India: population of 1.6 billion, 447 languages, 29 states and mind-boggling wealth and poverty. So why, when we could have spent our family gap year anywhere in the world, did we decide to come here?
To answer that question, I need to rewind the clock to 2000. Both Andy and I, not long out of university (and 4 years before we were to meet), decided to head to the Indian sub-continent to do some voluntary work and travel. People say India is a little like Marmite: you either love or hate it. Well, suffice it to say that for both Andy and myself, our time spent there in 2000 set in motion what was to become a life-long love affair with this vast country. I even worked in the travel industry for a few years following my trip, so that I could keep going back. But it wasn’t until 2009 that we had the opportunity to live there as a family, spending one year in Bangalore.
Benji wasn’t born yet though, and Maya’s memories of her time there are limited to the branches of a mango tree in her Kindergarten’s playground. As for Lily, she only retains a hazy memory of the scent of incense.
We considered driving overland from Kenya to the UK for our family gap year. But there were swathes of land that were none too safe. Besides, India was not too far from Kenya and this country had never stopped calling us…so here we are. And I suspect we’ll never look back.
Our first overnight train journey from Mumbai down to Udupi, a town in the Southern state of Karnataka, was a fantastic experience for the children. Think: whole families camping out in the grounds of the railway station; crisp, starched white sheets and scratchy blankets, the shrill call of chaicoffeesambaridli from the green-uniformed food vendor; a lady’s Mount Vesuvius snores in the bunk below that sent the kids into fits of uncontrollable giggles; the noisy clack of the train pulling along the old, colonial-era tracks. Sleep? Not much. But it was certainly eye-opening.
In Udupi, we stayed with my lovely friend Renita D’Silva’s parents. The truth is that I’ve only met Renita once in my life but we have been in contact for a few years and she’s become a good friend, albeit sadly a friend I don’t see. I have read a number of Renita’s atmospheric Indian-based books (click here to read more about her novels) and visiting where she grew up, it was easy to see where her influences have come from. When people invite me to stay somewhere, I usually take them up on this. I love these threads that bind people globally. And whether you have met once or one hundred times, an invitation is an invitation.
And so we found ourselves for four wonderful days and nights staying in a cosy, earthern-tiled house, nestled amongst banana palms on the edge of an old paddy field and beside tamarind and pepper trees, dripping with their bounty. Renita’s parents are beautiful, warm, generous people whom it was impossible not to love instantly. I feel like we barely stopped eating for four days (Hilda, Renita’s mother: “Eat! Eat! Shall I bring more? Yes, I shall!”)
We spent our days walking along the crowded local beach, Malpe, as the sun dipped into the sea, speaking at the local college for postgrad students, wandering the old lanes of the village Kamalipuram and across the paddy field, being shown around Hindu Temples in the area well off the tourist trail and being taken out for lunch at various local ‘hotels’ (hotels here are actually restaurants) as well as to some neighbours.
Everywhere we went, we experienced the most incredible hospitality. Not to labour this point, but my goodness me - Indian hospitality - WOW. Beds were given up for us; food was served to us before our hosts ate themselves; we were checked on night and day to see if we needed anything; Maya got sick and Renita’s mother insisted on buying the medicine, when we ate out she also said that we must be treated as we were the guests, no matter the extent to which we objected. Truly astonishing!
I really cannot think of a better place to have come to after the craziness of Mumbai. Hilda was keen to keep at least one of the children (I think she heard the echoes of her own three children from the past - also two girls and a boy) and offered to feed them non-stop sweets if they agreed 😆 I think they were tempted...
But we left Udupi with still three children plus Granny in tow 🙂 Plenty more adventures to come. But I know we will stay in touch with this wonderful family. Thank you Renita for putting us in touch with your parents, and THANK YOU Hilda and Cyril ♥︎