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 – Cruising East in West Bengal (day 1)

Today: 185km | Total: 185km

I left my hostel before 7am and walked to the taxi stand just grabbing a quick milk tea on the way. I felt mentally done with India somehow. Wanted no more now that dirt, the noise and hassle that had come back now (there is only one Sikkim!). Why now? I can’t say, but the fact that Darjeeling didn’t live up to my expectations wasn’t helpful. No more cities for me. Just get me out into the countryside, would you please?

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Arpan at Siliguri Bike Rental helped me out with a motorbike – this time a Royal Enfield Classic (350cc, 20bhp) vs. the off road touring version Himalaya i had in Gangtok (India 🇮🇳: Sikkim – a VERY different side of India). I felt immediately relieved as I got going albeit traffic in Siliguri held back my progress initially.

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Siliguri – Alipurduar: Tasting freedom

You couldn’t pick a much more generic description of a day out on a bike, but i really loved the liberating feeling today as i rode through the planes towards the eastern border of west bengal – always parallel to the Bhutan border keeping the mountains on my left side (though always in sight) and Bangladesh to the right.

Large green tea plantations, almost dry riverbeds, village people busy at work, kids playing cricket (mostly) or football (sometimes), Tata trucks filled with people, police check points (loads!) or army drills – you name it… It was all lovely to take in.

You see, on the bike you can always stop and take in the moment or scenery as you see fit. And i did just that. In short – the mere decision to leave cities behind me has revived my hunger to explore India. Thanks go to Royal Enfield motors!

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India 🇮🇳: Losing steam in Darjeeling

I had a lot of hope for my time in Darjeeling – the city of the champagne of teas – and all started very well. During my trekking in Sikkim i got to know a group of Romanian hikers under the leadership of a Romanian guide (Simina) who had travelled India and south-east asia intensely and even published a book. On top of having a lovely time socializing post hike in Yuksom, they also offered me a free and direct ride to Darjeeling… Hard to say no and with good views on the way (be it foggy ones as so often in these hills).

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Once in Darjeeling we were greeted by rain. So i buggered off to Glenary’s cafe for lunch and to sort accommodation. There weren’t many great options short notice and i was tired, so i booked a OYO hotel in the center. That night didn’t offer much bar a few beers at Joey’s and an early sleep.

Next day i headed back to Glenary’s for breakfast – black forest cake & brownie 😊. Apart from blogging i wasnt keen on much, but decided to get myself a ticket for the steam toy train ride. I did enjoy taking in the mountainous scenery though – all Darjeeling is built on hills just like Gangtok (but bigger).

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The train was a complete waste of time. Views are limited and only good on viewpoints that can be reached by other means faster and cheaper. The museum at India’s highest railway station (Ghum, 2,258m) offers a few insights into the engineering masterpiece the Himalayan train line was at the time, but still i felt underwhelmed.

Rain was back just in time for afternoon and eroded any last bit of drive i had that day. So back to Joey’s & the mobile. I ended up having a good conversation with two italians and later than evening with some locals. Still, i just wanted to get away from here. Sorry Darjeeling… I know there is a lot more on offer, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

Water crisis in Darjeeling

On the way to Darjeeling our drivers used the lunch break outside town to get their cars washed. I was told there is a water crisis in Darjeeling, which seems odd for a city with so much rain. Failure to keep reservoirs up with population growth as well as poor distribution infrastructure explain the issue.

A solution locals implemented were a host of private water supply lines (leaking big time) … This not only looks extremely confusing, but can only be a short-term fix i think. How hilarious 😂!

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