Kulcha Vultures

8th May

Across four months’ travel in India and Nepal one constant, which might not have had the attention it deserves in my blog so far, is the friendliness of the people we’ve encountered everywhere we’ve been. From Kerala to Pokhara people have welcomed us into their country, their town, sometimes their homes, and made it clear they want us to have a happy, enjoyable time there. Sure, from time to time this manifests itself in ways that grate after a while, particularly the number of random, casual meetings (usually on or waiting for public transport) that lead to requests for selfies. But it all comes from a very good place.

For positivity, welcome and overall exuberance, though, the Punjabis might well take the crown.

Early signs of what’s to come appear during the second half of hour epic train ride from Lucknow to Amritsar. Once the train eventually arrives, Rebecca and I have berths in separate booths thanks to booking our tickets last minute. I’m still unwell, so sleep almost solidly through the first twelve hours. By the time I wake we’re approaching the North-Eastern state of Punjab, and the carriages are beginning to thin out. A succession of kindly visitors enter what has started to feel like my own personal sick bay to let me know that they’re happy to swap places with me if I want to travel in Rebecca’s compartment, and the ticket inspector tells me that if she wants to move into this one there aren’t going to be any other passengers for the rest of our journey. I of course know that she doesn’t want to share a booth with someone seeing out the end of a bout of Delhi belly, but I haven’t the courage to explain that to anyone. Plus, she’s asleep, and it’s generally prudent not to change that.

9th May

Having got in at 3am – impressively only three hours behind schedule, despite our train being six late to arrive at Lucknow – we sleep through breakfast and lunch, but take an afternoon walk down to nearby Neelam’s, rumoured to do a good Amritsari kulcha, the local delicacy of flatbread stuffed with potato. Sadly their tandoor doesn’t switch on until evening, but with my stomach starting to feel a bit more normal I tentatively munch at a pile of veg pulao and dal makhani.

Then we sit for a little while outside the Golden Temple, soaking up the vibes. This is what I wish all of India was like. Bright and bustling markets without being oppressive; everybody friendly without being invasive. Even the guard sitting atop an armoured jeep at the controls of a huge machine gun – a stark reminder that just six years before my lifetime tanks were sent into the temple complex – seems happy and carefree as he chats with bystanders. We decide to go inside the temple proper tomorrow morning at dawn, and buy ourselves the requisite headgear from a stand opposite.

10th May

The Golden Temple might be one of my favourite places in the world. There is a special magic about the centre point of Sikhism that, even when visiting holy cities like Rome, Jerusalem and Varanasi, I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

Everything about the temple symbolises the humility, inclusiveness and generosity of Sikhism. The man at the shoe stand outside gives a boiled sweet to everyone who leaves their shoes with him. There are four entrances to the compound, representing the fact that the temple is open to anyone, from anywhere, of any faith. When entering one of these, you first step through a shallow pool of water to cleanse your bare feet, then descend a flight of stairs to remind visitors of the humility that people should show when approaching God. Surrounded by the four outer walls of white marble is a large tank of water surrounded by marble walkways, over which the faithful prostrate themselves or walk in homage to the religion’s Gurus alongside tourists soaking up the atmosphere. In the centre of the tank is the Harimandir Sahib, the temple itself, splendid in bright, shining gold.

The complex serves food, for free, to over ten thousand people every day, again regardless of faith or background. Speakers project the prayers and songs being recited inside and, at the corners, large displays show the words translated into Punjabi, Hindi and English, creating a serene, meditative atmosphere that invites non-believers to savour the words, melodies and their meaning as much as it does the faithful. For somewhere so deeply spiritual it’s welcoming and non-judgemental in a way that makes you pause for breath.

Particularly so when we complete our circuit and head upstairs to the Sikh museum. Sikhism is the youngest of the world’s major religions, with its first Guru, Nanak, having been born in 1469. Its five and a half centuries have been painfully riddled with violence and persecution from Mughal, British and Indian rulers, and of course the brutal impact of partition. The museum is mostly a collection of paintings and, in more recent cases, photographs of gurus, martyrs and historical events (mainly battles) important to the history of Sikhism and the Punjab. It pulls no punches; there are paintings of Baba Deep Singh fighting Afghan forces with his decapitated head in hand, and in the most recent gallery grisly photographs of twentieth century martyrs taken after their deaths.

It’s moving, and it tells a tale of constant struggle for survival, but somehow the brutality of the Punjab’s history hasn’t led to bitterness, or xenophobia, or aggression. Something about the people here, more than likely to do with the teachings of Sikhism itself, creates a sense of happiness and goodwill that is completely entrancing.

Afterwards, we head to Neelam’s for breakfast. The tandoor is firing and the kulcha are delicious.

*

In many respects we’re a bizarre species of animal, with an insatiable desire for the unnecessary, the over-the-top and the extravagant. Something about the Wagah border ceremony really hammers this fact home.

On 15th August 1947 the Punjab was torn apart by partition. Lahore and Amritsar, two cities about thirty miles down the road from each other – think Manchester to Liverpool, or York to Hull – suddenly found themselves on different sides of a national border. It happened literally overnight; for reasons I struggle to wrap my head around, the border lines were kept secret even from the new heads of state being created until two days after India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain. The ensuing chaos displaced as many as twelve million refugees and may have caused up to two million deaths. Relations between India and Pakistan have remained fraught ever since, with war already breaking out three times in the seventy-odd years both countries have existed; only the other month, dogfighting jets took to the skies over Kashmir.

With all this in mind, the Wagah border ceremony is beautifully incongruous. A display of feel-good patriotism every bit as flamboyant as Eurovision, it epitomises the positivity and tolerance of the Punjab. For me, it’s North India’s must-see cultural event.

Of course, the performers are soldiers first and foremost, and if this and the scores of tank barracks we pass on the way to the ceremony aren’t a stark enough reminder that this is the meeting point of two nuclear superpowers the succession of signs describing the Border Security Force as “India’s First Line of Defence” do the trick.

Nonetheless, the ceremony is a party from start to finish. For half an hour before it starts, the women in the crowd are invited into the central area to dance to thumping pop songs; jubilant arms wave through the air as Jai Ho blares out. An assured master of ceremonies in BSF camo gear whips the audience into a frenzy with military panache and swagger, before the border gate opens and the real show begins.

In essence the ceremony is a symbolic contest between India and Pakistan, apparently manifested as a trial of whose sergeant can hold a note the longest and loudest, and whose troops can goose-step the highest. Complete with outrageous headgear, the parade is often compared to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. I remember it being referred to in a lecture for some reason back in university, and I crave more knowledge about its origins and meaning, but in the moment it comes across more than anything as a spoof of the notion of military strength, a raucous, celebratory middle finger to the spectre of armed conflict.

11th May

It’s cloudy, so we venture out in the middle of the day to see the Jallianwallah Bagh memorial.

In 1919, after escalating tensions between the British colonial administration and the nascent Indian independence movement, the British passed the Rowlatt Act which limited the civil liberties of Indians and allowed the authorities to arrest and imprison suspected “terrorists” (covering a broad range of activities) for up to two years, without trial.

The Act led to widespread protests across India, especially in the Punjab, and on 13th April a large crowd gathered in the walled garden of Jallianwallah Bagh. Some of the crowd were peacefully protesting against the act and deportation of two Indian leaders; some were celebrating the Sikh festival Baisakhi.

Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered a battalion of soldiers into the garden. They blocked the main entrance and opened fire on the crowd for ten minutes.

The British didn’t conduct a body count at the time, but estimated they had killed two to three hundred people and counted 1,650 rounds fired. Indian estimates put the victim count much higher; the Indian National Congress estimated over one thousand people were killed, and another 1,500 injured. Despite its being denounced as “monstrous” by Winston Churchill in 1920, a “deeply shameful event” by David Cameron in 2013 and a “shameful scar” by Theresa May this year, shortly before the event’s centenary, the British government has never formally apologised for the massacre.

I want to visit the site, expecting a reflective space in which to contemplate and pay whatever respects seem appropriate. But like so much of India it surprises me. It’s full of happy, chattering families. Yes, there is a plaque at the entrance outlining the context of the massacre and remdinding visitors of the “everlasting tyranny of the British”, and a large stone memorial in the centre commemorating the victims. There are also eerie topiary sculptures of soldiers aiming rifles into the garden, but it otherwise looks like a corner of Victoria Park on bank holiday weekend.

Rebecca and I find a space in which to sit down and chat, and soon notice a group of young lads loitering with intent. There’s a pre-amble to the selfie request that I can now spot a mile off; it involves a few minutes of staking out, from a distance of ten feet or so, walking back and forth while eyeing up the target. I don’t know if the people doing this think they’re being subtle, given the massive gulf between what is considered an acceptable level of staring in Indian and Western culture, but this little manoeuvre leads after a few minutes into one of two opening gambits: either “Which country?” or “Where are you from?” Never, repeat never, will the exchange open with “Hello,” “What is your name?” or “How are you?” Always, without exception, the initiator will ask your nationality first.

Sometimes, this is followed up with questions about your employment and/or marital status, and especially curious people might even get round to asking your name towards the end of the conversation, but in this as in the majority of cases once the kids discover we’re British they skip straight to the last and only important question: “Can we take a selfie?”

They don’t seem to care that we’re British in a garden dedicated to an atrocity committed by our nation against theirs, and even though it’s just beginning to rain we’re far too embarrassed by that salient fact to refuse, so we pose awkwardly in the middle of the huddle while our photos are taken.

This turns out to be a mistake. My mum, who first visited India twenty years ago and returns from time to time on business, advised me before we set off not to give money to beggars in the country because it would lead to being beleaguered by crowds of others that see us doing so. It’s a sign of the economic progress the country has made over recent years that this hasn’t been the case for us. But the fast-growing middle class do a very similar thing when they see you’re willing to pose for a selfie.

Three families that had been happily sitting and nattering are on their feet in a flash, and a rough queue forms with Rebecca and I unwittingly at its endpoint. The heavens open, but nobody seems at all bothered; a lady fastidiously positions her daughters either side of us after she’s finished taking the group shots while my shirt is gradually drenched. Eventually, the impromptu photo shoot is over and Rebecca and I are permitted to leave the garden, soaked and faintly embarrassed but happy not to have caused offence.

We emerge into central Amritsar, which is much busier on a Saturday afternoon that it has been so far. Every few paces we’re pressed to sign up for trips to the Wagah border, and I crave to know the Punjabi for “Saw it yesterday, mate.” Getting more and more annoyed by the constant attention, and ongoing selfie requests, we pick through the crowds to a splendid statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and nearby collapse into disbelieving laughter when the eighth cabbie in a row tries to persuade us to take a ride somewhere. I ask incredulously if he didn’t see us palm off the last seven, and he laughs, I think sensing our exasperation.

“Have you seen the partition museum?” he asks.

I roll my eyes. “No. Where is it?”

“Two minutes’ walk, over there.” He points to a large, impressive building of ochre red in mock Indo-Saracenic style, just across the road. It looks well worth a look. We thank him sincerely and make our way over.

In my life so far I’ve seen plenty of museums dedicated to the misery and suffering that the British and their empire have inflicted on the world. Particularly fresh in mind are the Yasser Arafat museum in Ramallah and the Gandhi memorial museum in Madurai. Partition, though, ranks for me as perhaps the most tragic, negligent episodes of the lot, despite fierce competition.

To start with, the religious strife between Muslims and Hindus that even now plagues Indian politics and defines the country’s relationship with its closest neighbours was stoked by the British in the hope of undermining the independence movement within the country. Then, when independence became inevitable and the need to divide the new countries along religious lines clear, they sent a man who had never been to India before to carry out the estimated five-year task of deciding the new boundaries in just six weeks. Still, at least we learnt our lesson and no longer try to enact massive constitutional change within stifling, arbitrary deadlines.

What the museum makes clear is that the human cost just wasn’t a consideration of those making the decisions, who were more concerned with saving face than saving lives. Because the precise location of the borders was kept secret until after independence, what might have been a measured, peaceful movement of Muslims into the new Pakistan and Hindus into India took place in a whirlwind of panic, confusion and suspicion. It was the largest mass migration in human history, and thanks to appalling mismanagement by the British the death toll reached seven figures. The museum chronicles the events leading up to partition itself, and is especially moving thanks to its nuanced depictions of what partition meant for different minority groups; women, Jains, Dalits, even newspapers and cricket teams. A heart-wrenching plaque explains that, more than seventy years on, families that were separated from each other in the chaos of partition are still yet to regain contact, and includes advice to help people searching for long-lost relatives get in touch.

We’re very reflective afterwards, and Rebecca suggests I go for a walk around the Golden Temple to process my thoughts while she waits outside with our bags. It’s even more wonderful at dusk than it is just after dawn; evening prayers are beginning, so around the outside of the walkway hundreds, possibly thousands of Sikhs gather to join in the prayers broadcast through the complex. I spend a wonderfully tranquil twenty minutes walking slowly around the space, enjoying the inclusivity of it even during a communal service.

I emerge to find Rebecca sat awkwardly between two chuckling women, one holding her hand and the other with her arm around her. It turns out that Rebecca, a sitting duck guarding our bags and unable to move, has spent the entire time I’ve been inside posing unwillingly for selfies, and at one point she had a crowd larger than that in the garden earlier queuing up for their turn. She doesn’t fully appreciate my rapt explanation of the wonderful time I’ve just had.

Partition was a shambolic rush job that led to suffering on an unimaginable scale. Between that and the Amritsar massacre, Punjabis have every right to detest the British, to resent our presence here with a passion. But they don’t. They want to take pictures with us.

Take a Luck at Me Now

5th May

Today’s the day we drag ourselves out of Pokhara.

Most of my posts until now have been full of descriptions of the length and general unpleasantness of our journeys, so I’ll spare the gory details this time round. Suffice to say that getting from Pokhara to Lucknow started at 5.30am, took almost twenty-four hours, and involved an unnecessary hour-long wait in a stationary bus, serenaded by a group of Hare Krishnas waltzing around outside with an accordion.

6th May

… but eventually, in the small hours of the morning after that on which we left, we check in to the Deep Avadh hotel in Lucknow’s Charbagh district. It’s exactly as I expected from the reviews. If someone cared, it could be a slick, comfortable hotel. Everything is a decent clean and a lick of paint away from being pleasant. But apparently no-one does care, so despite what seem to be fairly expensive, elegant furnishings the whole place has a run-down, dilapidated feel.

They’re also fussier about taking down our personal details than anywhere else we’ve stayed. In India, hotels and hostels are required by law to take your passport details and make copies of them, as well as a bit of other basic info about who you are and where you’re going. Most places we’ve stayed until now have been happy with the barest of minimums in this regard, but not the Deep Avadh. They insist on taking down details like my father’s profession and mother’s maiden name, and I’m summoned back to reception a few hours after checking in to explain why I’ve abbreviated “Hertfordshire” to “HERTS” on my address.

They also have the strange habit of getting you on the in-room telephones. They love them. We receive three phone calls from the front desk in our first morning in the room, all of them reminding us that we are able to order room service through the in-room telephone. Plus the one asking me to come back to reception to correct my address.

Truth is, this still looked like the best of the affordable hotels in the area. Until late in the trip we hadn’t thought of coming to Lucknow, but given the final two stops on our itinerary – Amritsar and Delhi – are half-way across the country from Sonauli where we left Nepal, it seems as convenient a place as any to stop en route. It’s not all that touristy, but that’s a positive; I’m looking forward to seeing some of the city’s architectural heritage that I feel many tourists miss when they visit the country.

First on my list is the British Residency. During the Indian mutiny of 1857 the colonial administration, with the usual accompaniment of womenfolk, servants and other assorted hangers-on, were besieged in the residency for five months before being relieved by a brigade of Scottish Highlanders. Diseases like scurvy and gangrene were rampant and the ruins have been left in place ever since. This being a historical sightseeing trip in 38C heat, Rebecca stays at the hotel. I set off down the road in the general direction of Hussainabad – effectively Lucknow’s Old City – and hail a pedal rickshaw.

The driver is a cheerful young lad who refuses to discuss prices before I board, insisting that I pay him whatever I feel is appropriate when we get there. He habitually sniffs and wipes his nose with a rag every few minutes. Through very broken English he explains that this is his “career job”, or so I assume, until he asks me if he can borrow some change, stops and disappears for five minutes.

Slightly confused, I pass the time playing street cricket with a bunch of local kids who thrust a bat into my hands as soon as the driver disappears. I manage to dab the first few deliveries away gently, at which point the bowler clearly realises how useless I am and starts spinning them embarrassingly easily either side of my flailing bat. Just when the whole thing is getting awkward the driver thankfully reappears.

He gives me back fifty rupees less than I initially gave him. I’m not at all sure what’s happened, but I assume I must have misheard him saying he has a “courier job”, and that he’ll deduct the fifty form the final price. Eventually we get to the residency and I reach into my wallet and offer him another hundred.

He shakes his head. He doesn’t say anything, but points at a two thousand rupee note in my wallet. Shit. I’ve got so comfy in India and Nepal, the initial paranoia that dogged my every move in Kerala  a long-forgotten memory, that I’ve slipped into flashing cash.

I tell him no, and re-offer the hundred rupee note, at which point he reaches into my wallet and grabs the two grand. I shout at him, and start panicking a bit. The entrance to the residency, manned by armed security guards, is a fair distance away; the only people in the immediate vicinity are other rickshaw drivers who I doubt will take my side if there’s a scuffle. The cheerful, friendly face that had welcomed me onto his rickshaw earlier has disappeared; his eyes are glazed over, and I wonder whether the rag he’s been sniffing is soaked in something. He lets go, though, when I grab his am, and then to show we’re still friends points out where I need to go to access the residency.

It’s an interesting space. You’d find it very pleasant if you didn’t know the history. Neat, spacious gardens glow in the late afternoon sun, spread around the stately ruins of some fine colonial architecture. With the grisly history of the site fresh in mind, though, there’s a haunting element added to what is otherwise a nice stroll in a park.

The other visitors are in good humour. Several, including a trio of teenage boys and a husband with his wife and baby, stop to say hi and ask for selfies with me. Squirrelly, chipmunk-like creatures scuttle between the trees in which parakeets chatter to one another. Lucknow’s bustle and noise seem a long way away, and I start to unwind, camera in hand, happily hoovering up pictures of the scene.

Until I see a figure some way off across one of the green quadrants, in a familiar grimy white t-shirt, unmistakably cutting diagonally across the grass towards my position. At this point I’m exploring a slightly isolated corner of the site, and there’s no-one else around. My heart starts to race a little as the figure gets closer. It’s the rickshaw driver.

I start back down the path towards the main area, hoping to get into plainer view, but the driver cuts me off. He stands in front of me in the path, neither saying anything nor moving towards me. Out of sheer British awkwardness I say “Hi, are you ok?”

He doesn’t look as though he is, in truth. He is swaying ever so slightly on the spot, and seems to be breathing heavily. I wave to let him know I’m addressing him, and his eyes flick briefly up to my face. Then I realise that all along he’s been staring fixatedly at the camera in my hand.

I decide it’s time to go, and walk off the path and round him. He turns – not exactly quickly, but with purpose – and starts following. I pick up my pace, thinking about cutting through the ruins of the banquet hall. I could easily lose him in the sprawling maze of ornate Indo-Saracenic archways. I could, though, equally as easily get lost and find myself cornered, completely out of sight of the rest of the park. So I take the long way around it.

On the other side a uniformed man sits lethargically on a bench. I approach him and see the word SECURITY printed on his badge. I explain that I’m being followed, at which moment the driver conveniently emerges from the banquet hall. I point him out and explain that he’s following me and, I think, trying to rob me.

The security guard nods slowly, and doesn’t stand up. He gives me the universal “I couldn’t possibly give less of a shit” look and, deciding he’s a waste of time, I walk quickly to the entrance. I get some distance down the road so that the driver – who doesn’t seem to be able to manage much more than a slow shuffle – can’t see which direction I’m heading in, and jump in an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel.

I try to digest it all afterwards, mulling over what actually happened. I’ve never been mugged and I’m not sure if he’d tried to earlier on, or if I had genuinely underpaid him. I feel like I can rule out underpayment though; a hundred and fifty rupees for a five-minute journey is generous compared to what we’ve paid so far. Was he after my camera? Or did he just want to secure the business of the return trip? If he did, he went a really bad way about it, but I wonder to what extent his lack of English and understanding Western norms contributed. Indians just don’t seem as bothered by actions that I’m conditioned to find threatening, like staring, following, invading personal space and, to a lesser extent, grabbing. And it strikes me how lucky I am to be a man. The events of the last hour or so shook me a little, but would have been terrifying if I’d been a woman, to the extent that I might not have been able to blithely pop out for a stroll by myself. That’s a fact of life for women who live and travel throughout the subcontinent.

Rebecca, surprised to see me back so early, decides after I tell her the story that what we need is food, so we head down the road to a place we’d tried to visit at lunchtime, Tundy Kebabi, but due to a combination of it being the first day of Ramadan and that votes are being cast in the elections today, it was closed.

I hadn’t realised until now quite how massive the elections are. They are the biggest exercise in democracy the world has ever seen, no matter what your Brexit-voting uncle tells you. Over nine hundred million citizens are eligible to take part, and voting itself is spread over several weeks. Five million people will be employed, in one capacity or another, as part of the process. Indian law specifies that no house can be more than 2km from a polling station, meaning that a gentleman who lives in a remote part of one of Gujarat’s national parks has a station all to himself. They are colossal.

By evening, even though the polls have closed and the sun is set (meaning Muslims observing Ramadan can break their fast), Tundy Kebabi is still shut, but the bustling street-foody neighbourhood it’s in is doing a roaring trade, so we look for somewhere else to eat. This takes longer than expected since most shops, in stark contrast to the rest of the places we’ve been to in India, seem to exclusively serve meat. Most places don’t even stock vegetables. Eventually we find a biryani shop that will do us a paneer masala.

7th May

The golden rule of travelling is: eat what the locals eat.

Rebecca and I are vegetarian on environmental grounds, but will occasionally make exceptions. In hindsight, last night should have been one of those.

In all fairness, it could be the water at the hotel. Most places we’ve been to so far have purified water containers in the foyer so we can refill our bottles with clean drinking water, but at Deep Avadh every time we need a refill our bottle is taken by one of the porters to a mysterious room that guests aren’t allowed into and returned full of very cold but equally mysterious water.

Whether dirty water or unpopular paneer is to blame, I’ve got my second bout of food poisoning of the trip in time for what was set to be a big day of sightseeing followed by a twenty-four-hour train ride to Amritsar. Fantastic. Rebecca is apparently unaffected, which I suppose is a good thing but I find annoying as we’ve eaten and drunk the same things since arriving, undermining my self-image as strong-stomached.

Our taxi arrives at 3pm to pick us up, because several of the sites we want to see close at 5pm. It’s 42C, and I’m sick as a parrot, as the driver pulls up outside the Bara Imambara. Dashing from patch to patch of shade, we take a few snaps of the majestic Mogul architecture and pile back into the car as quickly as possible, only stopping for Rebecca to fawn over a mongoose in the garden at the entrance. Same story at the Rumi Gate, the iconic gatehouse based on one form Istanbul. I try to get away with photographing it from inside the car but the driver insists we get out so he can take a photo of Rebecca and I looking ill and overheated in front of it. On our way into the Chota Imambara we’re accosted by a tour guide who immediately starts showing us around, describing the miniature Taj Mahal replica in English too rapid and broken for me to understand a word, both of us either too hot or too unwell to protest effectively, before the same process repeats itself with a wizened old man inside the main mosque. Eventually, we’re back in the taxi and ask the driver to return us to the hotel. He can’t believe his luck. We’ve booked and paid him for four hours and he’s done in two.

Our train to Amritsar leaves at five to midnight, so having checked out of our hotel room this morning, and with me unwell, we have little choice but to sit in reception for six hours, with a break for Rebecca to have dinner in the restaurant. A wedding party is taking place in the disco area downstairs, meaning that well-dressed locals stream in and out of the foyer the entire time and near the end strike up a raucous band on the street outside. It would be great fun if I didn’t feel horrendous.

Finally, it’s time to head to the station. I’ve effectively had my eyes screwed shut, praying for a flat berth to lie down and sleep on for hours. We check the board to find our platform, and can’t see our train anywhere. I groan inwardly.

We join the scrum to make an enquiry outside the office. One of the attendants inside must see the suffering on my face because he beckons us around to the back entrance to the booth. We tell him our train number, he punches it into his computer, and informs us the train is delayed by nearly six hours and is currently scheduled to arrive at 5.15am.

I turn to Rebecca and tell her we’re checking back into the hotel.

Welcome to Gandrukh

18th April

It’s half five in the morning. My alarm is ringing. My head doesn’t hurt.

In fact, I feel great. All the aches and pains of yesterday have disappeared overnight. Better still, through the window I can see a line of snow-covered Himalayan mountaintops that were yesterday completely obscured by cloud. Rebecca and I run outside to fuel up on Snickers bars and hot chocolate while we take in the glorious sunrise, then throw a couple of extra layers on and set off at ten to six on the nose.

We have the trail completely to ourselves. It’s idyllic. As our route winds round the side of Poon Hill our view of the Annapurna mountains, crisp white against pristine blue sky and wisps of fluffy cloud, transforms like the blobs in a lava lamp. We amble through lush green forests speckled with rhododendron flowers and come across a troop of langurs as they start to wake for the day. They’re shy and high in the treetops, and their hoots suggest they’re alarmed by our presence so we move along quickly, but all the same it feels nice to share the forest morning with them.

I’m not a natural early morning person at all, but the experience of travelling through the heat of India and the extremes of weather we’ve experienced in Nepal – very hot mornings followed by savage afternoon storms – have gone some way towards converting me. It is unquestionably the best time of day for trekking. The air is crisp and cool and there are no other trekkers to stop and make small talk with, or to wait for while they cross a single-person bridge, or to make noise and scare off the wildlife. Progress is consequently rapid, and serenely pleasant. It crosses my mind that Maggie will have walked this same stretch in torrential rain yesterday afternoon, with clouds hiding the mountain range so comprehensively she might not have realised they were there at all. I feel sorry for her.

So fast is our progress that by half past eight we reach a sign announcing “Welcome to Gandrukh”. This feels like a momentous achievement; Gandrukh became, in my mind, the holy grail throughout the course of yesterday’s literal and psychological descent. A distant beacon, normally the stopping point for the fourth day of the five-day circuit, and we’d reached it in time for breakfast. This we eat at the relatively plush Simon Guest House, while a group of middle-aged Chinese trekkers take pictures of each other on the veranda around us. Nothing stops the photographer in his relentless pursuit of the right angle, least of all two English tourists eating breakfast on the exact spot he wants to stand. We eat up what remains of our breakfast once the photographer’s elbows have soaked up most of the baked bean juice, and press on.

It’s a mere hour’s hike from Gandrukh to Kimche, and Kimche, crucially, is connected to the road. Once you get to Kimche, you can catch a ride back to Nayapul, and from there a bus to Pokhara, so technically – only technically, mind you – can claim to have completed the circuit. You can then relax in the back of a jeep for a few hours or so, enjoying the decreasingly dramatic vistas out of the window while committed trekkers struggle sweatily on by the windows, and look forward to a hot shower in a hotel too in-the-thick-of-it for any tarantulas to have crawled into the bathroom.

That hour, however, is all downhill, and that’s bad news for my knee. I have to adapt yesterday’s sideways-on crab walk to avoid shooting pain, and it’s incredibly slow-going. A pair of ancient Nepalese women with bags full of heavy-looking stuff on their heads overtake me at one point. In the end it takes us closer to an hour and a half but slowly, surely, the road that started out as a winding snake on the valley floor below edges closer and closer until we find ourselves haggling with a jeep driver for a lift down to Nayapul.

“Six thousand rupees.” That’s more than forty quid, which is our entire daily budget. We laugh and walk on for a few minutes.

The next guy says five thousand. This is still way more than we were expecting. At the outset, the ride from Pokhara to Nayapul, only another few hours’ walk down the hill from here, had cost us three thousand. Why is it nearly double?

“There’s a strike,” we’re informed, meaning it’s very dangerous for the drivers to take us down. If they’re seen operating, they could be attacked by strikers. I look incredulously at the hills around us; it’s almost completely silent, with kilometres separating the isolated, peaceful houses and villages along the valley. The hills are seemingly not alive with the war cries of bandits.

After a few minutes a pair of English girls in a similar boat arrive, and we discuss pooling resources, but feel it’s an inexcusable rip-off for anything more than four thousand. In a car park surrounded by teahouses, Kimche’s chief tout (the eyes of the village’s taxi industry upon him) swears blind that no-one will even consider making the journey for less than five thousand. I test my leg by leaning some weight on it, decide I can hack a couple of hours’ walk to Nayapul, and Rebecca and I decide to carry on. The two girls decide to wait and see if any more trekkers they could share a lift with arrive.

We’re about ten minutes outside the village when we become aware of a man following close behind us. It’s the tout.

“Four thousand,” he offers. I could punch him in the jaw. We’d have snapped that up ten minutes ago but there’s no way I’m walking back up there now, especially with no guarantee the two girls will be there for us to split the cost with. We tell him no and carry on.

Five minutes pass.

“Three thousand?”

I’ve had it. The pain is once again shooting back up my leg, there’s a whole village worth of drivers with nothing to do who, presumably, could really do with the money, and this negotiator-elect happily sent us off down the mountainside with a gammy leg on the assurance that it was too dangerous for any of his colleagues to consider making the journey. This time we don’t bother to reply and just carry on walking.

We arrive at a charming little hamlet called Kliew some time around eleven thirty, with the heat rising and feeling in need of a break, and there we meet a wiry, wizened old man named Gokun.

As with most interactions in South Asia, one of the first things Gokun asks us is where we’re from.

“England,” we tell him.

“Yes, but where in England?” The standard of his English takes me by surprise; it’s less accented even than that spoken by the teahouse managers, who in these remote hills have by far the most contact with foreigners day-to-day.

“London,” we tell him. He nods vigorously.

“Ah, yes. I lived in London for three years. I worked for the Sultan of Brunei.” He seems very proud of this so I hold back on giving him my views on the Sultan of Brunei. Gokun, it turns out, is the last in a long family line of Ghurkas.

This is a good time to point out that the British army has a recruitment office in Pokhara, from where it vigorously selects new recruits for the Gurkha regiment from among the young men of the region. This has been going on since the Anglo-Nepalese war of 1814-16 in which the expansive Nepalese state came up against the colonising East India Company. The conflict ended in victory for the British given that Nepal was forced to concede some territory to Britain in the aftermath, but the British were so impressed with the military feats of their opponents that they began recruiting Gurkha mercenaries into the British army.

Every year only two hundred and thirty out of seventeen thousand applicants are taken. In a materially poor region, almost entirely dependent on tourism for income, becoming a Gurkha is a golden ticket. Those selected earn orders of magnitude more than they could hope to here in Pokhara, and with the added perk of a British army pension thrown in. Until recently, however, Gurkhas weren’t offered the same rights of abode as British and commonwealth soldiers. This is no longer the case thanks to a successful campaign prominently supported by Joanna Lumley. The whole thing went down surprisingly badly with Gokun.

“No-one is coming back to live here,” he explains, gesturing at the hillside. Gokun himself returned to Nepal from London in 2003, but today’s Gurkhas are increasingly taking up residence in Britain after they retire, which from what Gokun tells us seems to be fracturing local communities that never see those selected return. Gokun’s own family are an interesting though slightly different case. His wife remained in London when he returned to Nepal and they haven’t seen each other in the sixteen years since. Of their three children, one is a student in Paris, one works in the Gulf, and only one has returned to Nepal with Gokun.

It’s strange to think of these remote mountain villages, echoing with the clink of donkey bells and the lowing of buffalo, as the centre of a global diaspora. It is equally unfamiliar to stop and think about the impact that offering rewards to people in one country has on the communities they leave behind. Gokun is a man of few words despite his fluent English and doesn’t respond to all our questioning on the subject, so the conversation leaves me with more questions than answers but is thought-provoking nonetheless.

Gokun also explains the political situation to us. Nepalese politics has been a fraught and often violent arena throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Its monarchy, with a history of sometimes brutal authoritarianism, was only abolished in 2008 and since then rival political parties, including rival Communist party factions, have been engaged in tense conflict over social and political issues ever since, with electoral reforms and ethnic minority rights high on the agenda.

Today, tensions between the Communist party factions as well as between the government and opposition rebels have, according to Gokun, led to a bandh, or strike. Unbeknownst to us, it is incredibly violent; three explosive devices are found in Pokhara alone, and there are multiple instances of vehicles being torched across the country. Our main concern, being unaware of all this, is how to get to Nayapul without my leg falling off. We explain this to Gokun, who nods sagely and disappears for a few minutes.

When he returns, he explains that it’s of course very dangerous for drivers to break the strike today, unless they are driving designated tourist-only jeeps, in which case (apparently) they are permitted by the protestors to keep working. A driver named Kim, he explains, is waiting here to collect a pair of trekkers who have pre-booked the jeep, and there’s space for us on board if we’re prepared to wait an hour and a half for the trekkers to arrive. Kim will take us not just to Nayapul but all the way back to Pokhara for three thousand rupees.

We bite his hand off, and settle down to some lunch. While munching on veg fried rice we decide to offer Gokun a generous finders’ fee, but he’s already disappeared.

22nd April

It’s been a nice few days recovering after our trek, ominous stomach cramps notwithstanding, but reality is now biting. The two-week visas we were issued on entry to Nepal are nearing expiry and we have no plans – in fact, no real desire – to leave Pokhara, let alone the country. It’s too relaxing and pleasant a town. Lakeside north, with its easy-going bars and cafés spread cosily around the shore of the lake, is one of our favourite spots of our travels so far. My memory of India is coloured by the sweltering, oppressive slog from Varanasi to Sonauli, and neither I nor Rebecca are in any hurry to repeat that journey in reverse.

Rebecca is booked in for a meditation course in McLeod Ganj, 855km away in the far North of Himachal Pradesh, starting on 1st May. However, given that happens to be her birthday and she’s at least as reluctant to leave Pokhara as I am, and the course itself is ten days long and features a lot of restrictions on things like phone access and verbal communication, she’s having second thoughts. We take the collective decision to extend our visas and stay another two weeks in Nepal; Rebecca cancels her place on the retreat and books herself in for a shorter, less intense course in the Pokhara Buddhist centre.

26th April

I managed three months travelling around India and didn’t get so much as a whisper of Delhi belly. Something in Nepal has succeeded where India failed. Almost as soon as we got back from the visa centre four days ago the ominous cramps descended into full-blown food poisoning and I’ve been more or less out of action ever since. However, today I manage to keep down two plates of momos and an accidental mouthful of mouthwash, so I think we’re gravy.

Rebecca has checked into her meditation retreat, which runs over the weekend until Monday, and I’ve checked into a hotel more central in Lakeside to experience a bit more of the bustling centre of town. In the event, it turns into something of a reading and writing retreat for me. With occasional evening breaks to sneak off to one of the nearby sports bars and watch the football.

27th April

I write an entire chapter of my book. Southampton achieve Premier League safety. A very good day.

29th April

Rebecca emerges, very zen, from her meditation retreat. Obviously she’s the epitome of calm and sweetness all the time. Obviously. Just, you know, a few days of sitting still have made her more so.

It’s hard to gauge her thoughts on the course; initially she seems most keen to denigrate the standard of the food and the metaphors used in the Buddhist teachings. Gradually she comes round to talking more positively about the calming, therapeutic environment of the retreat itself, which gives me an idea for what we could do on her birthday in a couple of days.

Pokhara is hit by a wild hailstorm in the afternoon; chunks of ice the size of golf balls hammer the windows onto our balcony and cover the ground outside in the space of a few minutes. I ask the hotel manager if this is the start of monsoon weather and he laughs.

“This is pre-monsoon. This is nothing. That went on for a couple of hours – in monsoon season it’s like that for a week.”

30th April

Pokhara does a great line in a traveller favourite; the movie-screening bar. Top spot is Movie Garden; an amphitheatre-esque circle of covered seats around a large open-air screen, with a bar serving drinks and pizza run by a young British ex-pat. Since our arrival in Pokhara we’ve been coming here once or twice a week to see films like BlacKkKlansman and The Darjeeling Ltd (someone there loves Wes Anderson) and sip on local beer and good gin. Last week, we caught up on the first two episodes of the new series of Game of Thrones at another place, Blind Tiger, and tonight Move Garden is showing Moonrise Kingdom followed by episode three of GoT.

It’s a lovely setting for it. The seats face the town and the mountains around, meaning that we’ve previously had the dramatic backdrop of thunderstorms over the surrounding hills while watching, but tonight the weather is calm and quiet. Fireflies hover through the air while I drink a ginger, lemon, honey and rum tea, and the Battle of Winterfell plays out in almost-impenetrably gloomy detail on the big screen. At the climactic moment towards the end of the episode the evidently-dodgy version the manager downloaded skips to the behind-the-scenes interviews, to shrieks and a patter of hands clapping tight over ears from the audience. The manager recovers quickly, pausing the film and switching to his backup download before – thank the lord – any untimely spoilers are revealed.

1st May

Rebecca’s birthday had given me much food for thought.

For a while, we’d assumed we’d go to Chitwan National Park – a reserve near the southern border of Nepal through which we entered and are planning to exit the country, where it’s possible to see rhinos, tigers and elephants in the wild. However, since the Spider Incident whilst trekking I’m reticent to stay in rural areas, for fear of being bitten by a tarantula and dying. Also, someone at Rebecca’s course went there last week and said it was awful.

Another option that crossed my mind is paragliding. Pokhara is arguably the best place in the world for paragliding; there are always small clouds of gliders in the skies over Lake Fewa. However, since the Ferris Wheel Incident I’m reticent to do anything that involves going high in the air, for fear of falling to the earth and dying.

As it happens, Rebecca came out of the course craving nothing so much as peace and quiet (except, of course, to watch Game of Thrones). So I decide that what would be best is to spend a day at Fishtail Lodge’s spa and pool.

Fishtail Lodge is a high-end hotel, on the far bank of Lake Fewa from the rest of Pokhara. It’s accessed via a rope-raft, and offers a beautiful, secluded quiet setting – except, of course, for the large family of Indian tourists shouting and taking selfies by the poolside. Nothing is ever quite perfect.

Despite keeping in the shade almost the entire time and applying copious sun cream I somehow manage to burn the upper half of my body. Fortunately, there is almost nothing Rebecca enjoys more than the sight of someone else’s sunburn, so I put this down as my birthday gift to her. By way of thanks she gives me a stinging belly slap. She says its her best birthday ever.

Walk to the Hills

10th April

For everything wonderful about Varanasi, and India as a whole, it’s hard work. After nearly a week in the city my legs ache from constantly hopping around cowpats, my throat is sore from insisting to rickshaw drivers that, cowpats notwithstanding, we’re more than happy to walk, and my nostrils are coated in grime from the all the pollution. It’s time to seek fresher climes and quieter streets. We make for Nepal.

It’s a 24-hour journey from Varanasi to Pokhara, our chosen destination. First up is an overnight train to Gorakhpur, a town so singularly charmless that not even the Rough Guide tries to pretend there’s anything to do but board a bus and swat away the mosquitos. The chap on the bunk opposite mine spends the entire train ride ogling Rebecca, conspicuously ignoring his wife and children on the berths below. We arrive in good time, at around 6am, which would obviously set an unrealistic precedent for punctuality so the driver duly sits just outside town for two hours while the carriages heat up to the sort of temperature at which I like to poach an egg, before finally rolling in to the station.

Then there’a a relatively short and pleasant three-hour bus ride from Gorakhpur to the border town of Sonauli, with a break half way at a stand selling tasty samosas. Sonauli itself, though, is blistering hot when we arrive around midday and packed with a legion of touts exploiting the two-way traffic between the countries. We are assured by one gentleman that his brother will give us a better currency exchange rate than any other outlet, for a fee of only five hundred rupees. We ask three bystanders which way to Indian immigration and are pointed variously up the road, back down the road and off to a side road, all three recommending a visit to their brother’s currency exchange on the way. Eventually finding immigration, we wait a tedious and sweaty half hour for the moustachioed men behind the desk to stamp our passports, twenty-nine minutes of which consist of them staring blankly at our visas.

Then, and only then, are we permitted to leave Indian bureaucracy’s stifling sphere of influence. We pass under the grand arch demarking the Nepali border, and soon find ourselves in the visa office. It’s pleasant, air-conditioned, and run by three charming, smiley men who, in less than half the time it took Indian immigration to press six stamps, knock up three bona fide visas (one each for Rebecca, myself and the Dutch girl who was on our bus from Gorakhpur). We change some cash (on the Nepali side of the border), a tout for a private bus company sells us slightly overpriced bus tickets to Pokhara and a mere nine hours’ winding round precarious, crumbling mountain roads later we arrive.

12th April

I’ve never, ever been more convinced I’m going to die.

Disney Land Pokhara doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence on the outside. Between you and me, I’m not entirely convinced it’s an official Disney franchise. I’ve never been to one but from the images I’ve seen of them on TV and such they seem to be full of grand replica French castles and drama school graduates in Mickey Mouse costumes. Not rusty, rickety fairground rides and water buffalo wandering aimlessly around gravel pathways. Still, we figure the Ferris wheel will give us a nice view of Lake Fewa. Pokhara, Nepal’s second city, and its sublimely backpackery tourist district “Lakeside” frame the picturesque lake’s eastern shore.

From the ground we can see that most of the carriages on the wheel, which goes a fair bit faster than I remember Ferris wheels going, get a lot of tilt at the apex, but we decide that this is because they’re empty. It doesn’t occur to us to be unnerved by that fact in itself. We confidently board one of the carriages – more of a scant metal cage. There are no walls or even a full floor; just a couple of bars stand between us and hurtling out into the lake. Presumably this is to better enjoy the view.

Manning the ride is a boy of about thirteen who, looking pleased for something to do, takes a handful of notes off us and cranks the speed up to about Mach 1 with a hand-operated lever attached to what looks like a giant rubber band. It’s a curious mechanism which wouldn’t look out of place in a museum dedicated to 17th Century flour milling, but before I can examine it I’m distracted by our rapid ascent into the sky and the ominous creaking of the wheel’s frame. Is it my imagination, or is the whole thing swaying in the wind? And, now that we’re up close, there really is a lot of rust all over the structure.

For what seems like half an hour we’re hurled through the air, swinging freely in a way that makes me think intently about how best to survive if the carriage comes loose and flies off its fittings. I conclude that if we land in the lake I’ll be grateful the carriage is unwalled, but it would probably make matters worse if we land on solid ground. The extra weight doesn’t steady the swing we saw from below but enhances it; at the top of the wheel we are almost horizontal and I have to grip the side bars hard to avoid falling face first onto Rebecca opposite me, or out of the carriage altogether. Both of us scream at the top of our lungs, while the kid operating the contraption grins and chats to his mate, and a Nepalese girl in the carriage behind ours sits calmly enjoying the view. When we finally dismount my arm aches from gripping the frame of the carriage.

It’s good to be alive.

13th April

The Plan is to trek the Poon Hill circuit, but since neither of us have done anything that could really be called exercise for about three months we decide to test our mountain legs by hiking up to the Shanti Stupa, AKA the World Peace Pagoda.

Part of a global project to erect monuments to peace that began in 1947, construction of the Pokhara stupa was stop-start through the 70s and 80s and was finally completed in 1999. Sitting atop a hill on the South-West edge of Lake Fewa, the stupa is accessed by a pleasant boat ride across the lake followed by what the signs and guide books describe as an easy forty-five minute climb. It takes Rebecca and I more than an hour and a half, during which a succession of perky-looking folk on the descent cast sympathetic looks at our sweaty, bedraggled faces and assure us that it’s only steep for another few minutes or so, then it flattens out. It never flattens out.

That’s those that pay us any attention; most are too busy cuddling Archie, the fluffy white dog that’s decided to accompany us on the climb. Rebecca, for those who don’t know, is essentially Doctor Doolittle and attracts a cohort of fawning animal companions everywhere she goes. In the flea- and rabies-ridden backstreets of Bangalore and Goa this hasn’t exactly been a blessing, but Archie (as we decide to call him) seems clean enough and frankly, without him to keep morale high, I think our impromptu mountain expedition may have perished.

On a good day the summit affords striking views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks to the North. This is not a good day. Heavy dark clouds are closing in around the valley just as we reach the top, blocking out the sun that scorched us on the way up and grumbling with foreboding thunder. We scoot around the stupa, which is covered in signs saying “Please Respect the Silence” and tourists from across Europe and Asia shouting and laughing loudly at one another. From time to time one of the guards on duty calls half-heartedly for quiet, with the air of a fish resigned to the futility of upstream swimming.

We have lunch at one of the cafés nearby, during which distant thunder becomes torrential downpour becomes raging lightning storm. We sit it out, playing cards, for a few hours, before returning to a town humming in anticipation. Tonight is Nepalese New Year, and Pokhara (particularly the Ferris wheel and pirate ship in Disney Land) is decked out in lights to celebrate.

15th April

They never mention the spiders.

Snow-capped peaks, rolling hills, yaks, rhododendrons in full bloom, friendly locals beaming from cosy tea shops are all rightly part of the folklore of trekking in Nepal. But nobody ever mentions the spiders.

Nepal, as it happens, is something of an arachnophile’s paradise. At least four species are thought to be unique to the country and the Himalayas as a whole play host to a wide range of arachnids, including several species of tarantula. The Himalayan jumping spider holds the lofty title of the world’s highest-living animal. I didn’t realise any of this before setting off into the wild of the Poon Hill circuit.

We’re joined by Maggie, an outdoorsy Pennsylvanian based in Sri Lanka as part of a Fulbright scholarship, up in Nepal for a conference in Kathmandu. The previous night we overheard her asking the front desk at our hostel about tips and taxis to the start point for the Poon Hill trek, so we invited her to share ours up to Nayapul, from where we start walking at around 10.30 this morning.

Being American, Maggie is taller than both of us and sets off at a rocketing pace Rebecca and I struggle to match, though we manage to more or less keep up with the assistance of a pair each of those hiking poles people use up in mountains. At our first water break, I manage to break one of mine so that it collapses down to just over a foot long every time I push it into the floor.

After descending into a pretty, alpine valley we complete a gentle climb up to Tikhedungga where we arrive at around 1.30pm. Three hours of more or less constant walking has left us all famished, but because Maggie has to complete the five-day route in four days in order to make her conference we can’t rest up after lunch and must push on to Ulleri, the next village.

As the crow flies, Ulleri is almost directly on top of Tikhedungga. In reality, Ulleri is almost directly on top of Tikhedungga; it’s accessed via an hour and a half of gruelling, almost completely vertical climbing up arrestingly steep steps. Just as we start our climb, the afternoon thunderstorm that is a daily feature at this time of year starts. Stone slabs that would be precarious enough in perfect weather are slick and slippery; for the entirety of the climb my gaze is fixed carefully at the next point I’m stepping onto. These from time to time wobble alarmingly. I muse to myself that Poon Hill is described by just about everyone in and around Pokhara as an easy trek, while my legs threaten to give way and I lose track of which parts of me are wet from sweat or rain, poles sliding precariously on the drenched stones.

But we make it to Ulleri, and after a cursory shop around check in to a cosy tea house on the edge of town called Curious Camels. There are European football team flags all over the place; our room has Man City’s. And a spider the size of a sunflower lurking over the shower.

I’m first alerted to its presence when I hear a yelp from the bathroom.

“Danny, there’s a huge spider in here!”

Trying to keep calm by not really looking up from my book, I reply “How big?”

“Very big. Size of my face big.”

I gulp, but try to bring the conversation back into territory that will lower everyone’s heart rate by asking what I assume will be an easy “No” question.

“Does it look dangerous?”

“Maybe.”

Crumbs. Maybe it’s time to take a look myself.

It’s the stuff of nightmares. A gruesome, bulbous abdomen reminds me of Halloween decorations and that episode of Black Mirror where the main character plays an immersive game that taps into his deepest fears. Its legs are enormous, and though I only lay eyes on the thing for a couple of seconds before fleeing the bathroom, Rebecca assures me that it moves with electric pace. It eyes us, over a pair of giant fangs, from a corner of the bathroom above the showerhead that it easily dwarfs.

We ask the teashop owner what to do but she is cheerfully blasé about it. Apparently, in lowland Nepal, the saying is “Why worry about spiders when there are snakes?”

Being the mature and level-headed adult that I am, I insist on packing every gap between the bathroom door and its jamb full of clothes to block the monster’s possible route into the bedroom. Despite this I barely sleep a wink, flailing wildly every time I feel a mosquito make contact. It’s a very long night.

16th April

When, at breakfast, Rebecca shows Maggie the photo of the spider, I can’t help but think it looks a lot smaller than I remember. Over the course of the night it expanded in my brain until it reached the size of a chihuahua, and I feel a tad ashamed that it had impacted so severely on my sleep. Also, tired. I also feel tired.

We set off at 8am sharp for a pleasant walk in the morning sunshine. About an hour in we pass a crop of what I think might be coffee trees, and I ask a passing Nepali gentleman if I’m correct.

“No,” he says, “rhododendron.”

I’m excited about this. The house I grew up in had a fine rhododendron bush outside and when they’re in bloom – as the man assures me those higher up, around Gorepani where we’re heading, are – they’re a sight to behold. They’re also the favoured habitat of the critically endangered red panda, a species of which Rebecca is very fond. In fairness she is very fond of basically all animals so this isn’t saying much, but still.

As we climb, the trees start to be surrounded by piles of fallen, withered petals, then as we ascend still higher we reach trees in full bloom; bright red and pink flowers dust the landscape around us and the forest we walk through. We traverse through green glades and cross clear springs, rivulets that for all I know flow down into the Ganges many miles south, and hike round trickling waterfalls.

“If we’re lucky, we’ll see red pandas,” I say, but obviously we don’t because the route is thronged with hordes of Chinese tourists trekking in the opposite direction playing music loudly through UE Booms, and a party of chattering Australian schoolkids are hot on our tail.

We pass, a couple of times, a German guy we recognise from the teahouse we stayed in last night. He’s picking up litter as he goes, so we join in; yesterday I’d collected three Snickers wrappers absent-mindedly and with a bit of dedication today quickly fill a small plastic bag. It’s a sad thing that we’ve grown used to in India, but maybe hadn’t expected to be such a feature up in Nepal. At points the otherwise sublime surroundings are ruined by hillsides completely covered in discarded plastic bottles.

Thanks to Maggie’s ambitious pace-setting we reach Lower Gorepani at about 11.30am – not bad going for what’s billed as a four-and-a-half-hour hike from Ulleri. We settle in to a very cosy (and completely spider-free) teahouse that gradually fills with weary trekkers sitting around and drying thick woollen socks on the big wood-burner throughout the afternoon.

For lunch, Rebecca and I go for dal bhat. This is basically Nepal’s equivalent of the Indian thali; a meal of rice, chopped vegetables, dal and curry, so ubiquitous in the area that Pokhara is jam-packed with annoying backpackers reciting the mantra “Dal bhat power, twenty-four hour!” You can even buy t-shirts with the slogan printed across them.

Our progress towards the Himalayas proper is marked by the sight, from outside the teahouse, of a line of snow-capped peaks – the Annapurna circuit, clearly visible despite the light cloud cover.

17th April

The climactic point of the Poon Hill trek is the early-morning hike up the eponymous hill from Gorepani, in order to watch the sun rise over the Himalayan peaks. It’s a forty-five minute hike to the viewpoint, and sunrise is pre-6am, so to get a good spot we’re up at 4.30am and swiftly on the road.

The view is amazing – cliffs, rivers, plentiful rhododendrons – and the peaks themselves are only marginally obscured by cloud cover. We’re 3,210m up, and the air is crisp and cool. Combined with the early start, the scene inspires Rebecca and I to get a big day’s trekking in and see if we can continue to match Maggie’s pace as she aims to reach Gandrukh by this evening, to complete the five-day route in four.

On the descent from the Poon Hill summit, however, the signs of a snag start to materialise. My knee has been gradually niggling over the last day or two and now, on a fairly steep decline, it starts stabbing sharply. It grumbles continually during uphill sections and sends constant shards of pain through my leg on the downhills. I end up having to crab delicately down these sideways-on, and as a result it takes us nearly four hours to reach Tadapani – normally where you’d turn in for the day, but our plan had been to carry on to Gandrukh.

Rebecca is tired, and it’s clear that I haven’t got another four hours of mostly downhill walking in me today, so the pair of us concede defeat and bid Maggie, our trekking companion for the last two and a half days, a reluctant goodbye and check in to a teahouse.

We’re shown into a small room, nearly all the space in which is taken up by the bed. Every corner is covered in thick cobwebs, and there are big gaps in the walls and ceiling through which my tired mind immediately pictures hairy tarantulas scuttling hungrily towards the room’s only source of warmth; my sleeping, helpless body. I grimace, but determined to be a grown-up about it begrudgingly take the room.

Over a plate of momos, Rebecca can tell something is up. I’m freezing cold in the teashop’s small, draughty dining area, and have a headache coming on. There doesn’t seem to be anything much to look forward to. My morale is, frankly, at a low point. I mention my worry about all the gaps in the walls. Rebecca nods, and explains she hadn’t really noticed that. I don’t think of myself as fully arachnophobic, certainly not in any medical sense. It’s more that spiders creep me out, and I have an over-active imagination. Since the giant one in the bathroom the other night, I’m checking every room I enter not just for the presence of spiders but for possible entry points, in a way that a normal person – or myself in normal circumstances – wouldn’t think to. And our room is riddled with them.

Rebecca slips off, leaving me to pick at my momos alone, and returns about twenty minutes later saying she’s found a nice, completely sealed room in the guesthouse across the square and checked us in. I could cry with gratitude. My leg and head are both throbbing with pain, I’m knackered from three days’ swift trekking, shivering with cold, and all in all feeling too sorry for myself to worry about how silly and childish it is to check out of a room because you’re scared of non-existent spiders.

The atmosphere in the new place’s dining area is warmer in every sense, but still chilly even next to their wood-burner. A British couple try admirably to engage us in conversation and cards after dinner, but I’m struggling to maintain social interaction while my body feels like it’s succumbing to cold and exhaustion. By the time we turn in I’m still shivering and my headache is now pounding. Three days. Three days’ walking, one stupid spider, and I’m a wreck. I feel completely despondent as I close my eyes, trying not to think about the distance we have to descend tomorrow and how my leg will handle it, and hope like hell my headache goes away.

A Tale of Two Kashis

5th April

Like a butterfly unfolding spindly legs from its chrysalis I emerge, blinking, from the sleeping box aboard the night bus. Its marks are all over me: the pattern of its furnishings and my luggage imprinted onto my skin; the tootling fanfare of its novelty horn lodged in my brain with all the annoying stubbornness of an Ed Sheeran chorus, and twice the musicality. The morning sunshine sears my skin like a laser.

I try to explain to the crowd of braying auto drivers that I don’t accept rides from people who accost me as soon as I’ve stepped off a bus, but they don’t stop yelling for long enough to hear. Reluctantly we agree with one who quotes us 100 Rs, the usual going rate for tourists who don’t yet know a city, and climb in. He sets off down a main road heaving with congestion, and as soon as we’re out of sight of the auto stand informs us the price is 150 Rs each.

When he drops us at our hostel, having ignored our howls of protest and instructions to drop us at the next roadside the entire way, I for some reason compromise and give him two hundred and a couple of scrunched up tens lurking in a corner of my wallet. He kicks off at this. Waving hands in the air he passes the entire wad back to me, insisting it’s insulting and the ride is free. Rebecca and I shrug and turn towards the hostel, at which point he jumps in front of us and insists we pay three hundred.

After eleven hours crammed into a tiny sleeping-box on a loud, turbulent bus Rebecca and I are in no mood for this. Rebecca breaks into her Mom voice, questioning his moral compass in no uncertain terms and hammering her point home with stern finger-wagging. This weakens his reserve. Eventually a traveller laden with baggage leaves the hostel and he shifts his attention to them, pocketing my tentative palmful of cash and, a tad optimistically, slipping me his business card.

If Kerala is India Lite, Varanasi is India on steroids. Like Agra with the Taj, nearly every film crew comes here for iconic shots of the Ganges flowing through crowds of devotees as they bathe in the sacred river. For this reason it shapes our preconceptions of the country and Varanasi (AKA Benares or sometimes Kashi, the latter meaning “City of Light”) is a dense crush of stereotypes. Its backstreets are a winding rabbit warren of dark stone slabs spattered liberally with cow dung. Scraggy, fearless monkeys traverse the city in packs, badgering the unsuspecting for food. Unassuming, narrow alleys house shrines in their nooks and reveal colourful temples around every corner.

The main street, running roughly West from the river, is almost unnavigable on foot. Every square inch is occupied by someone vying for your attention; the vast majority of these are auto- and pedal-rickshaw drivers, but there are also plenty of hawkers imploring tourists to visit their shops, and a host of beggars unlike anything we’ve encountered before, bolstered by legions of priests and devotees extending metal begging bowls as we try to push through the crush.

The strange thing is that the ghats, the sacred steps from the riverbank to the Ganges for which the city is famous, are fairly deserted. We put this down to the time of day; it’s mid-afternoon, and most of the religious activity here takes place in the morning and evening. It’s too hot, really, for anything to happen a this time. We share the scene only with a group of kids playing tennis-ball cricket, a few devotees sitting in the shade in orange robes, half a dozen buffalo wallowing ecstatically in the shallows and a man taking a very public crap in the river.

A baba, stark naked and daubed from head to toe in grey-blue paint, falls in step beside us as we saunter aimlessly along the ghats. His jaunty gait and state of undress call to mind Michael Palin’s ex-leper from Life of Brian. He shakes my hand, then starts chanting “Happy Holi” repeatedly as he skips alongside. This I find confusing, since Holi took place weeks ago while we were in Goa, so I sing tentatively along with him, trying hard not to look at his eggshell blue balls. Eventually he detaches himself from us to stand with another small group of naked blue babas, and as we walk off I hear them all laugh heartily about something probably to do with us.

6th April

As the spiritual centre of Hinduism, I had a vague notion before arriving here that Varanasi would be a very traditional city. In many respects it is, but this doesn’t apply to food. Its sacred status attracts a roaring tourist trade, meaning there’s a huge market for authentic non-Indian food. Yesterday we had lunch at a bakery offering a wide array of global cheeses, and today we breakfast at Dosa Café.

It’s charming and cosy, a tiny three-table parlour tucked away on a backstreet, that serves up a creative spread of dosas with a range of traditional and fusion fillings. I go for a French Cheese – ratatouille and mozzarella, with the usual trio of accompanying chutneys.

Then we make for the ghats and try to adopt an attitude of saying yes. A week back in England was a powerful reminder that our time here is limited, and we’re determined to make the most of it by saying yes more. Not to everything, mind. That would be a really stupid idea. But to more, much more.

We allow ourselves to be briefly kidnapped by an ayurvedic doctor who walks us to his aromatherapy shop and watches Rebecca bookmark the location on Google Maps when we tell him we can’t buy anything right now. We buy lemon soda from a grubby street stall and drink it even though it’s full of ice that, for all we know, may have come straight out of the Ganges. I know, crazy right?

Then we get chatting to a nice man standing eagerly by the soda stall who is quick to inform us he owns a fabric shop near the Golden Temple. It’s obvious he wants us to go there and we really don’t want to buy any fabric, but he’s friendly enough and not too pushy compared to most of the hawkers. Distracted by conversation with him we amble into the crush of the main road and it all unravels.

We unwittingly provoke a turf war between four cycle rickshaw drivers, then having decided to walk to the hostel instead are followed down the main street by one of them. Brains and tempers frying in the afternoon sun, we take what looks like a diversion off the main road for a few blocks before re-emerging.

“Hello, English!” sings a familiar voice. We’ve rejoined the main road almost exactly in step with our fabric shopkeeper friend from a few minutes ago. Finally fed up with the constant badgering I spin round and reply “No, please, stop following us.”

He looks – quite rightly, given that we’ve almost stepped on him while appearing from nowhere and responded to his greeting by accusing him of stalking us – a bit offended. With a level of quiet, hurt dignity that puts me to shame he responds “I wasn’t following you. Why would I?”

7th April

Varanasi is like two cities merged into one. One of these is a pressure cooker of constant intrusion on personal space, noise, pollution, filth and squalour. The other is a sublime, transcendent patch of unbridled happiness; an upbeat, vibrant expression of goodwill and positivity. For the last couple of days we’ve seen plenty of the former; today, we get a good taste of both cities.

Beginnings are inauspicious; soon after lunch I squidge my flip-flop deep into one of the city’s millions of cow pats. After rinsing it off we take our customary stroll down the ghats, taking lots of pictures. The ghats are incredibly photogenic. Brightly-painted boats line the bank serenely, the walls by the steps themselves are covered in impressive street art, and the hotch-potch of building styles packed in along the sacred river makes for a nice picture.

Then we stumble across a strange scene. A huge fire blazes in the middle of the walkway. A crowd of people, many dressed as devotees, and scraggy animals is gathered round. I raise my phone to take a photo before Rebecca says “No, there’s a person”.

It takes me a moment to realise what she means. At first I think she’s talking about the crowd; we’ve had an ongoing discussion throughout the trip about the ethics of photographing scenes containing people without their permission (and have reached the vague conclusion that, if it’s a large crowd in a very public place, it’s more or less OK).

Then the penny drops and I feel a complete idiot. I already knew that Varanasi is more or less a living cemetery. Hindus believe that anyone who dies here instantly attains moksha, so the city is home to, among much else, a huge number of hospices. The banks of the Ganges are famous for the number of cremations they host.

I feel sick with guilt and embarrassment as I notice a foot poking out from the pyre. I’m as horrified by the idea that people might have seen me move to take a photo of the scene – might even think I did take one – as I am weirded out by the sudden proximity of death, the realisation that we have unwittingly wandered into a funeral.

We dart home through the backstreets, dodging touts and skeletal cows munching hopefully on piles of plastic by the roadside, and shower off the sweat and sense of pollution from the funeral and our own accidental voyeurism of it. Purified, we return to the ghats for pizza.

Our previous hostel recommended a great place down by the riverside, and as well as good food it serves up a clear view, in the hour or so before sunset, of the evening crowds assembling at the ghats. As the City of Light becomes shrouded in darkness, the street lights along the river bank switch on. A whirlwind of colour, the good-natured hum in the air is interrupted by occasional bursts of chanting, singing, clapping and the beat of instruments. After dinner we repeat the same walk North along the ghats that we’ve taken several times over the last few days, the stretch’s character transformed after dark into a dense, happy throng of activity.

After a few minutes we come to a raised platform on which two devotees dressed in white robes perform an elaborate display, twirling bronze goblets the size and rough shape of French horns with cobra-head motifs over the cups. The cups themselves glow with crackling embers and the flames trace the movements of the devotees’ arms through the air, all to the rhythmic beat of a tabla, a ringing bell and chanting from the temple set back from the riverbank.

I find myself wishing there was someone who could explain what we’re watching to me, and at that moment a voice to my left asks “Where are you from?” and sits down beside me.

Mohit looks to be in his mid-teens, a Varanasi native at school nearby, and in response to my flurry of questions he explains that we’re watching Aarti, the ritual paying of respects to the river Ganges.

“The river feeds us,” he says, “so this is our way of giving our thanks to it”. It happens nightly, and the chanting is in Sanskrit.

Mohit introduces his younger brother, Avinand, and they’re accompanied by a third, still younger boy whose dress and shaved head makes me think he’s an initiate, a devotee-in-training, though before I can ask the three announce it’s time for them to go. Before leaving, they explain that at the appropriate time we are to throw the orange and pink petals a priest has just handed out among the crowd into the river.

Like so much else in life I go about this with a touch of awkwardness. Most, but not quite all, of the crowd have removed their shoes to descend the steps towards the river and I feel distinctly like I’m doing the wrong thing as I unlace my cumbersome trainers. I nearly trip on a thick chain in the darkness, which would have seen me tumble forwards for a head-first bath in the holy waters, then leave the riverside uncomfortably early, unsure what sign the rest of the crowd are waiting for before departing. Even so, I threw some ceremonial petals into the river with a crowd of maybe fifty or more other people, and there’s something very uplifting about the sense of community this creates.

We keep sauntering north and the vibe is unrelentingly great. Everyone is there: the old, the young, families, big groups of young lads challenging each other to sprint up the ghats’ steepest walls, silent, solemn priests, young priests, old priests, groups in very traditional dress, groups that look like they’re about to go clubbing, Indians, Westerners, East Asians. We stop for chai near a local guy strumming an acoustic guitar and, with everyone, soak in the simple pleasure of being part of a happy crowd.

The best thing is that, as far as I’m aware, there’s nothing remotely special going on today. It isn’t a festival, or a holy day. It’s Sunday, but that’s no biggy to Hindus. This is just Kashi by night.

A Man’s World

1st April

When you return home from overseas you relax, gradually settling back into your home comforts. This resetting is just taking hold when, before we know it, we’re back at Heathrow. After a stopover in Helsinki and a second leg mostly spent kipping, we find ourselves sitting on the swanky metro to New Delhi station for the 10.55am train to Agra.

By way of welcome, India extends one of those over-excited handshakes that means well but crushes your knuckles and nearly shakes your shoulder out of its socket. Building works on the station platform, the long trudge across endless overpasses under heavy backpacks beneath blazing mid-morning sun. Hawkers everywhere trying to sell things I’ve no interest in then, typically, when I decide to buy an Agatha Cristie from a book stand the seller is nowhere to be seen.

Glad you’re back, guys, we missed you over here.

*

ZigZag hostel in Agra is run by two brothers, John and Moses, who between them are two of the friendliest people I’ve met. Moses especially seems to spend every waking minute trying to make the people around him happier, frequently returning from the market laden with fruit that he shares out among he hostel guests. Having both worked for major hotel chains they opened their own place back in November, and are nailing it. We feel very lucky to have found such a great place to stay so early in its existence.

From the hostel rooftop the main dome of the Taj Mahal is visible between two apartment blocks. In the evening, after dumping our things and showering off a journey that began in Surrey about twenty four hours ago, we join John and a few other guests on a bike ride down to the river for a closer look. We sit in the shade of an arched pavilion, drink in the view and take photos. Or at least, we try to.

The trouble is that a pair of Instagrammers, with a local dogsbody-cum-photographer in tow, have beaten us here. Politely but insistently, they ask anyone who gets between their tripod-mounted camera and the plush view of the Taj to move. Much of our evening is spent watching them assume a variety of clichéd poses, as people who are big on social media do when confronted with one of the seven wonders of the world. They perform: Gazing Adoringly at One Another; Woman Leans Backwards Supported Tenderly by Man; and Sitting, Looking Into Middle Distance Wistfully. Between shots they look miserable.

The view is great though. You probably know the one I mean, with the river on the right and the back of the Taj on the left. It’s very pretty and deservedly gets a lot of mileage. What you never see in the photos is the enormous pile of rubbish that cakes the riverbank and surrounds our pretty little pavilion. Indestructible plastic is dotted through decades’ worth of more degradable refuse that have solidified into stratified layers. A murder of crows pecks at the body of a dead cow. It is heartbreakingly typical of India that you can stand in one spot, look in one direction and see the world’s generally-accepted most beautiful building and, in the other, sprawling landfill.

2nd April

I snooze and snooze through the 5am alarm, leaving myself just a few minutes to throw on clothes and join the rest of the crew from the hostel to trudge into the darkness. A bit of a queue forms outside the entrance to the Taj Mahal compound, but once the doors open it moves through ticketing and security quickly. Minutes after daybreak, we step inside.

The view from the front, classic and iconic, is marvellous. This early in the morning it’s neither too hot nor too crowded; there are lots of people here, but the grounds that contain them are enormous. Rebecca and I gleefully take a few pictures of each other and the others from ZigZag. Then, we overhear a familiar voice.

“There’s too many people here. How are we supposed to take pictures? I want to go over there.”

Our Instagrammer friend from last night is haranguing her dogsbody, who spreads his hands helplessly and explains that visitors are not allowed beyond the barriers. Her partner – boyfriend? fiancé? husband? colleague? – who skipped past me on the way in earlier via the separate queue for Indians, looks embarrassed. And miserable.

“But I saw people in there! I saw the pictures!” Judging by where she’s pointing I genuinely think she means those of Princess Diana.

Eventually we head inside to see the mausoleum itself. This might be the prettiest part of the whole thing, but because there’s no photography allowed you never see it. A marble path leads towards a square plinth, surrounded by incredibly intricate marble latticework that obscures the view inside. Through an archway one marble sarcophagus is clearly visible, and to the left another, slightly raised, can be seen through the lattice. At the time I wonder which of these houses Shah Jahan and which his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, though later Googling shows that these sarcophagi are representative; the graves themselves are underground.

After soaking up the vibes of the Taj Mahal gardens, we walk with Greg, a laid-back driving instructor from Sydney, towards Agra Fort. In its way, this is more varyingly photogenic than the Taj. From no angle is it as beautiful or majestic, but its size and multifunctionality give it a much broader range of moods, from the austere brutality of its outer walls to the subtle details on much of the royal, residential parts of the citadel.

It was in these shaded marble hallways that Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal as well as much of Agra fort, was imprisoned until death by his son Aurangzeb. It’s a strange thought that these few small rooms were a man’s entire world for the last eight years of his life; a man who had ruled an empire and built a Wonder.

The Taj itself is visible from the fort (and vice versa), but is shrouded in thick smog. Greg helpfully points out that walking around India has the equivalent impact on your lungs to smoking twenty cigarettes a day. Glad I quit.

3rd April

Moses and John are Goan by descent, and their family name is Rozario, though they have links to Kolkata. I find this interesting as my uncle is from Kolkata but his last name is De Silva, so I’ve always wondered if he has Goan ancestry. When I ask Moses about the links between Goa and Kolkata and explain my uncle’s surname he reminisces about the village fishing quotas while he was growing up: “First thing in the morning the de Sousas would fish, 4am-5am, then 5am-6am the Rozarios, then the De Silvas…”

Like my uncle the Rozarios are Catholic, and through their church are friends with Steffi, who lives in Agra with her mother. An English graduate and primary school teacher, Steffi also gives cooking classes, so Moses arranges for Rebecca and I to visit.

We’re greeted with lassi and cold water in a front room whose décor reminds me of Kerala. Indian Catholicism has a distinct look and feel to it. Compared to Protestantism, Catholicism is famously more visually gaudy and this lends itself to the colour and imagery that typifies Hindu temples and homes. Of India’s c. 24 million Christians, over 11 million are Latin Catholics, making it by far the largest denomination of Christians in India. This strikes me as odd in a nation that was part of the British Empire at a time when Britain was emphatically C. of E., and I can’t help but wonder if Catholicism – with its litany of saints, its vibrant colours and affinity for shrines and sculptures – historically found it easier than drab Protestantism to win converts from Hinduism.

The two colourful religions side by side look more like distant cousins than total strangers. Driving through Kerala, a bright Hindu temple with a statue of Ganesh would often be passed in close succession by a bright Catholic church with a statue of Mary. Often an icon on the wall requires a second look to tell if it depicts a Hindu god or a Christian saint. Steffi’s front room is decorated with images of Jesus and Mary, and a calendar from the local diocese.

After ensuring we’re fully refreshed Steffi takes us through to the outdoor kitchen, where we make paneer subzi, black lentil and kidney bean dal and a batch of rotis and parathas. Then we eat it. It’s hard to know if we’re praising Steffi or ourselves when we say it’s excellent, but it is. We natter with Steffi over lunch. She asks if we’re going to Rajasthan during our stay.

“They have all sorts of rituals there,” she tells us, “for making sure mothers give birth to boys, not girls. You have this in Britain?”

Unsure exactly which bit of what she’s just said “this” refers to, but confident we can rule it all out, we shake our heads.

“It’s different in India,” she says wistfully. “Here, people don’t want to give birth to girls. Girls are expensive, with dowries…” she trails off, looking thoughtful. We’ve established already that her family are arranging her marriage to a Bangalorean for next year, and when it happens she will have to move to the South to live with him. She doesn’t give the impression this is exactly how she would have it, if the decision were hers.

4th April

After taking our order, the waitress dims the lights and puts a video on the screen on the opposite wall. The café, Sheroes Hangout, is run by a charity that supports women who have been subjected to acid attacks. It provides them with employment – the staff are mostly acid attack survivors – and profits go towards the charity which, as well as supporting women in finding work and regaining their confidence, lobbies for enhanced legal protections (in the form of more severe punishments for offenders, and restrictions on the sale of acid) and raises awareness of the issue.

During the fifteen minute film a few of the survivors recount their stories and explain how the charity has helped them. It’s harrowing to hear first-hand accounts of attacks from cousins, husbands, mothers, and in one instance total strangers. One woman faces the camera and describes graphically the horror she felt as she watched her skin dripping onto the floor, after being attacked by a disgruntled customer at work. Another explains that her in-laws pressured her husband to throw acid at her after she gave birth to two daughters and no sons. Especially after our conversation with Steffi yesterday this hits home with sickening force.

I wrote a first draft of this post that tried to find some positivity in all of this, portraying the Sheroes campaign’s work in restoring the life chances and confidence of these women as another example of the light-besides-darkness nature of Indian life. My editor (Rebecca) rightly tore it to shreds. For all the good work Sheroes does, there’s no bright side to what these women have been through.

We’re reflective as we trudge back towards our hostel, along a dirty, busy main road. This is exactly how I pictured India before coming: thick crushes of auto-rickshaws, motorbikes and mopeds weave like flocks of starlings round idling cows and piles of rubbish. It hits me that every film crew that visits India comes to Agra for a shot of the Taj, so this grubby high road through town is the same they’ll go to for their image of the “real”, everyday life of the country. Film and, especially, TV have conditioned us to picture all of India as like this dusty stretch of highway.

There are men pissing all along the side of the road. Men can urinate quite publicly in India without fear of reprisal, or even raised eyebrows. Women, by contrast, across much of the country before and since Modi’s Swachh Bharat (“Clean India”) campaign, face the real danger of rape as they leave the security of homes with no toilets to defecate in fields.

Shopkeepers are almost exclusively male. Same for hoteliers, tour guides, taxi drivers, and every other profession we come into contact with on a day-to-day basis. Our conversation with Steffi yesterday was one of a tiny handful of opportunities we’ve had, in more than two months in the country, to talk openly with an Indian woman.

India has a shocking amount of ground to cover in gender equality. In 2017 the country ranked 127th out of 160 countries in the UN’s Gender Inequality Index. It isn’t a huge stretch to say that women here are second-class citizens. The law is catching up, but pervasive and highly misogynistic attitudes die hard.

*

Last night, over a mango Moses brought us from the market – our first of the season – Rebecca and I booked ourselves onto today’s 11.30pm night bus to Varanasi.

When it arrives and we board, there’s nothing to do but burst out laughing. Our berths for the night are a shared, coffin-like space too short for either of us to lie down with our legs straight, into which our backpacks and day bags are stuffed. We get ourselves as comfortable as possible, limbs arranged awkwardly around our possessions, and between frequent blasts of the driver’s ear-splitting novelty horn grab what fitful bouts of sleep we can on the road to Varanasi, Hinduism’s holiest city.

Goan, Goan, Gone

6th March

6.20am is too early for a train. Especially when it doesn’t show up until well after 8.

I’m grouchy on the platform at Hosapete, sitting on a bench next to Rebecca with my elbows resting on the backpack between my legs, when a white-haired man with a passing resemblance to David Attenborough catches my eye. I try to avoid it. Don’t ask me why, he just looks like trouble. Like a kindly old gent, without the kindly. Despite my best efforts, he leans forward from my peripheral into my central vision, and gives me a little wave. I smile weakly.

His name is Gunter, a marine engineer from Hanover who lives in Cyprus. Why Cyprus?

“Ah, you see, Cyprus is a tax haven. If your business is registered there, it has to be addressed there. They’re very strict. Other places, you pay a lawyer €10,000 and he’ll say you’re based there. Not Cyprus! In Cyprus, you actually have to be there.”

Fascinating. Gunter doesn’t stop there though. “Cyprus is also a tax haven for private individuals. Up to €19,500 tax free! And you can always come in under €19,500, if you know what I mean.” He taps his nose conspiratorially, leaning in so close I can smell the greed.

For some reason he seems to think I’m finding this little masterclass in tax evasion exciting, so I haven’t the heart to tell him I’m actually fairly pro-tax and detest free riders. I’ve been awake since four and in no mood for a public shouting match with a scrounger. Sorry, stranger. Especially not when we’re surrounded by the offcuts of a society that eschews universal sanitation and functional state welfare in favour of nuclear weaponry and a space program.

The train eventually arrives. Though Gunter and his wife are in the same carriage as us they are thankfully down the other end, sparing us ten hours of mind-numbing prattle about minimising one’s tax burden. Though it’s a daytime train, we’re in a sleeper carriage and have berths allocated, so I clear aside the sheets used by the overnight occupant and stretch out, typing and watching movies on my tablet between the occasional nap all the way to Margao, South Goa’s main station. We arrive four hours later than scheduled, fourteen hours after waking up. And we’re not quite there: there follows a half hour train to Canacona, for which we queue wearily for tickets.

After a while we realise that our train isn’t obviously on any of the boards. In an attempt to work out where and what time it’s expected, I ask a few station officials. None of them know. I initially put this down to my English being incomprehensible, but even armed with the train’s number I’m unable to get anything more informative than a shrug from any of the numerous officials around the station. The responses almost seem to pose the question: “Why on earth should I know? I’m just the station master.”

Thankfully we bump into a couple from Cornwall who took the same train out of Hampi as us that morning, and they’re armed with an app that gives live updates on departure and arrival times of all the Indian trains. They’re catching the same one as us, and let us know it’s at Platform 1 at 8pm. You can’t help but think it would be better for everyone if the app info could somehow make its way to the train station staff.

I need sleep. When we finally arrive at our hotel near Patnem, after a cab from Canacona shared with the Cornish couple, we’re shown to a cosy room in a structurally basic but sturdy hut by our friendly Anglophone host Monica, and I collapse happily.

7th March

The Plan is to lay low here for a week or more, rather than moving on to Mumbai then Rajasthan after a couple of days, until the date of Nana’s funeral is set and we can plan our travel home for it. This will afford Rebecca plenty of scope for beachside yoga and give me time to bring the blog, which is now more than a month behind our travels, up to speed. So I’m frustrated to realise I left my bluetooth keyboard on the train from Hampi. This wasn’t part of The Plan.

Monica arranges me a tuk-tuk into Chaudi to see about buying another, as Amazon will take up to a week to deliver and we’re not certain to still be here by then. No shops stock bluetooth keyboards, or even seem to know what I’m talking about, but that doesn’t stop a string of them taking down my number with promises to order one in post-haste. I head back to the resort, spend an initially aggravating couple of hours hammering out a post about Tamil Nadu on the tablet’s built-in keyboard, then Rebecca takes me down to Patnem beach for both our sanity.

The beach is beautiful, fringed with little clusters of beach huts each with its own bar/restaurant and a dollop of late middle-aged Brits abroad in varying shades of sunburnt. These spread themselves out across shaded tables and dangerously exposed sunloungers.

We set up at Mickey’s, next to a group of prematurely leathery types that seem to have coalesced around a Phil Tufnell look- and sound-alike. I try not to eavesdrop but he’s so obnoxiously loud it’s impossible, and he seems to take issue with his bill because half the stuff on it was ordered by his brother. The absent brother, I decide, is indeed Phil Tufnell and the England legend has brought his family out for a winter trip to India in celebration of his playing days, perhaps so they can all develop skin cancer and complain about how spicy the food is. It’s a nice daydream that takes my mind off the fact that we might as well be in Marbella.

9th March

That’s the problem with Goa; there really isn’t much to do here that’s ‘authentically’ ‘Indian’. Rebecca and I, as we hurtle towards our late twenties (I turned 29 last month, which I reckon gives me about five months of my ‘mid twenties’ left), are getting more and more comfortable with the fact that we’re not out to party. And if you’re not out to party, there’s not a lot to do besides yoga and going to the beach.

At first glance the Saturday Farmers’ Market seems like an exception. I like the idea of a bunch of stalls run by local producers, and we head to Bakti Kutir, the nearby resort where it’s held, eager with anticipation.

In the event, every stall but one is run by European – almost entirely home counties British – ex-pats. It’s an odd thing, really. They’re apparently all well-off, cheerfully middle-class families whose hippy leanings got slightly the better of them. Steady jobs were resigned, sensible hatchbacks traded in and the kiddies scooped onto a flight, whizzed through customs and plonked into a new life in Goa. You suspect things like money and finding work weren’t factors that needed to be taken into account; this little community sustains its own circular economy by selling each other overpriced things at the Saturday market, boosted now and again by the occasional shareholder dividend from the homeland.

The children roam freely around the market in handmade garments of cotton and hemp that look like they might be worn, perhaps even made, by the elves of Rivendell. Some of them take turns on the stalls, selling tea and homemade lemonade. By and large they seem to cause and come to no harm, the occasional “Tarquin, let go of Cecilia’s hair this INSTANT!” the only sign of trouble in this little post-colonial paradise.

In the middle of this scene is the only clue that we aren’t somewhere like Letchworth or Cobham; a lonely-looking Indian woman in the eye of the chattering storm, her stall – selling a fairly generic but pretty selection of throws, silver jewellery and notebooks – skipped over completely by the Surrey diaspora. Feeling sorry for her, I ask the price of a leather-bound notebook. The stalls down by the beach all sell similar ones so they’re clearly mass-produced somewhere but you wouldn’t guess that by looking; the pattern on the outside is elegant (I go for one with an elephant motif) and they tie shut with string which I find charming. The shopkeeper tells me they’re two fifty and starts trying to up-sell us a bracelet.

By the time I finalise my choice of two notebooks the stall-keeper’s husband has appeared, and he insists they’re three hundred each. I feel a bit miffed that our sympathy for the lonely traders is now being exploited, but not enough to bother haggling over. It’s at this point I realise that, unlike the European-run stalls that are all doing a roaring trade, this stand doesn’t have any prices displayed. Nor do the ones at the beach, nor any Indian market stands. I half-wonder if they might catch more of the tourist trade if they priced-tagged the wares, though this feels like an uncomfortably condescending line of thought.

10th March

“We’re, ah, gonna have a good time!” Krishna announces, fastening the drawstring of his loose waistcoat around his midriff as he enters the room. Half-naked, wild dreadlocks tied in a thick bun atop his head, there’s a glint in his eye that, in a different context, might lead me to think he’s initiating a sex party.

“You’re not gonna be doing too much. Just, ah, lying down there.” He gestures towards three thin, slightly grubby mattresses on the floor. Hmmm. In an act of extreme trust, I lie down on my back and close my eyes. The sound bath begins.

Krishna has already explained the principle of the ancient healing technique. The sounds from the various instruments, mostly Tibetan singing bowls, come from either side of the head, creating a stereo effect that sends waves through the brain. This puts the listener into a trance-like state, the benefits of which include improved circulation and reduced stress.

I need this. I’ve fallen into a dark mood of late. I’ve no idea how, in a patch of the world as pretty and carefree as Patnem. It could be because beer is stupidly cheap in Goa, so having drunk very little alcohol at all for two months I’ve now started having a couple over dinner. Not a lot, but enough to notice the difference from how great I feel when not drinking at all. It could be because, until this morning, I hadn’t practised yoga for about three weeks. The creepy, flat spider attached like a bottom-feeder to our bathroom wall might contribute. And, though my malaise is expressing itself as frustration, the sadness that lingers after Nana’s death probably plays no small underlying part.

The morning’s yoga session, led by an Italian ex-pat named Lucia, started shaking me out of my funk in the initially counter-productive way that taking any first steps do. My joints ached and creaked throughout; my mind raced every time we were asked to slow down and meditate, but afterwards I felt a little bit better, a touch calmer, a hint happier. Same again after a swim in the afternoon.

The sound bath begins. Krishna starts on the copper bowls, repeating a few short musical cells, discordant yet soothing, gradually increasing in complexity. Their reverberation creates an intense feedback-like pulse, like the end of a Nirvana concert, which brings about a sense of detachment. It’s disorientating. You feel variously as if you’re floating, or suspended painlessly from your ankles, or facing downwards into a void with a strong magnet fixing your back to a ceiling, or all of these at once.

There follows an exciting section on gongs and drums, then Krishna finishes with a recapitulation of the singing bowl exposition, before leaving the room to allow us to come round from, essentially, a long shavasana. He grins as we shake ourselves back to reality, apparently mighty pleased with his work. It feels great.

11th March

The advice I was given before we set off, in different ways and by so many people, is not to fight India. Not to resist it, but to let the country in. Each region we’ve visited so far has been so different from the last, and I’ve had to readjust, almost re-relax, in each one all over again.

The fight I’m putting up against Patnem and Palolem, being so pervasively Brits abroad, is a curious one. I’m ignoring a craving for salty Western food because, to my mind, this would make me the same as the packs of retirees turning red in the sun, chain-smoking Benson & Hedges. At the same time I resent the fact that one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen is five minutes’ walk down the road but for one reason or another I feel to proud to go and enjoy it.

So I face up to these thoughts. I take myself down to the beach while Rebecca does yoga, order myself a club sandwich and chips, lie in the sun and take a nap. I wake to the affectionate nuzzling of one of the dozens of stray dogs that fight, crap and hump all over Patnem beach. No; on closer inspection, it’s wearing a collar. It must belong to one of the bars. It keeps sniffing me for about a minute while I try to shoo it away, then wanders a few feet closer to the sea and starts digging in the sand.

I keep watching; it’s hypnotic. Shovelling, shovelling, then patting the sides down fastidiously. Shovel, shovel, pat. A pair of beachgoers stop in their tracks to watch it too. What has it found? A bone? Buried treasure? Sting’s message in a bottle?

Eventually, with the hole roughly dog-sized and deep enough to have hit the wet sand, it jumps inside and curls up. Its own little cool-bed. This reminds me how hot I am. It’s blistering, and I’ve been lying in the sun for hours. I collect my things and head back to the guesthouse.

We book a flight home for the 22nd, the date of Nana’s funeral having been set for the 26th. In many ways, a week at home to take stock will be nice, and until then I have a beautiful little corner of the world that I’m remembering how to relax in to enjoy.

Rebecca launches into gleeful piss-taking at my sunburn.

22nd March

There really hasn’t been a lot to write about in the last week and a bit. Imagine your last two-week beachside holiday, throw in a bit of yoga here and there and a bunch of cows wondering around the roads, and you’ve pretty much got it. A highlight was bumping into Polly and Ruben from Hampi as they drove past on a bike in Colomb; they put us onto Jaali Café, a relatively expensive but very tasty mezze place set back behind the bars on Patnem beach.

Holi started yesterday evening, but is weirdly anticlimactic. Again, I guess if we were somewhere less touristy we might have got a better experience of it, but Patnem’s reaction to the festival seems to be limited mostly to kids wondering around selling handfuls of coloured powder to tourists. All in all it has been a very relaxing, pleasant time. Less ‘travelling’, more ‘holiday’.

The journey home is eerily straightforward. Taxi, eleven-hour flight (sleep for most of the above) and suddenly we’re at Gatwick airport. We take a train to Victoria station, our backpacks still covered in Goan dust, and begin our journey across London to Hertfordshire. It’s rush hour on the Victoria line. We’re back.