This piece was written just prior to my arrival in India on December 24, 2012, but remained incomplete. After a quick edit and polish, I present it here in its original tense, despite just having returned from India.
I got the shakes just before leaving Singapore. It was two and a half years since my last visit to India and I had forgotten how hardcore it can be. On the whole, India is a pretty safe place to travel – it’s not exactly a warzone and whilst violence and crime certainly occur, most foreigners get away with being ripped off a few times and suffering some health issues. Yet, travelling in India takes a lot of effort and can be at times quite harrowing. It is not, despite its reputation as a centre for meditation and religious retreat, a very relaxing country.
I’ve written several stories about my first trip to India and some of the various experiences I had there. Some fictionalised, others as memoir, and it is not an easy place to which to do justice. It can be breathtaking and amazing, restful and beautiful, yet it can also be utterly exhausting and very frustrating. It also has its attendant, inherent difficulties – such as the heat and dust, the discomfort, the chaos, the noise, the touts, the lying and cheating that goes hand in hand with incredible hospitality, and the inconvenience of not being able to drink the tap water in a country that is often unrelentingly hot and humid.
In my first few days in India in March 2010 I struggled to make sense of the place and learn to negotiate it. Rather like being thrown in at the deep end, I learned to swim soon enough, yet not before having a number of difficult and challenging experiences and getting sick. The illness in itself wasn’t so bad – stomach cramps and diarrhoea – but after a few days it made me feel very weak. For two days in Pushkar I did almost nothing but lie in my hotel room and read, with occasional ventures outside.
After four days, travelling further into Rajasthan, I arrived in Udaipur dehydrated and exhausted. The weakness of not eating much for three days made me paranoid and, sitting alone in my hotel room watching the cricket that night I got the crazy idea that I might genuinely die. I force-fed myself a vegetable biriani and fruit salad and the following morning went straight to the chemist to get some antibiotics. Within twelve hours of taking them, the illness vanished and I cursed myself for not having done so sooner. Take my advice – most gastric illness in India is bacterial and over-the-counter antibiotics are readily available at any medical shop.
As soon as I got better, that first trip in India really got underway. With my strength returned, I was able to put in the hard yards and see and do the things I wanted to. The more I saw of India, the more I loved it – but this love came with serious reservations about why I felt the way I did. It was all very well to see charm and romance and the exotic, yet alongside that was terrible poverty, failing infrastructure, appalling hygiene in public places, rubbish dumped and burned everywhere on the streets, including plastics and excrement, and such a harrowing welter of noise pollution, overcrowding and almost non-stop inquisitions from people I passed that it was equally depressing and demoralising. It was, of course, a photographers’ paradise, but my joy at the subject matter was tainted by a feeling of intrusion and exploitation and terms like “poverty porn” lingered in my mind. I tried very hard on that trip to remain friendly and positive. For the first few weeks I answered every query, shook hands with a hundred strangers and stopped for the ubiquitous “just one photo, sir”, but after a time India’s constant assault forced me to retreat inside myself. I turned to my headphones and sunglasses and started ignoring people.
A better solution, however, came when I arrived in Darjeeling. Perhaps it was the prevalence of Buddhism, the cool calm of the mountains or just the friendly, peaceful nature of the Ghorka people, but in Darjeeling people left me alone. When people did greet me or make an inquiry, it was not merely preliminary to an attempted transaction.
In the rest of India there seems to be an automatic reflex whereupon, seeing a tourist, if staring is insufficient, then belting out the question “which country?” is the next step. This was sometimes done in the nicest possible way, but often it was thrown at me with such urgency that it felt impolite. What really surprised me was how often the inquirers accepted the answer without further ado, at times seeming almost uninterested, which left me wondering why they had needed to ask in the first place. It was like being a display, which, to be fair, was probably not much different from how people felt when I was photographing them – though I do try to shoot as surreptitiously as possible.
The solution, it seemed, to avoiding the hustle of India, was to be in the mountains, which wasn’t exactly India after all. Once I’d discovered the relative calm of the mountains, I did my best to stay there.
From Darjeeling I flew across to Amritsar where I lasted one day before taking a bus across Punjab into the mountains around Dharamsala.
I was so reluctant to return to the heat, dust and general hubbub hat I stayed another three weeks in Himachal Pradesh before finally venturing down again via Shimla.
By the end of that journey, just shy of two months, I felt like an old veteran after a long campaign. Yet my energy was also pretty well spent and I had fallen into a state of relative dissipation. Tired and world-weary, I wandered around Varanasi in a daze, wiped out by heat and hash. I made sure I took the photographs I wanted to get, yet the subject that had so fascinated me for the first two months – namely India – had become a little less appealing.
I could no longer stomach the scent of excrement, urine and decomposition. I had no more patience for beggars, priests, touts or even genuinely curious Indians. I literally just wanted to shoot the place and avoid any interactions. When anyone spoke to me I shook my head, pointed to the headphones, raised my hands as though to say, “Sorry, dude, I can’t hear you,” and walked away. It was not how I wanted to be at all, and I hid out in my hotel room at times, simply indulging in privacy and regretting the feelings of displeasure I had with the world at large. I guess introverts should travel in Scandinavia instead.
It was for these reasons that, just prior to my flight into Thiruvananthapuram for a second visit to India, I started to have reservations about where I was going. I should be looking forward to the challenge, but perhaps I am too effete and western for the grit and grime of it all. Still, despite the above introduction, my last trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I came away from it feeling very inspired. This time is also bound to be different for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’ll be starting in the south instead of the north and travelling in regions I’ve not visited before. Secondly, I’m not travelling alone this time around. V is coming with me, or I with her if you will, and the dynamic will be very different indeed. It will certainly be a lot easier with someone to share the highs and lows, and I hope it will be more enjoyable as a consequence. Hopefully I will come away both appreciating what I have discovered anew and having been reminded of what is important and good in life. I also hope to shoot a hell of a lot of good photographs. Wish me luck.