We feature some of the brightest Instagram storytellers in the Passion Passport community through our Instagram Spotlight series. This week, Michael Sheridan (@michaelcharlessheridan) transports us to the colorful cities of India that he experienced during his three-month adventure in South Asia.

Varanasi

The ghats that line the holy Ganges are teeming with life, and my fondest memory from my time here is of a group of kids who set up a makeshift barrier across the only pathway that lines the river. This must have taken remarkable engineering knowledge, given that their average age was around nine years old. Every evening, the group of troublemakers would scuttle down to their barrier and charge every single tourist 10 rupees to pass underneath. Some took offense, of course, while others saw it as a challenge and took a running jump. But the best reactions were those of the local adults who simply shouted at the kids and barged past. To demonstrate their fearlessness and determination, the kids were never deterred and always regained face to act as makeshift bouncers for the next batch of tourists. As people-watching spots go, this remains one of my all-time favorites.

People sit in front of old storefront

Bodh Gaya

I arrived in Bodh Gaya with no expectations — not to put it down, but I simply went on a whim with time to kill and little preconceived notion of what was to come. The village is known as the place where Buddha attained enlightenment, so it is full of temples based on architectural designs from a variety of countries, such as Thailand and Japan. What I was not expecting were the vibrant, atmospheric alleyways that sit adjacent to these lavish temples and shelter makeshift homes and businesses. In these small dwellings, one room is the family’s home, the second functions as a smoky Tibetan café serving momos, and the third room is used to sell scarves. These alleys are tight, and the homes are cozy, but what lasts is the atmosphere that comes from such pride and ingenuity. Air-conditioned hotels loom above these stretches and continue to creep into their territory as wealthy religious pilgrims from around the world converge on the tiny town. I am not one to begrudge locals earning a living from this influx, but Bodh Gaya was the best example of India’s economic diversity I witnessed during my trip. Though I am a skeptic, I hope that a balance can be found to ensure the people who reap the rewards of tourism are the right people.

Man sits in front of small, run-down shelter on the street
Closeup of a bowl with a candle inside it

Hampi

The unique, boulder-strewn landscape of Hampi is one the oldest exposed surfaces on earth, with weather molding these giant boulders into unfathomable shapes and structures. Dotted between the dusty, orange rocks are vivid-green rice paddies that serve as a stunning contrast and provide a flat landscape that lends itself to exploration by bike. Hampi is many people’s favorite place in India, presumably due to its chilled-out atmosphere and more relaxed pace, but my most cherished memory is winding between the rice paddies by bike and stopping for coffee, samosas, hummus, and a cold beer after a “hard” day of riding.

Silhouette of a tree at sunset
Women stand in front of an ornate building

Kerala

Kerala matched my expectations in that it was nothing like the rest of India. I’d arrived anticipating the spicy coconut chutney that accompanies every dish (which changed my life), and a brisk pace of life. But, what I did not expect to learn is that the city is run by the world’s only democratically elected Communist party and that it is one of the richest states in India. It also has a strong Catholic population due to a historical Portuguese influence, which was particularly apt as I visited over the Christmas season. I went door-knocking and caroling with a local football team and attended midnight mass, but that is where the cultural similarities end. There was no sound of Mariah Carey there, and the three-hour midnight mass pushed my faith and my tired body beyond its limits. My Christmas morning began at 5 a.m. for a bus to the palm-fringed backwaters, a quick cup of chai, and paratha with tarka dhal. It wasn’t exactly traditional, but I will remember listening to Christmas tunes on that bus journey through the jungle for the rest of my life.

Palm tree-lined shore with pink house in foreground

Goa

Photographic inspiration in Goa is not hard to come by, with its palm-tree-lined beaches hugging the Indian Ocean, its delicious?/tasty? cocktails, and its notorious nightlife. However, it was on my way to the train station that I stumbled across my favorite source of inspiration — its markets. Our train had a mild delay of nine hours, so before running to the nearest restaurant for snacks and snoozing on the train platform, I explored a nearby market, which provided the color and insight to local life that Goa’s famous beaches do not.

Closeup of Indian spices

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Michael Sheridan
Mike is a photographer who has produced photography case studies for charities in India and Nepal. His photos have been exhibited at WOMAD festival and won several awards. You can see more of his work on his instagram, website, and at https://www.storiesforgood.net/