Back in 1998 I made my first trip to India. I had been asked by three investors to set up a travel company for them, they had decided on south India and I was dispatched to recce with the aim of determining the product, then, writing the brochure and launching the company. At that point in time, I couldn’t even point to India on a map, much less knew anything about the Taj Mahal. The initial plan was that I would spend three weeks, inspecting hotels and places to visit. It soon became apparent that three weeks would be nowhere near enough to cover the three southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka thus three weeks became six.
Now I did enjoy my travels, but even then, I wasn’t happy with the standard stuff that I was being shown, and so, with much determination and a little stamping of feet, I managed to get away from where I was expected to visit, away from the mainstream and eventually found a few good hotels, trust me, I saw a lot more bad ones, with at best lackadaisical service, in between.
I didn’t have any understanding of India at the time, my guides weren’t great and so it seemed that at virtually every site I was taken to, many of which were temples I was viewed merely as a meal ticket, go here, get a blessing and donate to the priest. Kids wanted money, widows wanted money, go to this shop and buy this… It was soul destroying. Now don’t get me wrong, I liked the good hotels, was amazed at the temples, and my first experience on a houseboat on the backwaters blew me away (there were just 14 then and they were still hand punted). But after five weeks on the road, I still wasn’t feeling the love. I liked India, but I couldn’t appreciate why people fell in love with it.
Thus it happened that I got talking to the receptionist at another mediocre hotel that I was checking into, Manoj. He caught my jaded expression and over the course of the conversation I explained to him that I just wanted to see an India where I didn’t get viewed as a meal ticket, or just have to look at a building and suffer a mediocre history lesson. He immediately invited me to his home village, 30 kms away and the following day, despite the protestations from my local guide and DMC (who were subsequently sacked, I fired 3 DMCs in 18 months back then) we went. Now for the life in me I can’t remember where it was but that experience that has been the one that has stuck with me for all these years, the definitive turning point.
The first people I saw were three ladies, sitting on a veranda, their faces covered by a yellow paste. They smiled at me and put their hands together in a traditional Namaste, seemingly not aware of how strange they looked to me. Manoj told me they had covered their faces with a mixture of Sandalwood and turmeric, sandalwood for its cooling properties and turmeric for its anti-ageing properties, basically a traditional sunscreen.
Around the corner there were two women sitting on another large step. One lady, who looked to be about a hundred, was looking at a collection of small shells, scattered on the floor, the other much younger lady was looking at her intently. I had stumbled across the village wise woman or soothsayer who told fortunes with a combination of etched palm leaves and sea shells.
By this time, pied piper style I had gathered a bunch of children who were literally jumping up and down, shrieking and giggling with uncontrollable excitement. I paused to photograph them and a brave one came up and touched my skin, they had never seen freckles before. Taking the cue from her older brother, a girl came up and touched my hair, auburn isn’t a colour they were familiar with. Before long I was being pawed by 7 or 8 of them. Attracted by the noise, people started coming out of their houses. The children were batted away and in the next instant I was invited into a home. Now this wasn’t a wealthy village by any stretch of the imagination, but this was to be my first experience of rural, genuine Indian hospitality, where ‘Guest is God.’ I was shown around their simple home, offered water and then buttermilk. Naturally I was torn between getting ill and insulting these wonderfully kind people, who had very little but wanted to give me what they could. I took the plunge, sipped at the water and drank the buttermilk. They were delighted. We then had a conversation in sign language about families, numbers of children and whether they were boys and girls. Word spread further and the man from the street food stall sent me some of his snacks to try and having finished with her client, the village wise woman asked me if I wanted to have my fortune told. Has what she told me come true over the last 20 years? Well, that would be telling. No one would take a rupee for any of this. In fact I was told it was insulting of me to offer.
By the end of my two hours there I was captivated. This is where the true India lay, in the hearts of its people.
I have now travelled the country for 20 years, I have visited all the monuments that one ‘must see’ and taken the customary photographs, but then I have broken away and searched for the true India, behind the history of its monuments. Wherever I go I try and meet the people, do what the locals do, explore more off the beaten track, whether by car, on foot, by horse, bicycle, camel or jeep. I visit the old towns, villages and places most people have never heard of. I have learnt about the culture of India’s people and their family values. I have tried to get to grips with the gods of Hinduism and I have seen how all the different religions happily coexist throughout the vast majority of the country. In short, through its people and experiences I have fallen in love with the country, so much so that I moved here and in doing so have discovered that there more you discover, the more you discover that there is to discover. India is a magical place, her people are some of the most humble, hospitable, resilient and enterprising in the world.
To journey to India is to journey to a land of never-ending discovery but still I maintain, ‘Monuments provide the backdrop, people provide the experiences.’ It’s what I’ve based the last 20 years of my career on.