Where my travel addiction began, India
After my 16th birthday I met my nose ringed, patchwork trouser wearing, dreadlocked boyfriend who was saving to go travelling around South East Asia, which was what every respectable new aged hippie was doing at the time. I had just started college which I hated, so when I fell for my boyfriend ‘Bob’ (who was my second cousin and has been happily married to his husband for over twenty years now) it was a no brainer that I would join him on his travels. Obviously this threw the family up in arms, not just because we were related (totally legal BTW) but also because of my age.
My mum, on the other hand, never thought it would happen. She assumed we would split up, not save the money or I’d get cold feet so she wasn’t worried at all, until I bought the plane ticket a year later. This was the first time she realised I was a determined little bugger who when sets her mind to something basically does it. We saved our nuts off forfeiting every penny into the travelling fund. So on turning 17 in 1992, I adorned my 45 litre back pack, armed with the bible- ‘South East Asia on a Shoestring’ Lonely planet guide book and off I flew- on the cheapest airline possible, sitting at the back of the plane, chain smoking. First stop Delhi.
As you can imagine the culture shock felt like a physical punch to my face. I’d been to the same 1960’s, chalet holiday camp in the Isle of White, every year since the age of like 2, and Delhi certainly wasn’t that. No children’s talent shows here- well except for the circus performing kids begging at the traffic lights. Just complete mayhem and an assault on every sense.
The smells- like dead bodies on a summers day (not that I know what dead bodies smell like but I imagine it to be like toe jam or belly button stench x a million). It was filthy and not the good kind of filth. Sanitation left the country and moved to Denmark centuries ago. Manoeuvring around cows, elephants or leper beggars (with their ginger root looking hands), made me into a stealth like warrior ninja. Trying to cross a busy road was like climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in shorts and flip flops- but easy for the locals in both scenarios. The heat was like living on the sun and the constant noise was louder than a Sperm Whale. It was as crazy as ‘Kai, the hatchet welding hitchhiker’.
We hurried down Paharganj in New Delhi- the Mecca for dreadlocked ‘trustafarians’ and equivalent of the ‘Khao San Road’ in Bangkok. To top everything off we also arrived on ‘Diwali light festival’, India’s version of Christmas. Boys were throwing fire crackers left, right and centre, explosions erupting every few seconds. I was so paranoid I thought they were aiming at me, knowing I was English and targeting me because of my Indian slave killing, colonial ancestors.
By the time we reached our prison cell, budget accommodation I threw myself onto the painful wire-spring, blood strained mattress and sobbed for hours. What had I done? This was a terrible, expensive mistake. I’d left the comforting bosom of my tiny little, boring, sleepy seaside town to purgatory. I wailed some more. I wanted my mum, I blamed Bob and all I could see was my nan’s finger wagging at me saying “I told you so”. I wanted to be teleported home instantly as I was too terrified of going back out there to fiery inferno of hell.
Eventually I was dragged out kicking and screaming, personally preferring to die of starvation in our hovel hotel but my boyfriend had other ideas. When I reached the street everything felt like it was in slow motion and I was in a huge plastic zorb ball, where no one could see me. Sound was muffled but the lava like heat and putrid smells remained- from a patch of rancid, noxious, sewage stench to the aromatic fragrance of sandalwood incense, then straight back again.
After eating egg and chips (I became vegetarian on seeing the flies around any hanging meat anywhere), in the most unhygienic, rat infested restaurant, not only had I lived to tell the tale but we also ventured to the roof of our hotel to watch the Diwali fireworks. From as far as the eye could see, every roof top in the city had their own set of fireworks exploding into the night sky which continued for hours. It was the most memorable, breath-taking, firework display I’ve ever seen, ranking over the famous one-million-spectator August fireworks in Japan. It was like watching missiles and automatic gun fire through night vision glasses that I had grown so used to on the television, during the gulf war. I was stunned into submission, and from that moment on my fear and homesickness vanished into thin air and this alien new planet I had stumbled upon had me hooked.
I highly recommend travelling to India but I loved it and hated it at exactly the same time, unlike marmite. Witnessing extreme poverty at 17-years-old was at first quite distressing but it was amazing how quickly I became desensitised to it. Coming to understanding that a physically disabled child begging on the street had probably been made that way, used as a commodity. In contrast, making the unexplained discovery of how joyful and content the majority of the population were who had absolutely nothing.
India itself is so diverse; from watching a Tibetan opera in the Himalayan town of Manali and catching a glimpse of the Dahlia Lama which took my breath away; to surprisingly getting nits from our well-groomed, Salvador Dali moustached camel driver’s turban, on a three-day camel trek in Jaisalmer; ferrying across a small river in a tiny, wicker disc boat in Hampi; smelling what first I thought was BBQ but realising it was burning bodies on the cremation ghats of Varanasi; and staring dry, wide eyed trying not to mirror the weirdest eye dance called Ottamthullal in Kerala.
I’m an atheist so experiencing such intense religious belief systems in India was also something very overwhelming for me at that age. India’s main religion is Hinduism but seven other major religions are practiced here, generally getting along under one roof. India now has the largest population in the world (with no sign of stopping) so it’s understandable there are so many faiths. I soon learnt about their power of belief whilst driving at 70 mph, on a night bus at full speed, over taking on bends, 17 hours into the journey with the same driver, on mountain side roads with sheer drops to oblivion on one side, fearing for my life. Then witnessing every three hours, the driver stopping at another shrine along road side to place offerings for Shiva to bless his journey, so he would reach his destination- nothing at all to do with his road safety and driving skills of course.
Unfortunately, inevitably, you will get sick but on the plus side India is the best and easiest diet plan you’ll ever undertake. You will have the delightful experience of shitting yourself in public. Gastroenteritis is a bitch when you’re on a 23-hour bus ride from Mumbai to Goa. Knowing my poop was water and needing to go every ten minutes, I seriously contemplating piss-pooing out the window, the only thing stopping me was the fact the man behind me had his window open which would have been disastrous for him. In your face, Mr. I could delve into a thousand and one diarrhoea anecdotes but nausea is not what I’m aiming for.
Travelling in India was safe back then but the main annoyance for female solo travellers was the daily sexual assault. Back in those days, Indian men saw western women as whores, which entitled them to treat us as such. Aged only 17, I had never experienced sexual harassment at this level, whether it was an ‘accidentally on purpose’ brush of the thigh; a full on fanny grab; or actually assault- on a daily basis. But what was also strange was seeing the intimacy between men. Viewing heterosexual men holding hands was alien to me and the questioning whether there was anything more to this tenderness. Does not allowing any kind of sexual affection before marriage somehow contributes to the high levels of sexual violence towards women in India? But hey I’m no intellectual on this subject.
After trying to stop my side-to-side head wobble once we left India, we continued on our travels for the next 14 months. We travelled overland to Nepal where Bob got all his travellers cheques and passport stolen so unavoidable entered into the dark world of theft and crime in that country. Next Thailand, off my chops on mushroom omelettes at full moon parties and living in a bamboo hut on Bottle beach, Kho Pang Gang- not dissimilar to the novel ‘The Beach’ without the ‘Lord of the flies’ shenanigans. Crossing the border in Malaysia and Bob being thoroughly searched quadruple times due to him being top to toe in tie-dyed, only to find later a humongous marijuana bud flattened in my diary and being so scared of the death penalty immediately flushing it down the toilet.
I didn’t enjoy sanitised Singapore where it’s illegal to chew chewing gum or jaywalk. Predictably buying a Ford Falcon station wagon named ‘Fred the Wonder car’ (he had a song and everything) in Darwin and travelling down the east coast, frantically speeding off every morning, dodging the police for illegally sleeping on the side of the road. We also had very uninspiring, rushed sex, at the top of Uluru (Ayres Rock), then feeling really guilty after, finding out that it was an Aborigine’s sacred religious site, but not so bad that I’m revealing it now. Last destination being Bali, a different world back then compared to the holiday destination it’s become now.
Travelling with Bob during this trip was of course astounding but also extremely hard work. We were living with each other 24/7 under some incredibly stressful situations, so arguments ensued. Also we both had to compromise, not my favourite thing to do in the world. The biggest sacrifice I had to make was not visiting Kolkata. We were in a 40+ degree heat wave, Bob was recovering from pneumonia and it was an 18-hour train journey, so I lost that battle. This defeat was the catalyst of embarking on my solo travel extravagances. I only ever travel alone, I refuse to negotiation when it comes to destinations I want to visit.
After 14 months, returning home was the weirdest thing, not only because Bob and I split up the day we got back but I had collected a lifetime of experiences and my perspective had changed to its very core and yet absolutely nothing had changed in my hometown, nada. There was no way I could begin to explain to friends what I’d been through. That was thirty-one years ago and I’m still going strong, sitting here writing in Zanzibar after three months of volunteering in Kenya. I feel alive when I’m travelling, like I’m the real me with no constraints or conformity. For me, the UK is suffocating. My life has had so many ‘Sliding door’ (the movie) moments- going down one path leading to another.
My wanderlust also explains my really sickeningly, annoying optimism and positivity towards life. Not just that research has shown that people who spend their money on experiences, such as travel tend to be happier but also I’ve known from an early age how lucky I am, being brought up in a developed country and having a disposable income to travel and pursue careers of our choosing.
As a social worker in the UK, I work with disadvantaged children and their families but sometimes their perceived entitlement to free housing and other benefits for doing nothing drives me insane. I just wish I could drop them in the middle of Kolkata and let them see how lucky they are and what opportunities they have (controversial I know). Agreed, the UK is grey, cold and we’re the laughing stock of the world due to Brexit but on the grand scheme of things most of us don’t have to contemplate selling a child or an organ to survive. When things go completely tits up in life I will always mantra ‘everything happens for a reason’. Even when I broke my arm in a hit-and-run and had physio for a year, thinking my arm would never straighten again- the compensation I received for that accident meant I could move and live in Rio, in 2014. Every cloud…
Travel addiction also known as ‘dromomania’ is defined as “sufferers have an abnormal impulse to travel; they are prepared to spend beyond their means, sacrifice jobs, lovers, and security in their lust for new experiences” which describes me to a T. Travel has been at the forefront of every decision I’ve made, including my non-committal to relationships. My coddiwompling has ultimately lead to me not having children because I love MY life too much. I’m not tied to a mortgage; I don’t have a 10-year plan. I only ever envision when my next travel will be, continually living in the present not thinking of my long-term future which will probably bite me on the bum sooner or later. I’m single, childfree, homeless, and free spirited but ultimately I’m happy, always planning my next adventure and I apologise now for sounding so smug.
Buy my book here https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0BDG97KTQ
If you want to read more of my travel blogs links below
Or you can read excepts from my book ‘Samba, sex and self-loathing’
Taj Mahal- Vishnudeep Dixit
Taj Mahal 2- Shalender Kumar
Shiva Statue- Iskcon Dhaka
Camel drivers- Nav Photography
Ottamthullal dancers, Kerala- Jithin Murali
Kathmandu, Nepal -Kfitz
Aryers Rock- Jonas Schallenberg
Map- Ylanite Koppens