Ten years ago today, myself and the inimitable Sarah Haworth woke up in a hotel in Mumbai. A hotel that had cost us £2.30 for the night according to Hostelworld, but that we were informed on arrival was actually going to cost us £23, and we’d not actually made a reservation. It was 3am, we were in Mumbai, and we had nowhere to stay. They could find us a room, but were pretty incredulous that we would believe a room could cost £2.30, even in India. £11.50 each for a nights’ sleep was over our budget so in the morning we had to move on. It was the 18th January 2005, it was Sarah’s 25th birthday, we’d been in India less than 12 hours, and we were already incapable of booking a nights’ accommodation without a hiccup. It was going to be a long 8 months…
As a special birthday present to Sarah, I wanted to try and piece together what I could remember of this most memorable of birthdays, so I’ve gone back through the journals, the albums and the deep caverns of my memory, to hopefully give her a laugh as she has a civilised and leisurely 35th birthday breakfast in a cottage in Wales with her fiancé and 2 year old daughter. How the times have changed.
The day before Sarah’s birthday in 2005 we’d set off on our epic adventure. I’d never really had any desire to travel up to that point. I’d been on some lovely holidays to the Canary Islands with my family, and I’d been to Kavos with the girls (the less said about that the better), but I was hardly an intrepid explorer. I did however, have the desire to evade getting a ‘proper’ job for a little bit longer. Six months after I graduated and I was still showing no signs of knowing what I was doing, and the days and weeks spent drinking Stella between, and sometimes during, shifts at the Bear were mounting up. So I decided to go travelling. Yes, that’s a good idea, I’ll quit smoking and start saving and then in a year I’ll go travelling. My new friend Sarah from the Bear, and part of the Thursday night pint and a kebab up Colne crew, was also interested, but at this stage it was all just chat. So I exchanged the fags for three chocolate bars a shift and the money started adding up. We didn’t even have the internet at home at that point so I’m not entirely sure what my research consisted of. I knew I wanted to go to Vietnam and the Grand Canyon, the latter based entirely on watching Thelma and Louise, the former, I’ve no idea why. Sarah on the other hand was cultured. She’d been to Istanbul (not the one up Colne), and she’d been spat at. Before I knew it our travel plans consisted of 8 months, 4 continents, countries I can now admit that I’d never even heard of then (Laos?), and it would begin with a month in India. A nice easy start.
We’d said an emotional farewell to our families at Heathrow and boarded a ten hour flight to Mumbai. Well, Sarah’s had, mine put me on a National Express in Manchester and left John to sort me out from London onwards. He expressed a degree of concern about if I would manage for 8 months with just one bag, and then decided just to get me leathered and I could worry about it when I arrived. We did decide at some point during the night that I didn’t need to take the plastic knives and forks that my Mum had sent me with, a decision which may have been regretted later down the line.
So that’s how we came to be surrounded by, according to my journal, shanty towns, street fires, gangs, rancid water and bodies. They weren’t bodies, they were people asleep on the side of the road, but you have to remember I’d barely left Europe apart from a brief jaunt to Disney World, and saw more of the world in the 45 minute taxi ride from the airport than I had in 21 years. After switching hotels to a place that was within budget, but the room didn’t have a ceiling, and that you wouldn’t have been able to lie down horizontally in without having to bend, we went out to enjoy our first day in India.
According to my journal Sarah was by this point ‘quite frightened’, and I was quite alarmed by having to go everywhere on foot. Looking back at the photos I was a tad more ‘portly’ in those days, and hadn’t thought that purchasing some Jesus sandals from Millets in Burnley the week before gave Sarah free rein to make me walk everywhere. Later in our journey this included walking 8 miles from Agra train station to the Taj Mahal, walking past men with actual guns, because we didn’t want to pay for a taxi. Looking back it’s laughable as rickshaws were pence, but we had 8 months to get through on a few grand apiece, so it had to be done.
We spent the day consulting ‘The Bible’ that is the Lonely Planet, eating cake and wandering aimlessly through market stalls, Sarah fighting her inner hippy by not buying any bells, incense and scarves, and then finally, getting ripped off. We fully expected to get ripped off at some point on our journey, just not less than 24 hours in. We were trying to buy tickets for our onward journey to Goa the following day as we’d decided the best way to deal with India, was on a beach. It was the oldest trick in the book, a lady approached us at the train station, told us the ticket office was shut, but she could take us to a man that could sort out some tickets. Then she told us we were pretty, which given that we were at the start of 8 months without make up and in a combination of ten pieces of clothing that made up our entire wardrobe, was music to our ears. Ten minutes later, we had double priced tickets and one very happy Indian woman named Sandy was rubbing her hands together.
Still, we were grateful the next day when we were on board a train with both seats and a table, sat next to a family who were only to happy to share their food and see us safely onto the next leg of our trip. A train journey a couple of weeks later was not so luxurious, safe or pleasant, we saw a man shitting on the ground, and a man rubbed his crotch against Sarah for the whole journey. So Sandy, if you’re still at Mumbai Central station ripping off new arrivals, good on you. Those few hours eating samosas on the way to Goa were probably the most decadent of our whole time in India, and we have you to thank for that.
After the lavish train journey we had a few relaxing days on the beach in Palolem, Goa, getting offered drugs, yoga classes and scooters, whilst scoffing at the seasoned travellers and their ridiculous hippy clothes. Little did we know that less than a month later we too would be getting Reiki, tarot readings, piercings and wearing fishermans pants. What followed Goa would take far too long to recall, and would possibly only interest myself and Sarah, but hopefully this little snippet will have taken her back in time ten years and made her smile as she drinks her chai this morning.
Maybe in July I’ll retell the story of how we spent my birthday, suffering mild altitude sickness in La Paz, Bolivia, and opening my birthday gifts of a llama foetus and a bowler hat. Thanks Fran and Crofty, to this day I do not know how I managed to leave the foetus in the bin in the hostel…
Editor’s note: No llamas were harmed during the celebrating of my birthday. Llama foetuses are sold in Bolivian markets as an offering to the goddess Pachamama. They also make a horrific birthday present for hungover friends with altitude sickness. If I’d wanted to harm a llama, it would have been the one which tried to mount me and Fran as we walked back from watching a sunrise.