Upon arrival, Mumbai gave no quarter.
There was a huge queue at the single working ATM in Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. In an effort to fight counterfeiting and the black market, the Indian Government had, without warning, ordered the removal of two of the most commonly used Rupee bills. This amounted to 86% of the notes in circulation becoming unusable overnight. Chaos -and serpentine ATM queues – ensued. It was a baptism of fire to five months’ travelling in India, following a coastal itinerary down the West to the southern tip, back up via the Eastern railway and across the North.
The queueing at ATMs, banks, post offices and elsewhere was invariably chaotic; people stepped in front of others, pushed to the front, but never seemed to become indignant. I’d read somewhere that if you lose your temper in India, you lose the argument. If you feel wronged, stay calm, keep smiling and insist. Any anger or sense of entitlement will get you nowhere. Your individual value, so sacrosanct in the West is minimized in India by the sheer size of the throng in which you move at all times.
It’s tough to get your head around the immensity of a metropolis like Mumbai (18 million people, four times the population of Ireland in a single city). The logistics of such a conurbation range from the astonishing complexity of the dabbawalla food delivery system to entire crowds of people running and jumping on to moving urban trains. The Dharavi slum, the third-largest in the world, seems intimidating until you realise that it’s a flourishing economic hub, sectioned into areas specialising in recycling, pottery etc. Walking through these districts is not just safe, but filled with people who want to meet and chat with you.
And chat you must, because if you’re in India, you’re there 100%. There is simply no avoiding participation. As a Westerner, everyone wants to talk to you. Everyone wants a photo. Everyone wants to know where you’re from, what age you are, are you married, why aren’t you married, at your age you really should be married.
This, and other Indian social phenomena: the constant selfies, full-on staring, incredibly candid conversation, are simply what happens in a country with 1.4 billion people. It’s an emergent property of having so little personal space. Western social norms are simply a non-issue.
After the madness of Mumbai, Goa was a world unto itself. It’s replete with Western amenities and mobbed by holidaying Russians, so much so that the restaurant menus have sections translated for them. I spent New Year’s Eve there, drinking beers and bhang lassi, watching fireworks over the ocean four and a half hours before the celebrations at home.
The sheer scale of India is hard to comprehend. I soon realised that adding a seemingly nearby destination to my itinerary could in reality require five hours’ travel on a train and another three on a bus (and then some walking).
The food is incredible. Every meal, from street food to upmarket restaurants was delicious. The Thali, a traditional platter of small dishes that varies according to region became a staple. I ate handsomely and after two months of rude health, thought I might be immune from the dreaded Delhi Belly. Wrong. I subsequently became ill four times, three of those in the space of one month. After one large dinner I had a spectacular, Exorcist-inspired episode on a train from Varanasi to Agra: I was sick for days and couldn’t look at dhal for weeks.
And yet, you get used to being slightly ill at ease all the time. Your body accustoms to the blast-furnace heat and spicy food. A churning stomach isn’t necessarily a warning; it’s a gentle reminder of where you are.
The monkeys are cheeky. At one guesthouse, a bunch of Macaques robbed my lucky green travel towel from my balcony. In Ooty, one ran up my leg, over my shoulder and slapped a bowl of sliced pineapple out of my hand. And in one temple I saw a monkey steal a lady’s handbag, get 20 feet away, then turn back to hiss at her malevolently before continuing to abscond.
This was my first trip abandoning my trusty DSLR and shooting everything on my phone (a Samsung Galaxy S6) and by the end of the trip I was sorting through over 4,000 photographs. India is truly a photographer’s paradise. The selfie culture is so prevalent that people tend not to mind having their photo taken, and the activity, landscape and colours demand your constant attention.
In particular, Hampi was knock-down drag-out amazing. Once the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, its vast temples are straight out of Indiana Jones. The topology is astonishing: hills composed of thousands of boulders appear so geologically alien it’s hard to believe they’re not the result of some massive, ancient feat of engineering.
I toured down through beautiful Kerala and spent two weeks in Kanyakumari, at the very southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. Here, a portion of Gandhi’s ashes was stored for time and from the memorial building on the coast you can watch the sunset where the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal & Indian Ocean meet.
India is full of such stunning panoramas: the tea estates of Darjeeling, the Portuguese citadel of Old Goa, even the urban sprawl of New Delhi. And of course, sunrise at the Taj Mahal is a jaw-dropping experience. No matter how familiar with it you are through pictures, the scale, beauty and intricacy of the actual building is breathtaking. In Varanasi, the Boschian views of burning bodies at the Ganges at sunset was staggering, the labyrinthine streets by the ghats a challenge to traverse once a cow or motorbike came against you. And the cows are everywhere: Huge, docile beasts resting in the middle of the street, not bothered about anything much. It’s a strange experience to sit outside and have a calf stroll up and nuzzle you in the same way a dog or cat might at home.
Further North, Nepalese and Tibetan culture becomes palpable. There’s a strong Buddhist influence here, with ashrams and meditation centres everywhere. I also got to experience Holi festival while in West Bengal, an explosion of colour and music that felt like the entirety of Electric Picnic being pumped through the tiny, labyrinthine streets of Darjeeling.In Delhi, Kolkata and other large cities, tuktuks, motorbikes and taxis move in impossibly close proximity and incredibly large groups. I heard someone compare the traffic in Indian cities to the murmurations of starlings: massive, self-directed and moving with a singular awareness.
The patience required by the gridlock crawl in some measure prepared me for another aspect of touring India: the bureaucracy. The simplest things could take eye-watering amounts of time. In Madurai I posted home a pair of hiking boots and some books. It took a total of: 1200 rupees, 5 hours, 3 staff members, 2 photocopies of my passport & visa – and one bribe for another employee who surreptitiously wrote ‘100’ on his hand and refused to close the parcel until I handed it over.
I left the Post Office, fuming that I’d wasted an entire day on this red tape. Eager to get home, I hailed a tuktuk but as we moved off the driver informed me that he needed to collect his kids from school en route. We picked up the children who were flabbergasted at the presence of a white man in the vehicle. Immediately they wanted to practice their English, chat, play and sing with me. By the time I got to my hostel I was high-fiving the kids, the driver was shaking my hand and I felt like I’d had the best day ever.
And that’s India in a nutshell. Travel anywhere in the world feels like the compression of experience; life sped up. Travel in India has that same quickening, but squared. The constant attention, the heat, the intensity; if you’re sick or not in the mood it’s certainly exhausting. But if you’re up for the challenge, the exploration, the sociability that India offers and demands, there’s nowhere else in the world like it.
Thanks to Morna O’ Connor for editorial goodness.
Shaun’s photography exhibition ‘Personal Space: Travels In India’ launches at 5pm Wed 4th October in St. Peters, North Main St Cork and runs until 30th October.