What to take on a solo cycle trip

In August, I ventured across Nepal for two weeks alone with a daily budget of £9 to include food and accommodation, with a rented bicycle, mini North Face duffel rucksack and snazzy red cycling helmet. Aside from the usual minimal things, two sets of clothing, one to wear, one to pack and toothbrush/toothpaste and contact lenses, I paired my bag down well, ridding myself of any excess weight.

Sound advice ‘The more you weigh, the slower you go’


Equipment all depends on where you are heading and which season, but for me in Nepal, these things came in particularly useful:

1. Flipcam Video Camcorder — hand held, the size of a mobile phone, with inbuilt USB charger arm, incredibly useful video camcorder that can take up to 2 hour’s footage, and be easily downloaded to a laptop or computer and uploaded onto googledrive or dropbox, depending on your space capacity. When you’re out alone and want to talk to something (some one!) turning this on and recording the highs and the lows makes for a wholesome, memorable experience, that you can listen to midway to raise the spirits (have friends record you a few minutes of messages before you start your trip) or afterwards to remind you of the travel time and accomplishments.

2. Twix Bars (or sugary delight of choice)— The more remote my route became,         far up into the Annapurna circuit, the more expensive chocolate bars became.         Stocking up at lower altitudes was a savior as I relied on these for my sugar            buzz, and they filled me up if I couldn’t find food immediately on arrival in the            evenings after a long day of cycling.

3. Bar of Soap— For times of grubbiness to wash myself or for lathering to wash clothes. The lightest, most portable and useful bathroom toiletry and now necessity. I will not revert to shower gel after the pleasing sensation of foamy soap! Invest in a little soap tin, or ziplock bag in the meantime for storage.

 4. A Large Bandanna — To wrap around the back of my helmet, protect my neck from the sun or lashing rain, and long enough to reach round to cover my mouth when huge trucks drove past on the roads spluttering dust and fumes into the air. Multipurpose and useful for washing face or feet in rivers and waterfalls to feel clean quick with no other alternatives, or wipe muddy hands.

 5. Small notebook with a sleeve pocket and pencils—- Goes without saying for me, that a notebook is essential to record the tiny moments, the phrases, other traveller’s details, beautiful sounding words, ideas, the schedule you’re on and daily thoughts. Pencil’s for when rain makes ink smudge. The sleeve for spare currency in case all other sources run out or go missing (/are spent..).

6. Bedsheet—-  to double up as a towel, cover a questionably stained bed/prevent bedbugs, keep warm at night, as a cape on an overnight journey or to act as a picnic blanket on the road for snack time.

7. Spare inner tubes, at least two in remote areas and other bike kit— Imperative, sacrifice the extra clothing for bike extras, if you need a puncture repair kit or spare inners and you are miles from the nearest shop or public transport system, this will be more useful than the pack of cards you packed or the ipod whose charger you forgot.

8. No ipod–– Forget music. You are on this journey to soak up the sights and sounds of where you are right now. Practise the art of no plug in music by singing to yourself out loud and improvising speeches you might one day make as a leader. Far more ideas and memories emerge from moments of stillness and tumble bountifully from your mind as you charter new terrain.

9. No makeup–– (except eyeliner) Practice the natural look, enjoy the lack of effort involved in getting ready, but packing a single eyeliner pencil just in case is never a mistake. It takes up practically no space and can double up as a writing tool if needed.

Happy travels!


Getting ready: The Pre-departure Briefing in India

For the new student, July is a busy month. As Delhi-ites prepare to start their academic stints at universities across the world, I attended a pre-departure briefing hosted by my old university, reminded at the excitement of this new passage ahead and hoping I might be of help as a UK national, to assuage any worries.

Last week’s pre-departure took place in a suite at a conference centre (with an excellent high-tea chai break) at around the time that many Indian students are also attending other PDB’s and getting ready to leave for the UK in September.

A hundred questions are on student’s minds right now, beside the usual, what to pack and the flexibility of the luggage allowance. They want to know about the food in their new city, the weather, how they will cope with snow, what shoes to wear. Many coming from hot Indian cities have never seen snow in their lifetime, and will have to get used to regularly carrying an umbrella if the UK is their next stop.

During the Q and A session, students asked the usual questions: Will I have a Wireless connection? Will I have to get codes for the Internet? How long can books be rented for at a stretch? What about plagiarism in essay submissions? Will I have seminars and lectures every day? How long do you have to prepare for each seminar’s work? How late is the library open? What is there to do in the city? Are there places to buy food? Which societies can I join? What about finding accommodation? Mobile phone providers, software packages? Who can I go to if I have a problem?

It’s not so long ago that I was a student myself, asking similar questions, foraging for information from other new student ‘freshers’, and gradually learning from my own experiences the best way to get things done. Being given the name of a personal tutor, and scribbling their room number on the campus map is what these students have still to come. Suddenly this map, that once looked so disorientating and unknowable, becomes known, as they traverse the corridors of the university painting knowledge on new canvases, making friends and dusting biscuit crumbs from library book spines, assimilating new thoughts and theories.

One question to ask, just how valuable are these PDB’s? 

They help on a pastoral care level, which, having observed many working in this field comprises a huge chunk of time spent in the education sector. Students will need a home away from home, insider information, and tips to make their university days smoother. The academic faculty, admissions, and country officers can provide this support, which often goes far beyond knowledge acquisition. Sometimes, like at this briefing, parents or siblings accompany the new student, to act as extra sponges and absorb information that the student in their excitement may forget.

The pre-departure briefing is also there to remind the student that the experience is multi faceted, and in paying attention to the details, and keeping organized in the new environment, they can be more in tune with their goals. It’s brave, being a student this way around, waiting on the sidelines of a leap overseas. The Indian students I met all hailing from chemical engineering backgrounds to computer science to astrophysicists, with fresh open faces, leafed through Lonely Planet travel guides to their new city, thoughtfully supplied at the briefing by the country office. They stared at the pages of a place they’d never been, but had carefully selected for subject prestige, institution knowledge or on recommendation. What a step, to board a plane to a place you’ve never been and call it yours for one to three years, for the undergraduate degree, the masters or the PhD.

The PDB is more an example; an initiation of what life might be like, sometime soon. Preparing the student for life at university is akin to preparing your business plan for transition into reality. It takes opinions, feedback and research to succeed at university, and in business terms this pre departure preparation is similarly important. No student can reach the 2:1 or first without adequate groundwork.

Broaching the trends between the UK and India can be thought about in terms of the education space, with tomorrow’s graduates preparing their suitcases and in tower block terminology of the entrepreneurs and businessmen, armed keenly with their proposals ready to invest.  

Train Time– Shimla to Kalka to Delhi Railway Story

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10.20am: The passengers in C6 had changed places over the course of the journey. Some had ended up there by mistake, swapping carriages to keep a family together.

Six hours of relentless heat against the tin carriages had taken their toll. Shoes were off, discarded under seats.

Passengers slept.

Strange thoughts erupted in the mind: where do birds go to die? Higher thoughts were embezzled to sign posts.

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The bin was full of old water bottles, crisp packets, and squashed cardboard chai cups.

Half the cabin were asleep, crumpled and missing the spectacular scenery and curvature of the valley as the train weaved its way slowly from Shimla to Kalka.

The few who were awake stared out of windows interrupted by occasional slamming of the compartment door, as it moved between its hinges and the lock.

A young bride and groom had taken up residence sprawled across a berth of seats, dozing companionably anchored by the other. The soft jangle of her bracelets travelled with the train.

A lone businessman drank a diet Pepsi and unwrapped chapatti’s from home.

Passengers slept.

At Summerhill station, ferns hung over the tracks, bark dinosaur old touched the train’s shoulders, daisies sprouted near the wheels. Children hunted, hoping for a four leafed clover in the thicket.

A western tourist slept upside down, his legs tucked into the window frame, extended backwards in surrender.

His friend sat with earplugs staring blankly at the trees creeping by, the damp of the tunnel walls, and square ness of the window frame.

 At Jutogh, passengers mused: can tin rust in the heat?

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Six clanking fire tins, a farm girl clutching a pug under one arm and a baby goat under the other. 1989 scrawled across the outer station wall, the significance different to the Berlin Wall falling in a European mindset.

Nearing Tara Devi, a man with a newborn ran with his bag to get on the train. Her eyes were rimmed with Kohl liner. Buckets of cucumber were sold at Shogi near an orange temple.

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At Cathleeghot, the train passed its first road. By Kandaghat, all passengers were brave enough to realise they wouldn’t miss the train as it pulled away with infinitesimal slowness. They fetched water, tea and a cling film wrapper with hot masala vegetables, onions and peppers in. 20 rupees for savoury, 7 for tea.

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In Solon, the man with the baby filled his bottle at the tap.  There was no food there. Barog was chai, chai, chai…

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4.30pm: For C6 travellers, there was nowhere to shield from the sun. It skirted through each window side glazing faces, warming.

Kumarhattidagshai was the last town before the slums of Kalka.  Passengers woke from sleep..Kashmir 195

5.30pm: Kalka-Delhi

Arrival at Kalka brought no release, but another train. Ice cream, huge yellow poppadum’s in laundry baskets dragged through the aisles of the express.

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Omelette’s arrived and cutlets were drenched in tomato sauce, double wrapped in white bread with a liberal spinkling of pepper. Freshly sliced tomatoes and an edge of onion were mixed into chaat with a sprinkle of spice and juiced lemon quarts. 

Men played cards and held beadies, crowded around the tourist’s I pad. The fans churned hot air around the carriages; seats meant for six held nine.

11pm: One man read a bible and sat staring at the Delhi sky, shifting through the slatted windows. Charcoal and tinder streamed inside from village cooking on rail sides. The train gurgled in its tracks, waved to others moving through Punjab towards the mega city.


On Dal Lake, a lone shakara rower rides across the open water, meandering between reeds and creatively named houseboats ‘Movie Land’, ‘Winston’ ‘Pleasure Palace’ and ‘Miss England’. His heart shaped paddle moves through the water, dipping a lake peppered with Lilly pads and old Mountain Dew bottles. The Dal Lake clean up initiative is posted on the wooden slats of the waterways and inlets as you travel, reminders to keep litter inside the boat. Stretching over twenty two kilometers, the lake moves between intense crowds in summer, tourists taking boat rides through the days and evenings, to being deserted and entirely residential in the off season, when snow and ice take hold and families shelter under heavy blankets and heaters.


Shakara owners work overtime, extra hours when the days are warm, pulling travellers out of sleep at four to reach the famous floating vegetable market at first light and working late, until the night has closed, house boats have settled, set candles to rest and the water has lost its business, stilling to calm again.


At the 5am vegetable market, ‘Mr Wonderful Flower Man’ paddles by, boxes full of Kashmir Jasmine and lotus seeds, photo album ready to show his customers. He rips off a stem of pink and throws it from his shakara to our visiting one. We are one of just two tourist boats waiting to watch the trade exchange, where produce is the only guest.  Carrots lie supine on the boat floors, the darkest aubergines brimming with night purple nestle alongside cabbage ears. Cucumbers the size of a half meter rule stack up like limbs.

As rain falls, sellers huddle underneath black umbrellas, others shelter with cushion seats overhead, drawing their boat noses closer as a pack of dolphins coming towards shore. One man shovels water from his sinking shakara. The saffron seller barters over two grams of threads. At the source, we hope to play less. The market is all over within the half hour, shakaras moving away with their new wares, money made and vegetables swapping hands before day break.

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Floating across the unassuming lake, one might not believe Srinagar is a military strong hold, almost. Jammu and Kashmir state, most wanted, most fought over by Chinese and Pakistan forces, the local neighbours keen to call this barren, altitude based, often snow covered outpost their own.

It’s easy to see why. The saying goes that G-d made India, and then he made Leh, Jammu and Kashmir, the redeeming feature. Northern India above Himachal Pradesh and the much visited hill station areas holds a charm of its own and is a haven from cluttered, hazy Indian cities over wrung with dense population and a lack of space. Inaccessible bounds, lustrous green, and space define the Jammu and Kashmir region. Space like that which Gulmarg, home to the two stage high cable car offers in abundance.

We also ventured to the stunning Palace of Fairies, Pari Mahal, the five kilometer ride up hill from the lake brings you to a wide open seven terraced garden located at the top of Zabarwan mountain range  gazing ornately over Srinagar town and the lake. Kashmir 472

Physically, the people are different, blue eyes seen with dark features. The dominant religion in Kashmir goes between Buddhism and Islam. The latter here as the soothing nuances of call to prayer fill the air and the sight of burkhas worn on the main streets fill our eyes.

The Rising Kashmir daily newspaper reports protests and shootings often, police line the streets, barricaded between shops, and houses, side alleys, and nestled into the hillside.  Holding sniper guns, the men in green do not stop watching. Speeding through the Srinagar lanes, we pass Royal Springs Golf Course, meet the top professional golfer for Jammu and Kashmir, and get a free driving range lesson.  Later, we replenish our energy in Cafe Coffee Day. CCD is everywhere, even in an area of heightened security. Shots of espresso, green tea, and masala chai propel us back onto the streets.

Disjointed with the lack of vegetarian eateries, in Srinigar with my two travelling companions for support, I break a year of vegetarianism with a mouthful of tandoori chicken.  It seems that travelling beyond your comfort zones in location brings about other changes too..


Top 7 ways to escape in Delhi

 Escape the prescriptive lists of where to go, and try my tested remedies.

 1-A Great Yoga Class in Greater Kailash

 Sample a Sivananda Yoga Class, and realign your chakras. Starting with 20 minutes of pranayama breathing exercises and ending with a 15 minute shavasana final relaxation, the in between work out focuses on every muscle group from head stand to arm balancing poses. Complimentary herbal tea and the scent of lemony incense stay with you well after this class.

 400 rupees for a 90 minute drop in class at A-41 Block, Kailash Colony (+91 11) 3206 9070

 2- High Tea at the Imperial Hotel

 Top of every expat list, the path to the Imperial is lined with 26 palm trees. Forgo lunch: tea time is from 3-6pm and offers traditional British delicacies such as scones with clotted cream and jam, roasted aubergine brioche, smoked salmon blinis, cucumber sandwiches and Jamaican chicken patties. Desserts cover chocolate pistachio brownie to crème brulee, éclairs and cookies. An impressive array of tea is available from Himalayan to Darjeeling to Rose Hip.

Phone in advance to book high tea for 1250 rupees each including taxes. Imperial Hotel, Janpath, (+91 11) 23 341234

3-Head to Hauz Khas Village

a-The village is luxurious and home to hippy happy Delhi-ites and loved up couples with a Central Park-esque feel to the place. Get a rickshaw to drop you at the village boundaries and wonder in passing donkeys at the entrance and breathing a sigh of relief at the slower pace of life.

Flock to the lake and jog laps around its perimeter. Roof cafes overlook the edges of the village settlement and the mosque ruins. Cute art galleries nestle in corners; the lovely Kunzum Travel Cafe has a leave what you want in a tin deal- most overpay with good will. 

T-49, Ground Floor, Hauz Khas Village New Delhi, DL 110016. (+91 11) 2651 3949

B-Brunch at Imperfecto in Hauz Khas: Picture wooden tables, a relaxed music playlist from Spanish folk to modern Indian tunes. Order a jug of sangria to accompany your meal, red or white for 2400 INR a jug. Try the Titanic mutton burger. For the perfect cold coffee, 90 rupees of delicious, chocolate flecked drink. With cosmopolitan Indian women sporting 6 inch heels, they match the re constructed water feature in the middle floor, but this restaurant is unpretentious and a great spot to spend your Sunday afternoon at.

4-Visit the Jama Mastif and eat at Karim’s

Get high, visit the largest mosque in Old Delhi: eat at world famous Mughali Karim’s first, making sure to order naan bread and any kebab dish. The breeze at the top of the minaret makes Delhi magically quiet, you cannot hear the traffic, or the noise, but you can see it hustling beneath you. Cameras cost an additional 300 rupees to take in.

Get out at Chandi Chowk metro and take a rickshaw or cycle the rest of the way.

5-New Friend’s Colony: Pebble Street Restaurant and Bar

Visit on an IPL cricket night, famous for its sporting sounds, get some friends together, order nachos and delicious meat or veg platters and take advantage of the IPL drinks deals. A good watering hole, worth a visit at happy hour with beer usually costing 200 INR.  For the tea-totaller, the mocktails are superb, with the summer cycle a thirst quencher.

(+91) 8800 249975

6-Get a Luxury Massage at the Park Hotel

Climb to the top floor of the Park Hotel, and step into Aura Spa. Lit candles, tranquil music and 2300 rupees for an all over aromatherapy body massage. Afterwards shower in the plush bathrooms and simmer in the sauna until they tell you to leave.

 Park Hotel, Connaught Place, (+91 11) 23743000

7- Head inside to the Kingdom of Dreams

This live entertainment, theatre, shopping and food space covers all areas. You don’t pay with money, but with a charge card loaded at the main entrance or during your stay, offering it in the tea rooms and the gift shops. Go with a stash of rupees or just window shop. This grown up version of Disneyland is a great, and somewhat surreal way to spend a rainy monsoon day.

Find it at Sector 29, Gurgaon,Haryana,122001, 0124 452 8000

If all else fails

Restore your faith in humanity. Escape to the hills 250 km from Delhi. Rishikesh is a 6 hour train away or overnight bus journey.  Have a weekend of fresh air filled with volleyball, rafting, camping and feasting, stretched out by the Ganges.

Book the Shatabdi Express from Delhi to Hardiwar (750 rupees) in advance at makemytrip.com and take a rickshaw for the last hour (300 rupees), or public bus (20 rupees).

Running: Sweet corn sellers, street meat, orange sweets

If you’re lacking anything, try running. It sharpens. It toughens. When I stop running enough I become squishy, more malleable and further away from my motivations. 

I’d encourage everyone to continue, or start doing, what gives them back their edge. Why deny ourselves the formulas we know work? To re connect with a place, the advice is often, go somewhere new. Be a tourist again. Or even just look at a place with fresh eyes. I suggest picking up your running shoes, taking some strong male friends along for company and getting the miles back in your legs.

There are three places to run in nearby Jasola:

1- Netaji Subhash sports ground

For two hundred rupees a visit foreigners can run on the track open from 5.30am until 9pm. The route weaves alongside a children’s playground, round the back of the cricket pitch, tennis courts, by the multi gym complex, around the car park, a broken water refrigerator unit, dodging chipmunks who glide up tree barks with liquorice and chalk coloured jackets.

 I go on an evening, run laps in the dark, waiting for the lamplights to guide me, encountering other runners who slip past in the happy coolness of evening.

I am reminded of the words: ‘be kind, smile, you never know what battle others are fighting.’

Probably we’re all looking for stars when we stop and crane our heads north.

Once, I ran just after a dust storm and the track lights were out, trees scattered and pulled from their roots across the path. I saw female runners start out, hardly finish their quarter line of the rectangle route before thinking better of it and abandoning the run.

2- The Apollo hospital gardens.

The edge of the gardens hugs one side of the track, but its bigger and more open than the sports grounds, and far more beautiful, in a ferrel unkempt way.

The gardens are grooved and manicured, little lawns have been designed in sections separated by hedgerows, bins are plastic penguins with wide-open hungry mouths, reaching for our empties.

To the left are tents. Gypsy families light lanterns and hang their rouge slips and sari’s, shirts and scarves, draped across the tree lines on slack rope. As we dash past we can see soft shadows falling in the tents, multiple family members crowded in, quiet chattering, hear the fizz of a small fire and watch the glazed blackness of a simmering pot.

Reflected behind their living quarters, and everything they own is the dome of the Apollo Hospital. In the calm of their lanterns, you might forget the busy main Mathura Road highway is just a few hundred meters away.

Further along to the barrier line past the settlements, you lose footing. I always go faster here, as momentum propels me around the field brackets.

After you stagger out of the hospital gardens, there is a shortcut to the right, through an archway, and across dis-used shrub land, where sleepy dogs congregate.

There is another settlement, and after making the namaste sign at the gate, a friend and I entered.  Down six steps is a tiny echoing temple adorned with pictures of deities and cloth rags in saffron and cream. We watched lizards crawl across the white washed temple walls, cracked paint flaking in the night lights, plated offerings slowly wilting.

Nearby a man washed himself at a water tap and smiled, naked but for his orange waist robe.

3- Sarita Vihar village and across Okhla, Jasola and the Yamuna River

Starting out near Jasola metro station, cross the flyover bridge ducking past chai wallahs, fresh fruit stacked high on wagons, litchi fruits flicked with water and displayed on splayed grass trays.

Wave at everybody in the village road, they will be curious. 

We listed everything that passed us, in some blazing scenery epoch…

Purple wall,




market vendor,

alley wall,

straw hat,


posters of swami’s


ball games,

tall walls,


broken window,

ladder minus the middle rung…

man asleep on the shop floor

mobile phone stores,

cages of hens,

fish market swarming with flies,

spilling out word play as our muscles gathered heat.

As we started to list, we lapsed into the run like dream state, hunched by the Yamuna river we stopped, pressing our noses into the caged exit ways, one way to Jaitpura village, then Okhla, and we didn’t know where we were, but kept on, following a minaret peak in the distance.

We passed paddling pools for sale, beaming blue dolphins, translucent frogs and pink bears waiting to be filled. We did the same route the next day when the roads were rivers, and small boys were celebrating monsoon’s arrival by swimming. The clusters of teenagers saluted us before plunging from the riverbanks into the murky water below. We saw giant white foam piles drifting down river, India’s very own flotsam and jetsam. We thought this was ice chunks, then soap bubbles, and later learnt this is the colour of pollution as it settles on water.

 Pocked with mud, shoes seeped with water and grime, waving excitedly at families gathered at the mud banks, cars jammed with passengers, who leaned out of the windows staring at our whiteness. We ran to keep pace with bicycles holding cardboard, and trailers making deliveries. We ran with an army Platypus full of water, with salt crusted faces, stronger than before. 

Indian Ostrich

Strong animals have claws that grip and fail to let you go. Ostrich’s look above the crowd and have the largest eyes, they are active early in the morning and late in the day. 

India is such an animal, basking in what it has created in the heat of the day, and towering over other countries with its manpower and capacity for greatness. The ostrich is not always thought of as the most attractive bird, but there are many species, and its slightness, and propensity to flight mean anything is possible.

 The writer who said ‘visiting India once is an experience and twice is repetition’ missed a crucial trick. Staying two weeks or eight months is similar, superficially. India gets under the skin remarkably fast, and from then on the experiences you have become an osmosis leaking and bleaching through the skin.

Only those who have been here and spent time trying to know this place will understand the luring and seducing ways of the subcontinent, but those that keep returning will find the ink harder to wash away…

These thoughts stem from a sojourn to an American style diner (The Big Chill) and afterwards, three friends and I got into a car in a deserted parking area, and were instantly surrounded by security forces. We huddled to one side wondering what had happened. The first thoughts we all jump to at anything out of the ordinary: terrorist attack, mafia invasion, crime… all misguided.

There in front of us, stepping from a battered red Maruti was Rahul Gandhi. We watched as he disappeared, and a convoy of four by fours and government vehicles drove away with India’s next potential leader melting into the night.

Buoyant at this show of political sneakiness outside our favourite café, we drove to Bangla Sahib, a Sikh holy Gudwara in the centre of Delhi, watched a broken moon and ate more, the traditional meal given to any visitor. It was midnight. We continued on to India gate, and my stuttering Hindi and jubilant ‘Namaste’ bows convinced security guards to let us through for a private viewing. India by night, and India with its soft edges brings a feeling like no other. National Guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said happiness is expansion, and sadness is contraction. Roaming Delhi by night takes you to the point of being a child clutching a balloon, believing absolutely that you are about to be swept away and carried into the bursting city air.

After this, the temple food, the shiny moon, the sightseeing, the open ness of Delhi’s roads at night, I asked; will India always be this flexible? The response from Arun Binani, who takes care of India operations for the University of Dundee (pictured below) : Being an emotional country, it will always have second thoughts.


India, described as emotional gives it a heart, and as soon as you encounter the heart of a place, like the gratuity of the guards at India Gate letting a few friends see something that wasn’t open to the rest of the country, the ink seeps deeper. Connecting with someone anywhere makes it feel a step closer to home.

The general consensus states whatever you do after India in your life will seem easy. But this post is a tribute to just the opposite ideology. Whatever you do after India will be incredibly difficult, as you try to find the same magic, essence and aroma in the UK that hits you each day without trying here. In Europe you ‘make party’, in India, every day is a party.

Ray Bradbury (Dandelion Wine) said “I want to feel all there is to feel, he thought. Let me feel tired, now, let me feel tired. I mustn’t forget, I’m alive, I know I’m alive, I mustn’t forget it tonight or tomorrow or the day after that.” 

The company I work for ‘Sannam S4’ was the brainchild of Adrian Mutton who started doing business in India twenty-one years ago, he never anticipated a double decade relationship, but found himself unable to leave. He has built successful businesses, navigated a complex market place, and created companies that have increased exponentially in size. His inspiration came initially from a trip away during his teenage years with the RSAA ‘Royal Society of Asian Affairs’ which brought him into Pakistan, then a gap year spent teaching in Saharanpur in the North.

It is involvement such as this that I’m watching keenly, journalists I’ve met in bars, expats who have been here four years and found a way to be.

I’m tiptoeing on raised heels to see how I can stay part of this ostrich journey, India is the perfect place for second thoughts. 

Flash Fiction From India

You need the universe on your side, watching your back at least fifty per cent of the time to be safe. We all need guardians. Ruin can be a gift, but most often it pulls at the walls, rustles in your ears, and makes suggestions of who you might one day be.

The buses in India guard themselves with sleeves of a plastic army. Mala beads too, hang from mirrors, reminding of the circular unity of life in India where all is connected and fractured. The theory of re incarnation is everywhere you look. Indian’s have traditionally been afraid of the Dalit community seen as the bottom of a hierarchical caste system. The Brahmin at the top of the chain could make powerful decisions without complaint or opposition. The people in between ride the buses and put their lives out on the line like washing. Their heroes are above the steering wheel as a bus plummets around corners too fast, as it collects passengers who stand in the aisles, as it stops in traffic and is dented.

Bigger vehicles win in India. This is the law of the land.  Durga, Ganesha, Shiva embroiled on a dashboard, right where they take their centre of gravity preparing to protect the standing passengers, the wheels of the bus from the potholes; the cows, the shimmering streets, the roundabouts with no rules, the traffic that comes at you from all directions, the food stalls that are wheeled across the streets to change location at inopportune moments, the cows! Street crossings could never be enacted by design, but open hearted, dithering chaos.

Watch in bewilderment as children weave through the mass of cars, buses, bicycles, hold onto the back of public buses as they steam across roads, exhausted with the weight of merchants and tailors, and small things, produce for home from markets. 10 kilogram sacks of rice and flour, spices from the old bazaar bought in bulky pots to store. Sweet meats and sugared sweets to take home. Bursting containers of tea leaves, haggled over to the last gram. All of these things will become moments condensed into perfect take away packages to offer friends and family.

Someone waits near a doorway, by the clock, in the garden, for a friend to appear with the missing item, the melon promised for dessert, the syrup mix for the finishing touches on the cake, the place mats to lay the table, anything. There are laws of the land for what can realistically be delivered. Sometimes you will ask the universe for something and it will not come. There are rules about timing, and who should be where when, and how you could get the best deal and what might happen during that interaction that would be life changing. There are rules about behavior, how to glean respect from a street vendor, the notion of repeated custom so they know you. They see you and think, a box of eggs, a chicken, a pint of blue lid milk. 

Scarf dye runs in the rains. Arms will be tattooed not with the well-meaning certainty of henna, but the patchy spontaneous effect of rain spill. Tie the scarf to a tree, so that any spare color can be blown across the country for others to taste. Maybe this will be the reason a pale wife wakes up with redness tinged in her cheeks.

The rain soaks people completely until they do not know their head from their heart, until thoughts are paralysed by the drum of sky meeting the ground, until floods become rivers that swell and fill. 

Anyone important has left to go inside now, back into their air conditioned offices, the blizzards of places they want to be. They will scarcely know what has happened in their absence. Later when they finish work for the day, they will step outside into the sodden street and ask ‘did it rain here?’

Behind the red mosque, Karim’s is voted the dirtiest restaurant in Delhi. But don’t worry: you probably won’t find it. Tucked between three more streets, past the fluttering wings of half living chickens and motorbike stores, and rammed packed doorways, and arches where men pray, is a courtyard with spigots and water taps and stolen moments and a sign affixed above the doorway, it boasts ‘the finest restaurant in old Delhi’.

Order what the locals eat. They have roti, and naan, each of them. Buttered and Peshawar, filled with pink, cashews and sugared. They have chicken tandoori cooked in clay ovens, rice and okra. Notice the spigot outside. Continue eating. Plates are wiped with a cloth in between. Everyone eats similar dishes, and the main ingredients are tamarind sauce, coriander leaves, turmeric. The tin plate is hazed with yesterday’s sunshine. 

 Everyone wants to be back in their homes, watching the chorus of water from the safety of their patio, or rooftop. Why do a few choose this moment to enter the old mosque? It is true; they will not be disturbed by hagglers wanting to take a picture now. Their cameras would be ruined. 

The stairwell is narrow and bricks have stood for decades. They are the oldest part of the city, have been standing for years on end mortared together. A rope handle has been carved into hooks off the wall, all the way up as you helter skelter. Sometimes you may think you hear feet moving up from behind you, but the echo is your old foot falls catching up.  If you pass another shape on your journey up, you will have to do a dance on the stairwell, and embrace each other, if you are to cross safely. The stair well is too narrow to climb with more than one body. The air is restrained, cool; a tunnel positioned towards the sky not the earth’s core.

The top of the minaret is open, grating covers the floor, and suddenly, without stairs in the final circle, you have space to cling to the walls, and stand, nose pressed against the bars. Perhaps you can force your camera between the slats and still take a good photograph. Old Delhi spreads to your left like a caricature, unsure of itself from this height, dizzyingly small. The city is fast from this height. The crossover of the junctions seems amplified. You see short cuts to parks, to open space that you would never find from ground level.

It is easy to be deceived by walls of traffic, by streets and buildings you assume mushroom and take over bays of land. The lake in front of the minaret has developed its own shore line. Now it is clear, ochre water, dazzling with the height of the tower, and the shoes slipped off at the steps become a bay, where at a beach you might spread your towel, leave sunglasses and an easy novel. The painted marble banisters become a tidal wall separating the land of the palace from the lip of the sea.

The street became a semaphore for the whole of South Asia. Unknowable and familiar. To the East, you see carriageways that are jumbled up heaps of cars in a scrap yard, slugging along the modern road. The failing flanks of cows morph in and out of sight lines, breaking up the constancy of plastic, tin, metal.

You hear gunshots, explosive, stymieing but don’t know which edge of the city they emanated from. In this moment, the city holds its breath, and the roar of the traffic from ground level, normally deafening, becomes a steady warble of new age noise.

You smell, everything. Cardamom, cinnamon, the fire of Assam black tea. Spice boxes are cheaper on this side of the city, and you can put your spices into these 8 little boxes, and they will last. Sealed in by identical lids. Maybe you will make labels for them. Little bustling squares that declare your exact intentions.

Clairvoyants sit in doorways waiting for traction in the crowds, and the wondering man or woman with a lost look on their face to be washed up between their winglets. The eddy flow of vehicles connecting all great cities: Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, will wash in a sample soul, to be opened up. Pandora’s gift box is stored tightly in the school yard, college dorm, marriage, child birth, until now when they finally sit. Taking their first look at the city alone, they come to realize they don’t know it at all, because how can you know a city that always changes?

Finding the Third Space

I have learnt to believe wherever you hang your hat is home or there would be no way back. You would never do anything, go anywhere or attempt to follow a different path.

 Who feels completely at home in one place? Who moves to accommodate their latest impulse, desire, love affair, job or education? And who leaves pieces of themselves everywhere they’ve stepped, surrendering to the complexities of feeling both less than whole, and then more whole, bursting at the seam lines of experience, culture, thoughts, people and ideas that won’t quite gel together?

I struggle to realign my senses after being ‘elsewhere’ be it in a tiny workplace on the edge of the Highlands with three other staff and a field of sheep for company, sipping tea with my oldest friend in a hippy café in the Hertfordshire villages or here and now at an office in India’s capital.

But there are two sides to everything. Ralph Waldo Emerson softly warned ‘Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.’ You could traverse the globe with your hat ready to throw down, but if your heart is glued shut, you will feel nothing and be closed for business, new experiences and sentiment.

Edward Soja, postmodern urban planner and geographist classified the elsewhere and unknowable space that happens as soon as you walk out the door, these in between places as ‘Third Space’ and spent decades theorizing on the value and ideas associated with this dimension.

 His ideas of this Third Space:

Everything comes together… subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday life and unending history.’                                   

In India, where my cultural mismatch is most acute, I am dragged between a Third Space and a concrete reality that is sometimes too much and like Soja, become aware of ‘the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined.’ But, our hearts won’t crumble like cookie dough. Handing over a piece every now and then is a good idea to help the immersion process.

 On a train returning from Shimla, the old British Summer Capital, I asked the staring man opposite me: ‘Are you going to stare at me all the way to Delhi? If you are, I’d like some warning, so I can prepare myself.’ It is a ten-hour train journey.

 Then to his young companion, I said ‘ You should learn not to stare at women,’ really what I wanted to say was not a feminist stance but a plea ‘I’d like you not to stare at me. I feel naked enough here, even when fully covered. And I don’t just mean in India, I mean on this planet. I am a twenty something, in the mad limbo of life, give me a chance to breathe.’ Or as the better poet Eliot asked for time ‘to prepare a face to meet the faces you meet.’

 I’ve seen the struggle in stranger’s eyes as they come to terms with my face, with my travelling companions. We aren’t all the same like dominoes or chess pieces in a flat line; we come with hiccups and lumps and bumps and no receipt. Pretending to be a uniform homogeny is the biggest mistake. So to cope with hanging our hat on a hook that can be hostile, we might play safe, its often the only way we can anticipate the next moves on the field.

 Ways to cope with feeling out of kilter and culturally mismatched are to go to places that make you feel at home, to run somewhere with trees and grass and find some peace. By putting on our shoes, and stepping out, we have already dived into deep water before learning to tread. The places that demand more of us will be waiting.

 Below is a poem I wrote to capture some of these feelings, the mismatch, the Third Space, the heart space and the home space:


Surveying the open wreckage of the heart

can be achieved by opening up my suitcase and seeing what I cannot live without.

Anointed in splendors from the East,

lavish beads that stain a wrist, coral reef that will drown twice,

you take me to accidental dinner parties

give the tangerine of an invitation that later

I will destroy

or take home and hang somewhere.


But I always hope that no matter what, I might find a way back to my hat- to call somewhere else home, drag it firmly from the rusty hook and replace it on my head, brushing off the amazon dust, acid rain and thousand other faces.  

Namaste friends..

Grounded in Leh

Long weekends are for exploring the North. From Delhi’s pulsing heat and short sleeves to Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe, one of the highest airport’s in the world at 10,682 ft serving LehJammu and Kashmir in northern India, where woollen hats and thermals are essential.

When we landed, the other passengers pulled out knitted jumpers and pashminas. The men wore socks underneath their flip-flops. You arrive during the descent over what seem to be doll’s houses and watch a mass of grey sand emerge with little houses scooped into the rim. If you want to find G-d, go to the mountains.

 There is a starkness to Leh, particularly visiting out of season, when most tourists are still to arrive. The German bakeries are closed. Tours are not running. The trip to famous Pangong Lake is available, but the water is frozen over. We bought permits to go, but felt sick when the day came.  We arranged a cycling tour of the surrounding hills, including a thirty kilometre downhill section, but couldn’t muster the energy for that day either. I made plans to meet a friend at Lala’s famous Art Cafe in town and cancelled.

Leh came to me as India often does, in a sequence of interpretations, trying to do things, but ending in Plan B. Plan B for me was lying in room 104 at the guesthouse with the window pushed open, staring at the changing sky and waiting for the pins and needles in my head to subside.


In reality, being grounded in Leh simply meant seeing it from a humble perspective. Guide books advise 48-72 hours immediate rest for a reason. Husband and wife team, Sonnam and Padma ran the guesthouse and a sweet Nepalese man would come to my room every few hours, clean the bathroom, squeeze out the flannel for my forehead, bring me another bucket of cold water and a tray of altitude adjusting black and mint tea before clopping back down the stairs and pulling the door shut.

All the way along from Changspa Road are guest houses with a slanting view of the Kunlun mountains to the North and Himalaya range to the South.  My friends and I stayed near the top of the town in Silver Clouds, a wooden guest house near the Ladaki Women’s Alliance and Lamdan public school with a view of Shanti Stupor, the Peace Pagoda, identical to one in Nepal’s Pokhara district.

 It is easy to see why the Ladakhi people smile with such ease: Leh averages three hundred days of sunshine a year. Breakfast on the terrace was fluffy omelettes, a flask of mint tea and freshly baked bread with locally pressed apricot jam and the ever present, but well received Nutella.

Ladakhi school children wondered down our lane each day, wearing blue button down shirts, black trousers, navy jumpers and baseball caps, carrying square backpacks branded with Adidas or The North Face. Girls had a single plait pulled to one side, and often we’d see groups jogging together up a hill that we were too out of breathe to walk down. When they saw us they would shout ‘gillet’ a traditional greeting meaning everything from ‘hello’ to ‘mind out for that cow!’

 We discovered a shortcut into the town, tramping through dusty fields, newly logged trees and weaving via tiny temples glazed with orange paint and donation baskets. Ladakhi’s walked around the town, and moved in crowds twisting prayer wheels in their hands, murmuring ‘Om Mani Padme hum,’ the mantra for compassion and wisdom.

Leh seemed vastly different to the rest of India, magical in its mystery and open landscapes. Darjeeling in the East, with its mythical tea plantations has a huge Nepali and Gurkha population, with Nepalese as the unofficial language. Leh has a large Tibetan Buddhist population with some Shia Muslims and completely different sounds are heard. Their faces are less angular, softer. The first local we met was called Ani, the second Karma. In Hebrew ‘Ani’ means ‘I am’, meeting I am Karma was a nice way to start.

From the top of Shanti Stupor, the sound of Buddhist chanting and birdsong fills the air, otherwise Leh is almost silent. Prayer flags in all colours line the path way to the top. You cannot help wondering what is going on just across the mountains though, to places the news report as conflict zones.

The Chinese invaded the edge of the eastern frontier the week before we arrived, so it was an interesting time when locals asked our opinion who has the right to Leh? We spoke to two men by the public bathroom, us wrapped in five layers, dizzy from the thin air. Why do the Chinese want a piece of this landscape? This is the place where traveller’s have flocked to since its opening in the 1970’s, and here is the edge of the North, before India grows more dangerous.  The in- case- of- natural- disaster- or- emergency- evacuation- zone is a series of empty fields out near the airport, almost awaiting tragedy. What would become of the empty houses in a town coated by dust?

We drank chai with Kashmiri shop owners, were invited to stay on their house boats that autumn, holding delicate cups laced with threads of saffron, and drenched yellow. It was chai at its sweetest, and their scarves were beautiful ranging from 300-18,000 rupees.


Around the edge of the town, street vendors sat toothless and wrapped in puffa jackets with bags of dried fruits split open in multi kilo rice sacks. Every trader had the same goods, and they would dig their wrinkled hands into the mass and weigh you 100 grams or half a kilo of almonds badam and raisins Kishmish, before pouring them into a newspaper bag stapled together at the edges, and you would be glad you hadn’t gone to the Amritsar Dried Fruit shop and spent double on 50 grams, paying for cleanness.

Later, we searched for the most moist cake and failed. At 10,000 feet closer to the sun, everything was dryer, the skin on our faces, and the suddenness of a nosebleed. The plum cake pretended to be chocolate, but disappointed us with mottled edges. The cheese cake was not cheesecake but ancient butter sponge, with all the warmth and richness drained out. The biscuits cracked when we put them to our lips, left stale crumbs around our mouths in whisker lines.

The plain puff was thin with the undercurrents of a kiln that had blown it inside out days ago. The counter top was thick with the complexities of Ladakhi air, both a triumph and a curse, drying out our skin making us peak early and need rest often. Our most prominent position that weekend was lying flat on the ground, on stones, near monuments  and always under a blazing sun.


We hired a private car to drive out to Thikse Monastery and had Maggi noodles at the temple doors. The monastery was a faded white from the sunlight built in the fifteenth century, with little windows revealing the surrounding panorama. A medicine man tried to sell us pellets for altitude sickness. The smell; a pungent mixture of horse stables and an injured camel made us re think our rupees.


Semi-precious Ladakhi jade stones were on sale in the nearby Tibetan market. To make my bargain, I said ‘I’ll pay you in cash right now’ despite this being the only accepted payment method. The market seller laughed, looking at me with ancient eyes and a huge smile as I reached for my purse, giving me a good price.

Four days later, as we boarded the plane to leave, a BA pilot turned to us and described Leh as ‘The Highlands of India’. Just over a year ago I was living there on the edges of Scotland, and felt right at home with his comparison. We flew out of heaven’s highway to the fluttering of prayer flags and calls of Tashi Deli, take care.