Experiences are so varied and often unique to anything I’ve experienced before. For example, being on a holy mountain, meeting an ascetic smoking opium with his colleagues then giving a packet of pineapple biscuits to Jain pilgrims speed-walking up the 22km climb to Mount Abu (they actually overtook me cycling at one point).
I was in awe of the exotic palm trees and tropical plants, watching the monkeys frolicking by the road side. I became utterly euphoric at the solitude and feeling of freedom, slowly crawling up the road, high on caffeine, fresh air, stunning scenery and Richie Hawtin. A man wearing an orange sheet, driving a tractor, waved at me whilst puffing on his pipe.
On arriving, my bubble of serenity was burst as I realised that the Indian hill station of Mount Abu was not what I expected. There were Buffalos lying in piles of rubbish, a river so polluted that it looked like treacle with paint chucked in for good measure. There were begging children, dirty and wild, with tangled matted hair asking for shampoo and reams of touts asking me if I wanted a room in one of many ugly hotels. One hotel looked like a miniature office block. I’ve never seen anything look so out of place with big reflective red windows!
Upon further progress along the strip, the sun was setting on my hopes of finding a quiet place to put my tent next to the holy lake Nakki which was apparently scraped out by the fingernails of a god. Feeling annoyed, confused and unsettled, I asked at the police station. This resulted in a free hotel room and meal in a fancy restaurant. The meal involved a Gujarati Thali which is a plate with around 8 dishes on it consisting of sweet sour vegetables, salty cake, chutney, chapati, rice, chocolate brownie, soup, daal and aloo sabzi. As soon as I made a dent in the food it was immediately refilled with a joyful-efficiency.
The restaurant owner was friends with the police sergeant who put in a good word for me. I ate until I realised that if I ate any more I would vomit. Then I realised I could not allow myself to waste food. I had been so greedy. Relatively rich tourists, like me, thought nothing of consuming food and cooing over the different dishes, exotic flavours and the shear range of stuff. I felt guilty.
I had seen children who looked so hungry. Some of the child beggars were half naked and I look at them with complete inability to process what I am seeing. It was like I was watching Oliver Twist at the theatre. I had seen sights like this on television. How do I react to television? Do nothing. Turn it off. Where’s the standby button? I wanted to rid myself of these - too realistic - visions.
There were people fasting for their own reasons and people working hard just to make a few rupees to seemingly to buy food for survival. My moral compass had been knocked out of alignment. That was another facet of the Indian experience: bringing out and confronting your your inner demons and idiosyncrasies. In addition, the sheer number of humans was still something that I found hard to cope with. Tolerance is an essential requirement in a country with the second largest population after China at just over a billion.