Having left the peace and serenity of the Kerela backwaters houseboat, which I must say was much needed after an over night stint in the craziness of Mumbai’s airport, we ventured to Fort Cochin to enjoy the new years eve celebrations.
After enjoying a lovely dinner and a bottle of wine or two we headed down to the beach to see in midnight. We were surprised to see Cochin’s very own Burning Man, who was, what can only be described as, dangerously set alight at midnight to the crackling of fireworks and the intense smell of gasoline. It didn’t quite hold it’s own to that of the official Burning Man but it wasn’t a bad place to see in the new year, with an incredible atmosphere, supported by 30,000 festive locals.
With a ratio of roughly 500 men to each woman and 5000 Indian’s to each westerner I guess it’s not at all surprising that the local men got a bit amorous. Everyone wanted to have their pictures taken with us – 3 blondes, a brunette, a trendy mixed race guy and a gentle, bearded giant.
To begin with it was really quite manageable. A few hands that somehow managed to find their selves on our backsides or even holding our hands and a few cheeky kisses planted on our cheeks but as the crowds started to grow around us, things started to get a little more intense. I celebrated the stroke of midnight to a rather fat local man, using the opportunity of an incredibly intense crowd, to grab my crotch and pull me aggressively against his groin whilst he grinded against me. I think he saw the fact that I was unable to do anything about it as I was trapped in the crowd as a green light to then go ahead and grab my boobs. As soon as I was released from the grips of the crowd I told him to DO ONE (although a little less politely) and he suddenly shrunk in size and scuttled off into the crowd.
We decided it was time to leave after that and whilst it was lovely to see a young girl pushing her way through the crowd just to wish me a happy new year and give me an apple, things were soured again as we had to force our way through thousands of over excited men to get off the beach, who were, once again, offered anonymity in the form of a crowd. I was surprised that I didn’t wake the following morning to tens of handprints across my backside.
My heart was warmed the next day though (as we travelled for 16 hours by coach from Cochin to Gokana with no toilet) as hundreds of kids, already crammed into an old, yellow school bus, squashed themselves further by hanging out the windows to shout hello and happy new year to us over and over again in unison. They were just so excited to see us – it was beautiful.
I’m pleased to say that thus far there have been no more unpleasant incidents and the locals have proven to be warm and generous of nature.
Traveling in India is a sensory overload – so many amazing colours, sounds and smells that words and pictures can’t do justice to.
Riding scooters around is a great way to feel involved in the craziness that is India although you’re certainly taking your life into your own hands every time you do so. The roads are insane and it’s not uncommon to see bus after bus turned over on the road as the drivers have fallen asleep.
On one over night bus the driver broke so hard that his co-driver, who was sleeping on a mattress on the floor half way up the bus, gave the Jamaican bobsleigh team a run for their money as he flew down the bus and whacked his head on the dashboard. It took him several minutes to come round.
Clearly concussed, he kicked us out in the middle of nowhere in the pitch black at 4am with nothing around for miles except 4 men sat by candlelight in a desolate restaurant. Assuming the worst, we set about making weapons to protect ourselves out of iphone chargers and tweezers and Anna alerted several friends back in the UK, who were on the back end of a 2 day new years eve bender, that if they didn’t hear from us in one hour they should alert the consulate. I guess we’re lucky that these men were not the mass murderers that we had built them up to be as I’m not quite sure how much damage we could inflict with a pair of tweezers!
Predictably, it didn’t take us long to be dragged into the Goan party scene. At one of Goa’s finest establishments we started a drink spitting competition. It’s not something I usually like to brag about but I have a bit of a raw talent for spitting drink through the small gap in my tooth.. After several enjoyable rounds, with the competition reaching boiling point, I realised that my opponent was going to use underhand tactics to win the competition. I covered my eyes and after several minutes of making him promise not to spit in my eyes, he finally convinced me that he wouldn’t and so I let my guard down. As soon as I did so he spat rum directly in my eye. Lesson learned – never trust a man!
Having ridiculously sensitive eyes, I had to leave the club and get a taxi back by myself. No doubt the taxi driver dropped me right outside my hotel but blind in one eye and completely disorientated after a night of drinking, I wondered around the dark alleys, feeling a little uneasy for about 15 minutes, trying to find my hut. Out of nowhere, 3 stray dogs appeared and stayed by my side until I eventually found my room. As soon as I did, the dogs rubbed their noses against my leg and then ran off into the night, leaving me with a sense of peace that my guardian angels will always be around when I need them.
We were all a little apprehensive about leaving the beaches of the south for the chaos of the north. We knew about the poverty before we arrived – everyone does – but nothing could prepare us for the hoards of impoverished families lining the Ghats (bank of the Gange river) in Varanasi. So many beautiful, filthy children running around with begging bowls, many of them wearing clothes and shoes 5 times too big for them. Their childhood stripped away as they are put to work for their survival at such an early age.
It was such a beautiful thing to see the innocence of childhood still come through as I made friends with a young street boy of around 4 years old in Jaipur. He spotted me through the crowd and I watched him tap his mother and point in my direction as the clever little git recognised straight away that I would be a push over for money.
During the half an hour that we waited for our bus I would wave at him and we developed a game of me waving and him hiding shyly under his hood and then looking back at me with a big smile on his face for the game to continue. Over that 30 minutes, I watched a hard faced, astute beggar turn into an innocent child as his smiles turned into giggles and his eyes lit up with happiness from something as simple as a wave from a stranger.
When I look at these street children, covered in dirt from head to toe, all I see is beauty. This is a vast contrast to what the locals see when they look at them. Nick named the untouchables, the Hindu’s, believing in reincarnation but rather than believing that we choose our lives, however hard, for our soul to be able to experience all that it needs to, as is my own personal belief, they believe that these impoverished families must have done something bad in a previous life which they are paying for now and so they refuse to look at or touch them.
I was told an interesting story by my teacher on a metaphysical course in Guatamala last year. She told of how 30 years ago a man came to see her who had been born with a severe facial defect. He believed that he must have done something terrible in a previous life to have been born with such a visible defect.
That night, she went to sleep, having set the intention of connecting to the spiritual world and finding out what heinous act he had committed in his previous life to deserve such a punishment in this life. She witnessed him as a young and extremely handsome man in India who spent his life partying and enjoying women. As his life came to an end and he crossed to the other side, she saw him discover that his life’s purpose was to be a guru and that he had wasted the life that he had been given on drugs and women. With this realisation, his soul decided that he would be born unattractive in his next life to avoid distractions in order to deter him from wasting another life.
Without telling him the next day what she had discovered, she decided to perform a past life regression on him where he recalled exactly the same details as she had previously seen. Deciding not to waste another minute, he promptly left and headed to Tibet, where to this day he still lives as a monk.
Whilst not wanting to be in the presence of ‘the untouchables’, the higher sects will sometimes donate rice or money to them, usually through a 3rd party such as a Baba in order to receive good karma. I’m certainly not just referring to Hindu’s here and I hope that by saying this I don’t offend anyone but it saddens me that many people don’t see that karma doesn’t come from forced acts of generosity, made only in order to receive good karma but instead, from genuine acts of kindness and love that come from the heart.
Varanasi is famous for the Ganges, where people come from all over India to die and be buried in this holy river in order to have their souls cleansed before their ascent to heaven.
Part of the ceremony is to burn the bodies to release them of their sins before they are scattered into the river. Pregnant women, babies and Baba’s are not burnt first as they are seen to be pure and therefore without sin. Hindu’s believe that the amount of time that it takes the body to burn is related to how good or bad their karma is.
Collar and hip bones won’t burn and so are tossed into the river along side many of the remains of poor people, whose families couldn’t afford enough wood to burn them fully. They see this as part of the circle of life as the creatures of the sea will feed off of the remains.
Despite being a holy river, the locals still defecate in it and it’s not uncommon to see someone drinking from it as well as washing themselves and their clothes only seconds downstream of someone peeing in it!
You can get lost for hours in the many long and intertwining alleys of Varanasi, full of shops and crowds of people, both on foot and on bikes. Typically, we did get lost on our last day when we were late for our train, having waited an hour for food in a restaurant that we then had to take away with us.
After running around like headless chickens, we eventually found our way back to the hotel, 40 minutes late, after a rather unfortunate incident where the precious food that we had waited so long for was stolen out of Jo’s hand by a rather cheeky monkey, to be told that one of our train tickets was not confirmed. After several rags being lost we were shuffled off to the train station where, amidst the chaos of a back hander being arranged with the ticket inspector whilst we ran to get ourselves and our luggage on an already moving train, much to our much needed amusement, a lone cow came walking down the platform and trampled all over our luggage, without a care in the world. TII baby (This is India)!
We arrived in Agra after a 15 hour train ride that should have only taken 10 hours. How a train that departs on time can arrive at its destination 5 hours late is beyond me. We dragged our tired asses around Agra and the Taj Mahal with the help of an alcoholic tour guide, whose driving got implicitly more dangerous as the day went on. We were, however, incredibly grateful to him as he allowed us to wait in his car and watch Bollywood movies in Hindi, which he insisted on translating to us for 3 hours, as we waited for yet another delayed train.
Craving a few hours sleep after a hideously long day, we were greeted by a freezing cold carriage in lower class. My bunk was right next to the toilets where, what I can only describe as the most incredibly selfish species of humans, smoked all night and left the window wide open. It is only 2 degrees warmer in the north of India than it is in the UK right now. I was wrapped up in 2 jumpers, a hoodie, coat, scarf, 2 pairs of gloves, my towel and my beach wrap and was still frozen to my very core for the entire train journey. Suffice to say, it’s first class all the way from here!
I have been preaching for some time about trusting in the process and accepting that everything is as it’s meant to be and India is certainly making me put my money where my mouth is. Whether it’s chasing a bus for miles down the road in a tuk tuk, crammed full of people and all of our luggage, after being taken to the wrong bus stop or sitting through a taxi driver asking every other person on the street if he’s going the right way before even leaving the town that we started in, the lesson of patience and tolerance is being taught in spades.
Having been diagnosed with acute stress before quitting my job and suffering through 6 years of ill health, made worse by the stress, I was genuinely concerned about how I would deal with north India. I have said before that India doesn’t always give you what you want but it will always give you what you need. Whilst totally chaotic, you always get to where you need to be in what is actually organised chaos and the stress itself is only that which you create for yourself. This is India and instead of fighting against the way things are done here, which are so incredibly different to that that we are used to in western society, you just need to go with it and allow things to be. Many of us in western society choose to swim up the metaphorical river, fighting against the current in order to get where we think we want to be instead of just allowing the current to take us to where we actually need to be, with much less stress in the process.
A wise man from Pushkar once said ‘worry is like a rocking horse – good to pass the time but doesn’t get you anywhere’! This is the valuable lesson that I shall be taking from my time in India.