When I was seven years old, I remember sitting in a geography lesson in my tiny village primary school, learning about one of the most culturally rich and diverse sub-continents in the world.
The exotic countries of India and Sri Lanka seemed like worlds away from the Yorkshire countryside that I grew up in, and I can recall being captivated by everything I heard and learned about in that lesson. I remember learning the exact location of New Delhi on a map of India, hearing stories of the long stretches of untouched beaches in the southern states, and gazing in awe at photographs of the Taj Mahal that had been stuck to the whiteboard. From that moment, although I did not immediately realise it, a hunger for travel and exploration was born.
Little did I know that 14 years later I would find myself in the same intoxicating country I had learned about in school, standing outside the arrivals gate of Mumbai airport with all of my senses in utter overload. From the moment that we stepped out of the airport into the thick, heavy air, I was enchanted. We were weary, sweaty and short tempered after our outward journey, but all anxieties about the trip fell away as soon as we clambered into the first auto-rickshaw of the next six weeks.
My personal highlights and recommendations could, I’m sure, be found in any tourist guidebook for the subcontinent, but I want to recommend places on a different level. No guide book that I’ve ever read has been able to accurately describe the way in which the Taj Mahal is painted pink by the sunrise or the feeling of the warm undercurrent in Mirissa, Sri Lanka, pulling at your ankles as you peer through the clear blue water searching for sea turtles (no, I didn’t actually spot any – and yes, I was gutted).
When I arrived in Mumbai I wasn’t prepared for the way the smell of incense hung on the air, so heavy that simply walking down the street took a substantial effort, and no one had told me that I would spend a large portion of my time in the pink city of Jaipur squeezed into the back of an auto-rickshaw singing along to the Vengaboys or being passed the auxiliary cord by a driver who spoke so little English that all he said to me was “music”. Memories and anecdotes like that are what motivates me to keep on travelling, because some of the things that happen are so mad that you couldn’t make them up!
Admittedly, where there are highlights there are also low points, and this trip was no exception. We were stared at for at least 50% of our time in India, we all got extremely sick at one point or another (and some of us more than the others as well), and we were told during a safari on the outskirts of Jaipur that a certain ‘fun-fact’ following the monsoon season was that the city of Jaipur had been completely drained of the anti-venom for cobra bites due to the number of attacks during the wet season. However, as long as you make it out the other side in just about one piece, everything adds to the experience and will, sooner or later, become an anecdote to be laughed at.
I can’t speak on behalf of my travel companions, but I know that I left a little bit of my heart on the Indian subcontinent. I can’t remember where I left it exactly – it might be with the kind women who covered my arms in henna tattoos in Goa; or at the entrance gate to the Taj Mahal, where the air was a thick pink in the light of the sunrise. The chances of it being in the foot well of an auto-rickshaw is also pretty high, or else with the elephants in the centre of Udawalawa National Park or somewhere within the walled fortress of Galle. All I know is that a part of me has been left there, as cheesy and cliché as it may sound, and because of that I know that I will always be drawn back. My only wish now is that I could visit for the first time again.
What you need to know:
Hostelworld and booking.com will become your best friends. Also, if you stay in a hostel that you particularly liked it’s usually worth checking if they have any other hostels in places you may be visiting. If you stay with the same company you have more chance of discount and avoiding additional booking fees.
If you’re facing a long journey between cities or states then look into the option of overnight travel on buses or trains – your ticket cost will cover a night’s accommodation as well.
Where possible, try to use public transport. Although India and Sri Lanka are notoriously cheap, the costs of taxis and tuk-tuks will mount up and you could end up stranded with empty pockets. The buses, trains, and metro services are cheap and (generally) fairly comfortable. Plus, it’s always much more fun to explore a country alongside the locals.
I can’t emphasise this enough, the conditions of an Indian visa require proof of leaving the country at the end of your stay: make sure you have your onward or return travel booked and take your confirmations with you for the airport check-in. We didn’t realise how strict the rules for this were, and ended up panic-booking flights from Delhi to Colombo at the check-in desk at Manchester Airport. It’s not worth the stress – trust me.
When visiting tourist hot-spots, I’m talking temples and places of cultural and historical significance, try to visit at sunrise or as close to opening time as you can – it’s generally quieter, cooler, and much more beautiful. Plus, queuing to get anywhere in that sweaty heat is NOT nice.
Whenever you find yourself visiting Buddhist temples – particularly in Sri Lanka – make sure that you have a scarf or pair of long pants with you. Covering up is one of the oldest ways to pay your respects to religious figures, and with Buddha it is no different. Try to not let yourself get caught out with this one, I know how easy it is especially considering how hot the weather is.
Try all of the food. One of my favourite experiences in India was an evening excursion to the famous spice market which featured the opportunity to sample a range of Indian street food and drink. The spiced chai tea is my number one recommendation. The same applies to Sri Lanka – especially if you’re a bit nervous about the renowned ‘Delhi Belly’. Sri Lankan street food is fresh, spicy and delicious. Whenever you get chance, sample to kottu and rotti.
It has to be said – but it can’t be stressed enough – the importance of rehydration salts in countries such as India and Sri Lanka should never be underestimated! They have always been my go-to cure, whether your illness is out of your hands or self-inflicted the morning after the night before, always take more than you think you’ll need.
Last thing – have the most magical time. The world is there to be explored, and if not now, when?