Scarily accurate and wonderfully insightful. Made me think of the lyrics from The Fugees “Killing me softly”. I haven’t thought about that song for a very long time…
“Ēka atithi ēka mitra vāpasa bhēja svāgata”
…for those of you that don’t speak Hindi: “Welcome a guest, send back a friend”.
These are the words of Independent India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Viewed as one of India’s ‘Founding Fathers’ alongside Mahatma Ghandi and Sadar Patel, Nehru was by no means a saint but his legacy has a profound effect on India to this day.
The much vaunted Indian hospitality has been a subject at the forefront of my mind for a few weeks now; more specifically the question of where to stay while I am there? I have a budget of £25 a day for the entirety of my trip. Excluding flights those twenty five pounds need to do everything. While in India this shouldn’t be a problem, in places like Myanmar it will not be enough.
So frugality and a constant eye on the bank balance will be key to avoiding that ignominious call home for emergency funds to buy some questionable street food and a bed in a roach infested hovel. Right now, those that know me have probably just broken into a cold sweat!
As I see it the options are 3 – (very) budget hotels, backpacker hostels and homestays. While each has its own merits they also have their downsides and the most suitable will be dependent on the specifics or your trip and motivations. As mentioned in an earlier post the subjective nature of travel means that what is right for you may not be right for me and vice versa.
While travelling there will be times when it feels like an Age has passed since the last time you had a moment to yourself. For the times when a long walk just won’t cut it budget hotels offer you the privacy you crave at an affordable price. On popular tourist trails there are usually enough of them to allow you flexibility of choice at short notice. While you can find some gems like this one I will be staying at in Udaipur ( only Rs. 500/£4.80 a night), you can also find yourself stuck in one of these!
In many places at this end of the spectrum you will also have to have thick skin. The rooms are cheap and the owners often subsidise their income through excursions, service provision and kick-backs from local business. As such you may be constantly harangued to buy this, see that or go there and moods may change should you not be interested. But this is India and everyone is just trying to get by, some more legitimately than others, but if you let these inevitable encounters cloud your day you’ll certainly miss the highlights the country has to offer. It would be a real shame to let mistrust and resentment affect the way you interact with others along the way.
The second option is backpacker hostels and these have a lot of positives going for them. The volume of guests that these places handle means that there is a certain standard of provision that most will meet – if a hostel like this is dirty, dilapidated and run by surly and unhelpful staff then it will not last long. However, juxtaposed to this is the wear and tear such volumes cause and the cost of regular repair.
A good way to gauge the standard of a place if you don’t have access to sites like Tripadvisor or Hostelworld, is to pop your head into the bar/restaurant/lounge area. If the people seem like your type, you’re probably not going to go too far wrong and a quick look at the room before paying will alleviate any fears. As a general rule clean sheets, somewhere to lock your bag and a bar/restaurant to meet people should be all you need for a night, you can always move on in the morning.
That brings me on to the main plus of the hostel option – the people. All of whom will be experiencing the same things you are, homesickness, wanderlust, FOMO and logistical issues. The great thing is they will all bring new perspectives and alternative ways to deal with any and all of the issues you are experiencing. Bonds will form and plans made in the blink of an eye because, well, “why not?” Then they will dissolve just a quickly in the dusty trail of a rickety bus or surrendered to the noise and throng of a busy platform – the happy goodbyes of opportunities born.
The last option is a homestay and this is in fact how I am starting my journey in Mumbai. I have said previously I want to get to know the places I visit; the people and how they live day-to-day. The world beyond the tourism. Don’t get me wrong I want to see the Taj Mahal, the Ellora Caves and the Red Fort among others but I also want to visit a tea village, spend some time with the river communities in Kerala and see the more remote areas of Himachal Pradesh.
There’s another saying in India, “Athithi Devo Bhava”, it means “the guest is God”. Within the Indian culture it is considered a huge honor to welcome guests to your home, and many hosts go out of their way to make them as comfortable as possible. Through my research I have seen a number that amongst other things, offer language lessons and cooking courses for minimal, if any additional cost. As the saying goes – there’s nothing like Indian hospitality.
However, the other side of that rather romanticised coin is the fact I will be travelling alone and for the first time. I have craved the attention of others all my life and cutting myself off from the hostel community would not be a healthy choice. For that reason I don’t think homestays for the entirety of my trip would be the most constructive direction.
This is not to say that I am not looking forward to my fist stop in Mumbai where I will be staying with Sachin Chaudhari. I found Sachin on AirBnB and chose him because of the numerous positive reviews he had received especially from first time, solo travellers. His family’s property is also in the Northern suburbs of Mumbai allowing me to escape the madness in the evening and get to know a bit more about community life while only being about 30 minutes metro ride from the central districts.
If you haven’t come across the site before I recommend you stop by soon. The concept is simple – people with a spare room rent them out on a flexible, short-term basis for some extra income. For the price of a budget hotel you get the comfort of a home away from home and the benefit of your hosts local knowledge. Hosts are usually as interested in other cultures and people as you are which makes for great chats in the evening and the potential to make lasting friendships.
This has already been proved by Sachin’s approach to hosting. We have exchanged a number of emails spanning my itinerary to my career and interests outside it; we even had a Skype call earlier this week – almost six weeks before I arrive! He has offered to help with my onward plans and even guide me in some of the more remote parts of the country. This is obviously a service I will pay for but it is always understood that I can accept or decline his help with no detrimental effect.
His genuine interest in my thoughts on India and my life at home is a novel approach for me, far removed from the increasingly begrudging levels of service we are seeing in the UK. It certainly gives the impression I will see and experience a more authentic India than through a pre-arranged package tour and for a fraction of the price too! All in all I can say that I feel much better about stepping on the plane knowing I will have a familiar face to meet me at the other end.
The great thing about travel these days is that with the internet it is so easy to get ideas, change your plans and find alternatives on the hoof. The two places I have mentioned in this article are the only two I have booked so far – they amount to a week of my 6½ week stay. I’m excited about the possibilities the other five weeks hold and comforted by the fact that whatever mood takes me I have the resources to sate my needs.
So I don’t like needles and I’d worry for the sanity of anyone that really does.
That said I have always carried off an air of bravado at moments when needles have been necessary. I’m sure you all remember your BCGs at school – this, for the boys at least, is a perfect opportunity to show that you are both brave in the face of danger and stoic in the company of pain; “Look at me girls, I didn’t feint or cry”. However, the fact my face had gone white as a sheet was more difficult to conceal than my fear or the fact that my arm was on fire!
So I walked into my doctors surgery fully prepped for an experience that would wound me both physically and financially. Never-the-less I presented myself at the reception desk full of that old bravado and confidently announced my arrival only to be met with the news that the nurse was off ill and I would have to return another day!
So after a further 48 hours agonising over the thought of being turned into a walking pin-cushion I finally got in to see the nurse. She was exceptionally helpful showing me maps of all the places that had risk of malaria, cholera and a host of other nastiness. I was pleasantly surprised to find that all the jabs I needed were free. As I wasn’t going to South America or other areas with Yellow Fever I managed to dodge that particular bullet and I also decided to opt out of the Hepatitis B inoculation. The nurse was pretty down to earth and said, “pack a big box of condoms and don’t get any dodgy tattoos and you can save yourself £140 and 3 separate injections” – thank you very much that’s about 2 weeks in India! At one point she mentioned a vaccine that I would only need if I intended to go walking through paddy-fields at night, unlike the nefarious tattoo parlours of Bangkok’s downtown I felt confident that I could avoid this particular hazard.
On leaving she made a throw away comment about my arms being a little sore for a couple of days; what she didn’t mention was that I would barely be able to lift them for 48 hours…I had the jabs last Wednesday and the rugby game I played on Saturday was not a pleasant experience at all, especially when you add the fact we played in Richmond Park in the driving rain…right, time to get back to the panicking planning.
It’s starting to dawn on me that travelling by your-self is an inherently selfish act, especially if you have friends and family that you will leave behind for any length of time. Essentially, you go where you want, when you want, for reasons of your own – no point wasting time caring if anyone agrees with them or not.
When I told my Dad I was going to India for 6 weeks as my first destination, his face contorted in what I can only describe as anguished dismissal – “what you want to go there for, it’s dirty and not exactly a barrel of laughs” – or words to that effect.
This coming from a well-travelled, ex-officer in the Merchant Navy was a little strange to me. Then again, these days he’s not looking for anything more than a toilet with a seat and a well plumped pillow – and why should he, he’s worked hard all his life from the age of 16, raised three children and is probably the most ‘together’ person I know.
The next thing that I realised was IT’S OK TO BE SELFISH – as long as it’s the good kind of selfish.
Modern, urban society is seriously fast paced and multi-media-centric. We are constantly bombarded with external stimuli, opinions, expectations on our time and conduct and forced to share personal space with all and sundry on a daily basis. It’s very easy to get stuck in a cycle where all that we say and do is aimed at garnering the right reaction or cultivating positive opinions from others.
By focusing so wholly on the external we forget to listen to ourselves and over time this results in the opposite of what I believe we all set out to do in the first place – be a good person and positively affect those around us. If we don’t take time to acknowledge our own desires and fears and listen to the needs of our bodies we often end up projecting onto the world a personality that is stressed, ambivalent, anxious, angry and unsympathetic.
If we aren’t looking after ourselves physically and mentally then how do we expect to be a happy and contented person who in turn brings both tangible and intangible positivity to those around them?
Certain people had been trying to get me to acknowledge this for what seems like forever. The fact that I didn’t, as well as the time and opportunities that were wasted as a result; these are the things I need to forgive myself for. *
So for me travelling will not just open up my mind to the world, it will also give me the time and space to start listening to myself. I’m hoping I can learn the value of the simplistic from the people and cultures I meet. To make the most of it I am following the advice of people who are both more knowledgeable and qualified than me. Implementing small things on a daily basis so once I’m away I will have the foundations on which to build truly valuable experiences.
*Caveat – Think of this as a mantra that I continually remind myself of and try to live up to but please don’t think I am a beacon of positive life values and wellbeing. That is the end goal but right now the whiskey bottle is within arms-reach and far easier to get hold of. Add a twist of Seasick Steve and you have yourself a night…
When I sat down to plan this journey I can say with certainty that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing (and still don’t really).
I wanted to do it all – see the sunrise from Table Mountain, explore Matchu Pitchu before tourists swarmed in, swim with sharks, jump off a waterfall, catch the sunset at Angkor What, learn a foreign language, volunteer for a charity, spend time with indigenous peoples and understand the cultures I encountered, oh and… find inner peace, the meaning of life and a purpose for the next 40 years of my life – within an 8 month time-frame of course.
What is it they say about realistic goals and achieving success?!
I sat on the Star Alliance website and planned a round the world trip that would have taken me from Africa to Madagascar then across to South East Asia, Australasia, South America and ending up in Miami and the art-deco buildings of the artistic quarter and a ‘hop’ over to Cuba tagged on the end.
In the time it took me to click the ‘calculate route’ button I understood my ideas about this trip were as realistic as Nigel Farage being ‘papped’ doing his weekly shop at Brixton market. The cost of such wanderlust…just shy of £5,000 on flights alone. That is the best part of my budget for the entire time I’ll be away!
If, like me, you are suddenly presented with the reality that there is nothing stopping you seeing the World, you will go through a similar process. Strangely it connected me with a memory I thought had forgotten from a time when I was much younger. An uncle bought me a plastic globe, the kind that had a bulb in it and lit up from inside. I kept it on my bedside table and at night I would lie in bed, slowly spinning it and reading names of places I had no idea about, picturing strange people, smells and foods – 20 years later it didn’t feel like I was much wiser than that little boy!
At the same time as feeling totally naïve about the world around me – when was best to go to Africa? What is the weather like in Myanmar in April? WHERE IS TIMBUKTU? You have to sift through the myriad layers of virtual detritus spewed out by countless tour operators, budget hotel companies and third party hostel websites.
“How do I know where I want to go if I don’t know whose talking the most shit; me or the internet?”
Daunting it may be, but that stage of the planning process helps focus the mind on what you truly want to get out of the trip you’re planning. Whatever that is, the only thing to do is read, read and read again. There is so much discourse “on the line” as my Grandma would say, that it’s difficult to know who to believe and who is just spouting hot air from their sitting room in Sidcup.
I found it useful to start with the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet books. I say ‘start with’ because like any great body of work you need to break the skin before you really know what you’re going to find inside. My trip at once became both more focused and less organised in equal measure but the books gave me points of reference upon which to plan MY trip. The exemplar itineraries at the front of the Rough Guide books are brilliant for understanding the length of time it takes to move around a country. From there the research took its own path.
I was fortunate to have Round The World Experts recommended to me by a friend. Yes you may have heard of them but remember, I am a complete novice at this! I honestly don’t think this trip would have got off the ground if it wasn’t for Amy (my female knight in shining armour of the travel world). Amy was there from the start – she gave me a comparable flight itinerary to the one I had obtained from Star Alliance and to say she was cheaper would have been an understatement.
More than that she is someone who has travelled and loves travelling – she does the job so her experience can guide laymen like me. She didn’t push me for decisions and wasn’t ‘salesy’ at all. We spoke on the phone first where she raised safety and logistical issues about some of my destinations and while never saying ‘no’ she encouraged me to go back and re-examine my choices.
After 7 days we had exchanged over 50 emails, by the time I booked my flights we were up over the hundred mark – all this and she was seven months pregnant and a week away from maternity leave! Thank you Amy you literally made my 2014!
Beyond that I found some excellent information on budgeting and train travel as well as some really cool bloggers who have been Professional Nomads combining their love for travel and ability to work remotely to stunning effect. All that and much more to come…
So decision made, ticket booked and pants suitably cr***ed. I have decided to start my 7 month odyssey with six weeks in (drumroll)………INDIA.
Birthplace of 4 of the planets major religions; Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism and formerly under British Empirical control, India now has the second largest economy in the world fuelled by a population 1.2bn. These things, combined with huge disparity in wealth, chasms between social class and an infrastructure working way beyond its capacity have created a society that is both beautiful and terrifying to me in equal measure!
I have absorbed all the warnings and horror stories aimed at inexperienced travellers starting here. It seems you haven’t been scammed until you’ve met a taxi driver in Delhi or a ‘freelance’ tour guide in Agra but there is just so much to see and experience.
UPDATE: there have now been two train fires in as many weeks in India. Both incidents occurring in the air-conditioned sleeper cars which are to be my primary mode of tansport. If my research is correct over 90 people died on the Indian rail network in 2013 alone. I find myself worrying about this more and more as the days tick by; I have to keep reminding myself that 91 out of the reported, 18-25 million daily journeys taken is not a very big number at all
It seems so far from a comfortable, Surrey existence that something tells me dropping into the middle of that chaotic way of life must force you to find some kind of inner-peace. Sink or swim, mend or break, either way India will define the whole trip. In fact the only downside I can see right now is that I may never want to leave!
After India I fly to Bangkok, landing on the 19th April, my next scheduled flight is on the 1st September…from Bali to Brisbane! So I have a huge chunk of time with which to see Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, a ‘quick drop’ into Malasia and finishing with Jakarta, Bali, Lombok and the Gilli Islands.
Or if you’re my Father, a larger period of time which will be marked as successful if I manage to not get, mugged; lost; sold into slavery; a tattoo from an infected needle; any one of Malaria, Polio and the Ibola virus; have my bungee cord snap (I certainly will not be doing a bungee) and shack up with a Bangkok LadyBoy.
As soon as I land on the 19th April I’ll be hopping on a plane bound for Myanmar, home of the 2nd Century CE Plain of Temples and a host of other cultural and culinary delights. The plan is still very loose after this – visa logistics make it easier to do the return flight from Bangkok to Yangong (formerly Rangoon) as a lay-over rather than activating my Thai visa on entry.
I want to immerse myself in different cultures and experience the diverse ways they look at life and the world. I have and still am atrocious at seeing other people’s points of view, I’m hoping some added insight will give me the perspective needed to do so in the future. That may come from the Indian Ashram I will visit, it may not.
I will be avoiding the main cities for the most part, spending just a few days at a time and travelling by bus, train, boat and bicycle. Accommodation will be homestays and hostels, so if you’re looking for recommendations on Boutique hotels please look away now.
Blogs over the next few weeks will concentrate on planning and packing for a long trip. The best sources of information on anything from flights, accommodation, budgeting, and equipment purchases all aimed at helping you sort the wheat from the chaff and me to fully commit. The internet is an amazing tool but it can also obscure the more relevant/correct information.
Once I leave it will be all about the people, places and the reality of this big wide world and a few pictures with my new camera.
So if you made it this far, thanks and until next time!
A few of my favourite travel quotes (hopefully there’s a couple that are new to you!):
“One of the gladdest moments of human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of habit, the leaden weight of routine, the cloak of many cares and the slavery of home, man feels once more happy.”
“What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”
William Least Heat Moon
“The cool thing about being famous is traveling. I have always wanted to travel across seas, like to Canada and stuff.”
“The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.”
“We travel initially to lose ourselves; and we travel next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe where riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and to fall in love once more.”
“Hitler didn’t travel. Stalin didn’t travel. Saddam Hussein never travelled. They didn’t want to have their orthodoxy challenged.”
“If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears.”
“With the palms zipping past and the big sun burning down on the road ahead, I had a flash of something I hadn’t felt since my first months in Europe. A mixture of ignorance, and a loose, what-the-hell kind of confidence that comes when a man picks up and begins to move in a hard, straight line toward an unknown horizon.”
Hunter S. Thompson
“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”
Mary Ritter Beard
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
I have agonised for a while over how to start this collection of ramblings I one day hope to call a travel-blog. The longer I procrastinated, the more daunting it became until it was something far bigger than the sum of its parts – a quick hello, an introduction into who I am and a brief glimpse at ‘the plan’… or at least that’s what I thought when I first sat down to do this!
How wrong can a guy be? Almost as soon as I put metaphorical pen-to-paper it became obvious that at least one of those initial fears had been justified…
“How do you say something that has essentially been said a hundred thousand times before in a way that will make people sit up and listen?”
I came to the conclusion that the answer simply lies in ‘the truth’, but more importantly in My Truth. For within that, as in everyone’s, lays a unique story. What keep us engaged and invested in the stories that we read are the contrasts that each journey strike with our own. Felt through those places, points of view or emotions, which are at once strange or familiar, we can either challenge or affirm the way we have travelled so far.
So, before I explain my route, how I’m travelling or even how long I will be away (if one can ever do those things on the Eve of a long journey) I need to at least touch on the journey so far.
I am a Child of the Eighties, my upbringing was ThunderCats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Swallows and Amazons and EuroSite holidays to the South of France. An upwardly mobile family life, prospering from ever increasing house prices and an economy that knew no limits only nurtured my natural laissez faire outlook on life and work – if you couldn’t afford it straight away there was always finance etc. bla bla bla… well we all know what happened next. It would be disingenuous to blame my current situation on the recent Financial Crisis and on-going austerity measures – there are people far worse affected than myself.
To this point I have been a lacklustre Quantity Surveyor, a failed Marketing Manager and more recently a very stressed out and ultimately unpleasant Recruitment Consultant. Most of the time, when I look back on the 10 years since I left school, it is difficult not to draw comparisons with the washed up, hometown College Football player you see in every other Hollywood film.
For the last ten years, there has been a battle fought between the opposing areas of my psyche, which until this point, I didn’t think had seen a decisive victory for either. First up: the beer-swilling, rugby playing, brash, City-worker who talks his way into work and has had the confidence/arrogance to leave when unfulfilled (for this read too lazy to knuckle down). “On to the next thing; there will always be a next thing…” I guess that was the arrogance talking. This part of me covets the salary and lifestyle that comes with a high-flying corporate lifestyle.
There’s also the relatively intelligent guy who can feign understanding of the socio-economic intricacies of modern society, reads a wide variety of books, is empathetic to those in positions of vulnerability and is keen to get out there, try new things and meet new people. The corporate lifestyle seems hollow and empty, full of people with the moralistic compass of Ferdinand Marcos (Yes people we will learn while we have fun!).
Finally there is the over-analytical, self-loathing side which can’t let go of a single cross word, mistake, missed opportunity, failed enterprise and everything that has been half-arsed or simply never started. That’s before we get to the more seismic mistakes I have made since I ventured forth to University some 10 years ago.
Typical escapist tactics have been used liberally and with increasing vigour over the last few years, alcohol, drugs, TV and console games were involved in almost every waking moment.
While option number one might seem like a bit of a tool to most, this last fella is the real problem.
I emphasised the ‘real’ in the previous sentence because while the issues I was (am) worrying about have tangible consequences it is the anxiety itself that creates the lasting damage. To those at arms-length you are the picture of middle-class normality but the reality is far less appetising.
Mine is a story not dissimilar to many of my generation and those following. Society puts pressure on us to meet its expectations – leave school, go to Uni, get a good job, settle down, car, house, dog etc etc. Unfortunately I dropped the ball at phase two and have been sabotaging my chances at 2,3 and 4 ever since. If someone had learnt to harness the power of self-depreciation in any war, fought at any time throughout history, victory would have been swift and casualties minimal. No one could have mustered the energy to resist.
Getting bogged-down in that head-space for too long can have a very damaging effect on you and those you love. If you get to the point where anxiety about the future stops you living in the present, then your future is already sinking fast in the maelstrom of your inner thoughts – actions change things, anxiety and self-loathing only serve to feed the demon.
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
An even starker yet infinitely more powerful reality are the people out there who, in the face of the most awful events, show great courage and truly admirable force-of-will to survive, prosper and create a positive out of the adversity. My issues are minute in comparison.
It felt important to provide some context as to the starting point of this venture for two reasons; Mental Health in today’s society is an increasing issue, secondary costs create a huge burden on Government funds within the UK. With the UK Government needing to find £20bn through austerity measures it’s not unthinkable that these will escalate further with the budget for primary mental health care being reduced. Mental health is an issue with a huge amount of stigma attached to it. Sufferers often fear they will be told they are weak and a lot of people who know no better assume it means padded cells and a strait-jacket.
Even more disappointing is the ‘en-vogue’ school of positivity which is summed up brilliantly by this piece by Dione Lew. Medium is something I have stumbled on recently and I think there might be something in it…
All I can say is your worries are your own, their effect on you is only proportional to yourself, not other peoples’ lives and how they deal with the speed-bumps in them. Each of us is our own barometer for happiness and success and only once we accept that, process our pain or fear and move on, do we have a chance of reaching either.
“When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in.”
Which FINALLY brings me back to the heart of this blog; travel is subjective, some want a boozy gap year, others a few months off between changing jobs. For a few, a month without travelling is called saving, a year… unthinkable! A lot go to ‘find themselves’, I used to pour scorn on that phrase and now I will proudly fly the flag.
I’m moving forward, As The Trade Winds Blow. Not eagerly searching out big adventure or extra notches on my bed-post but terrified of the consequences of this decision, desperately hoping that somewhere along the road I will walk round the corner and bump into myself – scruffy and a little thinner he may be but smiling, enjoying the day and looking forward to the next one…