins from civilizations along time ago, are breathtakingly beautiful and intricate, whilst others just a pile of rubble. Most backpackers sleep across from the river, away from the Hampi Bazaar (although seemingly small itself). Catching a boat to take you across the river for ten rupees is easy, and where I made friends with a cow, (it became stuck in a bit of rope and I freed it- who knew cows would like to be stroked?)

A celebration by the river

The best way to explore Hampi is by bicycle, and as there are so many rental shops you can easily get them for a cheap price. Walking to a temple we passed a large function that were celebrating a religious festival there. Saris of red, orange and gold were wrapped around every female in view, gold jewellery clinging to each patch of bare skin. Men were shirtless dressed in white and red, grinning in excitement and anticipation. After turning down their offers of food, they did a rhythmic dance with sticks in a circle. The children bounced in unison, click clacking sticks together creating a sound that rang around the valley. As the beat began to speed up, the serious expressions on the children’s faces began to harden until suddenly the beat stopped and all the dancers burst into an exhausted pile of giggles. It’s funny how in India sights of functions and shepherds with their cattle, are usual around such prestigious ruins, whilst in the UK, slights like these are roped off and unreachable. Here, life still continues around them, rather preserving it, they are juxtaposing the old and the new, the past and the present world.

Cycling around Carvings A celebration Dancing

Achyuta- Raya Temple and the Vitthala Temple are the highlights of Hampi, so make sure you leave enough time to explore these. Hire a tuk tuk to the Royal Palace (where if you buy a ticket to the Vitthala temple on the same day, you are guaranteed free entry to the Royal Palace saving yourself 250 rupees). Marvel at the beautiful pavilion of Lotus Mahal, where elephants were kept some time ago for processions and momentous ceremonies. The buildings reminded me of Marrakesh with an Islamic style of architecture and various shapes of domes on top of the buildings. We took a small path behind to venture further, but were met with women lunching within the ruins, illustrating to us the sights within the Royal Palace were very little, predominately ruins.

Elephant and cart Hampi Something from Tomb Raider

Whilst in Hampi, catch the sunset on a nearby hill near all the guest houses across the river. It is a majestic sight to watch the bright glowing sun dip behind a rug of rice fields and dramatic boulders. Make sure you leave time to wander the streets of Hampi Bazaar and dine at Gobi’s rooftop restaurant, buying tourist items from the many shops and washing the friendly temple elephant.

Lotus Mahal Pose Rice picking Sewing Sunset over Hampi

We decided to stay at Funky Monkey hostel, (different to the one in Goa), where we paid 400 rupees a night for a basic bed in a hut. We had dinner at the Lonely Planet recommended Laughing Buddha, by the river, which quickly showed to us how mosquito ridden Hampi was. After dining on Kadai chicken, we went back to our hostel and found how it always was, everyone chilling and watching movies (all the hostels play a variety of different movies every night). And when I say, “chilling” or another backpackers says, “its chilled”, what they really mean to say is that it is where you can smoke weed or hash, with no problem. Which is how everyone seems to spend their nights here, furthering the stereotype of what a backpacker is like, even more.

Beaches of Goa

The start of our train journey we were surrounded by 8 men. Our past experiences with men asking questions about our personal life, meant that we answered curtly, however, we soon found out these men were just curious, interested in the life we lead. A finance student pointed out sights for us on the train and a proud father told us about his job as a supervisor at a factory, his church and showed us pictures of his family lovingly. Soon these guys left and were replaced by loud brash and aggressive men from another state who glared with menace at us and laughed a malicious laugh. After what seemed like an eternity, those men soon left and a man from the army joined us, promising he would look after us. Just before we managed to grab a few hours of sleep, we met two 14 year old girls on their way to a taekwondo competition who asked us to sing “My heart will go on” by Celine Dion. In return they sang a beautiful song in Hindi (after we embarrassed ourselves first by our awful singing in front of the entire train).The journey was intense and exhausting, and after, we vowed to travel in a AC carriage, although chilly and expensive, it would be a much safer option.

Goa is a vast area of India, even being its own state. It has a notorious reputation for being the most liberal state, where alcohol is legal and where most holiday makers flock to. Large resorts cover the area of Baga and palm trees line the coasts. We headed to the north of Goa, away from the peace and solitude of Palolem in South Goa, and the notorious party scene in Vagator, the centre of Goa.

Visiting Anjuna Beach you can spot Indian tourists posing on rock pools on one side of the beach, whilst the sandy shores are filled with dogs that pick fights with cows who roam freely, Russian couples that draw in the sand and take photos next to their work, and groups of Indian lads pretend to be from different corners of the world whilst talking to western women (they got the message pretty quick we were not interested either way). We were not swayed by this beach, (or the rocks it had in the sea), it was not beautiful like Varkala, nor private, nor quiet, and it lacked character.

Goa Life On the beach

A must visit whilst in Anjuna is the famous night market, where stalls and stalls of everything you could ever hope for are sold; clothes, furniture, jewellery and musical instruments. Stands of various food from all over the world are here, imitating a music festival in the UK. Vendors sell Italian, Indian, Turkish, and Russian meals to a number of people from all over the world, who have flocked in to find a bargain or let their hair loose and dance to the different music that played. You drink next to aged expats with leathered skin from the sun to funk, soul and Motown. At the top of the market under a lit up tree is where western DJ’s play deep house. Happy to be dancing again, we visited the bar frequently to taste the missed sweet taste of dark rum and neck back shots of tequila for just 80p. After being used to no alcohol, we were taken aback to Goa’s laid back attitude to booze. Shaking our bodies to the bass with large smiles on our faces, we looked up at the large stars above us, where clouds of hashish from fellow dancers began to float above. It seemed this tree, this music, was powerful in bringing everyone and anyone together. We made friends with a newly married couple; a family who were so excited to dance with us one woman fell over, and a woman who winded and grinded alone to the music- we wondered what her Indian parents would think! It was nice to see Indians enjoy themselves, without any restrictions, and with pure freedom to do what they wanted to do.

Chilling

A visit to Aranbol is also a must whilst in this area of Goa. The beach is pleasant and the area has a much more laid back relaxed vibe. People came together as the sun began to set; all showing off their circus or acrobatic skills, watching talented people do tricks with pois, balancing four diabolios on a string, and numerous hula hoops, all in front of the glaring red setting sun. After, there was a drumming circle, twenty drummers, all strangers to one another, just coming together for the creation of the tribal unison of beats which many (including us) joined the circle, and began to sway our hips; stamp our feet and shake our heads in a frenzy, all collective admirers of the sounds they created.

I also visited Panaji by bus from Mapusa, a short 30 minute drive away. Arriving in the capital of Goa, I saw various boat trips and casino boats flooding the docks and float along the river. I met a family friend and her friend at the Marriott hotel. Here scents of lemongrass and floating lilies, serene smiles from the staff and the view of a pool bar by the shore welcomed me. I saw Goa from the other side of the spectrum, the side of the rich, glamorous, and luxurious. I ate at the buffet (treated by my friend Clare), where I ate fresh salad, Goan specialty dishes and rich desserts all with a glass of local white wine. This was the life. Well only for a short period of time!

Hotel Life

Although Goa is seen as a liberal place and all say to you- “this is Goa, anything goes”. Don’t believe them. Yes you can smoke freely, drink excessively and party hard, but to someone who has partied in globally dominated clubs in Europe, beach parties in Asia, clubs with massive DJ’s in the UK and rubbed shoulders with Actors in Barbados in exclusive clubs, I though Goa was overrated. Besides, it is still India. It is still full of men who when seeing a white woman, think they are a whore, no matter how much they cover up. It still is full of corrupt police and dirty streets that aren’t safe. So, fellow women travellers, adhere to the dress, never walk alone at night without a light (if possible make friends with others or get a taxi to your destination) and always watch your own drink in case it is spiked.

Following a recommendation from a friend, we stayed at Funky Monkey hostel in Assago. Although a tricky location (in between Mapusa, Vagator and Anjuna) the hostel made up for this by its cheap accommodation, lovely furnishings, free breakfast and internet- as well as 24 hour staff that were always up for a giggle.