Early on in the holiday, when something odd occurred on the road ahead between the airport and the hotel, the driver turned to us and said, “In India, you have to expect the unexpected”. How true those words would prove to be during a trip where our senses came alive and our judgment of what may constitute normal shifted considerably. Of course, we have only seen a small part of this vast country, and our conclusions are drawn only from what we have seen.
Let’s start with the bad. No getting away from it, India is very dirty; litter is everywhere, hygiene standards are low, and literally everything is covered in a film of dirt of one form or another. Nothing anywhere is clean, nothing is even close to hygienic. The sheer volume of people in the towns and cities is mind boggling; it takes an age to cover any kind of distance, what with the heat and humidity and the overcrowding. Huge numbers of people sleep on the streets of the cities; even greater numbers live in abject poverty in makeshift homes throughout the city, in every corner and every dry place available, whole shanty communities exist right in the heart of a city and it’s a difficult thing to see.
You will see just about every human act that we in the West would consider private, apart from sex, conducted in the open, in the streets. Start with showering and teeth cleaning, and descend from there, you will have to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to all of it. You will see arguments daily; Indians are disrespectful of authority and anyone in power, from rail workers to hotel porters to gatemen at temples, are constantly verbally abused. Private arguments seem to escalate quickly and publicly.
You want to see the magic of India, you have to learn to live with those things. And then be rewarded with what this amazing country has to offer.
The diversity of what we have seen, even on this limited experience, is absolutely stimulating, the immense cultural history of Kolkata with its grand colonial buildings, the strangely garish Hindu temples, the peaceful Buddhist temples, the mosques and the cathedrals all thrown together to demonstrate just how culturally diverse India is. And yet everyone seems eager to tell us how this rich diversity intensifies, the more you travel across the sub-continent. In the words of one, it is impossible to suggest that India is just one country, when its vastness brings such diversity in diet, religion, peoples, culture and terrain.
Our own diverse experiences brought heaving cities and the peace of the swamps; ancient temples and the more contemporary look of Kolkata; bazaars as good as anywhere; exotic wildlife and the worst of human degradation; appalling lack of hygiene yet sumptuous food. We sampled local specialities like the dosa of Varanasi, the Kaathi Kabab of Kolkata, the mustard curries of Bengal, the huge range used in vegetarian curries, fish straight from the Indian Ocean and prawns straight from the delta. At the end of every meal, everywhere, we were given not coffee or mints, but seeds of anise (true aniseed) to chew. And of course there were the many delicious and unusual teas.
Getting away from towns and cities and travelling through rural India has given us an insight into Indian culture where there is little influence from the modern world. Away from the cramped squalor, the villages of India, although still very poor have the luxury of space and peace, and a sense of community. Farming communities with few possessions but the richness of the land where they live and farm. Each smallholding is a cluster of mud huts, some with staw roofs others with corrugated iron, all with their own large muddy pond or two where they take their daily ablutions, do the laundry or is simply a place for children to play and swim. They live amongst the beauty of these surroundings, rich in food, paddy fields, sunflower plantations, banana trees, vegetables, all organic of course. Dry dusty areas dotted with these pockets of vivid colours, like oases in the desert.
The almost fluorescent greens, the vibrant blues and greens of the birds, the yellows and reds of the flowers, these people have the richness of the land. There is a strong family bond and a sense of community, all working together farming the land to survive in this non materialistic environment. There is of course no running water here, but this leads to another community activity. Late afternoon when the heat of the sun is receding, groups of women meet at the wells in the village, each with an assortment of metal and plastic containers, each collecting the water supply for their home. This daily ritual is more than that though. Its a social event, time to catch up on the day’s events, time to laugh, time to enjoy the company of the other women in the village, maybe time to groom each others hair. They smile and wave as we pass, chatting and laughing loudly. The men on the other hand gather in more serious groups, not really noticing us, crouched in card schools, intent on their game, so much more serious than the women.
The experience of being novelties where few Westerners dare to venture, in Bakkhali, and becoming friends with the whole village, was an absolute highlight of the trip and ticked just about every single box of our love of travel. To be treated like friends despite being true aliens was fabulous and exhilarating.
We have many stories; some made the blog, some didn’t. We included the monster spider but left out the cockroach, for instance. There were many amusing exchanges surrounding the language barrier; there’s the fact that precious little actually works properly, anywhere; there’s the fact that Air India make the cabin pitch dark on daytime flights, because otherwise the Indians make too much noise and the dark calms them down! There’s also the fact that India is full of touts and tricksters and those out to exploit the unwary – most of them blatantly dishonest, and you have to be constantly on your mettle. However get to know any of the locals and they are generally kind and helpful and so very interested to both tell you about India and ask you about your country. Michaela continued to be a celebrity, Phil was usually “Uncle”.
The water is a huge danger through contamination, don’t even clean your teeth with it, but thankfully has a distinctive and disgusting smell so you can always detect it, even in a watered down fruit drink or an ice cube. If you get over the hygiene, and basically you have to, and take sensible precautions like hand gel, the food is continually exciting and variable. It becomes more and more interesting to try different vegetarian meals, and, as Indians do not mix food and alcohol and most restaurants are consequently not licenced, you soon stop any craving, though you do miss the chill factor of a beer or two.
Finally, back to the roads. The traffic flow and the Indian method of driving simply has to be seen to be believed, you complete each journey with a sigh of relief and the only words which even come close are total chaos. With great irony, nearly all the buses, trucks and tuk-tuks of Kolkata have the slogan “obey the traffic rules” daubed on the back, and signs with the same message are all around the city. Rules?? Obey the Rules?? There aren’t any!! Even blatant ones like one way street, no right turn and going the correct way round a traffic island are simply ignored. It is, frankly, unbelievable. And as for Kolkata taxis, those battered old yellow cabs synonymous with the city, well, the drivers had a terrible reputation for declining custom if it didn’t suit them to go where the client wanted to go, so much so that the city rulers have introduced a “no refusal” policy, and now many of them have that phrase painted on the doors. You are told to choose only those cabs. We did, and were refused several times!!
These idiosyncrasies are all part of the magical fabric of this vibrant and exciting country; coming to India is, no exaggeration in this hackneyed phrase, a culture shock. Growing into it, learning to cope, shifting your expectations, changing your values, are for us the very essence of travel. It’s why you go places. Cafe owners, shopkeepers, Raja in Agra, Rajesh and Rakesh of the Sunderbans tour, the Cafe Toothless pair, our smiley cooks Bottu and Uma, and pretty much the whole population of Bakkhali, everyone who wanted Michaela’s photograph, every child and teenager who giggled when we said hi, every tuk tuk driver, all made us feel so very welcome, and all etched themselves into our memories of this wonderful holiday.
We have loved this trip, loved it for all its difficulties and all its quirks. For us, India is unfinished business.