4 months on

Hello!

At the end of March I completed my Social Starters programme in Hyderabad. Since, I have been travelling Incredible India with family, friends and on my own.

As I set into my last week here, making it 4 months since I arrived back in February, I am reflecting and attempting to put into words what an enriching experience it has been.

In the meantime, here’s a poem I came across about ‘Mother India’.

She, whose flocks of Jammu and Kashmir flutter in the breeze
Whose crown of the Himalayas shimmers as the roof of the world
Whose robust arms of Gujarat and Bengal swing in Her graceful gait
Whose bosom of Madhya Pradesh swells with pride and confidence
Whose veins are aflow with the holy waters of the Ganga, Yamuna and Sarswati
Whose holy feet of Kerala are continuously washed by the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea
And to whom the sun and moon offer their arti day and night,
O Bharat Mata! I offer my humble prostrations.

 

 

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week 6 – all good things…

I’m currently lying in my Airbnb in Mumbai, a city which has sucked me in, spun me around and thrown me back out again! I realise I am extremely late to write about my last week Hyderabad but hey.. there’s no time like the present.

The final week on the programme – in all honesty I felt ready for things to draw to a close. I was feeling quite exhausted as it turns out living in a new city, learning on the job, meeting new people, having fun, thinking and reflecting about life is quite tiring and a lot to cram into 6 weeks! I was looking forward to having some down time to digest and process all that happened during my time in Hyderabad. The week was stilll jam-packed , we were all busy closing out Client actions, preparing our final reports and presentations, ready for the final showcase on the Wednesday, as well as making the most of our last evenings in Hyderabad. This meant for many celebratory meals and drinks out!

Final bollywood dance class!

I also attended the annual Design Summit which Prashant was speaking at and I got to spend time with his niece which was fun! On Friday afternoon Prashant and his wife invited me over for lunch to their house to say goodbye, it was a really lovely way to end our working relationship.

On Wednesday morning we had a final reflection session, it was heart warming to hear snippets of everyone’s personal journeys through the programme. After our session it was time for the showcase, where all volunteers presented their learnings and highlights of the experience. Clients and everyone involved were invited too so it was a great way to finish off the programme.

I thought I would sum up my thoughts on the experience by highlighting 6 things I learnt spending 6 weeks in Hyderabad. Warning, it does get cheesy.

1. Find your people

I knew this one already – but I learnt just how much you can learn and gain confidence from being around people with similar ideas, thoughts and beliefs about the world.

2. Be a rebel, follow your calling

The social entrepreneurs in India are probably the biggest rebels of the kind. Many have gone against the typical and stereotypical Indian career paths. Being an entrepreneur? And a social one? What does even mean?! It’s inspired me to trust your instinct, be brave, embrace every part of yourself and follow your calling, even if it seems crazy to those around you.

3. Challenge, be a sceptic 

The whole start up scene is filled with many a buzzword and is very cool to be a part of. However I learnt to remember not to just accept things and get caught up in the trendiness of it all, but remembering the importance of challenging and asking questions!

4. Test and experiment, life as an expat

I was crazy when I thought I could just pack my bags and move to a new job and city. The programme was a great way to test and learn about what life as an expat would be like, the good, bad and ugly. I found out the the things I need to make me feel settled and at home. Headphones for podcasts and music, and cake.. banana cake. Might seem obvious, but it’s useful to try things out before fully commiting. In fact one of the best pieces of advice I got on the programme, was to MVP my life!

5. Ride the wave, life is a journey 

For me I learnt that I don’t necessarily want to work towards this one pinnacle goal of being director of X company with a house, husband and a white picket fence. For now, I just want to continue to have experiences, embracing all that comes with them, to keep learning and growing.

6. Be in the moment

This is one for me to remember and work on. Because of the above I know I might be constantly thinking about the next move, the next dream or goal. I figured that it’s not a bad thing, but I want to make sure I learn to enjoy the moment, be present and grateful!

I left the programme feeling pretty proud that I didn’t crack during my time in Hyderabad, very grateful for the opportunity, excited for what the future may hold and very much looking forward to taking a breather out of the city.

My travels beyond Hyderabad are also teaching more than I ever anticipated. I am learning about what living in a real community really means, learning that there is a wallah for everything you could possibly imagine and oh boy each day is teaching me just how many contractions and juxtapositions there are to India.

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week 5 – dancing in the rain

I’m currently sitting by the backwaters in Alleppey, Kerala. It’s so peaceful and quiet, all I can hear are the very many birds swooping up and down the river and the rickety fan above me spinning away. This is worlds and worlds away from Hyderabad, if only a 2 hour flight away. I am now beginning to unwind, digest and process my crazy six weeks in Hyderabad and I am wholly committed to finishing my weekly blog posts on the experience!

So…Week 5 begins in the most explosive, colourful and vibrant way possible. Monday is a public holiday for all, Holi! Although we learn this festival is more celebrated in the North, we were determined to attend a holi party. Dressed in whites, we make our way to the Golconda Resort and Spa Hotel on the outskirts of the city, not knowing at all what to expect. In fact our Uber breaks down en route so we are helplessly left on the road looking like rather ridiculous wannabe spiritual-gurus (or something of the sort). When we eventually arrive we walk on to the lawn where multicoloured fabric is draped above the tent, making the space look rather spectacular. The coloured powder comes out and everybody is chasing and throwing colours at each other. It’s such exciting and uplifting fun.  Before we know it the party turns into something like a Bollywood movie. The music thumps, the showers turn on and the rain dance begins. It’s so much fun!! Dancing, followed by an unlimited buffet of lovely Indian food and beer. Life is good!

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Holi
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Holi
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Holi

Back to work on Tuesday, I learn lots as Prashant and I begin to brainstorm and test some ideas of solutions to the problems we have identified. It’s feels good to know the solutions we are coming up with for improving the marketing and communications are really tailored to the conclusions we have made from the customer research. I also have lots of fun using Canva, the free graphic design software I have discovered!

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Graphic I made for social media, using Canva.

This week our workshops are led by Sharon from Israel and Elise from France. They are perfectly reflective and in tune with it being our last week of workshops. Elise’s workshop is on Business Chemistry, a behavioural/personality type test led by Deloitte. It’s a similar process to Myers-Briggs and the workshop aids in me reflecting, giving me confidence to know that although we may draw naturally to one certain ‘type’, I do have the ability to adapt my style to the situation. Sharon’s workshop is based on our mental mappings of Hyderabad, it was interesting to hear everyones perspective and experience of the city.  I have really loved the Wednesday workshops on the programme, learning from each other and sharing our knowledge.

As the group come to realise its our penultimate week in the city we try to squeeze in all the restaurants, cafes and sites we have not yet seen. On Friday morning we awake at sunrise as Mohan, Madhavi and their 15 year old son Pranav have kindly offered to take us on a tour around the Old City. It’s such an interesting experience to see the original city, as we acknowledge just how much Hyderabad has sporadically grown in its modern, hi-tech ways, the places and ways in which we have been living for the past month. This part of the city is heavily Muslim, with narrower streets and unassuming restaurants and shops. There is not a construction site in sight! We stand drinking Iranian chai and biscuits in front of the famous Charminar, standing tall above us. Afterwards we also visit the Qutb Shahi Tombs. It’s quiet and we nosy around admiring the beautiful architecture.

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Sunrising in the Old City
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Charminar
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Qutb Shahi Tombs
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Qutb Shahi Tombs

Our last weekend together is a pretty chilled one. We hang out at Olive Bistro, an oasis up in the rocks overlooking the lake, chatting and singing to an eclectic mix of music including a bit of Paul Simon, George Micheal and Wet Wet Wet (!) On Sunday night I am back at Lamakaan as ex frontman, Rahul Ram, of Indian Ocean whom I have only discovered whilst being here, is playing! It turned out he talked politics, economics and life in India more than singing but it was still a very lovely evening.

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Olive Bistro
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Rahul Ram at Lamakaan

Time in Hyderabad is soon coming to a close as I set in to my final week here. What an incredible adventure it has been so far…

 

week 4 – move on up

I think week 4 has been my favourite week so far. It has been filled with productive and interesting work both independently and with my Client along with some really wonderful Indian experiences!

This week I ran a customer persona and customer journey workshop with Prashant. The aim of the workshop was to learn exactly who Bamboo Houses’s customers are, their problems and learning how we can best engage with them.  We were then able to identify gaps within the current communications and come up with goals and tailored solutions to develop the communications. I have loved putting into practice the new tools and ways of working that I have learnt here. I planned my work with Prashant incorporating human-centred design methods, which I am finding a really creative and productive way to work and solve problems. I have really enjoyed the process of truly empathising with Bamboo House’s customers to understand their needs, then identifying and brainstorming opportunities for development and finally prototyping, testing and implementing solutions (which I am currently in the process of!). Check out the Design Kit by IDEO if you’re interested in learning more.

Week 4 was also my turn to run a workshop for the other Social Starters volunteers! I had chosen to base my workshop on micro-finance, leading into ‘the 21st century career’. I had last studied micro-finance whilst at university so preparing the workshop was great for me to get back up to date with the industry and refresh my knowledge. I learnt that India had suffered a huge micro-finance crisis in 2010 which Telengana and Andra Pradesh were actually at the heart of. I would definitely recommend reading Banker to the Poor by Muhammed Yunus if you are interested in learning about how the micro-finance movement began. Secondly during my journey here I have been thinking much about what careers, life and work mean for the new generation of so called ‘millennials’ and how organisations can adapt. Did you know that 51% have experienced physical or mental health issues as a result of their current job, 64% would like to make more of a social impact through their work and 54% say they cant see themselves working in their organisation in five years time? I loved running this section of the workshop, debating and discussing with my my fellow volunteers!

Free time this week was was packed with a ton of interesting activities. On Wednesday we did a Dialogue in the Dark tour. This was an exhibition, lead by a person with impaired vision, which puts you in situations – like crossing a bridge, going to the supermarket – but in complete darkness, awakening the senses and experiencing what it is like to have impaired vision. This was such an interesting experience and it was incredible to get to know our tour guide Mohsin without seeing him.

On Friday night we watched Lion at our local cinema, we paid 150 rupees for a ticket (just under £2)! I got comfy, with my first Magnum in about a month, and was deeply moved by this heart-warming story. It was extra special to be watching in India too, albeit the fact that intervals and cinema ads in India are very strange!!

Saturday, I’m pretty sure, was my first down day in India so far. I spent the day reading (I am making my way through A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth), writing, sleeping and watching the sunset at Golconda Fort.

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Sun setting at Golconda Fort
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Sun setting at Golconda Fort

We had an incredible end to the week by visiting Madhavi and Mohan’s organic farm on the outskirts of the city. Madhavi is a Client of Social Starters who is the founder of Sattva Lifeskills,  providing alternative non-academic job training to young adults with learning difficulties. She is such a badass, inspiring woman!! They are growing all sorts on the farm from mangoes and watermelons to chicoo and lentils. I loved it! We enjoyed a huge feast sitting around a table under the shade of a tree, eating eggplant and bindi curry from the farm. There was also fresh mutton (goat), which I did not eat since I have been vege for over a month now. Good food, great company and a beautiful setting. It was a perfect way to end the week.

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Lunch at the farm
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Group photo at the farm…’say chapatiii’

I shall leave you with Move On Up by Curtis Mayfield… soundtrack to my fourth wonderful week in Hyderabad.

week 3 – halfway house

I’m currently sitting in Lamakaan cafe, it’s a cool spot with a shady courtyard. There are always tons of events and workshops here and always seems to be filled with lots of interesting, passionate looking conversations over chai (It’s a shame I don’t understand Hindi or Telugu). It’s a place I love to come and people watch.

There is an older gentleman sitting on the edge of the courtyard, he seems to be the old soul of Lamakaan watching over everyone. He is rather skinny with strikingly grey eyes, slick back greying hair, wearing a sheriff style shirt with dusty jeans. He in fact helped me move my table under the tree whilst saying with a kind smile, ‘this is your home.’ Hmm…

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Lamakaan cafe

However, notably so, out of about 30 or so people in the courtyard I am one of about 5 women. ‘This is a man’s world’ pops into my head. I am not one to get bogged down in feminism, sexism etc…however, during my time in India I have to say it is clear and so vividly obvious that Hyderabad is still certainly a man’s world. I remember sitting on my flight from Mumbai to Hyderabad being one of the very few women on the flight, and again last week when I was waiting for my Client in the café of business hotel… I was the only woman!

Well enough of my ramblings, lets get to week 3, the half-way mark of the Social Starters programme..time is flying!

I spend a large chunk of the week working in t-hub, a co-working space for start-ups, investors, incubators and accelerators. It’s been interesting to have complete flexible working as my Client does not have an office. But I have found I much prefer to work in a café and more so co-working spaces, rather than working at home. I like to make sure I have separate spaces for work and rest and I also like to be working with other people. The food at t-hub is also great, you can get an organic thali for 100 rupees! However, although being immersed in the start-up, enterprise bubble is incredibly exciting and inspiring, I sometimes can’t help but question whether the push behind the sector it is entirely economically sustainable.

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Wall decor at t-hub

Other highlights of the week include:

  • Jewelry making at Colour D Earth, we are all pleasantly surprised by what we produce.
  • We meet Bala Vikasa an international development NGO, it is interesting to hear about their history, ambitions and particularly their community-based approach to development.
  • We finally crack our Bollywood dance – Humma Humma.
  • We do sunset yoga on our apartment roof! We are lucky enough that Clare, another volunteer here, is a superstar yoga teacher.
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Handpainted necklace

On Thursday we’re off on our second and last weekend trip to Auroville in Pondicherry. Ahh….where to start?! We travelled via an overnight sleeper bus to Pondicherry. It’s a rocky ride and I’m pretty sure I am in sleep purgatory all night, holding on to my bunk! We reach Pondicherry and are all overjoyed that we survived the crazy bus (it reminded me of the Knight bus in Harry Potter). Pondicherry is an old French colonial city and we have breakfast in a little French café. I begin to miss crazy India, complaining to the others that we have been in there too long!

We then make our way to Auroville via tuk tuk. I did not know much about this place beforehand and had entirely neutral expectations. Auroville I come to learn is an experimental township, whose purpose is to ‘realize human unity’…

We are staying at a small, quaint little guesthouse owned by a curious, endearing and very softly spoken man called Selvaraj. Our first adventure begins by getting on a bus from the Solar Café to a umm …forest. Clare has organised this and its fair to say that none of us had a clue what to expect. We end up in a place called Sadhana Forest, which we learn has been set up to create a community of volunteers to reforest the previously arid and dry piece of land. We tour the forest, learning how volunteers from all over the world, including families and children, live off the ‘fatta the lan’, like Lenny says in Of Mice and Men. We are then treated to a free vegan meal and a documentary film screening. It’s a very interesting experience, one of which I can’t really put my finger on, but I find it curious how some of us in the developed world are almost trying to go back in time to live the simple life.

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Tour at Sadhana Forest

The next day we meet Gopi, a previous Social Starters Client who runs his own Auroville tours. Gopi has grown up in Auroville and its fascinating to hear his experiences and perspectives on things. I get on the back of Gopi’s motorbike and we take a tour around various Aurovillian charities, social enterprises and businesses. We visit Wellpaper, Lively Bamboo, and SVARAM, a music and sound therapy organisation. I have missed the ‘people’ element of my Client project in Hyderabad so I am really happy and inspired to meet some of the beneficiaries of the enterprises in Auroville.

That night on the way to dinner we get caught up in a religious parade for the Hindu God called Kali. People are dressed up, few are having trance-like experiences and men are walking with fire lit sticks. I felt both a little uneasy and also completely in awe of what was going on. The religious culture is so heavy and rich, it is incredible to see!

And finally our last day before getting the knight bus back to Hyderabad, we take the tour into the Matra Mandir. I have drafted this paragraph various times and I am really struggling to put into words my rather enchanting experience here! The architecture and interior of the mandir is breathtaking and everyone is made to be silent whilst walking through the mandir. We are taken to the mediation room where I have quite a surreal experience meditating which I really can’t describe…so I shall leave it at that.

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View of Matra Mandir

We fuel up on masala dosas, grab some beers on the side of the road before bracing ourselves back on the Knight Bus to Hyderabad. (It actually turned out not to be as bad as the way there).

So that’s halfway through the programme and Auroville was a really special way to mark it. Excited to see what the next half brings!

week 2 – culture club

When it comes to travel I am a real believer in quality over quantity. I much prefer to settle into one spot, really allowing myself to get under the skin of the culture, the people and the place. Last week in Hyderabad was truly a cultural immersion, which I loved every minute of.

Firstly it has been an amazing week of incredible food! One of my favourite things to do is to sit around a table with friends sharing lovely food. (In fact one of the other volunteers here is a big advocate of this too, check out Damien’s social enterprise called Community Oven, which aims to bring communities together through nourishing, locally-sourced food!). We were round at Raj and Anna’s house twice this week having a big old feast. On Monday night, for Andrea’s send off back to London, where we dug in to a variety of tasty biryanis (which did leave some in a spicy sweat!), and again on Thursday when we cooked  spinach daal, cauliflower and bindi curry followed by watching a not so Bollywood film, Delhi Belly. And on Friday I think I had my favourite meal so far…chaat from a local street food stall! I met Anusha at a Social Enterprise conference who works for Bala Vikasa. Anusha offered to take us to dinner where we stopped by a small stall on a busy road, Maharaja Chaat. Starting off with pani puri, followed by pao bhaji, bhel and samosa chaat. We were propped up a side wall in the cool, evening breeze, sharing from flimsy foil plates surrounded by locals beginning their Friday night. What a great way to eat!

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Gang eating Maharaja Chaat on Friday night
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Our chefs for the evening

Then bring on the indian inspired exercise I have been doing since being here… I mentioned in my last blog post that I have started yoga classes. I am not a complete beginner to yoga as I have been doing Les Mils Bodybalance classes for over a year back in London, however I am definitely being challenged now practising yoga in its very pure and traditional form, Ashtanga, (it is also more like hot yoga since they really don’t like to turn on the fans or AC, apparently it gets the muscles working quicker!). I am keen to learn more about the underlying spiritual side of yoga which I do not currently have much awareness of, but I have been discovering some sanskrit words from my practice which really resonate with me and make me want to understand the discipline better. (I really hope I am not sounding too hippy!). As a group we are also doing weekly Bollywood dance classes. Our first class was lots of fun, even though I did have more fun secretly giggling at people through the mirror.

As well as the traditional Indian culture I have also been experiencing the incredibly modern, hi tech and evolving India. I get around the city by Uber and ordered my first meal from Swiggy, the equivalent of Uber Eat or Just Eat. When I pop into the malls for essentials I am interested to witness the Indian mall-culture, where locals come to spend their leisure time, recorded by taking selfies in front of brand names and the mall decor. On Friday night I was also invited to a rather exclusive party on a roof top. This was Hyderabad gone wild, with dancing, alcohol, smoking and lots of leggy women. It was fascinating to see such a contrast to the conservative city I witness daily on the streets.

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Clare and I getting in on the selfie action

On the work front, I am making steady progress with my Client. Having now agreed clear objectives I am currently working on a customer profiling workshop to help inform the marketing strategy of Bamboo House India. This is completely different to anything I have done before…it’s going to be a challenge but one I hope that will be of benefit to both me and my Client. It’s also great to have such a variety of professional backgrounds within our volunteer group, something which I am definitely utilising.  Every week we also have knowledge share workshops, last week topics covered servant leadership and human-centred design, subjects which really aided for enriching discussions and food for thought.

It sounds cheesy, but India really does feed your senses. I wake up with the sound of sweepers, travel around the city with the constant hooting of vehicles in the background, walk by the smells of sizzling street food and witness the colourful melting pot of various religions and cultures coexisting together in the city. I think my parents are concerned I’m going to return more Indian than them…

Here’s to more weird and wonderful experiences to come in week 3.

week 1 – from Harrow to Hyderabad

It feels really quite crazy to think I have only been in India for only 10 days. It was quite a whirlwind when I first arrived, however I am now beginning to find a routine and feel very much comfortable living in the wonderful city that is Hyderabad.

I landed in Hyderabad at 4am on Friday 10th February after meeting a whole range of weird and wonderful people on the journey from London, including an aunty living in Hackney from Tanzania on a trip to Gujarat, another ‘Tailor’ whose daughter lives on my road and a local Hyderbadi on his way back from a wedding in LA. The latter offered to drive me up to Banjara Hills where I am living during my time here. It’s a shame we have to be sceptical travelling as I really had no reason to doubt this man, but having just arrived I thought I had better be safe than sorry. I did however exchange details and will be meeting the man’s daughter who has offered to show me around Hyderabad!

The first weekend here involved heavy sleeping, exploring my new neighbourhood (including eating my first famous Hyderabadi biriyani and my first Indian thali) and meeting the other volunteers, learning about how we all ended up on the Social Starters programme. Oh and we were also lucky enough to see a talk by the Dalai Lama which was pretty cool. He’s a very humble and funny guy.

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First thali at Chutneys

So Monday hits and our 3 day Social Starters training begins at a very hip and trendy co-working space. We learn all about social entrepreneurship, India, start up methods and core business and consultancy tools to help our Clients. It feels great to be learning new and exciting topics and feels even better to be learning with people who are too aiming to create more socially mindful careers. Lunch includes a full on Indian feast…

Towards the end of the first week I meet my Clients, cofounders of Bamboo House India, Aruna and Prashant. It’s really interesting to hear about their journey and the ambitions and priorities they have for their social enterprise. However, in all honesty, a little overwhelming to digest everything. I’m working on setting really specific objectives with them that I can achieve over the next 5 weeks. I visited their workshop and was invited for tea and biscuits at their lovely house filled with lots of upcycled cool bits and bobs.

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Bottle bricks at Aruna and Prashants house

During the week I also signed up for my yoga classes which so far have been pretty intense and a very good work out, we visited the Birla temple at sunset which was really beautiful and on Friday night we boarded the Indian railway on a sleeper train for our first weekend adventure to Hampi!

Be happy in Hampi they say…a UNESCO World Heritage site in the state of Karnataka, Hampi is certainly several worlds away from bustling Hyderabad. We arrived on our sleeper train to Hospet and took the tuk tuk to the village. I loved the journey on the tuk tuk watching the morning street life. We stayed at a guesthouse across the river which had views out on to the lush rice fields, explored the ancient temples, wandered the local markets and hung out drinking chai at the cool, chilled cafes. It was a perfect way to end the busy week and recharge… and the trains were an incredible part of the trip too!

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Young boy selling (and drinking) coconuts in Hampi
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Sun setting in Hampi

So week one over, its been pretty jam (curry) packed. I’m feeling extremely full and happy here. I love the cool, peaceful mornings and love watching life on the streets. The local people I have met have so far have been very helpful, open and friendly. I get moments in the day where I realise that I’m in India and get all gooey inside. I am also very lucky to be sharing the experience with some very awesome people from all over the world.