Hello and welcome to my final travel blog! After 7 months on the road the time has come for me to finally return home, and I write this blog from my last hotel, which is conveniently situated close to Delhi Airport. A taxi is picking me up tomorrow morning at 5.15am and I am scheduled to fly at 8.15am, landing 9 hours 5 minutes later at 12.50pm. It will be the 12th flight of my world trip and I can't wait till its over. I will be mightily relieved when I land at Heathrow in the midst of the second BA cabin crew strike, and I look forward to collecting my bag for the final time from a baggage belt. It will be nice to return home and not have the worry of watching over all my belongings, and I look forward to not having to pick up my heavy backpack again. Only this morning it gave me a nasty friction burn when it slipped off my shoulder so I'll be glad to see the back of it for a while!
I arrived here after an overnight train from the last sightseeing stop of my trip, Kolkata, or to refer to it by its old name (which most Indians seem to do), Calcutta. The train was on time leaving Howrah Station yesterday at 4.55pm, and it arrived a mere 25 minutes late this morning at 10.20am, which after my Varanasi-Calcutta train was a big relief. That train ride turned out to be a complete nightmare, and we suffered a delay so bad it robbed me of an entire day of sightseeing around Calcutta. After an hour of waiting at Varanasi station for our 6.10pm train, our guide informed us that it was going to be 5 hours late! We thus decided to check in to a room at a nearby hotel, and we took advantage of the internet facilities and restaurant there to pass the time. On returning to the station at 10.30pm there still appeared to be no sign of our train, which was especially annoying for me as I had to wait outside on the station platform on my own whilst all the girls sat in the ladies only waiting room (our male guide was nowhere to be seen). I had sat in the ladies only room the first time we were at the station (along with 4 other males), but I suffered a barrage of abuse at the hands of an excessively rude Indian woman, who told me to go and wait in the mens only room - which incidentally contained 14 women and 5 men. But the second time there were no men in the ladies room so I waited outside in peace, bored out of my mind.
Our train finally turned at 2.15am, by which time I was exhausted having been up at 5.30am that day for a sunrise boat cruise. I slept quite well on the top bunk of our 3 tier air conditioned carriage, but every time I woke up in the night and morning I couldn't help but wonder why the train was always stopped! We were due in Kolkata at 8am if we'd left on time, but for reasons completely unknown to me, we didn't arrive until a staggeringly late 10pm - a delay of 14 hours. I felt like a prisoner trapped on that train carriage, with our only source of food being from the many shouting child sellers who board the train at different stations along the route. They didn't have much selection for me other than crisps and water, so I barely ate a thing all day. It was also so utterly boring, with the flat wheat field scenery not much to look at in the daylight hours. I did at least enjoy a nice conversation with a Bangladeshi businessman, who was experiencing Indian railways for the first time, but that didn't fill the 20 hours I spent on that carriage! When we got into Howrah we caught "Ambassador" taxis across the Howrah Bridge (a bigger version of the Firth of Forth railway bridge) to our Calcutta hotel. Calcutta doesn't have many autorickshaws and people instead use the characterful old yellow Ambassador (they look like Austins) taxis, which give the place a really classy feel. We checked in to our hotel and then located a nearby open restaurant and I finally got to eat a meal at 11pm! I felt so run down at the end of that day and consequently I think I've succumbed to a slight head cold, which is a shame ahead of my return home.
The next day I was in a hurry to see what I could of the massive city of Calcutta (India's second largest with a population of 15 million), but I lost nearly 2 hours of my morning to a farcical situation involving our hotel and some of the girls on my tour, and then our guide Jitu's pointless orientation walk around the commercial centre. I only went because it was the last thing we did as a group together and I now regret that because we saw so little of interest. The only thing we past of note was a building on the main street which suffered a massive fire a few days ago, claiming 26 lives. There were still lots of media there and from what I've read in the paper all the deaths were avoidable and down to things like locked fire doors and a lack of emergency stair cases on the top floors. We take for granted fire safety back in the UK.
After getting bored of the walk, me and Adria (who was flying out later that day) broke rank and caught a taxi across the Mother Teresa's mission, which still operates today. The destitute are now tended for at another location, but the mission today is home to a small museum, Mother Teresa's old room, her grave and the rooms of lots of nuns, who we saw praying in the chapel. Strangely, the only thing you could photograph was Mother Teresa's tomb, and sadly not her simplistic room. She died back in 1997 after a lifetime devoted to helping the many homeless people of Calcutta. Probably as a result of her, people in the west associate Calcutta so much with poverty. As a result of waves of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) following the partition of India in 1947, and then again following a war in 1971, Calcutta was home to millions of homeless. Westerners tend to remember this as opposed to Calcutta's heritage as India's education capital, which is what locals would rather you think of. Present day Calcutta is however trying to recapture its past glories. It was of course capital of the British Raj for so long and there are many nice colonial buildings around the city centre. The city is making a big effort to clean up litter, and there are bins about which you just don't see in other Indian cities. Traffic laws are also strongly enforced, so the roads weren't so chaotic. Overall I found Calcutta to be a much nicer place than Delhi, and I found the Bengali people (who speak Bengali, not Hindi) to be nicer and less rude than Indians in other parts of the country (there was very little staring). For such a big city, it felt very unthreatening.
After visiting the mission, me and Adria hailed a human rickshaw! Calcutta is the last bastion of the human powered rickshaw, and we simply had to try it, even though it seemed pretty barbaric. We mainly went for the photo opportunity and we were satisfied once the poor old man had walked us a quarter of a mile. We then caught a taxi across to Victoria Monument, which is Calcutta's main landmark and part of the British legacy. It was a beautiful building set in some nice parkland, but we whisked around it in an attempt to squeeze in a visit to the Kali Hindu temple afterwards. The Kali Temple is Calcutta's holiest site, located near a pool said to have been created after the toe of Shiva's wife Kali landed there after she was split into many pieces by Vishnu. The temple was down a very narrow backstreet and was awash with pilgrims. When we got there we were greeted by a very threatening priest who immediately demanded we accompany him for a walk round, and said westerners cannot go in alone. Indeed westerners are barred from a lot of Hindu temples, so we took his word for it, but were very careful with our stuff as he guided us round. He gave us flowers and made us perform Hindu rituals, which at least gave me an insight into what the Hindu's do when they visit temples. He showed us the blood soaked spot where 50 goats per day are sacrificed to the Gods, and he then guided us round the to sacred pool itself. It was here we performed a final ritual, which involved laying flowers on a statue of Shiva, and it was then he produced the con trick which I had suspected all along. He produced a book for me to write my name in and asked me how much I wanted to donate to the poor. Other westerners had seemingly donated astronomical sums, as was written in the book, but there was no way I was falling for his trick and I walked off with him following me and berating me from behind. It was a horrible moment as he was a very threatening men, and in the end we ended up parting with 200 rupees (nearly 3 pound) to get rid of him, which I felt was at least part justified because he gave us a thorough tour and explanation. When I gave him it I said he should donate some of it to the poor, but unsurprisingly he insisted that was his guide fee, which showed how much he really cared. It was a distinct lowlight of my India tour and I was more than relieved to get back in a taxi and return to my hotel.
After lunch I caught a taxi to the station, where I had a near two hour wait for my train (the hotel's estimation of journey time was way off!). I was satisfied with what I'd seen of Calcutta, but it would have been nice to stay longer. At this stage of my trip though I am just concerned with getting home safe, so it wasn't a big disappointment to me that I was robbed of a day there by Indian Railways. I enjoyed a very pleasant journey back to Delhi on the Rajdhani Express (India's premier passenger train which links the 4 major cities), which was a very fast and smooth running train. They fed us a nice evening meal and breakfast, and I enjoyed a nice sleep on a cabin much quieter than the others I'd been on - it was full of Indian middle class people who are a lot more considerate than other Indians.
India has been a thoroughly rewarding stop on my tour and I've had a great 25 days here. Admittedly its been exhausting, and after 3 weeks of noise, chaos, hassle and hard work, I'm more than ready to go home. But I will admit I came here with a lot of misconceptions. I expected extreme tourist hassle, I expected the place to smell really bad, I expected the internet to be slow, and I expected to get ill. In actual fact I passed more solid stools here than in both South America and South East Asia, the smell isn't so bad, the internet is fast, and only certain places have I been really hassled. India is hard work though. Taxi drivers never know where places are, nobody ever has any change, everyone will try and rip you off, and the people can seem quite rude - though I realise this is a society so far removed from the west. Its a very unique country, and I can't help but feel that although India will develop rapidly over my lifetime, it will never develop in a western way. The people here aren't concerned with western fashions, with western sports, or with western films. India is big enough that it has its own culture, and as it develops its cultural industries like Bollywood and the Indian Premier League cricket continue to go from strength to strength. I believe everyone should experience this country once in a lifetime as it really is so different. I'm not sure I'll be rushing back though as now the novelty's worn off I'm not sure I'd enjoy it as much next time! When I first got here I was overawed by the differences and I felt like I'd stepped back in time, but now I'm used to seeing people carrying things on their heads, and passing cows wandering down the city streets. Still, India has definitely been the best travel experience of my whole trip, even if I don't rank it as my favourite country.
I've had a great 7 months travelling, but after 31 weeks (or 217 days) away from home I can't wait to return. All this while I've been seeing how other people live, but I do feel its time for me to go back to my life and my hometown. I've enjoyed everywhere I've been, but I retain special affinity for Peru, Bolivia, Chile, New Zealand, Cambodia and Laos. All lovely countries, home to lovely people. South America was probably my favourite continent as my 4 favourite experiences (the Inca Trail, salt flats crossing, volcano climb and Iguassu Falls) were all there, but South East Asia was a close second, with the culture there being especially interesting and the people being particularly friendly. My least favourite part was my 2 weeks on the Australian East Coast, due in part to my group there, but also because I'm not a big fan of beaches. But I'm still glad I went there as I saw some beautiful places, and Australia in general was not a let down. I particularly enjoyed visiting Melbourne, one of my favourite cities, and the Northern Territory, with its mix of eccentric and Aboriginal culture. But although I've seen so many amazing places and so many world wonders, I'm more than happy to be coming home tomorrow. There are still plenty of places around the world I'd like to visit, but everywhere else can wait till later in life.
I'll really miss writing these blogs. They've been a routine for me when everything around me has been constantly changing, and after writing nearly 100 of them its hard to believe I won't be doing anymore. Thanks to everyone whose read even one of them. I've got a lot out of them in terms of a travel journal, and I hope you've enjoyed them too! Goodbye for the last time!