In less than 4 hours we had travelled 1613 km, crossed the Himalayas and arrived in one of the world’s most colourful, polluted, contrasting, ancient, bountiful, poverty stricken, religious and corrupt countries. Having taken 8 months to slowly inch our way across 23,000km of Europe and Central Asia, a culture shock threatened as we touched down in a whole new culture, a whole new palette, a whole new experience…New Delhi.
‘But how did we get to flying to India halfway through a motorbike adventure along the old Silk Roads?’ we hear you ask. The temptation is to ramble on about bike permits, visa regulations and how in over 4 years of hard saving we still hadn’t managed to save up enough to allow us to cross China. However, we have been accused of being a “long read” so instead, all you need to know is that we’re poor, Kazakhstan is cold, India is warm and a good place to explore for 5 months thus allowing us British citizens to apply for a Russian visa without returning home (silly immigration laws). Our dream of riding to China was over but we would still be frollicking in the Arabian Sea whilst snows enveloped Almaty and much of the Northern hemisphere. WIN!
Delhi has developed a bad name amongst travellers. Often described as soulless and dirty, few travellers spend any more time here than it takes for them to organise onwards travels. We were no different although not because we wanted to leave but because we had commitments further south. We allowed ourselves a couple of days to organise our train tickets, enjoy some of the sights and ease our way into backpacking in India. It was a welcome surprise then that Ryan’s little sister, Jill, a seasoned pro when it comes to travel in India, changed her flights so that she could take us by the hand and teach us a few key lessons on day one of our Indian odyssey. Her gift from mummy, a bag full of carefully selected UK confectionary was also very welcome, although less of a surprise given what his mum is like 👍.
Further to our goodie bag, Delhi provided a whole host of other cultural and culinary treats. Thanks to some local knowledge from our Delhi friend Sam (think back to the enlightened Sam’s who followed us through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) we stayed in the beautiful Hauz-Kaus area and visited the exquisite but almost unknown of Mehrauli Archaelogical Park. Lottie’s eyes lit up on her first taste of masala chai, whilst Ryan’s eye opening moment came when he ventured out after hours and caught sight of the not so modest Delhi fashionistas (India was meant to be all saris and modest kurtas???). We gorged on spicy curries and quickly got over our fear of street food induced Delhi belly; momos, jalebis and puri are just too delicious to walk past! It wasn’t to last though. At lunch on our second day, Lottie declared that it would be weeks before she got bored of curry, after all we had been living for months on a diet of lagman and plov. By dinner time she was bored of it and wanted anything but curry!
Our next taste of India came in the form of the improbably long Mangala Lakshadweep Superfast Express. That India can call a 2 day train journey an ‘express’, and even charge a ‘Superfast’ premium for it, is testament to the scale of India. The fact that India Railways is the eighth largest employer in the world could also be related to the subcontinents scale. However in hindsight we think it may be more so a reflection of India’s employment culture. Still the giant steel snake swallowed us and countless others up in a mass of bluster and confusion, plied us with super sweet chai throughout the day and night, provided sitcom-esque drama in the form of feuding families, and gave us the opportunity to live out our railroad hobo fantasies of hanging out of carriage doors of a moving train. 35 hours and 2217km along the tracks later, we were spat out in the heart of Goa. It was certainly a different way to travel compared to previous experiences on this adventure.
A priority for our stay in India was to live cheap. India is a cheap country to travel in (although not nearly as cheap as it used to be) but we needed cheaper still. Paid work was out of the question on our visa but thankfully www.workaway.info provided a plethora of opportunities for us to work or volunteer in return for our food and accommodation. As much as it is work, a workaway is also a cultural exchange allowing employer and volunteer to share and benefit from each others skills, customs and cultures.
Our first workaway was based in south Goa at Palolem Island Nature Reserve. Our host RJ, owned the Island and was converting it into a nature reserve which he offered tours of. Initially this is how we thought we would spend most of our working hours but in the end Ryan gave only one tour. Instead we got involved with some of the many other projects that RJ had going on. Ryan spent most of his time creating new walkways through the thick island jungle, turned his hand to a bit of light carpentry and even designed a solar powered webcam to spy on nesting white bellied sea eagles. Lottie meanwhile helped set up RJ’s new guesthouse, Varandas, and spent lots of time exploring the area by bike and kayak all in the name of creating an activities pack for would-be guests. Although not the work that we expected and at times very frustrating, we had a great time and came to think of our little village, Rajbag, as an idyllic home.
Only needing to work about 5 hours per day, left us plenty of time to relax and enjoy the simple things in life. Lots of time was spent on our balcony simply watching the small goings on of daily life in the village. The pau man would come by early in the morning ringing his bell to sell small round pau breads and samosa out of a huge basket which hung awkwardly off the back of his dilapidated bike. The bin man would be next blowing his whistle to invite residents to bring out their bins which he sifted through with bare hands separating out food waste and recyclable items on the back of his 3-wheeled rickshaw. The horn of salesman’s bicycles would compete with the beep of delivery trucks collecting the mornings fresh catch and the barking of village dogs. The wildlife got in on the entertainment too. On our first floor balcony we were level with the black faced langors who effortlessly leapt from tree to tree. Level with the brightly coloured butterflies which fluttered through the canopy and the fearless striped-squirrels which tight-roped across the maze of overhead power lines. When we weren’t sitting on our balcony we would invariably be sitting on our beach, working very hard of course……on our tans. Thanks to the 5 star Lalit Hotel which cut off our beach from those further north, it was very quiet and clean with only a small number of the Russian babushkas and model-like honeymooners sharing the warm waters and rich sunsets. We read lots of books, strolled in the surf and collected shells. When the mood took us, we surfed the waves in RJ’s kayaks, we cycled to another beach or beauty spot and occasionally even went for runs to work off our growing rice bellies!
Every night we were fed a mountain of rice as part of our traditional Goan meal called a pagi dinner. Lovingly prepared by Shanu and Laksha, it comprised of rice, dahl, a vegetable side (bhaji) and a delectable chilli and coconut chutney. Within a few weeks though Ryan’s belly was beginning to resemble that of nearly every other indian mans, pot bellied. The huge plates or sometimes banana leaves of rice would be devoured by hand and then sit in the stomach, leaving it swollen, bloated and turgid. The eater would then be reduced to a near comatosed state as their stomach works overtime at digesting the overload of carbs. This at least partially explains India’s severe obesity problem and slow pace of life.
In Goa there is a phrase ‘shanti shanti’ which loosely translates as ‘slowly slowly’. We can’t think of a phrase that better describes Goan life and working culture. The typical working day only starts at 10am and pauses soon after for a 3 hour siesta. The pause is necessary given the climate but sometimes their productivity at work isn’t much more than when they’re slumbering. We also found that some of our fellow Indian workers displayed very little initiative, doing no more than what is instructed of them and even that only at the third time of asking. There is lots of sitting around and waiting for people who never turn up so a “change of plan” was a daily occurrence. For 2 people who hadn’t worked in over 8 months and were desperate to feel productive again, this was initially very frustrating and made our work life difficult and less enjoyable. With time though we moulded around this way of working; we brought books to pass the time at delayed meetings and relaxed our expectations of the days objectives. It was a great lesson for us both but neither of us would rush to a job offer in India in the future.
That being said our colleagues were lovely and we became good friends. RJ, Nitish, and Shailesh all spoke great English and made it easy for us to feel at home straight away. RJ was very generous and full of stories, Nitish was our social guide taking us to parties and frisbee games on the beach whilst Shailesh was our fishing instructor, dolphin spotter and interpreter of all local customs and cultures. And then there was Ulas the house servant whose endearing laugh and smile required no translation and cheered us up at even our most hot and bothered times. For six weeks we lived and worked in a little slice of paradise with only the incursions of a few British friends to ruin the peace….
First it was our friends Alex and Alice who we met and went climbing with in Kyrgyzstan, who arrived in their 4×4 belching out thick black smoke. Since we last saw them in Bishkek, they had driven across China, the Himalayas, Pakistan and the west coast of India and were now camping on the various pristine beaches of southern Goa. Next was Imad, who was holidaying in a cottage across the road from us. Early one morning we were woken by a racket of spinning tyres, revving engine and a West London accent swearing that his car was stuck. After some time watching (and laughing) at his misery, Ryan went to offer his help and within 10 seconds had the car free. Forever in our debt, Imad invited us for drinks which turned into dinner, taxi rides, parties and many many drinks. An infectious personality who it is impossible to not like and have lots of fun with, we were quick to introduce him to our next set of visitors, Rob and Celia who were friends from home also taking time out from working. It didn’t take them long to appreciate Imad’s unique flamboyancy, charm and personality before Lottie sent them all off on a day trip to the local organic spice farm which we had loved visiting some weeks before.
Family owned and 3 generations in the making, Tanshikar Spice Farm (www.tanshikarspicefarm.com) organically grows 9 different spices high in the jungles of the western Ghats (the chain of mountains which stretch down the west of India). Practicing permaculture methods, the farm relies on mother nature to do most of the hard work by using different plants to support each other and allowing insect life to find a natural balance. We learnt so much during our short tour and enjoyed an incredible lunch made from all local ingredients. It was a day out that we couldn’t recommend more highly. Other mini breaks to Panjim and Old Goa allowed us to explore the Portuguese history of Goa. We visited colonial mansions rich with furniture and eccentric collectors oddities, drank cool beer in classical European-style watering holes and scoffed delicious vinegary vindaloos and xec-xec curries, quintessential of the old colonists taste for preserved meats.
Rob and Celia’s visit also coincided with the end of our time in Goa. It was great to have some home grown company again and great to be able to share some of the best bits of our time in Goa with them. However, as expected, our 6 weeks flew by and it was soon time to move on to Hampi, the ancient heart of the Vijayanagar Empire and nowadays Mecca of the bouldering world. Still we left Goa with a wonderful lasting impression. Goa is a mix of East and West and definitely a great place for us to ease into our time in India. We learned lots about the food, politics, environment, driving and working life. We spent lots of time doing nothing and the rest of the time sleeping. We developed sunset fatigue and some rather interesting tan lines. Ryan managed to drown 2 mobiles in the sea whilst Lottie channelled her inner hippy and got a hair braid. Better still, both of us embraced our inner Attenboroughs, getting excited about every kingfisher, Brahminy kite, Sea Eagle, dolpin and egret which we spotted and the tiger and venomous snakes which thankfully remained elusive. Without doubt though our Goan highlight will be Ryan’s new shorts. Just look at those pins….
India has got to be one of the craziest countries i have visited. I loved reading your post, it took me right back.