Palmtrees in Goa

The sun sets on India

Travel has the habit of changing people; in my experience, it does so in subtle yet potentially deep ways to travellers’ perceptions, tolerances and lifestyles. Conversely, my brief time in India caused blatant if ultimately superficial changes to my person.
Prior to India, as a born left-hander my right hand and arm were largely useless and served pretty much only as a counterweight to stop me from leaning over to one side. Now my right paw has been shaped into a fearsome breaker of naan and scooper of rice whilst my left sits idle.
Being a fierce milknosugar tea drinker too, I used to retch if someone accidentally sugared my tea. My finely-honed tea palate could detect a single sugar crystal in a cuppa of PG Tips at 50 yards, even if it wasn’t stirred. Yet two months in India and the aroma of sweet and spicy masala chai has turned me into someone who will gladly sip away at milky tea loaded with more sugar than a Brummie plumber could stomach.
Before India, I also never used to understand vegetarianism, despite many of my friends being afflicted by the strange condition. What exactly did they have against vegetables? I used to ponder. At least my omnivorous behaviour didn’t discriminate between cucumber and cow; I used to happily create a demand for life for both. Yet now after only a handful of instances of eating meat over a period of two-and-a-half months, I am one step closer to understanding their disorder. At one point during the latter part of my trip, I was happily munching away on a veggie meal only to find an unmistakable sinewy chunk of mutton in it. It really turned my stomach to find it. Whilst much of that feeling was associated with the caution I had built up towards the perceived hygiene of meat in India, at least some of it was genuine distaste for the texture and origin of the morsel.
Whilst in recent months my intake of booze back home had sharply declined anyway, since leaving Goa I have been dry apart from three occasions. The first was a sneaky imported Carlsberg in a posh restaurant in Calcutta; the second when I gleefully discovered a place served port (or at least, an approximation to it); and the third when I discovered an India Pale Ale on the menu at a backpacker joint in Manali. This dearth of alcohol in contrast to my usual travelling behaviour of holing up in a bar of an evening to sip beer and write bollocks was not borne out of reasons for health or finances, but largely because domestic Indian beer tastes like utter shit. The glycerine that’s pumped into Indian beer takes all the enjoyment out of a pint, so what’s the point?
So there we have it: I’ve come back from India a right-handed-eating, sweet-milky-tea-drinking, vegetable-murdering tea-totaller. I have my doubts about how long that state of affairs will last – my first breakfast of bacon sarnies and PG Tips should dispatch most of those acquired characteristics – but who knows how long some of them might endure in part?
India is unique in the sense that it magically manages to amaze and frustrate at the same time. The bureaucracy that occasionally needs to be overcome is, at times, stupefying, and will severely stunt the country’s growth potential unless changes are made. Getting your head round the fact that, contrary to back home, the default state for pretty much any object or service is “out of order” and the fact that something is working is a blessing (thank you Shiva) can take some doing. At seemingly every turn, honourless touts, shop owners and taxi drivers will lie, cheat and deceive you out of your hard-earned cash in any underhanded way they can, showing no remorse when they are caught red-handed. And at times it seems as if the whole subcontinent is just one huge stinking rubbish dump that a billion people are constantly urinating upon.
Yet although I found the cumulative total of these “wonderful” facets of Indian life slowly pushed me towards the edge, the journey on the way to it was fascinating. The vast diversity and stunning beauty of the subcontinent drove me ever on, fuelled by sumptuous aloo ghobi, naan and masala chai, as did its people whose constant bustle, genuine kindness and vibrance give the country its compelling soul.
There is a common quip in travellers’ circles that “India” stands for I‘ll Never Do It Again. Whilst I won’t be rushing back in a hurry (not least because there are other as-yet unvisited nations that are at the top of the list), that particular adage does not apply to me. Nothing I have seen or experienced on my trip would prevent me from boarding another plane back to India.
But for now at least, I was happy to be back home.