« You can’t do that, you know the rules » the voice of the bus driver resonates through the outside speaker in a dystopian echo akin to 1984. My failed attempt at boarding a bus while it stopped at the traffic light and not at a proper station sums up my short stop in the United Arab Emirates. Dubaï might be spectacular with its modernist architecture; skyscrapers are growing like mushrooms at every corner. However, having just spent four months in Turkey, in the Caucasus and in Iran, I find it hard to get used to the strict – shall I say excessive? – rules that dictate life here. It is all about appearance and money in this city without a soul. After only one day I may not be able to judge the city objectively, but one thing is for sure, I am glad I don’t have to linger here for too long before flying to tumultuous yet genuine India.
I’m disappointed I failed to travel the whole way to India overland but I have to accept that the harsh geopolitical reality doesn’t allow it these days. I continue the journey through Pakistan and Afghanistan vicariously thanks to Nicolas Bouvier and his excellent travelogue entitled The way of the world which recounts his epic trip by car from Switzerland to India in the fifties, well before the deadly conflicts that are still haunting the region today arose.
An overland journey gives the traveler the luxury and the time to get used gradually to cultural changes. My flight from Dubai to Mumbai is completely at odds with this. The contrast between the excessive cleanliness of the Gulf city and the absolute chaos reigning in Mumbai could not be sharper. My first rickshaw ride through the gigantic anthill of 22 million inhabitants gives a taste of what is awaiting me. My driver struggles to make his way through the dense traffic; it takes us over two hours to cover twenty kilometers from the airport to my hostel in Crawford Market.
A trip to India is an epic sensory journey. It takes time to become familiar with the countless new colours, smells (not always the most pleasant) and flavours that take your senses by storm. Not to mention the sounds, starting with the pervasive horn. It is probably the first thing that comes to mind when I think back of Mumbai now. Unlike in Europe, a horn blast is no demonstration of hostility. Its function is rather conversational and in general, it seems vital to use it constantly to signal your existence. Every day, except for a short truce from 11PM to 6AM, all cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, taxis and other trucks and indulge in a never-ending cacophony of horns that could drive mad any sane man.
The food is delicious but the stomach also requires a little adjustment period. During the first few days, I have to choose strategically the small restaurants to eat in the evening within a five-minute walk radius from my hostel. As they usually don’t have a toilet, chances are I’ll need to jog back to the hostel at the end of the meal weaving between cows and rickshaws.
Mumbai, officially called Bombay until 1995, is the third most densely populated urban area in the world. Built on a peninsula, it has little space to expand while its population is skyrocketing. As a result, infrastructures such as the transport sector come under unrelenting pressure. 4000 commuters often swamp a train that should accommodate only 1700 passengers during rush hour and it is common to see people travelling on the roof of a bus.
Without surprise, Mumbai is a city of stark contrasts. As the economic capital of the country, it is home to numerous banks, major financial institutions and headquarters of wealthy Indian and international companies. Yet over half its population live in slums. Most of the slum-dwellers left their rural hometowns and moved to Mumbai drawn by better job prospects in the hope of living a more prosperous life. This rural exodus has been a determining factor in the intense linguistic and cultural diversity characterising the city today. On one afternoon I’m going to Dharavi, Asia’s second most populous slum, to get a deeper understanding of the city’s socio-economic diversity and not limit myself to the historic center at the southern end of the peninsula. Located 45 minutes by train away from the British colonial buildings, Dharavi unveils a different face of Mumbai. The face of poverty indeed, but also the face of children laughing at the sight of a foreigner and asking to be photographed, whose large and honest smiles almost make you forget the shabbiness of their homes and the simplicity of their way of life. You could expect a slum of one million people to be a dangerous place for a passing traveler but I did not encounter any hostility.
After a few days embracing the chaos of Mumbai, I am delighted to be heading south for a more peaceful environment. I have the feeling that taking a flight made me lose the momentum I had gained throughout the trip. Now I can’t say anymore : “I’ve come all the way to your town from my country using my thumb only!”. Given the huge distances, my visa being limited to two months and the cheap transportation available, I decide I will also use trains and buses in India.
The night train takes me to Goa, the smallest state of the country located 500 kilometers south of Mumbai on the coast of the Arabian sea. It is no doubt pleasant to spend some time at the beach and enjoy summer temperatures in the midst of December. No winter for now! I meet David, a Belgian guy with whom I share a passion for photography and who also travels with a guitar. We’ve both had enough of mass tourism prevalent on the coast so we decide to team up and explore the interior of the state by hitchhiking.
As we start waving down cars something feels strange… I realise I’m sticking out my left thumb and not the right one as usual because of a legacy of the colonial era: the cars are driving on the left side here! It goes without saying that hitchhiking does not work quite as well as in Iran. The concept is unknown and misunderstood in India: why would two supposedly rich goras (white people) refuse to pay for the ride? Not to mention the fact that most cars go only from village to village on small bumpy roads. We still manage to make progress but I understand that it would take me six months if I wanted to hitchhike across the whole country.
Never mind, it works for exploring Goa. We embrace this slow pace and move on from village to village, sleep in a Hindu temple, in a coconut farm, later on the beach, etc. Living the good and simple life for under 400 rupees (5€) per day. The southern half of the country has a tropical climate and we are delighted to experience new fauna and flora. The monkeys are ever-present and we learn that they can prove sneaky when food is involved. While we are enjoying a waterfall in Mollem National Park, a whole monkey family starts prowling around our bags drawn by the smell of bananas. The strongest one glares at us and starts helping himself in David’s bag. We watch helpless at first, then finally manage to scare the banana thief away. At least he did not snatch a phone or a camera as can happen in the area.
On the coast of Goa and in most touristic areas, interactions with locals come up when they are trying to sell something to us. It is not very pleasant to be regarded solely as a walking wallet, especially when then latter is not particularly full! Few tourists venture into the villages we are exploring now and the encounters we make here are genuine and friendly.
We arrive in Chandor on December 23 while the small village home to 700 souls located in the middle of the jungle is getting ready for Christmas. Goa is a former Portuguese colony and a significant Christian minority remains there. Christmas will be tropical in character this year! I am curious to witness how people celebrate on the other side of the planet. Numerous houses are decorated with fairy lights, palm trees are ornamented with colourful stars… I attend my first midnight mass in India! On the following day, the villagers invite us to their Christmas dinner. We are having a real feast: rice, chapattis and half a dozen different curries of vegetables, shrimps, fish, chicken, not forgetting fruit and unlimited beer. A small stage has been set up and groups of children and adults alike are dancing, singing and performing short skits. We don’t understand a word of Konkani, the local language, but the festive atmosphere, the energy of the actors and the general laughter are enough for us to a spend a memorable night. David and I hit the road again towards the beaches of South Goa for the last days of the year before going our separate ways.
Since the start of my trip, I have enjoyed learning the basics of local languages but it is no easy task in India. First of all, in terms of motivation; as another legacy of colonial times, English is widely spoken throughout the country. Second, because of the country’s extraordinary linguistic diversity. Hindi is the most geographically widespread language and is used by political institutions; however, the vernacular changes from state to state. India has 23 official languages, some of which use different alphabets, not to mention dialects and variations within each state. While some Indians master Hindi as a second language, it is by no means the case of all. Thus, it is common to hear two Indians having a conversation in English: coming from different regions and not necessarily having a good level of Hindi, English is sometimes the only language they have in common. Needless to say, this is all quite confusing. I decide to learn some Hindi which will prove especially useful in the north for the second part of my trip. Much to my surprise, Hindi has numerous lexical similarities with Farsi which I started learning in Iran. Counting from one to five in Farsi : Yek, Doh, Seh, Tchahar, Penj becomes Ek, Doh, Tin, Tchahar, Penj in Hindi; Dust (friend) becomes Dost, etc. Both languages are Indo-European and have their roots in Sanskrit. Besides Farsi used to be the administrative language in India for several centuries during the Mughal era before the arrival of the British.
I am travelling further south to Udupi in the neighbouring state of Karnataka where I will be volunteering in a farm. A good way to limit my expenses and delve into Indian culture by sharing the day-to-day life of a local family. Ganesh welcomes me in his farm in the small village of Padubelle where he lives with his wife, his son and his parents. My job consists in cutting weeds with a machete for a couple of hours a day in exchange for food and accommodation. The task is physical but not unpleasant. I am happy to have a little routine that allows me to enjoy the peaceful surroundings and take part in local customs. We eat cross-legged on the floor using no cutlery. I am struggling a little bit to learn how to eat solely with my right hand, the left one being regarded as impure. The family has a vegan diet except for dairy products and most meals are made up of rice and a spicy vegetable sauce, even for breakfast at 7AM before going to work! Ganesh teaches me the basics of yoga and meditation every morning during sunrise on the roof of the house in a heavenly environment of misty rice fields, coconut trees and exotic bird songs.
Indian culture is rich in festivals, and I’m lucky Ganesh and his dad take me to local celebrations. We first attend a Hindu festival in Udupi, the largest city in the area. The Paryaya Pura Pravesha takes place every other year to celebrate the nomination of the new Swami, a local religious personality. During the festival a procession of hundreds of men, women and children dressed up in Hindu divinities and percussion groups followed by the Swami perched atop a float parade through the city.
A few days later we are going to a different village to attend a buffalo racing competition called Kambala. The races are held between two men who are holding two buffaloes each and try to complete a sprint as fast as they can over a one hundred-meter mud-path. Candidates sometimes fail to keep up with the speed of their buffaloes, trip and fall in the mud causing delighted laughter from the audience.
My next stop is Hampi, about one day’s driving to the northeast of Padubelle. After hitchhking some of the way, I end up taking a bus because it is really taking too much time. The road for the last 100 kilometers is horrendously bumpy. We drive on a pothole every couple of meters: my bag keeps jumping in all directions and I am scared for my guitar… We eventually reach our destination after a never-ending four-hour drive. Hampi is the former capital of the Vijayanâgara kingdom, one of the largest Hindu empires that reached its pinnacle during the 16th century. Its population stood at half a million people at the time which made the second most populous city in the world after Beijing. Hampi has earned itself a place on the list of the UNESCO World Heritage sites thanks to its hundreds of temples that remain in good condition.
Unfortunately, I suffer from food poisoning probably because of some street food and I spend my first two days bed-ridden. An Indian experience is said to be incomplete until you have gone through it, so I guess that is now done, and I am sure my immune system will be come out stronger. The atmosphere in the hostel where I am staying for a couple of days is amazing, many of us have brought their instruments and we are having some of the best jam sessions I have had in a while.
I now have less than a month left to make it to Nepal before my visa expires. I decide to save time by taking a direct train to Rajasthan in the northwest of the country. The journey takes about 35 hours to cover 1500 kilometers. Indian trains have sleeper carriages equipped with small bunk beds where you can get some sleep. Two nights and a day on the train go by quite fast and I can’t get enough of watching the scenery passing by before my eyes from the window or the open door between the carriages. Palm trees get less and less common, the tropical climate wanes giving way to a more temperate then arid zone.
India’s natural beauty is outstanding. If there is one thing that truly appalled during my time in this country is the way many of the locals treat their environment. Carelessness reigns, trash is ubiquitous. Done with your chai cardboard cup? Just throw it out of the window. Finished with your paan bag (aromatised chewing tobacco very popular in the country), why bother with the bin five meters away when you can dump it on the floor? The most outrageous scene I witness takes place on the train to Rajasthan. I am brushing my teeth between two carriages when a train employee passes by and notices that the bin bag is full to breaking point. Without giving it too much thought, he grabs it and throws it out of the window… I stand speechless and can’t help asking him what is the point of putting a bin bag if he’s throwing everything outside in the end anyway. He grins and tells me someone will pick it up. Given the piles of trash accumulating on both sides of the railway for hundreds of kilometers, there is good reason to doubt it.
I start exploring the state of Rajasthan with the small town of Mount Abu perched in the mountains, then Udaipur, a beautiful city with numerous lakes, Ranakpur and its magnificent Hindu temple… I use Couchsurfing in Jodhpur for a few days. The arid climate due to the proximity with the Thar Desert, the architecture and the substantial Muslim minority give the city a familiar middle-eastern air. There is a lot of life on the roofs and dozens of kites take to the skies during sunset. Strolling around the city’s narrow streets gives an opportunity to appreciate the religious diversity of the Indian sub-continent. The different communities seem not to mingle and remain geographically separated. After walking through the city center and its many Hindu temples, I take a turn left in a small street and find myself all of a sudden in the Muslim neighbourhood. Men wear the Topi, a small white hat, goats are roaming freely around and the call to prayer echoes from the top of the minaret.
The train journey to Ajmer near Pushkar takes only four or five hours, so I decide to get a General sitting ticket, the lowest class with no assigned seat. The journey unfolds smoothly and most passengers have a seat and I can’t imagine what is awaiting us in Ajmer. As we enter the train station, a mob starts boarding the train before it has even stopped. The mad crowd don’t let passengers get out and fight, literally, for the precious seats: I witness people slapping each other in the face. Some adopt different strategies and grab a seat through the window while their friend is getting on the train. To get out, there is no choice: I have to fight my way out, push harder and shout louder than other people do. After a few intense minutes, I finally manage to drag myself out the packed train. Indian demographics pose enormous challenges to society. Those who can afford it get a ticket in a higher class yet the ludicrous scene that takes place at the train station in Ajmer represents what many people have to endure on a daily basis.
Pushkar is a quiet town built around a sacred Hindu lake. I spend a few days in a nice hostel; we are having a bonfire and play music every night. I would happily stay longer but my visa is expiring soon. After a last stop in Rajasthan in Jaipur, I am taking the train to Varanasi in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. All trains going to or from Varanasi are known to be notoriously late. Mine is no exception to the rule, we reach our destination with a mere nine-hour delay! The conception of time is blurred here and no one seems to be even slightly upset.
I spend my last week in Varanasi. Built on the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi has significant religious importance. As the holiest Hindu city, it attracts hundreds of pilgrims every day who come to worship Shiva and perform rituals along the Ghats, stone steps leading down to the river. In Hinduism, Ganga is seen as a divinity and believers take a dip in its sacred water in the hope of having their sins washed away. Hindus also see the city as the perfect place to die. Numerous Indians make their way to one of the city’s hospices when they feel they approach the end of their existence. Cremations are carried out in public without interruption on the Ghats and the ashes are then scattered in the river. Attitudes towards death are at odds with European conceptions. Grief or sorrow seem to be absent; death is celebrated with the same spirit as a birth. Young men sing cheerfully while carrying the corpses wrapped in colourful clothing on stretchers and the eldest son has to set the pyre ablaze with the holy flame which is said to have been burning for thousands of years. According to Hinduism, those who pass away in Varanasi will achieve Moksha, thus freeing their soul from the cycle of reincarnations.
I leave Varanasi for the border with Nepal with the Gorakhpur Express and I wonder how the train earned its name. It takes us more than 6 hours to cover 150 kilometers… As for most things in India, patience is key, but those ready to play by its rules and flow with the current will most certainly have an intense yet unforgettable experience.