‘It’s like an abusive partner’ said an interesting American when I asked him what it’s like living in Mumbai for the past 7 years. ‘Sometimes it’s good, and when it’s good it’s real good, but then it kicks you in the teeth, and then kicks you again when you’re down. It takes up all your time just getting from A to B not leaving you enough time for anything or anyone else’. Although the little glint in his eye when he talks about his motorbike sitting in the garage at home says it all.
I’ve heard people say that everyone comes to India for a reason. I’m not quite sure what my reason is yet. It’s certainly been an eye opener, although at times I’ve felt like I’d rather not see some of these things, and I yearn after the comfortable Cambridge and the friends and open-minded, educated, reasonable people that I know back home.
After I met my friends in Palolem I traveled north with them in a luxurious taxi to the airport in Dabolim where they were catching a flight to Mumbai. The very second we parted company I felt like I was thrown out into the big bad world again, fighting off rickshaw drivers, being hard edged with beggars, and jostling around on jam packed buses with my massive rucksack. I went to Panaji. I don’t know why. I didn’t do anything there apart from wonder around being lost with my big bag in the full midday heat and give myself sun stroke, or something strange that made my brain feel like it was melting. I had a vague idea about looking at some cathedrals the next day in Old Goa, a short bus ride away. I couldn’t find a room and was feeling like I couldn’t go on anymore and wanted to throw my bag down and pass out on the street. Then I met a couple of guys, one from London, one from Mumbai, and asked them if they knew somewhere I could stay, and just at that desperate moment, one of them burst out laughing, because he’d just paid for a room for one night that he was only using to stash his bags in as he was going to a friend’s wedding and maybe I could have the room. I couldn’t have been more grateful at that moment in time but my exhaustion stopped me from expressing how grateful I really was. I got into the room, attempted to make a conversation about maybe visiting Mumbai and then when they left, I slept, and slept, and slept, for 16 hours. I decided to take it easy on myself the next day and give the cathedrals a miss. I’m not exactly a cathedral sort of person anyway. What was I thinking?
So I was in Arambol for about 10 days and I made some good friends there. I stayed with an Iranian girl, Roshi, who was a complete nutjob just like me, so we got on really well. She told me alot about Iranian culture and how women have to wear the headscarfe and cover up completely, and how house parties are illegal. Alot of Iranians come to India to let their hair down as the the police are pretty brutal in Iran if you're caught having a party or in possession of alcohol. She is also a racing driver in Iran and she convinced me to hire a scooter so that we could go to the Anjuna flea market. So I did something I never thought I’d do in India - drive on their crazy roads - and I did so with gusto. I drove as fast as I could to try to keep up with Roshi, at first wobbling around then I got the hang of it and the Indian attitude to driving overtook me. Before I knew it I was jumping the lights, overtaking people, beeping my horn at everyone, being impatient, shouting at people pulling out in front of me, standing up on my bike to go fast over the bumps, and struggling to hold onto my bike as it starts snaking on the sandy parts where speed is essential so you don’t get stuck.
I’ve done a lot of things here that I never thought I’d do. I jumped off an 8 metre high rock into a lake near Hampi, Karnataka. I was so scared but I knew I wanted to do it. There were loads of Indian men on the rock and a few other tourists and I didn't think I would do it because being in a swimming costume in front of the locals would send them into overdrive, like the mobile phone camera paparazzi, but a fight broke out between the locals and some Australian tourists and I saw my opportunity. While everyone was distracted and shouting at each other I whipped off my shoes and clothes faster than lighting, heart pumping, took a run up and jumped off the edge shouting 'I'm gonna Diiiiiiiiieeeeee' all the way down. I hit the lake and went under. Water went up my nose. When I came up coughing and spluttering, full of adrenaline and happy that I didn't die I looked up and everyone was cheering and clapping and I realised my daring stunt had broken up the fight, so I started shouting to others to jump in and other people started jumping in too, like lemmings.
When I first came to India everything was so different and I found myself completely out of my comfort zone, but now I find little comforts things that people do, like the ticket sellers on buses who manage to remember exactly who’s paid already and who’s just got on the bus, all the while maneuvering around through people packed so tightly together that you couldn’t put a piece of paper between them. Somehow the bus man manages to squeeze his tiny behind through the spaces, backwards and forwards to the door, whistling to the driver to stop and start, and remembering to tell me where to get off. The buses are pretty chaotic but I kind of like it, especially when there’s some Indian pop music blaring out so loudly that I can hardly hear anything else. Other things I find pleasing are the cows that seem to own the roads, fresh cut flowers on tacky pictures of Hindu gods, and the rhythm of people chatting in Kannada, the language spoken in Karnataka, and the little teeth sucking thing that lots of young men do subconsciously when they’re thinking of what to say next.
I haven’t talked much about the poverty in India yet. Everybody knows this already but it’s bad. Sometimes it seems like 95% of people look at me and all they see is an opportunity to make money. Some people are so money driven that it makes me feel a bit sick. Since I’ve been here I’ve been trying to understand a bit better why it is that so many people live on the streets, why grotesquely disabled children and adults lay twisted up on the street begging, and women, children carrying babies wonder from person to person doing a hand to mouth sign constantly asking for food and money. It’s important to remember that most of these beggars have a keeper who will pocket most of the money they make, but still it feels really harsh to keep on walking and turn a blind eye, like everybody here does, even India’s government. I’ve given food and some rupees here and there a few times but quickly learned that this is a mistake because then everybody else expects something and it’s not possible. It’s scary sometimes, once I was stopped by 3 street kids at a bus stop who were taking swipes at my bag and I had to hold it up out of reach to stop them stealing it, all they say is ‘Hallo, hallo, hallo, hallo, hallo, hallo’. One of the kids was so small and only looked around 8 but he was so aggressive. He had snot running from his nose and crust around his eyes. He looked desperate and the experience shook me up a bit. They managed to steal a fan from China that my friend Anna gave me as a Christmas present and I gave them my water that looked pretty exciting to them as it was orange from the vitamins tablet I’d dissolved into it which I thought I needed after I’d just had sun stroke, but maybe they needed it more than me I suppose.
There are a lot of problems here. I could talk about the problems I’ve found with Indian culture until the holy cows form an orderly queue and come to some kind of home which preferably isn’t where cars drive, but I’d be here all day. Also the Indian attitude is infectious and I can’t be bothered. I think that I should be focusing on what is possible as India can be a very frustrating place if you let it, and as people say here ‘subu kuche melegar’, or ‘everything is possible’, which is a new phrase I’ve been slipping into conversation lately, especially when haggling.
My time as a tourist is coming to an end now, and I’m waiting for the bus to Bangalore so I can start doing what I came here to do: art with kids. I think the experiences I’ve had while traveling around have been good to prepare me for going back. When I first got here I was angry that a small child tried to steal from me but now this offence seems minor compared to the group of 6 full grown men in Hampi who apprehended me on my moped like a bunch of schoolyard bullies and pinched my arse, which made me flip out and punch one of them in the face, push another one away from me and kick another as hard as I could in the leg as I drove away, or the police men with their massive guns who groped me at a train station. At least children still have time to grow and learn and to make up their own minds about how they want to be.
I have made a plan with the organizers of the Born Free Art School that I will run art workshops with the kids and in one month’s time have an exhibition. Apparently they have all the paints and materials that we need and I’m hoping to see some really inspiring work and learning more about the kids and their aspirations, and also looking forward to painting my own canvas. By heck it’s been a while.