The latest chapter of the journey

You may have realised by now that I love a good learning curve. It keeps you young (I am all for that) and it’s good for the brain. Ahimsa book cover

Well, becoming a published author has certainly been an exercise in keeping on the ball. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing process and I thought I had done the hard work by finding a publisher, Grosvenor House Publishing.

But the hardest work has come with marketing it and keeping up the momentum. It has been fun but it involves a lot of time-consuming work.

Every day I think of something else I should be doing, whether it is organising for some books to be delivered to an outlet, doing a radio interview or checking my stats now that I am on Amazon’s Author Central.

Can’t complain though, as it has been fun to revisit and enjoy all the stories from the travels over and over.

So far in this latest chapter of the journey, there are two things that I have particularly enjoyed. The first was talking to strangers at a book signing at a Christmas gala evening at a garden centre. It’s one thing to sign books for friends and family but it’s another thing entirely when strangers stop and talk to you and then buy the book, either for themselves or as a gift. 

The second highlight was receiving a handwritten letter from none other than Sir David Attenborough. I sent him a copy of the book and he wrote back to thank me. Understandably, he has a policy of not endorsing books (after all, he must be sent a lot of requests) but he took the time to send a handwritten note. My children are particularly proud of that and I think it may just have to be framed.

I have no idea how sales are going but I should add that Ahimsa is now out on Amazon Kindle and other ebook formats. It is, of course, also still available on Amazon.

Exciting news!

Ahimsa: A personal journey, via an animal sanctuary in India, to veganism

If you enjoyed following this blog, you might be interested to know that I have written a book. It is called Ahimsa which, in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, means respect for all living things and avoidance of violence towards others.

cow love 2

This is what it’s all about:

On a 32,000 km journey through six Asian countries over six months, Caroline, a journalist, and her husband become increasingly aware of animal welfare, poverty and what we aredoing to the planet. 

They had no idea when they set off that they were going to end up vegan. Ahimsa is the story of their journey, meeting colourful characters and exploring many philosophical themes along the way. It is topical and questioning, in parts funny, sad and increasingly angry.

Part travel, part memoir, it is an uplifting, thought-provoking account of the route to compassion, not least through the simple act of cuddling a cow in India.

One of the undoubted stars of the book is Zippy, a rescue dog with his own message to convey about the meaning of life.

I hope you will consider buying a copy. It is available on Amazon here.

For international readers and those who prefer ebooks, I’ll let you know here when it will be available in that format.

FAQs

Here are some answers to the most commonly asked questions since we have been home.

What was your favourite place? 

It’s difficult to choose. I mean, how do you compare experiences at cities, slums, ancient temples, beaches, vast landscapes, history, volunteering with rescue dogs, stunning beauty and wretched poverty? We loved it all, but the one place that stays with me is Udaipur, partly because it is a friendly place, with lovely lakes, partly because it is where we stayed for more than two weeks volunteering at Animal Aid Unlimited, and partly because we were in a lovely homestay just out of town and we would spend time chatting over chai with Samvit the host on an almost daily basis. I would sit on the rooftop as the sun set behind a mountain feeling utterly at peace, like nowhere else I had found.

How do you pace yourself travelling for six months living out of a suitcase?

You have to remember that not every day is a sightseeing day. Sometimes, you need down time to repack your case, wash your clothes, organise your photos, read a book, and FaceTime home. I loved the simplicity of the life, no ironing, no make-up, no cooking. (There were places where we could cook for ourselves but eating out was so cheap there was no point.) Before we left, we agreed to have a safe word (two words actually, the second being ‘off’) for when we needed our own space, for example if David wanted more time to process some of his 25,000 photos.

Did you spend your kids’ inheritance? 

Well, that was the plan! But no, it is ridiculously cheap to live in Asia. We couldn’t believe that we could have a meal (food and drinks for two people) for £3.50. Thanks to the heat (and seeing a lot of poverty), our appetite was often diminished and we would happily eat simple tasty meals of rice or noodles. We saved when booking with Airbnb, for example, our homestay in Kerala was £9 a night. Occasionally we treated ourselves to a bit more luxury, but rarely went beyond a two-star hotel. (My only tip would be to avoid OYO hotels in India – they are budget hotels with a capital B… though, of course, you are more likely to get funny stories from it.)

What didn’t you like?

The lack of wifi in places was frustrating. You need good wifi to upload photos on a blog, to keep in touch with home, and importantly to plan the adventures for the next day or week.

Did you get ill?

We were remarkably healthy. David was car-sick once thanks to the crazy Indian driving on tight bends, and I had a tummy bug as we left Vietnam and headed into Cambodia. Luckily it was only a two-day thing and nothing that Imodium couldn’t cope with.

Did you feel safe?

Amongst people, yes. Exploring busy and exciting back streets and markets of old cities, yes. It’s more likely to be everyday scams that will catch you out more than a mugging or theft. Even when a speedboat we were on half-way across Halong Bay (taking us to Cat Ba Island) conked out, I felt safe enough, even though we were drifting with no anchor (at least the driver had a mobile phone which worked and we managed to transfer a suitcase and us across to the rescue boat). It was the crazy Indian driving which was probably the worst thing to worry about – overtaking at speed with centimetres to spare, reversing on a motorway, driving on the hard shoulder on the wrong side of the road on a highway, taxis rarely having rear seat belts, every driver using their mobile phone while driving (we withheld tips and berated them for it).

What did you learn about yourself? 

That I am an eco-warrior at heart! India presents the best and worst of humanity… people in the poorest slums who will give you, their guest, a free chai and slices of bread when they have little more than the shirt on their back. The rubbish, the poverty, the overcrowding, people sleeping on the streets, people trying to earn a few rupees in any way they can, selling balloons, or polishing shoes, or hauling three gas cylinders on their back (uphill). We were very aware of rubbish – not just on the streets as we expected, but also on the beaches and at beauty spots and world heritage sites. And that I cared more than ever about the welfare of cows and dogs on the streets.

Would you do it all again?

Without hesitation, yes.

If you have a question, please do ask and we will try to answer!

New year, new challenge

This article was published in the Jersey Evening Post on 8.1.19

I HAD a penny-dropping moment in 2018. Normally I scroll past YouTube videos on animal rights but for some reason I clicked on ‘The Food Matrix – 101 Reasons to go Vegan’. The speaker was saying that in the United States 300 farm animals die every second. Just read that again. Every second. So in the time it takes you to read just this sentence, that’s about another 1,500 animals slaughtered. (And that’s just the US.)

Are you ok with that?

Personally, I find it unacceptable. No wonder some people are calling it the animal holocaust.

And it’s not just the killing of sentient beings that bothers me. It is the unimaginable suffering that comes with factory-farming.

I had already gone vegetarian last year. This time last year I was telling my sister (she has been vegan for more than 25 years) that I could never be vegan. So what has changed?

Let me tell you about the journey that my husband David and I have been on in 2018.

Our shift to being vegetarian was partly for health reasons as we head towards our mid-50s. But it was also because we were about to embark on a six-month adventure around south-east Asia and we thought it would be prudent to avoid meat.

We set off for Bangkok on 1 July and continued through Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and finishing with three months in India. We sat in restaurants where there was tortoise on the menu (we have tortoises at home – unimaginable!). We saw bodies of small- to medium-sized dogs which had been spit-roasted whole. (Horror on Facebook when mentioning such things.) On a street early in the morning, we saw dozens of freshly removed animal heads in a skip, trotters in another. We saw half a dozen chickens hanging upside down and tied by their legs to a parked motorbike. I looked away when I saw a chicken about to have its neck wrung in the street as I walked past.

But please tell me what is the difference between that dog on the stall in the back streets of old Hanoi and the barbecued hog that you enjoyed at a private function last summer? What is the difference between a tortoise and a lobster thermidor or a crab salad? Why do we wince when we see chickens heading for slaughter but happily eat it when it is cut up and presented in a packet?

It was in Udaipur in India where the shift in my thinking embedded itself in my heart. Here, we spent more than two weeks at the Animal Aid Unlimited animal sanctuary. I thought I was there for the injured dogs. What I wasn’t prepared for was how I felt about the other rescued animals – the cows, water buffalo, sheep and donkeys. (See blog post here.)

Animals are sentient beings, they are full of character, they are social, they have their own needs in their daily habits and interactions.

When you then read about what happens every single day around the world in animal farming, you can’t help but be horrified.* Sows being confined to crates barely bigger than their own bodies until they give birth. They cannot even turn around. They can’t nuzzle their new piglets. When the young are taken from the mother, she will be impregnated again and the whole miserable cycle continues.

We wondered whether we could still allow ourselves prawns. And then we read about eyestalk ablation (many farmed prawns are blinded to make them ovulate).

And don’t think that ethically sourced / organic / ‘happy meat’ is any better. This can actually be less environmentally sound, because grass-fed animals emit significantly more methane (which, as we know, causes global warming) than factory farmed animals and a lot more land is needed to raise the animals. And the bottom line is, those animals did not live out their natural lives and they certainly did not want to die just so that you could enjoy a beef casserole or roast pork.

Can you be proud of a culture which values the taste of a slab of meat on your plate above a sentient being’s life?

I know plenty of vegetarians who have not made the transition to vegan, and several people have said to me that ‘no one gets hurt’ producing milk and eggs. So why me and why now?

When I look back at my year, I like to think of a snow-globe. At the start of the year (and probably the last 30 years too) it was all shaken up, with the busy-ness of full-time work, an extended family and all the pressures of normal family life. Thanks to a career break and travel away from the Island, all that distracting fake snow has settled and my mind is clear. I have time and the emotional energy to read and think.

A documentary about farming practice made me realise just how much suffering there is with the by-products of the dairy and egg industries. We like to think of our beautiful Jersey cows grazing in the countryside and I am pretty confident that we have ‘best practice’ in the Island. But don’t kid yourself about the facts. Simply put, a cow is artificially inseminated to make her have a calf (more times than she would naturally in her life). If that calf is male, it will be slaughtered. It doesn’t matter to my argument how it is slaughtered (though I doubt it will be put down gently the way a loved pet would be). It is a life which is considered worthless. The mother’s natural instincts to protect and love that calf matter not one bit to the farmer or, it seems, to the consumer. We know the mother suffers mentally. And then we humans take her milk, the milk which was supposed to feed her baby.

Even if the calf is female (and kept for future milking), the mother and calf will be separated early – so that humans can have her milk.

When there are so many excellent alternatives these days, we don’t have to keep drinking this stuff. It’s all marketing. Just because we have always done it, doesn’t mean that we always should. There was a time when slavery was ok, when women didn’t have the vote, when people smoked cigarettes in workplaces, when homosexuality was illegal. All of it is unthinkable now.

There are all kinds of different exciting flavours of non-dairy milk in mainstream supermarkets and soya milk is certainly better than it was 25 years ago.

Eggs, we thought, maybe we can still eat eggs, especially if the hens are happy and spend their time in lovely sunny fields. And then we read about what happens to male chicks, which are of no use to the egg farm. They get macerated live in a grinder. Live! And what I find even more distressing is that this is legal in many developed countries.

I am fully aware of how people will want to take issue with anything I have chosen to report here. For example, they may say maceration does not happen in the UK, where the chicks are more likely to be gassed. Does that make it ok? Oh baby chick, how would you like to die today – maceration or gassing?

You can probably detect that vegans do start to get angry, and sad, and frustrated. Because they have learned what is going on. Because animals can’t speak for themselves. Because, actually, we don’t need to eat animals any more.

Everyone cares about the planet these days. Or at least they say they do. On Facebook everyone shares a David Attenborough post about climate change or the state of our oceans. But they fail to see the link to what they are doing in their own homes – for example, the fish that they are eating for dinner.

Some scientists claim that, at current rates of decline, the oceans could be devoid of fish by 2048. And, as I see it, every meal is part of the problem, however your fish was sourced, caught and killed.

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So it is that as a journalist of 30 years I have decided that I need to write about it and hopefully I will make a few people question what they put on their plate.

The start of the year is a great time to give it a go, even if you just commit to it for a month. It could certainly be a challenge – partly because you will realise what family and friends have to say about it. And at least that opens the discussion.

(Hell, even Piers Morgan is into creating the discussion, but enough about him.)

There are many more good reasons for going vegan (health, deforestation, pollution, water resources and the fact that animal agriculture contributes more to climate change than all the cars, planes, ships and trains on the planet) – but there is no space here.

I have entered a world of reading labels, insisting I have vegan options at restaurants, learning how to cook new things. There is so much to eat, all of it so much more exciting than what I used to cook, that I don’t feel that I am missing out on anything.

In 2019 I would love to see more cafes and restaurants taking part in Veganuary by coming up with interesting vegan options (not just risotto!). Even better, offer vegan options as standard because more and more people are going to choose them. I am looking forward to the day when vegetarian is the norm – and it’s the meat eaters who are the ones who are considered odd and have to make special requests.

Corporate caterers could start by dropping meat to get in line with businesses’ environmental and ethical standards. School dinners, hospital food, all of it could be vegetarian and perfectly nutritious. You just have to change your habit and your thinking.

Personally, I feel that after 31 days of Veganuary, my habits will have changed sufficiently for it to become second nature. Yes, I will make mistakes, yes, I know that there will be animal products hidden in all sorts of things like medication, cosmetics, toiletries. I am still educating myself on those matters. And I know there will be other burning questions, like do I wear wool, will I drink non-vegan wine, what do I feed my dog?

But for now at least now I can sleep at night knowing I am doing what I can – and I will be able to tell my grand-daughter what I did when she asks me about the ‘animal holocaust’.

I wish you a thoughtful and compassionate new year.

PS Just in the time it has taken to read this article, that’s approximately another 360,000 animals slaughtered – and that’s just in the United States. Just click on to vegancalculator.com to see how many thousands of animals are being slaughtered worldwide right now.

*Try watching the documentaries Land of Hope and Glory, or Dominion, or Earthlings, all freely available online.

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What is Veganuary?

Veganuary inspires hundreds of thousands of people around the world to try a vegan diet for a month. It takes place all year round, but most people take part during January. Run by a UK-registered charity, it inspires and supports people to go vegan. It is dedicated to changing public attitudes and behaviours, while providing all the information and practical support required to make the transition to veganism as easy and enjoyable as possible. More information at veganuary.com

Home for Christmas

Our original plan was to head on up to Nepal as our final destination of our six-month adventure. Back in October, however, we realised that we needed to plan our itinerary from Delhi and make a decision about whether to head north to Dehradun and Amritsar, or fly to Kathmandu. It was then that we decided we really should be home for Christmas, much as we have loved every step of our journey.

We have been to Kathmandu and Pokhara twice before and we were going to revisit – and, of course, they will still be there ‘next time’. So we have shortened our journey by one month and one country.

We managed to get all the way home without my daughter knowing. She walked in the house, and we were just sitting there on the sofa!

So we have been home a week already and I have been trying to round things up by writing a final blog post. But where do you start when you reflect on an remarkable five months? Our journey has included all of these:

Looking after disabled dogs in an elephant sanctuary, taking a slow boat down the Mekong, getting soaked at the most amazing flooded waterfalls in Luang Prabang, getting to Hanoi on a 24-hour sleeper bus but nearly not getting into Vietnam at the border, shuddering when we felt the thunder in Halong Bat ay 1 am, cycling in Hoi An, Jaipur and Delhi, riding on the back of a Vespa in Saigon, learning how to drive our own tuk-tuk in Thailand, climbing Lion Rock in Sri Lanka, paddling with a giant turtle in Hikkaduwa, camping out under the stars in the Thar desert, making friends with a water buffalo in Udaipur, sitting with dying cows and disabled dogs in Rajasthan, exploring the alleyways of Mumbai’s biggest slum, meeting the seven-year-old girl that my daughter befriended two years ago, sitting and chatting nearly every day for a couple of weeks with the humble owner of a tea shack in Kerala, collecting rubbish from Alleppey beach, dancing at the India-Pakistan border ceremony, seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise (with the sun shining through at just the right moment), trying not to panic when our speedboat to Cat Ba Island conked out halfway across Halong Bay.

I have always believed that travel can provide the best education, and it turns out that it is true for any age. Having been away for five months doing a backpacker route around South East Asia, I have found that I have learned so much… Not least about myself, of course.

Having got away from the routines of the household and the workplace, you find yourself settling into a traveller’s way of life, living only out of a suitcase, the joy of no make-up, no ironing, no washing-up, and it is blissful to find that your mind can finally rest up.

I like to see it as life in a snow-globe. Before, it was all shaken up. Now, all that distracting fake snow has settled on the ground and my mind is clear. I have time to read and time to think. And one thing that has come to the fore has been animal rights.

We had already decided that we were going to be vegetarian. That was easy to keep to throughout our journey. But we have started to look at being vegan.

In India you couldn’t help but notice the dogs and the cows on the streets. Cows are supposed to be sacred but they were often tethered with only a foot of rope, often in blazing sunshine, with no shade or water nearby. We stopped by what was supposed to be a cow sanctuary in Delhi but the calves were on short ropes and there was a stable jam-packed with cattle. There was no room for them to move around – and this was supposed to be a sanctuary.

Having spent a couple of weeks with Animal Aid Unlimited in Udaipur, we knew that street dogs are largely happy where they are. They stay with their packs, they scavenge for food, and some people look out for those nearby their homes or shops. But many people are wary of them, and not just wary, but scared of them, which will lead them to shoo them away aggressively.

But I didn’t get used to hearing dogs barking at night, as they defended their territory or saw off a nasty human. And it was distressing to see how close to busy roads they lived. Every day you would see dogs crossing the road. Some didn’t make it.

So all that remains now is to go through our photos, choose some favourites and make some albums. And bore our family and friends to tears with our stories.

You get back into the routine of life back home so fast. Food shopping is expensive, and the weather is cold and wet, but on the plus side the shower is hot and I can drink the water from the tap.

We said in a recent post that we would list our most dangerous moments, so here goes…

1. David walking a plank to get on the boat on the Mekong. He had his heavy suitcase and the plank was not fully balanced. I tried pointing it out and the staff member agreed – don’t go on it until we straighten it up – but David carried on.

2. David falling backwards off a chair in slow motion at breakfast in Fort Kochi, in front of four other people.

3. Getting down from the top bunk in a train in India, David put his weight on my curtain pole, letting him land heavily, and bringing it down on my head. It was 4.40 am.

4. The sleepy taxi driver in Sri Lanka was terrifying. I watched him like a hawk, and at one point poked him in the back when I realised his head nodded. I opened windows, I asked him questions, all to keep him more alert. Turned out he had got up early and already driven for six hours to get to our departure point.

5. Absolute muppet of a taxi driver Sanjay on the windy hilly Dehradun – Mussoorie road. He obviously has never had a driving lesson in his life, overtook in odd places and was easily distracted picking his ears or smiling inanely at his music player. Any time he wanted to use his phone I ordered him to pull over.

6. When we went whale watching in Sri Lanka, the boat sailed into a rain storm. We were miles from the coast. David went silent as he thought we were going to die. I was silent because I thought I was going to chuck. But I felt safe enough!

7. The most dangerous moment was when we were on a safari in Jaipur. Having spotted leopards, we were driven at a ridiculously high speed to another area where they had been seen. We wouldn’t have stood a chance if the jeep had turned over. It was entirely unnecessary and we complained to the company afterwards that it was not responsible tourism, and we gave them a bad review on TripAdviser.

Top 10 sights (though I can’t decide the order)

Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm

Royal Palace, Bangkok

Hawa Mahal, Jaipur

Halong Bay

Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai

Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka

Golden Temple, Amritsar

Killing Fields and S21 prison, Phnom Penh

Kuang Si waterfalls, Luang Prabang

Kerala backwaters

Top 10 moments

Animal Aid Unlimited – the joy of cuddling dogs, cows, sheep and water buffalo

Learning to drive our own tuk-tuk

Rooftop sunsets in Udaipur at our favourite homestay (and chai with Samvit and his St Bernards)

Night-time ride on a Vespa in Saigon

Meeting Mansi and her grandmother in Dehradun

Thunderstorm in Halong Bay at 1 am

Night under the stars in the Thar Desert

Seeing thousands of birds on the Yamuna River at sunrise

‘Monkey man’ on Cat Ba island

Being treated as guests of honour at a celebration of social reformer Sree Narayana Guru in the middle of nowhere in Kerala

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It has been amusing observing other travellers. It is easy to spot travellers, rather than tourists. Many would not acknowledge us, as they would pass us with the air of ‘I’m cool, I’ve been here longer than you, I’m not just a tourist’.

You could spot them in their baggy trousers, vest top, long hair tied up (that was just the men). The men would always have a beard, and a scarf around their neck. Girls would likely have nose piercings and tattoos.

And they would all have a certain swagger, a laidback lollop.

But then I noticed that we were morphing into those people. We had a smugness from being in India three months, especially when we saw white people getting off coaches, being ferried straight to the sightseeing point, ignoring all the vibrancy of the street because they are too scared to stop and look and interact.

I was in loose baggy trousers simply because they are cool (as in temperature) and practical. My bare white middle-aged legs weren’t going to offend anyone, temple or not. The laid-back lollop develops from the need to conserve energy in the heat as well as the wonderful realisation that, actually, you are not in a hurry like you are back home.

We loved the internationality of travelling, meeting people from Mexico, Israel, Australia, Spain, Germany. Talking to interesting and articulate young people made us feel young again, and I think we got a bit of respect when they realised that we too were longer-term travellers.

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At one point we considered the future of tourism, and whether technology like virtual reality will change the way we travel.

Maybe in future you won’t take a plane to India, but you will visit from the comfort of your own settee with a VR headset on. We hypothesised over the things that you would have to do to get a more authentic experience. So here is our ‘Visit India VR Kit’:

Half an hour before pressing ‘start’, take two laxatives.

Turn up the heating as far as it will go.

Add some itching powder to your trousers. (Or, as David put it, source the fleas of 1,000 camels.)

Remove toilet paper from your bathroom.

Once you have been to the toilet, don’t flush, leave the door open a while.

Get the VR set to buffer a while (teaches you patience).

Burn some incense sticks.

Keep a curry on simmer.

But then we decided that VR is all very well for the sights but India, and anywhere else for that matter, but travelling really is all about who you meet along the way. And it’s the people (and animals) we will remember long after the photos of temples and beaches have faded.

Hopefully, some might be reading this. If so, thank you for being part of our journey. It was a pleasure to meet you along the way and we wish you, our new friends, as well as our old friends we have returned to, a very happy Christmas.

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OUR ROUTE

THAILAND Bangkok

Chiang Mai

Chiang Rai

Chiang Khong, slow boat to LAOS Luang Prabang

VIETNAM Hanoi

Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island

Hue

Hoi An

Danang

Ho Chi Minh City

CAMBODIA Phnom Penh

Siem Reap

Flight Siem Reap to Bangkok + flight Bangkok to Colombo

SRI LANKA Colombo

Hikkaduwa

Sigiriya

Kandy

Nuwara Eliya

Ella

Yala

Mirissa

Colombo

Flight Colombo to Madurai

INDIA Madurai

Munnar

Alleppey

Kochi

Panjim

Mumbai

Udaipur

Jodhpur

Jaisalmer

Osian

Pushkar

Jaipur

Via Delhi to Dehradun

Mussoorie,

Shimla

Amritsar

Delhi

TOTAL (including international flights) 19,764 miles

FURTHEST NORTH – Amritsar, India 31.6340° N, 74.8723° E

SOUTH – Mirissa, Sri Lanka 5.9483° N, 80.4716° E

EAST – Hoi An, Vietnam 15.8801° N, 108.3380° E

WEST – Mumbai, India 19.0760° N, 72.8777° E

HIGHEST – Jakhu Temple, Shimla, India 2,453 m (8,050 ft)

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He’s behind you

In his book Delirious Delhi, Dave Prager describes India as a pantomime. Oh yes he does. (Apologies – too easy.)

He is spot on. And, having been armed with that thought, we find it a good way to cope with the everyday challenges of getting through another day in India.

It’s a game and you have to play along… the bartering and negotiating for just about anything, the fact that they won’t have what you want on the menu, the chaos and noise on the roads, everyone jostling for an extra inch of space, the well-off Indians who are on holiday coming up and asking ‘One selfie please, Ma’am?’…

No more was the farce evident than in our recent hotel. OYO is a brand of budget-range hotels throughout India, with the emphasis very much on the word budget. We have had the misfortune to stay in one or two recently.

The email confirming your booking stresses that you will most certainly be given the 100% OYO experience on arrival. Oh yes, we did. Regrettably.

Here are some examples:

Hotel 1, day 1: We asked at 7.45 am where we could get breakfast. The reply was that it was all room service, from 8.30. Ok, so we ordered what we wanted, thinking it would be ready for 8.30. We went to a nearby hotel to use their wifi as there was none (none!) in our hotel. We first had to wake the man who was sleeping in the reception area, just behind the desk. We returned to our hotel at 8.30. We noticed the chef trotting off to his domain and eventually we got food at 9 am. All that for a boiled egg and toast.

Day 2: We ordered boiled eggs and toast at 8 am. While we waited, we read books and fed the monkey outside. At 9.15 breakfast was delivered with a flourish: A stale tomato and cucumber sandwich.

Hotel 2, Day 1: Breakfast was a bit farcical, trying to order coffee, tea, fried eggs (got 2 orders of eggs instead of one, four slices of toast, not one). The tea/coffee is particularly complicated because we ask for it with no sugar and separate milk (furrowed brows every time). The young man in a black suit tries so hard, bless him, but he really is like a young Indian Basil Fawlty apprentice, right down to the moustache.

At the third hotel, the main man (let’s call him Nosey-ji) came over to see what we were doing in the restaurant. When I say restaurant, it is a room with bare white walls, apart from the large black patches of damp. A hole has formed in the ceiling where there has been a leak but there seems to be no sign of repair. Water is still dripping down one wall.

Apart from the lovely decor, there were some tables and chairs.

So Nosey-ji mosies on over and does something that David absolutely hates. He lurks right behind him and stares at David’s iPad screen to see what he is doing. He doesn’t pass comment or talk further. Just stares.

He’s behind you….

I have noticed that David’s sarcasm has been coming to the fore recently, and he has decided to meet like with like. So he just looks at him and says ‘Yes? Can I help you?’

Nosey-ji’s English isn’t good enough to keep talking so off he goes. Proof of the communication challenge is when I say we will be leaving at 4 am to catch a train. I have two questions. Will the front doors be open? And can we get a tuk-tuk round here at that time of the morning?

‘Train. No problem. Check out.’

I repeat my questions.

‘Will the front door be open? Can we get out?’

‘Tuk-tuk. Station. No problem.’

And so it goes on. Sometimes it gets quite surreal and we start talking so sarcastically that  you really do hope they don’t understand how rude you have just been. But you do it for your own amusement, otherwise we would be tearing our hair out.

All these hotel workers seem to sleep in the reception area, in the same clothes they were wearing today, tomorrow and the next day.

Anyway, that same evening Nosey-ji talks to me and confirms when we will check out. Yes, yes, tonight.

Tip, he says.

Excuse me?

Tip. I finish at 11 pm and start at 7 am (the inference being… so you might not see me again). Tip.

Hmmm, well let me see.

You know what? I’ll tell you my tip for you. I have a few actually, seeing as you asked, so here we go. Tips are discretionary, for good service. All you have done is your job. And not a very good one. You have not gone above and beyond any measurable measure of service. You are surly, slimy, and truth be told we don’t actually like you. You stand there in your scruffy trousers, grey shirt and woolly tank-top, but you haven’t helped us once. Your rubbish budget OYO hotel has had shite wifi which we cannot get in our room but we can occasionally get in this awful space you call a restaurant and you haven’t attempted to stop that leak down the wall, and you don’t even give us a small bottle of complimentary water each day, and the other day when we asked if we could have cornflakes instead of some ‘idli-shit’ or instead of ‘butter-toast’ you said no. No! Well, we could but not if we wanted the free tea and coffee as well. EVEN THOUGH CORNFLAKES IS THE SAME PRICE ON THE MENU AS BUTTER-TOAST and we had that with tea and coffee the day before. And by the way, your butter tastes horrible. And when we asked for toilet paper, you gave us a packet of hotel-branded napkins. And your shower is rubbish. We let it run for 15 minutes to see if it will warm up. It doesn’t get beyond tepid. And you put us in a room on the road-side of the hotel, next to not one road but two, one of which is a major highway. And the traffic honks all day and the fumes in our room, where there is single glazing and loose windows, MUST BE EFFING KILLING US. And have I mentioned that you woke me up the other morning when you phoned our room and said something in Hindi? I mean, it’s not like there are any other white people in your hotel right now, and you got the wrong number, without so much as an apology. Or maybe you were just being evil and winding us up? And by the way, our door handle is falling off. And when I washed my socks and left them to dry on the windowsill, in the morning they were covered – COVERED! – in little reddish-brown ants. And Sir – SIR – it is very rude to stand behind someone and stare at their screen. And you have the AUDACITY to ask for a tip.

Ah, all those things I wish I had said. I looked in my purse, there was no way I was giving him a 500-rupee note (just over a fiver). I didn’t have less. And while I looked, I decided. No, I am not giving a tip. I played the ‘I don’t have money / I am not sure what you are asking for’ card. He went away, to sit around for a bit, and when he came back to lurk again, I just ignored him.

Tip, my arse.

Crazy old Delhi

What most tourists do when they arrive on package tours in Delhi is get taken to Jama Masjid and from there ushered into a cycle rickshaw for an exciting ride through the crazy, bustling, colourful, potholed streets of Old Delhi. For anyone’s first experience of India, it is exhilarating indeed.

We did that a few years ago, but we have always wanted to explore Old Delhi at our own pace, and of course after three months of being in India we find it an easy thing to do. Just walk like it’s not your first time, let yourself get lost down alleys, sometimes ask the general direction of a main landmark, and say Namaste to street sellers and school children.

We decided to book two different tours to learn a bit more about the city, one cycling, one walking, both of them brilliant and enlightening and eye-opening.

DelhiByCycle took us on the cycling tour and afterwards we walked through some more crazy lanes before finding the first brand-name air-conditioned (not gonna get sick now) restaurant for a coffee.

I sat and stared out the window and felt like crying. I am not sure why India got to me after all this time. It is all I love about the place and all I hate. It is challenging on every level, physical, mental, emotional. Old Delhi is surely at the heart of the India that many tourists come for.

But this day it took me too far. One of the reasons for sure will be the animals.

First thing in the morning, we cycled through a street which is where they slaughter animals. I tried not to look but managed to glimpse one skip-load of heads and one skip-load of trotters. By 9 am, we were told, all the butchering will have been done and the meat will have been sent out for sale. All that will remain are red puddles at the side of the road. It was true. We were able to go down the same road later, the shutters were down. You would never know that you were in such a murderous place.

A little further along, a child as young as six, sitting at the side of the road, slitting livers. I thought he was doing it carelessly until I realised that he was holding his sharp knife between his toes, and then tossing the meat into a bowl.

Further on, a man holding a small length of rope attached to a plump goat. You can only assume that it is the goat’s last day and he is destined for the market.

Another goat at the side of the road, on a chain, somewhat startled by all the noise but briefly calmed by our words and touch on her nose and ears. I can only hope she is kept for milk.

Onwards through the lanes, and we have seen enough chickens in cages already. I have also seen men picking up live chickens by the feet and transferring them from van to shop cage. There is no dignified way to pick up a chicken at times like this and luckily the man shows no extra brutality – but it is distressing enough as it is.

Suddenly to my left, I catch sight of a vendor holding up a chicken and he has his hands around its neck. I look away just in time, and put my hand up to my ear so I don’t hear anything that will stop me sleeping at night. I actually speak out loud without thinking. ‘Oh no, not in front of me. God. This place.’

No one else in the street could care less. It’s just another good meal for someone.

Jains – they seem to be a nice religion, very loving of all living things, though they seem to take it too far sometimes. There are people in the city who are naked – they will not even wear clothes for fear of having harmed a creature.

We visit the main Jain temple. Behind it is a charitably run bird hospital where we see this sign: ‘Birds are our friends: Do not hunt them for your food, amusement and pleasure. Safety and security of our living creatures and environment is our topmost religion.’

If only everyone in India could be Jain. What a different world we might live in.

What else has got to me, I wonder. Well, if it’s not animals, it’s humans. What on earth is India going to do about its over-population?

The worst deformities, beggars, men traipsing past with their uncombed hair matted with dust, with literally just the shirt on their back, trousers which have no crotch any more, clothes which are no more than rags, and shoes which someone else would have thrown away 30 years ago.

Early in the morning we see hundreds of men sitting on the kerbside waiting for a free meal from the temple. The Sikhs serve 10,000 every day. Later, we see the scene when the food is ready, and the crowd surges forward and there is no space between each man as they get what is perhaps their only meal of the day.

Which is all why, when it comes to the pantomime that is bartering for your tuk-tuk ride, even I have mellowed. I rarely get 50 rupees off the price these days, because at the end of the day, you realise that what you are paying for a fare is peanuts. You know that you are being asked for probably ten times the locals’ rate just because of the colour of your skin, but, in reality, a couple of quid for a relatively long journey, certainly one you didn’t want to walk in the heat and pollution, is actually not bad value.

We have read that the average tuk-tuk driver makes 400 rupees per day. Even in India, that really doesn’t go far.

*****

The day after the cycle tour we go on a walking tour with Street Connections. It’s really the best way to get to places you wouldn’t normally see, and to hear more about life in the city.

Our guide was once a street child himself. His mother died when he was two months old, his father died when he was five. Although he and his older sister were taken in by a neighbour, they weren’t treated well so he ran away. He ended up in Delhi.

He teamed up with another kid and started rag picking but he also got into drugs and petty theft. When caught by the police he was given two options – go back to your home town or go to the Salaam Balaak Trust shelter.

He did the latter. Although he found it tough, he was delighted to be getting three decent meals a day. He was also going to be educated.

He took us through the lanes of Old Delhi, past weird and wonderful sights, havelis and temples, trees growing across alleyways, cheeky monkeys crossing the wires above us. We were shown a factory where a dozen men were busy at sewing machines. The boss was around and although on the surface he seemed pleasant enough I got the feeling that no one wanted to look up from their work.

They are paid 300 rupees a day. And they have to work a 12-hour day with just a half-hour lunch break.

I wonder how they afford to send money home after paying for food and rent – in most cases their families are in rural villages. They rent a room and then find a few other people to share with to reduce costs to the very minimum.

At least they have a job.

The work in Old Delhi is so physical, men pulling and pushing overloaded barrows, cycle rickshaws, great packages on their heads. I notice that with most of the men, their eyes have glazed over. We wonder what mental and physical health issues there are.

Today we sat in traffic and thought that maybe one day the traffic will become so gridlocked it will just never move again! It was a mass of pedestrians, tuk-tuks, electric rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, overloaded barrows, oxen and dogs. Only the dogs were not contributing to the jam.

Oh yes, we have loved India. It gets under your skin in so many ways (and the pollution up your nose). And the great thing is that if India is a pantomime, David tells me I make a very good Widow Twankey.

Jai Ho joy

It’s not every day that you find yourself surrounded by hundreds of Indian women, young and old, dancing to Jai Ho, in front of an audience of several thousand on the India-Pakistan border.

The Attari-Wagah Border Ceremony has become something of a must-do for any visitor to Amritsar. It is just 20 km from the holy city.

I am not sure when it changed from being a sombre beating retreat ceremony (if indeed it ever was) to being a patriotic spectacle enjoyed by so many.

It starts with women (not men) from the crowd lining up to take their turn walking in the middle of the stadium with the Indian flag. An officer from the Border Security Force in camouflage gear, moustache and sunglasses (who reminds us both of Freddie Mercury) acts like crowd control and warm-up man combined, getting the crowds to cheer louder and applaud on time.

Then the music starts and women dance on the street, arms in the air, a celebratory atmosphere. Every age, every type of clothing, from full decorated sari to jeans and T-shirt. I decide to join in, even though my dancing is appalling, so I jump up and down a bit, follow other women’s moves with their arms, and smile a lot. It is joyful.

I am not sure why it is women who are allowed to dance, and not men, though our young Indian guide is quick to point out the discrimination on the Pakistani side of the border, where men and woman have been segregated.

(It turns out that she is also the best driver we have had in five months’ travelling – and the only female driver in that time.)

Jai Ho, the famous song from Slumdog Millionaire, is my favourite. To be fair, it’s the only one I know. Later, I don’t even recognise their national anthem.

Just before all this has started, a large bus has crossed over the border into Pakistan. Our guide explains that this is quite exciting. This is her 72nd border ceremony and she has not tired of it yet.

She says that the BSF dogs will ‘perform’ for us. They walk through with their officers, and ‘bow’ to one side of the street, maybe to the flag or something. I am quite glad that is all the performing they do. One is a handsome Alsatian befitting of his post, the other two are short labradors who look like they have eaten a chapati or two too many.

After this, the proper ceremony gets under way. This is the serious side. Well, as serious as it gets. Army officers (are they really fighting men?) in beige uniforms and rooster-like headgear march up and down, sometimes goose-stepping in a Basil Fawlty (‘Don’t mention the war’) way and stomping on the ground in time with the beat of the music.

Another officer was making long calls on the microphone, to which the crowd would respond with shouts of ‘Hindustan’.

On the other side of the border, we can see the Pakistan crowd, much smaller than ours and not so noisy. India and Pakistan then have a competition to see who can untie a knot the quickest. Pakistan wins. It seems that is usually the case. No one cares, probably because they can’t quite see the detail as we are looking straight into the setting sun.

All this is now a peaceful and fun way of marking the border between India and Pakistan, to formally close the border each night as they take down their flags. It is strange that it should be so. We have been to Jallianwala Bagh (the site of a massacre at the hands of a British General) and the Partition Museum to learn more about the violent time India faced in becoming independent of Great Britain.

Both places are within a short walk of the Golden Temple, which is what every visitor to Amritsar comes for. It’s not just the view of the temple which is beautiful, it is the whole mix of seeing Sikhs arriving for a special visit and worshipping. It’s a wonderful combination of colours, men with their turbans, women in their saris, and music, making it feel alive and spiritual.

And, one thing we noticed, there are no security checks. You can take photos (other than inside the main temple itself), you can carry your bags and bottles of water. It is so refreshing that they can trust us to come in peace – and markedly different to many places where there are so many rules and regulations that you don’t feel welcome at all.

At the end of the border ceremony, the crowds disperse in a slow, contented way, like they do after a large music concert or a football match, flags in hand, ‘I love my India’ baseball caps on, the three colours of the India flag painted on faces.

The sun sets on another memorable day in India.

*****

What we have loved about India is seeing the character of each place shine through. Our last stop was Shimla, a world away from Amritsar (or, at least, an eight-hour scary drive on Indian roads away).

The colonial influence is there in the buildings and you have the cool, clear air of the mountains. More than that, though – and we haven’t seen it done anywhere else – is the pedestrianisation of their main town area. No tuk-tuks or motorbikes jostling for space. No cars hooting constantly. Just blissful peace and quiet.

They have also got on top of their litter problem in the main streets, and signs tell people not to smoke or spit in public.

The fact that cars cannot go up the small hilly streets does, however, mean that there is much work for delivery men to haul ridiculous quantities of goods up the hills to hotels and restaurants and other businesses. These skinny, wiry, dusty men carry way too much – for example, five boxed large TV screens; two gas cylinders; a huge sack of potatoes as well as a large box of apples balanced on the top of the potatoes as well as the carrier’s head. I mean, can they not invest in a sack truck?

It is very physical work, something we also observe in Amritsar. Here, we are back to what we fondly refer to as ‘real India’, the noisy, hooting, dirty chaos of tuk-tuks, cycle rickshaws, fruit barrows, beggars, barking dogs, and again the physical labour of men pushing crazy loads on ancient sets of wheels. Many a time we go down small grey grungy alleys (brightened with colourful fabric shops) with their dangling power cables, crumbling pavements, cows and dogs scavenging in the piles of rubbish and we think, ‘My God, it’s so Dickensian.’

And yet the people here have all been so friendly and welcoming. More welcoming than our budget hotel actually, but that’s another story. (Today, ‘complimentary breakfast’ could not extend to cornflakes as well as tea and coffee. Toast, yes, you could have with tea and coffee, but not cornflakes. That was a few rupees too far.)

Next stop, Delhi.