Backpacker Sarah Ward chats leeches, monsoon weather, chilli for breakfast and clubbing in Mumbai - and everything else than happened on her Indian gap year adventure!
Meeting the locals
An Indian man once made me better with acupuncture. I had gone out in Hampi but I had a headache and was feeling nauseaous. He stopped me on the street and, even though he didn't know me, told me I didn't look well and bought me a coconut drink. Then he did the acupuncture on my hands. I felt so much better afterwards, and he was so supportive - it just made my day.
I went couch-surfing in Bangalore. Our host was awesome - he was really involved in the couch surfing community, and when I arrived he held a welcome party with a group of couch surfers and hosts. Then, he became a bit of a personal guide of the city. It was such a great experience.
I went clubbing in Mumbai with some of the students there. It was a surreal experience because we travelled to the club on a rickshaw and passed so much poverty on the streets. But when we got to the club it was just a club like anywhere else - the two extremes were really apparent.
I would definitely recommend the Taj Mahal. It’s so iconic, and large, and so perfect and symmetrical – and it’s quiet. It made a big impression. It’s a nice escape from the chaos. You can do it in a day trip from Delhi.
Weird & Wonderful
Riding on trains is a totally different experience in India. People hang out of the windows and doors, the wind in their hair. Some people travel on the roof, just like Slumdog Millionaire. Riding a train is such a social thing to do – people sit in carriages, facing each other on a three person bench. Passengers share food and talk instead of reading books to pass the time – even on eight or 10 hour journeys. It’s all about communicating and meeting people.
I experienced a massive reverse culture shock when I got back to the UK. I remember walking into a supermarket and being blown away by the amount of choice, it was crazy. Everything was so unnatural, packaged – nothing is fresh. Clothes, restaurants, opportunities - there was just so much choice everywhere, it was really overwhelming.
I ate deep fried green chilli for breakfast most days. It comes with fried bread and a cool mint yoghurt sauce. I really liked it – it certainly gets you going!
The Indians love their chai. You can buy it from street vendors who sell it in little cups, or at bus stops and even through the windows of trains. The flavour changes depending on where you are – sometimes it might be really gingery, other times is might taste of cardamom, or have more sugar or less sugar. I was in heaven because I adore tea!
Food on Indian trains is incredible. You can buy fresh home-cooked food on every journey – the sellers just hop on and off at various stops. I once ate a fresh salsa dish, made from tomato, onion and coriander – served in a paper cone. When I bought it, the seller cut open a lime and squeezed the juices over right then and there. That’s how fresh the food is – not a packaged sandwich in sight.
The best restaurants are the ones where you don’t have to order anything. When you sit down they just put a silver tray in front of you, with lots of little bowls, and then waiters come and keep filling up the bowls with all kinds of different delicious curries. Someone else brings round bowls of nann bread and chapattis. Once you’re full, don’t finish the food in the bowl, because people always fill the empty ones. You could keep going for hours if you wanted!
Things going wrong
Once, I vomited in front of a big family photo. I was feeling really ill and just happened to be on the street next to them – it was really embarrassing. I got sick all of the time in India – although I loved the food, it was quite a cultural shock to my digestive system. Plus - it’s hot weather, you’re de-hydrated, and eating heavy spicy meals, so you’re bound to get ill at some point. It really difficult to be ill when you’re travelling alone because you feel really lonely and every little task, like just going out to buy a bottle of water, feels like a challenge. So you learn to be really honest with people, especially if you’re sharing a room with someone in a hostel.
I walked through a wet forest whilst covered in leeches. The leeches were there because it was so damp – it wasn’t painful, just really gross. They fill themselves up and then fall off, but they put a thinning agent in your blood so you drip blood everywhere.
Things going right
It was the best of times and the worst of times - that's what we used to say, because things in India are always good and bad at the same time. The same hike with the leeches was like that. The monsson had carried on for three weeks longer than it should have done so it rained the whole time through our three week hike. We had a constant battle with the weather – and being wet walking in wet socks and wet shoes, in wet vegetation and wet clothes. At the same time, we had this amazing scenery to look at - mountains and wild elephants - and it was a complete contradiction of being really glum but having a great group of people around you, and feeling like you were really accomplishing something.
Sarah travelled in India through two organisations. The first, Study India, was a University Programme which lasted for three weeks and included cultural training and a volunteer placement.
The second, the Rani project, was a graduate programme for un-employed young people – to enhance their employability skills. It lasted for six months - which was split into community volunteering, environment volunteering, and a self development period.
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