I was happy to oblige when Shalu, from ShaluSharma.com, a colourful blog all about India, asked me to take part in a series of interviews with travellers to India. It brought back many happy memories which I’d like to share with you.
Shalu: When did you visit India and which parts of India did you see?
Kat: I’ve been to India twice. Firstly in 2004, when I spent an unforgettable three weeks exploring Rajasthan. The intention was that this would be a one-off, trip of a lifetime. We stayed in some amazingly luxurious and historic hotels and some rather quirky hotels, including one built out of camel dung. It was all organised by a good friend of mine, who has spent many years travelling around India.
I enjoyed it so much that, when I was invited again the following year to Tamil Nadu and Kerala, I couldn’t resist. Our visit was planned for what turned out to be just a few weeks after the dreadful Boxing Day Tsunami. The first two hotels we were staying in were flooded but they were up and running again in plenty of time for our visit. Sadly, a couple of people pulled out worrying that it might not be a good idea to go just then. Most of us, however, felt it was even more important to go and support the area’s tourist industry, spending our money in the local shops and restaurants and so on. The local fishermen, for example, had lost their boats and so took it in turns to sell seashells on the beach outside one of the hotels. I was more than happy to buy some.
Shalu: What was your first impression of India?
Kat: Poverty and luxury sit side by side amidst the colour and vibrancy of a wonderfully chaotic and exciting country.
Shalu: What would you advise someone travelling to India?
Kat: Go with an open mind and heart.
Shalu: Did you find India hot?
Kat: Yes, but the humidity of Kerala comes to mind more than the heat. I remember not being able to get dry after taking a shower while drifting along the backwaters on a rice boat and another time when we stopped for a walk and the sweat was running into my eyes making them sting and it was very difficult to take photographs. I was grateful to be staying in air-conditioned hotels the rest of the time.
Shalu: What souvenirs did you buy?
Kat: I’m not much of a fan of shopping when I’m in Europe but when I arrived in India I was instantly transformed into a shopaholic buying wall hangings, jewellery, paintings, cushion covers, tablecloths, clothes including a sari… I could go on!
Shalu: Which items would you never travel without to India?
Kat: My camera, a common answer I know but the only possible one, in my opinion. India is a photographers dream come true. You never know what interesting scene you will find around the next corner.
Shalu: Did you try Indian food and what did you think of it?
Kat: Of course! I love Indian food. In fact just recently, I went on an Indian cookery course at the wonderful Mela Restaurant in London. In theory, at least, I can now reproduce some authentic dishes at home, although I haven’t had the chance to put it into practice as yet.
Shalu: What did you think of the Indian people?
Kat: The people of India are delightful, friendly and, in my experience, very helpful. So often people’s faces light up when they saw us and they would grin back at us, as please to see us as we were to see them.
I remember one particular incident when our coach dropped us off in a town in Rajasthan. I went ahead with a small group and after a bit of exploration, started photographing some ruins. I was so absorbed in my photography that I didn’t notice the group move on. When I finished taking my pictures I realised I had no idea how to bet back to the coach. Feeling very foolish, I found a small shop and asked if anyone could help. A kind gentleman insisted on escorting me back through the streets to where we were parked. I immediately felt I could trust this stranger and he led me straight back to the coach. I would never have found it on my own, however, on the walk back I had the feeling everyone in the town knew where the coach was. Everyone except me, that is!
Shalu: What was your worst experience of India?
Kat: Some children threw stones at the coach and broke a window, cutting the face of the lady sitting in front of me. She wasn’t badly hurt, thank goodness, but it did shake everyone up a little. I honestly don’t think the children really meant to harm anyone though.
Shalu: What was your best experience of India?
Kat: So many things, although one special memory was strangely enough when I wasn’t feeling very well. After a long drive to a beautiful old hotel in Pushkar, I stayed in while the rest of the group went for a walk to a local temple. I had felt so ill that I couldn’t eat anything all day and my stomach had only just stopped doing somersaults. I spent a lovely evening reading on the balcony with a view across the Holy Lake. As the sun went down I got out my tripod and camera. I thought if I have to be ill, this is the perfect place to be. It was such a beautiful setting and just the right place to recoup and enjoy a little solitude. The following morning I was up early, feeling refreshed and went for a walk around the town and lake before breakfast. It’s hard to explain but I somehow felt in touch with something very special here, maybe nature or God? I’m not sure, but it was a magical time of day to experience a feeling of renewal as the world awakes.
Another fond memory was in Jaipur. The hustle and bustle of the streets was exciting with cars, tuk tuks, elephants, bicycles and overloaded mopeds all vying for space. The coach driver was a little confused as to which exit to take off a roundabout. When we stopped in the traffic for a moment, a lady in our group handed a toffee through the window to an elderly gentleman. As we drove around the roundabout for a second time we passed the man again. The look on his face of pure joy as he sucked the sweet was priceless. It was wonderful to see such a simple thing making someone so happy, even if just for a small moment in time. I smile whenever I remember it.
Shalu: Did you see beggars and how did deal with them?
Kat: I saw a lot of beggars and although I didn’t give something to everyone, I always tried to carry some change with me to hand out when I could, often in exchange for a photo.
Shalu: What modes of transport did you use in India? What are your thoughts on them?
Kat: Coach, mini-bus, tuk tuk, bicycle rickshaw, elephant, camel cart, rice boat and my feet! I loved it all. I particularly enjoyed sitting in the front seat of the coach; even though it was rather hair-raising at times, the view was wonderful and the driving exhilarating!
Shalu: Please give your best tips for travelling to India?
Kat: Take plenty of tropical strength mosquito repellent and antibacterial hand wipes. Also when people do seem too pushy just remember that there is a lot of poverty and that they are only trying to make a living. Keep an open mind but be firm with your “No, thank you” and be on your guard.
Shalu: Finally, would you visit India again?
Kat: Yes, in a shot! It took me a long time to pay back the money I borrowed for the second trip (and my souvenirs) but India is the most exciting place I have ever been to and it was worth every penny. I dearly long to return and I’m sure I will one day. In the meantime happy memories flood back whenever I see the carved wooden elephant standing in my living room or I pass the print of a Raja Ravi Varma painting hanging on the wall or any of the other beautiful things in my home that I brought back from India. Happy memories indeed!
This interview was first written for Shalu’s blog ShaluSharma.com, a great resource for anyone travelling to India including useful tips and basic lessons on speaking Hindi. Follow Shalu on Twitter @bihar.