As John noted in one of his previous blogs (country or continent) India is of corse a place of significant proportions. With a population of around 1.21 billion and an area of 3,287,263 sq km India is full of contrast, variety and extremes. Broken down into 19 key areas we have cycled a small fraction of what India has to offer but even then it is easy to spot differences between the independently run states.
The first part of our trip covered Rajasthan, in the North, to the west of Delhi. A key tourist destination and as the words desert and camel conjure up, a very hot, dry heat for cycling. This state is one of the poorer areas of India and while much new road building was taking place there were certainly many bumps to contend with.
Following a short detour via Delhi and a long train journey to Bangalore we then started the second part of our India adventure in Tamil Nadu, heading from there to Kerala. Much of the riding in the early part of this journey went around the hill stations of Ooty, Kotagiri, Coonoor and Munnar. It was chilly at night and as ever as we hit the colder areas the warm/hot showers disappeared once again, only to return in the sticky and humid backwaters of Kerala. The air cleared only by the evening thunderstorms. However, it has not just been the contrast in weather that has been noticeable between the states.
I noted Rajasthan was poorer and this became all the more noticeable with Kerala. Known for its high literacy rate, some of the houses here looked grander than most of the hotels we have ever stayed in and as we continued up the coast through Karnataka towards Goa, despite the roads once again in desperate need of repair, the coastline was been developed with extravagant homes and holiday resorts way beyond on budget – the area becoming popular with gulf millionaires.
Also apparent are the changing religious areas. As soon as we entered Kerala there was an overwhelmingly Christian influence – around 35% of people here are Christian and there are churches everywhere. Almost immediately on leaving Kerala this influence seemed to reduce again dramatically – Hindu temples again now much more apparent as well as a significant Muslim area.
We’re in Goa now, a return to the Christian influence and as a key western holiday spot this certainly feels less like India than many of the other places we have travelled through. A welcome return to wifi (hence the double blogging… There’s another to come!) and the chance to enjoy a cocktail and pizza on the beach.
I was last in India in January 2000 and in that time, despite still seeing significant poverty it is clear that India has been growing in economic terms. New buildings, schools and hospitals, investment in road infrastructure ( still ongoing but much better!) and a sense of confidence. There is a real pride in India and from individual state dwellers. When asked we didn’t dare say if our favourite place was a different state though to be fair all areas we have visited have given us something different.
However, regardless of state there are some extremes which India exhibits more than anywhere else I have visited.
It can be a pleasure on the nose or make one feel instantly sick. We’ve cycled past curry powder factories, many fragrant incense sticks at shrines and there is also the smell of cooking to waken up the senses though in contrast dead camels, dogs etc do not smell good, dumped rubbish can whiff a little and the public walls used as urinals, especially busy ones outside stations can be overwhelming.
The women look stunning (teeth aside), with saris that bring amazing colour to the landscape. The men often look dirty, in scruffy shirts, trousers or sarongs and while one may think this is due to their involvement in dirty work in contrast to the women it seems it seems the men drink more tea than repair roads! Women here also still seem timid and shy to say hello compared to their often too eager male counterparts.
It will always be the distinction between the rich and poor that can be most overwhelming though. While some live in grandiose style others live under ripped tarpaulin on the side of the road. Our final destination will be Mumbai and this is perhaps the place where this extreme is ‘best’ played out. Bollywood glamour, the plush quarters of Malabar hill yet 60% of people here live in shanti towns.
While it would be great to return to India and see more clean public toilets, less dumped waste and a stronger female persona it is the difference in prosperity that would perhaps be the greatest thing to notice a change in. Sadly it’s hard to imagine this though the next blog tells of some good work we encountered in addressing this divide.