Dicky Broadhurst was a volunteer on the India NGO Journalism Internship project. He talks in great detail about his first impressions of India and the trials and tribulations of his travels.
The sense of arrival to India was immediate. 46 kilos is the baggage allowance, and the Indians use ever gram. The sight of baggage claim would imply a mass exodus from the UK. My friend from the plane says he has a wedding as he hauls off two massive suitcases off the carousel. I say it looks like everyone has a wedding. He says they probably do. This information is fully believable. Nowhere is a wedding more famous than India, with enormous families with flowers, dowries and amazing colours. But what's in the bags?
With a view to getting to grips with Bangalore, and acclimatising myself to a new country, I set off the next day on foot on what became a marathon 7-hour slog as I became increasingly lost. The cows looked at me forlornly. I'm not sure being 'sacred' makes it any less difficult to be a cow in the city. Rooted to the spot for much of the day without even a vague notion of a green field, they are forever at risk from the assortment of rushing dangers that is an Indian city. Bangalore is like a large tree where every possible bit of branch space is occupied by a bird. Every morning the tree is shaken and the place becomes a beeping honking squawking madhouse until the evening. I got the sense that there is method behind the madness, possibly. Apparently the place has pretty much doubled in size in 15 years, which is clear from the buildings hemmed in like sheep in a pen. Dust and dirt prevails. A window cleaner might lose motivation in this city. For the visitor the place is fairly innocuous. There are a few sights, but they are slightly overwhelmed by the humming fray. There doesn't seem to be a centre, just a vast collection of very busy roads. Coined the silicon valley of India, the city is known for its IT services (and its pubs), and there is evidence of a city on the rise in the shape of new raised metro and some shiny offices dotted around. I think the 'madness' is simply the way things are done. Simply head into the fray and remember to beep your horn.
The following day there was a funeral outside my hotel. It involved a daylong music-drum-trumpet orientated gathering that could easily be misconstrued for a wedding if you didn't see the body in the middle of it all. An enquiry informed me that death is celebrated in India, but only if the person is old. In other words, 'congratulations on making it this far.' I love that ethos. Perhaps in the west we could benefit from approaching death as a bit of a cricket match. The multiple metaphors are all there for the taking.
Coming to India? Bring your moustache. Yep, the 'mo' is a rite of passage here, with the mo'less representing a clear minority. The moustache brigade is waiting for me everywhere I turn. If you've ever felt the need to stretch your furry whisker potential, now is the time. Admittedly my reflection told me that I looked like a man who enjoyed a piano tie in the eighties, so I shaved it off. But these Indian guys have got their moustache bush craft down to an art. Perhaps us westerners are missing something. Perhaps not.
After three days, it was devoid of emotion that I left Bangalore, where redeeming features were scarce. Perhaps a highlight was the 40-minute motorcycle ride my guide gave me to the bus station. The presence of two rucksacks and two people on a small bike did nothing to dampen his fervour, who faultlessly zipped me along, engaging me in animated conversation all of the way. He told me he liked Lionel Richie, a fact I took as evidence that my safety was in good hands. That being said, the roads of India are notorious. Nowhere else in the world are the rules viewed with such a flagrant disregard. I saw on TV that the new freeway in the North is now the cause of many hundreds of deaths, predominantly due to cars and bikes driving the wrong way down the fast lane, amongst other misdemeanours. I can't tell you how many motorcyclists I've seen wearing helmets, but without the straps done up, rendering the accessory entirely useless. The stuff you see goes beyond stupidity and seems to rely on the fact that no one willingly wants to kill anyone else, so your body is a sufficient barrier to use to get your way.
I am now in Madikeri following a bus ride. The feared bus ride, where you share air space with a cockling cockerel, your pockets are routinely emptied by vagrant children, the driver drives like he's possessed, and the seat affects your bum in a way that it never quite recovers. These are the tales of old. Not so! My seats reclined, free water was delivered to me, I had space and they even woke me up when I missed my stop; pretty much bus heaven in my view. Unfortunately I've been assured that these buses are the best, and others in the country are more likely to fulfil my expectations. Shame.
Madikeri is a mountainous coffee and spice region to the south west of Bangalore that is very beautiful. Both coffee and tea are excellent indicators of where you are in the world. Black, sugary, milky, spicy, skinny....the two drinks are often very culturally specific. The coffee here is a sugary frothed sort of affair that isn't terrible provided I'm not making a comparison to my coffee zenith (coffee in Australia is second to none). I'm told that spiced tea (ginger, cardamom) is common so I am targeting that next time. Like tea, coffee is handpicked, a fact that never ceases to amaze me. It probably took a picker a few seconds to get enough fruit for your cup, and yet undoubtedly receives only a tiny % of the cost. What will happen when economies and currencies balance out, if ever? I also wondered what happens to all the used coffee once it's been tapped into the bin in London. Compost surely? A possible reuse opportunity there I'm sure.
It seems many religions are represented in this town, but I can say with some assurance that Hinduism is present. I know this because at 5.30am the nearby temple plays Hindi pop songs for 30 minutes. I've been to Muslim countries before and always enjoyed the call to prayer for its melodic sounds that, provided you're not too near the speaker, compliment a morning doze rather than disturb it. The same can be said for these Hindi songs that enter my dreams surreptitiously; if only the speaker wasn't part broken. At the present moment, a Hindu festival is taking place at the meeting point of two rivers, one of which is the Ganges. Held once every 12 years, this 55-day festival attracts over 100 million visitors. No joke! It is the largest human gathering on the planet and is beyond my comprehension. I imagine a swarm of ants. The news tells me there are 259 doctors on call for the duration (2 for every million seems a bit woeful), and they are already flat out as the visitors take advantage of the free medical services. Surely the event represents good material for a BBC documentary, if not already done.
Perhaps my favourite thing about India so far is the headshake. The movement totally contradicts the first instinct, which is 'no', something I think it rarely means. Other options competing for space are 'yes', 'maybe', 'you work it out', 'how was it', and 'that was amusing'. Mostly I think it means 'I've heard you', so engrained and integral is it in day to day communication. I love the fact that a bit of body language can carry so many meanings, and be so open to interpretation to the unsuspecting traveller. I think it adds levity to everything, but that's probably because the confusion is extends to the foreign onlooker is highly comical.
Today my host/guide Keshav took me on a romantic Tuk Tuk drive to Raaj's seat to watch the sunset. I learnt that Keshav loves to visit Goa and lost his iPhone last time he went, he wants to move to Canada and always gets harassed by his mum when he goes home. He also doesn't like animals in zoos and doesn't like plans. It's safe to say I have found a kindred spirit. I told him that it's better to have an aim than a plan. He agreed. Including Keshav, I have found Indian people to be incredibly friendly and helpful (despite some of the 'help' being somewhat misguided). I am ashamed to say that beyond pleasantries, I have learnt very little language, mostly because the level of English varies from basic at the bare minimum, to excellent. Subsequently, rather than stutter in broken language, I am free to ask away my myriad of questions to anyone who comes near me.
If you need a reason to come to India, first and foremost has to be the food. Armed with a pack of Imodium, I have embraced everything that has been thrown at me. There is a certain joy to ordering food completely oblivious to what it is you're ordering. In fact, more often than not I have no idea after I've eaten it. It's clear, however, that centuries of spice growing have made Indians total pros at cooking. Added to the fact that for approx. 50p I can get a tray of food with 5 or 6 unknown little dishes on it combined with rice, poppadum and chapatti and you have a very happy man. Keshav clearly enjoys his food, and has been taking me on a tour of his favourite places, the most recent a place that involved 8 or 9 dishes being slopped on to my banana leaf. The method to eating in India involves one hand, using the rice to absorb everything else. The result is a sloppy mess a baby would struggle to match. I've also noticed that the average member of the moustache brigade carries a certain paunch around with them and I am beginning to understand why.
It hadn't crossed my mind until I saw one, but India is a country directly associated with the phenomena that is hippies. But there, in front of my very nose, were two of the classic car variety. I imagine them copulating on the train across Afghanistan like in Paul Theroux's book 'Railway Bazaar' back in the 70s. Here they were, now approaching 70, back to update their effervescent bracelet collection and increase the number of creatures living in their hair, assuming they've been home and haven't just crawled out from under a bush following an extended 40 year binge in a bead factory. I've now made it my duty to spot as many as possible, ranking them on my 'how hip is your hippy' chart. Some of my fellow volunteers have inevitably got themselves some of the gear, with the girls all opting for a bindi. I didn't reserved judgement....'Er, I think there's something on your head.'
Talking of which, I had a yoga class today. I probably fall into the stereotype of male cynicism that is more likely to pursue his consciousness expansion down the pub rather than bent over double with a small Indian man chanting behind him. But I don't like to be closed-minded, so off I trot across the border of my comfort zone and promptly find myself hanging upside down from a rope (chanting of course). This, by the way, I can highly recommend. I don't know whether its nostalgia for playing on the swings, excess blood to my head, or being able to really stretch my back but I am getting a rope swing one day, that's for certain. I am also an advocate of yoga, albeit a terrible participant. Meditation and stretching are clearly beneficial activities. Your muscles really get put to work, and mostly for muscles that you didn't know existed. Still, I think I'll stick to my own form of meditation (running) and remember to stretch more. Maybe the next session will enlighten me further.
Keshav took me on a day trip to Mysore, a large town big enough to entertain, but not yet victim to the intensive expansion of other places. We visited a temple that looks over the city dedicated to a goddess who killed an evil demon. The place is perennially visited by the pious and the fearful (and tourists)...who flock to get a glimpse of this small gold statue, giving offerings and bending over double in prayer. Ironically, the town used to be named after the goddess, but now is named after the demon. I wonder what iniquitous event lead to the demon winning out. Keshav names Mysore as one of his favourite places, and given that he appears a fairly mischievous sort of fellow, perhaps there's more to Mysore below the surface.
India is country so layered with cultural and historical intrigue; it would take an enthusiast a lifetime to research the topic. I'm told Hindus only get to grips with the complexities of their religion when they get old. The numerous rites, rituals and festivals, however, suggest to me that people under 60 are more than just passive participants. The 5,000 years of civilisation combined 1.2 billion people, four home grown religions and 325 languages make for a rich 'human architecture'. India boasts the second largest pool of scientists and engineers, and talking to people proves an extraordinary level of education. We owe counting to India...fairly key in the grand scheme of things (add algebra, calculus, trigonometry, the value of pi and the decimal system to that). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Indian population of the US numbers 1.5%, but the % within large organisations like IBM, Microsoft, INTEL and NASA ranges from between 20% and 30%. The country has grown on me rapidly, and I am determined to find out more (annoying not having the internet).
'India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.' -Mark Twain
Conversely, there are approx. 250 million people below the poverty line, and I had mentally prepared myself for a barrage on the senses of Dickensian proportions. I have read 'A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry, which set the scene for some serious challenges to the emotions. However, I expect cities like Mumbai, Calcutta and Delhi would provide Dickens with better material. For now, I have only seen examples of what I now know makes this place so fascinating, the palace at Mysore being a good example. It's hard to comprehend the level of opulence that lead to the construction of this building, something that transcends anything in England. Even the elaborate carving of the silver door must have taken years. The British Raj is only one piece in the enormous puzzle.
A weekend on the eco-spice farm
I am staying at an Eco lodge somewhere in the hills around Madikeri, an area covered in jungle with interspersed farms. My hut sits by a stream amidst the forest, accompanied by an idyllic chorus of birds and frogs. All day long, the sun pierces the canopy, highlighting plants and flowers in an almost mystical light. Everywhere you walk, the leaves rustle as creatures make their escape. Surely there is no other place in the world as alive as the jungle. A walking tour teaches me about their commercial crops, including pepper, vanilla, coffee, cardamom and vegetables, immediately inspiring me that this is my true calling. I must have an eco farm. I have learnt a few thought provoking facts about these crops that I didn't know. Pepper is handpicked by a man climbing a tree with a rope (too high for a ladder) who collects each stalk (approx. 40 peppercorns each) from the parasitic vine that proscribes them and places them in a sack on his back. The process is highly arduous and dangerous, the worst job on the plantation. Cardamom has to be picked amid leech infestations and dried within a day. Vanilla plants in India have to be hand pollenated as they are an introduced species and there are no native hummingbirds to do the job naturally. Clearly I have taken the food I eat for granted, unaware of the manual labour each entails.
Eco-lodge might suggest a possible home for hippies (the word eco brings images of a hippy knee deep in compost crying at the beauty of it). What an Eco-lodge actually means is a self-sufficient lifestyle that incorporates nature to resolve natures problems. In other words, there are no chemicals pesticides, herbicides or fertiliser. And you know what, it's bloody brilliant. I am both fascinated and totally sold. The owners are two PhD biologists who have spent 19 years perfecting their plantation to the extent that their knowledge is demanded globally. They represent the vanguard of the organic movement that they are pushing for in India. For example, their cardamom crop suffers from a moth whose larvae can demolish a field in no time. Pesticides have been used in other parts of the country, resulting in large percentages of a farming community being decimated by cancer, babies being born with defects and babies being stillborn. In the north, there is a train to Delhi that farmers use to gain access to subsidised medical treatment (a result of the same issue). The train line is now known as the 'cancer express'. The solution on the plantation is to build a pond to attract frogs, which eat all the moths. Simple. The whole plantation exists within the forest with only minimal maintenance of other plants. The aim is to ensure the maximum biodiversity so that natural predators deal with hazards. The next-door plantation, on the other hand, sprays the crops so that nothing else except coffee grows. The result, nothing lives there. I was taken on a trek through another plantation that is entirely self-sufficient, gaining its electricity from the sun and a small hydro generator by the stream, sufficient for three houses and their families. Small renewable solutions are surely the solution to problems the world over, certainly in rural parts. Another charming feature is the use of cows and goats. The animals wilfully gobble up the weeds and old useless plants whilst simultaneously spreading their nutritious excrement everywhere. The added bonuses of milk and meat make for a harmonious circle of life.
The ignominiously named 'Green Revolution' (the mass introduction of chemicals from the west in the 60s) had another direct human impact. Borrowing money to take advantage of these new chemicals, farmers saw their initial boom crop swiftly dwindle as the ecology broke down leaving them unable to pay their debts. The result of which was mass suicides of farmers across the nation. To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, the book I'm reading reports 13,000 deaths between 2000 and 2005 in Punjab alone (1 of 28 states), with most remaining farmers still carrying significant debt.
A now wealthier Indian can afford products and has no care for where they come from (where did they learn that from?). Cotton, unless organic, is almost unanimously BT cotton, a genetically modified plant resistant to certain bugs, and yet no one knows. Its been introduced underhandedly, before any research on what the consequences might be (i.e. Cross pollination with natural plants). For me, interfering with nature is bound to have disastrous consequences, and is especially sad when organic is proven to be as successful. I have become a fierce advocate, and plan my future working life to involve sustainability one way or another.
On a separate note, the plantation produces Civet Coffee. That is, coffee fruit that has been eaten by a civet (similar size to a monkey) and then shat out again. It is the most valuable coffee in the world, probably due to harvesting limitations. Apparently a cup of this is on everyone's bucket list, although I'm told that's just because its expensive, the taste is odd. The world is a bizarre place.
Author Dicky Broadhurst volunteered with Frontier, an international non-profit volunteering NGO that runs 320 conservation, community, and adventure projects in 57 countries across the globe. Find out more about the India NGO Journalism Internship project. You can also read more volunteer stories on Frontier's Gap Year Blog and get the latest project and volunteering news from the Frontier Official Facebook page.