So as the last hundred or so photos upload and the first load of washing churns away, I'll begin my first post of 2008...
Midnight's Children, An area of Darkness, The God of Small Things, various other Salman Rushdie novels, various Indian school friends as I grew up, a Punjabi friend who travelled around Mexico with me once, an engagement party a long time ago, Friday night curries, a small handful of Indian students over the years, the 12th edition of the India Lonely Planet; up until two weeks ago that was my experience of India. None of which prepared me for what I was about to experience.
My first impressions began to be formed before I even arrived. As we boarded the plane at Moscow seat numbers became optional and one person's act of change caused a wave of seat swapping and mass rearrangement of overhead luggage. My eyes grew wider and wider as the chaotic scene unfolded before me until I too was asked to change seats. From then on I expected everything to continue to be chaotic.
On the surface India does appear to be chaotic. As we passed the clock tower in Sardah Market, Jodhpur our driver said placidly: "Oh look, elephant." And we replied equally calmly: "So there is." A few seconds later it registered that I had never seen a bloody elephant wander by me and I madly scrambled for the camera. The thing is by then we were already acclimatised to the fact that as we negotiated the weaving streets of India, as you turned each corner you could be confronted with a hoard of tuktuks (autorickshaws), a cow just sitting in the middle of the street chewing calmly and ignoring the cacophony of klaxons around it. Dogs milling about and puppies running after the teats of their mother. Town traffic could range from bicycles with the most amazingly huge loads, rickshaws, autorickshaws, ambling pedestrians, cows, dogs, horses, camels and well, elephants.
The other thing that hit me straight away was the level of noise. I remember my eyes popping open at 4 am, I think it might have been Jaisalmer and wondering what had woken me. As I listened I realised that for the first time since I had arrived it was silent.
That impression was swiftly followed by the volume of people. India's population is just over 1 billion and is set to overtake China by 2035 to become the world's most populated country and boy can you tell. There are people, people everywhere. So many people that it was only when we began to hit the smaller towns that we began to notice the amazingly vibrant colours of the beautiful saris. And then the next thing hit us; women are virtually unseen on the streets of India. We saw them in the fields, we saw them perched precariously, sitting side saddle on the back of a motorcycle, we saw them with their scarves carefully covering their faces, but we saw them because amongst the male dominated crowd we were looking for them.
Aaaachtuk - another sound that filled our days from morning to night. As the clearing of the throat began, we would locate and identify the hawker himself for these men can break world records as they hurl their spit about. You really didn't want to be in the line of fire.
And finally as the trip drew to an end we began to realise how everything we planned had worked. We had ordered tickets, the tickets had come through. We asked for taxis and bus tickets, they came through. We were in a bit of a pickle booking a hotel in Delhi for our return there, the hotel manager where we were staying organised us an alternative in case we couldn't find anything. As we waited for our guide to turn up on the last day, the autorickshaw drivers introduced us to the locals and advised us to call the guide again and again: "Because sometimes people book the tour, but then they don't show up, so you have to call to say you're here." Nod, nod, nod, that funny wiggle of the head which is particular to Indians and can mean anything in the shades between yes and no.
I came to realise over the course of the trip that India was like a haze of different intermingling layers, the past and the present merging together, it's histories never forgotten. It was as magical as I thought it would be, it was as startlingly different as I never thought it might be.