Around the World in 440 Days Part 2 - India and Sri Lanka

Matt Hills on 22 February 2018
In the summer of 2007, with thirteen years at Trailfinders under my belt, I decided it was time to move on and explore new opportunities. Rather than find another job immediately, I followed the slightly less sensible but vastly more appealing idea of going travelling. I hadn’t done the traditional ‘gap year’ thing, so while I’d had plenty of exotic holidays over the past 13 years, I hadn’t been away for an extended period. This was my chance.

Part one covered an amazing two months in Africa. After a brief sojourn at home, I headed for Asia with a good friend called Paul. He was on his way to a new job in Melbourne but was apparently in no great rush to get there! India was our first port of call, but it’s a big country, and hard to choose where to go. After much discussion, we agreed on Delhi as a first port of call, a quick spin round the Golden Triangle, a tour of Rajasthan, then down the coast via Mumbai to Goa for some R&R, and on towards Sri Lanka (our next country).

I’d been to SE Asia before, but not India. It’s literally breath-taking, from the moment you walk out of arrivals. The heat, the sound, the smell, the colours, and the utter craziness of it all takes a lot of getting used to! You have to accept that the average Indian is poor, certainly in comparison to you. So while they’re incredibly welcoming, helpful and friendly, they are also interested in your money. This is fine, but it does mean the truth can be occasionally elusive. We jumped into a taxi to take us to the only hotel we’d pre-booked for the entire trip. On the way, we were told it had burned down, then the roads were all closed, then it was a terrible hotel, and then that we had arrived. We had indeed arrived, at his cousin’s warehouse, for some rug shopping apparently! Eventually, we were delivered to our chosen hotel, rug-free, though he did get a generous tip. Our adventure had begun.

We toured the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) by bus, they’re as spectacular as you’d expect. Make sure you allow enough time to visit the Taj Mahal at both sunset and sunrise. Back in Delhi, we decided a bit of cricket was in order – almost a rite of passage in India. We jumped on a train up to Chandigarh, for a one-day international between Australia and India. The locals, assuming we were Aussies, were very surprised at our support for the home team. For the record, India won it in the final over, it was a boisterous night that followed.

Back in Delhi, we set about organising a car and driver for the Rajasthan leg of our journey. It’s a great way to travel, much quicker and more comfortable than taking tourist buses, though it’s important to build a good relationship with your driver. We visited all the notable fort towns, such as Ajmer, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer. They’re all beautiful, different, and very colourful. But a real highlight was a camel-trekking jaunt into the desert – imagine sleeping under the night sky, with unbroken horizons in every direction, zero light pollution, and billions of stars to gaze at. It was incredible, you could see the majestic sweep of the Milky Way, truly spectacular.

Mumbai, with a population at the time of over 10 million people, of whom 40% lived in poverty, was shocking and fascinating in equal measures. Glitzy, air-conditioned shopping malls, while outside a family live in a cardboard box on a roundabout. It’s a challenging place. On to Goa, a former Portuguese colony, with lovely beaches, a great party scene and delicious seafood. Next, we headed inland into the hills and tea plantations around Ooty. This is where, in the days of the Raj, the Brits retired to, to escape the incessant heat. It's much cooler, absolutely beautiful, with lots of trekking opportunities. Or just relax and enjoy the views! We went south to Kerala for a houseboat trip on the famous inland waterways, and then a week in the tiny village of Varkala, perched on a cliff-top overlooking the Indian Ocean. Everywhere we went we played cricket with the locals, on the beach, in the towns, waiting for our driver, everyone wanted a game.

A word about the food. I’m a huge fan of curry but was eating so much I actually had to go on a diet! I ate wherever looked busy with locals, and my staple meal was the Thali – served on a huge banana leaf (with no cutlery of course), you get served an unlimited amount of chapatis, veggie curries, chutneys, rice and so on. Unfailingly delicious, and I never got ill. If you avoid unpeeled fruit, salad, and unfiltered ice you should be ok.

The time had come to say goodbye to India, and we flew over to Sri Lanka to meet up with 10 friends from home to watch England get thumped in a Test Match in Galle. It didn’t matter, we had fun in the sun, including some epic tuk-tuk races. We retired to the beach, at the wonderfully named resort of Unawatuna. We were visiting about nine months after the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami, which had wiped out whole communities along the coast. Driving down, we saw endless foundations of buildings, razed to the ground with a row of graves to one side. It was very sobering, yet the locals we met were as welcoming and friendly as ever, despite their obvious sadness and loss.

So that was it for these two remarkable countries. Looking at the emails I sent home at the time, I found some of the travelling pretty tough going. The incessant noise, pollution and poverty was sometimes hard to deal with. But the incredible sights and the resilient, friendly people, made it a place I’d love to visit again. But probably on a slightly higher budget!

The lads went home, Paul headed for his new job in Oz, and I was off to Bangkok for the next leg of my journey.