My name is Zach Louw and I was born into this world sharing the womb with my twin brother Abe, in a small town called Macclesfield in the UK. I’m currently studying Economics, Applied Statistics and Marketing in arguably the most beautiful city in the world: Cape Town, South Africa. The travelling bug bit me after I spent 6 months studying Mandarin at Tsinghua University in Beijing where I spent time in the forbidden city, horseback riding in the inner Mongolian grasslands, spending the night on the great wall of China and News Years eve parties in massive abandoned grain silo’s. Those 6 months really opened my eyes up to how diverse cultures can be. I left Beijing with a strong hunger to read more pages from the world’s book.
How does photography influence the way you travel?
I wouldn’t say that photography influences the way that I travel, but rather who I travel with. Travelling with a photographer can be frustrating if you aren’t one yourself. I’ve been told to live the moment rather than record it, but I take photographs to relive the moment each time I look at the photograph.
What sparked your interest to travel throughout India? How did you plan for it?
I had saved up some money for travelling through part time jobs whilst studying at University. With what I had saved, I wanted to be able to travel for the longest time possible. I was drawn to Asia because it’s cheaper and in my mind wilder than Europe. I chose India in Asia because of its rich cultural diversity. I knew that India would be tough travelling and I didn’t want a typical holiday. I wanted an experience that was enriched through its hardships. The majority of people in my friendship group choose to backpack around Thailand and Europe, but I wanted to be a part of the minority rather than the majority.
Planning wise: The first thing I did was print a massive map of India, laminate it and put it above my bed. It helped me visualize the trip and helped iron out inefficiencies in our route selection. I went to the nearest bookshop and bought the largest travel book on India I could get my hands on. No shortcuts, I wanted to know as much as I could about each destination. The introduction of the guidebook lists the top travel destinations in India. I took a white board marker and marked them all on the map. From there I worked out a route. Rome2rio is a great website to find the best possible routes between cities. It has linked in the common bus routes and train routes.
What was your route? Did you travel by yourself or with others? How did you navigate between each city?
In order: Mumbai, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Jaipur, Agra, Dehli, Rishikesh, Ukimath (Himalayas) Haridwar, 24hr train to Varanasi, Domestic flight from Varanasi down to Cochin, Alleppey, Varkala, Munnar, Gokarna, Hampi, Agonda, Cola, Palolem, Anjuna and back to Mumbai.
I traveled with my girlfriend, an incredibly talented photographer, so we were a great team to tackle incredible India both creatively and physically. The train system in India is efficient, reliable and on time (most of the time), so that's how we mainly traveled. When we couldn't book a train, we would travel by government or private bus service which we found a lot friendlier and more comfortable than the private coaches that generally run the tourist routes. We organized the transport, accommodation and tours all ourselves; also finding the Tripadvisor app helpful in finding suitable accommodation and the best places to visit.
Did you have any expectations or preconceived notions about the cultures you would be exposed to? How did they differ from what the cultures actually were?
From chatting with others before I left, I found that most people have this impoverished and chaotic picture in their minds of India. From the moment you arrive in Mumbai and catch your first tuk tuk, poverty is all around you. For travellers from first world countries, it might be a shock and even an unbearable environment, but growing up in South Africa means that I am no stranger to poverty. You take it in your stride because behind the veil of poverty, India’s people are rich. They are rich with friendliness, curiosity and diversity. They are wealthy with self-respect, colour and pride, no matter their circumstance.
Most people do not realize how diverse the cultures within India are. What would you say were the biggest similarities and differences you experienced in each city? Please describe and share some of your experiences and cultures you were exposed to.
The larger cities can be an intense experience that assaults all your senses. You will get haggled and hassled most definitely. Mumbai and Dehli are cities that never sleep, but they are important cities to visit despite their bad reputations with tourists. Calm and chaos are in close proximity and we found this particularly evident when comparing Rishikesh and Dehli. Rishikesh lies a short 4h 30 train journey north from Dehli and is deemed the spiritual capital of the Universe. Dehli’s noise is replaced with Rishikesh’s quiet, haggling with pleasant conversations and pollution with the turquoise river Ganges. If Forest Gump had travelled to India he would say that, “India’s like a real mixed box of chocolates”.
What are some of your most memorable moments looking back?
Have you ever heard of the concept ‘Bank of Experiences’? Four years ago I attended a talk by the famous African guide Garth Thompson. He introduced me to the concept of banking your experiences. A bank account that never loses wealth but keeps on growing, because after all travel is the expense that makes you richer right? He went on to explain that you have to memorize your current experience through tapping into all your senses, you then close your eyes and visualize it again and again and again, until you can have the same experience without being there physically. The concept is kind of like geotagging your photographs, but you’re geotagging your experiences. I’ve been actively collecting experiences since then and India found me depositing frequently.
The most memorable moment of the trip was in Varanasi. There’s a common expression, “that place was magical!” and Varanasi really was magical, but not in the sparkly Tinkerbell sense. Varanasi has this unexplainable dark undercurrent. A thick mist had enveloped the city just after sunset. Mist makes for a great backdrop for some moody photography, so we took to the streets to capture a few long exposures of the city and got lost. We found ourselves walking through what looked to be wooden cabins. I soon realized that these were not cabins, but 4 to 6 meter high piles of neatly packed wood. Curious, I walked on and turned out that we had stumbled upon Varanasi’s infamous Burning Ghats. Here bodies are burnt in open fire pits all day and night. Whilst I was watching skulls in the flames and bodies turn to ash, the rolling mist swept across the Ganges and took over the banks of the river. Up to date, standing there with the families of the burning was one of the most surreal, spiritual and beautiful moments of my life. It was a moment worthy of my Bank of Experiences.
What recommendations can you share for future travelers?
After travelling to 23 destinations in 64 days, my top 6 places to visit in India are:
- The Temple ruins scattered amongst rolling boulders, palm trees and rice plantations in Hampi, Northern Karnataka
- The Burning Ghats in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.
- The tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala.
- Shimmering Lake Pichola in Udaipur, Rajastan.
- The backwaters of Alleppey in Kerala.
- Deoria Tal Lake in Uttrakhand nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas.
Of all the photos you took throughout your trip, which would you say is your favorite? Why?
I didn’t anticipate capturing this image (see photo above), it sort of fell into my lap. I wouldn’t say that I was lucky, but rather that I made my own luck by constantly having my camera by my side and knowing how to use it. I took this photo just outside the Sun Temple en route to Galta, more commonly known as the monkey temple in Jaipur. The light was perfect, holy man in place and as if I couldn’t have planned it any better, a Rhesus Macaque monkey leap into the air with great agility, all the while gently plucking a piece of coconut from the holy man’s palm.
Travel has a tendency to look very glamorous, though that is not always the case. What types of challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
Travelling on a tight budget means budget accommodation. India’s standard of hotels, or claiming to be a hotel, is very skewed. Expect cold showers and thin mattresses (but with friendly staff). The last price tag that you’ll see in India will be at the airport so get your game face on when it comes to bargaining. Having to bargain for every single thing will get under your skin so keeping a sense of humor is also very important.
What’s next for you? Do you have any final words of advice?
I’m currently saving up for my next big trip. I’ve got South America in my sights. In terms of advice, just get out there with your camera. You never know what awaits you around the corner, you may just stumble across great compositions like I have. You won’t remember the hours spent sitting in the office, go and climb that mountain!
To see more of Zach’s striking photography, be sure to follow his work @diaryofzach on Instagram. He can also be reached via email zmlouw(at)hotmail.com.
Images Courtesy of Zach Louw