Once, a hole-in-the-wall vendor was shaking his head at my request for ear-buds when I felt a tap on my leg. I looked down and a small girl was jabbing a finger at her head, saying “ear?” .”Yes…” I replied. “Come, come” she beckoned, and skipped off through the warren of narrow walkways, often only wide enough for 2 people abreast, occasionally turning and repeating “come, come.” Sure enough, she found me a shop that sold ear-buds. I gave her a 10 rupee tip. From then on, whenever we were looking lost, this small girl would pop out from nowhere. “Come, come,” and off she’d skip. Our little Varanasi guardian angel. Cost me a bloody fortune.

The Ganges at Varanasi

It is easy to get lost in this most ancient of cities. Varanasi is built around it’s ghats, concrete steps and jetties that lead down to the Ganges. The area around the ghats is a confusion of nameless alleys, gaily painted with advertisements like Victorian London, thick with flies and incense, pebbledashed with cow pats, and often thronging with people. It took a few moments of staring at the river from the rooftop of our ghat-side guest house before we realised that this was the Ganges, the most holy of rivers, flowing from its source high on the Tibetan plateau to the Bay of Bengal where it opens up into the largest delta in the world.

The ghats.

Varanasi has a magic all of its own. A morbid, unsanitary magic, but a magic all the same. Often you’ll hear a rhythmic masculine (always men) chant floating down the alleyway from behind. This is a cue to step aside and watch as a procession of solemn men come bounding past carrying a corpse wrapped in bright yellow and red, on their way to the ghats to arrange a flaming pyre and float the body out onto the holy river.

The ghats by night.

Our last night in India was an emotional affair. We spent the last few hours being rowed along the Ganges in a skiff, watching the Indians at play on the ghats; bathing, swimming, splashing and, of course, playing cricket; watched as herds of buffalow came down to drink; saw the bodies being consumed in the perenially aflame ‘burning’ ghats. Eventually we joined a flotilla of skiffs and row-boats around the main ghat to watch a nightly ceremony so old that nobody knows how or when it started. We said barely a word to eachother, each lost in our own thoughts. We’d been living and breathing this country for the last three and a half months and couldn’t have planned for a more perfect and apposite ending.

More than a country, India is an experience. It hangs like a ripe fruit, dangling from the Himalayas, the embodiment of Asia. It exudes a kind of sweaty fecundity and smoky mysticism and the sheer weight of humanity, the dogs, cars, rickshaws, cows, elephants, camels has to be seen to be believed. Religion seeps into the everyday: Hindu luminosity, Muslim opulence, Buddhist austerity, Sikh openness, Catholic stateliness, and the result is a magic unlike anywhere on the planet. Thanks to the variagated landscape and the ghostly impressions of empires past it can feel at times like you’re in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Tibet, Marrakesh or England.

Train travel in India.

The people too; it should come as no shock to anybody whose lived in England in the last 50 years or so, but Indian people are wonderful. V.S. Naipul says that the Indian is the last true English gentleman, and its true. They have an exagerrated courteousness and a kind of misplaced chivalry (for instance Amy will often be offered a seat on a packed train, but not by the person occupying it!). Everyone is an entrepneur, and will cheerfully rip you off for whatever they can. This is a downside. Even when caught red-handed, they don’t have the grace to look abashed, you’ll just get one of those damned infectious ambiguous head-wobbles (does it mean yes or does it mean no?) But on the other hand we’ve never felt threatened and have heard no tales of anyone having anything stolen.

The food will be very much missed.

In Varanasi I saw 2 children playing, a boy and a girl. They were tussling and laughing, the boy trying to escape the clutches of the little girl. A passing dog provided a distraction and he made good his escape, running off up the alley. The girl set off after him but as she gave chase I noticed she had ricketts and waddled off with a bow-legged gait. Therein lies the tragedy of India. A country with one of the largest economies in the world, some of the most expensive real estate on the planet and a $1.3 billion space program, yet they have no sanitation, no waste disposal, and still have kids running around with ricketts.

I could go on forever. You could write a book about India, and many have. So to sum up I’ll just say we are going to miss this filthy, fractious hell-hole very, very much.

We floated these flaming lotus flowers off down the Ganges. Good karma apparently.

Farewell India, and thanks for all the curry.

The Andaman Islands

The plane from Calcutta landed at the sleepy airport on Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, 1300km east of mainland India. We were waved lazily across the runway to the small terminal from where we jumped in a tuk-tuk to the jetty so we could catch a boat to Havelock Island, our destination. We queued for 3 hours in the boiling sun only for a load of Indians to push in at the last minute and take the few remaining tickets. How we muttered and scowled, but Indians have no concept of queuing, so we ended up having to stay the night in Port Blair. A sweaty walk around the busy, noisy port town confirmed that this was not the paradise we’d been promised.

But the next day we did get a ticket for the boat, and off we sailed to Havelock. We arrived at night and the very next day was the annual Hindu festival of Holi. For weeks we’d been asked by other backpackers “so, where are you spending Holi?” in a manner that inferred their new found Hindu devoutness. “I dunno,” we’d shrug. “What is it?” What it is, is a wonderful, colourful celebration of something-or-other that involves covering one another in different coloured powder paints. The streets were lined with Indians, some with water guns filled with pre-mixed paint, some with tubs of powder, others with vats of narcotic milkshake. People would approach, paint your face, dump or fling handfuls of powder, shoot the paint guns at you, give you a hug and shout “Happy Holi!” Nobody was exempt. Eventually everybody congregated in the town where there was a speaker pumping out music and yet more of the riotous explosions of colour. Everybody was covered head-to-toe, clothes ruined, laughing, dancing, throwing paint. Absolutely magical, and one of the defining moments of our time in India.

Holi paintballs.

With Holi over we settled into island life. I can’t really stress just how mind-blowingly beautiful Havelock Island is. Initially we were aghast at the fact there was no Internet access, no hot water, and only one place that sells alcohol but soon came to realise that this sleepy seclusion is precisely the charm of the Andaman Islands. The calm ocean is a bright turquoise colour and laps at pristine beaches whose silky white sand creeps beneath overhanging jungle canopy. There is a single narrow road on the island and the main town is a dozen or so tin-roofed shacks with a covered fruit market. We stayed in a garden of wooden huts amidst bow-trunked coconut trees and their perpendicular betel-nut cousins and rented a little moped to get us into town or to the other beaches. Contentment settled on us like a disease.

First of all we bought some Marmite – a palliative to home-sickness – off of a West Country lad we befriended. And then we bought the only thing you really need on this island – a hammock. Because the beaches are completely deserted – no hotels, no sun loungers, no hawkers, no umbrellas – and the boughs of the trees have grown horizontally over the sea, all you do is find a suitable branch from which to string up your hammock, and then climb in. Often the tide will come in and you’ll find yourself swinging in the breeze with nothing but the crystal water gurgling beneath. Hours were spent just gazing out to sea. As the tide receded we’d lay in warm shallow pools left between the coral until our skin wrinkled.

Hammock Life.

It would be dark by 6pm so we’d stroll to one of 2 nearby restaurants that sold some of the best food we’ve had in India. By the time we’d eaten there’d normally be some sort of gathering around one or the other of our huts, and then perhaps we’d hear whispers of a party in a different resort so we’d all decamp, enormous bottles of rum in hand. It’s what you’d describe as a quiet social scene, in keeping with the environs.

Havelock is completely unlike anywhere else in India. It’s peaceful, becalming, heavenly, unspoiled, and it’s a marvel that destinations like this still exist in the world. Back in the hubbub of New Delhi, staring through a subway window we wonder if it happened at all. The only proof we have is a suntan and a well-worn hammock strapped to my rucksack. The Marmite, like our allotted time in paradise, is gone.

The moonset over Havelock.


Even the beach wasn’t safe.

Home is where you hang your hammock.