India In Your Face - Part 2
I’m happy to report that we learned from our first overnight bus experience and booked the bottom bunks for our next leg of the trip. This time, we headed northwest to Kodaikanal, a hill station in the mountains of Tamil Nadu. After arriving at the bus depot around 11pm, we had to negotiate with the few taxi drivers left who would drive us another 2 hours into the mountains to our guesthouse. Since it was late and our options were limited, we agreed to his ridiculously inflated rate and hopped in. What should have taken just under 2 hours ended up taking 3 and a half…It wasn’t the excessively loud music or even the number of times we stopped so he could eat or smoke that made us laugh but rather the fact that he asked us to pay for his dinner in addition to his taxi fare. We laughed and exchanged the usual “are you crazy?!” before he smiled and nodded his head, which could literally mean a thousand different things, and left.
Lesson #6 – Take the earlier bus.
Waking up in Kodaikanal was amazing. Pink and purple light came flooding into our room as the sun began to peak over the mountains. The air was so fresh that I almost forgot where I was until a cow walked in front of the door with a bag of masala chips in its mouth. Yup…still in India. Our view was beautiful and the area was peaceful as long as you didn’t take too close of a look at our room. It’s amazing how quickly you succumb to the living conditions while traveling around the country. At the beginning of the trip, I was carefully laying out my scarf before sitting on the train and pretty much closing my eyes while showering to avoid over analyzing the dirt on the walls/ground and by the end…I was just happy if you couldn’t smell me from the next train car over. With the weather being so hot and muggy, taking cold showers wasn’t an issue up to this point. In fact, I was excited to dump buckets of chilled water on myself after sweating my way through another Indian market, but the climate in the mountains was different. The days were warm but the nights were freezing – so cold that we had to invest in some ugly sweaters from a local street vendor. Based on the circumstances, it should go without saying that we weren’t too stoked on those cold-water bucket showers anymore. Usually, we wouldn’t have said anything but the description of our guesthouse guaranteed hot water and we were in the mood to “pamper” ourselves. After we mentioned it to the staff, we waited for 20 minutes like they instructed but ended up with no hot water. Another thing I learned in India is that nothing is as it’s described. If Aloo Gobi is on the menu they probably don’t have it, if they say they have Wi-Fi it doesn’t work and if there’s supposed to be hot water there definitely won’t be.
Lesson #7 – Nothing is as it seems and expect the opposite of the photos/description.
We spent almost 4 full days exploring the mountainous landscape, bargaining for beer at the wine stand and dodging ravenous monkeys. I thought they were cute at first but there’s nothing scarier than a monkey covered in red rashes growling at you while you pass by. By the end of our 7-mile journey we were running through the gangs of street monkeys while waving big sticks in the air for protection. Surely this was a funny show for any locals driving by and chances are they recognized us as the two white girls elbowing their way to the front of the beer line in town. Just like all things in India, buying beer is a chaotic mess. The best prices can be found at the wine shops which are small stands that resemble jail cells. There are no lines, just a massive crowd of men shoving each other out of the way in order to jam their hand through the small operating window and exchange a few notes for a beer.
Lesson #8 – When there’s a crowd, let Leah handle it.
Once we’d had our fill of the mountains and couldn’t stomach another ice bath, we packed our bags, left our ugly sweaters behind and boarded our next overnight bus to Pondicherry. Pondicherry is situated along the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu and was a French colonial settlement until 1954. Today, the French influence is alive and well in its French Quarter and looks nothing like the other areas we had seen in India. Fast honking mopeds were replaced with bicycles, beautifully painted bistros lined the streets and a seaside boardwalk overlooks the Bay of Bengal. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of choosing a bus that arrived way too early in the morning and we were literally stranded in the pitch black after exhausting every transport option. Remember lesson #1 regarding the hours of operation issues we ran into? Well, this was the worst it ever got. Google showed two 24-hour cafes near our guesthouse which we assumed would be open… 24 hours. As you’ve probably guessed, they were both closed and it was a disaster. After a few minutes of deliberating, we decided to take one last taxi to our guesthouse and try to wake the staff or find a way in. This wasn’t our first bad call of the night but it was definitely the scariest. Our guesthouse was tucked away on a small side street with NO lights and an extremely tall fence that we couldn’t really climb. Before we could even try to open the gate, our taxi driver was gone and we were stuck standing in the dark imagining all the ways that things could go wrong. It’s now 3:30am, we have no way inside, our phones have less than 10% battery and we’re stranded in a dark alley. WTF.
After scrambling for ideas and trying to stay positive, we ended up walking back to the main road and finding a street lamp to sit near for what felt like the longest 2 hours of my life. Around 5:15am we spotted the first Tuk Tuk we’d seen in hours and hitched a ride another 30 minutes outside of town to a further “24-hour” café on google. Well…it was closed haha. I know what you’re thinking – WORST NIGHT EVER! Luckily for us, this is when things began to turn around. An employee was taking a snooze on the floor inside (another casual thing to do in India), heard us freaking out and opened up the café just for us. It was truly a miracle as we were minutes away from losing our shit. We sat sipping mochas in dazed silence for quite some time before an employee from the guesthouse woke up and came to get us. I’ve never been so happy to cram onto a motorbike with 3 too many bags and an extra passenger.
While this definitely could have put a damper on our stay in Pondicherry, it didn’t. The Tropical Hut that we called home for the next four days was amazing. Leah and I were the only guests at the time and the owner, a young guy from Austria, went above and beyond to make our stay enjoyable. We made a few trips into town for groceries and drinks but other than that all we did was chill. Well, I don’t know if you can really call it chilling since we were constantly smacking ourselves while trying to fend off the mosquitos and fire ants but at least we were doing it while in hammocks. It got really fun when we’d see a bug on the other person, smack them without warning and usually miss.
Lesson #9 - Pack extra bug spray NO MATTER WHAT.
Aside from soaking our pores in bug spray, we played cards (what else is new), Leah painted a mural, and I built fires to cook our fish on at night. I can honestly say that the highlight of my trip was staring at Leah stare at a machete when she was told to build a fire out of coconut tree leaves. While this aligns well with what I’ve been doing in the van for the past year, she handed that task over to me and acted as “supervisor” while photographing our wilderness women efforts. We weren’t just expected to build the fire – we were also tasked with cooking our fish on it…using mango leaves haha. This is not exactly what we had in mind when our hostel host invited us to dinner just refer to lesson # 7. By the end, we were having a great time - I got to show off my cooking skills while Leah discovered she has a passion for dicing vegetables. What a team.
4 days and approximately 58 bug bites later (without counting the mysterious rash on Leah’s arms) it was time to head to the last stop on our trip – Chennai. With nothing truly noteworthy in Chennai, those last few days feel like a blur. We walked the streets with confidence while dodging incoming selfies, stopped at every stall for one last sip of chai and went extra frugal while haggling for our last few handicrafts just to test our abilities after three weeks of practicing. When the time to say goodbye finally came, we cried like babies. Spending 5 weeks together, in India of all places, completely changed our relationship in ways I didn’t know were possible.
Thank you for taking this once in a lifetime trip with me. Thank you for showing me your home in Taiwan and making sure I tried ALL the foods. Thank you for carrying my stuff when it wouldn’t fit into my backpack because I’m an awful packer. Thank you for laughing at my jokes…because they’re funny. Thank you for always wanting to drink a beer – I love that about you. Thank you for making me laugh after wanting to cry at the sight of a squatty potty and for only kind of making fun of me when I got sick in India. If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that you’re my best friend.
So that’s it - the end of another amazing adventure. In summary, India is madness…complete sensory overload. It’s beautiful, colorful, dirty, chaotic and delicious and as much as I love talking about it…you just have to see it for yourself. I know this post is LONG overdue but it took me awhile to process all of the ways India hit us square in the face.