This time last year I was on my way back from India at the end of what I can only describe as one of the most deeply moving experiences of my entire life. When I returned I did post some pictures on here of my time in India, and I promised (as I so often do) to post more, but only after I had taken the time to really process what I had seen. Little did I know it at the time, but it would be months until I had actually managed to put my brief experience of Southern India into some kind of context with my life so very very far away.

Now, twelve months on, perhaps you will allow me this momentary self indulgence to look back on a trip that opened my eyes to the tragedy of poverty yet at the same time the beauty of humanity and the depth of spirituality.

Someone once said to me the hardest part about going to India was getting there. They weren’t referring to transport though, instead they were talking about the fact that India seems like a far away place and culture so different to our own that it is somewhat daunting. But going to such a place for the first time is like making that first brave dive from a scarily high diving board at a swimming pool, once you’ve done it you wonder why it is you never did so before.

As we flew to India on November and the plane slept in the darkness of a night we had sprinted toward, I watched the onboard skymap on the plane and noted the names of countries and places I’ve only never come so close to before. We had stopped for a while at Abu-Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. It’s airport, a mixture of cultures, strangely reminded me of a scene out of star Wars where Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo are in a bar frequented by all manner of strange looking aliens. It felt like an intersection of the world, a global stop light, a place that is simply on the way to somewhere else.

I hardly slept on the connecting flight to Thiruvananthapuram in Southern India. I knew I ought to, especially given the fact that from there we would still have a five hour road journey to Tamil Nadu. But how could I sleep as the dawn began to break over the Arabian Sea and the distant peaks of the Sahyadri mountains veiled in the mist of clouds that hung in the air like secret angles that would soon depart for the heavens once more. It was a most spectacular dawn, perhaps all dawns in this part of the world look just like this, but how would I know, this was my first India dawn.

You’ll hear many people say that one of the first things to hit you about India is the smell, and I can’t disagree. It was not one smell though, it was a symphony of aromas from burning wood to curry, from gasoline to fruit, not unpleasant and not familiar. My senses could hardly consume the scenes that enveloped me. It was a beautiful chaos of color and life, but one that strangely lacked any feeling of danger or suspicion.

Over the next few days myself and my co-traveler, Jeffrey, worked our way through a gruelling itinerary. The point of our trip was to see and understand the work and needs of a local based charity that we would be raising money for among corporations back in the UK.

As we arrived at our various planned locations we would be greeted by school children who would put garlands, called Haars, around our necks. Then we would commence some kind of tour meeting people, shaking hands, and talking through our interpreter Charles. It very quickly began to feel like a State visit of some kind, and I found myself appreciating the work of Royalty who make this kind of thing look so completely effortless.

On many occasions we were greeted by entire villages that would then hold meeting to listen to us speak and answer our questions. At times I felt almost embarrassed because we were just a couple of ‘nobody’s, but here we were being given the ‘red carpet’ treatment, if only they had red carpet.

At one particular village I decided to break away from our planned route through the mud hut lined streets. As Jeffrey spoke with some villagers I made my way up a little side street accompanied by two officials from the charity walking a little way behind me. As I made my way along the street people came out of their huts to greet me, shake my hand and often just look at me. Pretty soon a crowd had gathered and were following me. As I walked along they quickly realised that shaking hands was a gesture of friendship, and before long every single person I could see around me wanted to shake my hand. I was having to reach over people to shake hands, it was amazing! Eventually the crowd became so large that the officials had to help me find my way back to the main path, which let me tell you wasn’t as simple as it sounds!

I know it sounds wrong to say this, but as I walked along and this huge crowd of people gathered and wanted to touch me, I felt like Jesus! Perhaps a more familiar picture to describe would be that of a rock star walking through a crowd of fans reaching out to touch as many as he could. This was exactly the situation I was in. It was quite simply amazing and though it doesn’t sound like it, it was actually very humbling.

We’ve all seen pictures of poverty of television and thus I had mentally prepared myself for what I might encounter. However the truth is that no matter how much TV you’ve watched you simply cannot begin to comprehend what real poverty is like until you have seen it. That being said though, I had prepared myself for sadness and some degree of emotional distress. Instead, and to my amazement, quite the opposite was true. The poorest people I have ever seen all seemed to be at least outwardly happy. What’s more is that the feeling of community was apparent as was their hospitality. Villagers would want us to visit their homes, shacks, mud-huts and makeshift tents that were home for them, and homes they were proud of.

I wondered how I must have made them feel. Arriving with my cameras, my obvious wealth compared to them, and amid an invisible cloud of sweet smelling deodorant spray. But then I realised that as alien as these peoples lives were to me, mine was equally as alien to them. My shell necklace was often of particular interest with me often being asked what it meant. I felt so shallow not being able to give a better answer other than “I though it looked nice.” An answer they were often politely puzzled by.

Among the various places that we were visiting our hosts also took us to some of Tamil Nadu’s famous temples and monasteries. India as a whole is known as a land of great spirituality, though practices varied widely in ways of worship, gods they worshipped, symbols, temple construction methods and rituals. There were temples everywhere, unbelievably intricate in design and construction these were simply architectural wonders. The magnificence of these Hindu structures is made all the most awe inspiring when you consider that some were built long before Christ walked on the earth!

As I stood in the grounds of a temple that dated back to the 4th century before Christ I wondered how anyone could even suggest we live in a Godless world man was building these beautiful structures in honour of something they only knew on a spiritual level. Surely if God does not exist then so many religions across the world throughout time would not have driven or inspired to go to so much effort to acknowledge their own spirituality. Something made men do this.

One the day before our final day we were taken on a scenic trip to the coastal town of Kovalam via the ancient Padmanabhapuram Palace in Kanyakumari district. When we arrived it was pitch black but as we sat by the beach having dinner outside of our hotel the sky began to light up with fireworks celebrating Hindu festival Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights. In the distance a lighthouse beam would sweep across the beach every few seconds and as Jeffrey and I relaxed this time of relaxation began to feel like a vacation, an entirely separate trip. We sat in the warmth of the night for hours talking and drinking. The Jeffrey went to bed and I went for a walk along the beach and lay in the sand looking at the stars listening to the sound of the waves.

The following morning I was awoken early by the sound of men chanting. It was still very early but I got up to see what the noise was. To my amazement the fishermen were hauling in the nets they had cast in the night by hand. This took many hours. I had time to get up, watch them for a while, take a long shower and then make my way to patio for breakfast. Eventually though I couldn’t help myself. I stood up and announced to Jeffrey that I had to go and join the fishermen, and with that I ran off to where they were. I motioned to one of them and he made room for me, much to their collective amusement, I then mimicked the chants they were doing which made everyone laugh! It was great!

The rest of the day I spent swimming in the sea and walking around the local shops. That evening Jeffrey and I had dinner then sat and enjoyed the sunset. I smoked a cigar, despite the fact I don’t smoke, it just seemed like a cigar kind of moment in life. The Arabian Sea, a sunset and the end of an adventure. And while this might have been the end of this trip, I had a feeling that in reality it was more likely to be the begin of a much bigger story.

Regional map of India
Salt of the Earth (The charity)
Pictures from another world (Part 1)