Irresponsible Impressions of India: Part I
The most salient words of advice I received before travelling to India came, unsurprisingly, from an Indian friend. “Oh god,” she said, as we discussed my impending trip to her native place. “Just don’t become a hippy.”
The rest of the miscellaneous imperatives, warnings, and tips that flew my way—because everyone has been to India, or read about India, or thought about maybe going to India—expounded haphazardly on subjects varying from the climate, the food, the hygiene (or lack thereof), the dirt (the abundance thereof), and the general hectic-ness of the place. In the light of the reality, these notices generally appear hyperbolic, even catastrophist. But the hippy thing? Having initially laughed it off as ridiculous, within a week I was wearing harem pants, accepting puffs of ludicrously cheap Indian ganja, and lazily discussing the merits of vipassana, a ten-day silent meditation course.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I flew into Mumbai/Bombay at midnight. My taxi into town took an hour more than necessary because my driver spoke no English and my entire Hindi/Marathi vocabulary is composed strictly of words about food. This proved to be an interesting introduction to the country because we stopped every few meters to ask random gentlemen for directions and in so doing I learnt several things: 1. Everyone is very eager to assist, even if they don’t know anything pertaining to the issue at hand; 2. It is thus not always salient to trust one opinion, making crowd-sourcing an optimal strategy; 3. Indian English differs dramatically from any other English known to man, and it is wise to pick a shiny, new, black SUV if you wish to be understood; 4. Vocal responses are not the norm anyway, because most queries can be answered by a head wobble. Depending on speed and magnitude, the wobble can mean a number of things: yes, no, sorry, thank you. (Undoubtedly with much time, one comes to pick up the subtleties and thus the significance of different wobbles. I am still very much in the dark on this, and generally tend to decide in favour of whatever is most convenient for me to believe.) Oh, and 5. You may think you see demarcated lanes on an Indian road, but these are merely an illusion.
Illusory, too, is the sensation that one “knows” India simply by virtue of having read about it. Bombay was perhaps the city most familiar to me due to its representation in fiction and non-fiction, but I still had not a clue what was happening.
Having spent one night in an inordinately expensive hotel, the very next morning I moved two buildings down to the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House: a backpacker institution due to its 250 rupee (or NZ$5) per night dorms—a steal anywhere, but especially in pricey Bombay. The Red Shield takes no reservations, so your only option is to turn up at 9am—check-out time—and try to snag a (very firm) bunk. Amenities include a bucket shower, a toilet (Indian-style), the interminable noise of road-works, and an egg for breakfast. Towels, sheets, toilet paper etc. are BYO.
By some strange, yet typical, stroke of fortune, the Red Shield loiters not five meters from the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, height of luxury and site of the 2008 Bombay bombings. Security is now, needless to say, insane, and even access to the adjacent Starbucks involves a vigilant guard and metal-detector routine. My two days in Bombay were spent mainly in organising things (train tickets, a cell phone, etc.) which gave me an appreciation for the wily entrepreneurial Indian spirit; eating things (most significantly the best thali [set-meal] in the world) which gave me an appreciation for the vast accumulated skill required to eat with only one hand; and looking at things (cows, cricket, courts, coconuts, large quantities of sugar cane…).
The weather was humid and misty: sunrise and sunset casting pastel light across the sea and sky. I assumed this was the norm, until a middle-aged British woman—an Indian adventurer of old, and a Red Shield inhabitant—informed me otherwise. Understanding that she had been coming to India for twenty or so years, I asked which were her favourite areas. “Oh, I don’t like India,” she told me, with a sniff, “I only come to visit a friend.”
In no other country have I so frequently met with this kind of traveller response, even if it is not usually so frankly expressed. A latent sense of antipathy, or ambivalence, often seems to hover under external appraisals of India. The next day, I am travelling by train—in relative luxury on AC Tier-2—south from Mumbai down the Konkan coast towards Goa. A young Swedish woman shares my bunk. She has freshly arrived from the easy, party-atmosphere of Thailand and is still somewhat shell-shocked by comparatively unforgiving India. “Maybe I should have read more about it?” she says, looking as though someone has lied to her. But she’s here now, for better or worse, and headed for two months of non-stop yoga.
This sense of difficulty, of difference, is perhaps also why travellers to India so often flock together, moving in large migratory herds through the amenable trails of the subcontinent. This tendency means, of course, that it is fairly simple to suddenly swerve out of the current. Goa—a state whose old Portuguese roots are still present in its devout Christianity, its lax alcohol taxes, and its colourful architecture—is a tourism mecca; resorts (often filled with an unlikely combination of overweight Russians and domestic tourists who laugh at them) cling to the palm-fringed coastline. Just inland, in Margao—south Goa’s largest city—the tourism infrastructure largely falls away. The town is just a “transit hub,” in Lonely Planet speak. These dusty, forgotten towns are coming to be some of my favourite destinations—life crowded into the bustling fringes of bus stands and railway stations. And, in Margao’s case, a gorgeous, higgledy-piggeldy bookshop and quiet public library.
From here, a night bus carries me firmly back onto the well-worn path, to Hampi: a Hindu holy place and backpacker haven. Hampi is scattered with rock formations said to have been created by Hanuman, the monkey god, and these natural wonders are interspersed with the man-made detritus of a defunct Hindu civilization. It is a truly breathtaking landscape, peopled with domestic pilgrims, foreign tourists, and fake babas (holy men). Chief transport between various parts of the area is by round boats that look much like oversize coconuts, steered by skilled punters. Ducking out of the bustling bazaar area and the main guest-house hub (where restaurants serve hummus and felafel in deference to the large number of Israeli travellers, and “special” lassis laced with bhang for the discerning stoner), I head for Hanumanahalli, a nearby village.
Hanumanahalli is truly hippy heaven: a small ragtag assortment of houses hugging a little sealed road, with several guesthouses dispersed amongst the nonchalant life of the town. Walking around often entails balancing on the soil dividers between flooded rice paddies. Beautiful white cows live just next door, and in the morning I see a woman in an orange sari intently circling each cow’s head with a stick of incense. Visitors here are often rock-climbers attracted by the good bouldering opportunities, or simply those wanting to take things extremely shanti shanti (slowly, slowly). Days are spent lying in hammocks, practising yoga, reading, smoking, swimming, walking, climbing. One woman is rumoured to have been living in a one-room house at the top of the hill for six-months, but no one has ever spoken to her and she is seldom sighted. Herds of water buffalo, kept in line by sharp-voiced women, wander sleepily through the fields. There is an ashram nearby, and an attendant camel occasionally, surreally sways by. The village has essentially three restaurants, each serving strange Indo-tourist food fusions: set thali with couscous, Western-style fruit salad with muesli and curd (yoghurt), banana lassi, egg fried rice. A small river runs through the shallow valley, where villages and tourists alike wash themselves, their clothing, and often their cattle (in the case of the villagers).
Presiding over this bucolic wonderland is a white temple dedicated to Hanuman, from which one can see the strange tumble-down hills and the gleaming rice paddies and the planned perfection of the old temples spreading out into the distance. In the dawn light, boys in orange chant in the hilltop holy place, while hordes of monkeys scamper over the rocks outside.
On our way out of Hampi, we wait for a bus in Hospet—another transit town—and wander the back-alleys, delighting children and sampling the gobi manchuri (fiery Chinese-style fried cauliflower, a street food seen all around this area).
Then on to Mysore—a city in the far south of Karnataka most well-known for its palace but trading in a number of other goods including yoga, silk and essential oils. To my mind, it is perhaps most remarkable for the willingness of our hotel owner to give us two 750-rupee rooms (housing six people) for 800 rupees all up. But the palace is indeed spectacular: the work of a British man, whose Indo-Saracenic design (an insane, ornate, fanciful fusion of Hindu and Muslim architectural styles) is a monumental physical manifestation of the West’s dreams of the East.
The market was also visually stunning: a panoply of fruits, vegetables, flowers, spices and herbs, many of which I had no name for. White cows painted brilliant yellow picked their way through the stalls.
Then, a series of local buses: through the nature reserves on the borders of Karnataka and Kerala, stopping first at Sultanbatheri (which, yes, sounds much like “assault and battery”), before jumping onto a new bus and weaving up through hills swathed in tea-plantations and coffee groves to a small town called Gudalur, then yet another bus, careening perilously along ever-narrowing roads through huge groves of towering eucalyptus, headed up into the chill air of the Nilgiri Hills.