I know everyone says this, but a little repetition never hurt: if you’re ever in a situation where you have to choose just one country to visit in the world, make it India. Having spent two months the southern regions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala last year, I can say with good authority that it’ll be an experience you’ll never forget. Even the wonderful ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ cannot quite cover the feeling of what it’s like to be really there, in a country of over 1,139,964,932 people, sixteen languages, seven major religions, and one vibrant, turbulent history.
It would be impossible to contain everything about my trip in this article, especially seeing as the six hour journey alone, from the airport to where I was living, filled six pages of my travel diary However, there are always highlights…
One special morning was spent at a wedding, although sadly, as a friend pointed out, being a westerner, I attracted more attention than the bride did! The expense of Indian marriages can bankrupt poorer families, and it’s easy to see why: this particular couple had cooks preparing (a delicious) breakfast for 500 people – and that’s an average size wedding. The saris were beautiful, the decorations gaudy, the bride rather frightened-looking – this was very much an arranged marriage.
However I had to eat my words when I visited the couple two weeks afterwards, as they seemed very much in love, and, if anything, she was the one in control, with a better job and higher ambitions than her husband.
One of the most gorgeous places I visited, even though it did involve an 11-hour train journey sleeping on a luggage rack, was Cochin, in Kerala, off India’s west coast. It has been colonised numerous times, as it is a perfect trading spot, but most notably by the Portuguese. It’s famous for “Jew Town”, a massive network of bazaars selling everything you could possibly want, but not actually need; the beautiful Synagogue, which is the oldest in the British Commonwealth; and the Chinese fishing nets, a bit like nodding-donkeys, which hark back to a much slower way of life. Cochin is also perfect for a break from other more hectic Indian towns, and there are plenty of restaurants that will quench any cravings for western food!
However, for the ultimate “Europe-in-India” experience, one must visit Puducherry, on the east coast, which was under French rule until 1954. The seafront promenade is like a rather run-down version of Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, dotted with numerous French cafés and a towering statue of Mahatma Gandhi, who sadly reminded me rather too much of the BFG. The mix of Catholic churches, like the Notre Dame des Anges; gaudy Hindu temples; and the wonderfully peaceful Sri Aurobindo Ashram, filled with flowers and dedicated to meditation; really justifies this town’s reputation as a melting pot of cultures.
Needless to say, but India really is unlike anywhere else you will ever go. Although the North is now getting its fair share of globalisation, the South is still relatively untouched, and wonderful for it. Home feels incredibly far away as you get on a jam-packed, rickety bus to travel across dusty plains, rock ranges, backwaters, and bright, clustering towns with all their hand-painted adverts, usually for a minimum of six hours, to reach somewhere which looked so close on the map. The people, most of whom were the friendliest I’ve ever met (although sme were definitely not – especially the more suspect men on crowded buses!), have such interesting things to say, in the most delightful form of English possible. Don’t miss it.