Big Smoke India: 17 – 19.08.13

We arrived into Mumbai – the big smoke – stuck in a traffic jam, and after stepping off the bus after 10am, rather than the estimated 7:30am arrival time. The bus dropped us on a random street where cars raced past, buildings soared, dogs roamed and taxi drivers circled us.
We had no idea where we were, we had no idea where we were going, we had no idea where we were staying, and we had no idea who to trust. Excellent.

A driver in a camo-cloured doo-rag style hat hearded us into his taxi and drove us across the city to Colaba – the tourist and sight-seeing hub of Mumbai. He hid his meter with a dirty towel “because he has to” (for a reason he did not explain) and continually told me “do not worry about money, you always worrying about money, do not ask me about money, don’t worry, I don’t want any money, I not asking for any money”, which made me worry almost to bursting point. Of course, he wanted money, of course he charged us some ridiculous “luggage fee”, and of course, he took us to the most ridiculously priced, shit-box of a hotel/cell, where we were greeted by possibly the rudest Indian man in the world.
Whilst Jake stayed in the taxi, I went to check the room.The manager grunted at me that the room was 1200, and when I almost died of shock, he told me it was actually now 1500. Mumbai was a lot more expensive than we’d expected.
Back in the taxi, I weighed up our options with Jake, and the driver agreed I could barter the manager down.
Back up in the hotel again, I was now told the price was 1700. I’m still wondering why I didn’t walk away then and there, but instead I bartered to 1300 which was flatly refused, so my very generous driver offered 1400 – was he personally putting in that extra 100 for this cockroach infested cell? I doubted it, but the offer got accepted.
The driver left us with our bags and we trudged up the stairs, feeling as though we were about to enter into a contract we didn’t want to but were somehow unable to get away from.
Of course, without the driver by my side, the manager was even ruder and told us no air conditioning would be included in that price. I argued, and we walked away – and should’ve kept walking – but eventually Mr. Rude manager man had a change of heart and very generously let us stay for 1400… with air conditioning.

It was only after we had paid that we discovered stained sheets, cockroaches, and one single dirty, cigarette smelling towel. When I asked if we could please have a clean towel, and furthermore if we could have two, the manager almost screamed at me telling me it was clean. When I refused his answer, he angrily bought us a “clean” (still stained) towel, and grunted “one room, one towel.” Hmmm.

Out in Mumbai at last, we walked through Colaba and towards the gateway to India monument, past the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The architecture is incredibly beautiful here, absolutely stunning – our heads were in a constant craning state as we looked at the architecture towering above us, mouths open in awe.

We walked towards Leopold’s Café – one of the hard-hit locations in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and also the once local hang-out of the author of Shantaram  – I was keen to see if this establishment lived up to my imagination… On the way, we dropped into Reality Tours office, to book a tour of the Daravhi Slums. A few minutes later, we were walking briskly towards Churchgate Station to meet for our tour of the biggest slum in Asia, to see what “the real Mumbai is like” – apparently.

I still can’t quite work out how I feel bout visiting a slum as a tourist, but the tour company we went with pours a huge portion of it’s money back into the NGO it runs within the slum, which we were able to see in action. We went as a group of 6 along with a guide who met us at the station and took us on the local Mumbai train towards the slums. He explained to us “three stops before we need to prepare to get off the train. Lots of eople will be getting on and off very quickly and the train will only halt for 15, maybe 20 seconds.” … Oh, shit.

Surviving our first local Mumbai train, we walked over the bridge and down into what looked like a very normal, very action packed street going about daily business. Chai and food stalls and vendors, shops, businesses, buyers and sellers, traffic and people about everywhere… We were in the business district, and it is here that several huge export and import, as well as nation-wide products are made, cooked, sewn, created and recycled, turning over a profit of around $650 million USD annually.

We walked through the business district, and the recycling area first, where plastic comes from all over India – and the world! – to be recycled. The absolute sprawl and mounds of plastic that could be seen from the ground and from the roof top stretched so far and covered every surface, and I was in absolute shock at the…mess, maybe? I can’t even decribe what we saw. These incredible people work tirelessly, in very difficult conditions, and their business is non-stop.
We passed tailors and men dying materials to make saris and clothing – for men in one section, and for women in another.
We passed welders and people building machinery, working with metals and welders, barefooted and shirtless – without any sort of safety precautions or protection.
We passed bakers rolling tons of pastry dough, and women drying poppadoms on the slum floors that, eventually, will be exported world wide.
We passed leather workers who dry, treat and cure the leathers they receive and turn them into bags, wallets and everything else that will then eventually be stamped with Gucci and Prada stamps, exported, and sold for thousands in fancy shops.
We passed through the pottery area where thousands of clay pots were being turned and sitting to dry in the sun.
We walked through tiny, tiny alleyways with holes in the ground and electrical wires dangling dangerously low. The stench was sometimes overwhelming.
We worked our way through to the residential area, where children were keen to follow us – and put their hands in our pockets! The slums are alive with people; the tiny area of around 1.75square km is home to more than a million people! There is a Muslim section, and a Hindu section, and somehow, people manage to live together in such compact space like one big community.
The residential area made me both happy and sad – I think – I haven’t quite worked it out yet. People live in absolute mess – the smells are overwhelming in some parts, and we walked out into an open area where children were playing and walking bare footed amongst an absolute rubbish tip. The toilet block was making it hard for me to breathe, and the smell stung my eyes.
We spent the entire time we were there staring at our feet, watching each and every step – ensuring we did not stand in the muck and mess, the holes and putrid contents that continually covered the ground.
The tiny slum hut, one of which we were able to see empty, was smaller than my bedroom; a bathroom, a kitchen, a TV area, a living area, a bedroom, storage space… and five, six, seven people might occupy that area! No privacy, no space. Astounding.
But the people seem happy, and busy, and hard-working. Most of all, it feels like a community, even from an outsider perspective – you can simply see and observe it. I’m still trying to work out how I feel about it all, and what my thoughts are, but I’m happy we were able to take the opportunity to learn a bit more about a part of this world and the people in it.

The six of us on the tour took the train back to Churchgate Station together and spent the evening at Leopold’s. The bullet holes still fresh in the walls was a stark reminder of what happened here just a few years ago, and my head full of the words of Shantaram bought me right back to the dodgy wheelings and dealings that would’ve once happened, right there.

Having used our air conditioner to the maximum and after surviving the hoards of cockroaches, we checked out early and, like sleepy turtles, carried our backpack shells heavy on our backs. We wern’t allowed to leave them with Mr. Rude Guest House Manager.

Today, India and I clashed. It’s true. It was a build up, I think, of three weeks of (amongst a million other positive things) being frequently cheated, lied to, tricked, scammed, harassed, begged, and  ripped off.

Our morning was spent being lied to by various street touters and people offering “free tourist information.” After hours or messing around, being told one thing and then another, and then something else entirely, we ended up handing over a wad of cash for two train tickets to Udaipur which were then never given to us – instead, we’d receive them via e-mail apparently on Monday, the day before our train.

I was so upset at the fact that nothing seemed to be working here for us today; we’d been ripped off and harassed and furthermore, lied to continually, and booking tickets for trains seemed impossible. We left with no ticket, no receipt, a lighter wallet and the words of the tourist information guy saying “anything is possible in India if you put money under the table” ringing in our heads.  On the street, continually we were harassed by people wanting money, wanting to show us their hotel rooms, offers for weed, offers for taxis, offers to “help” us find a “nice something to wear”, shoe shining, ear cleaning, and more people claiming their office was the real tourist information centre. I was ready to scream. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the ‘process’ that we go through every day here in India, fighting off touts and tricksters, and sifting through lies to find the truth. I was tired of the fact that we have to be suspicious of everyone, and when a stranger happens to help us, we find it hard to believe they’re being genuine.
I was overwhelmed that to book a train took hours after hours, too many mixed messages and stories, and that people were happy to go above and beyond to hide important information and trick us. After three weeks of it almost continually, I was sick of this maddening bull shit.

Eventually, we ended up at VT station – apparently the biggest train station in Asia – the incredible station that we should’ve gone to first thing this morning. First floor, counter 52, a few forms and I was able to book our train tickets. Just. Like. That. No bull shit, no lies, no stories of why they will have to change the price, no poor treatment, rude comments or jumbled facts. The man just booked the dates and trains that I had written down and printed out the tickets for us. So this is the way to do it, hey?… Lesson finally learned.

From VT station, we booked a pre-paid taxi out to Andheri, where we were staying for the next 3 nights with a Couch Surfing Host. Our poor taxi driver then spent the next two or more hours dodging, weaving, or sitting motionless amongst a chaos of horns and impatient drivers. At one point I tried to count the number of ‘lanes’ of traffic: pointless – the traffic sprawled so far around our car that I had to give up, it was utter madness and it was a real thrill. Hello to the Mumbai I had imagined.

Eventually, we arrived at our Couch Surfing host’s home, where she welcomed us warmly and gave us a delicious home cooked Indian dinner. We took a tuk tuk later to a local shopping mall and she introduced us to Kulfi, a delicious Indian dessert.

Our second day in Mumbai was spent in fits of exhaustion and frustration, feeling as though we couldn’t handle – didn’t want to handle – India’s complexities any longer – but then it ended on a high. We knew that tomorrow could only be better.

Our third day in Mumbai was spent exploring Colaba a little bit further. Being Sunday, the trains were “not so busy” – meaning I was able to breathe slightly more easily, didn’t have to share the roof handle with another hand and didn’t have to fight with people in order to exit the train. The Mumbai trains are madness, but oddly enough we love them.

Arriving into Churchgate Station, we stepped out into the street to be immediately greeted by the bare bottom of a woman who’d just taken a decent sized poo in the middle of a busy main road. As if proud of her achievement, she stood – bare bummed – next to the pile of waste for way too long whilst I struggled to re-gain my composure.
We watched, sipping chai, as a Bollywood scene was being filmed in the street, and ignored the hassling touts – one of whom invited us to his cousin’s best friend’s sisters’ niece’s wedding somewhere in Rajisthan some time next month.
We admired art in a gallery, and even more outside where local artists were selling their paintings and were proud to show us their work. I adore moments like these.
We explored various shops and walked through the city area, visiting the local Colaba Market and avoiding another tout who was sure we’d love the clothing at his best friend’s wholesale shop.We had a fancy lunch at Delhi Dohbar, where I broke my vegetarian diet and ate some mutton.
Our afternoon was spent walking along Marine Drive, looking out over the Mumbai city scape and sky line. Chai vendors offered us chai and a woman with a monkey on a leash tried to get us to pay her for a dancing monkey show – which we very flatly refused.

Late evening we took another local Mumbai train back to Andheri, where we visited the local shopping mall. Tuk tuk drivers outside tried to charge us 150 rupees for the 20 rupee ride back to our host’s home, and refused to turn on the meter even though they have to normally. It was infuriating to be treated so unfairly, and I felt that frustrated feeling from the previous day returning. Eventually though, we found a driver who was happy to turn on his meter and took us safely home to our wonderful host and her handsome cat.

Our third day in Mumbai was a nice, easy going day; we didn’t really rush this morning, and spent our day in the outer suburbs away from the tourists. We’re so used to being the only whities these days; it’s starting to not phase us so much. Outside of the tourist area of Colaba, the people who spoke with us were friendlier and more interested in simply talking to us, rather than trying to take our money however possible.

We took a tuk tuk to the Andheri train station, where peak hour meant we were caught up amongst thousands of frantic commuters. The first train we attempted to board was so packed (to the point where people were hanging out the doors and along the side of the train!) we were not able to board. A young woman told me to get in the ladies carriage, and never attempt to take the men’s carriage… that meant Jake and I would be separated, and that worried me when we were about to attempt to get on – and would consequently have to eventually get off – the local Mumbai train.

As the train we needed pulled into the station, it was a sight to be seen – one I have difficulty describing. It was, simply put, a manic mess of chaos and crowds. Before the train can even completely stop, people are jumping off and attempting to jump on. As the train slows and finally stops, masses of people at every door have already started shoving, pushing, kicking and pulling; fighting their way into and out of the carriage. No order, no rules, every man for himself. It was madness, and the facial expressions and the way people behaved was shocking, to say the least. I was pushed, shoved and hearded into the ladies carriage by the kind young woman who then checked to make sure Jake was safely in the men’s compartment. So kind. Within the confines of the female carriage, I observed as every woman assessed the other – including many stares directed at me – often staring each other down in a manner that, more than once, made me feel self conscious.
When the train finally pulled into my destination, I was quick to learn I’d need to fight my way off. Along with every other woman pushing and kicking and shoving to get on – and off – I elbowed and shoved and escaped, free at last.

More help from locals saved us the hassle of trying to negotiate with trick tuk tuk drivers, and eventually we found one who was happy to use the meter to take us to the ferry landing, so we could head across the ‘creek’ (more like a massive lake!) to the Global Pagoda – a golden beautiful structure that was really impressive to see. People come here for 10 day meditation work shops which are apparently really highly regarded.
Arriving, I think we were just as impressed by the structure as we were by the fact that it was free to enter.
The area was beautiful and really impressive, and it was well worth the visit out there.
After slipping in the mud and falling hard on my bum, checking to see if anyone saw, then laughing about it for way too long, we took an empty ferry back over the creek and a tuk tuk back to the station, before catching a train back to Andheri.

This evening we were meeting our host at the local plaza to see a Bollywood movie, but arriving early, we decided we’d and spend some time in what turned out to the the worst (and most hilarious) excuse for an arcade.
We wanted to have a game of 10 pin bowling but only one of the 6 lanes was working. The other lanes were “maintenance,” according to the staff. We put 100 odd rupees onto an arcade game card and went to swipe a game for some good old fashioned fun… but quickly realised the game we had selected was “undergoing maintenance.” This was the same for the next game, and the next, and the next, and the next, and this went on throughout the entire arcade for all except one game – the basketball hoopy game. So, whilst laughing like lunaticks, we spent a happy few minutes playing the same one game; shooting flat basket balls into a hoop, cackling the entire time. At the end, we had acquired a whole 6 tickets, and seeing as there were only three different ‘prizes’ behind the massive glass counter for 50, 200 and 5000 tickets, we fortunately didn’t get any sort of tacky plastic souvenir.
Oh India, you make us smile.

We met our host and went up to the level our cinema was on, only to find it had been moved to another cinema. So, down two levels, we bought popcorn and prepared for our movie to start, only to find out it had been re-scheduled for an hour later… So instead, we sat, talked and ate way too much popcorn. It was brilliant.

The movie was excellent but quite difficult for us to follow – lucky we had our host there to explain a little of the plot. After a late finish, she took us to a fantastic Punjabi restaurant where we enjoyed an absolutely amazing meal together. Tandoori chicken with lime and yoghurt, beautifully steamed rice, a bean dahl and a specialty of fried garlic cloves, along with an incredible traditional Indian sweet and a betel nut drink to freshen our mouths once we were done. Dinner at midnight, and this place was still packed. The food was one of the best meals we’ve had in Mumbai, and our beautiful host was so generous to take us out.

It honestly was such a wonderful way to celebrate our short time spent with her, and we are so grateful to have found such a wonderful person here in Mumbai. Tomorrow was to be our final day in Mumbai before heading off on a train journey away from the West and into the North to Rajisthan: first stop, Udaipur.

Bed Bug and Papping India: 15 – 16.08.13

We pulled into Hampi in the early hours of the morning, the sky still black with only the faintest silhouettes of rocks in the distance.
Before we could even step off the bus, touters boarded and the eager faces of four or five Indian men peered through the corridor, asking where we go and offering to take us to nice room. They swarmed around us whities as we tried to get our soaking wet, muddy packs organised and onto our backs. The smell of cow shit – lots of it – filled the air, and our nostrils.

We decided to walk into town; the Hampi bazaar is tiny an easily managed by foot; crowded with guest houses and restaurants, cows and the inevitable poo that they drop at every turn. We stopped for chai whilst the touters and tuk tuk drivers begged and pleaded with us to let them take us to different rooms for just 10 rupees (they forgot to mention the commission they’d make, at our expense, if we took a room). We’re cottoning on to their little tricks and games – thankfully – and we declined.

In the bazaar it took ages to find a room, we hopped from guest house to guest house, checking prices, cleanliness and wifi availability. It was light by the time we found a room that was basic, cheap, reasonably clean, and had a strong wifi connection.

We sunk a pot of masala chai at an eatery, and managed to have 100 rupees removed from our wallets by a pair of shifty “holy men” – learned our lesson there! We had breakfast with the locals at a little open air eatery that was cooking idlys and dosas, and took in the vast scenery surrounding us.

Hampi is a town like nothing we’ve before seen. The bazaar itself is a little maze of sprawling streets, souvenir shops, guest houses, restaurants, roof top cafes, hippie shops, book stores and travel agencies. Red dirt, puddles of water and mounds of cow shit make up the roads and pathways, where children run bare footed and cows block every corner. The women walk through with baskets and pots of water on their heads, and every second corner shack is filled with convenience items like toilet rolls, biscuits and necessities like shampoo and trashy magazines. Monkeys jump from roof top to roof top, children who should be in school try to sell post cards and books, people are touting, and every restaurant wants to sell the tourists a cup of the “ best coffee.”
The cows spend their days lazily; strutting the streets and forcing their heads into any crevice that may return food. We watched them frequently enjoying pieces of cardboard and news paper from the ground, posters from walls, and occasionally offered them an indulgent banana skin treat.

Outside the bazaar, a small market area and group of street stall eateries, chai stands, produce carts and tacky souvenir shacks surrounds the bus station, which is more a large area of dirty and gravel overlooking mountains and boulders, ancient ruined monuments and one massive temple.

The ruins of Hampi are sprawled out over a large area; mountains, hills, piles of enormous rock and palm trees line every view. Still exhausted, we hired a tuk tuk to take us around the main sights for five or so hours.
The temples and monuments were amazing; spectacular architecture, carvings and scenery. At the main temple, we hired a guide for a short tour of the place which gave us great insight into the significance and meaning of certain structures, buildings, carvings and history.

Throughout the day, we were continually in awe of how empty these tourist attractions were; most of the time we had the monuments, temples and areas to ourselves, or only had to ‘share’ them with a few other people. When we were not alone, we spent the time being harassed by locals wanting to take our photo. I had a small baby shoved into my arms and posed for a family photo-shoot with a child who was obviously not comfortable. The family photograph features me pulling an unimpressed face, along with the child.
Local men continued to whip cameras and phones out at the sight of us, papping at the most inopportune moments. How many hideous photographs of me are now on facebook, I hate to think.
At the last temple we were bombarded by an Indian family, which consisted of about fifty people, who wanted photo after photo with different people in the shot, in different poses, with different family members, standing on different sides of Jake and I, and then in front, and then behind, and then with babies in the shot, and then without, and then some more. I began to get irritated by the 80th odd photograph, and when they started shoving cameras into our faces to take close ups of just Jake and I, I just walked off. They continued papping, and I continued pulling faces that would make any image delete-worthy. The photograph thing got exhausting fast.

We decided we’d leave tomorrow night for Mumbai, rather than spend a second night here in Hampi. We seem to be moving through places a lot quicker than expected, but it’s a good thing; we’re able to add in more places to visit in India which is exciting! Whilst a bus takes around 12 hours to reach Mumbai, a train takes around 25 hours and would involve a lot more hassle. We’d been keen to take a train for the sheer experience it would offer, but ended up booking a sleeper bus leaving from Hospet – a 30 minute bus ride from Hampi. We;re excited to move on to Mumbai and to spend a little while there.

A man at one of the many booking agents called us in through the window, and when we said “what’s up?” he responded with “nothing man, I’ve been waiting for you!” … Oh India, how you make us laugh.
He explained to us the sleeper bus he could book us on was “very beautiful” and would have a TV all to ourselves with English sub titles. The thought of trying to sleep on a bus with 32 separate TV units was terrifying, and furthermore, the smell of weed from his cigarette was a little off putting and we left.
We booked a non-tv sleeper bus at a different agency, and so it was official: tomorrow we’re off to Mumbai.

Well after 10pm, laying on our beds exhausted, Jake spotted a tiny bug on my pillow which was instantly recogniseable as a bed bug. Uuuuuugh! We can’t be bothered with this shit!
This was the start of a long night.
Luckily a little convenience shack was still open, and selling – of all things – fly spray. Pulling the beds apart, the mattresses off the bed frames, the sheets and pillow slips away and moving our belongings and bags as far way as possible, we coated every surface with the spray. Wondering the streets late at night, we dodged cows and goats, tiny children still awake, women carrying pots on their heads and finally found some locals playing soccer, who let us use their phone to contact the no-where-to-be-seen guest house owner. He came, didn’t seem to think that it was that big of a deal, and eventually dragged the infested mattresses out and a couple of filthy, thin, wheat packed mattresses in. We refused to sleep on the infested wooden beds, and instead were given no option but to sleep on the thin mattresses on the tiles without pillows or blankets. Our hopes for a decent night sleep were crushed.

On our second day in Hampi, which happened to be Indian Independence Day – we checked out and watched our bed bug infested mattresses get dragged back onto the bed frames, ready to welcome the next sleeping body.

Today happened to be Indian Independence Day – a holiday for all – and a not much of a day for us.

We strolled down to the street food stalls next to the bus station; the place was jam packed with people, food vendors, chai stalls; the place was buzzing. Hampi was going to be busy today; 8:30am and the area was packed with colour and life. People had Indian Flags painted on their cheeks, and a colourful image made from salt was spread out on the ground, surrounded by people cooking and eating and selling and buying.

Back at what had quickly become our “Old Faithful” in Hampi, we ordered a pot of chai and simply sat. We chatted with the owner, and about our trip. It’s moving so quickly it seems; or have we just been moving quickly? Traveling at night makes a real difference, that’s for sure.

We decided to visit another big temple today, we hadn’t been yesterday and we were keen to go today… but, it was an ocean of people – people from surrounding villages made the trip to Hampi today for the public holiday celebrations – and we were very quickly overwhelmed.
People all around us were photographing us with their phones and cameras, and tour guides hassled us to hire them. We didn’t want to leave our shoes with the “shoe guard” at the temple – and further more pay for that – and the touting tour guide didn’t console my fears by saying “yes, you know why people is wanting them is for that they are the good leather.” After several hundred photographs were taken of us from several hundred different, bad angles – with me making several hundred ugly faces for the photographers – we didn’t even enter the temple. It was irritating to not be able to move without being photographed, and we were worried about our shoes being stolen by the several lurkers near the thousands of pairs of shoes.

As we wandered away towards the river and ghats we were continually photographed as we walked, and parents forced their tiny children – and us – to shake hands. At the river, hundreds, if not thousands of Indian locals were mingling. I was getting really irritated by the number of cameras in our face, and people everywhere around us pretending to be photographing something else when they were obviously aiming their cameras at us – then looking away when I gave them the eye.

Sitting on the wall leading down the steps to the river, people surrounded us to get photos with the whities. I refused to face them, so I can only assume there will now be several hundred photos of my back all over Indian Facebook. A boy grabbed me by the arm and asked for a photo “just one madame” he said. I know this game well already – just one photo means just one with this specific camera, and no doubt there will be several cameras floating about – and I flatly refused. So, taking my answer in his stride, the boy directed his mates with their cameras around me, grabbed me and put his arm around me. He now has several photographs on his camera of me scowling, yelling at him and running away swearing. I can just imagine the photo of my screwed up face, downturned brow, curled bottom lip and two front teeth forming a “Fff….” will make a great story when he returns back home.

Running up the stairs away from the papping locals, I was harassed by several boys making kissing sounds and yelling “Hello madame, where you from?” “Hello madame, where you go?” “Hello madame, how are you?” Pissed off that I was unable to enjoy anything at the present moment without the harassment of local men, Jake and I retreated to a rooftop café where we spent hours drinking masala chai and stealing wifi.

Eventually, having spent a good portion of our day in a café, it was time to head to the bus stop, to travel to Hospet where our bus for Mumbai would depart at 6:30pm. However, we were stopped by a tuk tuk driver who offered to take us for 200 rupees – what is actually a very reasonable fair considering it was a) a holiday, b) we’re tourists, and c) it’s a 30 minute drive or more to Hospet. Not wanting to bother with the jam-packed, holiday maker buses, we took the tuk tuk, and it proved to be a better choice!
Prince, the driver, was the same age as Jake, and keen to get some advice on how to pick up Western girls; I think he may be a little confused about the process. He was asking what the maximum amount of time we thought it should take for him to be able to ‘woo’ a Western girl into marrying him in. As in, how many days – not years – mere days, for him to be able to meet, date and become engaged. Furthermore, his western bride must be prepared to move away and live in India, because he believes he cannot get Indian food anywhere else in the world, where as westerners can absolutely get western food here in India… Finally, he believes if he is married to a Western girl, he can absolutely do what he wants – go away whenever he wants, where ever he wants, with who ever he wants, and his western wife wont care – supposedly, this is the opposite of what Indian women are like, according to Prince. We shared some good laughs, tried to teach him what NOT to do (eg. DON’T make ridiculous kissing noises and behave in a ridiculous manner) and he was a genuinely nice guy.

Traffic jams nearby Hospet meant wandering hands had the opportunity to find their way into our tuk tuk, and men stared at me from every angle and viewpoint. Prince ended up having to drive a different way; 5 extra kilometers through muddy tracks and over rough road to get us to Hospet. Once there, he spent time chatting and talking, took us to our bus company stand, showed us where to get food and use a bathroom, and didn’t once ask for more than the 200 rupees he originally asked for. What a guy! We tipped him anyway.

Using a bathroom in Hospet was an ordeal; the men surrounding our tuk tuk as we got out were intimidating as they stared blatantly at me, and there just didn’t seem to be any women around, anywhere! They stared and stared, and when we finally made it to the bathroom to pay the 5 rupee charge, the man there tried to tell us it was a 5 dollar charge – in whatever currency ours was. Ridiculous.

Sigh. I think today was just one of those ‘off days’…

Finally on the bus, we joined forces with a Spanish girl and spent our evening eating Hide and Seek biscuits and chatting. Laying back in our double bed berth as the bus rolled towards Mumbai, we were able to relax and let today’s frustrations and stressors wash away.
We feel nothing but excited for what this new part of our travels will bring.

 

Scary Toilets and The Luxury Hampi Express

Pretty much as soon as we arrived in Goa – or at least in Agonda – we’d unexpectedly ended up planning to leave. The tiny section we have seen of Goa has been breath-takingly beautiful: green, lush, misty, rice paddy fields and hills that climb into the clouds. Farmers and dirt roads, palm trees and oceans…

We packed and left Agona early in the morning, bleary eyed and still utterly exhausted; still trying to catch up on the lost nights sleep from the sleeper train. We took another overpriced tuk tuk to the bus station near by, then an hour long bus to Maragoado. From there, we sunk a couple of chai (oh, the withdrawals we were already suffering!) before taking another one hour long bus journey to Panji – Goa’s main city.

We dumped our backpacks with another sweaty man at the cloak room, which happened to be situated between the ladies and the men’s toilets: instead of praying that our bags would still be there when we returned, I prayed they wouldn’t absorb the smell of stale piss within the next 8 or so hours.

We’d been keen to go to an Organic Farm – Savoi Spice Plantation – to take a tour and see what organic farming is like in India; particularly in beautiful Goa. However, it was a 35km trip out there, and we didn’t want to spend 1000+ rupees on a taxi or tuk tuk, so we tried to find a bus. It was foolish; we’d just come off two hours on two separate buses that were packed so tightly it was difficult to move, and further more, we were both exhausted and hungry. But we persevered; asking one bus conductor after another for assistance in finding the right bus. We were sent to one side of the massive station, then back again, then back again, then back to a smaller section of buses, then told there was no bus, then told there was several buses, then told we had to pre-purchase a ticket, then told after we’d lined up for the ticket we didn’t need a ticket and to go “over there”, then we were “over there” we were told that bus didn’t go to the plantation, and it was around about then that I said “Fuck it I don’t even care!”, and we decided we’d just go and stuff our faces with North Indian thali and drink lassi instead.

We were so exhausted, we struggled to get up after eating, which had consequently made us even more fatigued. We had the good intention of visiting Old Goa – 9km away – which was filled with old Portuguese churches… The thought of visiting Churches today however, felt like the biggest chore, and we were much more inclined to find a chilled out café and waste away the hours until our sleeper bus departed. As we wandered about like a couple of sloths, we found a ‘Nescafe’ café – which would do for a few minutes at best – and then suddenly, I had a fantastic idea.

Let’s go and see a movie at the cinema. Not just any movie. A Bollywood movie.

Arriving at INOX Cinema, we booked tickets for Bollywood Blockbuster “Chennai Express.”
The next three hours were amazing; we don’t understand any Hindi, but we followed along easily enough, thanks to Bollywood’s ridiculously dramatic over-acting, spontaneous singing and dancing numbers and a good dose of imagination. We loved it – definitely going to see more Bollywood. We came to beautiful, beachy Goa expecting to spend our time mostly outdoors, but instead we spent our best hours there inside the cinema complex, and came out singing the catchy tune “Chen-ai-ai-ai-ai, ai-ai-ai, Chen- aiii expresssssssssssssss” – a tune that has stayed with us ever since.

We didn’t have to wait long between our movie finishing and our bus departure; enough time to get a drink, walk to the bus station, collect our bags, buy some food, and for me to use the bus station bathroom. It was the scariest Indian toilet I was yet to see; you know it’s going to be a horrifying experience when you – the white forigener – walk in, only to meet an Indian woman warning you “dirty! So very dirty! Do not go!” with a horrified expression on her face as she rushes out. Still, I had a 10 hour bus ride ahead, and no choice. I picked the least scary squat toilet, rolled up my pant legs, held my breath… I thought the worst was over… and then I went to wash my hands in the sink which was filled with ricey vomit. Uuuuuugh.

Jake downed five samosas in the time frame it took me to mentally recover from the scary toilet experience, and then along with several other foreigners, we boarded our first ever sleeper bus – a mighty steed – bound for Hampi. We were not sure what to expect; I feared the worst as I’d read about bad experiences, but when we walked through the isle to find our beds 7 and 8, we were surprised to find a double bed – with sheets, a pillow and even a blanket! What luxury. I called this bus, the Luxury Hampi Express.

In the middle of the night, the bus stopped for a refreshments break. I clambered out, bleary eyed, needing to wee. Jake came along to the toilet block to protect me, but waiting outside the piss smelling building, he couldn’t save me from the horrors of the officially scariest toilet I have now seen since arriving in Asia. Use your imagination.
Stifling my screams, I was forced to wee in the open air onto a sloped piece of concrete whilst Jake stood guard to make sure no one else came along for the show.
I guess, when your partner can openly, willingly and comfortably watch you squatting over a piece of piss sodden concrete, and not be at all bothered by the sight, you know you’re the best possible companions.

Back on the bus and with the horrors of the refreshment stop slowly easing, we lay there in the Luxury Hampi Express saying a silent goodbye to Goa, and letting the feeling of excitement for a new place to explore wash over us.

Goin’, Goa, Gone India – 12 – 14.08.13

Here I am, sitting on my bed for the night, the top bunk of a set of three berth bunks, within an 8 berth bunk section of our Sleeper Class train cabin. My face inches away from a set of three very ancient looking, inch-thick with dust fans, the man next to me (only a metal grate between us) doesn’t look so inviting and I think he might be a snorer. From my top bunk view, I can count fourteen – yes fourteen! – pairs of dirty bare feet. Including Jakes. This could possibly become my worst nightmare, very quickly. Ugh.

This morning was spent casually; the lead up to our first-ever Indian railway adventure looming. We needed to prepare. Jake woke early to fetch chai and we spent the morning packing up our backpacks (and locking them twice!), which we’d done a fantastic job of emptying and sprawling over the entire guestroom over the course of the previous two days.
We visited the supermarket to stock up on snacks for the journey, but our options were as followed: about 30 different types of sugary biscuits with not-s-enticing names like “Milky Fresh”, “Fabs”, “Hide and Seeks” and “Velvet Browns” and some savoury crackers that were advertised on the packet as “we’re still very sweet!” … we left the supermarket with, of all things, three post cards and no food four our journey.

We took a bus from the Fort to the mainland of Kochi, with the assistance of a lovely Indian woman who told us which bus to catch and then when we should get off, before attempting to walk to the railway station. We got lost. Hot, sweaty and with our packs making our knees hurt, we caved and hired a tuk tuk to take us the rest of the way, which was 20 rupees well spent, considering we would’ve probably never made it otherwise.

Luckily next to the railway there were several little market stalls, and we were able to stock up on bananas, water and chai to stave off hunger for the next 16 or so hours.

The station was a sprawling mess of chairs, people, little shops and eateries, waiting rooms and signs with no English translation. A couple of king young Indian boys assisted us with finding where to go to catch our train, which we were grateful for – even the officers at the station had not been able to assist us, and the Information Counter looked similar to any sort of Indian ‘queue’ – a mass of people fighting over one another, pushing in front of and around each other to get the attention of the one staff member. Yeah, we were not even going to bother with that.

All sorts of people are traveling on this train, and it’s fascinating to observe how people operate. We walked in to our carriage to find about 4 people crammed into seats 21 and 22 – our seats – all of them staring back at us as if to say “yes?…Why are you looking at us?”
When they find out that someone else has actually paid for these seats, they are forced to scuttle away and find another seat that might possibly, just maybe, somehow be available for them.
At each stop this happens over and over, I’m watching people walk through our carriage scouring for an opening – somewhere, any seat – that might actually not already be occupied. This is our first train trip, of course, and I think there’s a lot more to learn about how this complex system operates.

On the train after having been forced to use the latrine and wee in zig-zagging motion through a little black hole, I suddenly had a flashback to that moment when we booked our tickets and were told “Yes, oh yes, very comfortable and clean, oh yes” by the lovely man who was now obviously very deluded. Lovely and clean – my ass it was! – but I can handle toilets flooded with urine, dirty feet and dusty fans, cramped spaces filled with strange men, sleeping in the same clothes I’ve worn all day and using my backpack as my pillow. This is an experience I’m oddly loving, and furthermore, what better way to people watch and gain a little more insight into the culture, from way up here in my no curtain, fan-only, sleeper berth.

Speeding along, the fans ware spinning, the breeze was nice through the open windows, and the train hummed along the tracks. People were sleeping head to foot with their carriage buddies, people were chatting, drinking chai, reading, listening to music, watching movies, relaxing, playing with their children on these lovely and clean bunks.
Already, I love Indian trains.

Late in the night, we are bombarded by a group of Indian boys – the same ages as both Jake and I – who are also traveling to Goa “for to enjoy the life.” We spent a couple of hours sitting with them in the bunks chatting and laughing, whist they took a hundred-plus photographs of us and the ‘ring leader,’ as I shall call him, spends a good portion of time giving us a personal viewing of the eight thousand photographs of himself on his mobile, “giving pose” – as he described itin eight thousand ridiculous different outfits. Every time he showed us another photograph of himself in unflattering tight pants and a trout pout facial expression, he asked us “How is this, you think?”

We didn’t get much sleep on the train and arrived at the awful hour of 4:10am. What a fucking night mare time that is to arrive into a new destination – learning curve; we won’t be doing that again. Thankfully the rowdy boys were getting off at the same stop and they woke us up. How they knew it was the right stop I have no idea – no announcements, not large signage saying ‘welcome to your destination,’ no obvious anything that might possibly indicate we were there.

Regardless, we got off and walked out of the station into the black night time sky, where just two tuk tuk drivers were waiting. “Where you go?” they asked us… “uuum… we don’t even know!” I responded.

So, we sat there in the open air at 4:30am, alongside a hundred odd sleeping Indian bodies, eating biscuits and reading our guide book, trying to decide where to go. Eventually we decided we’d settle on Agonda, and then tomorrow move along to the next destination, with a plan to spend about 6 nights in Goa then move on to Mumbai by train.

We waited and waited for a more reasonable hour, and eventually at 5:30am, we took a taxi to the bus station with the hope of their being frequent buses, as per what we’d read.
We were wrong. The bus station was still dark and full of sleeping bodies and clusters of men, and no buses were leaving until 7am.Shit.

I turned around and suddenly, like a shining beacon of hope, there it was – a 24/7 coffee house. No matter how bad the coffee is, we’re going there! I was almost skipping with joy – along with the 20kgs of baggage on my back – at the fact that we would not have to endure that dark, dodgy bus station.

We finally caught a bus that was headed for Agonda – an hour or so spent packed in with a hundred odd other bodies; school children, farmers, women with baskets of vegetables and one lady who spent the trip tying long beans together in bunches with string. How foolish I was to think that an early bus would be less crowded. This is India, Emily!

During the bus trip, we were informed that our bus did not go to Agonda as promised, and we would have to catch a very over priced tuk tuk the rest of the way. Seeing as it’s low season, we should have guessed the issues that we were about to face here in Goa.

Arriving into Agonda early morning, we checked in to a cheapy but fine guest house with a view looking out over the swirling ocean waves. Hungry, we walked into town hoping to find a little café in this quiet stretch of coast… and that’s when we began to slowly realize that literally, everything in Agonda is shut. Not just for the morning, not just for the day. For the entire low season. Every shop, restaurant, eatery, book store and touristy place was covered with blue tarp. Monsoon season here meant not one place was in business, besides three tiny convenience stores that were not very convenient. We felt trapped.
 

Our only real option, seeing as we had already handed over all our clothing to be laundered, meant hiring another overpriced tuk tuk to take us to Palolem – the super touristy area that would have a few shops and eateries open at this time of year.
Palolem was okay, but felt more like a Thailand tourist strip – complete with flimsy knock off clothing, bongs and pipes in the window sills of shops and staff sitting lazily outside the doors begging us to come in.

We ate a dodgy meal, wandered the beach aimlessly, saw a motorbike accident, watched several badly injured dogs struggle to walk around the main area, bought a pineapple for dinner (since nothing would be open), wandered through a couple of shops and then, when we’d had enough; more exhausted than I can describe after the train journey, we took another over priced tuk tuk back to empty Agonda.

We spent the afternoon and evening relaxing to the sounds of the ocean and rain, eating delicious pineapple and crackers with vegemite and reading the Classifeds section of The Hindu newspaper – the Wanted adds for Brides and Grooms is an interesting read, to say the least.

We were planning to spend 6 nights exploring Goa, but after realizing today that low season here means basically EMPTY, we booked ourselves a sleeper bus to Hampi – departing from Panji (Goa’s capital) tomorrow night. I’ve read a lot of good things about Hampi and I think it will deliver a lot more than Goa has…I guess, what this simply means is we’ll have to come back to India again. When everything in Goa is open.

Backwater India: 7 – 8.08.13

We arrived into Alleppey, Kerala, at around 7am after what was actually a reasonably good sleep on the overnight semi-sleeper bus from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. Taking a tuk tuk to our guest house, the driver quoted us 30 rupees then asked for 40 when we arrived. I argued and he agreed again to 30, but then I felt so guilty for arguing over around 18 cents I paid him anyway… Foolish girl. Lesson learned; I won’t do that again.

We spent our first day wandering about, eating street food, drinking oh so much chai, posting mail and purchasing an umbrella from a shop that took this umbrella shit seriously. We had to pass about 30 different staff to walk out with what we had described to them as “the cheapest umbrella.”

Our second day in Alleppey was spent on the backwaters,  which was indeed, an incredible experience. We had planned originally to take an overnight houseboat however, we decided against it mainly because we realised the amount of pollution those big boats send back into the water, and we’d rather not contribute to that. Instead, along with another guy we met here, we paid for a human paddle-powered, covered canoe and a boatman to take us on a seven-hour exploration of the backwaters and open lakes.

It was incredibly beautiful; quiet, peaceful, and relaxing… we made our way ever so slowly past rice patty fields, brightly coloured homes and washing hung out to dry, past women bathing their children, men building mud retaining walls, fishermen waiting for a catch, many boats, chai stalls, women slapping their wet washing hard against rocks, dishes being washed, people swimming, and people simply living out their lives along the waters edge.

It’s monsoon season here at the moment and everything is just… wet. The water levels were much higher than what is obviously the usual; rice paddy fields were completely immersed in water, along all the canals people were building higher mud retaining walls to keep the water in the canals and not in their homes, the little chai stall/restaurant we stopped at was flooded with water inside and out, and when we walk to and from our accommodation, we walk through a flooded road area which is simply “normal”… I can’t imagine wading through my kitchen or bathroom but for the locals here, it’s obviously just a part of life. When you can see shrimp darting through the water in the kitchen of your home, I guess nothing is too out of the ordinary?

Safe to say though, we’re being really careful of what we eat here; monsoon season means food and hygiene standards are even more compromised in certain areas than they would normally be. Which is a lot.

There is an annual boat race here in Alleppey that is a huge deal, this year being held on the 10th. We’ll miss the event – only just – but we didn’t completely miss out; we were lucky enough to see the women’s team practicing and singing beautifully as they paddled to a drum beat in unison. People on other boats waved to us,  groups of men danced and sang, children paddled their boats and the vibe in the area was wild and exciting against a calm backdrop.

Sipping chai on the banks of the canal, we had the realization – once again – how amazing it is, and how lucky we are to be able to travel like we are, and have these incredible experiences. We are absolutely having the time of our lives.

Floating through the canals, we didn’t feel as though we were in India – away from honking horns and in your face pollution – there were no touters or crowds, and it was beautiful to sit and soak in the sunshine for a while.

Fort [Fought] India: 9/08/13

Today we moved away from Alleppey, up the coast to Kochi (Cochin); still within beautiful Kerala.
We had a simple breakfast at a street eatery; omlettes with onion, tomato and chillies, some mini dosas with sugar and of course, the obligatory chai. Delicious India.

We hopped on to a dodgy looking bus; the worst we’ve seen yet, only to be confronted with a massive puddle of vomit by the front seat. Moving away instantly, we sat down and packed away our huge packs (Indian buses don’t seem to be designed to accommodate for luggage), only to be informed by an English speaking man and a rather large, belly-out older lady who just simply stood over Jake and eye-balled us, that actually, this is a ladies only seat; Jake – you’ll have to move. So, whilst Jake was relegated to sit with the men up the back [who all fell asleep on him], I was wedged in between the window and two very portly ladies who spent the two hour bus ride staring at me. Oh, India…

Down from the bus in ErNakulAm, Kochi, we had to then get a ferry over to Fort Kochi, 3.5km or about 20 minutes over sea. Finding the ferry was easy enough, but buying a ticket was an unorganized, inefficient, chaotic ordeal. To put a positive spin on things, let us call it a “learning experience.”
In a small room there are two very long lines that form in front of one ticket booth, staffed by only one person.
There is a normal queue – used only by men (with about 40 people lined up at the time), and a ladies only queue. Neither of these seem to be moving, although the ladies queue was significantly shorter (about 10 women). Next to the ladies queue is what I can only describe as an unofficial queue; more like a group of men who stand there, trying to pay off the ladies to buy them their ticket so they don’t have to line up.
Oh, India.
Each passenger is strictly forbid                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             den from buying any more than two tickets at one time apparently, as is explained by many different signs within the room, and you can absolutely not buy a return ticket – how absurd to think that you might want to return to the mainland at some point. These rules make competition fierce between those in the unofficial queue, and the men were relentless with their questioning and underhanded money transfers.
I joined the ladies queue, after screaming at Jake (because you can’t hear anything over the hundred-odd other voices screaming in the tiny room) that I will buy the tickets. So I stood in the line, surrounded by men on both sides – both the unofficial queue and the men’s queue, and then the next 20 minutes were just ridiculous, eye-opening and uncomfortable.
Whilst standing in the line that never seemed to move, it felt like I was the unwilling star attraction in a parade that everyone had come out to see. The men stared, and stared, and then stared a bit more, all the while, shoving money at me (and other women) and asking for me to buy them a ticket.
Between ignoring the staring and the constant hands shoving money at me for tickets, I spent my time being pushed, shoved, hung off, coughed on, squeezed and leant on by the woman behind me. First she hung of my backpack, scrunching my clothing with one of her hands and tapping my arm as though it was a natural habit; as if that would make this line go faster. At one point, a lady at the very front of the queue must’ve recieved her ticket, and the woman behind me shoved me forward so hard – before anyone else in the line could even move forward. Ah, lady, please! Talk about impatient… I ended up pulling my backpack around onto one shoulder and shoving my elbow hard into my pack every time she leant on me, in the hope she’d back off, oh, you know, even slightly, but it just made her cling to and then push me even more. I gave her the look. Even that didn’t work… I was at a loss.
By the time the queue had moved forward and I was the next customer, I thought it was over, but then I had to fight off her hand that shot out over my shoulder, clinging to her rupees in the hope she could purchase her ticket before me. I don’t think they quite understand the notion of a queue, but there was no way I was letting this pushy woman rain on my parade! I held up two fingers to the ticket master and he took my rupees. Without knowing the cost of the ticket, and being unable to ask on account of being unable to hear and almost trampled by men and the clingy bitch behind me who kept slapping her arm about over my shoulder, I had faith the non-corrupt ticket man would return my change and my ticket… which he did…for three people. Oh, what’s that – only two tickets allowed per person? When I finally fought free of the irritating woman and the crowds of men, I realised I’d been short changed as well having been unfairly charged for three tickets instead of the two I had asked for, and was apparently only allowed. Thanks, India.

Furthermore, all this happened under the watchful eyes of Indian policemen.
Oh, India.

Ordeal aside, we had to laugh at the craziness of this situation and the event that was unfolding before us… two queues that were going wild with impatience. You’d think that maybe this ridiculously inefficient system might’ve been upgraded to something that worked a little better, but again, this is not our culture; all we can do is observe, laugh, and get ripped off in the process.

The boat ride to the fort was nice, and we were able to find a fantastic little guest house with ease.
We spent the afternoon not doing too much; just exploring, browsing books stores, walking, trying to work out if we go to Goa or Mysore next (the tough decisions we are forced to make these days) and then attempting to book train tickets for tomorrow night, which didn’t work. We spent the evening walking along a not-so-nice stretch of rubbish and litter beach, past the famous and fantastic-looking Chinese Fishing Nets and stall after stall after stall of fishmongers selling their latest (still alive!) catches.

Here in Fort Kochi you can pick and choose your seafood from the fishmongers, take it to near-by eateries and restaurants, and pay them to de-scale, fillet and cook your seafood. Seeing the giant groupers still breathing (only just) and the crabs bound with string, along with every other fish covered with flies was off putting, and instead we had dinner at a chilled little place called Pancakes and Dosas, where the specialty is – surprise, surprise – pancakes and dosas.

Kochi is well catered to tourists and the locals are really friendly and welcoming. That, and there are ‘free wifi’ signs outside every café and guest house , shops selling all types of silks, pashmina scarves and brightly coloured fall-apart-the-next-day hippy pants, tailors wanting to sew you up anything you could possibly want, handicrafts and government souvenir shops with salesmen just desperate for you to “just only looking, looking is free,” and gelato shops that sell supposedly good coffee – this is a tourists dream, isn’t it? Maybe. At least, the free-wifi is.
Not sure where we’ll end up tomorrow at this stage; getting to Mysore sounds expensive and difficult and involved the words “Government Bus” which automatically makes me think twice. Furthermore, the main reason we were considering going there was to see the massive and renowned markets, and also break up the journey to Goa, but even that doesn’t seem to work in a convenient way. We considered going to Mysore, then to Hampi, then to Goa, but we aren’t sure if we have ‘the time.’ (Taking into consideration all the other places we want to visit whilst in India, as well as our time in Nepal.)
Originally our plan was to take a night train to Goa, but the only one is already booked out, unless we want to leave tomorrow in the day time and arrive in at 1am the following day, which means no time to explore Kochin. I think we’ll have to stay one more night here, but really, this place seems great, so why not.

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A note on India:

Have I mentioned how much we love India? Although sometimes it can be challenging here, and some parts of this culture are shocking and saddening, or simply unbelievable, but more often than not its just simply, indescribably amazing. Every day we’re learning a bit more, observing a bit more, trying to make sense of this country, the people, their beliefs and their ways of life. It’s surprising how much we are willing to adjust; not even consciously – just naturally adjusting to our surroundings and relaxing our ‘Western Standards’ – simply by experiencing and being immersed in all of India’s everything. It seems as though you can either flounder or flourish here, in the sense that you can either hate or love India. We are flourishing.

Every day we observe and learn new things; new behaviours, new traditions, what is acceptable here and how things work in often nonsensical and unfathomable ways… Sometimes India is inspiring, sometimes its challenging, sometimes it’s crushingly despairing, but it’s always exciting, always enthralling, always fascinating, and always incredible.

India is testing us, pushing us, confronting us and questioning the way we think and behave. Simple tasks like queuing to buy a ticket or sitting on the bus take on a whole new meaning and procedure here, and it’s an experience to ‘learn’ these things again. Sometimes, we are forced to step out of our comfort zones, but so far that’s never ended in a negative way.

Everything feels intoxicating here in India; the sounds and smells and sights captivate and exhilarate us, and also sometimes repulse us – often at the same time. Either way, India is like an addiction; we just want more and more of what this country has to offer.

Street stalls, tiny shops, markets, bazaars and food vendors feel like the beating heart of India, with everything and everyone working and functioning around these buzzing activities. Everyone has a job to do; the shoe makers, the umbrella fixers, the chai vendors, the touting tuk tuks, the fishmongers, the tailors, the launderers, the hat sellers, the hundreds of fried-goods vendors, the people… somehow they all work around and with each other in invisible unison, amongst honking horns, hectic traffic and an ocean of human bodies on the move.

The sounds! Oh, the sounds of India… Noise is constant here, silence is a rarity. Honking horns, two-stroke engines and buses accelerating set a beating base for the rhythmic Indian tune that never ends. Food vendors can be heard selling their goods, bicycle bells ding, men hock and spit, scraping sounds of brushing and sweeping marble floors grate against the chit-chat of locals. Cats mew and dogs converse, while touters yell their “Hello madams, you come look?” and “Yes, hello Sir you want tuk tuk?” Inquisitive locals yelling “Hello where you go!?” is a chorus we’ve become accustomed to, and sometimes we add to the tune by responding “Just walking.” For some reason, people don’t seem to grasp that concept.

Indian people are lovely. We notice their smiles before anything else (even when they’re trying to scam us) and often, those big smiles with white (or red pan-stained) teeth are infectious, and we end up instantly smiling back. The children love to say hello, and it’s not uncommon for people to come up to us, shake our hands and simply ask us (with those huge smiles) “where from?”
They speak like they are singing, and their spoken English sounds as if each word is dancing on their tongue before it emerges with unique, only-in-India word structure. I never tire of hearing them speak; especially their ‘cute’ descriptions such as “you feel the freeness”, “you eat good taste” and “that is mostly not possible.”
The Indian people (if they’re not trying to get our money – and sometimes even when they are) are welcoming us into their country with the utmost respect and again – the biggest smiles.

Family units seem very strong here and children seem to be the beating, lively pulse of every family. The babies and children are gorgeous – as all babies and children are – but these little ones are stunning; decorated in brightly coloured clothing, materials, shiny beads, henna tattoos, jewelry and lacy dresses. It seems like parents dress their children for every day activities as though they’re participating in a festival or parade of some kind. Children are everywhere, playing, laughing, and sometimes shockingly, working.
Friendship seems just as strong as family; people are connected and work together in big communities. Neighbours are friends,  adult friends hold hands, teenage girls chatter while walking arm in arm, and young boys carry on with their arms around their each others shoulders.

We spend most of our time marveling, smiling and laughing at what we’re experiencing; everything is so new and exciting, and we’re loving every minute. Of course, there are things we find shocking and distressing too; but never the less, we are observing what is happening around us, and we’re learning what life is like in this part of the world. We sometimes have to remind ourselves that this is not our culture, so we must just accept that it is different from our own.

Traffic is so hectic and unstructured at times, we cannot comprehend how it can actually work – but it does, much to our thumping hearts and sweaty palms delight. Watching the chaotic order unfold mesmerizes us, and offers us a glimpse of how these drivers and stretches of road somehow operate. One of the general rules we’ve observed is the attitude of “Fuck you all, I’m a bus – get out of my way now!” in which any sort of traffic – human, bikes and vehicles – disperses madly in every direction to accommodate for buses that rule the roads.

Poverty here is confronting; every day we encounter so many struggling people asking for money and food. People with horrifying disfigurements, disabilities and illnesses and injuries lay begging on the streets, and it’s impossible to not feel extreme sympathy for these people. We sometimes buy food and give it to people in need, but we don’t give money; as heartless as it may seem, how do you choose who to give and not to give to? Furthermore, unfortunately we have to wonder if the money is really even going to these helpless people, or into the pockets of someone else.

The pollution in the air is terrible – I imagine this thick, black cloud clogging the breath of every person, clogging the clouds and the skies and the oceans with its ever-growing filth. Sadly, sometimes I don’t have to imagine – I can literally see that thick black cloud. I breathe it in whilst wincing and gasping, hoping that somehow I’ll be able to catch a breath of fresh air if only I hold my breath a little longer.

We watch as people, over and over, finish with whatever they’re using and then simply throw it to the ground – our Western morals flinch at this littering every time with despair. The streets are lined with filth and waste, plastic, bottles, paper, waste and polystyrene dishes are strewn everywhere; it seems people are comfortable walking through rubbish filled streets, swimming in the ocean along with floating debris, and walking along beaches where pieces of trash outnumber the grains of sand. Bins are hard to come by, but the ones we see are never full; I guess people don’t regard waste management as important.
The other day on a train we watched a group of very well educated people, who all dressed impeccably and spoke fluent English, physically move from their seat to open the window of the train to throw their rubbish out, and it took everything I had not to tell them how disgusting and disappointing that is to see.

Almost just as shocking as the littering problem, is the fact that some people seem treat India as one big open-air toilet. People find anywhere and everywhere to relieve themselves; people shitting and urinating in the streets, on piles of rubbish, in train and bus stations, in back alleys, in bodies of water and in open fields is not an uncommon sight. An Indian man recently told us that sanitation and toilet facilities in India are “so really bad,” and it’s obvious; trying to find a functional toilet outside of a guest house that is a) in existence and b) not terrifying is no easy feat. The other day I was forced to use a urinal: literally, it was called a “Lady urinal.” I don’t even know how to use the squat toilets properly, let alone a terrifying “Lady Urinal”!

Dangerous driving, poverty, pollution, littering and scary toilets aside; we are so excited and thrilled to be here. We’re learning, we’re observing, we’re [starting to] understand, we’re exploring, and we’re loving every minute.

Ancestral India – 05.08.2013

As we rolled into Ooty in the early, early hours of the morning, we saw scenery like we had never before seen. As the sun began to rise, it revealed to us thousands of tiny, colourful houses dotted and lined throughout the greenest hills at bewildering heights, and closer to the road, shop vendors and tea stall holders began to turn the lights on in their shop fronts. The air was freezing, and when we stepped out onto Ooty’s wet ground just after 5:30am, hawkers selling beanies and scarves surrounded us.

We’d booked accommodation ahead of time at an old, Brittish building complex-turned-guesthouse/hostel.

We walked there as the sun was rising, through the cold air and mist, feeling the refreshing rain drops on our sun burned skin.
On arrival, we were shown to our dormitory my worst nightmare; a tiny space that resembled a prison cell with four metal beds, sinking mattresses, dirty wet  blankets, a dirt floor and tin roof ceiling, gaping holes in the walls and ceiling, a bin that had not been emptied in what I can only assume has been months, a strong smell of damp rot and several mosquitoes – bigger than I have ever seen. As for the bathroom, all I can say is what bathroom? There wasn’t one.

Seeing as it was already raining, and the temperatures here get well down into the very cold range, we thought, amongst some other contributing factors (see above), we might have to decline this room cell, and so were offered another cheapie room, which when they opened the door to reveal another sinking mattress, the smell of paint fumes almost knocked us down. Needless to say, we never removed the packs from our back and decided that we would find somewhere “alternative.”

Marching up the road in the rain, exhausted from little sleep, I imagined we looked like two turtles with heavy shells plodding silently along. The scenery was beautiful and the walk was really lovely; it was so nice to feel cold for just a little while. In town, we hoped a tout would pounce and be able to show us to a room – which they did – but it was another shit-box complete with wet carpet, a swarm of flies and a 60’s porn-star look-a-like manager who was, to say the least, a little off putting. Again, it was time to find an alternative.

Standing at a chai stall more than an hour later after we’d arrived in Ooty, we downed cup after cup of tea alongside a group of tiny smiling school boys, before moving on to find some where suitable. Finally, we let a tuk tuk driver take us to a place that was half decent and reasonably priced, where I spent a shamless half hour sitting under the hot water – my first hot water shower in what feels like forever.

Not that I’m complaining at all though; this place is beautiful and we had all the time in the world to just be here, seeing as we’d arrived here as the sun was rising.

The reason we’d come to Ooty was not only because it’s an incredibly beautiful and quaint little city, unlike other places in India, but also a personal one: Jake’s grandmother grew up and studied at a prestigious school in a small town called Lovedale, just 10km from Ooty city, and it was important we took the opportunity to visit.

We took a tuk tuk out to Lovedale and spent an hour and a half or so at the school. The staff there were unbelievable, they bought out huge hand-written record books that dated back to the 1800’s, and spent their time scouring the names of past students, trying to find Jake’s grandmother.
They were successful in finding her name, and were able to give insight into her history here at the school. We were greeted by the head of the school, deans and head-staff, and given a personal tour of the massive school grounds.
It was very special, and an experience no doubt Jake will hold dear to him forever.

Beautiful Building - 155 years old

Beautiful Building – 155 years old

The student record book, dating back to the 1800s

The student record book, dating back to the 1800s

A very special record

A very special record

 

We spent the next few hours exploring the town, which is set amongst hills and mist, colour and a sprawling main strip. We had another dodgy looking late-lunch at a local joint that tasted pretty decent, before heading back late afternoon to our hotel. In the evening we made a futile attempt to get some chai, but the FREEZING weather saw us quickly retreating back to our room.

Needless to say, today has been amazing and exhausting, and we look forward to tomorrow where we can more-fully appreciate this town with a fresh perspective and a good nights sleep behind us.