A FEW THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO…
- You’ll get sick. You just will. Accept it and embrace it and move on.
- The trains in India are absolutely horrifying. In one terrifying scenario we thought we had purchased actual tickets for an overnight train but as it turned out we actually purchased “stand-by tickets” and the train was full. So we ended up sleeping in the area by the toilet and the overflowing garbage can; me on the fold-out table and Nick on the floor. Worst experience of my life to date. In another scenario that I detail below, our train was 15 hours late. 15 HOURS LATE.
- India is a difficult and crazy and wonderful place to visit. Incredibly difficult and incredibly crazy and incredibly wonderful. You can’t even begin to prepare yourself for the sights, sounds, smells, experiences. You’ll need infinite patience all day, everyday.
WHEN WE WENT…
April – May 2014
WHERE WE WENT…
I’m not going to lie, Nick and I were pretty sad to leave Bangkok to fly to India. Don’t get me wrong, we were excited to visit a new country but Bangkok is just so easy and relaxing. We had been hearing so many horror stories about India… everyone gets sick, there are so many scams, men are always groping women, train travel is horrifying and trains are always hours late, etc. I was especially nervous about traveling to India and made sure to spruce up my wardrobe with a few more appropriate garments that would cover my shoulders and my knees (no denim diapers and Bob Dylan tank in this country).
We found Delhi to be a pleasant city – big but manageable. Of course on the way from the airport our driver tried to convince us to go to a hotel he recommended (to make a commission) but after we told him we had a booking it was no hassle. Our hotel was on a bustling street that resembled Las Vegas, but in a slumy sort of way. And the hotel was lovely aside from the “honeymoon bathroom” which had one entire wall replaced with a window, covered with only a sheer curtain. I don’t know about anyone else but I like to keep my bathroom time private, honeymoon or not.
Immediately I noticed a few things about India. First of all, drinking is not as common or popular as it is in other countries and you can pretty much only buy beer, wine or liquor in special shops (and it is expensive!). Also women in India definitely don’t drink in public; if they drink at all it is rare and in their homes with their husbands. And women don’t enter these wine and beer shops, ever. I didn’t realize this until Nick and I decided to buy some wine and we went together. Immediately I noticed that only men were patronizing the shop and they were shoving each other and waving money at the man behind the counter in a crazy free-for-all. I decided that the situation was sketchy and I’d rather wait outside. I got a lot of stares from the men entering the shop and finally someone working there had me stand on the stairs, just inside and he stood with me (as a precaution?). It took Nick some time to shove his way to the front and select the $15 bottle of marginal Indian red wine and then we hightailed it out of there.
My second observation was that the rumors about men groping women are true… I think. They are very sneaky about it. While climbing the stairs to the beer store a man tripped and fell behind me and somehow managed to catch himself my doublefisting my buttcheeks, hmmmm. And when they passed by me on the street I would watch as their arms swung a bit wider to tap me on the behind. So I bought a small umbrella and carried it with me everywhere, under my arm, pointy end facing backward to ward off any potential perverts.
Another funny thing we noticed is that many of the babies wear eye makeup – kajal – which is meant to protect their eyes from the sun. Similar to football players? It’s very strange but it makes the babies look so cute I can’t stand it.
And the people in India were in awe of us, which we found a bit strange considering the high number of tourist vistitors. We anticipated it in Myanmar as tourism is just starting to gear up but certainly didn’t expect the same kind of attention here. The locals loved to take photos with us, they wanted to touch us and for us to hold their babies. When we were approached by a large group they wouldn’t just want a group picture, they wanted a picture with each person in the group on their own plus a group picture. So a photo shoot would last much longer than expected or necessary. And once one person asked for a photo, others around were able to work up the nerve and we would get stuck in one place with for 30 minutes taking picture after picture. Nick got tired of it after a while but I found it endlessly entertaining.
Aside from the urine smells and the constant horn honking, India was off to a great start!
As with all of our random, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants, unorganized travel planning, Nick decided he wanted to visit Jodhpur based on a photo he saw of “The Blue City”. At it turned out it ended up being one of our favorite stops on our trip. Many of the buildings in the city are painted an indigo color which they believe will help to act as a bug repellent and help to keep the houses cool in the heat of the day. Not sure if it actually works but the indigo color sure makes for some stunning views.
We spent the day exploring the fort which was massive and had amazing, intricate detailing. On our walk back down to the city we encountered some funny locals. A man sitting on a wall said to Nick “will you take my picture? Will you send it to me? I’ll write you my address… do you have a piece of paper? Do you have a pen?” And several people invited us into their homes and sat us down, only to try to sell us henna and jewelry (tricky…). We learned that when women get married they have to wear several items to show that they are taken such as: bangles (usually red in color), a sari (the half-shirt and dress that most women here wear), a bindi on their forehead, a piercing in their nose, and finally red chalk along their part line. And they wear all of this every day. What do Indian men wear to show they are married you may ask? Absolutely nothing.
Indian people are curious about foreigners, and at times a bit nosy. They would ask us our names, where we’re from, what we do, sometimes how much money we make, how long we’ve been married (we just told people we are married to keep it simple and because most don’t seem to understand the concept of “dating”) and how old we are. It was during a few of our conversations in Jodhpur that I decided to lie about my job. I had been telling people that “I help people find jobs” but then a few of them asked me to find their sons jobs in India and I figured that unless I wanted to shatter a few dreams I should probably figure out a new answer to the question. From that day forward I became a teacher back in the states.
Also in Jodhpur we arranged a jeep village tour which only cost about $10 US dollars each so our expectations we very low. It did end up being more of a sales pitch than anything but it was fun nonetheless. Our first stop was a pottery shop where we got to try our hand at making some pots (like Demi Moore in Ghost style). Mine was so good I offered to sell it back to the head honcho. The second stop was the house of a man who had us drink some liquid opium substance and wear turbines while he drank chai tea out of a saucer instead of a cup (helps it to cool down faster and looks awesome). Third stop was a rug maker who made unattractive rugs at ridiculous prices.
Overall we thought Jodhpur was a lovely place which lovely people who were genuinely interested in talking to us and taking pictures of/with us. The hilarity of people wanting to take our pictures rivaled that of Myanmar, only I was asked to hold more crying babies here than anywhere else we’ve visited in the past.
When we first arrived in India we had a sense of a few things we wanted to do but hadn’t planned much. It wasn’t until we were chatting with a man at our hotel in Delhi that we learned that you could ride camels in West India, near the Pakistan border. Bucket list!
Jaisalmer was a quaint little fort town with good shopping but most tourists seemed to only stop there as a base for their camel tour through the desert. The camel tour began at 3pm and there were 9 people in our group (including the 2 Colombians that we met the day before and booked our trip with). We were picked up from our hotel and driven about 45 minutes out of town. Along the way we stopped at a Muslim village which could have been interesting if it weren’t for the fact that all the villagers saw us as a big, fat dollar sign. Immediately the children, who were darling but cunning little thieves, ran over to our jeep and immediately started asking us to take their picture and to give them money and chocolate. Two cute girls latched on to me and wanted to hold my hand everywhere we went but I had the suspicion they were devising a plan to steal the rings off of my fingers. I was a sucker and gave one bracelet away and once the word got out, the rest were ripped from my wrist and distributed among the little rascals. These situations are always tricky… while you want to help families and children in need, you also don’t want to encourage them to be beggars and to expect hand-outs every time a tourist comes around.
The camel riding started around 4:30pm where we picked our camels. I ended up with Pa Poo who was large and in-charge and Nick got Michael Jackson who was obedient and docile. We rode for about 2 hours to our camping spot in the sand dunes. Camel riding is fun but painful on the thighs and it was HOT. Like well over 100 degrees hot. Apparently they offer longer camel treks; 3, 4, 5+ days of riding camels and sleeping in the desert.
Why anyone would choose that choice is beyond me. We shared a bottle of Indian red wine with our new friends while we watched sunset and then settled into our uncomfortable sleeping mats on the sand while swatting away giant mystery bugs. The next morning we woke for sunrise and had another 2 hours of camel riding before saying sad goodbyes to our stinky new friends Pa Poo and Michael Jackson.
When we got back to our hotel they were nice enough to offer us a free room for a shower and a quick siesta. I had the opportunity to speak with one of the employees of the hotel for a while and learned an interesting story about women in India. Apparently, if a woman’s husband dies she must go to live with his family and wear mourning clothes and never date or marry again for the rest of her life. Even if she was 14 when they married and he died after a week. On the flip side, if a man’s wife dies, he can marry again no problem. This is one of the many examples of the injustices that women in India face and another reason I am grateful to have the freedoms that I do in the US!
As we were nearing the end of our 15-month trip, we were finding it increasingly difficult to refrain from shopping. Especially in the Rajasthan area where the colors are vibrant and the prices are ridiculously low. In all of our shopping excursions leading up to this point we were told that Jaipur had the best markets in all of India and everything we bought anywhere else had previously been purchased there. So I was beyond excited. And then beyond disappointed. I wanted to like Jaipur, I tried to like Jaipur, I failed miserably. The weather was over 100 degrees every day and making our way through the market always proved to be an exhausting venture as all of the touts were aggressive and obnoxious. We would see something hanging near the front and ask the price but they would insist that we enter the store and sit down first so they could show us 50 more just like it. We (I) did end up buying quite a few gifts for friends back home so the trip wasn’t a total loss but we were never able to work up enough energy or desire to visit the popular sights around the city.
We also made a trip to the post office to ship our gifts home and that proved to be an exhausting adventure as well. The post office didn’t sell boxes so we found a guy on the street that offered to find us boxes and package everything for a small price. He had decided to set up shop directly next to a roadside urinal and behind the sewer drain. The thought of packing my box with the pungent smell of urine burning my eyeballs was too much to bear and I begged to change locations (unfortunately the new location was in the blazing midday sun but with only a slight garbage smell so I considered it an upgrade). The box packaging involved taping the box and then wrapping it with fabric that was sewn to fit and finally sealing the edges and corners with wax. Seemed like overkill to us but when we took it back to the post office they wouldn’t accept the wax job. Apparently they have a problem with employees opening packages and helping themselves? Here’s a hint Jaipur, how about you hire a few less thieves and let me package my box how I see fit. The post office expedition took about 2 hours longer than necessary and by the end I was cranky, tired, hungry, and ready to move on to the next town…
The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, when she passed away after giving birth to her fourteenth child (clearly she was the favorite of his wives). It is a monument that was built solely for love, or more appropriately, of lost love as it is a mausoleum that houses the tombs of both husband and wife. The tombs on display are actually replicas of the actual tombs that house the bodies in the crypts below. The entire structure is perfectly symmetrical aside from Shah’s tomb which was placed to the side of his wife’s in the center of the room.
We woke up early in an effort to catch sunrise (along with every other foreign and Indian tourist in Agra it would seem). We had read in our guidebook that the security guards will not allow guidebooks or cellphones into the mausoleum and after going through a rigorous backpack shake-down, it seemed those were the only things they actually allowed in. Unicorn and horse head masks strictly not allowed, along with flashlights and playing cards (why did we feel we needed those in the first place???).
It is true that pictures you see of the Taj Mahal hardly do it justice. It is an absolute wonder to behold in person. We found that we had to wait for quite a while for the crowds to clear enough to get out perfect pictures so I started being vocal and directing traffic. We also ran into some friends we had met from Colombia which resulted in a few epic couple photo shoots. We stayed for almost three hours; wandering around the walkways, marveling at the precious stones that have been carved into designs within the marble, and me asking Nick to build me something similar in Hawaii when I pass away (he said that of course he will…).
Of course we did other things in Agra; visited the Red Fort, the Baby Taj, and several other mausoleums. We also had a nice evening of beers at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Taj Mahal at sunset while a curious monkey tried to steal the Taj t-shirts I had picked up as gifts. Nick chased him with a stick and the shirts were abandoned unharmed, whew. But it seemed that everything else we did paled in comparison to the wonder that is the Taj Mahal.
Getting to Varanasi was quite the memorable experience… We took a night train from Agra that got us most of the way there but had to catch another train in the morning and sit in general class. The ride was 3.5 hours and it was PACKED. I’m not sure if there is a limit to the amount of people they allow in there but I saw many instances of 3 people sharing 1 seat and many people sitting or sleeping up top where the baggage was supposed to go. Both Nick and I had to sit in the baggage shelf too. And I sat next to a guy who wanted to practice his English so we read the ingredients lists on the back of a few juice cartons together. Not sure why he’ll ever need to know the words “sodium” or “phosphorous” but I was happy to oblige him.
In general, in India, every time I rode in a tuk-tuk I couldn’t help but think how much most people would hate it here… Everyone honks. All the time. There’s a car in front of me, honk! There’s a car behind me, honk honk! There’s a person walking nowhere near me, hooooonnnnnkkkkk. And the buses just loooooooong honk all the time for no reason. And there are lanes painted on the street but God only knows why because no one uses them. It’s just a big cluster of passing and honking and madness, I was surprised we never witnessed a horrific accident. And trying to cross the street here is a death wish, cars don’t stop, they just honk and keep going.
And the smells, oh the smells. The sewers run along the streets filled with garbage, sometimes with a grate covering it sometimes not. And men pee wherever their hearts desire, so it smells like urine everywhere. And there are just cows and pigs walking around and eating garbage, which doesn’t really matter because pretty much no one eats meat here. And sometimes you’d be eating in a restaurant and in would walk some cow looking for a handout. You really have to watch where you’re walking so you don’t step in the sewer or a cow pie.
But back to Varanasi, which is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Some Hindus believe that death in Varanasi brings salvation so the devout that are near the end of their life come from all over to die here. The dead must arrange the purchase of their own firewood prior to their death (otherwise any jewelry are collected post-fire, cleaned, and sold in the markets). First the dead receive one final wash in the holy water of the Ganges before they are burned in one of two pyres along the banks of the river while men stand near and women watch from afar. Apparently distraught women used to throw themselves into the fire which is why they are banned from the funeral procession. While in Varanasi we witnessed one body being cleaned and two burning… well, we saw the feet, skull and rib cage of one, the other was completely covered with wood. Bodies here burn for three hours while locals and tourists are able to casually stroll by (but taking photographs is a big no-no). We also got to enjoy several nights of their traditional Hindu ceremony and hang out with crazy locals.
Varanasi is a maze of crazy alleyways, crazier people, and so much death and sadness. It is an unbelievable sight to witness but one you should most certainly research ahead of time to ensure you are prepared for what you are walking into.
As we were preparing to embark upon our 14 hour night train towards Darjeeling, we were well aware that the train was “on average” 4 hours late. We bid farewell to Varanasi and took an hour-or-so tuk-tuk ride to the train station, arriving 2 hours early, just to be on the safe side. When we arrived we learned that our train wasn’t running 4 hours late, it was running 10 (!) hours late. How is that even possible??? So instead of being due to the station at 6:15pm, it was due around 4:00am. We weighed our options; stay in the train station and wait it out or rent a hotel and wake up periodically to check the progress online. We went with the latter and booked into the only close hotel with available rooms we could find, which was a dump. And by dump I mean; only one towel for the two of us to share, no toilet paper, squatty toilet, cold shower, A/C that didn’t work, and no top sheet or blankets on the bed. Then the power went off around midnight which meant our fan stopped which meant the mosquitoes had a Nick and Val feast of epic proportions. After a horrifying night of “sleep” we woke up at 3am to head back to the station, only to find that the train was running an extra 5 hours late (no, your math isn’t wrong, that means 15 hours in total). So we spent the next few hours in the waiting room, reading, while rats scurried around our feet. The train ride was fairly non-eventful other than it took 5 hours longer than we anticipated (so 19 hours on the train) but I was snug as a bug in a rug and managed to sleep for most of the journey. Upon arrival we then had to take an uncomfortable 3 hour Jeep ride where they fit 12 people into a car that was meant for 8, and finally arrived in Darjeeling.
Soooo… after the 40 or so hours that we spent getting to get to Darjeeling, we actually found it to be a bit underwhelming. Mainly due to the weather I suppose as it was similar to Portland in March; rain, clouds, drear, gloom. We also expected to find a small, quaint town with lovely views of tea plantations in the valley below and beautiful snow capped mountains in the distance. The town was actually quite large and bustling and confusing as we had to take small alleys and sketchy winding staircases to get anywhere off the main road (which was dominated by loud, honking jeeps that were driving WAY too fast for how narrow the road was). Also, the views may be spectacular at other times but it was so cloudy while we were there that our only views were bright white clouds. One day (out of boredom?) we decided to take our chances and hike up to Tiger Hill which is one of the tourist attractions in Darjeeling because of the great views but the fog was so thick at the top we couldn’t see more than 5 feet in front of us.
We also found the hotel situation in Darjeeling to be a bust… overpriced and just as dreary as the weather. We ended up staying in a hotel that insisted they had “hot water” though we could never get more than a small dribble to come out of the shower head. So instead we started filling a bucket with hot water and bathing out of that; not so bad when the weather is hot but slightly horrifying when the weather and your hotel room are frigid. After my “shower” I would sprint back to my bed and hide under the 3 blankets I managed to scrounge up until my fear of hypothermia and/or frostbite subsided.
In the end, we decided that we were glad that we made the journey to Darjeeling, but really only because it we decided to skip it we would have always wondered “what if?” Well, now we know…
Prior to visiting Mumbai we had many people tell us we should skip it altogether; that it’s dirty, crowded and crazy. Well, considering we think that Bangkok is a very lovely and livable city, we figured we would feel right at home. Turns out that all opinions are correct; it is dirty and crowded and horrifying (especially when attempting to cross the street or get a taxi), but also fun and lively with colorful markets and people.
We started our Mumbai adventure bright and early on our first full day with a trip to the largest slum in Asia; Dharavi Slum which is home to close to a million people of varying levels of income. We went with Reality Tours which claim to have a mission of dispelling the negative impression that the word “slum” inspires and I thought they did an amazing job of that. Unfortunately they do not allow any photography so all we got were a few photos that we snuck from the top of a roof in the “plastic yard”. We started by touring the industrial area where men work long hours in hot buildings; sorting garbage, melting aluminum, breaking old glass bottles, cleaning plastics, etc. It looked like hot, horrible work where they wore no safety equipment and were continuously breathing in toxic fumes and even slept on the floor in those factories every night. However, it was work, and they were paid, and they had a roof over their heads, for free. From there we moved on to the residential area where the streets are narrow. Like, crazy narrow. Like, they had a fire once and it took 2 days for the firemen to get to it to put it out. The houses are tiny, maybe the size of a small bedroom but they seem to have everything that a house requires; a bed that doubled as a couch, a washing machine, and a refrigerator. They cost about $60 US dollars per month to rent or $20,000 to purchase. There is a real sense of community in this slum so most of the houses didn’t have doors, just a curtain, and most of the people were sitting on their front porches or chatting with neighbors anyway. We saw one of the public bathrooms (only the very rich slum dwellers have a bathroom in their home) which is shared by over a thousand people and only cleaned two or three times a month by a government worker. But everyone that we passed seemed to be happy and friendly and this was actually the only place in all of India that we’ve visited so far where no one asked us for money. We didn’t see a single beggar anywhere.
Finally we walked through the main street of the slum where there were shops and restaurants and animals mulling about and cars driving by and it resembled pretty much any other street in India. Essentially Dharavi Slum is a small but highly functioning city within a city and we were both pretty impressed by the tour. It was the one place in India where we expected the most filth but were pleasantly surprised to find it mostly void of garbage and (most surprisingly) void of pungent urine smells. Over 1,000 people may have to share the same squat toilet but they actually choose to use it unlike the rest of the population.
After such a great experience with our slum tour, we decided to book a street food tour with Reality Tours as well. Pretty much every person we have talked to that has visited India has said that the food made them ill and that no matter what we did, we’d get ill as well. So although we are generally fairly adventurous eaters and find it enjoyable to sample the local street fair, we were overly cautious up to this point in India. The street food tour was a chance to sample some (hopefully) safe street food and also understand what it was that we are consuming. Nick always finds it frustrating when he eats some delicious street food and then doesn’t know the name and can never find it again. We had 10 items total; puffball snacks that are filled with chickpeas and sweet and spicy sauce, cracker-like pastries topped with veggies and more chickpeas (Indians love them some chickpeas), buttery bread dipped in a sauce made of a variety of veggies (tasted just like tomato sauce), a chicken sandwich (doesn’t seem very authentic but wasn’t your average sando from Burger King) and a variety of ice creams and desserts. We enjoyed the tour and because of it we built up some courage and tried street food a few more times. Although when I was writing this blog I was laying in bed with my first bout of India stomach sickness so maybe this was all a very bad idea…
We had one slightly horrifying experience in Mumbai. Apparently the trains in Mumbai are so packed full of people that some have to ride on the roof or hang out of the doors which results in an average of 6 train-related deaths per day (!?!). We needed to take one of said trains to get out to the suburbs and when the train pulled up there were probably 50 or so people waiting by each train door and the train only stopped for maybe 15 seconds. It was a madhouse of pushing and shoving to get on (you might think they would be courteous to women or children trying to get on? Not a chance). Well I managed to get myself on board and breathed a sigh of relief as the train started moving, until I turned around and realized that Nick hadn’t gotten on. I had no money on me and no phone to communicate and I was surrounded by hoards of Indian men. So basically I started freaking out. I was screaming for them to let me off but it was so crowded that the doorway was blocked. Finally (whew) I saw Nick running alongside the train and he managed to hop on (at that same moment a pervy Indian decided to take advantage of the poor, troubled foreigner and grab my bum. Par for the course). Nick thought the experience was hilarious, I am still slightly scarred.
The rest of our time in Mumbai was filled with markets, markets, and more markets where we did WAY too much shopping (story of our lives in India). We also made a trip to the India Arch where we were swarmed by locals wanting their photos with us. There were photographers there who took photos and printed them out for a small charge and they realized we provided them with a booming business and they started following us around and directing us to various groups that were requesting our presence in their photo op. And, at Nick’s insistence, we took a trip to visit the “luxury loo” inside a super fancy hotel on the waterfront. We thought Mumbai was a fun, crazy, often frustrating city with delicious food and lively markets and we will DEFINITELY be back.
We were on the fence about Goa before arriving as we’ve heard mixed reviews; some said that it’s lovely and relaxing and others said it’s just a typical beach town that caters to backpackers and we’ve been to a million of those. We decided to give it a go as it was en route to Kochi which is our next stop anyway. Turns out that it’s more of an Indian vacation spot, but still looked a lot like beach towns we’ve seen before… average beach with questionable swimming conditions, hippie pants and bongs for sale on every corner, overpriced hotels… you get the drift.
Up to this point we’d managed to avoid getting sick in India but I guess we couldn’t avoid it forever. I spent an entire day in Goa holed up in our hotel room watching Home Alone and Long Walk to Freedom and taking countless trips to the loo which was behind a door made out of frosted glass (so, pretty much see-through and horrifying). This is one of many hotels we’d visited that have had peekaboo bathrooms that confuse and horrify me all at once. Apparently Indians don’t like to keep private things private as much as I do…
We had a most challenging time finding reasonably priced laundry services in India. In most of the rest of Asia they charge by the kilo so we can wash most of our clothes for around $10. In India they charge by item; sometimes charging over $1 for just one shirt. I don’t think so. We’d been putting off the inevitable for too long and our dirty, foul smelly, sweat-stained clothes became too much for our nostrils to bear so we decided to wash all of our laundry with bar soap in the sink of our hotel room. As I was writing this I was contemplating when exactly we turned from a cute, adventurous, traveling couple into dirty backpackers that refused to pay for laundry service. Hmmm…
Other than those two unfortunate experiences, we had a great time lounging by the pool or on the beach in Goa and getting ripped off at the Wednesday flea market by the beach.
Kerala is a fairly touristy little town that people mainly visit to take house boat rides around the backwaters. We were no exception. We rented a lovely boat where we were treated like royalty and ate delicious food while we lounged around enjoying the scenery. It was fun and relaxing but definitely doesn’t give one any sense of culture or history like most of the other cities in India.
India is one of my top 5 countries that I’ve visited to date. As I write about it now I’m dying to go back and see all of the cities that I missed on my first trip. However, it is also the most challenging country I’ve ever visited so if you’ve never really traveled before, you may find it to be a nightmare. The food is rough on the belly, trains are always late, there is trash everywhere (and if you don’t throw your own garbage on the ground people will look at you like you’re crazy), public peeing is quite normal, you’ll need to cover your shoulders and knees all the time in extreme heat, and female butt-groping is really an issue. But if you can have infinite patience with the people and the customs, it will be one of the most memorable experiences of your life!