Thinking back to before we left England I struggle to pinpoint exactly why I insisted on travelling to India. All I know is that I knew this country had so much more to offer than people expect. I knew it was teeming with beautiful wildlife and I was determined to overcome my prejudices and see what India has to offer for myself. All in all Brad and I have spent almost 4 months in India (a third of our whole trip). To start this final Indian post off here is our trip summarised in numbers:
– 109 days in India
– 7929 km covered
– 3 safaris
– 14 states visited
– highest point of 1930m
– lowest point 3m below sea level
There are a number of topics I want to discuss in this final post. Most interlink together and all have impacted me and the way I judge India.
The easiest place to start is tackling the country wide issue of pollution. Pollution in India is everywhere you go. The biggest type of pollution that hits you hardest is the amount of litter you see. I mean, it is literally everywhere.
Our first days in India were Kolkata, thinking back now it seems like a life time ago, but it was a great place to start really. Although it was a bombardment of shocking sights, we were at least prepared for the coming months. Driving from Kolkata to the Sundurbans, we passed the humongous mountain of litter that is Kolkata’s landfill site. We were in shock at how huge it was, it was spilling out to the land all around it. But really, this was nothing. Since then we have witnessed some of the most disgusting build ups of litter we will probably ever see in our life. Some of which is not even on landfill.
No matter where you go in India you will see litter on the side of the road. It washes up and lines the beaches, it clogs up the open sewers and it eventually builds up along the rivers and in the natural areas. The problem seems to be that there is no real government implemented garbage removal. It is an extremely rare sight to see a litter bin on the street. Most of the time it’s “leave it in this pile and someone will collect it later”. What about the wind? What about the animals eating from it and spreading it about? This culture of not putting rubbish in bins has lead to people not caring where it is put. Litter is just tossed aside, thrown anywhere. The people just do not care! And because they have lived in this way for so long, having streets lined with plastic and rotting food is normal, it doesn’t bother anyone enough to make a change. Or there just isn’t enough people that do care.
A perfect example of this ‘throw on the floor’ culture was when Brad and I were stood on the platform waiting for our train. As normal, some curious Indian people approached us to talk. They asked us our profession (bit awkward since we don’t currently have one) and where we are going/have been. Then they ask us for a selfie (or 10). Now, I have to mention that Brad and I were stood about 1 metre from a bin (they are normally found inside train stations). The man speaking to Brad, instead of stepping 2 feet to the right and chucking his litter in the bin, just threw it on the floor. Brad, horrified, went to pick it up. The man then dived in and picked it up and put it in the bin, apologising. It boils down to laziness and lack of care.
There are the other pollution issues that plague India such as water cleanliness and air pollution. No matter who you ask in India about pollution, every single person will respond and say how bad it is. A man, whilst we were in India, was even taking part in a hunger strike until the government agreed to stop polluting the Ganges. Governments in certain states even seem to be trying to change things.
For instance, in Jaipur we were pleasantly surprised with how clean the streets were.There were public bins and street art everywhere encouraging people to be clean. Also, along some tourist beaches there are efforts to maintain cleanliness of the beaches and water. Most Railways are well maintained and cleaned with litter bins.
Yet there is still a long way to go for the rivers to be clean and smog to be reduced. I have been a little disappointed in the sunsets in India in all honesty. Only because the sun doesn’t set at the horizon, it vanishes about half an hour before when it passes into the thick smog/haze that shrouds the sky.
As part of some religious ceremonies, huge statues of gods are walked through the streets and offerings are thrown onto them. Traditionally these are then taken to the rivers or oceans and thrown in. The impact it has on the marine ecosystem is obviously atrocious. Whilst I believe this does still happen, some areas have put a stop to this tradition realising it’s negative impacts. On the outside, in some areas, it looks like people are trying to change things.
With such a huge population I don’t know what the solution is to some of these issues. Public transport is widely adopted, perhaps introducing electric buses to minimise air pollution? Many cities are currently building a city metro which I’m sure will help reduce traffic also. Whilst they figure that one out though, nothing is stopping the country from acting on cleaning up their rivers.
This leads me nicely onto my next topic, religion.
I’m going to start this section by saying how I have absolutely zero opinion on any religion itself. I absolutely respect other religions and have no issue with the way people choose to live their life. My first thoughts on religion after entering India was in fact how amazing it was to see such diversity of beliefs living peacefully side by side. This hasn’t always been the case in India!
The only time I have an issue with religion is when it has a negative impact on other people or the environment.
What Brad and I have noticed throughout India is a strong correlation between religious sites and pollution. Usually, temples and rivers that have religious importance are surrounded by litter and filth. A few examples of places off the top of my head are; Kalhatti Falls, River Ganges, Aurangabad Temples, Varanasi and Haridwar. Why is it that once a location is perceived to be of religious importance it then turns to shit?
In my mind if somewhere is seen to be holy, it should be cared for and kept free of litter. Instead the opposite happens and with the surge in people visiting the areas the pollution just gets worse and worse. I cannot get my head around how the people whose religious sites these are, do not look after them. Is it part of their religion to pollute the areas that are holy to them? I may seem to be offending people here and I don’t mean to offend the religion, only it’s impact on nature.
Most religions share the practice that the world and nature should be cared for. Why is it that people ignore that in India? It’s impossible not to realise the impact they have. The evidence is all around them staring them in the face! Plastic bottles, wrappers of food and cigarette packets just covering the surrounding area. Throwing offerings into rivers and oceans is common practice, mostly its flowers which as organic matter will have minimal impact. But why have I seen plastic bags being thrown into the sea during a religious ceremony?
We all share this planet and whilst I understand the need to respect other cultures, which I do, there is a line. If you are throwing litter into the ocean, that upsets me. No religion owns any ocean or river, we all do. We all live on this planet and if one person is littering my home I have a right to ask them to stop.
Obviously, I know that whilst travelling India I can’t just walk up to a group of Hindus and ask them not to make their offering. It’s been incredibly difficult to travel and witness the littering first hand and be able to do nothing about it. A constant battle in my mind about what I want to do and what I’m forced to do. I personally think it’s wrong that any religion should be allowed to practice any ceremony or in any way that negatively impacts the environment. I will always consider the health of the environment to be more important than religion. Religion can be practiced in harmony with the environment, unfortunately in India it isn’t.
Religion also interlinks widely into my next topic, animal cruelty. Don’t worry, I’m getting all the crappy topics out of the way first.
Probably one of the hardest things for me to witness. I love animals, I always have, even as a little girl I remember crying because the boys in my primary school killed a bumblebee (I then went on to dig it a grave). I knew before I came to India that it was going to be tough and I would see things that upset me. I was right.
I’ll start with the most common animal found on the streets, dogs. Street dogs are rampant in India, some places more than others but anywhere you find humans you find dogs. As a street dog you might be inclined to think its a mongrel and a pest. In fact, these are incredible dogs! After generations of natural selection being able to take place and no interbreeding from humans, desi dogs are super hardy. They have almost no degenerative diseases like you would find in pugs and GSD. They have amazing stamina, are very intelligent and have huge hearts. If only they were to be taken in and treated as part of the family they would have so much to give back.
In some areas the dogs actually are cared for quite well and have good quality of lives. After all, being on the street doesn’t automatically mean they will have terrible lives. Dogs aren’t meant to live in houses, they can live outside as part of a pack quite well under the right conditions. In rural areas where they have space to roam and hunt they seem to be quite healthy, you see far fewer skinny dogs. And in some areas such as Goa, the community actually cares for the dogs like community pets, feeding them in the evening and providing drinking water.
However, enter the cities and this all changes. The dogs are treated like vermin, they get hit by vehicles and are left with horrendous trauma which will certain cause their death eventually. They get rocks thrown at them and are kicked in the ribs. Almost all the dogs will cower in fear as you approach them and if you raise a hand to them they will almost certainly run away thinking you are going to throw something at them. They have no food and can be seen eating leftover food from the piles of rubbish or, even worse, cow shit. Since they receive no care most dogs have fleas and in some cases they are left completely hairless from the itching and scratching.
When Brad and I sat down to have lunch in Varanasi one day, there was a dog sitting under the table. We approached to sit down but the waiter then stopped us, scared the dog out and booted it in the ribs. I was put into a state of shock, it was so upsetting and so unnecessary. The dog cried out loud and ran away.
Luckily there are groups that try to care for the dogs. Desi Furries Worldwide is one group that takes street dogs and aims to re-home them across the world into loving homes – something we intend to do back in the UK.
Moving onto the second most common animal found on the streetsof India – cows. There is a common saying in India which goes along the lines of ‘Its better to be a cow in India than a human’. Cows are deemed untouchable as they hold huge religious importance. The sentence for killing a cow is exactly the same as the sentence for a killing a human and millions upon millions of rupees are spent on caring for old and injured cows EVERY MONTH.
That being said, the state that we see cows in sometimes, you would think they aren’t cared for at all. Again, this is mostly confined to the cities, but not always. We have seen
cows with hooves hanging off, or horns hanging off. So skinny you can see every bone in their body. They are often tied up in direct sunlight with no water or shade. They wander the streets and are left to forage from the litter. I am certain the biggest part of some cows diet in India is stale chapati.
This is a HOLY animal. You put this species on such a pedestal that they are a literal drain on your economy. WHY then are they treated so poorly?! Its one of the most hypocritical aspects of the religion that worship them (Hinduism).
I often wondered early in our trip why so many cows had funny shaped horns. One pointing forward, one pointing back. Sometimes both are pointed down and curling around so much I wonder how its not piercing into their jaws. Then, we entered Gujurat where the cows are treated much better with adequate grazing and I noticed how the horns on these cows were magnificent. The largest and most symmetrical we had seen all trip. To me this can mean only one thing; the poor quality of life and stress placed upon cows living in urban environments causes their horns to flop. How sad is that? You can actually see the stress in their physiology.
With cows being a rather large issue regarding climate change, I think India needs to consider just how humane it is to keep so many cows alive in such a poor condition. Its not a good quality of life for the cow, its not good for our climate and it certainly doesn’t mean anything to their owners, or else they wouldn’t be left in such poor conditions in the first place.
There is now so much evidence and so much education surrounding captive elephants – specifically those that are ridden. Riding elephants has been part of Indian culture for centuries now and back in the day Mughal royalty used them to display wealth and power. However, we now know so much better than to ride elephants.
This is a species that is way more intelligent than its possible for us to comprehend. Elephants face so much persecution in India, their home has been snatched away from them with forests cut down and cleared for humans. They have almost nowhere left to roam freely in this country meaning their welfare and conservation is of (or should be) of paramount importance. It makes me so sad to say the only elephants I have seen in India were captive ones.
My experience at Amber Fort was the most heartbreaking sight I have ever seen. I was crying for so long afterwards, every time I pictured the sadness in the faces of the elephants I would break down again. Even now I choke up. There are over 100 elephants working as a tourist attraction at Amber Fort. They are used like mules to carry tourists up and down the front entrance hill, all day long. The conditions these animals are put to work in each day are terrible. The temperature in India reaches over 40 degrees and the loads put onto these animals backs way exceeds the limit in some instances. A quick google search of ‘elephants amber fort’ will bring up several articles dating back years highlighting the cruelty of elephants at amber fort. Why are they still allowed to be put to work there then?
Whilst I would love to blame the tourists (and I do partly since it doesn’t take a genius to see the cruelty), I realise not everyone is educated on these matters and will see the elephant as ‘cute’ and assume its cared for. The owners of these animals deserve to have lawful action taken against them. No matter which way you look at it, this is an example of modern day slavery of one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. People need to wake up and see that elephant rides are no different to circus elephants. Both are using elephants for human entertainment and both are cruel.
To ride an elephant is to encourage the act of domesticating them, keeping them in poor conditions and breaking their spirit. Please, NEVER RIDE AN ELEPHANT. No matter your intentions or whether you think its being well looked after. It is always animal cruelty.
I know the first few topics of this have been doom and gloom. These are things that really get to me and mean a lot to me though. They have had a huge impact on these first few months of my travels and how I view things, or how much enjoyment I can take from them. I believe its important to also say that all of these problems can be solved. A lot through the simplicity of education.
Its scary how many children in India will never go to school. Education is a part of life that most of us will be given and taken for granted. In India I’ve been able to see what a country can look like when a vast number of children will never be educated. Unfortunately, its not great. That’s not to say that everyone who never goes to school has a terrible life, but it does mean they are held back. It also means they will never be taught the importance of caring for our planet which, as I have already discussed, is having detrimental impacts.
Beggars are seen everywhere you go in India. Children are the worst, not just because it is sad to see children homeless but because they are ruthless. They have no social skills and often will not take no for an answer, it can be quite an uncomfortable situation to be in. Its important to state that you should never give money to homeless children, you just do not know the circumstances to which they are in this situation.
If money was channelled into educating the next generation in India I am certain that so many issues they face at the moment would be reduced. Its not a coincidence that every single educated Indian person we have spoken to shares our concerns for their environment. Some of the statistics for education and homelessness are shocking (Smile Foundation India, 2018; India Cencus, 2015):
- 32% of Indians are not educated to primary school level (cannot read or write).
- Only 4.5% of Indians are educated to university level.
- 287 million illiterate people live in India (highest in the world).
- 78 million homeless people in India (11 million of which are children).
Do not let your presumptions of India fool you. This is a wealthy country! They have the money to pump into something as important as education, but they don’t. Instead it is spent wasted on pointless statues or on keeping thousands of unwanted, ill and diseased cows alive. The priorities list is all wrong. I hope that soon this issue is addressed and that it secures a healthier future for India, the way the environment is treated and the way animals are treated.
Now onto some of the cheerier topics of this summary blog!
As is probably blatantly obvious when reading any of my blog posts, wildlife and nature means a lot to me. One of my main motivations for wanting to travel to India in the first place was to see for myself some of the beautiful animal species that live here. If you have been keeping up to date with our adventures then you already know we have been ridiculously lucky with our animal sightings!
Instead of rambling on I am going to list out the animals that we have seen in the wild since arriving in India, that we had never seen before.
Probably the most important sighting, since they are constantly facing a battle for survival with ever decreasing space to roam freely. Who knows how much longer tigers will live in the wild? All I know is how lucky I feel to have seen 2 stunning tigers whilst I still can.
The Asiatic lion, so beautiful and with so much character! This was a very expensive safari to do as a backpacker but boy, are we glad we stuck to it. This species has only 100’s left on the planet and all are located in this one location. All it takes is for one forest fire to wipe them out and then they will be gone forever, I hope the relocation of some of the population takes place before its too late!
Ok, now we are just showing off. Three different big cat species?! This was way more than we ever could have imagined. Especially since leopards are so shy of people, they are practically ghosts and we saw two!! Just because of how crazy unexpected this was, its my favourite wildlife sighting of the whole trip.
Not forgetting the lucky sighting of a pair of jackals slinking off into the distance when we were leaving Bharatpur just before sunset.
We saw many beautiful creatures whilst at the Little Rann of Kutch but the hyena was definitely the least expected! It was so much bigger than I had imagined it would be and was the cherry on top of a fantastic evening.
Our main reasoning for heading to Little Rann was for this beautiful creature and we were able to get so close to them on foot, amazing.
A fleeting sighting at best, but a tremendously lucky one!
This was definitely the start of our good luck! Our first week and we were given this crazy sighting in the Sundarbans!
Off the coast in Diu we saw a load of sea turtles bobbling around and in Bharatpur we saw the weird looking soft-shelled turtle up close and personal.
A secondary sighting at Ranthambore, it was amazing to see a wild sloth bear – a species that has suffered in the bear dancing trade for generations (luckily this doesn’t happen anymore!).
There are plenty more animals I could list off including a host of bird species (including several species of eagle!), several snakes, spiders (brrr…), scorpions, small mammals, fish, deer and monkeys.
We were definitely sprinkled with fairy dust and granted our wishes on this front, we could not have asked for more. There are still a few species which evaded us; WILD elephants and Brad was desperate to see a king cobra (which we almost did – it was chased off by children throwing rocks). But on the whole we ticked off a bunch of animals from our long list! When I say I knew India had more to offer than meets the eye, this is what I was talking about!
I really didn’t have any judgements towards Indian people before we left England. I obviously had heard many stories of how men treat women and knew they were highly religious, on the whole. Coming out and living here for 4 months though, I will never look at an Indian person the same again. They are some of the most generous, warm-hearted and helpful people I have ever met. I never once was treated in a way that made me feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Granted some are also incredibly rude and I think people out here need to learn that burping or spitting in front of strangers is pretty gross. But most are lovely and given the chance will help you in any way they can.
We met Lopa and her husband when we first arrived in Kolkata. We stayed in her homestay for our first few days and she made us feel so welcome. She taught us so many lessons that we have taken forward with us throughout our whole journey! Even from our very first meet when she saved us from over tipping the taxi man and then told us not to tip in future.
We went out and explored on our first couple of days, still adjusting to where we were and would come back to Lopa’s home completely on the verge of a meltdown. Lopa and her husband stayed up with us talking until god knows what hour, telling us so many stories of India and their marriage and giving us tips and tricks for the journey ahead. They really settled us in and I am still so thankful and grateful we chose to stay with Lopa instead of a hotel.
Thank you Lopa and Aamer!
Little did we know when we arrived in the Little Rann of Kutch that we were staying with the Prince of Zainabad! Dhanraj was an absolute sweetheart, even before we met him. I emailed him basically to say that everywhere I have looked is over budget but how desperately I wanted to visit. He instantly asked what my budget was and told me he would accommodate me.
During our time at Desert Coursers Dhanraj organised, pretty much, the whole next two weeks of our trip. We had never planned to spend 2 weeks in Gujurat but our journey ended up taking us there so we had no idea where to go or what to do. After a series of phone calls Dhanraj had written down exactly where we needed to go and how to get there. This led us on to Diu, a place we fell in love with! He insisted that whatever we needed to give him a call and he would do his best to help us – “call me if you lose your socks”.
An absolute legend of a man. Thank you Dhanraj!
Shikhar and Family
Brad had been in contact with Shikhar through instagram a little while before we came to India (both being photographers). Shikhar’s family lives in New Delhi and we organised to meet with him during our time there. Honestly, the fact we actually enjoyed New Delhi falls completely onto Shikhar. He took us around to all the major attractions, driving us in his car and giving us the best history lesson we’ve ever had.
His family invited us to their home the next evening for dinner, the way we were greeted by Shikhar and his family was so touching. The food was delicious, their generosity amazing and I am certain that Shikhar and Brad will remain life long friends now. We hope that one day we can return the favour back in the UK.
Thank you to Shikhar and his wonderful parents!
I honestly cannot list out the names of all the faces of people that have contributed to our wonderful time in India. The guys who worked at Roundcube in Goa who got us good and drunk and let us play our music over the loudspeakers. Arif and the brothers who took us on our Sundarbans trip, then continued to help us on return to Kolkata offering us their shower and helping Brad with his broken phone. Every single person that has sat down and spoken with us, at a train station or during a festival. Every person that has offered us help and generosity. There are so many people that we are grateful to.
For all the negative crap that has happened over the last few months it is always the friendly faces that bring our spirits back up again.
I honestly believe that there is always good to come out of every situation, it just depends on how you look at it!
We have had many setbacks during our time in India, some of which were expensive to rectify. Also, the everyday struggles we faced such as constantly being stared at, being hassled constantly, always being swelteringly hot and the noise (so much noise). During our first month we could feel ourselves getting worse and worse – we were letting everything bother us. Then we would say to ourselves ‘why aren’t we enjoying ourselves?’ without realising it was down to the way we were dealing with each day.
That’s when I made a conscious decision to change the way I look at things and it has made a humungous difference to my state of mind and my happiness. There is a saying in India that goes ‘there is no point getting angry at the man who just beeped you because by the time he has gone past you he has already forgotten about it’. There is a very important lesson to be learnt from that! If you focus too much on everything that has happened in the past or present, you will honestly go insane in this country (or any country for that matter). To enjoy every day, every day you have to start afresh. Treat each day with the same openminded approach and you are bound to feel so much happier. Travelling with this in mind I was able to really appreciate each place so much more, leaving behind my thoughts on where we had just come from and starting a clean slate.
Leave your expectations behind.
Going backpacking has so many connotations; most of which include alcohol, beaches and being totally care free. For someone who has been dreaming of how happy they will be and how much fun they’ll have on the road for months, arriving with such high expectations can be dangerous. This is certainly the case for Brad and I. For the past 12 months every day stuck behind a desk we motivated ourselves by fantasising about how we thought travelling would make us feel. The reality of it though is that travelling is bloody hard work. You are always sweaty, eating out gets hella boring and no one can understand what you are saying (and vice versa). People are constantly trying to rip you off, you never know who can be trusted and often a location you had seen looking flawless in pictures looks completely different in the flesh. Travelling is exhausting, but it is still incredibly rewarding and we now have life experiences we will never forget.
The point is that if we had arrived without any expectations at all we may have actually enjoyed ourselves more initially. Its much better to be pleasantly surprised than disappointed with something (which is probably still really cool but not quite how you imagined it). Having no expectations is way more difficult than it sounds though and whilst this is a lesson that we’ve learnt, its one that requires constant conscious thought and self-reminding.
Top 3 Favourite Places
As hard as it is to pick 3 favourites, we would probably say that these places are the ones that stand out most.
- Camp Ganga
- Our camp of serenity in the foothills of the Himalayas. The tranquility of sitting with a good book outside our tent, right on the banks of the River Ganga deep down in the forested valley is a feeling I will never forget. The fact we had the whole camp to ourselves, being so early in the season, really just added to the feeling since it was silent (apart from the 2 glorious puppies). Everything about this place was exactly what we needed after the hardest month we could have imagined.
- Just endless beauty for miles around – need I say more? The clean air of the mountains was appreciated so much after travelling through dirty cities for weeks and weeks. Also to spend a few days in an area that sees less tourism was refreshing. Generally we just had high spirits and good vibes during our stay here. No complaints!
- The excitement of seeing tigers in the wild will stay with us forever. I still have to pinch myself now. This had to feature in our top 3.
Tips To Survive India
- As horrible as this sounds; assume that no one is ever going to offer kindness for free. If someone if being extra kind, usually they want something in return (often money, or that you visit their shop).
- A lot of areas around India wake up at around 10am – handy to know if you are heading out for breakfast!
- OK women here is my ultimate lifesaver tip. Buy and always carry on you a Shewee. Seriously, more times than I can count, this baby saved my life. Asian style toilets actually become the preference with a Shewee since they’re generally cleaner.
- Also seriously handy for my women pals, a mooncup. For that time of the month, not having to worry about locating, carrying or disposing of tampons is a joy.
- Everything you touch is filthy (most likely), including money which has been handled by hundreds of potentially unwashed hands. Soap is sometimes provided and a lot of restaurants have hand wash stations, but for ease and peace of mind always carry a bottle of hand sanitiser.
- To avoid ‘white tax’ going in with an offer half of what the item/taxi has been offered at is a good place to start.
- Brad and I both managed to avoid the dreaded ‘Delhi belly’, I wholeheartedly put this down to us being extra cautious of drinking water. Don’t accept tap water, always ask for mineral water. To save on money and reduce on plastic use we had our Lifesaver Bottle which meant we could drink tap water safely.
- We were also vegetarian for almost the whole trip. Only in the last month did Brad dare to eat meat. I think eating meat is probably OK if you are sensible about which restaurants you trust.
- Only eat seafood when you’re near the sea.
- India is SUPER cheap to travel in, like ridiculously. So don’t be stingy when it comes to enjoying yourself! The Indian safaris are probably some of the cheapest on Earth, so live a little!
- For me, mosquitos were a pretty big problem throughout the country (more so in the North). A DEET spray helps but even that didn’t protect me completely (even with clothes covering me I was bitten). I think this comes down to the individual though since Brad was only bitten a handful of times.
I could go on but I guess some of the fun (and frustration) comes from figuring out this kind of stuff for yourself. The biggest thing to remember is to trust your gut instinct. Indians can be very stubborn and very pushy, so just remain assured of yourself and never be forced into something out of politeness.
If you have made it to the end of this post, thank you!
What an absolute rollercoaster of a journey. I am so thankful that I can now bank all these experiences and memories. Is India for everyone? Absolutely not. Is India for me? I still don’t know the answer to that question! But I survived, Brad survived and I know one day we will go back. There is still so much to see!
Thanks for following our Indian travels. I hope you will stick around – so many more adventures still to come! Next stop, Thailand!