Travel Tales from the Subcontinent: Backpacking around India
You can travel around some countries observing the culture and customs from afar, slowly getting a feel for the place from a safe distance. India isn’t one of those countries. It really is a place like no other; a huge nation of over a billion people, all wanting to know your name, what you do for a living and why you aren’t married.
India is a diverse country that bombards the senses constantly and completely; the people are incredibly curious, the food is delectable (and cheap), the history is staggering, the wildlife is jaw-dropping, the poverty is desperate, the landscape is inspiring and the mix of it all together is intoxicating.
Many travellers go to India to try to find answers about life and about themselves, but India really is a mystery in itself, continually presenting more questions than answers. Don't bother trying to figure this country out, just embrace the unfathomable and experience a unique culture that is anything but dull.
Below are some of my experiences from travelling around this wonderful country...
Travelling by Train
Travelling by train in India can be a very rewarding experience. You will always meet enquiring people and see a lot of the country and its wonderful landscape, especially in Sleeper class where you can sit in the open carriage doorway and enjoy the breeze as the wheels clackety-clack below you.
However, India is a massive country and Indian Railways is not well known for its punctuality, especially in more remote areas. Just because you have a ticket that says your train will be leaving at 9am on Monday, do not always expect that there will be a train to catch at 9am on Monday. Make sure you have something to keep you occupied as it is not unusual for trains to be many hours late leaving and arriving. *NOTE* this observation can apply equally well to travelling by train in the UK.
Visiting the Taj Mahal
If, for some reason you are thinking of not seeing the Taj Mahal on your trip to India, then think again. Some global icons such as the Pyramids in Egypt or Stonehenge in England have been known to leave some visitors feeling less than impressed. The Taj Mahal is one monument which is so magnificent that it is simply impossible to feel underwhelmed.
Completed in 1653, it was built by the grief-stricken Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, who died during childbirth. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to view as the familiar white marble falls into shadow or reflects the sun creating beautiful tints of pink and orange. Stunning night time viewings are also possible a few days per month either side of the full moon. Even if you are someone who doesn’t do ‘tourist traps’, this really is not to be missed. Simply amazing.
Using the Toilet on your Train Journey
To the Western visitor used to their throne-like privations, a squat toilet can be a challenge. A squat toilet frequently used by hundreds of people is, in urgent circumstances, just about bearable. But a squat toilet, frequently used by hundreds of people while constantly shunting back and forth at the end of a Sleeper-class train carriage will test even the hardiest traveller. The surrounding smell and mess penetrate your mind when you are trying to ‘aim’ which makes you only contribute more smell and mess. It is around this time that you may lose your appetite and start to feel a little homesick...
As beautiful and fascinating as it may be, India can be overwhelming and somewhat relentless at times, particularly to the first time visitor. Indeed, the debilitating heat and bouts of pollution (in the larger cities) combined with the incessant noise and lack of personal space can conspire to make you feel like exploding at times. Despite this however, it is important to remember that you are India’s guest so the onus is on you to adapt to its culture, not the other way round.
While the heat, noise and pollution tend to abate as the sun goes down, the attention of touts and beggars remains near-constant as many Indians, particularly those who live a ‘hand-to-mouth’ existence, identify Westerners as being far more affluent than themselves. They know that what you may consider to be relatively small change, to them could be equal to many weeks’ earnings (or more). You will have your own thoughts on whether to indulge touts or beggars, but if it does all get on top of you and you find yourself ready to blow, try and remember that you always have the option of getting away from it all; for far too many here, it is all they will ever know.
Crossing the Street
The frantic anarchy of traffic in India’s city streets is amazing. All manner of vehicles and livestock compete for the privilege of travelling in a straight line, accompanied by the drilling heartbeat of honking horns. Patrolling these highways and byways like barracuda are autorickshaws. An autorickshaw, also known as a tuk-tuk, is a small three-wheeled motorcycle taxi with a covered carriage on the back for two passengers and luggage. Auto-rickshaw drivers across India have a game; when they see a Western traveller with a massive backpack, they insanely try their hardest to be the first to run them over.
That is the conclusion I came to after naively trying to cross city streets on foot. If you are familiar with the classic video game Frogger then you may have some idea of what to expect, only with cows instead of crocodiles. Study the traffic flow, pick your moment, a cautious step forward, a horn screeches, a jump backward, scurry along sideways to try and find another gap in the traffic, another step forward, an angry cow lets off a moo, a jump back, scurry the other way, etc. If there is any alternative to crossing the street then find it because the victorious rickshaw driver will probably want to haggle a fee to reverse his vehicle off your flattened body.
Like nowhere else, India really gets into your soul and makes you feel alive, mostly with amazement but also, quite frequently, with anger and frustration. In all probability, it will only be after you have left India that you will realise just what an unequivocally amazing place it really is.