Southern India Travels
In January – February 2012 I spent 2 crazy weeks traveling through southern India. We took trains, busses, planes and rode motorbikes from Chennai to Mumbai. If you are thinking of traveling to India or just want to do a bit of armchair traveling, read on…
India is not for the faint of heart or the weak stomached. It’s not for the novice traveller. And if you like to plan out every detail of your trip and stick to your plan throughout, India certainly is not for you. That’s not some lame attempt at talking up having gone there; rather, it’s genuine and sincere advice. Despite what the appealing “Incredible India” tourism campaign would have you believe, India is not an easy travel destination… not by a long shot. I’m glad I had traveled extensively before undertaking this trip.
Every aspect of human existence is on display in the streets. People living, dieing, begging. Sick people, poor people, mutilated and disabled people. People pissing and shitting and eating – often in very close proximity. Piles upon piles of trash. Rivers that smell like pure sewage runoff and people who swim and bathe in them… the same people who will work the food stalls later and cook your next meal.
India is fascinating in a way that’s unlike any other place I’ve been
Here’s one small example: We boarded a long distance bus and immediately got into a traffic accident. Pulling out of the station onto the main road, our driver clipped a large truck. The road was busy and a crowd gathered almost instantly. Both vehicles were damaged, some yelling was involved and things appeared to be heating up fast. But just as quickly and unexpectedly as the accident happened, the situation somehow resolved itself. The yelling ceased, the crowd cleared, and we were on our way after only a few minutes. No paperwork, no phone calls, just a few heated but apparently harmless words and we were back on our way. More than anything else, experiences like that make India a fascinating place to explore.
Southern India is beautiful but trashed
The landscape is vast and riding the train is a great way to view it. The land is beautiful… or at least it would be if it were cleaned up. There is trash everywhere in India. Ocean water is polluted and often smells of sewage. Beaches are littered with garbage, and the inner countryside is dirty as well. The bathroom on the train is nothing more than a metal seat that empties onto the tracks. No lavatory tank, no attempt at sanitation. Human waste is simply discarded directly onto the ground below. The “clean” areas like Goa’s beaches are beautiful and do indeed have less trash, but “clean” would be a stretch.
One thing is clear: confusion abounds
Things get done, but in such a roundabout way you’ll often wonder just what the hell is going on. Our inquiry about traveling from Chennai to Hampi, a major tourist route, was met with blank stares at the train station’s tourist office. After much deliberation and head scratching, a complex solution involving multiple transfers between buses, a train, and tuk tuks was offered. Simple tasks are often difficult and it really helps to have a “just go with it” attitude.
I had to leave
After two weeks in India (preceeded by a week in Sri Lanka), I had to leave. I bought an airline ticket in Goa and flew to Mumbai, where I connected home via Singapore. Stepping off the plane in Singapore was an enlightening experience of sorts. Since leaving the USA 3 weeks prior, it was my first glimpse of true cleanliness in an unambiguously first world country. It was as though I’d been held underwater for too long and was finally able to catch my first big breath upon resurfacing.
The breaking point happened when I was in Goa, toward the end of my third week abroad. Hiking along a trail, a man approached me. Before I could react, the man stuck a toothpick in my ear with intent to sell me some sort of ear cleaning device. Needless to say I was not happy, and for the time being anyway, it was the last straw. I wasn’t terribly angry or upset. But in that moment I knew it was time to return home.
When I go on a big trip like this, I always have some idea of when I’ll return home but I rarely have the exact day planned out. I knew I’d be leaving soon anyway, so my going home after this episode wasn’t a huge defeat – I had already seen what I wanted to on that trip. But when I do return from a trip, it’s always because I simply wanted be home. This marked the first time I’ve left a country because I wanted to get out of there.
I want to go back
Its contridictory to having to leave, I know. I want to go back for more. Two weeks in India is plenty enough to make you miss home, but its not nearly enough to explore this vast and unique place. I’ve been to many “off the beaten path” destinations (I prefer those places, in fact) and nothing has humbled, challenged, or interested me quite like India. And the food! It’s unreal, out of this world kind of good. Indian restaurants at home do no justice. Eating REAL Indian food in a local restaurant is one of the greatest culinary experiences you can have anywhere on earth. And some of the best full meals we had cost less than 50 cents. Be cautioned, though, that you WILL get food poisoning during your trip.
India is a full and complete assault on the senses. Everywhere you look there is something new and exciting and different. While not an easy destination by any means, it can be rewarding and humbling if you bring the right attitude.