India: You Either Love It or Hate It.
India. Wow, where do I begin? I jolted awake as we were coming in for the landing and saw endless lights of Mumbai pre-sunrise. I always get a rush of adrenaline and get really excited when we land in a new place. I long for being overly stimulated by all new sounds, views, temperatures and sights right as you step out of the airport. Mumbai definitely served up all that and more. As our taxi drove away from the airport, I was all eyes taking in this city before it woke up: endless buildings, people sleeping on the streets, piles of garbage and people drinking their first chais of the day. That’s when I thought:
We are not in the Greek Isles anymore.
Have you thought about going to India? While not the most difficult country to travel to, it’s by far not the easiest also. First, you must obtain a visa. We wrote a separate blog on that.
Second, I recommend you purchase a guide for this country in particular. I saw far too many confused and plain idiotic travelers there who were not familiar with customs, ways to dress and religious traditions. If you have no clue and behave as if you’re still in the West, you will not only be perceived rude by the locals, but also give the rest of travelers a bad rep. So if you’re serious about going to India, don’t be lazy and pick up a book or two. I have two recommendations:
*Lonely Planet’s Guide to India – pretty much everything you need to know about where the best food spots are, what to see and do wherever in India you are headed.
*I really loved Enjoying India: The Essential Handbook – written by a woman who has traveled extensively throughout the country. It’s the best resource about appropriate ways to act, dress, eat and even drink!
Third, upon your arrival at your destination in India, be sure to get a pre-paid taxi WHILE you’re still in the airport. Most large airports in India will offer this service. Otherwise, you will be haggled by about a hundred taxi drivers a moment you step foot outside the door. If you don’t mind that, it is an opportunity to save money, especially if you take a tuk-tuk but you must negotiate. I just wouldn’t recommend this after a long flight.
It’s the biggest and busiest city in India and the stop we liked the least on our journey through India. Many cities are said to be the “land of contrasts” but in all my travels I haven’t seen another city that deserves that label as much as Mumbai. We walked by a Bentley dealership and there were people sleeping, bathing and a kid pooping on the street right outside the shiny doors of the store. Our hotel was right in the city center and very close to the famous and most prestigious hotel in Mumbai, Taj Mahal Palace hotel pictured below. You have probably heard of it during the horrible terrorist attack at this hotel in 2008. Down the street from our hotel were slums, which would make it just a few blocks away from Taj Mahal Palace hotel.
We were both excited about food as Indian has always been one of our favorite cuisines so before too long we were hunting down some local flavors. We decided to ride out the culture shock and overcome our “omg Indian street food will kill you” ungrounded fears and headed for a local food stand called Bade Miya that served us up some pretty incredible chicken tikka rolls accompanied by the local coke-like drink called Thums Up. Yes, the brand name is misspelled and it tastes like coke on steroids but I couldn’t get enough of it in India.
We also visited the Leopold bar, which unfortunately was also a target of the same terrorist attack due to bar’s popularity among foreign travelers. We discussed our upcoming adventures in India over a few Kingfishers.
I guess Mumbai was the best place to get over the culture shock after Greek Isles!
Goa has a beachy feel to it though no one was allowed to swim given the monsoon season’s crazy big waves. Also, Indians are typically not skilled in swimming – they much prefer to sit on the beach near the water letting the tide splash over them. The area where we were staying was rather quiet and relaxing so we had to venture out to Baga beach for some real partying. We stayed at Santana beach resort, which had all the comforts you need complete with awesome Indian food in the restaurant (we couldn’t get enough), $1 beers in the mini fridge and HBO (in English). TV was my guilty pleasure in India not only because of HBO or the fact that half the channels’ programming was in English, but because of how mesmerizing and dramatic Bollywood movies are. I couldn’t stop watching!
We met a couple of Indian travelers in Baga beach and had an awesome time. Another surprising fact: lots of Russians apparently love coming to Goa! There were Russian signs everywhere and some of the workers in the travel industry spoke Russian. I wasn’t expecting that in India.
After our relatively short stay in Goa, we headed to Kerala, the southern part of the country that we’ve heard great things about. Kerala is awesome – a must see on a trip to India. There is lots to do: from enjoying the small, cute town of Fort Kochi to exploring the green mountains to renting a house boat on the backwaters, which we loved so much that it deserves another post. Stay tuned!
We stayed in Fort Kochi for nearly a week and got our first taste of Southern Indian foods. They are distinctively different from heavier dishes in the North, that we typically think about as just general Indian. We were also lucky to get to Fort Kochi during Kerala’s most important holiday called Onam. There were festivities going on all over and many women were dressed in the most beautiful white and gold saris.
After Fort Kochi and the amazing house boat experience, we were headed for the mountains. We spent an entire week in the secluded yoga and meditation retreat. We were lucky to find a homestay of a couple who teaches yoga and meditation practices. They were also feeding us the local foods, which was all vegetarian. We were very good that week – working out, eating right and clearing our heads. We both became very interested in meditation and would like to practice once we get back. Perfect to mark our trip’s half way point!
Delhi is Chicago’s sister city, which offers many significant religious, cultural, historical and political sites for tourists to gaze at. It is quite cheap (and often the best way) to do day trips by hiring a driver, which is what we did in Delhi. While still dirty by first world standards, the city is much cleaner than most of India. Delhi highlights:
Rashtrapati Bhavan (Hindi for Presidential House)
Of course, what kind of trip to India would it be without seeing the Taj Mahal!? We took another day trip to Agra (about 5 hours from Delhi). The heat was unbearable when we went so we didn’t stick around Agra long. Also, Agra was probably the dirtiest place we saw in India and incredibly overcrowded. The Taj is still definitely worth a visit – the size of the building is awe-inspiring in person and details are exquisite.
To be honest, prior to our trip India was the country I was most nervous about visiting. I won’t sugarcoat it – India is not the easiest country to adjust to and you have to be prepared for this 3rd world country. While Aaron overall hated it (oops), I disagree with what people say about it: “India, you either love it or you hate it.” Love is such a strong word that for me to fall in love with a country means that I can see myself living there. That’s not the case with India but I also don’t hate that land. In the short 3 weeks we were there it opened up my mind to welcoming people who work hard and struggle with smiles on their faces, to unique cuisine that changes so much from North to South with numerous spices that will tickle your senses, to complex culture and 415 native languages, to colorful arts and flowers everywhere, and of course to Bollywood. I wish I could add cricket to that list (the country is obsessed with that sport) but no matter how many times they tried to explain it to me, I was lost.
It wouldn’t really be a world trip without visiting India. That country’s influence is colossal and I would recommend that you add it to your travel list.