India 🇮🇳: Observations, fun facts, nuisances …

Almost two month in India are up and a long journey in this huge country has come to an end. In total, in visited 11 of the 29 states (some more, some less thorough) and I that process came across a few oddities that I want to write about in my last India blog.

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“We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.”

Albert Einstein

Security is tight: First up, there is loads of army on the streets of India and loads of road blocks (even if not reinforced, lock down can be quick). At times also very visible at airports. Especially our first flight, from Varanasi to Goa, we faced some excessive airport security and thousands of checks. Other flights were better (esp. Hyderabad impressed). I was told that sometimes there is extra security if there is a threat of terrorist action like incidents in Kashmir.

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Bureaucracy: When I bought new flip flops in Varanasi the layers of people involved in my purchase surprised me. One to sell the product, another to pack it and another to check everything on the way out of the store. Crazy! Same goes if you purchase a ticket at the station or check into hotels – lots of details are often required.

Ola vs. Uber: Ola is the local ride sharing app that has slightly better coverage than Uber. Using your foreign credit card might be an issue, but more importantly the divers don’t get the concept of a location based app. For every ride they will call you to confirm where you are and where you go (and not always in English) … e.g. exactly the info you put in the app. Whats the point? Uber never did that once.

OYO vs. booking.com: OYO owns most of their property and are very pushy for reviews and also pretty bureaucratic. Generally the experience with OYO was worse than with booking and I felt they pimped their pictures more and staff were generally less competent or rude. Discrimination: The worst part of OYO and something unlikely to happen in Europe is client discrimination – some hotels don’t accept foreigners or unmarried couples. Better check beforehand. I was refused entry once in Assam.

Foreign credit cards: For airlines you are fine and in larger hotels. Otherwise, best get enough cash (Rp 10,000 per withdrawal max) or bring foreign currency. Booking trains can be really a nuisance, but cleartrip should work.

Orange hair:  Orange is certainly the new black cross India and at time you might think someone escaped from Holland (Koningsdag in Amsterdam: Oranje rules). Men use henna colour to dye their hair and seem to love the colour. Amazing really.

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Driving can be wild: I didn’t;have an accident, but driving is poor in India. Generally the rule of the stronger prevails (watch out for trucks) and general road rules are not being observed. Cars pull out on the street without any consideration to look, overtaking can happen uphill in fog, stopping cars put the indictor on the wrong side, using dimmed headlights at night is not worth the effort for many … don’t get me going ;o). Maybe it is for the reason that speed limits are that low (KM/h 20 to 80).

Smell & urinating: Something pictures can’t tell is the smell of India in certain places. North generally by far worse. You can be strolling along happily somewhere an suddenly a cloud of urine smell hits you. Importantly, it can be different with place like Sikkim completely clean and smell free. Generally speaking and without trying to discriminate here, religion has an impact on a places cleanliness (India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle Diaries – Exploring Meghalaya’s South (day 4)) as well as geographical location (South cleaner than North as richer).

Small pint measures: The. they first asked me if I wanted a pint of lager I expected a UK sized beer. Turns out that despite a long colonial presence of the British in India, the pint definition is a very different one – just 330ml vs. the 568m at home. On the flip side, you getvto buy 650ml beer bottles with 8% high alcohol beers. So don’t worry if getting drunk is your concern.

“It’s not spicy”: Don’t trust anyone that says it is not spicy. Most food will be to an extent. Likewise, don’t push it and say you want it spicy … in my experience that was an invitation to burn you alive ;o).

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Respect for women: Mainly in the North we had bad experiences as men looked at women in a bad way (see India 🇮🇳: Jaipur, the pink city and India 🇮🇳: Holi Festival in Mathura 🌈 🙏 👳🏽‍♂️). However, it is also amazing to see that within the same country you have place like Meghalaya where women carry the family name and inherit the family wealth.

Spitting everywhere: After littering and honking the third most popular activity as usually men get rid of their reddish chew tobacco. India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle Diaries – Back in Assam: Scenery 😁, towns ☹️, hail & discrimination (day 5/6)

No privacy: The lack of privacy was one of the main issues for me. Whether it is this huge urge to take selfies with Westerners or people (groups of them) starring at your phone. There is generally a lack of privacy as a concept and hence, when you remind people of it, they don’t feel they have done anything wrong.

Drugs in Goa: Goa was an eye opener although Anjuna beach was also a bad spot. Drugs were offered everywhere and very openly so. Felt like a joke when they stopped selling alcohol 10pm I the pre-election period yet next door you’d be able to score MDMA, weed or whatever suits you. Generally speaking, these election time restrictions seems completely pointless.

Alcohol & dark pubs: Clearly India doesn’t have drinking culture although more people drank than I expected. Alcohol shops are more akin to prisons with their steel barred windows. And if you want to drink in a place, be prepared for sealed off dark places without women to do so. Arguably, it is different in tourist places.

Tata rules! The Tata brand will follow you wherever you go in India (and new they even sponsored the London marathon over the weekend … no escaping). They have their fingers in everything and anything and probably have a government license to copy. As a road user, most like the huge lorries will stay in memory.

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Are Indian voices higher pitched? I really felt that at times mens voices sounded really high. Random? Googling for it gives a funny answer in QUORA.

Why do Indian men have higher-pitched voices compared to western men?

Evolution, evolution. Indian women never listened to Indian men so we had to shout at them and  gradually our voices became high-pitched. But all that effort has proved futile since even now they dont seem to give a damn. Maybe we need to swallow a mike or something. [On a serious note please please dont post such silly questions. Lets use quora for quality debates.]

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India 🇮🇳: Last stop Mumbai – Slums, Colonial History, Bollywood & Friends

I’d be lying if I’d deny that I was pretty happy to board the plane and leave Bagdogra for Mumbai. Returning the motorbike was all fine – the agent was just a bit disappointed that I didn’t return the evening before so we can grab a drink together.

Arriving in Mumbai – feels different!

The city immediately looks much cleaner and feels more organised. You see not only Tata and Suzuki cars, but other foreign ones such as Mercedes. Definitely more money here in the economic capital of India. Roads are better, there is a modern skyline and the location by the sea makes for a nice experience too. At least in the old town there are no motor rickshas significantly reducing pollution and noise levels. Nice, although it has to be said that me staying in the old town helps perception significantly. Many of Mumbai’s inhabitants live in slums… where things are different, naturally.

Mumbai’s economic muscle

Mumbai is still considered India’s economic capital though recent GDP numbers put Delhi ahead. Estimates suggest around $300bn (with a wide range) implying around 8- 10% of India’s total GDP. Mumbai is a large recipient of foreign investment, dominant in foreign trade (70% of maritime trade), is India’s main banking and insurance hub and home to Bollywood’s movie industry to name a few sectors. The city’s economic importance historically was always linked to its deep sea port  though initially maybe in a way that will surprise you.

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Mumbai’s docks in the 19th century

Going back to the 19th century, it all kicked off with the opium trade under British colonial rule. Parsi’s were mainly in charge on the Indian side (same Persian/Indian origin as the family of Freddie Mercury of The Queen). The Brits used India as a production hub for the opium they sold on to China and with that ‘enslaved’ a whole country leading to Anglo-China wars and the ‘lost century’ for China (a part of history that defines Chinese education to date). See Golden Triangle: How opium shaped world history for all the details of this amazing part of history. So I guess any Chinese with a little mind for history will not be the keenest fan of India.

Catching up with Yash

Although we had met not long ago in London, the most important item on my to do list in Mumbai was to catch up with Yash – my former team mate in Morgan Stanley Research who became a very good friend over the years. It was fun to delve into some old stories and hear about his successful life as entrepreneur and father (baby no 2 just arrived before I came to visit). Thanks for the amazing hotel and see you soon big man! This time we managed to take a picture together … not sure we will make it into GQ magazine, but at least we have a record to look at next time.

Checking out the old town

I took a two hour walking tour through the old town in an area called Walkeshwar (again just me and the guide – same as for slums & in Varanasi). The tour was very average and included place like the India gate (a gate literally built to welcome the British Royals), several locations of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 killing 168 people, the stock exchange and lots of stories around individual buildings be it Iranian cafe or jewish sponsored libraries.

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There are some lovely old fashioned buildings in the old town indeed, something unique and not common judging by my own India experience. You will find a strange mix of architectural influences – British, Portuguese, oriental etc.

Bombay or Mumbai? The longstanding name of Bombay given by the British was a poor (or anglicised) translation from Portuguese “Bom Bahia” mining good bay. The name was only changed to Mumbai in 1995 by Hindu nationalists though in local language (Marathi & Gujarati) it has always been Mumbai – a name in reference to Mumbā or Mahā-Amb, the patron goddess Mumbadevi of the native Koli community.

Bollywood

Bollywood is the nickname for the Hindi language film industry and by many measures the largest film industry in the world (number of movies produced, no of tickets sold etc). It aims mainly at domestic audience and almost always includes dance and song elements. Revenues in 2016 were estimated at more than USD2.3bn.

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An afternoon in the largest slum in Asia, A Positive Surprise

Slums can be found all over the globe yet few have reached the level of fame as the ones in Mumbai. The movie Slumdog Millionaire with its eight academy awards in 2008/9 probably helped a bit. Still, in my mind slums were some rotten areas of poverty so when I witnessed the significant commercial side of the slums I was positively impressed.

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Slums are a big part of India across the country though naturally more pronounced in cities. 9m people or 41% of Mumbai’s inhabitants life in slums. Nationwide, the number is 104m & 9% (data from population review, other estimates put people living in informal housing at more than 240m). Dharavi is the largest slum in Mumbai and the second largest in Asia (Pakistan leading the way). About 1m people live here implying 870,000 per square mile! The slums are not one area, but you have different slums across the city (see map).

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Map of Mumbai’s slums

I want to note here that while living conditions are poor, such as a lack of in-house toilets (instead 150-200 people share one toilet), very narrow streets without light or air and a rotten river that smells really bad to name but a few, the slums at times just look like poor neighbourhoods that you find all across India e.g. I expected worse just because of the name ‘slum’. It also felt reasonably secure (going with a guide helps I guess).

What I didn’t expect at all is that the slums are a powerful business engine. There are approximately 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories in Dharavi alone (the most literate slum in India at 69% – not far off the 75% national average and on par or ahead of many rural areas in Northern India). Over USD1bn economic output for Mumbai’s slums alone. It is estimated that poor Indians contribute 7% to urban GDP implying about USD140bn (although this includes more than just slums). Just for comparison, the GDP of Qatar is USD200bn. Main industries in Dharavi include leather, all sorts of recycling (plastic, carton, tins, rubber etc) and pottery.

Women only! On the way back from the slums I took again the train – the lifeline of Mumbai though a metro is under construction. At first I jumped into the ladies only compartment being bit surprised for I wasn’t aware such things exits (although they did exist in England until 1977). The women didn’t waste a breath to educate me probably feeling completely disturbed in their female privacy. So next compartment while the train was already moving … but then boarding a moving train is no longer a problem after two month in India. Skills!

 

India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle diaries – Ripped tyre, no petrol & the benefit of people everywhere (day 7)

Today: 348km | Total: 1,871km

I guess it had to happen at some point. After getting away with 2,000km cycling the Sultan’s trail last year and almost 3,000km through Vietnam this year … I had my first flat tyre. Not just flat, but ripped. I guess i didn’t stop quick enough to prevent that big a damage. Only stopped when it felt very shaky on the back wheel and by then it was too late.

Soon after i got to Serfanguri (ca. 40km from where i started), a bunch of mechanics took care of the bike. The rental agency surprised to hear, as the tyre was relatively new. Well, Rp2,600 (U$37) ain’t the end of the world. Within 50 mins of my arrival they had organised a new tyre and repaired the bike. Bigger issue now was that i had no cash and the closest ATM was back where i started this morning – so 40km backtrack.

In all my hurry i forgot that i was low on petrol. Well, i assumed that there was a reserve. What i failed to realise is that i run on reserve mode since i rented the bike. Right on top of a motorway bridge the bike stopped. I left it to find petrol. Now it was not without a sense of irony that i run out of fuel literally in front of a big refinery of India oil. Must have been 50 petrol trucks there… But no station. A guy in a moto shop nearby gave me a lift to a petrol station 5km away. Thank you very much. Problem solved and my ride towards Siliguri could continue.

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I stayed on the highway to make up time though probably spent an hour talking to family with Easter wishes. So it wasnt until nightfall that i reached a small city close to Siliguri and got stuck in extremely heavy traffic (stop and go on a sunday evening). Unbelievable but true… i run out of fuel a second time. 🤷‍♂️

Just one of these days. Friendly locals helped again in a heartbeat, which leaves me with an overwhelmingly positive feeling at the end of the day and shows the positive side of literally never being alone almost anywhere in India.

Now just a little more to go back to Siliguri and off to Mumbai – my last stop in India and with some familiar faces waiting.

India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle Diaries – Back in Assam: Scenery 😁, towns ☹️, hail & discrimination (day 5/6)

Today: 543km | Total: 1,523km

Leaving Meghalaya behind – Back to Assam (day 5, 243km)

This day was not such a great day. I left Meghalaya behind me and headed back to Assam – sadly unavoidable unless i go back to West Bengal via Bangladesh. At least some nice views of Umiam lake to say goodbye to this amazing state (my personal favourite so far).

Day 5: 243km back to Assam


From there mainly motorway to entertain the speed addiction 😈, but eventually some villages on country roads and a long bridge to cross the Brahmaputra into Tezpur.

Streetlife vs. Streetdeath

First two bits that failed on the bike – the tachometer (don’t look at me) and a part of the luggage rack (bad roads). Fine!

Sad reality is that once you leave Meghalaya, the dirty towns of Assam take over. No judgement, but plainly obvious. The countryside is actually nice be it flat as a pancake (eg not as interesting for bikers as the hills of Meghalaya).

Roads were lets say average. Mix of tarmac and sand. I helped a bunch of locals to move a truck that was stuck in the sand – a little payback for the help i received in Sicily last year.

Driving here remains an on the edge thing – driving in the wrong direction on a two lane motorway for bikes, cars and trucks is common and some car wrecks tell a horrible tale.

Not too late in the day i reached Tezpur (apparently the culture capital of Assam) and booked myself into an OYO. When i went there they told me they don’t accept foreigners. Hotel policy. Well, OYO website says different, but more importantly… try that in Europe and what will happen to you? Complete discrimination.

Don’t i just love india. Felt great yesterday and even amazing this morning (all folks dressed up nicely for easter and good friday)… And now i feel like escaping again. No interest in sightseeing. Just get me a cold lager please.

The caste system

The caste system divides Hindus into strict hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (duty). The lowest level is occupied by outcasts referred to as the untouchables.

There are about 3,000 castes in India and while discrimination based on caste is unconstitutional since the 1950s, it still plays a vital part in society (eg same caste marriage remains the norm) and wealth levels still correspond to caste affiliation in general.

Cruising in the Assam countryside (day 6, 300km)

Today i didn’t start overly early (for it was not only one beer in the evening). I left Tezpur on the national highway, but quickly maneuvered to ‘smaller’ roads. Meant off-road for many stretches. General direction west and Bhutan always on the right hand side.

No spitting

Spitting is a bad and widespread habit in many parts of India. More developed states have put penalties on it (like Sikkim), but in most places it is very common.

I am no longer surprised to see a car in motion or stationary opening its door and someone (usually male) spitting on the road. And i am careful when overtaking 💦.

The reason is usually a red tobacco the indians chew and then get rid off. Its local name is Gutka. Disgusting 🤢.

Right message, wrong spelling 🤣😂

It was mostly a nice cruise today and i was listening to travel podcasts on the way (for German readers, the podcast is called Weltwach – thanks for the rec Lars).

Interesting today were several wooden bridges that i needed to cross albeit with a strange feeling for some. The bike is heavy afterall.

Just as i was on the homestretch for today, i got into a sudden thunderstorm with hail the size of table tennis balls. While i quickly put on rain gear, the impact of the ice hurt and prevented any progress. The helmet came really handy as i listened to sound of someone throwing ice cubes at me. All cars and trucks stopped. Wow!

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Towards the afternoon some tea plantations reemerged and after 300km i eventually made it to Bongaigaon – a 100k inhabitant, industrial city and my last stop in Assam.

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India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle Diaries – Exploring Meghalaya’s South (day 4)

Today: 294km | Total: 980km

What a day! In almost 300km on the bike with sun, hills, on & iff road, complete fog and at night … I explored the south of Meghalaya with its waterfalls, the Bangladesh border, Asia’s cleanest village and living root bridges in Cherrapunjee forest. By doing the latter i scored myself an unexpectedly hard hike at the end of the day. Totally exhausted (and happy). Time for 🍕 and a 🍻!

Gallery of snaps between the main stops today

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Elephant 🐘 falls

Made up of three separate segments, these falls are only 30min ride away from Shillong. There name, given by the english, stems from an elephant looking rock that used to exist yet has been destroyed by an earthquake years ago.

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Dawki – Touching Bangladesh

Boasting some impressive nature and a suspension bridge, this place is located where the planes of Bangladesh begin.

Usually it is marketed for its clear waters and many tourists opt for a boat ride. Must have been the rain, because when i was there the water was completely muddy. Still, impressive scenery.

Amazing are also the long queues of trucks loaded with rocks that are waiting to cross the border to Bangladesh (given this country has no hills, stone must me a priced commodity).

Mawlynnong – Asia’s cleanest village

Yes, you are reading right. Mawlynnong was voted Asia’s cleanest village in 2003 and has retained its cleanliness til today. Wandering about this feels amazing, people are lovely and indeed all is clean and houses, gardens and streets tidy.

In the village you have a bamboo structure called sky view that offers views over the planes of Bangladesh (well, if it isn’t too hazy). I asked the owner why this village is so clean and he told me that all changed with the arrival of Christian missionaries in 1887.

Now it’s not up to me to judge if religion is the key, but so much is fact – the difference between mainly Christian Meghalaya and say Assam (mainly Hindu/Muslim) are stark.

Seven sister falls – come back in rain season?

Impressive rock wall, but hardly a waterfall to speak of. Sadly. Need to revisit when there is more water about.

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Double-decker living root bridge – mind the steps…

The last stop on my list today was one of the living root bridges that exist in the Meghalaya (a creation of the Khasi tribe), most famously a double-decker one.

There are two ways to access the bridge i.e. You can descent either side of the valley. I went with google that leads you to option A. In the map below. From reading, option B is the easier one.

It wasn’t easy just to find the road indicated in google, as it leads you initially to a dead-end (two indians i met on the way turned around because of this). With a bit of trial and error you’ll eventually make it to the end of the road – point A in map below.

Now the real work starts… 3,500 steps straight down into the valley. That equals more than 700m of altitude differential. Half way you pass a bunch of houses (small shop included) and eventually you reach a small village where the bridge is located.

There are homestay options, which i would recommend as the place and its people looked lovely – no motorised vehicles, all nature.

As for the bridge, Rp20 get you in. There ponds to swim in and a generally cool atmosphere. Read more about the amazing living root bridges here.

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Soon it was night and the full moon was my guide as i climbed the 3,500 stairs back up. Sweat was running in streams! Thankfully i got some water from the lovely family half way and after 1,5h i was back up by my moto and ready to ride back to Shillong – night shift. What a ride! 🌪️

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Now i understand why people do this bridge as a full or multi day trip… 😉