Last year, 25-year-old Thomas Fernandez Slade and his girlfriend Victoria completed an adventure of a lifetime which could become a new journey for their life.
Thomas was born in Halifax in 1994 before moving to Majorca aged nine - he does miss England but not the weather. He then went to school at Colegio San Cayetano and Queen’s College before returning to the UK aged 16 to take his A levels and then a degree in international business studies at Bristol University. After graduating from Bristol, he travelled in southern Asia, then last June he and his girlfriend Victoria from Toledo decided to explore India. Thomas admits that not a day goes by when he does not think about their experiences and all the great friends they made during their six-month adventure.
They both fell in love with the country and the people so much; Victoria came up with a business project to help poor and marginalised women.
"It’s a very male-dominated society and the women are more or less ignored and live a very hard life. So Victoria came up with an idea of starting a clothing company, using local sustainable fabrics in Chennai. The idea is to offer local women work making the clothes and other accessories. As the business project grows, so too will their wages and therefore their living standards while helping them to play a more active role in society.
"We spent the past month of the tour making local contacts and talking to people on the ground and Victoria is still developing the project. If it does come off, she will be spending her time flying back and forth to India. Obviously we will need a local overseeing the project in India and Victoria here in Europe taking care of sales, etc. Let’s see what happens."
It is extremely hard for Thomas, who considers himself primarily Majorcan having spent his teenage years on the island which he feels deeply passionate about, to put his finger on any single standout moment or experience of their adventure.
"It was an amazing six months. After five, we did take a break, it was very tiring and exhausting, we lost a lot of weight having covered a vast amount of the country mostly on foot. We only bought the Enfield ‘tractor’ for the last two months, so we went to see my brother Lucien, who is a professional diving instructor in the Philippines, to recharge our batteries before returning for the final month which was the one we spent planning the business project.
"Seeing the sunrise over the Taj Mahal at 5am was overwhelming, but I think when I first set my eyes on Everest that was breathtaking. We had travelled up to Nepal with two experienced Indian hikers, Mahesh and Suraj, we had met on our way, along with Gustavo from Portugal. We spent a glorious three weeks in Pokhara, considered to be a Nepalese paradise set on this huge lake and then decided to trek to the Everest base camp. Normally people fly from Kathmandu to Lukla, the world’s scariest airport, but that was too expensive. As we only had light clothes, we had to buy mountain gear in Katmandu before we set off for Lukla by jeep. That took four days and from then we trekked deep into the Himalayas to base camp and that took the best part of three weeks, most of which I spent suffering from an upset stomach. But that failed to take the shine off the trek, we went from lush green fields to the harsh climes and rocks faces of the world’s highest mountain range. It is very hard to describe the sensation of getting close up to Everest, seeing is believing."
What he did find upsetting was the way the Sherpas are treated by foreign climbers.
"Many of the climbers are not real alpinists, they are just rich people who pay agencies to take them up to the summit. Most of them carry a little rucksack while the little Nepalese Sherpas have to carry 50 to 60 kilo rucksacks up and down for their ‘masters’. I know that people pay 20,000 euros plus to climb Everest, the Sherpas get paid, but nowhere near what they deserve. They are the slaves of the mountains, but if it was not for them no one would be climbing Everest. It is very unfair and I think the travel agencies who organise the climbing expeditions should be more considerate. The professional climbers are, but so many, too many people are climbing Everest, and the majority neither know the rules of the mountain nor understand the culture.
When you arrive at base camp, the first thing the Sherpas do is check out your rucksack. If you’re carrying your own load, like we were, our own food, cooking equipment etc., you’re ok. If not, they know you’re some rich person who is going to depend on them. That said, the Sherpas, like all the Nepalese and nearly all Indians, don’t complain. Considering the vast majority of Indians are poor or live below the poverty line, as long as their immediate environment, family and friends are ok, they are happy and they will always share anything they’ve got with you, even if they really can’t afford it; they expect nothing in return - just a smile.
"I remember when we had the motorbike, we decided to take a detour round Delhi as we headed from north to south. We were way up near the Pakistan border at one point staying at a kind of commune in the mountains where everyone had their tasks to carry out. According to the map, there was no hotel or town for miles. Victoria was a bit concerned, but I had faith and sure enough we found what was indicated to be a hotel. However, when we knocked on the door, we discovered it was someone’s private home. We managed to communicate using sign language and, after the owner put us through to a family member in Australia who managed to assure us the property and family were safe in English, he invited us in. Upstairs we were given a wonderful double room with bathroom for the night, and he refused to take any money for food and lodging. But we had so many similar experiences. The Indians are so humble and welcoming.
"Sitting by the Ganges, watching the burial pyres being set alight and then the ashes sprinkled into the river was a moving moment of the tour. I didn’t know that children and pregnant women were not burnt, they are attached to a rock and dropped in to the river. The pollution in the river was overpowering but people were swimming and even drinking little sips because they consider the water to be sacred. There was no way I was going in, but an Australian traveller did.
"The drive from north to south was pretty harrowing and demanding. We started high in the mountains and then went across massive empty deserts to finally reach the tropical beaches in Goa. Geographically, the country is so diverse as is the food, which was delicious, and I will never forget all the wonderful smells coming from the street food stalls; it was all so intoxicating - and cheap.
"As we travelled, we used local buses and trains. While journeys may have taken up to 15 hours at times, you just stared in awe at the scenery or slept. You got on at one end and got off at the other at some point, no trouble, and you’d always meet and get to know someone on the way. So, whatever happens, apart from the fact we never got into Kashmir and up into the northeast and the border with Tibet, we’ve got to return at some point to visit all the friends we made but sadly had to leave behind.
"Returning was a big shock, to suddenly be back in the hustle and bustle of Palma and fighting for space in car parks and on the beaches. After all the peace, goodwill and space in India, Majorca needs to take a breather. That’s why I’m heading for the forests and the Tramuntana this summer (working for the forestry agency."