India. We have a love-hate relationship. There are times I loathe you, like when a drunken taxi driver almost kills us. And there are times I adore you, like when I cut into a Goan king fish straight out of the tandoor. More than anywhere else, you are a place of extremes. The service is either atrocious, or people treat you like are family (literally, in the case of procuring an Indian SIM card). In the blink of an eye, the scenery goes from gorgeous untainted beaches, to mountains of trash complete with rabid dogs and leering men. So, after two and a half weeks, we're ready to part ways. Will we meet again? Almost certainly, but not for a while and next time I'll bring more hand sanitizer.
After our hair-raising adventure from the airport, we spent the first two days wandering Mumbai and adjusting to the smells/heat/crowds of India. We stayed two nights in Fort, eating some of the best tiger prawns in my life and scoping out the overgrown colonial buildings. It felt like we were in Jumanji. Or, as someone once wrote, "1960s London on an acid trip." We had high tea at the Taj Hotel, which was a pure oasis from the madness outside. Consistent with the land of extremes, it seems that India has some of the best hotels in the world. Sadly, these were out of our budget except for the occasional non-alcoholic beverage.
We caught up with our friend Brendan Daley from college. He's been living in Mumbai for about a month as part of a year-long posting with Edelman. He seems to be adjusting remarkably well to the rhythms of India. We had drinks and dinner in Bandra West, the hip, expatty suburb of Mumbai. We met up at a Hawaiian theme bar where the staff to patron ratio exceeded 5:1. They also played a continuous set of second tier 90s pop-rock hits. Needless to say we stuck around for more than one Kingfisher.
But after two days of close heat, unguarded stares from strange men (unfortunately not unique to Bombay), and general travel weariness, we left Mumbai on a train bound for Goa. We discovered this tiny little beach called Patnem, just south of Palolem, that Whitney's friend Henry Foy from AC promised us the Russians hadn't discovered. After multiple doses of Russian tourists in Vietnam/Thailand, plus warnings from a fellow train passenger that the mafia drugged people on the northern beaches, we were sold.
The beach was quiet and gorgeous and we quickly decided to stay for four days. We rented a small, open plan bungalow right on the beach and settled into the rhythm of beach life. Our hut was fairly luxurious so we were basically "glamping" (glamorous camping for those not in the know). One amenity we didn't know was included was our very own guard snake. While brushing our teeth the first evening, I turned to Whitney and said "I don't mean to alarm you, but there is a snake moving along the rafters of our hut." Her response was, in typical Whitney fashion, to panic momentarily and then furiously begin Googling "Goa snakes venomous." After about 15 tense minutes in which she Googled on the painfully slow internet connection and I ensured the snake didn't make a bid for our bed, we were stumped. Earlier conversations with Hannah about the shocking number of snake bite deaths in India didn't help matters. Then the snake performed an impressive feat in which he slithered up the bamboo corner post of our hut, extended himself 3 feet into the void of space, and grabbed onto a tree branch and slithered up into the tree. Increasingly terrified, and slightly impressed, we Googled "Goa tree snake" and landed on our answer. It was a bronzeback (not a cobra or viper). Relieved at our new neighbor's lack of venom, we decided to make our peace with it and do the only thing that city slickers can reasonably do in such a situation: name the snake. We chose Plucky. While not as majestic as our guard nyala in the Kalahari Desert, he was memorable.
Despite the scare with the snake, it was an amazing couple of days. We did yoga in the morning, had breakfast with our toes in the sand at one of the many cute little beachside restaurants, and then spent the heat of the day undercover (like all good palefaces) chewing through about 3 books each. In the evening we swam at sunset, played Kadima (yes Ian, we did), went for walks along the beach before eating King Fish Tikka (one of our favorite Indian food discoveries-- so delicious!) and going to bed.
But, you can only run away to the beach for so long before you start feeling guilty for not experiencing "real India." We booked flights to Rajasthan and were off on the next adventure. I told Whitney that every city we visited from here on out would get increasingly chaotic. Unfortunately, I was right.
After Goa we headed north to Udaipur, which I think might've been our favorite city of India. It's so beautiful and peaceful (by Indian standards). We did a homestay with a really nice family (it's called Little Garden, for those who are interested). Their son is incredibly, outspokenly, unabashedly ambitious. It was almost off-putting at first, but once you adjusted, you could see the passion he has for the hotel business and could imagine him having a small empire in 5-10 years. He has turned his family home into a gorgeous B&B/Homestay-- each room has a different theme and he has local artists paint the walls with traditional designs, handpicks the artwork, and uses blankets and pillows crafted by local artisans. He has a deep sense of history and tradition and shared many stories about Udaipur and his family with us over traditional breakfast prepared by his father and sister. He is a registered tour guide at the City Palace, so he took us on a great tour and then added on a tour of the old city, complete with two marketplaces, a Jain temple, and delicious street food.
He's also a dark horse contender for fastest walker in India, as we learned when he took us on a sunrise hike to the top of a hill overlooking Udaipur. Whitney and I both were giving each other concerned looks as we huffed it up the small (but steep) hill. Our plans had us slated to arrive in Nepal for Himalayan trekking in less than two weeks. The debate about whether to hire a guide/porter was quickly resolved.
The view from the top was gorgeous though, and we strolled down at a much more leisurely place. For those who head to Udaipur, I recommended the early hike. It was the most uncrowded you'll ever see a major Indian city. The ability to walk down the middle of the street without great fear of death is an experience in itself. But be careful of the monkeys. They are apparently quite "self-conscious" and thus you're not supposed to look them in the eye.
After Udaipur, we hopped on the train to Jaipur. It was our second experience on the famous (at times infamous) Indian rail system. It was an easy ride, though Whitney had to deal with some prolonged staring from a group of young men in our cabin. This, as most female travelers in India will tell you, is a common occurrence. While there were very few instances of physical inappropriateness, the stares were pretty much constant. She handled herself with grace and we told strangers we met we were married, which helped a bit. An annoying consequence of these attitudes were that no one would really talk to her directly, whether or not we were ordering food or haggling at a store. The tourist industry people were much better, but this was a tough thing for both of us. She felt isolated and constantly judged; I felt overwhelmed by the need to negotiate everything on our behalf.
Jaipur itself is a much bigger town and, consistent with my prediction, it was much busier. We kept up our string of enjoyable home stays, this time with an Indian couple at Bhola Bhawan. They were kind hosts and served a mean breakfast. It still can't compare to the deliciousness of a South African breakfast (the hands-down winner), but it was a strong contender for best vegetarian breakfast.
The first day in Jaipur we were excited to hear that there was a festival going on with a parade. Our enthusiasm was dampened slightly when our hosts told us there are basically festivals every other week, but nonetheless, we were excited to see a parade that included camels and elephants. We basically imagined it as this scene out of Aladdin. The reality was less impressive, but still fun to see.
The next day was one we were particularly looking forward to because it meant a trip to the Amber Fort, Jaipur's most famous sight, and then a day frolicking with elephants at the local elephant farm. Both lived up to our high expectations.
The Amber Fort is gorgeous and it was fascinating to hear about the lives of the royalty. The physical separation of men and women was something quite different from European castles, but the audio guide alluded to plenty of co-ed fraternizing. I'm waiting for the next HBO/Showtime series centered on the maharajas.
After the Amber Fort, we headed to Elefantastic, which was described by many people to us as the greatest elephant experience in the world. Expectations were high when we showed up at the Jaipur Elephant Village. They were absolutely met and exceeded. Here's how Elefantastic works:
- The driver picked us up and took us around for the day before arriving at the Jaipur Elephant Park.
- We then drive through the Park which is actually like a small sub-development for elephants. The Park was built in response to concerns over animal cruelty in the surrounding areas. Each elephant has a designated handler for life. The handler lives with his family (the handlers are all male) in a small apartment attached to what is essentially a large studio apartment for the elephant. As we drove by, Whitney and I bemoaned the fact that the elephants had much nicer living arrangements than our pad in NYC. Oh well.
- We met our elephant for the day. Our lovely lady was named Masagli (Hindi for Rosebud). She was delightful. We spent the first hour or so feeding her. It shouldn't have been surprising how much she ate given her size, but we were both still shocked at how much bamboo/hay she put away.
- We then went for a ride around the park on our elephant. I imagined pulling a Legolas style move to dismount the elephant, but Whitney was having none of it.
- Next we painted Masa. For those who don't know us well, please realize that art is neither of our strong suits. Fortunately, the staff at Elefantastic is prepared for uncultured swine like ourselves, and provided a nice template. The only thing we had to do was draw inside the lines. When your canvas is breathing / adjusting her multi-ton frame, this is easier said than done. We managed to add a hashtag to Masa though.
- The grand finale. We went swimming with Masa. This was an amazing experience. It was also disgusting and probably contributed to our terrible illness over the final few days in India. The watering hole was a stagnant body of water and some unlucky dude had the job of fishing out the elephant turds as they surfaced, ideally before a tourist swam too close to them. But, this is not to diminish how awesome it was to swim with Masa. It was really cool to stand on her trunk under the water and just lay your head against her forehead (surprising note: elephants are much hairier than I anticipated). Not to mention, she was a great diving platform. One of our friends from the trip had a GoPro, but we haven't received those pictures yet, so we'll upload more if they're good.
No trip to India is complete without a stop at the Taj Mahal. As Whitney's friend Henry said, "Customs basically won't let you leave until you go there." It was my second time and Whitney's first. The bar wasn't too high for this visit, since last time I was there it was 115 degrees F, and Whitney called me from immigration jail in London on the 4th of July, which put a bit of a damper on the day.
Unlike when I went last time (as a day trip from Delhi), we took a car from Jaipur, arriving in the evening so we could visit the Taj at sunrise. The drive actually had a few cool sights, such as Fatehpur Sikri and an Abhaneri Step Well, a public well that looked like an Escher painting.
We stayed at a hotel near the entrance to the Taj and were both exhausted after the long drive. Agra is famous for being an awful city and I can't argue with that. It's the butt of many tourist jokes, but it is also really sad for the local people. The government profits off the Taj but hasn't channeled that money into reasonable infrastructure. So we reached our hotel and were reluctant to leave again. But what were we to do about dinner? They had room service but it was wildly overpriced. Solution: order pizza delivery to the hotel. After an amusing discussion with the local Dominos, we managed to convince them to bring us pizza and garlic bread. A person can only have so much curry before they burst. It was absolutely worth the judgy looks from the hotel staff when I met the delivery guy in the lobby.
But what about the Taj you ask. It was spectacular, as always. It really is one of the few sights in the world that lives up to the hype. We took all the requisite photos, basked in the great love story surrounding the construction, and then headed for the train station.
This is when things took a pretty bleak turn. First, our train from Agra to Delhi was about two hours late. Not terrible in isolation, but as the train pulled up, Whitney and I both looked at each other with grimaces. “Does your stomach feel like something out of Alien too?” I asked, and she nodded. We boarded the train and some random guy promptly yelled at Whitney that she was in his seat. We were both pretty sure it was her seat, but in the midst of gastrointestinal pyrotechnics, we weren’t our normal assertive selves. He promptly closed the curtain and began praying very loudly. The train then began an agonizingly slow crawl through the darkening Indian countryside. I kept looking at the blue dot on Google Maps and willing it closer to Delhi.
Eventually, we pulled into Delhi and dragged ourselves to a rickshaw. Arriving at the hotel, we collapsed in heaps, proceeding to stay in our room for the next 36 hours. The only trip I managed was across the street where I picked up enough Gatorade for a small NFL team. Fortunately, our hotel was surprisingly comfortable and we essentially hibernated through Delhi Belly.
Determined to see some of Delhi, we struck out for an afternoon before our flight to Nepal the next morning. Consistent with the original prediction of increasing chaos, Delhi was a disaster. It’s filthy, noisy and the tourist sights were either closed or manned by groups of surly bros who tried to extort us for every last rupee we had.
Thus, we have basically no pictures from Delhi. In fact, this is the only one we took, and I think it really captures our mindset:
After two trips there for me (and one for Whitney), I think we’ve paid our India dues for about the next two decades.
The cool, clean mountain air of Nepal could not come soon enough.