Whilst going to India was not my first time travelling officially – I had ventured out of Europe two years prior on a World Challenge project to Malaysia – it was my first experience of being highly independent overseas.
I had just left Sixth Form and was sick to death of suburbia, so I applied for a teaching position overseas with Project Trust. I had prepared my whole life for university; but I had always wanted to travel properly. Visiting Malaysia 2 years before had given me wanderlust; and I figured it would be easier to travel before further study at university than after (when I would be in significant debt and desperate for work). I successfully applied; and despite requesting a placement in the following: Nepal, Cambodia, and Senegal, the email in my inbox offered me the following: India, China or South Africa. Hm.
I wasn’t annoyed per say, but I wasn’t satisfied with the options on offer to me. I was looking for remote and off-the-grid; India was huge. But, after a slightly awkward phone call in which I was assured I was perfect for the Indian projects (my enthusiasm, apparently), I was heading to India.
I requested the most remote project they had, and I only found out where I was going a month before departure; I was going to be living in a small village called Tanguturu, situated right by the south-east coast in the state of Andhra Pradesh. I asked a few Indian people I knew about Andhra, and they laughed - no one visits Andhra. A few minutes of abusing Google search confirmed that Andhra was worlds away from the streets of Mumbai and the wonders of the Taj Mahal. I was satisfied.
After flying into Hyderabad, our group of 18 stayed with our in-country hosts – an amazing couple called Bharavi and Sugatti, and their son Abhilash. Having an Indian family was a comfort to many of us, as we sweated in the hotel room and tried to figure out which hand to eat with and which to use in the bathroom…
After 2 days in Hyderabad, the group got split into pairs, and we essentially got scattered around the country. Me and my partner, Elsha, were sent to Tanguturu, a 7-hour train-trek away, whilst other friends of ours would be sent to every corner of India.
It was daunting, if truth be told. We were half an hour away from the nearest city, but the city wasn’t anything like any city I’d ever been to – and in comparison to India’s major cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Jaipur, it was more like a large town. Stranger still, as soon as we were popped on a bus in Ongole (the city), we watched the road dissolve to little more than a dirt track as we approached my home for the year.
Tanguturu has a population of 3523, (according to the census in 2011), and is basically a large village. In an auto-rickshaw, it takes about 15 minutes to reach the sea (that’s not fact, that’s just from memory). The streets have open sewers (which I nearly rode my bicycle into on more than one occasion), and the streets are always bustling with children, stray dogs, and people going about their daily lives.
I settled in very quickly. I don’t really get homesick, and it didn’t take too long to settle into this small community where the locals fussed over me and made me feel at home. We lived in a weird little room in one of the school blocks, where me and my partner decorated are walls with photos from home and drawings the kids gave us. The practicalities of daily life were very different – from hand-washing our clothing to adjusting to our cot beds – but our room was a real sanctuary from the hectic outside. Every day, three times a day, we went to the house of our headmaster’s wife, Sivakumari, a few streets away. She cooked us the most amazing stuff – dosa chutney, idli sambar and (if we were really lucky) puri for breakfast; and then dinner would be one of the many famous dry, vegetable curries that Andhra are famous for. There was nothing more incredible than sitting to the table and looking knowingly at Elsha as we smelt wafts of gudu fry (fried egg curry) or pesarapappu (one type of dal). Equally, there was nothing more disappointing than the acrid smell of kakarakaya vepudu (bitter gourd curry), which resembled cucumber dipped in nail varnish remover.
There is so much to comment on; I have a whole year’s worth of memories, after all. I remember New Year, which we spent at the project in Ongole where two of our friends were based. We went to the hostel where some of the students lived and watched fireworks with them, before promptly getting sponge cakes laden with bubblegum icing smushed into our faces. Or there were the many times me and Elsha got somewhat abducted by random friends we made from the village, emerging from their homes hours later feeling fat from chai and laddu. Or when Wani (our friend who sold chai on the main street) invited us for food and found it hilarious to feed us chicken hearts.
The children I was teaching and the community of Tanguturu was what made my first independent trip so precious. I had never spent longer than two weeks abroad; and whilst we had a great support system both in-country and out with Project Trust HQ, we were essentially on our own - except for each other. We started with the best broken conversations, (often leading to misunderstood or hilarious results), but as the year progressed, we picked up enough Telugu to get along comfortably. We enjoyed the wackiness of Tollywood cinema, and even saw Bahubali as it was released. There was something so brilliant about making friends all over the village, as well as creating relationships with fellow colleagues in our school; and when you can confidently reel off the names of all 40 of your students (with the correct pronunciation) in every one of your 7 classes, it feels incredible.
Of course, I didn’t spend all my time in Tanguturu. I was based there most of the time; but when school was out, I got to travel. In October half-term, me and my partner met up with two other volunteers and we went further south to the beautiful backwaters of Kerala. January holidays saw my mum coming to visit me for the week – and, being her first time in India too – we did the classic circuit: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and finally Chennai. Summer holidays were incredible; the expansive 6-week holiday gave me and Elsha time to go all over the place. We circled through Kolkata, where we tried some amazing panni-puri; we went up to Minali, McLeod Ganj in Dharamsala, where many exiled Tibetan’s reside (including the Dalai Llama!) I even had the opportunity to visit the derelict ashram in Rishikesh were The Beatles spent a few weeks (my dad had to visit for that leg of the trip of course), as well as eating a meal in a small village near Pushkar where we bumped into a local family whilst on our scooters. And I don’t know the next time I’ll get to camp under a blanket of stars in the deserts of Rajasthan, where there was absolutely no light pollution.
India is so incredibly diverse, and each state is like its own country; with so many languages and the diversity of its very different subcultures and people. Travelling and living in a country on the other side of the world to my own has given me so many experiences and a level of awareness I doubt I would have had if I had gone straight to university. As soon as I can go back I will, and I will always return to Tanguturu to visit the place and the people I love best in all of India; where I found my second home. So malli kaluddaam, Tanguturu – I will see you again!