Monday, 7 March 2011

Just back from India

Just back from nearly three months in India. Incredible India, as the slogan has it; also infuriating India. You can't have one without the other.

India is extreme. You'll be stuck in a crowd, fighting your way off a train (literally; I had to land a couple of punches and shoulder my way out of the scrum to get off at Chittaurgarh), beset with rickshaw wallahs quoting horrifying prices for places you don't really want to go to anyway... and then something will happen which turns your day from terrible to amazing.

You're waiting at the wrong bus stop, it turns out, and no chance of getting across town in time to get to the right stop before the bus goes... except that someone will run you there pillion on his motorbike, and make sure the conductor knows where you need to get off.  Or one and a half hours from Delhi, from metro to bus, to another bus, all you're seeing is cement factories and motorway, and you despair of ever getting to Tughluqabad - and then suddenly there it is, its rubble walls dominating the plain, a tawny plain on which several games of cricket, of varying degrees of professionalism, are being played...

India taught me a few lessons. One was patience. Or optimism. Or not exactly either, but a willingness to wait and see, to hope that things would turn out right. To look for a friend, instead of battling things myself. To not take life's ups and downs personally.

And I think another lesson was to take the time for other people. One of the nicest days I had was when I met a Swedish hare Krishna in Puri, and we spent the day just wandering around, taking photos, meeting a cat who was a princess in disguise, eating sweeties, meeting local people, ending up on the beach, a long and happy and unpressured day. And I know from the great friendliness of Indians everywhere, who helped me when I needed help, and always had time to accompany me to a destination, or make sure I caught the right bus, or just recommend a good place to eat, that in future, I'm going to make time for travellers myself - if I have a New Year's resolution this year, it's to do that.

So, slow travel. There's no other kind in India. Trains are slow. Buses are slow. (Or rather, they're very fast for about ten km, then there are roadworks, or a tiffin stop, or someone wants to be let out in the middle of nowhere.)

But it's taking the time for others, taking the time to experience a place, to let it soak in, that makes real slow travel. It's attitude, not speed.

Still, when you have three whole months, and when travel is naturally slow, and when taking the train is sometimes an experience in itself... and when two weeks in, you take six chapters of your carefully sectioned guidebook*and put them in the bottom of your rucksack because you know you haven't got time to visit the whole of India, not even in three months... then learning how to slow-travel is much easier.

Thank you, India.


* Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himalchal Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and most of  Maharashtra, if you really want to know.

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