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Whenever I met a fellow traveller who mentioned they’d been to India, it was usually followed by, “oh man, you have to go, the poverty, it changes you. It puts things into perspective.”
The other fact every traveller mentioned was “getting sick was a right of passage. You can’t say you’ve been to India if you didn’t get sick.”
For that reason alone I avoided India for many years because I never wanted to be one of those traveller’s.
However one year whilst working as a travel agent, fate insisted I go there.
As part of my salary package for an independent UK specialist travel agency, I received a free airline ticket from Australia to the UK every year. It sounds amazing, but there was of course a budget of $1500 so anything over that was at my own expense. It didn’t cover accommodation or meals or anything else, just a flight. I also only had the customary four week annual leave so it meant that every year I had to go to Europe for my vacation. I know, first world problems.
Anyway, in ’07, I wasn’t planning on using my free ticket because all my holidays were booked up with overseas friends visiting. I also needed to save money for the domestic travel I’d planned with them. However come July I thought “this is ridiculous, I have a free ticket, even if I go for a week, I may as well use it.”
I usually flew to the UK with Finnair because they were the cheapest and offered flexibility, however as I’d left it so late to book (departing in September) there was no seat availability for the cheaper fare.
But I was determined. I searched every date range, every possible transit point including every gateway in Asia and I also checked via North and South America but nothing. Until as a last resort I checked seat availability going via India. Boom.
I could fly into Mumbai, and out of Delhi 12 days later. I’d never considered that I’d actually see the Taj Mahal but now the option was a reality, I was a little excited by the idea.
I’d also had a lull with photography. I’d lost my inspiration. Whilst chatting to my American friend, Jennifer about my upcoming trip to India, she mentioned a documentary-Born Into Brothels, about a photographer who went to Calcutta to make a photographic study of prostitutes. Once there, she found many had children, which in the eyes of the government were illegitimate and so weren’t officially recognised meaning they couldn’t get birth certificates, which meant they couldn’t enrol in school. Basically they were destined for a life of poverty.
The kids were fascinated by her camera and whilst they didn’t speak English, she learnt enough Bengali to teach them how to use a basic camera. She bought them all instant cameras and sent them out to take photos of daily life in India.
The images they captured were incredible, full of colours and could easily have been taken by a proffessional. The photographer held an exhibition in New York and auctioned them off, raising enough money to bribe enough officials to get the kids registered and enrolled in school; giving them an opportunity for a better life.
After watching that documentary I was sold. India was what I needed to inspire me to take photos again.
Arriving into Mumbai around 1am, my taxi from the airport broke down three times on the way to my hotel and then my driver had the audacity to ask for a tip, because “you arrived at your hotel.”
It would be another three days before anyone asked me for money, despite wandering past slums and catching trains because I hadn’t yet wandered into the tourist areas. I was beginning to feel perhaps my money wasn’t good enough. Only when I wandered down the main tourist strip was I swarmed by children, holding out their hands, looking sad, whilst they collectively executed their plan to empty my pockets.
As soon as I handed over my loot, which realistically was only about AUD5, they were off, in search of the next tourist. It became a game and the next time they saw me, I told them “I’ve already given you money.” So the time after that, they brought additional friends, and declared, “see you’ve never seen her, you haven’t given her money.”
I’d heard many stories about traveller’s getting sick in India, but I was adamant, that wasn’t going to be me. Before I arrived, I’d decided I was sticking to a full vegetarian diet to lessen my chances of getting sick.
Being a vegetarian in India was easy. Despite most dishes at your typical Indian takeaway back home consisting of meat, it was less common on the streets of Mumbai. I found 100% vegetarian restaurants and knowing there’s no meat on any menu item, I picked foods at random, which made each meal a surprise.
A lucky dip that paid off. Even if you’re a fan of Indian food, nothing I’d eaten before was comparable to the food I ate, whilst travelling in India. There are few words to accurately describe the experience, but it was an explosion of senses. Not from the spices but the flavours. It was like seeing a Van Gogh painting in real life. It was overwhelming. My brain didn’t know how to comprehend the plethora of sweet, nutty, spicy, creamy, sour and salty all rolled into a single mouthful.12Go Asia – Book Your Indian Railways Ticket with Ease.
I had goosebumps and then tears welled up, not from chilli but because I’d never eaten anything so rich with flavour, it was emotionally overwhelming.
I stuck to restaurants that looked clean, and were full of locals and almost every dining experience was the same. A barrage of flavours and smells that defied explanation because they didn’t exist in western meals.
Twelve days I was in India, and not once did I get sick…until the plane trip out. I was overconfident and bought a blueberry muffin at the airport. A muffin that in hind site had possibly been sitting there for days, if not weeks. As I took a bite, something registered that it wasn’t quite right. I took another, and from memory I threw the rest out.
I still claim an illness-free trip to India because by the time it hit me, we were long gone from Indian airspace.
I took all the usual precautions throughout my stay like boiled water (plenty of chai), cooked food, no ice and even though I’d packed plenty of ‘medication’, I ended up using it in Wales rather than the expected, India.
Navigating the Indian Railway website (I still get emails from them), bribing my way onto the set of a Bollywood Movie, Flying on SpiceJet all these stories and more in my upcoming novel.
As for the photos I took in India, that’s a whole other chapter but here’s a few to tempt you: