Leaving it up to fate, I flipped a coin. Heads was north, and tails south…and the south it was. This was about the extent of my itinerary when taking a month long trip to India. The sub-continent is such a huge place, I thought it best simply to let things run their course in whatever way and in whatever direction they may - after all my reason for visiting India was to ‘find myself’, as they say, following a relationship breakdown.
I’ve heard horror stories about India and how it can be a challenge for the most seasoned traveler - from getting conned and staying in dire accommodations, to suffering the famous ‘Delhi Belly’. However, none of this put me off and I can safely say India exceeded my expectations. Whenever I thought of India before, it conjured images of a colorful, vibrant and exotic destination, full of religion, festivals and great curries – and it did not disappoint. I did experience one very grim hostel for one very long night, but as a backpacker it comes with the territory to have at least one bad experience, especially while traveling on a tight budget.
Being a fairly last minute trip, I hadn’t had saved much money, so it had to live on a shoestring. I managed to bag a cheap flight to Mumbai for three hundred pounds and had three hundred pounds spending money, which I hoped would cover accommodation, travel, food and the odd souvenir – and to my surprise it actually did. A month in India for six hundred all inclusive – they don’t sell you that in the travel agent’s office! After a twisting of my best friend’s arm, she was soon packing her rucksack, just as excited as I was about our spontaneous adventure.
We started and ended in Mumbai. The city’s name was changed from Bombay to Mumbai after the ‘Shiv Sena’, a Hindu activist group, succeeded in gaining power over the city and making it capitol of Maharashtra. They proceeded to change building and street names back to their original Marathi names, however, you feel still feel a strong British presence. Mumbai’s colonial architecture is still very much British, and some British names are still in regular use by locals such as the main ‘Victoria’ train station. We stayed for just one day before moving on, yet one lasting memory I took away with me was of slums. Mumbai is home to one of the largest slums in Asia and this creates an image of poverty and suffering to many. Driving to the airport to catch an early morning flight, I observed the locals getting ready to start their day. Although their homes often consisted merely of tarpaulins tied in place by the side of the road, people’s lives and everyday routines weren’t much different to ours. A man getting washed with soap and water, then putting on a shirt and tie ready for work; a boy brushing his teeth while his mother dressed him ready for school - yes it all happened on the side of the road, but I noticed they were smiling, happy as they went about their daily routine. I quickly realized that although people live in slums, it doesn’t mean they don’t work for a living and take pride in what they do. It gave me a good feeling, one I will cherish, as well as a different outlook on the people of Mumbai.
During our trip, we had a rough idea of wanting to see jungle, beaches, mountains and cities, but we had no specific route in mind. A bumpy internal flight through monsoon clouds landed us in Trivandrum; the nearest airport to the tip of India. Our journey would begin from there; traveling back to Mumbai via the west coast. Visiting India during September meant we’d caught the end of the monsoon season, as well as the Hindu festival of Ganesha Chaturthi, in which the elephant god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune is worshiped for ten days from the end of August into September. During this festival, statues of Ganesh are made either from clay or other materials and displayed in houses, shops and streets. This spreads an exciting and overwhelming sense of celebration everywhere we visited, but the downside was that finding accommodation proved difficult in some places, as we found many hotels were fully booked.