Conor Fox reflects on his journey through India.
It’s about half two in the morning. We’re finally managing to rattle off to sleep when our sleeper train pulls into a station. A flood of men pour onto the already full carriage. The majority of them are surprisingly small.
They throw themselves down on the lower bunks; I’m fine as I’m sandwiched on the middle level. One of the girls I’m with tries to explain with only a minor note of panic in her voice that they’re sitting on her seat. She has it reserved. Please get off her seat. It’s reserved.
The men don’t move. Being the ‘man’ in our group, unhealthy I attempt to intervene with only a major note of panic in my voice – “sir, you are on her seat, move.” I get a derisory look back – “sir – calm down.” Quelled, the two of us sit silent and unsure how to proceed. I offer to switch seats with her, cursing the fact that I have testicles and no balls.
The men move on after awhile. In the creeping morning light we eventually realise that the ‘small men’ were actually twelve year old boys accompanied by their fathers. We essentially threatened children. Whoops.
Embracing the cliché – India is truly incredible. While your first time on a train may terrify you, they’re a great way to see the country and how varied the landscape and cultures are. Plus they’re cheap.
My top three states to travel through in India would e Rajasthan, Kerala and Sikkim. Naturally these states are far from each other. Don’t let that put you off – the journey is just as important as the destination.
Sikkim is a beautiful state tucked away in the Himalayas, a world away from the business of Kolkata and Delhi. The only state in India with an ethnic Nepal majority, Sikkim features stunning mountain views and a culture entirely unique to itself.
I’ll give you one tip about Rajasthan. Camel treks are inordinately sore but the experience far outweighs the discomfort. When will you ever again see the sun set and rise in a desert?
Kerala is a southern state where the people are as warm as, well, India’s humid hot climate. Visit Varkala for its beaches and cliff top views.
India can be an incredibly frustrating country to travel in. You’re disgustingly sweaty most of the time – the Irish really aren’t glam travellers. Things don’t happen on time or with any modicum of speed. People don’t queue. They don’t say thank you for every little thing (the height of Irish rudeness). Women are discriminated against daily. It’s an incredibly patriarchal society in which the third question you’re asked is regarding your father’s profession.
Most people I spoke to in India were proud of their country and immensely proud of India’s independence (that said, they couldn’t understand why I liked it). A common phrase is ‘My India.’
My India was unique. I lived and worked in Kolkata (Calcutta) for ten weeks prior to travelling through the country. This gave me a different perspective on the country and its culture. I worked in a support school run by an Indian NGO in the Kalighat area of Kolkata. Kalighat and the other communities where Vikramshila Education Resource Society work are predominantly under-resourced; families within them struggle to access government resources and break the perpetuating cycle of poverty.
Education provides hope and a realistic opportunity.
Our primary job was to organise and run a ‘Speaking Festival’ – basically a sort of feis designed to give the children of our centres confidence in speaking English. We did this alongside working on oral conversation skills, and the 3 R’s. The most important thing we could hope to do was to foster a sense of solidarity with our teachers, children and communities.
The teachers and children welcomed us into their lives and it turns out that they taught us a lot more than whatever English language skills we could hope to impart. We were part of an Indian community – we made friends, India became our home.
This helped us understand our culture shock and learn why India is the way it is. We had the opportunity to ask questions and seek out answers from a wide range of sources. The programme I was with organised a week exploring development issues facing our world and what we, as individuals and a global community, can do to work towards change.
It was these experiences that shaped my India.
I can’t imagine purely travelling through India, bouncing from place to place without ever getting a sense of what it is like to live there. It’s only by fully immersing yourself in a culture that you see and understand (to a certain degree) the highs and lows of that society. The pains, the hearreak – the joy and the colours and the laughter.
India is different from anywhere I’d ever been before or from anywhere I’ll ever go.
Next summer, make my India your India.
Conor took part in the Suas Educational Development Volunteer Programme; an Irish charity working in accordance with Indian and East African partners. To apply for the 2014 programme or for Suas’ Global Issues course run in UCD visit www.suas.ie.