Hold Tight. The nightmare bus to Goa

My first, and last overnight bus journey in India and the reason why I always take the train now.

A bus or a coffin on a rollercoaster?

The 12 hour ‘delux sleeper’ bus ride to Goa could only be described as riding a roller coaster whilst trapped inside a dark coffin.

The bus had two rows of ‘double beds’ on two levels like bunk beds. In reality they were more like a small, short single bed (for two people) with not enough room overhead to sit up. Inside the bus was pitch black as it careered off down pot holed lanes, swerving through honking traffic for 12 hours.

A sleepless night

Sleep was impossible as the driver obviously had ambitions of becoming a rally driver. All we could do was grip and hold on to the bars of our coffin/bed to stop us falling out on a sharp corner or hitting our heads. I wasn’t feeling very well and the toilet facilities were described as ‘open toilet’ which translated to pee in front of everyone on the side of a country lane.

The inevitable breakdown

At about 4am the bus filled with rubber burning fumes and jolted to a stop. The crazy rally driving has caused the bus to blow a tyre. Some English and Canadian astrologists were opposite us on the bus and a man came on and asked them for 2 condoms in quick session! (I still have no idea why!) The condoms must have done the job as about half an hour later we were back on the road/rally track.

We made it alive to Goa!

Exhaustedly, we stepped out of the bus into bright sunshine in Mapusa, Goa where a throng of yellow and black taxis and rickshaws buzzed around noisily like a swarm of bees waiting to strike. After a deflated attempt at haggling we took a taxi heading to the nearest resort which was 20 mins away – the hippy hangout of Anjuna Beach.

Arriving in Anjuna

The drive down the dusty roads lined with fields, palm trees and colourful houses and shacks was promising but when the taxi dropped us off in Anjuna my heart sank. We were dropped off where the road ended in a patch of dusty red sand.

You could just about make out the red sandy and rocky cliffs behind the lines of blue tarpaulin shacks selling tourist tat, tie die sheets and ali baba trousers. We flopped down at the first cafe we saw and shared a large kingfisher beer. The sea breeze and the view looking out over the red cliffs, while the waves swelled round the rocks was soothing but I was disappointed, the thought of soft golden sands and sparking blue water had been keeping me going all night on the horrific bus ride.

We explored further down the red sandy path that was littered with lazy cows amongst more blue tarpaulin clothes stalls and cliffside bars. Then suddenly the shacks parted and we got our first wonderful view of the golden sand, palm tree lined, sparkling blue sea beach that we had been dreaming of.

It was made even more wonderful due to the exertions and rough journey we had made to get there. I threw my backpack down and ran and jumped into the cooling, glittering sea straight away. Finally able to relax as I feel the sand beneath my toes and the waves lapping around my feet.

Exploring Pune

Another day in India – another whirlwind ride of crazy experiences!

Before we put our lives at the mercy of Indian traffic again we visited a Ganesha temple in Pune. Situated in a park it was quite a serene and relaxing experience. The temple was more open plan, more relaxed and less elaborate than I expected.

The coolness inside the temple and the tolling of the bell each time a worshiper entered was soothing. Hinduism seems very complicated and I can’t pretend that I understand the religion. I did learn that Hindus don’t have specific organised worship ceremonies on particular days, like Christians and Muslims do.

The Ganesha Temple in Pune

Hindus worship many different gods, goddesses or deities but there is only one ultimate reality which is Brahman – the infinite manifestation of the universe. The other deities personify aspects of Brahman or are reincarnations of other gods. Hindus come to the temple of the deity of their choosing (which best fits the situation of the time) when they feel it is appropriate. The temple we visited was dedicated to Ganesha the elephant headed god and the remover of obstacles.

After a stroll around the lily pond and park we were ready to face the city of Pune. We came across a fun fair where the rides looked like they had been made out of straws – a mecano set would have looked safer. We drank coconuts from a cart stall on the street. They didn’t look or taste how I expected. They weren’t brown and hairy, they were green and hard; instead of tasting like creamy coconut they tasted similar to water. We also tried some cute looking street food.

The Aga Khan Palace, Pune where Gandhi was imprisoned

Next we whizzed off through Pune to the Aga Khan Palace where Gandhi was imprisoned for 2 years following the “Quit India” campaign in 1942. His wife and loyal secretary both died here in confinement. There was a small collection of artefacts but the museum didn’t explain things awfully well. The Aga Khan Palace was a grand, whitish coloured, almost Portuguese style villa, set in what would have been quiet grounds if not for a large gaggle of nuns chattering and shrieking nosily.

In the afternoon we whizzed off and had a tour of the Sangam World Centre, the girl guide centre where Hayley lived and worked for her first 2 years in Pune, India. The complex was set around a swimming pool  and had a nice atmosphere. As it is set away from the busy roads it was lovely and quiet and I can imagine young girl guides would have a great time here.

One of the most beautiful things about traveling through India is the flashes of sparkles and colour from the women’s saris. I especially enjoy the flashes of multitudes of colours that billow out from the doors of the women’s carriages on the trains. I was keen to dive straight into Indian culture and wanted to purchase some Indian clothes and saris.

However, even shopping in India is different. A lot of the times shopping (and eating) takes place on the street. In the shops, instead of browsing and taking an item off the peg, you chose the fabric that you want for your clothing. Shops consist of a huge variety of different fabrics that can be made into your choice of clothing that I had never heard of including Salwar Kamez, Kurtas, and the one piece sari.

I was ushered to the upstairs of a Pune shop where you had to take your shoes off. Then the assistant started throwing piles of fabrics toward me. On the floor in front of me quickly rose a mountain of fabrics of all different colours, patterns and intricate sequined designs for my perusal.

Sari shopping

I was a little intimidated by the choice but I chose one of the less elaborate options – a bright turquoise blue sari with an embroidered and sequined detail running down the side. A woman assistant quickly and skilfully bundled and wrapped me up it it. It looked beautiful and was floaty to wear. I felt like a princess but it was so different, so bright and elaborate from what I’m used to seeing myself in.

The heat in the shop was stifling, the choice too confusing and I couldn’t understand how to tie the sari or stop it from falling off my shoulder. Even though it is the most widely and commonly worn mode of women’s dress in India it seemed pretty impractical for everyday backpacking wear and I was too hot, tired, overwhelmed and traumatised from the traffic to make a decision.

Hungry from the failed attempts at sari shopping Sam and Hayley took us to a local restaurant and ordered some various South Indian starters and snacks including a massive dosa which looked like a massive papery joint half the size of the table.

I tried all the dishes, spongy rice cake idls, various forms of rice and vegetable pickle things with spicy orange and green sauces and some sort of omelet. All were very different tastes from what I’m used too, even from the Indian food that we are familiar with in the UK. It was a taste adventure and I enjoyed eating some of the snacks as they tasted quite nice after getting over the initial weirdness.

Upside down moon

In the evening we went to an IndoGerman music festival which was a fun but strange fusion of Indian music and tasty German sausages and beer.

I looked up at the moon that night and noticed how it was upside down. It was a crescent moon shape but lying down so it resembled a smiley face. You never see it that way in England, another example of how nothing in India is as you would expect. Everything is different and is usually the opposite of what you were expecting. Who knows what surprises tomorrow will bring.

The journey itself is part of the destination

Embarking on the Siddeshwar Express from Mumbai to Pune

Even a routine task comes with a multitude of surprises in India and taking a train is a journey through Indian culture in itself.

We took the train in sleeper class from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to the city of Pune, Maharashtra only a 3 hour journey away. The train journey passed through some beautiful and diverse scenery and gave us our first glimpse of dusty but rubbish strewn rural villages through the bars of the open windows.

A lovely, friendly Indian family who were sat opposite us on the train journey practically force fed us their food and sweet coffee and we talked using a combination of broken English, hand gestures and photographs.

The old, blue carriages of the Indian trains trundle along slowly through the dusty countryside but it’s impossible to get bored as every couple of minutes someone comes through the train selling all sorts of food, coffee, chai, books, newspapers, saris, handbags and other tat like jingly key chains,toys, hair accessories, bindis and colouring books. Beggars and singing children worked their way through the train and even a man dressed in a sari came up to us clapping his/her hands together, stroking my head and demanding money which was a bit unnerving.

As the train climbed up high into the hills, it passed through dark tunnels and then delighted us with brief snapshots of amazing views over the valleys. Throughout the dusty countryside were muddled huts and villages, people herding animals and walking through the fields. Swarms of brightly dressed people, buzzing rickshaws and decorated trucks gathered impatiently at each crossing waiting for the train to pass.  I sat back entranced, observing the whole scene as passengers chattered excitedly, drank copious amounts of sweet chai in little paper cups and purchased food and jangly key chains.

Pune is a city of over 3 million people; I was surprised at how different it was despite being only 3 hours journey from Mumbai. The city didn’t have the old colonial charms of Mumbai. It was more modern with new malls, offices and call centres and many, many motorbikes. Most westerners visit Pune for the Osho meditation resort. It is a large commercial ashram where a mandatory HIV test is required for registration! It’s infamous for being established by Bhagwhan Shree Rajneesh otherwise known as the “sex guru” for his advocacy of sex as a path to spiritual enlightenment.

Anyway, my reason for visiting Pune wasn’t for any spiritual sex! I came to visit my friend from university, Hayley, who lives here with her new husband Sam, who I was looking forward to meeting. I was really excited as I hadn’t seen Hayley for a few years and was intrigued to find out more about her life in India.

Hayley and Sam’s Wedding Day

Hayley and Sam met us at the station and we embarked on the first of many crazy, hair-raising motorbike journeys. Dressed only in shorts and t-shirts, with our 80 litre rucksacks on our backs, we zipped around on the back of the motorbikes through the chaotic, noisy traffic. The ride was so hectic that I clung on so tightly that my fingers hurt and I spent most of the time screaming and cursing into poor Hayley’s ear. 

Exploring Pune on the back of a moped was, at first a terrifying experience.

There seemed to be no rules or lanes to the traffic chaos. Cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, lorries and buses would honk loudly behind us and swerve across the road filling every available space until eventually all the traffic became stuck. Then the honking would turn up to a deafening level, the dust and fumes got in your eyes and lungs. The decrepit condition of the antiquated, rust bucket public buses was shocking. They careered around the roads daring everyone to get out of their way. When we were stationary they drew up way to close to us for comfort as they belched out hot, smoggy fumes onto my bare shins.

Being in the middle of this madness on the back of a motorbike without a helmet I felt incredibly exposed. I feared for my life the whole way, especially as I had my huge rucksack on that threatened to tip me off the back of the bike if I leaned back. My legs were still shaking when I finally dismounted.

Hayley’s apartment is in a lovely, gated development full of character and surrounded by trees in Koregan Park. It has large, airy rooms and a sunny, spacious balcony looking over gardens. It felt a relief to get there, escape the chaotic streets and refresh ourselves after the sticky train journey. 

As we relaxed on the balcony with some drinks I watched in disbelief as men without any safety gear climbed up bendy bamboo scaffolding and worked precariously on top of the building. This made for intriguing viewing.

Hayley’s husband Sam did a very good job of answering my multitude of questions on Indian culture and etiquette as I struggled to understand Indian culture. Sam said some really valuable things that would help me to relax, enjoy and understand my Indian experience more. With Sam’s sound words of advice I tried to get some sleep to recharge for another day of new, bamboozling, chaotic Indian experiences to follow. 

  • A Guide To Driving In India Without Dying (jalopnik.com)
  • The Way Indians Drive (or Rules? What Rules?) (morbidlustrum.wordpress.com)
  • Transport within India (chloejfoster.wordpress.com)
  • IMAGES: The bustling world of Indian Railways (rediff.com)
  • Eavesdropping at a Railway Platform (theteaexpress.wordpress.com)

My First Day in Mumbai – The Culture Shock of India!

My First Day in Mumbai and The Culture Shock of India!

One of my reasons for visiting India was that I wanted to experience a totally different culture from the UK. Even so, the culture shock of India was more then I was expecting.

On my first day in India, arriving in Mumbai was more of a culture shock than I was expecting. The scenes from the taxi ride through the city and past the slums at the break of dawn were disturbing.

Experiencing culture shock in India

The traffic was chaotic and scary and I clung on for dear life as large trucks cut into the traffic and swerved towards us while buzzing rickshaws swarmed around us taking up every available space. The traffic frequently ground to a halt and left us at the mercy of hawkers and beggars who worked the traffic jams.

Perhaps the poverty was the worst part of the culture shock of India. Vast sections of Mumbai seemed to be crumbling down or fabricated from corrugated sheet metal and blue tarpaulin. Everywhere you looked were people, rubbish and makeshift houses and people were crawling out from under dark bridges and narrow alleyways.

Dharavi slums

Occasionally we would ride high up on a flyover and would glimpse modern high rises in the distance  through the haze. The stark contrast to the slums was unnerving.

Before arriving I had done plenty of research. I was expecting to experience culture shock in India, for it to be poor, dirty, hot, smelly, dusty and crowded. It was all of these things but with more intensity than I had expected and nothing could have prepared me for the emotional and mental affect of the culture shock as India constantly challenges, contradicts and bombards all your senses.

Everywhere you look you see something that shocks and surprises. I found seeing so much poverty really difficult to deal with and battled with feelings of guilt, sadness and helplessness.

The taxi driver had to stop several times to ask for directions to our hotel. Finally a man who had made himself a shack on a street corner surrounded by lots of stray dogs pointed out the way. Once we finally arrived the area that our hotel was in near CST station it didn’t look too bad.

By CST Station. First day in India + jet lag = overwhelming!

Despite the initial culture shock of India, I grew to love the city of Mumbai. We stayed at the Traveller’s Inn Hotel in Fort. The hotel owner was wonderfully hospitable, friendly and helpful. We discovered the wonderful Cafe Universal just steps from our hotel where I drank my first, and still best, mango lassi in India and developed a daily lassi habit for the rest of the trip.

Feeling refreshed, we cautiously and excitedly headed out to explore the grand, crumbling colonial architecture of Fort and Colaba and to get our first feel for India.

Exploring Mumbai

These colonial buildings looked impressive and majestic, especially compared to the haphazard quality of the other buildings, and gave an insight into the British Raj’s ambitions for the ‘jewel in it’s empire.’

Some of the buildings are now crumbling, jungley trees wind their snake like branches round walls and wrap them in their clasp as if nature is taking back the old buildings. This gave them a magical quality and they were wonderful and interesting to look at.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The main train station in Mumbai

The jewel of the architecture crown is the main train station – the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus the busiest train station in Asia (formerly called Victoria Terminus). This is a UNESCO world heritage site and the city’s most extravagant gothic building with influences of British Victorian, Hindu and Islamic styles that blend seamlessly together.

A few days later this beautiful building would be a fine starting point for our extensive traveling on the Indian railway network. Little did I know that every place in India would be so different that I would experience culture shock again and again!

Crossing the road traffic seemed impossible. There didn’t seem to be any road lanes or rules. We stared in disbelief as the traffic ebbed and flowed in a seemingly constant state of near misses. The majority of the traffic consisted of 1960’s style ‘premier padmini’ distinctive black and yellow cabs and double decker red buses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in 1940’s London.

The Gateway Of India which is a grand colonial arch built to commemorate the 1911 royal visit of King George V. It was completed in 1924 and ironically was used just 24 years later to parade off the last British regiment as India gained independence. The impressive structure is complemented by the elaborate and iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

The Gateway of India

However I thought that the iconic scene is somewhat spoilt by a new, imposing tower block; perhaps there as a sign of the might of the new, modern, independent India over old colonial landmarks?

Just walking down the street was a challenge and added to the culture shock. We got a lot of attention, people staring at us, taking photos, begging for money, trying to sell all sorts of things and numerous requests of “where are you going”, “what country are you from” and “are you married.

The hassle intensified around the Gateway of India. It was surrounded by families, tourists and hawkers and a great place to do some people watching if you could get any peace. We had constant requests to see a magic show, offered “all india maps” that had marijuana inside, massive pear shaped balloons, toys, postcards, bracelets, ice creams, boat trips and all sorts of other weird useless tat that no one would ever need.

We even got chased down the street by a man with constant cries of “you want to see a snake!” He had a snake in a wicker basket and kept taking the lid off so the snake’s head popped up.

I survived my first, crazy day in India!

Later we were sat in the buzzing, bohemian atmosphere of Cafe Universal near our hotel unwinding with a much needed drink to help with the culture shock of India. But India’s had more surprises in store for us.

We heard drums pounding and massive commotion outside. People started running outside to look and we were astounded as a colourful, noisy carnival like procession of horse and ox carts lit up with flashing lights of every colour drove past.

Music was blaring out and people thronged down the street dancing, shouting, singing, playing instruments and trying to get us to join in the dance and procession. Amazing!

Celebrations in Mumbai

My first day in India was total culture shock; completely overwhelming, crazy and magical! At first this madness was a little disconcerting but there is a pulsating beat and craziness in Mumbai which now, after overcoming the initial culture shock of India, is quite funny, endearing and inspiring. I’m looking forward to returning to Mumbai for my onward flight at the end of the trip.

Back at the hotel we arranged to take a tour the next day of Dharavi slum, the largest slum in Asia and where the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was based. Expect more tales of culture shock in India in the next post.


Update 2015: I’ve now visited Mumbai 3 times and love it – it’s my favourite big Indian city and my love for buzzing, ambitious, manic Mumbai grows more with every visit. I still find so much to love and explore in this crazily captivating, buzzing, ambitious and endlessly fascinating city of dreams and contrasts. If you are visiting check out my Guide to Mumbai and 21 things to do in Mumbai.

New Year, New Possibilities

It was late 2012 and after 18 long months I had just saved up enough money to quit my job, travel the world and leave the grey, gloomy skies of England to spend Christmas and see in the New Year of 2013 in sunny California.

I started my trip in Los Angeles. I have relatives living in Santa Monica, LA so I’ve visited several times. This December was different though.

Los Angeles doesn’t go for all out Christmas overkill like we do in the UK and that’s fine with me, I’m not a fan of winter or Christmas. The cold, gloomy, overcast weather replicates my mood. I feel trapped inside and antagonised by Christmas adverts and songs played on repeat as shoppers swarm around the pound shops like hordes of zombies buying useless presents and Christmas tat.

Christmas on Santa Monica Pier

New Year in L.A was a new beginning and more about relaxing and spending quality time with my family before I embarked on my adventures.

On the last day of 2012 I ambled down to the beach and Santa Monica pier. I explored the pier with it’s weathered wooden boardwalk and rustic old fairground charm and watched happy families, tourists and couples as they strolled along the pier. After months of wet and miserable English winter weather the mild temperatures, the smell of the sea breeze and the sun on my face felt so good.

Santa Monica Beach

Something about the ocean compels me to it and always has. I stand gazing out at the pacific ocean and enjoying the low, bright sunshine which had been absent from my life, both physically and metaphorically for so long.

I watch the glittery sea making shallow waves that swish in and out hiding and then revealing the wet sandy beach. The rolling in and out of the tide is soothing and therapeutic. This is the moment I realise that the year of dreaming and saving every penny is over, now I am here. New year and the start of a new life. I have arrived! It feels like the Pacific is slowly taking my worries away with every gentle and shallow wave and leaving the wet, glistening beach of beautiful, delicious possibilities of this new year at my feet.

A new year and a new beginning to a life of travel

Shanghai – My First Trip to Asia

Shanghai was my first trip to Asia and the spark that ignited my love affair and fascination with Asia that was to send me across the world indefinitely. 

In 2011 I got my first taste for the East when I visited Shanghai on a study trip that would show me a different side to this buzzing, rapidly urbanizing city and fuel a desire to discover more of the world.

Shanghai was my first trip outside of Europe and America and a real eye opener. For the first time I experienced total culture shock, the delicious buzz of the unknown, of sights, sounds and smells that were totally alien to me.

The challenges, thrills and surprises that occur when everything is so completely different and you have no hope of deciphering anything you read or hear and so end up eating deep fried chicken feet for breakfast!

Modern Shanghai

Shanghai’s Pudong district looks amazing lit up at night

At a time when most of the western world is in recession I gazed with amazement at the incredible, ultra futuristic view across the Bund to Pudong as the illuminated skyscrapers flashed in every colour of the rainbow almost convincing me that I was on a sci fi movie set.

The pace of economic growth in Shanghai is nothing short of astonishing; 20 years ago the now illuminated skyscrapers of Pudong was just marshland! China has the largest population and is set to soon be the world’s largest economy. As China advances with incredible speed so does the skyline as the shiny skyscrapers dare to go higher and higher with each new building built in record time.

The economic success story and the Shanghai skyline seem to offer a view of a utopian urban future but walk just a few blocks away and there is an all together different side of Shanghai.

The Lilongs of Shanghai

Lilongs – old, shabby, dirty, haphazard houses are clustered round narrow lanes, a maze of hazardous electrical wiring sprawls uncontrollably across the rooftops and entangles itself in the gnarly, spidery branches of bare trees.

The houses are usually 1 or 2 room dwellings with the 1st floor made precariously out of a variety of materials balanced above the ground floor with washing hanging out on any stick, wire or surface possible.

Weathered and stooping old men and women sit out on the street, children play, women earn a living on ancient sewing machines on the road side. Vegetables are sold off rickety hand pulled carts, live fish are displayed in shallow trays of water on the dirty roadside and old men ride around collecting scrap in rusty bicycle pulled carts.

Bland new apartment blocks and the spookily empty, ironically named ‘Joy City’ mall tower all around over these clusters of Lilong communities.

Feeling overlooked by new tower blocks

The changing face of Shanghai

On first glance the conditions, in contrast to beautiful futuristic Shanghai, take me aback. But as I spend more time wandering around these neighbourhoods I enjoy the humble feel of life, community and enterprise. It upsets me to hear about the demolition and clearance ordered by smart men up in tall, shiny towers. Vast areas of Chinese cities are being demolished to build modern apartments and luxury shopping malls.

Yes, I know it’s progress and The World Bank states that China has lifted 600 million people out of poverty in the last 3 decades but I grew fond of this community feel.

This type of rapid urbanisation in a undemocratic system is displacing the families, communities and businesses that have been here for decades and are now outpriced from the city and cut off from their communities, their homes and future opportunities.

As the success of Shanghai grows, more and more economic migrants flock to the cities with the hope of making their fortunes but end up living in slums or crowded and unsuitable housing. I’m not even going to start on the environmental effects.

My bet is that now, two years later, those communities of traditional Shanghai are no longer there and I can’t imagine how the spirit of community and enterprise could be replicated in a modern tower block.

Most of my visit was spent studying and although this made me scratch deeper below the surface of Shanghai I regret that I did not have time to do many touristy things. But before I left, as I was looking down on the neon lit city from the dizzy heights of the Shanghai Financial Tower, I knew it would draw me back one day.

Shanghai’s Skyline

The start of a love affair with Asia

My first visit to Asia, to Shanghai, really opened my eyes. Shanghai showed me that there was a huge world out there that I just had to explore, so diverse, so much to discover, so many issues and contradictions, but that joy can be found where you might not expect it.

Upon my return, England seemed so quiet and antiquated. Life felt dull without the constant surprises and rewards that culture shock brings. I felt like I had seen the future and while maybe some things troubled me, I was captivated by China, and by Asia, and just knew I would be back to discover more.

Something inside me started on that trip – the travel bug – an insatiable curiosity, the buzz of the unknown, and a desire to discover the rest of the world which has lead me to explore some of the most fascinating places in Asia for 18 months now and shows no sign of relenting.

“Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life” Michael Palin


Searching for more….

Sunset over London

Welcome to my blog

For a long time now I have been gazing listlessly out of the windows of the offices of various unsatisfying jobs feeling that life is passing me by. I’m searching for more meaning to life, there has to be more to life than this and it’s now or never. Now is the time to go out to find it.

So, I’m leaving England and going from Hollywood to Bollywood, and then from the Land of Smiles to the Land Down Under.

Welcome to the adventure.