Faces of India

Local women in the market at Orchha
Local women in the market at Orchha

No matter how much you read about India, nothing can prepare you for your actual arrival. You’ll experience all the usual clichés – the chaos, the colours, the friendliness, the aromas, the food, the landscapes, as well as the hassle, the filth, the poverty and the begging. But stay a while and it’s the kind of place that really gets under your skin.

Enjoying the Republic Day festivities in Jaisalmer
Enjoying the Republic Day festivities in Jaisalmer
Guard at Mehrangar Fort, Jodhpur
Guard at Mehrangar Fort, Jodhpur

My first trip was at the beginning of 2009 to Rajasthan for just a few weeks and I was so enamoured of the place that I was back by September that year on a 3 month tour from Varanasi in the north to Kanyakumari, at the very southernmost tip of the continent. Although in many ways it was an amazing trip, in the end I was exhausted, having experienced everything from bedbugs and filthy bathrooms to chronic food poisoning which laid me up for 5 days in Varkala. I vowed never to return.

Boy making rotis in Orchha
Boy making rotis in Orchha
Schoolkids seem more interested in me than their tour of the Five Rathas in Mamallapuram
Schoolkids seem more interested in me than their tour of the Five Rathas in Mamallapuram

I was back last year for a five-week journey up the east coast from Chennai to Darjeeling and this proved to be one of the best trips ever. India exerts a strange pull over some travellers, me included. It’s certainly not an easy place to visit, but for me the good points outweigh the difficulties.

Waiting for a train in Darjeeling
Waiting for a train in Darjeeling

I love the food, so every day is an adventure as I seek out a different dish. The climate is great, although I have yet to experience the monsoon season. The countryside is astonishingly beautiful and varied, but the thing I hate most is the litter which lies everywhere uncollected. It’s a real eyesore.

Coconut seller, Kerala
Coconut seller, Kerala
Morning rituals in Varanasi
Morning rituals in Varanasi

Above all, though, it’s the people you meet and see along the way who really make your visit memorable. That’s why I have concentrated on photos of people for this post.There’s an openness and genuine curiosity and wherever you go, you’ll be approached by people eager to make conversation and have their photo taken. I can’t wait to go back and I am already planning my next trip for next year. It’s impossible to stay away.

Local women in Satjelia, the Sunderbans, West Bengal
Local women in Satjelia, the Sunderbans, West Bengal

The Jalapão – the secret interior of Brazil

Jalapão landscape
Jalapão landscape

Brazil is not just about beaches. It’s true that many of the major cities are strung out along the coastline, but there is a whole world in the interior of the country waiting to be explored. Much of it is still well off the beaten track. And I am not talking about the Amazon. There are places with vast deserts of scrubland and sand-dunes, along with waterfalls and natural swimming-holes. One such place is the Jalapão which I visited a few years ago on an organised trek.

Me on the jeep
Me on the jeep

It’s an immense savanna-like region, sparsely populated and with little infrastructure. But there are also rivers and waterfalls that break up the desert and meseta plateaus from the top of which there are uninterrupted views across the landscape, best enjoyed at dawn.

Dawn on the Serra do Espirito Santo
Dawn on the Serra do Espirito Santo

The only real way in is by 4×4 jeep and then to trek, climb and swim. I am always a little wary of organised tours as they totally depend not only on the efficiency of the agency, but also your fellow travellers. I was really lucky on my trip to book through the excellent Norte Tur (http://www.nortetur.com.br) based in Palmas and also to be in the company of a really great crowd of like-minded adventurers.

Pedra Furada
Pedra Furada

Palmas is north of Brasilia, and, like Brasilia, is a new town. I spent the first night there and it’s a weird place to say the least; huge avenues leading seemingly nowhere and baking under a relentless sun. It feels like a city still waiting to be fully populated.

Chuveirinho - a local desert flower
Chuveirinho – a local desert flower

There were about 10 of us in the group, all Brazilians except me, mainly from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It was great that we all got on since we were going to spend several days together, helping each other abseil down rocks and retain a sense of humour when you have to get up at 3am to climb a plateau and enjoy the sunrise.

Climbing down the slippery Lajeado Waterfall
Climbing down the slippery Lajeado Waterfall

It’s reminiscent of the outback in Australia or parts of East Africa and it remains one of the highlights of my time in Brazil.

Sunset on the dunes
Sunset on the dunes

The Islands

As Ilhas
As Ilhas

So perfect they don’t even need a name. They are just The Islands, “As Ilhas”. They lie just a five-minute boat ride off Praia do Barra do Sai which is one of many beautiful beaches in the São Sebastião region of the Paulisa coast. Some of the resorts are heavily built up and being just a few hours drive from São Paulo it’s a favourite weekend getaway destination. There are many expensive holiday homes here and a lot of money washing around, but there are still several unspoilt parts.

As Ilhas
As Ilhas

Last weekend I visited the islands on a day trip from where I was staying in Praia do Juquehy. There are some agencies there which run larger posher boats, but I think the best way to do it is make your way to Barra do Sai and chat to one of the boat owners who wait for customers at the far left hand side of the beach.

As Ilhas
As Ilhas

It’s quite expensive to charter a boat unless you’re in a group, but as I can speak Portuguese, I was able to chat to a family and tag along with them. I spent the whole afternoon lying on the pristine sands and swimming in the clear waters, a real luxury considering it’s officially winter here. There’s no restaurant to speak of, but the boatman’s mum and brothers run a little drinks stall and can whip up a fantastic whole barbecued fish. All in all, it was one of the most relaxing Sundays I’ve ever had.