25: Panjim and Conclusion

by - March 01, 2014

Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception
If my recent week-long visit to Japan warranted a summarising blog, then this month in India may need a full dissertation to do it justice.  We spent our final morning packing, before heading into Panjim to have a morning looking around the few sights that the city has to offer.  The main one of these is the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception - a beautiful church that is perched on a hill overlooking the town.  As Panjim is located on the Arabian Sea coast at the head of the river that makes its way to Old Goa, this church was often the first that sailors from Portugal would have seen and was therefore often used to give thanks for a successful voyage.

Our journey back to Hong Kong, while not as precarious as a trip on a tall ship back to Lisbon, was still set to be quite an ordeal.  We would be flying from Goa to Mumbai, before making our way between the domestic and international terminals (as we just about managed to do when going from Aurangabad to Hyderabad), then getting on a plane to Hong Kong that would go via Delhi.  Goa Airport is about the most grim airport that I have ever visited (though a brand new terminal appears to be about to open) and our first flight was delayed by half an hour - potentially increasing the time pressure on our connection in Mumbai.  Upon arrival, we made our way as quickly as possible to the international terminal, only to find that our flight to Hong Kong had been totally cancelled.  As it happened however, this turned out to be quite a bonus as Air India (who had been superb throughout the trip) had put us on a direct flight with Cathay that would depart five hours later.  This second flight turned out to be almost empty and myself and Sergei both had a full aisle to ourselves - allowing us to sleep lying down for the whole journey.  The ultimate blessing in disguise.

Mumbai clothes washing district
Arriving back in Hong Kong was like coming home - both due to our natural affinity with the place and as its relative calm and normality was so soothing after India.  When my younger brother arrived back from spending a month in India he often appeared to hesitate when asked whether he had had a good time.  At the time I hadn’t been able to understand this - for ALL of my other trips I had been able to say categorically that, yes, it had been brilliant.  Looking back on my own time in India I can now begin to empathise.  Yes, I did have a great time and my experiences in India were amongst the most memorable of all of my travels.  However somehow this needs qualifying.  India has the power to both inspire and shock - to see the beauty of the human race and all that is so fundamentally wrong with it. And there is just no escaping becoming immersed in all of it, good and bad.  Nowhere summarises this best than Mumbai where as we stepped out of the airport we were confronted with car horns, beggars and wild dogs - all in the shadow of the brand new steel and glass International Terminal 2.  This city, containing both the world’s most populous slum and its most expensive house, is quite the potent metaphor and is a place that is intoxicating and revolting in equal measure.  Being there did feel like “proper” backpacking, but at the back of my mind I hoped that the rest of our trip would be both easier and more pleasant.  This did not disappoint and while Hyderabad wasn’t too dissimilar to the feel of Mumbai, the historical sights of the first part of the trip at Ajanta, Ellora and Hampi were some of the most awe-inspiring locations I have ever visited - with the latter of these sitting comfortably in my top 10 destinations.

Amazing Hampi
Everyone wants a photo
It was at Hampi that we were able to experience what a wonderful people Indians are.  Once away from the sellers of the big cities, people talk to you because they are curious and excited to meet you.  The bravest of these curious people are the children of India who would always want you to take their photo or be in a photo with them.  Every school bus that passed us would be accompanied with a cacophony of greetings and questions and I am sure that there is at least one photograph of myself and Sergei up on a classroom wall in their school photo.  It is tempting when talking about children in India to immediately move on to the poverty angle but that is a path that is well trodden and a discussion to which I have nothing novel to add beyond how heartbreaking it is to see and how lucky I feel to have been brought up with the opportunities that I have.  It is more relevant to talk about how happy the children appear to be and how, despite everything, carefree they appear.  Every open space contains kids playing - anything from cricket to kites, in a way that you just don’t see in England.  You get the feeling that if a parent in the UK saw his kid waving at a tourist and shouting hello, they would be told to quiet down.  Strange how our cultures differ.  Towards the end of the trip we met some great characters, particularly in Kerala where we were helped out so much by Motty and Abey who were so keen to help us and show their country off.

The Gateway of India - Britain’s stamp on Mumbai
It is difficult (perhaps rightly or wrongly) for a Brit to travel with India and at least not think about the impact of Imperialism.  Having spent so long in Hong Kong, my view of the British Empire has now settled on a feeling of how absurd it was that we (and to be fair the other European powers) thought we had a right to administer territories so far away, both geographically and culturally.  I am reminded of a joke by a comedian (I can’t remember who), which goes something like: “I went into an Indian restaurant in London the other day.  After I sat down the owner hit me with a baton and told me to build him a complicated railway network”.  The sheer audacity of the British in building their empire now almost clouds any perception I have of whether it was good or bad and I think that the only people who would be able to answer that in anything more than a purely theoretical sense are the Indian men, women and children who had to live under colonialism.  As a Brit who even today is probably still reaping the benefits of Empire without having experienced any of the cost, I feel it is not my place to comment.

Train travel in India
Practically, as a backpacker, India is (as in all respects) full of many good and bad aspects.  For the money-conscious traveller, India is an absolute dream.  The cost of living is extremely low, as is getting around.  I wasn’t as stingy on this trip as I have been in the past, staying at reasonably comfortable hotels (private, air-conditioned rooms) and eating out at nice restaurants - travelling in what the category that Lonely Planet would designate as ‘mid-range’.  This meant that on average our daily costs broke down something like:

  • Accommodation: £15 per person per night
  • Food: £5-10 per day
  • Transport (excluding internal flights): £5-10 per day
  • Other (entrance fees etc): £5 per day
All things considered, therefore, we probably spent between £30-40 per day and I have no doubt that it would be possible to get by on £10-15 per day for a backpacker willing to travel slower, eat more street food and stay in non-aircon dorm rooms.  After taking slightly longer to acclimatise than I am used to, our biggest challenge was deciding how best to get around from city to city.  The ideal choice would have been by overnight train, but as we were travelling in peak season this would have needed us to book the tickets weeks in advance - which would have cost us a lot of flexibility.  We therefore were faced with the choice of quick, expensive flights or slow and uncomfortable (but cheap) sleeper buses.  Having been pretty apprehensive about taking the latter at first, I have to say that they were nowhere near as bad as I had assumed and I wouldn’t mind taking them if I returned.  Their major advantage is that tickets can be purchased on the day more often that not, allowing a great deal of flexibility.

The four weeks spent in India enabled us to do a reasonable job of visiting the south, but even so I would have loved to have spent more time in Kerala and to visit the east coast around Chennai.  I know that there is even more to see in the north and that another four weeks still wouldn’t be enough to do the country justice.  As a result, I’m sure I will be back.  To conclude, after discussing with Sergei, we thought we would finish with a list of the best moments. So here goes:

  • Best Restaurant: Khyber, Mumbai - probably the most exclusive restaurant that we visited, apparently frequented by businessmen and diplomats, but with a curry and a beer costing less than £10 it was (while very expensive by Indian standards). www.khyberrestaurant.com
  • Best Hotel: Hotel Malligi, Hospet - while staying in Hampi itself would have been more convenient for exploring the ruins, staying in Hospet allowed us to stay in a hotel with a great restaurant and a pool which was the perfect place to cool off after a day of exploring. www.malligihotels.com
  • Best Journey: Alleppey to Munnar - the return journey was slow and congested, but getting up early to visit our first hill station took up through terrain unlike any that we had seen earlier in our trip - from waterfalls and mountains to reservoirs and tea plantations.
  • Best Day: Day 11, Hampi - our first day in Hampi had allowed us to get our bearings so that on the second day we could travel around at a leisurely pace on bicycles with a group of other backpackers from all over the world.  Cycling through the ruins was the best way of seeing them and sitting drinking lhassis in the bazaar with a good book while waiting for the beautiful sunset was the best way to spend an afternoon.  I even got to see a monkey steal Sergei’s chocolate bar.
  • Best Experience(s): Keralan Backwaters and Massage - Kerala was a wonderful place to spend a few days and travelling through the backwaters on a boat was an unforgettably peaceful experience.  After getting back on dry land in the afternoon we were treated to another unforgettable (though not particularly peaceful) experience in the traditional oil message parlour.  Being dressed in a loin cloth, getting covered in hot oil and then being manhandled around a wooden table was as memorable as it was undignified
Top Three Destinations (I can’t just pick one…): 

1. Hampi - a laidback backpacker ghetto surrounded by a unique, boulder strewn landscape and the ruins of what was once the second largest city on earth? Absolutely unmissable and in many ways worth a trip to India in its own right.

Hampi Bazaar

2. Kerala - a very close second and a place that definitely needed longer.  A state that ranges from the sedate backwaters, to beautiful beaches, to the vibrant port of Kochi, to the dramatic hill station at Munnar.  Four days just was not enough time.

The Backwaters of Kerala
3. Goa - I must admit that I arrived in Goa expecting it to be little more than an Indian Benidorm.  I was very pleasantly surprised however to find a great blend of perfect beaches, great food and interesting culture.  We were perhaps lucky to arrive just at the end of the season when it was a bit quieter - I can imagine it wouldn’t be as nice in high season.

Sunset in Goa

I hope that this does the trip some kind of justice and also that this is not my last ever blog about India.  Thanks for reading.

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