The City with Two Faces – My North Indian Adventure, Part 3

In the centre of Akshardham, an enormous temple and cultural complex in Delhi, is an eleven foot tall, solid gold statue of revered Hindu teacher Swaminarayan, set on a diamond-white plinth. Behind, around and above him, the walls are completely lined in jewels of every colour imaginable, gleaming gold silver pink blue as the sun filters in through the high ceiling. On the outer walls of the temple, impossibly intricate carvings and statues line every inch of free space, with so much detail you can see each deity’s fingernails.

It’s an awe-inspiring sight, and one that set the precedent for the last stop on my Indian adventure: a week in the nation’s capital. I arrived into Delhi after a comparatively short train journey of just a few hours, which was uneventful except for the discovery of a small mouse living underneath my train bunk. After an evening planning my week’s itinerary and transitioning into full tourist mode, I set off the next morning on the metro and arrived at Akshardham.

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As I walked through the shrine doors, the entire room felt infused with spirituality in a way few places I’ve ever visited have. There was a palpable sense of wonder and reverence which, even as an atheist, I felt strongly as I walked around. Although I don’t subscribe to any religious views, the beauty and intricacy of Akshardham was a reminder of just how important a role religion still plays around the world, and how strong is the faith that inspired it.

The more I explored India, the more it seemed the only place that could have given birth to a body of mythology like Hinduism. The chaotic streets, the speed and colour of life…it all reflects, and is reflected in, the seemingly endless array of gods, deities and stories. And Hindu gods are fascinating: flawed and complex, creating and destroying at one and the same time, giving in to temptation and displaying actual emotions. I was glad to have the opportunity to learn about these things as I walked around the peaceful halls of Akshardham.

Yes, this picture has been Insta-fied

Unfortunately, my visit to the Lotus Temple the next day was considerably less peaceful. The building itself is stunning, both from the inside and out, and I managed to catch it at a picturesque moment of sunset. But almost the entirety of my visit was spent in long, single-file queues, cooking alive in the last of the afternoon heat. It took close to an hour to get inside, and when I finally did I was so annoyed at being jostled by tourists and herded like cattle that I found it impossible to be even slightly thoughtful or spiritual, and didn’t stay for long. As I left, I put on some angry hardcore punk music to channel my frustration at shitty crowds.

 

“I felt like Nathan Drake in Uncharted

On my third day I went to explore the Qutub Minar and surrounding ruins. This is the largest minaret (tower, like those in each corner of the Taj Mahal) in India – 73 metres tall and 1000 years old. The tower itself is immaculately preserved and so huge that you can’t even see the top when you look up from the base. As I wandered around the sun-baked gardens and crumbling relics of ancient civilizations, I felt more than a little bit like Nathan Drake in Uncharted, and was half hoping to discover a secret lever which would lead to a cryptic puzzle and some buried treasure.

The Qutub Minar

I’m sad to report that I didn’t find any secret treasure, but I did manage to catch a cold. A cold, of all things, in Delhi! It flattened me for a whole day with a terrible headache, blocked sinuses, a chesty cough and a very sore throat, which I suspect was caused by air pollution. I decided I needed a break from tombs, temples and the sun, and spent my next day paying a visit to the National Museum of Delhi and the National Gallery of Modern Art, where there was (at last!) air-conditioning and the sweet sound of silence.

Here I learned more about the artists who made the first visual representations of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, essentially creating the long-haired, blue-skinned image of divinity that has become the standard today. And I was amazed by the Tanjore and Mysore paintings, which use real gold, silver foil, beads and powdered metals mixed with paint to create bright, jewel-like colours. In the National Gallery was a huge variety of incredible modern art, with bits of cubism, Japanese art, twisted sculptures and abstract expressionism.

Tanjore & Mysore Painting

 

The City’s Second Face

Up until this point I had only been exploring New Delhi, given that my hostel was based quite far in the south of the city. Of course, ‘New’ is relative: even here there are hundreds of ancient tombs and temples, so frequent that you could run into one just walking down any random street. But these sites are in the middle of carefully manicured parks, or between wide highways, or just around the corner from huge malls full of Western brands. The conquest of capitalism, which is still in progress around most of India, feels almost complete in New Delhi.

Old Delhi, as I discovered on my last day in the country, is almost entirely untouched. When I got off the metro in Chandni Chowk, just a handful of stops on from the central plaza of Connaught Place, I felt like I’d gotten off in a different city. The roads are narrow and dusty, the brands replaced with local businesses, the cars replaced by opportunistic tuk tuk drivers all quoting me prices for a lift to the spice markets and Jama Masjid.

The ruins around the Qutub Minar

I turned them all down, as I wanted to wander the streets on foot and see it for myself. I made my way down the main road and towards the Red Fort, another of Old Delhi’s main tourist attractions. Unfortunately, I found the Red Fort pretty disappointing after seeing the Agra Fort: it was much smaller, and large parts of it were either fenced off for repair work or covered in ugly scaffolding. There were officials in fluorescent jackets everywhere, and they obviously took great pleasure in blowing their whistles at tourists, exercising some tiny modicum of power in their boring jobs.

As in the Lotus Temple, being told where to go when all I wanted to do was explore annoyed me quite a bit, so I decided to scrap the rest of my sightseeing plans for the day and just get lost walking around the markets of Old Delhi. I was glad I did: once I stopped looking for tourist attractions and things to do, I felt like I saw a more authentic side to the city.

The markets of Old Delhi

The narrow, maze-like market streets were bustling with life in every inch of space. Vendors were shouting, gesturing and spitting, sitting hunched over circuitboards and tiny batteries in phone repair shops, frying parathas in sizzling pans of oil beneath colourful strings of packaged tobacco. Rumbling motorcycles were careening wildly around people and potholes and dangling wires, while brightly coloured storefronts shouted KAPOOR JEWELLERY AND KRISHNA SECURITY SYSTEMS. Turning a corner, I stumbled into a large open area where hundreds of expensive TVs and radios were stacked on top of each other, all for sale. And then around the next corner a scene of pure chaos as traffic came to a complete standstill in the most narrow road I’d ever seen, and people dogs cows tried to weave their way through the cars.

This was amazing.

I had lunch in a local restaurant, paying just 100 rupees (about £1) for some of the best food I had in the country, before eventually arriving at the entrance to the Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest mosques. I took off my shoes and walked barefoot into the sandstone courtyard, then sat down cross-legged in the shadow of the mosque, listening to Ravi Shankar’s ‘A Morning/Evening Raga’ for an entire hour.

 

The End of a Journey

In the shadow of the Jama Masjid

Watching the setting sun and the flocks of birds and the Muslim families eating picnics while their children ran around playing tag, I had another moment of international freedom – a slightly out of body, how-did-I-get-here feeling, but mixed with a sensation of total independence and self-reliance. I was sad that my journey through India was coming to an end, but as it did I felt a newfound desire to explore the world, and a confidence in my ability to meet the challenges of travelling.

That day was my last in Delhi: a fascinating city with two faces, one Old and one New, where the convergence of history and modernity is more pronounced than anywhere else I’ve ever visited. And it was also the end of my six week adventure in India, as I packed my bags and got myself ready for the long flight back to London Gatwick. There are many places I still want to travel to – Japan, Canada, South America, Germany – and I hope I can continue to share some stories from future travels with everyone who reads this blog. But for now it was back to the UK, where I got off my plane into driving rain and a snowstorm.

I guess some things never change.

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Sex Scenes, Guns, and the Taj Mahal at Sunrise – My North Indian Adventure, Part 2

“Selfie? Selfie?”

Throughout my six weeks in India, I was asked this question more times than I could count. Usually while visiting tourist attractions, but sometimes even in supermarkets or simply walking down the street – complete strangers would stop and ask to take a photo with me. The first time it happened I was walking around Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial, and I was more confused than anything else. I accepted and posed for an awkward photo, only because I couldn’t think of a good reason to politely say no on the spot.

By the second and third time, I stopped caring about being polite and got into the habit of quickly declining anyone who approached me for a picture. If people thought I was being rude, it didn’t bother me: in my eyes, asking a total stranger for a photograph just because they look different is far ruder. In front of the Qutub Minar, I even asked one man why he wanted to take a picture of me just because I was white and bald, when there was a 1000-year old, 73 metre-tall monument behind him. He skulked off awkwardly, not sure how to reply.

I bring this up now because the first thing that happened when I boarded my train from Lucknow to Agra was – you guessed it – my seat neighbour asked me for a selfie. Given that I was about to spend nine hours sitting next to the guy, I decided to swallow my pride and do it, if only to avoid making things unbearably awkward.

As it turns out, the man (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten) was a father of three and on the train with him was his entire family, grandma included, making their way to Firozabad outside Agra. His youngest daughter, no older than five and absolutely adorable, introduced herself to me in very shy English as Minal, after a bit of encouragement from her dad. And when I opened up Midnight’s Children again, she was sat reading it over my shoulder, trying to make sense of the English words.

“A pair of barely concealed royal boobies”

Later, I was watching an episode of The Crown on Netflix when I realized the dad was also watching it from the seat next to me, so I gave him one of my headphones. To my infinite horror, almost as soon as I did this a sex scene started playing, and I found myself holding up my phone for a stranger on a train to watch a pair of barely concealed royal boobies. I was just about ready to die of embarrassment, but he broke the tension by laughing and then nudging me in the side, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

I couldn’t help but find it hilarious then, and I ended up having a nice conversation with the man and his family afterwards. It was the kind of brief but memorable encounter that travelling is all about, when people whose paths would never otherwise have crossed get to meet and briefly catch a glimpse of each other’s lives. I regretted not asking them in turn for a picture, because that, to me, is what photos are for: capturing a shared moment with somebody you want to remember. Not collecting trophies of weird-looking foreigners.

The family got off in Firozabad and I continued on to Agra. My seat was a window seat, and I was pleased to discover that Indian train windows open right up, meaning you can shove your head all the way out of them and feel the wind rushing into your face while staring up at the stars. I passed the final leg of the journey in this way, and arrived into Agra, peacefully tired, at two in the morning.

Geometric Gardens & Exotic Birds

My hostel was called Zostel, a lovely place with a very relaxed atmosphere that was just five minutes away from the Taj Mahal. I spent the whole next day lounging in bed, recovering from my long journey while soaking up the sun. And I met two very friendly guys sharing my room, Ricardo and Jim, who also had plans to visit the Taj the next day.

The gates opened at 6am.

The following morning Jim, Ricardo and I woke up at 5:30am to see India’s most unmissable tourist attraction at sunrise. Few places in the entire world attract so many travellers, or have so much hype behind them, but the Taj Mahal easily lived up to, in fact surpassed, all my expectations. It was an incredible experience which I won’t ever forget.

LOOK EVERYONE I WAS REALLY THERE!!!

The moment you step through the enormous gate is enchanting: the building’s architects repeated the same dome shape throughout the entire complex, so the main structure is perfectly silhouetted through the doors as you approach. And then you come out into the courtyard, where the geometric gardens stretch off into the distance, and exotic birds fly overhead.

The pale blue light of morning shrouded the Taj in a misty, mystical cloak, and as the sun came up onto its east side, the white marble turned a gentle shade of dawn-yellow. The scale of it is just unfathomable, and until you get right up close it’s hard to comprehend just how much of an achievement its construction was, and how well preserved it still is today.

“There were people photographing bushes”

But what fascinated me just as much as the Taj itself were the people visiting it. Something about the building inspires a unique kind of tourism, one where people seem compelled to photograph absolutely every single moment of their once in a lifetime experience. There were people photographing bushes, and I noticed that whenever someone in the front of a group would stop and take a picture, everyone else in their group would suddenly scramble to take their own, as if they were terrified they would miss the perfect angle.

I think the reason for this bizarre behaviour is that, in 2018, we all feel so much pressure from social media to turn our lives into stories, and everyone who visits the Taj Mahal senses that it is an important chapter of that story. You have to tell it perfectly – whether it’s the sexy backpacker girls all practising the same pensive Facebook profile pic pose, or the guy trying to perfectly time his kooky mid-air jump picture.

For my part, I was trying to appreciate the moment as much as possible while I was in it, rather than recording every second of it through a phone screen. I think it’s important, in the twenty-first century, that travelling doesn’t just become a social media slideshow. But I can’t pretend I didn’t get some snaps of my own, so maybe I’m just a huge hypocrite.

Israeli Potheads vs Monkeys

After the Taj, we found a rooftop cafe where we ordered some sandwiches and tea. But when the waiter came to deliver our food, he also gave us something which none of us had ordered: a gun. Answering our baffled looks, he explained it was an airgun to defend our food from monkeys, who had been known to sneak up and steal people’s bacon butties while they weren’t looking. There was nothing inside, it just made a loud noise to scare them away.

Gap year or russian roulette??? You decide

We were joined on the roof by a group of Israeli backpackers who were about to visit the Taj, and swapped some stories about where we’d travelled to and what to see in Agra. As we were talking, two of them casually pulled joints out of their pockets and lit them. I didn’t expect to find myself shooting at monkeys on a roof in the company of Israeli potheads, but life is like that sometimes.

Exploring An Ancient World

Agra Fort, where we headed next, was just as impressive to me as the Taj. The whole complex felt infused with history as we walked around it: in enormous courtyards there are lavishly decorated pulpits where I imagined ancient kings making oaths of war and peace, and in lavishly decorated palaces full of mirrors, plaques told stories from another time.

The entrance to Agra Fort

There was the king who built a solid gold chain from his chambers to the entrance of the fort, which his subjects would shake if they mistreated. And then there was my favourite – the Musamman Burj, an octagonal marble temple at the top of a tower inlaid with precious stones. Shah Jahan built this temple for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, much like the Taj, and the two of them used it to worship the sun every morning. With a twist of the most beautifully cruel poetic irony, Shah Jahan’s own son Jahangir exiled him into this temple when he seized power from his aging father, locking him away with one of his daughters, who cared for him until he died.

Musamman Burj

There were countless stories like this inside the Agra Fort, and exploring it really did feel like walking through an ancient world. The Fort and the Taj are probably the two most impressive tourist attractions I’ve ever visited, and my day exploring them both was one of the most memorable I had in India. After it was over, I retreated to the hostel and zonked out for the remainder of my short time in Agra. The next and last stop on my journey to the north of India: Delhi!

Transcendental Happiness and Roundabout Cows: My North Indian Adventure, Part 1

25 hours on the train. That’s how long it took me to get from KOAA station in Calcutta to Lucknow Junction, where I was making the first pit stop of my two week journey into the North of India. It was a bittersweet goodbye, having spent four fantastic weeks in the city completing my internship with The Daily Telegraph, and making some good friends along the way. But the adventure was not over yet, and I boarded the second-class sleeper train that was dropping me off in Lucknow, before I continued onwards to Agra and New Delhi.

I had expected train travel in India to be stressful, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Upon arriving at the station almost three hours early, I found all the information I could have needed clearly signed in English, Hindi and Bengali, with my train arriving in plenty of time. Once I found my seat, I was delighted to discover that, at least for the first part of the trip, I had an entire four-person carriage to myself.

I took off my shoes and sat cross-legged on the bottom bunk, munching on a big can of Pringles and listening to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, while staring out the window at the passing Bengali countryside. The album’s title track offered me up a moment of transcendental happiness when Van sang the words: ‘I’m nothing but a stranger in this world / I got a home on high / So far away / Way up in the heaven…’

I watched farmers herding bulls and goats along shallow seed-ponds and paths cut into the bushes. I saw colourful villages where houses were painted bright pink and yellow, and lakes just beyond the village where people were bathing in the morning sun. And I saw, for the first time in a month, a sky that was actually blue, unlike the sickly grey, translucent smog of Calcutta. It filled me with a sensation of complete and utter freedom.

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This is what ‘complete and utter freedom’ looks like.

“We never got lost, and nobody got maced.”

I know, of course, that it’s easy to idealize rural life when you’re a stranger catching a brief glimpse through a train window. I’m all too aware that poverty is as much a problem in these small villages as it is in Calcutta: the Indian government has failed to deliver on promises it made before the 2014 election about fair rates for farmers, and conditions in many areas are bleak. The unpleasant influence of industrialization, too, is as visible here as it is in the city.

Outside the towns and villages are small-scale factories and steel plants where spires of gas spew out pollution, looking like stubby fag-ends that have been shoved into the earth bottom down. Something about this kind of homemade pollution was more distressing to me than seeing an enormous industrial complex, and I couldn’t help but feel a little pang of guilt on behalf of the planet – the same kind of complicity I felt every time I got stuck in one of Calcutta’s noxious, gas-guzzling traffic jams at 1pm on a weekday.

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The train toilet. NO THANKS

I turned away from the window once my carriage filled up, retreating to my top bunk and getting lost in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, before settling down with a blanket and trying to get some sleep. The train bunks were surprisingly comfortable, although my long legs poked out over the end and kept brushing the heads of people who passed our carriage through the curtain.

In the morning, I had a conversation with a doctor who was also getting off in Lucknow, and was curious to know what I was doing on the train. I ate a very, very spicy breakfast. And then, finally, we arrived. 25 hours is one of the longest single journeys I’ve ever taken – second only to flying from London to Melbourne – but the journey was comfortable every step of the way. If I was expecting something more chaotic, it’s probably only because I watched Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited before travelling to India. But we never got lost, nobody got maced, and we touched down in Lucknow at around 11 O’clock.

The worst hotel room I’ve ever stayed in…

The first thing that struck me about Lucknow was bikes. Bikes and cows. On the city’s narrow, dusty roads were roughly sixty percent motorbikes, thirty percent cars and ten percent cows. That figure is no exaggeration: for every ten vehicles I spotted at least one cow, poking around in the dirt or chewing on some stray weeds. At one point, I was flabbergasted to spot five cows sitting right in the middle of a roundabout, while queues of usually impatient taxi drivers slowed to a crawl to accommodate the holy animals.

Unfortunately, ‘holy’ is not the word I would use to describe my hotel room, unless it was in the phrase: ‘holy shit, this is the worst hotel room I’ve ever stayed in’. The Hotel Rana International was a budget venue that looked passable for a couple of nights on bookings.com, but in reality it was a complete dump.

The walls were mouldy white with stains on them and no windows, and the connected bathroom had no ventilation so the room was perpetually muggy and smelled like damp. The shower didn’t work, so I had to clean myself with a measuring jug and a bucket. They didn’t provide toilet paper, or soap. And the TV, when I tried it, made a hilariously broken buzzing noise until I turned it off, at which point it never came back on again.

…And one of the best meals of my life

I was hungry after my long journey, but a quick trip to the local supermarket was a disappointment. ‘Supermarket’ might be a bit too grand a term for a grocery shop the size of my hotel room which didn’t even sell bread – not something I had ever seen before. It meant I had no choice but to live off snacks, and my diet for three days consisted of jam on muffins for breakfast, and oreos with crisps for lunch. In other words – a nice and healthy, balanced diet.

Dastarkhwan the  Mughlai delight. Lalbagh ,Lucknow
A hidden gem.

Thankfully, I was able to have dinner in the restaurant which was twenty seconds away from my hotel’s front entrance. Dastarkhwan Lalbagh was a little hidden gem that served traditional Mughal cuisine, and the food here was the best I had in India, without doubt. It was so good the first night I had to come back the next, and on this occasion ordered a plate of grilled Afghan chicken with zeera rice that was so delicious it made me want to cry. On the side, too, was the most perfectly crispy  ‘Muglai Nan’ topped with pineapple and pomegranate – far and away the best naan bread I’ve ever eaten.

It was enough food to feed three small people, but I sat and chomped my way through the whole thing solo, blissfully ignorant of the locals’ curious stares while I ascended to the astral plane of spice. This meal alone was enough to justify my terrible choice in accommodation – if I hadn’t stayed at the Hotel Rana I definitely wouldn’t have eaten at Dastarkhwan Lalbagh, and I’d have missed out on one of the best meals of my life.

“How the fuck did I get here?”

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The next day, I went for a wander in the streets of Lucknow. On a second impression, I discovered that bikes really were everywhere – some side streets were so narrow they contained almost no cars at all, just wave upon wave of motorbikes and scooters. And when I rounded the corner, I stumbled across an amazing sight.

A road in which both sides of the pavement were lined with hundreds upon hundreds of bikes, both broken down rust-buckets and gleaming new machines alike. Dusty signs hung above repair shops where groups of men sat banging at pieces of metal with hammers, or fiddling with screwdrivers. And store fronts closer to the road made makeshift walls out of tyres, stacked in three metre-high piles, while vendors holding shiny new engines and spare parts shouted prices at passers-by.

As I stood at a four-way intersection, trying to cross a dizzying rush of traffic moving in all directions, I felt infused again with the brilliant madness of India and had a slightly out of body travel moment. I looked around and asked myself: “how the fuck did I get here?”

That evening was my last in Lucknow, and after another trip to Dastarkhwan Lalbagh I waddled back to my hotel, where I made one last little discovery. The stairs leading up from my floor didn’t lead to another set of rooms, but straight out onto the roof of the building. Here, I could stand and watch the cars passing under streetlights, and look out over the distant skyline of Lucknow. It was a peaceful conclusion to my trip through a very chaotic city, even if I did get eaten alive by mosquitos.

The adventure continues!

The next day, I packed my bags and got out of my terrible hotel room as early as I possibly could, catching a taxi to Lucknow station. The next stop on my two-week adventure was Agra, where I was staying in a hostel five minutes away from the Taj Mahal. But if you want to hear about that you’ll have to tune in to the next part of this post, coming in a few days time. Thanks for reading!

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The sun sets over Lucknow Junction.

Learning the Language of Honk – Four Weeks in Calcutta

The first thing is the noise. Stepping through the gate at international arrivals, my very tired, very jetlagged ears are plunged into a symphony of traffic. Taxi drivers shout and gesture to potential customers, and each other. Vehicles swerve between lanes, doors are slammed shut. And honking car horns are speaking their own language, a language we’ve never heard in the place I call home. There are short, tooting little bursts of noise saying here here here, and then there are long drawn out honks that sound almost sentient, like the cars are marking their territory.

mdeThroughout my four weeks in Calcutta, and from the passenger seat of many Uber cabs, I gradually began to understand the language of Honk. It is a language of many verbs – move, stop, look, wait. But it can also express emotion: several cab drivers, I noticed, would honk the horn when they were forced to stop at a red light as an expression of frustration, not aimed at anything or anyone in particular. And one especially mad taxi driver, who took me home from work on a Friday evening, didn’t miss a single opportunity to overtake the cars in front of him – even if it meant driving into oncoming traffic. He would honk at each one he passed, partly as a warning saying “get out of my way”, but also as a kind of boast: “Ha! I’m faster than you!”

In those first moments, though, fresh off the plane, the language of Honk meant nothing to me. I was more than a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer chaos of the roads, and the blast of heat that struck me as the doors opened. It had been a stressful flight, with several issues connecting from Mumbai to Calcutta. First I had gone through the wrong gate at immigration and then later, when going through baggage check, my boarding pass was not stamped properly. This meant that when I tried to board my connecting flight, I was told I hadn’t gone through security and almost wasn’t able to board the plane.

 

A New Day, A New Horizon

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All of this occurred at four in the morning, and my inability to sleep on planes meant I’d been awake for close to thirty hours. I finally did manage to board the connecting flight, feeling thoroughly grumpy and very, very stressed. But once we began take off, I was treated to a spectacular sight that put it all into perspective. Out the right side plane window was the most incredible sunrise I had ever seen over Mumbai – a long band of deep orange at the very lip of the horizon, slowly fading into yellow, pale green, silver and then the black of the night sky. I decided to take it as a sign: the start of a new day, and the start of a new chapter for me personally; one which I hoped would be full of new sights, sounds and experiences.

In my first week, the sight that shocked me the most (and one that was sadly prominent throughout the entire city) was the slums. I’d never before seen poverty on the scale it exists in Calcutta, and it made me appreciate how many simple things I take for granted every day. The divide between rich and poor is more prominent here than anywhere else I’ve been in the world – brand new shopping malls and hotels are next door to crumbling buildings that look hundreds of years old. The wild animals also required some getting used to. Of course there are wild dogs and cats in the streets, but the sight of wild horses, cows and a monkey caused me to do a double take. There was even a pack of wild goats that ran across the road in Central Avenue, headbutting a surprised woman who was looking the other way.

The other thing I could never quite get used to was the staring. Calcutta is not a city home to many foreigners, and my white skin (and probably also my shaved head) constantly marked me out as different. While I know there was nothing more to it than quiet curiosity, I am generally quite a private person and often found it difficult to be stared at in this way. Calcutta was the first time I had ever lived anywhere in which I was an ethnic minority: on bad days, I would describe the experience as feeling simultaneously invisible and as if everyone was looking at me.

A large part of this was just travel nerves, which passed after the first week. It isn’t easy to pack up your whole life and move to an entirely different continent halfway across the planet, one in which you know nobody and don’t speak the language. But I told myself that if I could do this then I could do anything, and that I had to conquer my fear of the unknown. Change is scary, yes, but lack of change is scarier. You just need perspective to see it.

 

The Work Begins

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Once I got my head down into some writing, I found I was more in my element. In the second week of my internship at The Telegraph, I was sent on a few food assignments to various places around Calcutta. I was lucky enough to visit Dum Pukht, one of the best restaurants in the city, to try some traditional Indian cuisine. Having not had a chance to experience proper Indian food up until this point, I went straight to the top for my first taste of the country’s flavours, and they didn’t disappoint. I quickly realized how important food is in Indian culture, as I explored the streets full of spice stalls and carts selling phuchkas and kachori. The syrupy sweets of KC Das, especially the famous rosogolla, were a favourite of mine.

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In my third week, I did some modelling. T2 were having a photoshoot for Holi all about how people were adding colour to their wardrobes, and asked me to come along. As someone who is generally terrible at having his picture taken, I wasn’t hugely excited about the idea. But the shoot ended up being silly fun – I’d never realized before just how unnatural some of the poses in professional photoshoots are, and my awkward laughter as I tried to hold them was just about enough to pass for smiling. I certainly didn’t expect my face to end up on the front cover of Tuesday’s T2, but my copy of the day’s paper is a souvenir that I’ll take home with me, and it makes me laugh every time I see it.

It was only in my final week in Calcutta that I was able to find the time to visit the city’s main tourist attractions. The gardens of the Victoria Memorial were a nice escape from the chaos and noise of the streets, and the building itself was a grand tribute to the fallen power of the Victorian British Empire. St Paul’s Cathedral, meanwhile, was the first cathedral I’d ever seen to feature ceiling fans. Both buildings felt emblematic to me of Calcutta’s peculiar mix of old and new: these imposing historical relics tower over a city which is still full of the influence of its colonial history, even 80 years on. But at the same time, India’s rapidly rising economy is giving birth to new developments, five star hotels and shiny shopping malls all across the city, while huge billboards spread the influence of Western capitalism.

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Somewhere in all these contradictions, I gradually began to understand the mad, chaotic energy of Calcutta. It truly is a different world to any other city I’ve visited, or any place I’ve called home. I won’t soon forget the noise, the sights, the smells, the people and those streets, which are more intensely alive than any I’ve seen. I just hope, when I get back to the UK to take my upcoming driving test, I don’t start speaking the language of Honk.

A Magical Mystery Tour of the United Kingdom

“Sorry, did you just headbutt me?”

I asked this question in the basement of a German-themed bar named Bierkeller, a venue situated in the centre of Bristol. Bristol is a British city about an hour west of London that is home to some of the best live music in the UK, and I was at Bierkeller in the middle of my first ever moshpit. The band I had come to see were one of my all time favourites – a metal group by the name of Electric Wizard. And midway through their classic tune ‘Barbarian’, the crowd – and myself – reached a fever pitch of such headbanging intensity that I felt an enormous noggin thump me right in the back of the neck.

Charged up on the music and adrenaline, I hardly even noticed at the time. But when the song ended, I turned to the greasy-haired metalhead dude behind me and asked, a bit too politely: “Sorry, did you just headbutt me?” He grinned and said, “Yeah, man. I think so.” I couldn’t even be angry – I grinned back and replied: ‘Nice one.”

Moments like these are exactly why I love live music. There’s nothing to compare to the thrill of hearing your favourite artists in the flesh, sharing in the atmosphere and the energy of a performance with like-minded people. In the UK, we’re lucky enough to have some of the best live music venues in the world, and there’s no better way to experience the culture of a city than to get off the beaten path and hear some local bands. So in this article I want to take you through some of the venues and cities throughout the United Kingdom, and recount some tales from the amazing artists I’ve seen there.

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Entering the Big Jeff Zone

The city of Bristol is known for a few things. First, it’s the home of Banksy and some of the best graffiti art in the world. Second is the Clifton Suspension Bridge, an impressive feat of Victorian engineering just outside the city centre. And third is the Bristol accent, full of rolled ‘arr’s and ‘urr’s that are famously difficult for anyone outside the city to understand.

But Bristol is also one of the best cities in the UK for live music. It’s home to a floating nightclub – Thekla, an old German timber ship converted into music venue, which sits in the buzzing harbourside area. And it’s also home to The Fleece, a rock bar which plays host to rising talent from around the south west. The Fleece is perhaps as well known for its music as it is for a small square of tarmac near the stage, which has been affectionately dubbed the Big Jeff Zone.

Big Jeff is a resident of Bristol who is something of a legend in the music scene. The man is a towering seven feet tall, and his love of live music is so strong that he attends a different gig almost every single night. That’s no exaggeration: if you go to a live show in Bristol, there is a very strong chance that you might spot the blond-haired giant himself, right up front by the stage and rocking out to his hearts content. At The Fleece, the big man has his own designated standing space in front of a support beam, where his huge height doesn’t obstruct the view of the poor souls behind him.

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Tales from the UK rave underground

Bristol is also a hub for electronic music, being the birthplace of the short-lived dubstep genre and containing a thriving scene of drum ‘n’ bass, house and techno. The UK has a storied history with raves, or underground parties – in the 80s, many illegal raves were shut down by police as the nation was swept by fear of the drug Ecstasy, and its effect on youth culture. In the aftermath of these illegal raves, many changes were made to laws on UK nightlife, allowing venues to stay open much later into the night.

The impact of those parties can still be felt at music venues around the UK. In Bristol the nightclub Motion, which is just a short walk from the city’s main train station, plays host to regular raves which channel the spirit of years past: huge speaker systems, loud bass and music playing into the early hours of the morning. Some nights end as late as five or six AM, and clubbers leaving to go home are likely to run into early morning commuters catching their next day trains and buses to work.

All drugs are, of course, banned from the premises, and there is tight security at the door. But there are inevitably some who smuggle illicit substances past the bouncers, and you can usually spot them a mile away. The person stood in the corner by themselves, staring intently at a strobe light and dancing like a confused jellyfish, is probably best left alone.

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Music in the capital

It goes without saying that there is plenty of good music in London: the city is among the top billing for almost any international performing artist. One of the best music venues in the capital, though, is the Roundhouse in Camden. This venue, true to its name, is a circular, open space with a stage at the front, and plays host to all the best bands not quite big enough to fill an arena. It is large, but the round shape of the building and fantastic stage setup keep it feeling intimate.

I came here to watch a band named Beach House perform a handful of years ago, and had a fantastic evening all around. Beach House are a band who play a style of music known as dream pop: slow, hazy tunes with wistful vocals and steady drum beats. My enjoyment of the gig was only slightly dampened when I found out, having travelled halfway across the country to get to London, that the band were performing at a venue not fifteen minutes away from my house just days later.

Going up north

That home was in Leeds, where I studied at university for three years. Leeds is another hub for live music and is, alongside Manchester, the go-to place for artists performing outside of London. Deep in the student district of Headingley you’ll find the famous Brudenell Social Club, where bands of all shapes and sizes play to adoring student crowds. I visited the Brudenell several times, to see everything from American punk rockers Viet Cong to freaky noise-pop band Deerhoof.

But the best gig I attended in my student days was one that ended with the lead singer pouring a bottle of whiskey on top of my head. Crystal Castles are an electro-pop group with elements of house music, and their shows are a sensory overload of loud bass, flashing lights and jumping crowds. I saw them at the O2 Academy in Leeds, and the crowd were so hyperactive that at one point a girl slipped and fell, causing a domino effect that left about fifty people lying on the floor. The music was stopped to let everyone get to their feet, and then resumed at the same volume as before.

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Having pushed my way to the front of the crowd as the show went on, I found myself up against the barrier for the encore. Lead singer Alice Glass pulled a bottle of whiskey from out behind the stage and took a huge swig from it, then poured the rest into the open mouths of the front row. Unfortunately, the majority of the drink landed squarely on top of my head, but I was so into the music that it didn’t bother me all too much.

That’s the power of live music: an atmosphere and energy so intense it can let you forget being headbutted, or taking an unwanted Jack Daniels shower. And the UK is second to none for gigs: whether you’re up north in Leeds and Manchester or down south in London and Bristol, the country’s cities have a huge variety of shows for all tastes. For anyone visiting the UK, seeing some artists perform is one of the best ways to get in touch with the locals and get a feel for the city, and all the venues above are highly recommended for doing exactly that. Who knows – you might even spot Big Jeff.

Eating For Free at the #1 Restaurant in Calcutta!

In Calcutta, the #1 and #2 rated restaurants in the city are a thirty second walk away from each other’s doors. Not far from the main entrance of the extravagant ITC Sonar hotel, which is home to six restaurants and a nightclub, you’ll find the rustic Peshawri, which offers a wide variety of Indian cuisine. But within throwing distance is Dum Pukht, the restaurant that has held the #1 spot on TripAdvisor for the last two years. Chef Zubair Qureshi tells us, with a grin, “They know we are #1. There is a lot of friendly competition”.

It is perhaps, then, in the spirit of friendly competition that Dum Pukht is offering a brand new menu throughout February – one which is built around the culinary delights of qaliya curry. From the 1st until the 28th, Dum Pukht is serving a selection of vegetarian and non-vegetarian qaliya dishes, ranging from Gosht Chaap Qaliya – lamb chops cooked with yoghurt, brown onion and almond paste – to Nadru Kofta Qaliya – marbles of minced lotus stem and hara masala finished in yellow gravy.

Dum Pukht invited T2 down to the ITC Sonar to try their new dishes, and it was certainly an incredible dining experience. From the moment we arrived, greeted by opulently dressed staff and the huge white stone curves of the front entrance, through to the moment we left – the ITC Sonar was a remarkable venue, and home to some of the best food in Calcutta.

We arrived at Dum Pukht at about half seven, when the kitchen had only just opened and the restaurant was empty. This allowed us to take in the beautiful décor of the room – moody orange and white lights illuminate a marble floor, while onyx cladding along the walls complete the ambience. The kitchen at the back is surrounded entirely by windows, allowing diners to see (and hear) the food being created, and offering a real sense of spaciousness.

It was at this point that we were given the chance to taste a few items on the menu. First up was the Gosht Chaap Qaliya, lamb chops cooked to perfection in a wonderfully rich sauce. Second, and my personal favourite, was the Mahi Dum Sarso Qaliya, a whole baby bhetki fish marinated with mustard, yellow chilli and yoghurt, finished on dum. This fish has an incredible texture: creamy and salty in the extreme, melting in the mouth like butter.

Last was the Gosht Chandi Qaliya, which chef Qureshi said was his own personal favourite, and the dish he would order from his own menu. This piece of boneless lamb is slow-cooked for four hours until it falls off the bone, and the tastes of cardamom, saffron and turmeric increase the intense flavour. The dish is topped with a garnish of silver leaves for a decadent finish.

The long preparation time of these dishes epitomises the slow-cooking style which Dum Pukht is named after. It is a style of cooking which originated in Persia, but has since become a part of Indian and Pakistani cuisine. For the qaliya dishes, chef Qureshi says he starts from a simple base of yoghurt, coriander and assorted spices before building up his recipes. Each is laboured over carefully, as evidenced by the delicious flavours on show.

Mr Qureshi is a chef with plenty of experience – he has been cooking at Calcutta’s Dum Pukht for over seven years now, and before that spent another six at Dum Pukht in Delhi, at the hotel ITC Maurya. He grew up in Agra, surrounded by a family of chefs, and his grandfather was khansama to the Raja of Mahmudabad in Uttar Pradesh. To put it simply, he knows what he is doing.

All of that experience has been poured into the new qaliya menu which Dum Pukht is providing throughout the course of February. This is an experience not to be missed for anyone who loves great food, great service and world class accommodation.

Confessions of an English Backpacker in Australia

There are a lot of ways to swear in Australia. This was one of the first things I learned about the country, having newly arrived in Melbourne after a 26 hour flight from London, Heathrow. My friend and I were sat in a bar in the city’s north district with an Aussie bloke named Patrick, who’d had a few drinks and was now explaining, in great detail, the many ways you can swear in Aussie slang, and the different meanings behind each one.

As introductions go, it was certainly unique. We were struggling to pay attention, having spent all of the last two days on planes, trains and buses. When we arrived at our hostel (ambitiously titled The Mansion), I had slept for fourteen straight hours under the effects of jetlag and extreme tiredness. And now I was being delivered a drunken lecture in profanity by a man I could hardly understand.

My friend and I had decided, quite impulsively, to move to Australia for a year on a working holiday visa. I quit my job in Bristol and we flew out at the end of summer, arriving at the start of September. The city of Melbourne was our starting point: a fashionable and multi-cultural melting pot of Asian, European and Australian.

It might have been 10,500 miles away from London, but the second lesson I learned in Australia is that the world can sometimes be a very small place. While in Melbourne, I received a message from a friend I lived with at university, who told me he was working in Tasmania and coming to Melbourne that weekend to do some sightseeing. By complete chance, he had booked to stay in the exact same hostel we had, on the exact same floor, in a room three doors down from ours. The universe can be a crazy, mystical thing sometimes.

In our first week in Melbourne, my friend and I ended up at a hippy commune. A small group of us, based on a tip from someone at the hostel, made the long walk through the city’s Fitzroy district, in search of a restaurant that was rumoured to serve food on a pay-as-you-wish basis. When we got there, following a trail of wild lemurs through dark suburban streets, we were served Sri Lankan pancakes by dreadlocked staff wearing tie-dye t-shirts, as psychedelic New Age music played on the speakers overhead. That was an experience I won’t soon forget.

We stayed, for most of our trip, in hostels. There are plenty of horror stories about hostels, some of which I experienced first-hand. In one, there was a mysterious red stain on my bedsheets, which could have been either blood or ketchup. In another, an entire colony of ants emerged from out of the plughole at the same moment I decided to take a shower. And in another still, a backpacker on the same floor as ours consumed some illicit substances, then started screaming as he hallucinated that the hostel staff were demons with horse heads.

Generally, though, hostels are a fun and cheap way to live if you don’t mind the lack of privacy. Here are a few tips for anyone planning to stay in one: first of all, avoid that guy in every hostel who sits on the stairs and badly plays the guitar, in an attempt to impress the ladies. Second, don’t let yourself be bullied by dishonest hostel owners and landlords – the majority are very friendly, but there are some who try to take advantage of travelers who don’t speak the native language well, and don’t stand up for themselves.

And lastly, be aware of the person who sneaks into the communal kitchen and steals any food that isn’t padlocked shut. One anonymous backpacker in Brisbane became my mortal nemesis, after he/she repeatedly stole the strawberry jam (and nothing else) out of my fridge bag, forcing me to leave a very sternly worded note (that’s about as angry as the British get).

I mentioned already one stroke of fate. But there was another coincidence later in our trip, when my friend and I moved to the city of Sydney. The apartment we rented here was home to an Indian man by the name of Sheldon, who was originally from Goa but had moved to Australia to study. When we told him we were English, he said that he used to live in England, in a little town by the name of Chippenham. My friend and I stared at each other in disbelief – Chippenham is the very same small town both of us live in, and Sheldon had lived there for a year when we were in school. We’d probably walked right past him.

Sydney itself is a sight that has to be seen at least once: the grandeur of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, the hustle and bustle of George Street, the restaurants and bars shining under the coloured lights of Darling Harbour. I spent New Years Eve in the Botanical Gardens, queueing all day to get a view of the bridge and the spectacular fireworks show that brought in the New Year. That was a fantastic way to welcome 2017.

The nightlife, too, is very colourful. Sydney’s Ivy Bar is worth the cost of entry: an enormous complex spread out over two buildings, each with multiple stories where you can buy fancy cocktails, Australian beers and just about any other alcoholic beverage imaginable. The rooftop bar even features an open air swimming pool, if you fancy taking a dip while you sip.

The only downside is the cost. Everything in Sydney is very expensive, from the $15 pint of beer I spotted on a restaurant menu to the cost of a hostel, which can be as high as $60 a night. That’s about three times as much as you can expect to pay in other parts of Australia, and five times what you might pay in another country. For anyone thinking of making the trip, make sure you book accommodation far in advance: in Sydney, every hostel in the city will be booked a week ahead.

My favourite place in Australia, though, and the one I would recommend above all others, is Brisbane. Brisbane is a gorgeous city, one which seems to be in a perpetual state of tropical summer. The streets are busy but not crowded, and the views along Eagle Street Pier, which follows the river from the city center through the Botanical Gardens and beyond, are magical. If you take this path all the way down the river, the Brisbane River Walk is a hidden treasure – a running/cycle path built right on top of the river, which takes you right alongside the shining lights of Story Bridge.

Running and cycling are a huge part of Australian culture, both in Brisbane and beyond. If you make the trip, pack a pair of running shoes and experience it firsthand. At 5pm in Brisbane, the city becomes a fluorescent explosion of runners and cyclists as everyone leaves work, allowing you to witness Australia’s famous fitness culture for yourself.

And you can’t leave the country without experiencing a proper Aussie barbeque, either. Streets Beach is a must see in Brisbane: cross over the bridge from the city center into the South Bank, and there are parks, free access swimming pools, and a huge playground for the kids, all of which feature free barbeque stations. It’s the perfect way to soak up the sun and enjoy the city views.

Wherever you go in Australia there is lots to see, and backpacking is a cheap and exciting way to experience the sights and get off the beaten path. I was sad to leave, but the year I spent there was full of stories and people that I’ll remember for many years to come. If nothing else, I learned how to swear like a proper Australian.