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8 things we learnt from 1 month in India

There’s so much I want to say about India. After a month, it feels both like we just got here yesterday and also as if we’ve been here forever. Every day we become more familiar with the way of life here but equally there is still so much we don’t know and probably never will. You could read for a lifetime about India in the thousands of books and reports written on this beguiling land of rich history and contrasting states, but you will never truly know India until you have set foot in this dusty, colourful, non-stop country.

Here, I’ve laid out my musings about 10 things I/we have learnt from travelling India for 4 weeks. Please note, these are my own views and opinions and I’m well aware that a month is nowhere near enough time to see or experience everything. I do not wish to offend anybody in my writing and nothing I’ve written is meant as such.

 

  1. India was probably not the best choice of location for first-time backpackers.

Maybe traditional gap year destination, Thailand would have been a gentler breaking in to the life of a traveller. India is the sort of place where a few bad experiences can totally skew your perception of the country. Everything is so intense that one negative thing can be amplified completely out of proportion. Although not total novices to new places, this was the first time we’d been anywhere more than two weeks and not had a fixed plan of where to go and stay etc. As I explained in my post ‘Flying out of my comfort zone’, this was difficult for me at first and India is just so different from anything either of us had experienced before, it took some adjustment. At least we started in Goa which is slow-paced and peaceful compared to much of the rest of the country.

 

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  1. The country will not change for you

This might seem like a strange thing to say but what I mean by this is there are so many aspects of life here that are confusing for Westerners and it’s futile to get frustrated about them. The easiest example to give, is the traffic. This is one of those things that cannot be explained satisfactorily unless you have experienced it for yourself. But I will try. In most places we visited, traffic consists for the most part of tuk tuks, motorbikes/scooters, small trucks transporting things, buses and a handful of private cars. In some places, like Delhi and Agra, you also find cycle rickshaws and horse drawn carts. Of course into all this add some cows and the occasional dog trying to cross the road. Oh, and the pedestrians. Everyone is heading wherever they’re going without much consideration for other road users, or so it seems at first. Drivers weave through traffic and pull into spaces that to the untrained eye, aren’t there. The horn is part of daily life here. It is used as a horn should be used, to alert people to your presence. But in the chaos that is Indian roads, there is a constant barrage of horns. For example, a horn will be sounded when overtaking, when coming up to a sharp bend, to alert pedestrians, to frighten cows out of the way, and also (in my skeptical opinion) to scare the tourists. In the UK, and most parts of Europe, the horn is used as a sign of anger at another driver, so it takes some time to stop thinking like this when you get to India. If a scooter sounds its horn the whole while it’s going round you, it’s to tell you not to cross the road rather than telling you you’re in the way. The more we use the roads, be it walking or in tuk tuks, we understand more how it works. And it does work. While on the surface it’s a complete mess, only once have we seen an accident and it was only a cycle rickshaw scraping a car, no injuries were involved. While I can sit in a tuk tuk thinking if only they actually used the highway code, there wouldn’t be the need for the horns, this is never going to happen and noise is part of the culture here. I won’t pretend like you get used to it, you just have to accept it.

 

Other things that I’ve struggled with include the spitting, the staring, the lack of toilet paper and the ‘apparent’ lack of respect Indians have for their country. Which brings me to point 3…

  1. The people do the best with what they have

This point is mainly in reference to the non-existent waste disposal scheme here. It is commonplace to see litter on the streets and in areas slightly out of town, large patches of ground are dedicated to burning waste because this is the only way they can dispose of it. While this verges on a political problem, local people are doing their best. This can’t be said for everyone however, and often you will see locals, old and young, throwing their rubbish out of train windows or just on the ground as they walk. James said he saw a young man about our age throw a banana peel out the bus window, but it was inside a plastic bag. As divers and big advocates against marine pollution, seeing this is difficult for us and ultimately I think (and hope) it comes down to poor education on the subject and not merely a disrespect for the environment.

Additionally, we’ve noticed a lot of the temples, forts and palaces we’ve visited have been damaged by people engraving their names or initials into the walls. This cannot be solely down to locals, although a lot of it is in local language. In Rajasthan, where the history is so plentiful and a major tourist attraction, I cannot understand why the monuments are not better cared for by the people who benefit from the money they bring into the area. In the last two years, prices for almost every attraction have increased by at least 200 rupees, if not more (like the Taj Mahal), so hopefully that indicates a plan for greater conservation work and protection. Although I won’t hold my breath. The best looked after palace we visited was the City Palace in Udaipur.

Back to my point, poverty is still a massive issue in this country and I won’t pretend to know enough about it to comment. But I will say that from what we’ve seen, people are happy and lead basic but fulfilling lives, something we could definitely learn from.

 

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  1. Indian food is not the complicated mystery I always thought it was!

Onto slightly lighter topics, at our last guesthouse in Udaipur, we had a cooking lesson with our hostess. We learnt how to make chai, cabbage masala, aubergine tomato curry, daal fry, vegetable biryani, fruit curry and three varieties of chapati: plain, butter and paratha. We learnt the basic paste that can be used for all these dishes and each one only took about 15 minutes! Not the hours that I’d been imagining. I’ll definitely be using less oil when I recreate them at home though. That’s been my only complaint about northern Indian food so far, the oil. We’ve been pretty much vegetarian since we arrived, aside from two or three meals with chicken, and I haven’t missed meat for a second. Everything is so tasty you don’t notice! I can’t wait to cook a feast for our families when we get home!

 

  1. How to cross the road properly

Given what I wrote earlier about the traffic here, crossing the road as a pedestrian is a daunting prospect for the newly arrived. It took us about a week to cross the road confidently. This often means walking out in front of traffic or stopping in the middle of the road for a tuk tuk to go round you. The drivers are used to it though because that’s the only way to get around. A narrow market street is one thing, a big city road is quite another and this takes a lot of nerve, something I think we developed in Bengaluru.

  1. A bit of open-ness with the locals can go a long way, but stay vigilant

A lot of the locals in India are very curious about Westerners. This means they stare and point and talk about you quite obviously with their friends/family. This is just something you have to get over. Most of the time its just small children running after you waving and shouting ‘Hi!’ over and over, so that quite cute and a wave back normally satisfies them. Then there’s the photos. A lot of people want photos of you, with you; and they don’t always ask. If you accept to one person, don’t be surprised to find them calling to a group of their friends waiting nearby for a group shot! But if you talk to these people, often they are very friendly and will try to answer your questions even if their english isn’t great. It’s the same with shopkeepers, tuk tuk drivers and restaurant owners, if you chat to them they will most often happily tell you want you want to know. Just be careful that they’re not talking you into some scam or buying something you don’t want. It’s very easy not to trust anyone in India after reading all the warnings about scams and touts. Especially when almost everyone you meet in a tourist capacity appears very friendly and then often reveals that they have an ulterior motive. Just be careful and firm about what you want and where you are going and you’ll have no issues. It’s also a good idea to have your hostel or guesthouse pinned on maps.me so you can follow the progress of your journey and also so you can direct your driver when they get lost, it happened to us more than once. Although they preferred to stop and ask for directions rather than take them from me, with the map, so I guess the trust thing goes both ways!

Some of the best interactions we had though were from complete strangers on the train. Especially for our first couple of journeys when we clearly looked a bit lost, we had a lot of help in sorting out our beds, and interpreting the announcements for our train that was 5 hrs late. I even had food offered to me by a mother travelling with her son, even though we had to use gestures to communicate because of the language barrier.

So my point is, yes do be weary, but after a little while you start to recognise the genuine interactions and those that just want your money so you can start to trust a little more and this will improve your experience of India. It’s tiring to be fearful constantly, so don’t be!

 

  1. Dressing modestly is an absolute must

All travel websites will tell you to dress modestly when visiting India, particularly when going to temples where it is simply a sign of respect for their culture. But also just for your own personal comfort when walking around, try to avoid tank tops or low cut tops because people will stare (even more than normal). It took me a little while to realise this. As we started in Goa, a very touristy, beachy place, people would wear anything and that was accepted. So when we moved north, I was still going round with my shoulders uncovered. This is generally fine and you won’t get told off or anything, just a week or so later when I started wrapping my scarf around me, I noticed far less unwanted attention. Of course this seems obvious, I’m just warning all you ladies out there, take the covering up tip seriously. Pack a couple of scarves, or buy some out there, or invest in some traditional clothing!

  1. India isn’t for everyone

Unfortunately, due to many of the points listed above and several other things, we did not feel that India was a good fit for us. I suspect that this is primarily because we stayed mostly in the cities where it is noisy, dirty and full of people trying to get you into their shops, give you a tuk tuk ride, sell you something or take your photo. It is just non-stop. You cannot walk down the street as a white-skinned tourist without upwards of 20 people shouting things at you. This gets very tiring and I just wish that they’d understand sometimes we WANT to walk to places or that we do actually know where we’re going or that if I wanted a coconut, I’d ask for one. But this is how they make their living so you can’t be too resentful, they’re just being sales-people, albeit not very subtly.

I’m convinced if we’d gone further into the countryside we’d have enjoyed ourselves more. But for a first visit to India, it’s not so easy to get off the beaten path like that until you know a bit more about the country. That’s how we felt anyway. So next time we’ll definitely aim for more rural places. Having said that, we ended our month with 6 days in Udaipur, which was by far our favourite place. The old town, where all the tourist stuff is, is a quaint little place set on a lake. The maze of little streets is easily explored on foot and there are countless rooftop restaurants and cafes to relax in for the afternoon overlooking the lake and the boats making their way round it. It’s also a great place for shopping with everything you could want available from sarees to tiny leather-bound books.

Side note – If you are in Udaipur and want to buy one of the leather books, we found what seemed to be the manufacturer that then sells on to all the other shops. Books in here are considerably cheaper. You can find it on the road leading away from Jagdish temple towards the Nepalese market. Its a little way down on the left hand side going in this direction, and you’ll see lots and lots of books outside. Inside, shelves upon shelves of books line the shop and it goes back quite far. They also stock other leather goods such as belts, wallets, folders and bags. You can also see the books being made in here.”

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Flying out of my comfort zone

A lot has happened in the last two weeks. Thursday 26th October, 6 am, saw us in the car on the way to Heathrow. I was feeling a lot of mixed emotions at that point: nervous and scared mostly, excitement hadn’t kicked in just yet. My mum had offered to take us and she even bought us breakfast to eat on the way, chocolate twists, mmmm. Except after the first one I just felt sick. We arrived at the airport far too quickly for my liking and before I knew it I was strapping my rucksack on and hugging my mum, who managed not to cry much to my amazement. It was still pretty dark outside as we entered departures and joined the check-in queue. It still all felt very surreal as we slowly trudged further towards the desks. Since discussing travelling way back in January, to actually be leaving was hard to comprehend. More difficult was accepting that I’d actually finished writing and submitted my PhD thesis only on Monday, something that had been hanging over me for months.

As we sat in the departure lounge, I can’t really describe what I was feeling. Mostly apprehension I suppose because we didn’t have our stopover hotel booked, or anything past day 2 in Goa. Also scared because we had no idea what the next 6 months were going to involve. I wrote about this in a previous post, how I think it’s normal to be nervous, and now that we were actually leaving there were so many thoughts going round and round in my head; would we be safe? How easy would it be to get around? Would money be ok? Would people be friendly?

Fast forward 9 hours to Mumbai and I really needn’t have worried, of course. We got a room in the airport hotel, ok we had to wait half an hour but at least we had somewhere to sleep. The next day we arrived in Goa and made it to our guesthouse where we proceeded to plan the next few days.

We’ve now been in India for two and a half weeks and it’s took me until the end of week 1 to really feel ok. I’m the sort of control freak that likes to know where I’m going, to have things planned and organised so that I don’t have to stress. Hence the title of this post. I’ve been so far out of my comfort zone it’s reduced me to tears on more than one occasion. Being in a new country where the customs, language and culture is so different from your own is always going to be daunting, but add on the fact that as a backpacker you are moving around a lot with no fixed plan, it puts you so much closer to the real nature of the country. You cannot hide behind your hotel or resort walls. You have to integrate with the people, travel on local buses, explore to find places to eat. It is a generally much more exhausting experience that is a lot to take in the first few days.

I wrote this on the train to Hampi, 10 days ago. It’s taken me that long to get this blog back up and running because I forgot my login details…  Nothing but expansive, lush forest was visible out the window, mountains in the distance and the odd waterfall here and there. Our week in Goa had been strange, some good experiences, some not so great.  See the post “Goa: intro to India” for more detail. We now know that after Hampi we are heading north to Delhi for a month exploring Rajasthan. I feel a lot more comfortable now, partly because we have more of a plan and partly because I think I am settling into traveller life and more accustomed to the barrage on the senses that is India.

5 Days in Bermuda on a Budget

Last year, we were lucky enough to visit Bermuda, a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic. This came about because of a competition we won, giving us flights and 5 nights in this stunning location (the only thing I have ever won, or will probably ever win again). Before October 2015, Bermuda had not been on my radar at all. Everyone has of course heard of the Bermuda triangle and for me it conjured memories of watching The Sword in the Stone as a child, when Merlin jets off there at the end of the film. But it never felt like a real place, just a far away and mysterious island that I’d likely never see.

But as I started researching our unexpected destination, I realised it was very real, with so much to offer! The first thing I learnt (because it was the answer to the competition question) is that Bermuda is actually an archipelago made up of 181 islands. This seemed unlikely and even when we were there I still didn’t believe it until we climbed to the top of Gibbs lighthouse. Apparently every rock with any bit of vegetation counts, no matter how small.

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View of NE Bermuda from the top of the Gibbs lighthouse

So we arrived fresh from our British Airways flight to be picked up by a taxi from the Bermuda Tourist Board and taken to our hotel on the opposite side of the country, a 1.5 hr drive. We stayed at Cambridge Beaches Resort and Spa which has an over 13’s policy, and our Water View room was about the same size as our 1 bed flat back home in London…

So we felt slightly fraudulent, in a beautiful room with a stunning view, surrounded by people who’d paid thousands of pounds to be there, drinking our free welcome bottle of wine on the terrace too scared to go and find out the prices at the bar! We did take a walk around the resort though in time to see the sunset.

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Anyway, getting to the point of this post, how do you survive in Bermuda when you are on a tight budget? Well, it’s very hard. I should explain, last year James and I were both students with no holiday plans because we couldn’t really afford it. Then we won a trip to a very expensive place… The whole island has a dress code. Beach wear is only acceptable at the beach, and most restaurants request sports jacket and summer dress type attire. At any other time in our lives, this would have been amazing. Just not last year.

So the first morning, after an enormous breakfast, we went to the hotel reception and bought a 3 day pass for the islands public transport, costing $44 each. This seemed like the best way to get around and included all buses and ferries. There are several ferry routes around the islands and this is by far the fastest and most convenient way to travel and lets you see a lot more of Bermuda than by road. I had our day all planned out. We took the hotel shuttle bus to the Royal Naval Dockyard and caught the ferry to St. George’s. This was the first settlement back in 1609. Walking around the pretty town you get a real sense of Britishness. The streets are cobbled with little shops everywhere. We went for lunch at a place we’d seen in the hotel welcome pack, Wahoo’s Bistro and Patio. It had a lovely view over the water and we both ordered the cheapest thing on the menu at $22 each. The waitress didn’t seem impressed with us. After eating, we ended up in the town square just as some locals were starting a re-enactment of the tradition of dunking. A woman had been accused of nagging her husband and was sentenced to 10 dunks (I know…). She was placed on a seat at the end of a large see-saw contraption and James was roped in to help hold the other end with 3 other unsuspecting bystanders. The whole spectacle was very amusing and drew quite a crowd. James and the others let go of their end to dunk her, then grabbed it to pull her up again.

From St. George’s, we got the bus to the Crystal Cave in Hamilton parish. This is an absolutely must do itinerary item for any trip to Bermuda. There are two caves you can visit, which we did, costing $30 (or $22 for 1 cave). Crystal cave is probably the most visited and slightly more impressive although Fantasy cave has some rare stalactite formations which was fascinating. The water was so turquoise and clear. You aren’t allowed to swim here though. Because we went in May, slightly before high season, we almost had the caves to ourselves. It was so cool and peaceful and the guides are very knowledgeable on the geology of the area. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit.

Close to the caves there is the Blue Lagoon. This took a bit of exploring to find, it isn’t signposted at all. Google maps to the rescue! Thankfully this is free to visit and very pretty. Here, you are allowed to swim but we hadn’t brought any swim stuff and didn’t fancy stripping down in front of the few people around. There were some fish in the water and it could make for an interesting snorkel perhaps. From here, we got the bus back to our hotel, stopping at the supermarket down the road to pick up some dinner. This was our attempt to save money and we certainly felt like proper students having our picnic on the balcony.

Days 2 and 3 we spent diving. We chose to book with Dive Bermuda because we have a friend that works there. This was our treat, it wasn’t cheap. We spent $300 each for 4 dives, not including equipment rental because we’d taken our own, again to save money. That was a fun bus journey at 8 am! At $75 per dive, this is about double what we’d pay in the UK and if I’m totally honest, I wasn’t too impressed with the quality of the diving. We did two wrecks, each one barely a mile offshore directly out from the dive center. Considering there are roughly 700 wrecks around the island, we felt a bit cheated just being taken to the closest ones. The water was 21-23 °C and there wasn’t half as much life as we were expecting. The corals weren’t too inspiring either. Having looked forward so much to this part of our trip we were quite disappointed. The dive center itself was very well run and the staff were great, we just wish they’d taken us to some more interesting wrecks. I suppose that’s partly our fault for not researching it better and requesting where we wanted to go. Apart from the visibility, I definitely prefer UK diving. The most interesting thing we saw was an octopus.

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After our first day of diving, we went for a walk along the famous Horseshoe Bay beach. If you keep going, you get to some rocks which you can climb to get to Angle beach, then Jobson’s cove and eventually Warwick Long Bay. The further east you go, the pinker the sand gets and the less people there are. I spent several minutes trying to get a photo portraying the accurate sand colour.  If you look closely, it’s actually individual grains of pink sand mixed with white sand. There is an artist who collects the pink grains and makes beautiful pieces of jewellery with it.

It was also this day that we climbed the lighthouse. I hadn’t previously checked the opening times and we were lucky to arrive 10 minutes before closing (5pm). If I remember rightly it was only $3 each to go to the top, by far the best value attraction we found. It was cloudy that evening so the view wasn’t as stunning as it could have been but even so, it’s pretty impressive being able to see all four corners of the country.

On our last full day, we had planned to rent bikes and cycle the length of the old railway. I’d read this is an amazing way to see the island, but we felt like this would be a lot of effort after an already very active 3 days. So instead we got the ferry back to St. George’s and walked around the forts that are dotted at that end of the island. We started at Gate’s Fort, and made our way along the north east coast to Fort St. Catherine. On the way we stopped at the famous glass beach of Building Bay. There wasn’t as much glass as I’d expected but it was worth a visit nonetheless. The whole coastline there is simply stunning. Green grass giving way to unbelievable blues of the ocean, every step of the way. Every now and then there are little paths leading to the rocks. The whole journey took us about 4 hours but we were taking our time and made a few stops. At Fort St. Catherine, we stopped for a drink at a beach bar. We didn’t go inside the fort because we didn’t feel it would be a good use of our last dollars. It’s the only fort on the island you have to pay for. Our last stop before heading back to St. George’s was Tobacco Bay, again a famous place. Of all the beaches we’d seen, it was the noisiest. There was a beach hut playing music and it seemed like a tourist attraction more than a beach. It was pretty though.

Our last night in Bermuda we were taken out in the capital, Hamilton, by our friend, Matt. It was messy and I’ll not elaborate except to say that going out with the locals always guarantees a good night. I spent the following morning on a sun lounger waiting for our flight and feeling very sorry for myself.

All in all, we enjoyed our trip to Bermuda but won’t be going back until we’re in a position to not worry so much about spending. My lasting impression of this place is that it’s the best possible combination of England and America. Everyone is super polite, there’s a real sense of pride about being Bermudian, and all the houses are painted in bright colours like a picturesque countryside village. Our taxi driver told us its a requirement to repaint your house every 5 years so they always look pristine! But then at the same time, everyone has an american accent and there’s something distinctly non-British about the place that I can only attribute to the american influence. The whole country felt almost too perfect to be true. I remember clearly saying to James it felt like we were in a film set. We did find out that there is actually quite a high crime rate, but this never affects the tourists and walking around we just did not see anything at all that hinted at it.

This is not a typical backpackers destination. We took £600 worth of dollars with us and came back with about $5… and we were being mostly very frugal and careful. Not including what we spent on diving. But if you like beaches and golf, its a wonderful place. Thinking back now I have mixed feelings. I’d like to go back someday but I feel like we went at least 10 years too early to really make the most of it. But it is a beautiful country and we were so grateful for the chance to visit.

 

Thinking out loud

So some of you may be thinking after reading my last post, why on earth have we started a blog when we don’t plan to go off travelling for another 4 months??!

Well, I got a little over excited, as I’m sure many of you can relate. I was procrastinating trying to avoid writing my PhD thesis and decided to come up with a name for our blog, which turned into designing a logo, and now here we are. (As I write this I am yet again procrastinating…but it’s a Sunday so that’s ok.)

To fill the time between now and October, I’m going to be sharing some of the trips we’ve been on in the past but for today, I want to talk a little about mine and James’ travel expectations.

Seeing the world is something we’ve always wanted to do, although we didn’t know we were both thinking it until January this year. On our way home from an exhausting trip visiting family over Christmas, I jokingly said next year we should spend the holidays abroad. We started talking about it and decided that actually, once I finish my studying, this is the perfect time to go off and travel. James would be looking to change jobs in September anyway so what’s a six month break?

And I’m terrified.

Of what exactly? I don’t know. The unknown I suppose. Which I’m reliably informed is totally normal. I’d love to hear your stories of how you felt before your first big trip! Please comment below so we can read them!

We are lucky in that we both have supportive families who all think this is a great thing. And they all offer advice on what to expect, from tips on how to avoid getting ill, to how this is going to change our perspective on life. A little while ago I was watching Dara O’Briain and Ed Byrne in their three part series ‘Road to Mandalay’. At the end Dara said something which resonated with me and it’s that travelling doesn’t owe you anything. You come home with incredible memories of the times you had and how you felt in those times but to expect it to make you into a new person is, in most cases, a little too optimistic.

I may be totally wrong. I have no idea what’s going to happen or how things will change and that’s all part of the excitement. But unless we decide to never come back and keep travelling forever, I expect that in 10 years time, this period in my life will feel like a beautiful dream.

 

Next time… The magic of the Red Sea

 

Welcome!

We are James and Maxine and together we are going to write about our adventures across the globe. We hope you’ll join us!

We are a couple from London and met 8 years ago at our university scuba diving club. We have so far travelled to Egypt, Malta, Bermuda and the Canary Islands for our diving but have a long, long list of places yet to visit. It’s not all about diving though and we generally love the outdoors, hiking, exploring and testing our sense of adventure!

In four months time, we are setting off on a six month trip. James is quitting his job and we are heading to Asia, first stop – India.

Sign up to follow our progress and join the adventure…