London to Guildford the hard way.

May 1st, 2001

This blog contains the daily trials and tribulations of someone backpacking around the world for the first time. It is a travel diary.

This diary is what it is, a travel diary of my time backpacking around the world.  There is no narrative other than time itself, no purpose other than a way of documenting my experiences and no story other than my observations.  It is merely a list of dates and places plus little bits of historical information and personal opinion written as a reminder of my time.  It is a tour guide of sorts of my feelings, observations and education.  A guide of how not to backpack around the world by going from London to Guildford the hard way.  It is if anything a travel phobic’s guide to global travel.

For ease, the categories list to the right shows the timeline of the diary.

Dedication

May 1st, 2001

Dedicated to all those people in the world I have met whose lives are infinitely harder and more challenging than my own.

Preface

May 2nd, 2001

The diary is what it is, a travel diary of my time backpacking around the world.  There is no narrative other than time itself, no purpose other than a way of documenting my experiences and no story other than my observations.  It is merely a list of dates and places plus little bits of historical information and personal opinion written as a reminder of my time.  It is a tour guide of sorts of my feelings, observations and education.  A guide of how not to backpack around the world by going from London to Guildford the hard way.  It is if anything a travel phobic’s guide to global travel.

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Note:

Please excuse the grammar.  Entries were written at the end of each day, as such the past, present and future tenses of times, people and places change.  The Diary should be read as if it were the end of each day.

In The Beginning

May 10th, 2001

On a warm June morning the golden rays of the sun shimmered through the haze of a new dawn, the rays flickered through the leaves of an ancient tree as a gentle breeze caressed its weary branches.  In the distance the morning chorus echoed slowly, timelessly towards me as birds awoke from their night time slumber.  Children played in the shadow of an ancient tree with toys grandparents had lovingly made from old bits of wood and metal, materials others left behind by as mere rubbish.  A small girl with a cherub like face with a look that could break the heart of the hardest of men played with a spinning top.  Suddenly without a care in the world, of which only one so young could have, she lifted up her skirt, crouched down and did a huge steaming pile of poo on the path right in front of me!  Morning was most definitely broken!  I thought to myself “Yes, I understand, this is India, I get it now” but why the hell was I here and what did I get?.....................................

I had always wanted to see the world but not necessarily all at once, the usual six to twelve months travelling without basic sanitation did not appeal.  It was also something the posh kids did in their ‘gap year’ and not something a kid from a ‘normal’ family in Sheffield did.  But one Christmas as a child I’d been given an ‘encyclopaedia of the world’ by my parents, in it were amazing images from the Taj Mahal, Himalayas and temples of Cambodia to Ayres Rock and the Lost City of the Inca.  I’d wanted to see these places but never thought I would and that’s were University came in.  I don’t think I ever really wanted to go to University, I just wanted to put off getting a job for as long as possible but it was there where I was taught that you can do anything if you put your mind to it.  The only thing holding you back is yourself.  The confidence of the other students was infectious so I ripped up my primary school English book in which I’d written the plan for my life stating that by now I should have been married!  I was going to head off as soon as I finished Uni.

I wanted to go around the world in bite sized pieces and in comfort.  I suppose I wanted to travel the world from a travel phobic’s point of view.  As this was my first real trip outside of the relative safety and familiarity of the western world, I wanted a big ‘Jim’ll fix it’ chair which would give me all of the sights and sounds of a country by remote control, without the stresses and strains of travel.  Then if it all got too much I could simply change channel.  As usually happens when you discuss trips with friends we hit upon a plan to slowly get me used to backpacking by travelling from London, or Kentish Town to be more precise, to Guildford.  However there’s always a catch, although Guildford is only thirty miles south west of London, I had to get there without crossing a line 0.45 degrees west of the Greenwich Meridian.  This rather conveniently went straight through the middle of Heathrow airport so this clearly meant that I had to go around the world to get there.  Initially I planned quite a quick trip, this was a bit cliché with just eighty days like that Phileas Fogg bloke so I wouldn’t have to put up with the discomforts for too long.  However, after thinking about what I wanted to see it became apparent that this was too short so to my horror this quickly increased to five months.  Obviously with this time scale the whole world was out of the question so I settled on three continents, namely, Asia, Australasia and South America.  So without too much planning other than having about fifteen injections, countless malaria tablets and a round-the-world air ticket in hand, I was at Kentish Town Tube Station a mere thirty three miles from my final destination.

………………..……….Meanwhile in the sunshine and heat of the June morning, the girl who had just deposited the runniest poo I’d ever seen got her left hand and stuck it up her bum!  Ahhh, the Indian method of cleaning your backside.  This shocked me, and I thought that this must have been the culture shock so many had talked about, then again it could have just been disgusting!  I knew so little about the world but was about to learn so much more………..……

India: Mad Dogs And Englishmen

May 15th, 2001

I know that the modern shape of India we see today is a relatively new country but civilisations had existed on the Indian subcontinent for millennia.  There were kingdoms all over India which were constantly battling for supremacy with many empires, kingdoms and sultanates in both north and south.  There was always a little antagonism between the different kingdoms which the Europeans took full advantage of.  In 1757 the British, already with settlements in India, were asked by Mir Qasim, a minister to the Nawab of Bengal, for ‘logistic’ support to overthrow the Nawab.  The battle of Plassey followed with an easy victory resulting in Mir Qasim being installed as a British subservient leader.  This battle made the British realise how strong they were in relation to the Indian armies and the days of the Empire began.  Interestingly the British forces were initially only here to guard British East India Company property and not for the British Crown but all this changed in 1857.  In this year there was a local rebellion against certain discriminatory policies of the British and as a result the British East India Company was abolished and India formally became a crown colony of Britain formally uniting the whole of India into one country.

With help from Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent resistance, independence was gained on the 15th August 1947 but sadly things were about to go wrong.  A few years earlier elections in India showed that the country was very much divided between the Muslim league led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Hindu Congress Party led by Jawaharlal Nehru.  Jinnah infamously said “I will have India divided or India destroyed” and there spoke the religious tolerance of the Islamic leader.  Following this proclamation there was a slaughter of Hindus in Calcutta followed by retaliation.  Last ditch attempts were made by Lord Louis Mountbatten to resolve the issues but Jinnah stood firm and reluctantly a decision was made to split the country up.  Only Gandhi argued against this as he anticipated bloodshed.  The division into India, Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) led to rioting between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims.  It was calculated that up to 250,000 were killed in this period although some suggest 500,000.  It also led to one of the greatest mass migrations ever seen with a total of twelve million people moving between the divides of India, Pakistan and East Pakistan.  There are still problems between these countries to this day with assassinations and nuclear bomb posturing.

Shortly before midnight in the late hours of a May morning the screech of aircraft tires on tarmac signified an overwhelming feeling of discovery and anticipation, well not strictly true, it was fear and trepidation but all the guidebooks said I should have been feeling the former.  What will India hold for me, will it be the mystical place where I’ll ‘find my true inner self’ as so many others had done before me.  Will I be courted and embraced by the culture, the people, the religions, the sights and the smells.  Or will I just get food poisoning, sunburnt, step in cow shit and have my bags nicked………

Day 1: This Isn’t How It Looks On TV!

May 16th, 2001

Day 1. The first thing I’ve discovered about backpacking is that when you decide to travel anywhere you should make sure you know what season it is in your destination.  It turns out that this is India’s hot season and on landing it was 38°c with 97% humidity which was basically 26°c and 47% higher than the levels of a damp morning in Kentish Town where my dad had dropped me off thirteen hours earlier.  What’s worse, it was midnight it could only get hotter.  So dripping with sweat I queued to get some money changed so I could quickly head to a hotel, relax and wipe the image of the airplane toilets from my memory.  For some reason it had appeared, from the foot prints on the toilet seat and ‘mess’ on the floor, that a number of passengers had stood perched on the toilet seat and squatted like dogs but with very poor aim.  Why!  At the airport I queued for ages to get money as women kept pushing in front of me.  It was really annoying but eventually I learned that women generally get priority in India when it comes to queues and transport, although obviously not for the important stuff!  However what was more annoying were the European men who had become wise to this and were now sending their partners to the front of the queue leaving a line of single male backpackers waiting with me at the very end!

For safety I thought I’d book a hotel through the information desk at the airport and within minutes was picked up and on my way.  I looked out of the taxi window and was shocked at what I saw.  I did expect a certain amount of poverty from what I’d been told and seen on the TV but nothing quite prepared me for what I saw.  I suppose I had read old books and seen films where India was a land of fairytales, dance and music, however the fairytale appeared to be in fact, a fairytale.  Through the window were mile upon mile of shanty towns covered with litter, dirt and grime.  Peoples’ faces were lit up by the orange glow of fires burning outside the huts which I suppose were started in the vain hope of repelling mosquitoes.  People were lying everywhere in the streets, even stretched across the central reservation of the road some looking dead as their bodies lay draped over the broken concrete and metal barriers.  Litter blew everywhere and a smell of decay and sewage prevailed in the air, a smell I cannot even describe as I have never before smelled anything so foul.  This is not the India of the Indian tourist board.  This is not India, the country of palaces, maharajas, temples and mysticism they had sold me back in Britain.  Nor is it the India of the guidebooks, I’m very confused.  This is the India seen through the eyes of someone not paid to ignore the poverty to sell books and holidays nor are they the eyes of those who visit India having taken copious amounts of narcotics, found religion and now have the sole purpose in life of dancing along Oxford Street wearing bright colours chanting ‘gouranga’.  This is the India seen by someone who was raised in the safety of a small housing estate in a provincial English provincial city.  Through my eyes India’s mystical beauty had quickly become dirty, derelict and ugly.  It would be folly to say that my world is perfect but I am not used to these extremes, but I do realise that India is probably different things to different people.  People will react differently but it’s clear to me that I’m suffering from a major case of culture shock although I think the term ‘social shock’ may be more appropriate.

For all of the inequalities I’ve seen in my first couple of hours, India is still out there for me to discover and as everything I thought I knew about the place was slowly dissolving before my eyes it’s clear that I will be making my own discoveries.  They will be discoveries that a similarly named TV channel could never provide me, nor a sleepy two hundred yard street in Sheffield.

Day 2: Something From You To Me Sir!

May 17th, 2001

Day 2. After talking to many people who have visited India, they all seem to have one thing in common.  Whichever city they first arrived in they hated.  For me this is slowly becoming true of Bombay and the reason for this was purely down to the way I was treated as soon as I arrived.  Everyone who tried to talk to me at the airport was either pushing a hotel, a taxi or holiday guide.  Practically everyone appeared to be on commission and as such I was being told lies, having emotional blackmail used against me with suggestions that if I didn’t use their hotel then the guy’s family would starve.  This was hard to believe looking at the size of the man who told me this, he could have fed a few in a plane crash!  I was being manhandled by these people with rickshaw drivers even fighting amongst themselves to stake a claim on my business even though I didn’t require any from them.  For a first time visitor I was feeling smothered and being alone and defenceless seemed to amplify this.  I guess I might as well have had a big sign stuck on my head saying “easy target, get your money here.”

I knew the hotel was going to have some ‘hidden’ costs but as I met the manager at reception it soon became apparent that this was to be my first interaction with the bad side of India, the person who tries to get money out of those who are vulnerable.  I quickly realised what was going on but didn’t know how to deal with it, I had to go along with it otherwise I’d be left in the middle of nowhere without a hotel room in the early hours of the morning.  I had to give in to his blackmail and lies.  Then I made my first major and pretty fundamental mistake and one I know I will never make again.

The hotel manager asked me if this was my first time in India and I stupidly said yes.  This may sound pretty inconsequential but I could practically see the dollar signs spinning in his eyes with the accompaniment of cash registers ringing.  From this moment on I was a walking cash machine as far as he was concerned.  He knew I didn’t know how much things should be and who and what I was expected to tip for.  As such I was quickly introduced to the bizarre Indian system of getting money out of people called ‘baksheesh’.  It is an unusual form of tipping whereby you don’t give money for what a person has done but what they will or won’t do!  To me this is blackmail as if you do not give ‘baksheesh’ then you will not receive the service that you paid for in the first place.  But this was the hotel managers preferred weapon of choice.  After inventing hotel taxes amounting to 500 rupees for two nights we then entered my room which just happened to have a bed that was broken.  Amazingly even though I had paid for a room with a non-broken bed, as I tend to prefer those, he went on to say that he didn’t know what had happened and he would get someone to come and fix it.  He didn’t move, he just stood there and stared at me.  Eventually the standoff became painful as I didn’t know what to do but eventually he uttered the words “Something from you to me sir?”  A little shocked I had asked him to repeat himself, he said it again.  It took me a little time to figure it out but basically this was ‘baksheesh’.  It was an underhand and somewhat shorter way of saying, “yes I have deliberately given you a broken bed so that you will ask for a new one but I will not get you a new one unless you give me some money!”  I was tired and really needed to sleep so I offered 50 rupees (75p).  He then said that he was offended at so little, and stood there until I gave him 200 rupees, far too much but I was stuck in his hotel at 1am in the middle of nowhere.  The word bastard was not strong enough.  The sad thing is he probably thought that he’d won his little game in getting extra money out of me, however his actions were actually self defeating as I now plan to leave tomorrow, he would have made more money if he hadn’t lied as I’d have stayed longer.  But this trait seems to be common here, make as much money today forget about tomorrow!

So within the first few hours of entering the country I feel demoralised, robbed and tired but I have learned three vital lessons.  Firstly, never say that it’s your first time anywhere, lie, say at least twice, three times is even better.  Secondly, make sure you have a good idea of what the real price of goods, services and tips should be before going anywhere.  And thirdly, never say yes unless you really mean yes, people will hold you to it otherwise.

After a few hours of sleep I was woken by the increasing noise levels outside.  I’d been told that this suburb of Bombay near the airport was one of the poorest in India and practically as soon as I walked out of the door I was surrounded by kids pulling at my clothes with one hand and the other held out begging for money.  Faces were covered in dirt with pained grimaces with broken and blackened teeth.  Dirty skeletal hands were used to mime eating food.  As I walked the kids followed endlessly crying out for money.  Then older women came up pushing the children out of the way so that they could get close enough to catch my attention.  Tugging my clothes then rubbing their stomachs, uttering words I could not understand but with pained expressions on their faces which clearly showed their desperation for food and money.  You would not willingly beg in such a humiliating and a degrading way, I truly wished I could have helped them all but this would have been impossible, I was surrounded I was getting claustrophobic, I had to head back to the hotel to escape.  To escape the attention and to escape the smell of raw sewage, the putrid rotting smell mixed with the heat and high humidity made the whole experience very overwhelming.  I don’t believe there are any words that could ever describe the overall experience but the smell, this is one thing about India you can never forget.