India In Your Face - Part 1
1 USD = 72 Rupees
Chai = Masala Tea
Fresh = Fried
These are among the few things I was able to comprehend after my first 24 hours in India. Landing in Bangalore and navigating through immigration was surprisingly easy – A feeling I wouldn’t have again for over three weeks. The airport was clean and the surrounding streets were well maintained. Had it not been for the massive signs welcoming us to India, it would have been easy to mistake the landscape for that of the Denver Airport. I should probably note that it was almost 1 AM so this might have gone differently had it been lunch time and the local Tuk Tuk drivers were out and about showing off their horns. Now that you know how late it was, you can imagine what we looked like having to stalk around the outside of our hostel looking for an open door or a way in.
Lesson #1 – Hours of operation are not a thing in India. People open/close when they want and Google is COMPLETELY useless.
After waking the night shift manager from a very loud sleep, we were able to check-in and crash. We spent the next day exploring the streets around our hostel and looking for as many chai stalls as possible. Before heading to India, the thing I was most looking forward to was the chai and I can now say with certainty that it’s better than I ever could have imagined (although the tiny cup it comes in could be 5 times the size and I’d be happier). While I’d like to say that the trip was off to a smooth start…it wasn’t haha. As much wandering around and google searching as we did, we somehow couldn’t seem to find the areas of the city that everyone (friends and online forums) raved about. At first glance, Bangalore is huge, extremely crowded, chaotic and dirty. While most cities in India also fit this criteria, we were looking forward to visiting temples/mosques and dipping in and out of smaller side streets to ogle at colorful doors and flower draped shrines. When we didn’t find much of the latter, we decided to sit at a wine bar and regroup. After a few glasses of wine and enough laughter to entertain the staff for weeks, we headed back towards our hostel with big plans in mind for the next stop on our South Indian tour – Hyderabad.
48 hours after we arrived, it was time to hop on my first overnight train in search of temples, more chai and Biryani. For about 1,100 Rupees ($15.28USD) we traveled north 569 Kilometers to Hyderabad. That first train station experience was something I will never forget. You haven’t truly been confused until you stand in line and try to purchase a train ticket in India. The station is massive, there are people shoving you in every which way, the signs mean absolutely nothing and somehow you are ALWAYS at the wrong counter. I’m still not sure if the attendants actually couldn’t understand us or if they just enjoyed the look of bewilderment on our faces while shuffling us to and from different lines with the same outcome. Based on their smirks, I would assume the latter…but honestly who could blame them. Once we finally made it into the correct line, watching Leah elbow her way through a group of sweaty men put an even bigger smile on my face. It was at this train station that I first relinquished some of my willpower to the craziness that is India. When you have no idea what’s going on and you’re laughing your way through trying to sort it out without getting completely ripped off…you’ve made it.
Lesson #2 – Leah was right, and the trains are the best part of India.
After the back and forth madness that was purchasing tickets, we stocked up on samosas, chai and an unhealthy amount of Indian spiced chips. For the next 15 hours, we played cards and tried not to laugh/gag when one of the 8 other passengers in our little train car cubicle burped or farted (ew sorry) so loud that it woke those sleeping. I should note that I’m laughing while recalling this first train ride situation because as gross as these small details might sound, the image I won’t ever be able to scrub from my memory is the piles of shit covering the train tracks. You might be asking yourself how it got there and yes…from the hole in the floor that is known as the toilet on the train. Seeing the poop covered tracks was enough for me to commit to holding it for as loooooong as it took...and I did. I can happily say (against my brother and sisters wishes) that I never stepped foot in the moving deathtrap known as an Indian train squatty. After all, who needs that when you get to wake up on a slow-moving train overlooking the countryside and see a row of grown men shitting in a field amongst the rising sun.
Our time in Hyderabad was oddly similar to that of Bangalore. The cars and buses honked just as loud, the streets were just as crowded and the smells that you can’t identify and linger far too long were just as strong. Our hostel, cozy as it was, was situated among less intrusive streets with a few local chai stalls that we quickly became well acquainted with. When we ventured further out into the city, we were faced with sideways monsoons and some of the worst traffic jams I have ever seen. After spending a full day attempting to explore while braving the Indian elements, all we actually managed to do was take a million selfies with what felt like every man, child and baby who passed us. Being two white female travelers in India is similar to wearing neon jumpsuits…we stick out. Most people would stop and ask us to take a picture with them while others would just run up behind us and start snapping away. At first, I said yes to everyone but quickly realized that once you start you can’t escape. Somehow the word gets out and within seconds the whole neighborhood is running towards you with a selfie stick. Eventually, it was easy for me to walk away during the photoshoots without feeling bad but whenever there were little kids involved I smiled until my face hurt. Most of them can only say “Hello, how are you?” in english but they really want to talk so they just keep repeating it…over and over haha. After the 5th or 6th time, you are literally yelling “Hello, I am good! How are you?” over your shoulder as you’re walking away.
Lesson #3 - Beware of the selfie!
Out of the blue, a few of my blog followers reached out to me via Instagram to welcome us to India and offer a few much needed suggestions for what to do in Hyderabad. I was given the names of a few bars, restaurants and cafes which were all favored among the young locals. Our first stop was an indoor/outdoor rooftop bar called The Fat Pigeon. Cool graphics lined the walls, familiar house music pumped through the speakers and large groups crowded around tables that were covered in bottles of beer and Long Islands. As much fun as we had trying to blend in with the extremely well-dressed crowd in our dirty Vans and ripped leggings, this was not where we expected to be on our second day in South India. That night we checked out another blogger recommendation and filled up on Egg Biryani…Yum.
With only another day or so left in Hyderabad, we went to several markets in search of handicrafts and tasty street food with great success! After haggling and exchanging wide grins/awkward laughs, we’d collected quite a few handmade goods to bring home with us for what we thought was a pretty good deal but was most likely a rip-off. While it can get frustrating always having to negotiate for what should be a standard price, the constant haggling is such a huge part of being in and enjoying India. By the end of the trip I found myself threatening to walk away over 10 Rupees which is about 14 cents...On the scheme of things, this is nothing haha but when you’re in the moment and you know that bottle of water should only cost 20 Rupees and the whole family is standing there trying to charge you 30, it feels like an outrage.
Lesson #4 – Take the initial price, laugh, cut it in half and start negotiations. When in doubt, walk away because they won’t let you.
By the end of the day, we found ourselves on another overnight train and just like that, our first week in India was over.
What I didn’t mention about that second overnight train was the mini heart attack I had before boarding. About an hour before we headed to the train station, my lower lip went numb while sitting on the floor in our hostel. I had two large bug bits begin to take shape and needless to say we FREAKED out. This would have been uncomfortable anywhere but there’s something about being in India that made it 10x scarier. After sending way too many photos to our brother and trying to self-diagnose according to WebMD, I was convinced I was dying and spent the night trying to act casual while my inner voice was ugly crying. In the midst of the bug bite madness, Leah’s allergies flared up and her left eye got all puffy…All I know is that India hit us and it hit us hard that day. Luckily, both of our faces returned to normal within a day or two and we were back to coating ourselves in hand sanitizer and running around our rooms trying to kill all the mosquitoes before going to bed.
By this leg of the trip we’d arrived in Hampi, which is an ancient village in the South Indian state of Karnataka. Hampi was once the richest village in India before its capital was conquered and destroyed in 1565. What remains today are beautifully carved temples, 16 square miles of ruins and a small bohemian town that attracts travelers from all over the world. Our time in Hampi, away from the overwhelming traffic and sheer number of people in the more urban cities was incredible. The majority of our time was spent relaxing in rooftop cafes and sampling every flavor of Lassi on the menu.
Lesson #5 – Banana Lassi’s are always the best option on the menu.
While it was still hot during the days, the breeze coming off the river kept you from melting and the intermittent rain showers gave cover from the sun. In the days that followed, we explored ancient ruins and nearby towns by bike, discovered hidden ashrams tucked away in the mountains and stopped and marveled at every monkey we saw along the way. Each evening, we watched as the monkeys made their daily migration through the village via the roofs of each hut, occasionally stopping for a drink of water. At first I laughed in amusement as the monkeys took turns dipping into the barrels for a swig but quickly realized those were the same barrels that supplied the water we showered in…Monkey see, monkey do? In the mornings, we watched as the town’s resident elephant made his daily pilgrimage to the river for a bath, before being escorted into the temple to pass out blessings. Yes – I was blessed by an elephant and yes – it was the coolest thing that has ever happened to me.
I think we enjoyed our time in Hampi so much because it gave us a chance to relax and just enjoy the moment. We were dodging stray cows roaming the streets instead of taxis moving a million miles an hour and got a chance to hang out with numerous groups of other like-minded travelers all trying to wrap their heads around the insanity that is India. After about 5 days of smuggled beer and way too many games of Yenif, we packed our bags and hopped on our first overnight bus to Madurai.
As ridiculous/fun as it was, the overnight bus left MUCH to be desired. Our shared bed was a decent size but the unidentified stains covering huge sections of the sheet made it hard to get comfortable. I was pressed up against the window which wasn’t too bad compared to Leah who was falling out of our upper level bunk every time we hit a bump or went speeding around a corner which was virtually the entire 15-hour trip. Safe to say we didn’t get much sleep but no one else on the bus did either due to our excessive laughter. Once off the bus, we walked through another beautiful village before arriving at our next hostel.
Lesson #6 – Always book the bottom bunk
Our time in Madurai was short, hot as hell and incredible. Madurai, also known as the pastel city, sits on the Vaigai River in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. When I first started researching India, I saw a photo of the Meenakshi Amman Temple which is covered in crazy beautiful carvings of Hindu gods, and I knew I had to see it. To my delight, the temple was infinitely more amazing in person. We spent a full day wandering in, out and around the 14 towers that act as gateways to the temple. Every inch of every column, ceiling and floor tile was perfectly painted in vibrant pastels and the smell of incense was heavy in the air. We could have spent days ducking into each prayer site but by mid-afternoon I almost fainted while taking photos thanks to the 98 degree weather. Back at the hostel, we refueled with tons of water before heading out to dinner at another hidden rooftop gem. Some sort of festival was taking place on the streets below the restaurant that night (like every night) which supplied us with live music and chanting while we ate the yummiest samosas I’d had the whole trip. What more could you ask for from a night out in India?