Returning to India after eight years was a long time coming for me, but I have to admit, going back was a daunting prospect. The last time I went I was young, used to travelling with my parents, and hadn’t yet got that sweet taste of solo travelling. The traveller I am today is much different to that of eight years ago, so I knew that this time in India would be a whole lot different.
The main reason we were heading back to the motherland was because my second cousin was getting married. This meant that the first week of the trip, staying with relatives, was busy, loud but full of energy. Seeing family again was lovely of course, but I felt more like an outsider this time than I had done before. Even with my cousins speaking some English, I was ashamed to not be able to speak Gujarati with my relatives; those who had so warmly welcomed us back into their homes and lives. Not only that, but I looked more like an outsider this time with my Western clothing, tattoos and an assumed inability to walk in a sari. (I can walk in a sari, by the way. But I may need to master getting out of a car gracefully in one.)
After the wedding festivities, the four of us left the village for a road trip of the surrounding towns in Gujarat. This meant lots of driving down dusty roads and long highways but with the lovely nostalgia of eight years ago doing a similar trip. The smells, the rickshaws, the reckless driving, “Horn OK Please”, the chai stands and guys spitting infamous chewing tobacco out of their cars, will never change.
The early morning starts to get out on the road meant we’d have nashto (breakfast) on the streets. Me and my brother, who have travelled solo and also together, are always on the lookout for great street food. It’s fresh, fragrant and cheap, and these are the places where you get to really meet locals. Street stall nashto in Gujarat is just the same. We were up early eating bhajis and pickles, fried chillies, and puris, washed down with sweet and creamy shots of chai (definitely not vegan) on the roadside with guys on their way to work. (I think it’s fair to say that me and mum were the only women in this predominantly male-dominated space, something I’d never noticed before.)
Gujarat is a very religious and spiritual place. You’ll find cows (which are sacred in our culture and religion) living in harmony with the people, an abundance of temples from the more modest buildings to the ostentatious, and black market alcohol on sale due to Gujarat being a dry state. So we ended up doing a road trip of the various towns that are marked as highly religious and sacred due to their connections with various gods.
We stopped off at a small temple on the top of Koyla Hill near the coast driving from Gir National Park to Dwarka. It was built for Harsidhhi Mataji, a goddess who was worshipped by fishermen and Gujaratis as she is considered protector of ships at sea. It’s a beautiful small temple with carvings on the walls and red ribbons tied to surrounding trees as a symbols of wishes and blessings.
Swaminarayan temples are a lot more extravagant and show off the wealth of this strain of Hinduism. The injustice of it all is heightened by beggars that sit outside these places of worship, and priests who claim to protect you and bless you with the temple’s holy water but then demand money from you. The one that we visited in Bhuj was beautiful with its white architecture and extravagant shrines, but not only were the poor deceived and left outside begging for money, but women too were shunned from one area of the temple as, apparently, the monks would be “tempted” by them.
Being back in India, seeing my family, being part of a huge and extravagant wedding, and travelling around was definitely a long time coming. It was an enriching experience with its ups and downs, as always.
Lessons learnt: India and Hinduism need some progression, being vegetarian is a breeze but being vegan is a nightmare, and I really need to learn more Gujarati.