Photos and words by Jacob Howard
People say ‘nothing prepares you for India’. And although this is mostly true, one thing that can prepare you for India is a previous trip to India.
Round One was filled with the typical conflicting ‘what-the-fuck?!’ and ‘oh-shit-this-is-the-most-incredible-place-I-have-ever-been-to-in-my-life’ moments that you naturally encounter when confronted with such a public approach to life and death. After narrowly avoiding uncomfortable collisions with cows (and all other animals from the Kingdom, who all have the right of way), watching the bodies of devout Hindus slowly burn to ash at the edge of the river Ganges, navigating through the sensually chaotic bazaars, being stuck on a delayed train for over 24 hours and eating the best fucking vegetarian food a carnivore had ever tasted, my mind was sufficiently blown and I was ready for Round Two. Here are some things I learnt along the way.
Shit your pants. Don’t worry about it, just clean it up and move on. Delhi Belly is India’s way of welcoming you.
PRETTY CLEAN, A LITTLE GREEN
Mumbai may be sprawling, mad, and polluted as hell, but that’s the beauty of it. One minute you’re admiring the grandeur of the Gateway of India, the next you’ve unwittingly wandered into a fishing slum, immediately befriended by kids who very badly want to know your name and favourite cricketer. The crumbling colonial architecture makes you feel like you’re in Havana, bars and restaurants pump with Bollywood stars, and the street food is sublime (try Dahi Puri, it’s fucking sensational). Even wandering through Colaba and Fort with its street typists bashing out legal documents, barbers giving open-air beard trims, and tailors taking very public measurements is a sight to be seen. Despite all the hustle and bustle, Mumbai’s streets are pretty clean. Most of the rubbish is swept up and sent to Dharavi (the biggest slum in India, home to around one million people) where everything is recycled on site. Used soap, bottle lids, plastics, leather – anything can have a second life.
In India, being on the road is a skill in itself—or an extreme sport, depending on how you look at it. Crossing a road with 6 or 7 unofficial lanes of traffic, with animals and pedestrians moving in separate directions is not for the faint of heart. Lock in a point on the other side, take a step into the chaos and don’t look back.
Nestled on a coastline dotted with palm-fringed backwaters and surf beaches, Varkala is more than your average temple town. Hindus come here to give salty farewells to the ashes of their loved ones, and every night the loud speaker blasts music and prayers to anyone within earsshot. By day, tourists in tiny bikinis and even tinier speedos embrace the beach, hiring beat-up surfboards and chilling on sunbeds whilst sipping from fresh coconuts. Alcohol is officially banned in the state of Kerala, but restaurants sneak your tipple of choice into ‘undercover’ mugs. At night, the restaurants atop the red cliffs offer up the freshest catches: snapper, king prawns, tiger prawns, butter fish, fish, fish, and fish. If you don’t like fish you’re either fucked, or seriously unlucky. I unwittingly stayed over a week here and couldn’t remember what I had done. I think I ate fish.
LOST & FOUND
From the moment I stumbled disoriented off the night bus at Hampi, I knew I wouldn’t be leaving for a while. The landscape is otherworldy. Round Martian boulders sit precariously on top of each other, and amongst them lie the scattered ruins of what was once the most powerful Kingdom in the world (or so they claim). Divided by the river, Hampi has two sides. There’s the ‘ruins’ side, with its death-defying mountainous walks up to ancient temples, curious school children exploring palace remains, and Krishna the temple elephant.
Then, there’s ‘the other side’, where for a 10 rupee boat ride across the river you get a more chilled out vibe. Musicians, yogis and Kingfisher drinkers gather for sunset sing-a-longs amongst the boulders, and hangouts in make-shift cafes. Hooning on a Royal Enfield through endless stretches of palm-lined rice paddies and tiny villages is sublime. And north of the paddies, boat-men await you on the edge of the reservoir, keen to take you to secluded spots in their round, pod-like rafts. Whatever side you choose, you can’t go wrong.
Time is different in India. It’s a much more intense, fast paced kind of life. Your senses are so overloaded that a day can seem like a week, a week a month… you get the picture. Sometimes you just have to kick back and relax. Goa is a great place for this. Portuguese-colony-turned-hippy-retreat, it’s easy to lose track of time here, like this horse I met at Agonda Beach. He was such a mystery that even the locals couldn’t figure out where he came from. He appeared at sunrise, stood very still all day long like a statue, and then galloped off into the sunset. Horsome.
Fact: there are 330 million Hindu deities. That’s heaps. Inside this corrugated iron shed is an incredibly beautiful, intricately hand-carved wooden chariot dedicated to two of them: Shiva and Parvathi.
CUSTOMER IS KING
This is the mantra that many Indians live by. Well, one of them anyway. My mate’s motorbike had broken down, the sun was blistering hot and we were stranded – luckily at the cool banks of a reservoir. This is where we met Raju, or where he found us. Raju rides the back roads armed with a box of chippies, 750ml Kingfishers and a pocket full of weed, which he delivers to customers for a small fee. He only delivers cold beers, so once you’ve downed the first round, he’ll get more cold ones for you. Raju fixed the bike for us, and took us to an even better swimming spot where he proceeded to do a death-defying jump off a fucking huge rock. What a boss.
RIDE A RICKSHAW
Whatever you do when you come to India, take a ride in a rickshaw. Sure, they’re ancient and will probably break down, but they’re an experience in themselves and are cheap as. The best part? Your driver probably has no idea where he’s going.
“SOUND HORN PLEASE”
When driving, ‘honking’ is key to survival. It’s like you’re in a giant pack of dolphins, navigating the road by sound. Buses overtake buses on blind corners, TATA trucks transporting elephants cross lanes without warning, and if a cow is blocking your way don’t fuck around – just pull a U-turn and head into oncoming traffic. Surprisingly, people will make room for you. Do whatever you want, whenever you want. Let your horn guide the way.
GOOD SMELLS, BAD SMELLS
India has its contrasts, and smells are definitely one of them. Sometimes the delicious smells of spices, marigolds and roses are literally smothered by shit. I was at the bottom of a dead-end street, blocked in on either side by stalls, and the only way out was up. Then, without warning, a manhole exploded from the top of the street and a river of thick shit came gushing towards me. The only way to get out was to head upstream. Note-to-self: don’t wear flip-flops.
PARTY & PEACE
When you need a break from the yoga and ayurveda detoxes, head to Hauz Khas Village in Delhi and party with the middle class. Here, there are rooftop bars and cafes (with real coffee!) coming out the wazoo, and peaceful Deer Park to relax in when you need a break from it all. Like most parts of India, monkeys hang out here too, but the ones in Deer Park are a bit chubbier than usual – they eat the bowls of curry left out for the birds. Cheeky.