PASSAGE TO INDIA
Travel vicariously through the steamy subcontinent
The act of packing up your life and leaving a great deal of it behind is both incredibly cathartic and strangely easy. With one-way tickets booked, resignations are handed in, boxes are taped and goodbyes are said. But the reality of what you’ve done isn’t tangible until your feet hit the ground again, which for us was late last year in the boiling heat of Timor-Leste, a small island nation to the north of Australia and the first stop on our two-year trip around the world.
We spent a month in this unlikely tourist destination, exploring the developing country’s capital city and the environmental initiatives underway on the mainland and outlying islands. From there, we flew to the vibrant, heaving subcontinent of India, where we’ve been based since.
It feels like a cliché to describe India using the words ‘sensory overload’, but they’re apt when trying to capture the plethora of elements you encounter at every turn. People are everywhere, and the streets are awash with colour and the smell of cooking, and crowded with cars, scooters, cows and trash. It’s a jarring contrast of society’s beauty and failings.
Vinnie and I left New Zealand in November 2017, embarking on a loosely planned OE. We’d both been restless in Auckland, and as we reached our late 20s, made the decision to spend a couple of years overseas, intending to get our midlife crises out of the way early. As Auckland’s house prices climbed, we saw committing to a mortgage as futile and decided we’d prefer to spend our nest egg on exploring and engaging with the varied cultures and landscapes of this big wide world — experiences we see as far more valuable to our existence.
The glamorous façade of international travel is omnipresent on Instagram and Facebook, but rarely do people share the reality of funding these jaunts. We spent two years scrimping and saving every spare dollar we earned, more often than not eschewing things like restaurant meals and new clothes, and sacrificing time together as Vinnie went away for long periods to work on fishing boats in the South Island. We became almost obsessive about budgeting, finding satisfaction in cooking meals that cost just a few dollars. The result was a healthy chunk of savings to travel with, some of which we invested in creating a business, Passage Journal, where we’re recording our adventures.
Our budgeting has continued throughout our trip; thankfully India is an easy place in which to stretch your dollar. Cheap rooms can be as little as NZ$10, and a meal can be had for around $2. We’ve come to love ramshackle accommodation and the intimacy of
family-run guesthouses and homestays. We have fond memories of the old military barracks we stayed in in Chennai, encircling a stand of looming trees; and the houseboat on the lake in Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar, a leaning wooden structure that opened up to a view of the water and mountains. Even the shabby, sweaty hotels of Mumbai had their charm; we proved an anomaly due to our extended stay — apparently most other tourists prefer to pass through quickly due to the high costs in the city. In fact, we’ve invariably leaned towards a slower pace, finding it not only a better way to get to know a city and its locals, but also a good method for supporting our mental wellbeing and minimising stress.
That said, our first few months in India unfurled at a brisk pace. We arrived in Chennai, then took the cross-country train to the lazy backwaters of Kerala before heading north to Rajasthan, where we made our way along the famed tourist trail from Jaipur (the Pink City) through Jodhpur (the Blue City) and Jaisalmer to Udaipur, a tranquil city on the water often called ‘India’s Venice’.
Jaded by the omnipresence of western tourism and all its accoutrements — harem pants, ‘special lassis’ and dreadlocks — we relished our next stop in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Although not a typical travel destination, it boasts some of the most interesting architecture in India, including buildings designed by the likes of Le Corbusier (his work can also be found in Chandigarh) and Louis Kahn.
Although India’s main metropolises share teeming populations, pollution and traffic, they also differ widely. Modern Bangalore, the tech hub of India where we spent a month, boasts a renowned craft-beer scene. We spent our time there writing, venturing out only on the weekends to drink cocktails and watch the eagle-like kites soar on the air currents. Coastal Mumbai is full of colonial architecture and has a thriving art community, while Chennai has a colourful charm.
We tend to find most pleasure in the minutiae of life — the small daily rituals and routines we form in each place (morning chai with the locals in mainland India and kahwa tea in Kashmir), and frequenting the same restaurants again and again. As with anywhere, familiarity goes a long way.
We found ourselves climbing large coastal volcanic rocks at high tide in a seemingly impossible journey to a tiny village
Travellers to India are constantly warned about ‘Delhi belly’ and, indeed, the sheer scale of the population and pollution means your immune system is constantly under siege. Unlike the locals, we simply don’t possess the antibodies needed to deal with the country’s bacteria and viruses. Waterborne sickness is the most easily caught, so we’re vigilant about only drinking bottled water (and using it to brush our teeth) and avoiding salads. However, illness is inevitable.
Vinnie went down first, in Bangalore, with a searing hot fever and body aches so intense we feared he’d contracted malaria or dengue. After navigating the health system and eventually ending up at a hospital recommended by the New Zealand Embassy, the cause of his infection proved to be gastrointestinal. My own illness, amoebic dysentery, hit in Mumbai, days before we were due to fly out. Caring for each other and sharing all the grotesque occurrences unfolding in (and out of) your body brings you closer in a way little else will.
Actually, spending nearly every waking hour together has been another reality of travel, but one that’s been a relative breeze. Our relationship is a partnership and we work as a team. We’ve learned to solve problems quickly and when to just let things go. Aware of our own strengths and weaknesses, we know when one of us needs to take the lead. Our frustrations are never taken out on each other and we’re able to disagree without bickering. All this time together has been even easier than we expected, something we’re grateful for.
One thing we both agree on is our favourite state of India — Jammu and Kashmir. The state comprises Jammu, the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh. Kashmir in particular has been marred with strife and unrest as its people continue to pursue independence from the Indian Government. Yet it was here that we experienced the warm hospitality of the Kashmiri people, their beautiful handicrafts and incredible food, and the natural beauty of the region itself — sweeping green valleys and lakes surrounded by the snowcapped mountains of the Himalayas that give way to the barren moonscape of Ladakh to the east.
We’re now seven months into our trip. After India, we’ll head to Iran before travelling across North Africa and ending up in Europe by Christmas. You’d think that being constantly in motion and thrown into new environments would cause stress and anxiety, but we’ve found the opposite is true for us. Since leaving New Zealand, we’re the most relaxed we’ve ever been, and although there have been periods of anxiety, we know how to manage them. Travelling gives you the framework, experiences and time to reprioritise things. Issues that might have been a source of stress back home lose their significance when placed in a greater context of the other things you see and experience.
Of course, lows are a reality, as with any period of life, but they’re always manageable — although in the heat of the moment some things seem insurmountable: being stuck in the scrum of a queue in a stifling hot train station, trying to buy a ticket to our next destination through a language barrier, or ending up in tears after four futile hours at a post office. Then there was the time we found ourselves climbing large coastal volcanic rocks at high tide in a seemingly impossible journey to a tiny village. There have been moments when we’ve thought, ‘It’s time to head home’, but most of the time, it’s the most difficult moments that end up being the most rewarding.
The highlights and personal growth overshadow any low points. It’s also almost jarring to discover how easily you can feel at home anywhere, something facilitated a great deal by the kindness and generosity of local people — especially in places like Mumbai, Kashmir and Ladakh.
It’s been incredibly humbling to see the resilience and practicality of people as they cope with a lack of infrastructure and support, as well as the struggles of day-to-day life. Fascinated by society and culture, the chance to witness the diversity of human experience was one of the main reasons we left New Zealand.
We’ve stayed with self-sufficient farming communities in Ladakh who are snowbound for half the year, and visited migrant workers in Gujarat. When we visited, the people of Timor-Leste were getting by despite a freeze on government spending due to a failed election. The first new sovereign country of the 21st century, the vital development work there spans everything from healthcare and education to environmental initiatives and industry.
And, of course, there’s Kashmir, where they continue to advocate and fight for the independence they were promised during the Partition of India in 1947, through both civil and militant channels
— the results of which have affected the community through loss of life, government-imposed curfews and economic decline.
The scale of poverty, pollution and overpopulation in India is also undeniable, not to mention the ingrained effects of the caste system on the wellbeing, opportunities and quality of life of its people.
Above all, though, we’ve learned that kindness and politeness are universal virtues, and one must avoid becoming hardened and losing them. Respect for human life should be the priority we all share. When we left New Zealand, we never sought to ‘find ourselves’. Instead, we were looking for that which makes each society unique and, most importantly, unites us in our humanity.
Clockwise from right: Colourful graves at Santa Cruz cemetery. Climbing trees in Adara Village on Atauro Island.The NaTerra permaculture initiative in action. Cristo Rei surveys the Timor-Leste capital of Dili. Below: Blooming bougainvillea in Maubisse.
Above: Cultivating a sustainable life at Leublora Green Village, Timor-Leste. Right: Emma in a Kowtow ensemble, worn – and made– in India.
Left: The palace of Amer Fort drawsthe crowds to visit Rajasthan.
Above: Vinnie relaxes in Ladakh in Kiwi label General Sleep, also handcrafted in India.From right: Cashmere in Kashmir. Boats bob in the Colaba harbour in Mumbai.
Botanical gardens in Srinagar, Kashmir. Right: Find your fortune in Jaipur.
Clay pots and schoolchildren (above) gathered in Jaisalmer.
Cricket is India’s most popular sport by a long shot.