We left Agra feeling exhausted from the pressure of people constantly trying to get our attention to sell us things or otherwise extract money from us. We both felt a bit ‘done’ with travel and needed a break for a few days from the pressure of the crowds. It was lucky then, that back in Ladakh at the start of our trip, we’d met Kieran and Rachael and their lovely family. Experienced travellers, they recalled how while on their own long trip they were exhausted and had a stop off with friends, which had been exactly what they needed. They invited us to visit them in Delhi on our way out of India, for a few days rest before the next leg of our journey. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
Working at the British High Commission, they lived in the British compound, and it was with sincere gratitude that we arrived at the gates and were met by Kieran on the other side of the security fence. Inside the compound the noise and smog of Delhi were barely present. Instead serene green lawns and borders edged winding paths between the residential buildings. At their lovely house we were given a room bigger than any we’ve stayed in so far during our travels, with an ensuite, a huge comfy and CLEAN bed, and fluffy towels. Jay had to pop over the road to a dentist (who tried to give him 5 root canals and a load of implants on the spot), and on returning to the compound, we both headed straight to the pool. Sliding into the cool calm water, we could feel the aches and stresses of the last few days start to dissolve as our muscles stretched out and the feeling of space and quiet set in. We slept more soundly that night than we had done in weeks surrounded by soft pillows and sheets that smelled of fabric softener.
It was a surreal experience staying in the compound. It’s like a 1960s suburb from the UK that’s been lifted up and dropped into the centre of Delhi. The houses were built around that time and have that lovely look about them: big open-plan spaces, wide stairways with 60’s geometric banisters. It was all so familiar. We could find our way around the kitchen with ease, as although much bigger than most back home, everything was where you’d expect it to be, and all the things in the cupboards were familiar to us. Rachael had cooked us tomato soup for dinner, entirely homely and perfect when we were feeling so frazzled! There were familiar foods (including a tin of baked beans bought specially for us), and unexpectedly, all the plug sockets were UK 3-pin ones which ironically meant we had to use an adapter plug for them. There was something so comforting about being somewhere so recognisable, and it actually made us a little homesick, reminding us of all the people and places we were familiar with at home. And that’s an interesting thing: that familiarity feels like safety, feels like security, and unfamiliarity feels like a challenge and requires constant thought and effort. Perhaps that’s what is dangerous about familiarity. Perhaps that’s part of the shit-storm that is Brexit.
We spent our time in Delhi simultaneously thinking about our overall experience of India, reflecting on the process and experience of travelling itself, and planning our first week in China. It is the first two of these activities that are the focus of this blog post.
One of the first things that struck us about travelling, which we hadn’t really anticipated (perhaps naively) was how much ongoing admin it involved, and how while we were exceptionally lucky to be able to do it, it also at times felt like incredibly hard work, with both of us at points wishing we could sack it all off and head home.
We feel very lucky to be travelling during the digital age, as there are many aspects of organisation that are vastly easier to do online. Checking and booking trains and buses, arranging accommodation, communicating with friends and family back home: all of this has been possible just using our phone and a local SIM card. Of course, there are drawbacks, particularly in relation to information overload: there are times were we have felt frozen with indecision due to the vast array of options presented to us. There is also the personal nature of having to ask for information and advice from other people, which would have been the default for any travellers before the advent of smartphones; we are aware that we may be missing out on some of this by relying on online recommendations. Having said that, when we have asked for help in India, there is definitely a tendency for people to tell us what they think we want to hear rather than the actual facts! If we relied solely on personal advice, we would have boarded the wrong bus to Alleppey, been scammed out of several accommodation reservations and missed a lot of trains!
Decision fatigue is a very real thing. We have frequently found that one or both of us feels incapable of deciding where we are going to look for places to eat, which hostel to stay at, whether to get the private room (with shared or private bathroom) or save a few pounds by taking dorm beds, which sights to see and whether we can afford them, where we want to travel to next. Even when we are feeling fully motivated to do some planning, there are simply so many options that it does feel really overwhelming at times. We are fully aware that this is the most first-world of problems! We have had to learn to let go of wanting to see EVERYTHING. Even travelling for a whole year, we barely have time to scratch the surface of each country we are going to. We definitely tried to see too much and cover too much distance in India.
Another significant piece of admin is this blog! We are enjoying the process of documenting our travels, and remembering our experiences together. But it is very time consuming! After long days of travel by train and bus, when we do finally fall into bed at a new hostel, we rarely want to start writing, so we are having to be quite disciplined about it in order to avoid falling as far behind as we have. One thing we are going to try now is writing one blog post per week(ish), to bring some routine into the process.
Culture shock has been another element of travelling which we weren’t as prepared for as we could have been, and it links a little into the issues with familiarity we talked about above. It feels like culture shock is about schemas. Schemas are our internal rules for living day to day which govern much of our behaviour, and are usually laid down in early life. They are mostly subconscious processes, and are highly culturally specific, being shaped by our friends and families, our environment and the cultural norms and taboos around us. We have templates for how to behave in most of our daily life: we have a template for going to get food from a supermarket, for how we act when we go to the dentist, for what we do when we don’t like something someone has said to us. These work (generally) pretty well most of the time, and they allow us to short-cut a lot of mental effort by being largely automatic. Whilst travelling in a different country these don’t work: they don’t provide the short-cut. We might go into a shop, and we don’t know where things are, what they are, how to get what we need, and so on. On a train, when someone is doing something that culturally for us was challenging (like staring), we don’t have a template for how to navigate that. A lot of frustration and confusion comes from these types of difficulties, and a lot of exhaustion too. That’s been something we hadn’t truly anticipated.
A friend asked on facebook whether we argue at all “like mere mortals!”, and of course we do. We haven’t written about those things because we have been busy documenting our activities and the sights we’ve seen, but we don’t want to paint an artificially rosy picture of our experience. Although we’ve been together for nine years, and lived together for six, we have never spent 24 hours a day together! We have always both had full time jobs (or studies) along with various individual hobbies that filled our time (Maeve: “I really miss roller derby!”) and we’ve only been together all day when we’ve gone on holiday. Both of us miss having time on our own, and even though we recognise that and give each other space, it’s not the same. We haven’t found fool-proof ways of negotiating these needs yet, but we’re working on it! One thing that helps is that we’ve fallen into specific roles for some tasks, which works best when these play to our individual strengths. One of Maeve’s ‘jobs’ is trawling through booking sites looking for accommodation, and navigating us through unfamiliar cities (she’s best when it comes to technology), whereas one of Jay’s ‘jobs’ is negotiating food in restaurants and trying to get vegan stuff!
Another way our relationship is affected is that it’s very easy when one or other of us is feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, tired or hungry, for that emotion to come out sideways at the other person, because we’re with each other virtually all of the time. We’re getting better and better at recognising our needs in order to avoid this, and at calling each other out when it does happen, as well as being able to be called out without becoming defensive. Who knows, this might be a really GOOD THING.
It’s really hard to write about another country as an outsider, because there’s so much we don’t know, and so much that we will have inevitably misunderstood. It’s especially hard when we’re aware that we’re also scrutinising our experience as members of a country that has previously invaded, and then carved-up, the one we’re talking about. By writing about India from our perspective there’s a real danger of slipping in to further colonialism. We’re honestly not sure how to best navigate that, and so want to be explicit that when we’re writing here about things that are different, unusual or challenging, it’s very much about recognising these things are different, unusual or challenging to us because we’re not experienced in being ‘of’ that culture. We also want to explicitly acknowledge that we value difference and the challenges that can bring, and that where we’re talking about these things there is no value judgement placed on these differences. We absolutely don’t think that the things we found hard or fantastic about India are better or worse than ‘How We Do Things Back Home’, they just are what they are, and if we found them challenging that’s on us, because of our unfamiliarity. With that acknowledged, we wanted to talk a little about some of these experiences.
We absolutely bloody loved the food, it was generally fantastic! The flavours were intense and full, and we soon became a bit addicted to chilli. There was more sugar, salt and oil in most of what we ate than we’d usually cook with at home, but that was only an issue for us when we went for prolonged periods of having nowhere to cook for ourselves and so were eating all our meals out at cafes/restaurants for weeks at a time.
Most food was really cheap, even in fancier restaurants. We didn’t find that the quality particularly correlated with price, and some of our favourite meals were from basic food halls or cafes for less than £1 each.
We fell completely in love with all the different types of breads available, especially aloo parathas, which we are going to have to learn to make when we get home. These were generally eaten for breakfast with chilli chutney (and yoghurt, although we obviously didn’t have that). North Indian spices and flavours were distinct to South Indian, and while we happily enjoyed it all, we had serious cravings for Keralan food in particular.
Being vegan, we found India was mostly very easy to navigate. The concept of vegetarianism is widespread, and even better “pure vegetarian” which excludes egg. So we only had to communicate the need for no dairy on top of that. We used the V-cards in Hindi and several local languages to ensure that people understood, but in many places we could just communicate in English. There definitely were slip-ups, and as well as having to send back food that contained paneer, we probably have had some things cooked in ghee, but overall India is a good place to travel as a vegan. We also found lots of accidentally vegan snacks in shops which kept us going between meals (seriously, we ate A LOT in India).
The bigger cities also have vegan restaurants, although our experience of these was very mixed, with some having really poor European-style food, rather than the obvious sumptious Indian vegan dishes they could have served. Our favourites were Terrassen in Hyderabad and Bodhi Greens in Leh (also has a branch in Goa). The best thing about the vegan restaurants was being able to have desserts!
There were lots of things that stood out to us as being really different to the UK. One was the way in which people lived their lives in terms of daily routines. Certainly with the folks we met, people tended to get up early to do things before the heat of the day, and then stay up late into the night, even with small kids. It wasn’t unusual for a family to be heading out to dinner together with toddlers at 9pm. It felt really nice being in a place with a culture that is largely outdoors and felt safe to be out at night, with intergenerational groups everywhere. It seemed that a lot of folks also had an incredible ability to sleep anywhere, at any time, and we were both envious of this, especially when we were sat in noisy waiting rooms or train platforms for hours on end.
It was really easy to get help with things in India, people were generally very friendly and eager to help. It was a challenge for us at times as you could end up with a lot of folks around you all trying to help. If you were asking for directions it wasn’t unusual for your phone to be taken off you and passed around a group, with everyone trying to look at your map. That made us very nervous at first! There was also a tendency for people, in trying to be helpful, to say yes to things even if the actual answer was no. For example “Is this the way to the train station?” “Yes”. Um… We got into the habit of seeking multiple sources of information to see if they all had the same outcomes before following any one person’s directions!
Data privacy did not exist, and that took a bit of getting used to. We got over our initial panic at having our passports photographed by people on their smart phones (when checking in to hotels etc). The dentist Jay saw showed him messages from other clients, including their pictures, and phone numbers. These things were very much the norm and we must have appeared bizarre in how we guarded our stuff and our information.
Before we’d left the UK, we’d read a lot about corruption in India, and how it was widespread and overt. We were fortunate in that we didn’t actually end up in a situation where we might have been forced to pay a bribe, but we met Indians for whom that was an almost daily ocurrence. It made even the simplest tasks in their everday lives either a nuisance at best, or unaffordable at worst. We did have an almost constant fight against being scammed on the small scale though. At least 90% of tuktuk and taxi drivers tried to over-charge us, sometimes by a significant margain. In shops people would not give change, or would say the wrong amount. Luckily almost all goods have the price printed on them, so we just got used to adding up the amounts before we went to the till, and to working out what change we should get. We got very good at saying no to people about this, and sticking our ground. When we did challenge this, we were always given our change, and usually with a smile and a shrug to emphasise that there was no malicious intent: it was just how business was done.
Personal space was an issue for us. There is a ton of research about the different distances from your body that you feel ok with people being in. It usually feels safe to have family and close friends close to you, whereas if a stranger is in that zone of proximity, it evokes a response. In the UK, if someone we didn’t know came and leant against us in a queue or in a shop, or was peering over our shoulders at our books, we’d feel uncomfortable as it’s unusual for someone to be in your space without a good reason. The distances that people are comfortable with vary by individiauls, and also by culture, so being somewhere where expectations around personal space were very different was really difficult for us. It often evoked a kind of adrenalin-fuelled fight or flight response. Similarly, people stared constantly, and openly, and it seemed to be very much the norm. If someone stared at us back home it would usually be a signal of ill-will (or rudeness) especially if they didn’t smile if you smiled at them, but it seems to be the norm in India.
A further thing that struck us was gender segregation. Men and women are kept very seperate. There were often seperate queues, seperate security scanners etc. It was really strange for us, but to be honest, the way that women were looked at by a lot of men made it painfully obvious there was a need for it. It was common for us to be in a tuk tuk and the driver to slow down and literally leer at a group of (usually much younger) girls, fully looking them up and down. We really struggled with that almost constant normalcy of overt male gaze, and it was much harder for Maeve also being subject to it.
Although there were lots of things we found difficult about being immersed in a culture so different to ours, there were a lot of cultural norms or behaviours which we really loved. The generousity and kindness that was common among strangers was wonderful; people were so willing to share their food, their houses, and their resources. Another thing was tactility. There was a lot of touch between people. In particular it was lovely (albeit a little confusing) for us to see so many apparently heterosexual men embracing, walking arm in arm, hand in hand, with none of the nervousness of the British.
Environment and Climate
Arriving in India, and again at any major transport hub when we’d been in the sticks for a while, can only be described as an assault on the senses. The smells were completely different, and much stronger to our un-exposed noses. The noise too was incredible. Even at 2am on a sleeper train, people use their outside voices, and it’s just normal. It’s very clear that it’s us with the problem here, and that in those situations the onus is on us to not be bothered by it, not the person making the noise to not bother us. The noise of traffic was overwhelming, and of crowds. And the colours and brightness of everything (and then the mutedness during monsoon rains), the feel of smog and pollution and wind filled with sand. Every new place was an exercise in adaptation. Practically, we went from environments as diverse as the mountains of the Himalayas to the deserts of Rajasthan, from blizzard to sandstorm. Most were challenging for us in different ways, particularly heat. But the thing we found hardest was humidity. Not being able to regulate temperature because of too much humidity was a real danger, and Jay suffered frequently with bordering on hyperthermia in the most humid regions. Humidity affected our levels of activity and our mood more than anything else.
We were very fortunate in that we mostly stayed ahead of the extreme weather that moved across India during our visit, displacing many and killing some. Our journey was only really affected in small ways by the monsoon, and we are very grateful for that. For us, the main issue was getting used to being almost constantly wet. Never cold and wet, always warm, but often saturated certainly for the last half of our time there. It was really strange. It was also strange seeing how the climate varied in the different regions we visited, and more so, how living in those climate shaped people’s lives. Living in the mountains in Ladakh required adaptations in what food people had (either grown locally or prohibitively expensive imported products), and how that food was stored over the winter. It affected people’s working hours, with many tasks also being seasonal. People were self-sufficient, resilient, often being cut off from other areas for much of the winter. In the desert, sandstorms would stop all activity at a moment’s notice, and many things coudn’t be done in the heat of the summer. It was hard to grow food, and hard to find work. In the warmer monsoon regions intense storms can change everything from the route you might take to work, to your whole livelihood and even your life. In the tea-growing mountain regions crops were seasonal, dictating the ebb and flow of work and life. And in the watery lowlands of Kerala, the water was everything. It was transport, roads, the school run, washing, drinking, fishing, working. The thing that all these areas had in common, was that they were all being affected by climate change. The ways in which people have lived and worked within their environments for centuries is changing, and in many cases changing more rapidly than the local populations in these regions can adapt. Unfortunately we also witnessed many things that contribute to climate change, both by individuals and communities on a micro-level, and by the wider country a macro-level: burning plastics in local fires, rapidly increasing car ownership, pumping industrial pollutants into rivers. Of course, while witnessing and commenting on this, we are engaging in that most devastating activity; global travel. We are cognizant of this and plan to write more about it in the future.
Across every single place we visited, litter and pollution were significant issues. It was very uch the norm to just discard anything anywhere at any time. Recycling was not common in terms of state-delivered refuse and recycling collections. Almost all waterways were used to dispose of raw sewerage and toxic chemicals. Even in Kerala where people depended on the river for their lives, their houses had pipes that led out deep underwater to the bottom of the rivers, where effluent and run-off were chanelled – into the same streams and waterways they collected their water from for cooking and drinking. And the smog was incredible. Cities had palls that hung over them, espeically in the oppressive heat of summer. It was hard to breathe, and respiratory illnesses are common. Public health seemed to have no presence around these issues. Water and power shortages were common while we were there, just a part of life for most people. The sheer scale of the problems India is facing seem overwhelming – it was ubiquitous and embedded culturally and we felt despair for the planet and for our ability to make any meaningful change as individuals. However, we also only had a superficial experience of what was visible on the surface, and we have no idea what is actually being done at a national and local level in response to this climate crisis. What was clear was that given the cultural nature of some of these issues (e.g. disposing of nappies in the rivers in Ladakh not in bins, to prevent part of the baby being discarded), India has to find those solutions that work there, and any that are imposed by or that work from a Western European perspective would be doomed to fail.
(you may want to skip this unless you plan on travelling in India or really like transport!)
We had a great time experimenting with the various options for public transport in India, starting with the famous railways. India has an incredible, but frequently aging, train network, and train travel is an economical and interesting way to get around and see the country. The network is truly impressive and the number of people travelling huge distances each day is staggering. This is all despite the network being co-ordinated almost exclusively on paper, rather than electronically, with ticket inspectors having lists of passengers which they carry on clipboards, and check against people’s IDs.
Luckily the end-user experience is rapidly becoming more digital – we were told that the improvements to ticket booking in the past few years have been significant. We used the Man in Seat 61 for train advice, both before we arrived and whilst we were in India. It was incredibly helpful to be able to register on the IRCTC website before we left the UK, to get used to the searching and booking process. While we were in India, we used their much more user-friendly app to search for trains, but unfortunately it doesn’t work with foreign credit cards, so we had to resort to the website to book tickets. The options for seat availability are mind-bogglingly complex, with loads of categories of seats and waiting lists that we never really got our head around. With a bit of forward planning, we booked most of our seats in the general availability, and were immediately assigned seats, even though the full seating chart is not prepared until shortly before the train leaves. At the advice of Seat 61, we also regularly booked “Reserved Against Cancellation” (RAC) tickets, which guarantee you a place on the train even though it is fully booked, with the very small risk that you may have to share a berth/sit up all night. In practice, so many bookings are cancelled that RAC tickets are almost always allocated their own berth. We were able to check these developments on the app, but there is also the traditional print-out which is posted up at the station with names and seats listed for everyone on the RAC list. Once the RAC tickets are all gone, you get put on a waiting list, with a refund being automatically given if a space doesn’t become available. There is also a category called “Taktal”, which is a limited supply of last-minute tickets which are sold with a small additional charge. We attempted to book one of these on one occasion, unusually buying tickets in person at a train station, and the attendant told us not to bother as there were “only” 20 people ahead of us on the waiting list. We would never have risked it – our train was the following day – but he was right and we were both allocated seats in time.
Still, being able to book our train tickets online, and use digital tickets on the train, made travel much easier. Another really useful thing that we mentioned in a previous post is the Food on Track app, which allows you to order food from an outlet in/near a station that your train stops at, and someone will bring your order to your seat! A wonderful service, though not foolproof for ordering vegan food as we discovered.
The actual experience of taking the train is definitely very different to the UK! At most stations we had to put our luggage through a security scanner, and be segregated by gender for a (very rudimentary, almost pointless) pat-down. Once inside the station (and sometimes outside) there are people sleeping everywhere. You can buy big sheets of plastic, emblazoned with famous branding, which people use to cover the ground and then sleep on. All the seats, benches and much of the platforms are taken up with people sleeping. Big family groups sit eating from tiffin tins and taking turns napping. Everyone is clearly used to waiting.
When the trains arrive nobody waits for it to stop before jumping on or off – the doors are all manual and tend to be left open. There are also usually some people waiting on the rails to get on the wrong side of the train. Most of the network that we used was electrified, so with the exception of some railway workers on top of a freight diesel engine, we didn’t see anyone riding on the top of a train!
The distances and running times of trains are pretty staggering for us small-island folk. Our longest train journey was about 36 hours, but we got used to regularly spending a full day and night on a train. Sleeper trains are really useful for covering long distances and saving on the cost of a night of accommodation. We travelled in all the different sleeper classes, from our fancy first class room that we had all to ourselves (they usually sleep 4), through to the non-air conditioned sleeper coach, when we had to share a sweaty berth with no bedding as we didn’t have a reservation!
Mostly we travelled in 2AC or 3AC – the class used by most middle-class Indians. The coaches are air conditioned and mostly quite comfortable. 2AC has 4-bed berths with another two along the far side, whereas 3AC has 6-bed berths. It only really makes a difference during the day which you use, as there is obviously more space to spread out in 2AC. We did find some longer journeys difficult due to being stared at so much of the time and having nowhere to escape to. There were also a few weird incidents with other people – staff or even passengers – passing by and opening/closing curtains that covered our window or segregated our beds from the rest of the carriage. As with most of our experience of accommodation in Inda, the cleanliness wasn’t quite what we’re used to at home, but it was definitely better than some of the hostels we’ve stayed in! The toilets were functional and no worse than some UK ones, all the trains we used had the option of Western or squat toilets – to be honest, in a train toilet where you don’t really want to touch anything, a squat toilet is usually the better choice! It’s a good idea to carry soap and toilet roll as this wasn’t always available.
In the air conditioned carriages train staff regularly pass through selling food and drinks (mostly chai – we had very mixed success in requesting black tea). In sleeper class this service isn’t offered, but at many stations vendors would jump on and pass quickly through the carriages before jumping off again, or hold up their wares at the barred windows for people to buy. Most train stations had huge troughs with taps for drinking water (usually non-filtered), but at one rural station that didn’t have these we saw people jump off the train at a station and drink water stored in huge urns under a tree before jumping back on again.
We also made good use of the bus network, including local non-air conditioned buses, much more comfortable state and private AC coaches, and the sleeper buses that we talked about in the Nilgiris post. Local buses are a great and cheap way to get around, and Google maps usually had information on timetables so we could plan our journeys. We found it tricky using them when we had all our luggage though, as the buses can get very busy and they aren’t equipped for massive backpacks! It was usually really nice to have open windows and feel the breeze as we travelled, however most of these buses only have rubber blinds to pull down in the rain, so when the monsoon hits it gets very dark and stuffy. Some of these buses still cover huge distances, so we used them for intercity travel too. The operators obviously don’t expect anyone to stay on them the whole way, so we did have to negotiate toilet breaks on really long journeys – we couldn’t make it 6 hours without a stop! The AC coaches were much more comfortable, obviously cooler and much more spacious. They are set up for long journeys so have regular stops at services for shopping and comfort breaks.
And of course everywhere we went in India there were the iconic tuk tuks! These varied from tiny three-wheelers in the black and yellow that everyone pictures, to much larger elaborately decorated vehicles that could comfortably fit six people – and often had more than a dozen squeezed in! We even saw a transit van painted like a tuk tuk, we might have to replicate this at home!
Overall in India we travelled by foot, rickshaw, tuk tuk, ferry, canoe, aeroplane, local bus, coach, mountain railway, all classes of lowland railway, taxi, car, jeep and van, as paying passengers and as hitch-hikers. We covered such diverse landscapes as the Himalayas – reaching over 4000m – desert, jungle, forests, wet-lands, backwaters, and coasts. We encountered blistering heat, monsoon rains, desert sandstorms, and a full on blizzard. By train we covered about 8700km (a third of the way around the globe), 1500km by bus, and a minimum of 450km on foot (according to Jay’s Garmin running watch). We had stomach upsets, altitude sickness, and trench foot, as well as bites from all manner of critters (no mammals though, luckily). We met the most incredible people and ate some of the best and worst food we’ve ever had. It has been an EPIC 70 days, and India has been both an agonizing challenge and an inspirational delight. There’s no real way to sum it all up properly; not all these diverse experiences, so we’ll just end here with a thanks to you for following our journey so far, and a hope that you continue with us, to China.