India: First Impressions

Out of everywhere on our itinerary, India was the country that we were most nervous to enter. We have heard from many people that you either love India or hate India, people said it will be all love and hate but nothing in the middle. Visiting this country is said to be full of high highs and low lows. Jesse’s second cousin once removed Eric told us that an experience here will pull on our heart strings; we most certainly would encounter children so frail and malnourished that we may literally witness them dying in streets depending on where we went.

In our first 24 hours though, we didn’t have any experience that would come anywhere close to this. We know it’s coming, but for now we still are still wearing our Indian training wheels.

A little context on our experiences so far since we are still way behind on blogging. We enjoyed our time the most in South America in this order, Argentina takes the top spot, Bolivia, Chile, then Peru. We felt like like tourists in Peru and Chile, but like travelers, in Bolivia and Argentina.

Peru was nice; very touristy but cheap enough save Machu Picchu. The landscape was more varied than anywhere else we visited and the slow boat down the Amazon River is still in our top experiences. We enjoyed our time there, but it was our least favorite country in South America.

Then comes Chile. We spent time in the desert up north, a few day admiring the graffiti covered streets on the coast, and two quick hitchhiking stops, and then our grand finale 8 day O Circuit trek. The landscapes here were beautiful, but the people just didn’t show the same warmth that they did during our hiking in Argentina. The success we felt after the 8 day trek was electrifying though and we are proud of ourselves for making it while carrying everything on our backs, minus the seven packages of cookies that we bought along the way. Jesse is weak and couldn’t help himself. (Jesse also added these last two sentences.)

Bolivia was grimy, a country that is much poorer and more traditional than the others, but we loved it. We slowed down here after our time in Peru and this is where we really began to feel more like travelers than tourists. There was more trash on the streets than anywhere else we visited in South America and things were far from sanitary, but we seldom ran into tourists for a lot of our travels. We loved eating at our favorite Casera’s stalls in the Mercado Central that every city had at its heart. This is also where we spent a lot of time with our Australian girls, particularly the experience in the Bolivian Salt Flats.

Lastly, Argentina wins first prize; great wine in Mendoza, the breathtaking natural beauty of the Iguazu Falls, and multiple amazing experiences hiking, camping, and hitchhiking down through Patagonia. We were physically and emotionally challenged like never before, but the experiences here (specifically the Huemel trek) and the kindness of each person we met are unparalleled in our travels so far.

I’m not really sure where Morocco falls on this list. At first glance, like I wrote about previously, people seemed so happy there. We saw similar poverty levels in Bolivia, but the people were nicer in Morocco. They talked to us, asked us about where we were from, and some said hello just for the sake of saying hello. In Bolivia, not only was there poverty everywhere, but many people seemed like they weren’t enjoying the life they lived. This is just my judgment from what I saw and is very generalized, but is my experience nonetheless. The longer we were in Morocco, the more that people seemed artificially happy or nice. Often times people would talk to us just to sell us something, and there wasn’t as much visible joy between people who weren’t interacting with us. Maybe polite and welcoming would be a better way to describe our interactions with locals than seeing happiness. Maybe this was also because there was little to no interaction between men and women publicly there and you know that doesn't jive well with us.

Things seemed immediately different in India though. People weren’t talking to us at every chance, but they appeared much happier and lively among themselves. Couples were canoodling in the airport boarding gates, on the bus to the jet way, and on the plane itself. Smiles appeared on many faces. This was a much welcome change from the lack of love in Morocco that we were able to see.

Women of all ages wore bright saris, and adorned themselves with gold and bling. The colors they wore were brighter and filled with more neon and classy bedazzling than I could have possibly imagined. Actually, many men wore jewelry too. When we stepped onto the plane, I saw a man at the front wearing a diamond on his finger set in gold that was larger than any diamond I’ve ever seen on a women’s engagement ring in person. And it was real. One look at him and his wife and there was no doubt in my mind it was a real diamond.

Lately we have been stockpiling snacks and food for travel days because many airlines don’t serve food anymore and even make you pay several overpriced US dollars for a small bottle of water, not to mention food. However, on our flight into India, we took out our snacks just as the airline stewards brought around a meal with a tasty stuffed savory pastry that flaked into our laps at each bite. We don’t know what it was, but the stewards were passing out seconds of this deliciousness and as many water bottles as people requested. We were off to a good start.

We had a few hours of a layover in Delhi before we flew down south to Goa, a quick pit stop on our way to Hampi. It was time for dinner in the airport’s food court. We walked around a little and Jesse found an Indian place that continuously had a line of locals, so of course we opted to eat here. We ordered what in English was called the Celebration Combo. We had no idea what we were getting, but everyone else seemed to get it so it must be good right?

You know how airport food is usually just crap fast food? Well, this Indian airport food was not only NOT crap, but it had more flavor than all of the food combined that we ate in five months in South America. We were in heaven. We later learned that the platter was called Masala Dosa and a buttermilk spiced smoothie. It was either coffee or a butter milk that came with the plate, and at 8 PM I wasn’t keen on coffee so I ordered the butter milk expecting something of a milkshake. Wrong. It was a thick, almost milkshake textured and spicy. Although interesting, it was not at all what I was expecting. We couldn’t stop smiling as we shared this celebration combination with its three different sauces and stew and many breads. You know that when you love the airport food in a country, that bodes well for your time there.

Now, navigating the journey from airport to hotel in a foreign country can be extremely nerve-wracking depending on how aggressive the taxi drivers are. Add that to a new language and it’s a recipe for high stress. However, we booked one night with Auslyn Guest House and the young man who runs the guest house had been messaging with me on WhatsApp, helping us with so many things pre-arrival to India. It’s almost like he gave us the training wheels, something for which we are most certainly are thankful. He told us how to get a pre-paid taxi inside the airport, which was a blessing at 1AM. I couldn’t remember if we booked a dorm room or not, but was delighted when he greeted us as the taxi pulled up and showed us to not only a private room, but an apartment. We chose the guest house because it was the closest to the airport and least expensive option for just one night on a Goan beach, but it was well worth it. Austin has been so helpful, and still continues to give us any information in texts that he can. If you ever need a place close to the airport in Goa for a quick stay, I suggest his place.

The next morning we slept in later than we’ve slept in for months, a 10AM wake up luxury. Austin suggested a restaurant called Claudi’s Corner. We walked around quite a few corners and still couldn’t find it, so we wandered along the beach for a little bit, popped our heads into a few touristy places. The food looked alright, but we weren’t on the right corner. We circled back to where we started, figured out our directional mistake, and found Claudi’s. It was completely empty, but the prices were a good bit less than those directly on the beach and the menu only served Indian and Asian food, whereas those on the beach had your typical tourist and sandwich options. We trusted Austin and took a seat.

We ordered the darkest local beer on the menu, King Fisher strong, and forgot to check the ml on the menu, and were served two 650ml beers. Don’t worry, we gladly drank it all. Before we had our meals, the place was packed with all locals. We definitely made the right choice. We ate vegetable Manchurian, Balchao curry (spicy fish and prawn curry typical of Goa), and a side of garlic cheese nan. Besides the airport tray, this was our first meal in India and it only confirmed how much we think we will love the cuisine here.

We thoroughly enjoyed the King Fisher strong, but also wanted to sit by the beach so we found a little, what we call, cookie mart. These are essentially small stalls that sell cold drinks, candy, cookies, olives, toilet paper, some cleaning products, and most importantly, beer. We grabbed two cold ones and headed down to the beach for a bit before we hit the local bus to drive a little farther south in Goa before the overnight bus to Hampi.

The beach was filled with mostly locals. Boys wore their underwear most often, but the women were the real surprise. They still wore their beautifully bright patterned and colored saris, but to my surprise, some were in the water playing! They may not have been as deep out in wave diving as the men, but they didn’t let the water and their outfits keep them from having fun.

Three school buses worth of children, probably around 4-5th grade poured onto the beach all at once in their uniforms, giggling and running by us to be first to touch their toes in the surf wet sand. They also didn’t let their uniforms slow them down. One of the teachers told us that they come one Sunday a month to this beach. This was after she shyly circled us a couple of times and became the first of many Indians to take a photo with me (and we have only been in India a few days). She was very touchy, had her hand around me and on my knee as we sat on the beach and her friend took a photo. It was all in love though and curiosity. The culture here is much more physically affectionate than what we are used to in the US. After people saw her taking a photo with me and then me and Jesse, a group of men came up to take photos with us, and we saw more people approaching so we quickly scurried out to grab our bags and head to the bus. We didn’t get to watch the kids for too long, but it was beautiful to see the pure joy they got out of small jumps over the waves as they came crashing on the sand while they held hands with their friends and wiggled around.

Then came the bus. Buses I should say. We knew the relative spot for the first bus pickup, but were surprised when it came stopping to a point close by with a young man, maybe 18 years old riding in the door letting people on. It was a tight squeeze for us to get on, especially with our bags. There wasn’t standing room in the aisle, so he opened a steel gate to the front and we followed three women and children, crouching on the floor and holding our bags. I took a seat straight on the steel because it was all there was. Unluckily for me it was right above the wheel, and burned my behind every time I touched down. Jesse was the luckier of us two as his seat was on the floor near the driver but had a cushioned bottom.

We got off in Vasco and he pointed us in the direction of where to take the next bus to Margoa on the opposite side of the road. Luckily another bus drove by with another young male shouting our destination. We did a double take as he drove by, but quickly backpedaled while the bus stopped, hopped on, and luckily got seats this time – good thing because the ride took about an hour and a half, which was about three times as long as the bus we meant to get on takes. We drove all along backstreets and Indian bayou swamp lands while locals got on and off, and made their way through town. We were glad we took the wrong bus; it showed us a more rural part of Goan India.

Now came time to find our bus to Hampi. We got dropped off at a bus terminal and were pointed down the street a block or two to find the Paulo bus office. The streets were still busy despite the black of night. Trash, unfortunately, covered the streets, and to my surprise we had a new stray animal. South America was filled with stray dogs, Morocco with stray cats, and India, both of these were around but overpowered by the stray cows in the roads. I couldn’t believe my eyes when cows wandered everywhere. They actually may be my preferred stray animal. Although exponentially larger than cats and dogs, they left you alone.

The man at the Paulo bus office told us that the bus left from in front of the KFC across the street; strange since there was a huge parking lot and office right there. I guess they wanted to keep their rides efficient by not having to turn around. The bus pulled to a slow roll about 45 minutes late and we were ready to get on along with four other travelers. The co-captain jumped off, and quickly said “Seat number 3 – come with me,” as he kept jogging down the road. One of the travelers followed behind him, leaving all of us in confusion. The other three travelers had some app that allowed them to call the driver and bus company to figure out what was going on. The people in the office said don’t worry; another bus is coming for you. Well the three were worried; their app tracker said that the first bus was indeed theirs. They actually had scheduled the first stop of the bus two hours before, but the bus left 30 minutes early without notice, even though they called to make sure everything was fine and the bus said they were running 5 minutes late. They took a taxi to the KFC to make sure they didn’t somehow miss the bus a second time.

More time passed, but another bus did indeed come. The three antsy travelers jumped up to the door immediately just to confirm that they were supposed to be on that first bus that didn’t stop for them. They got on the bus with us and sat on the floor until our bus met up with the other bus at one of the stops and switched. The driver called our name and we got on. He didn’t tell us where to sit, so I just went off of our seat numbers. 25 and 26. We didn’t get seats though, we purchased two joint sleepers. This essentially means instead of chairs, we got chair beds. They had a cushion in the back so you could sit up, but then a large mattress pad so you could lay down and sleep. On the picture of the bus layout, I chose the last two beds on the bottom right. Those were open, but the couple in the back left said that our spots were in the back middle, up top. I was appalled at how run down and disgusting this particular top bunk sleeper was. It was much smaller than the double that we purchased, more like a single, it had no back cushions to sit up against but instead a large pole that stuck out and went horizontally across the wooden board back rest, the bottom cushion only covered 2/3 of the section, the curtain was broken off and was crumpled in the corner with a rod, and there was a dirty pashmina left behind by the last customer. Welcome to India. It was grimy, yes, but we still embraced it. At least we had a bed; those three kids were still standing in the aisle at this point, so we made do. We used our backpacks to fill in the space, laid down scarves to cover the nasty mattress pad, blew up our pillow, bootleg fixed the curtain rod, put on our ear buds and started to watch Chef’s Table on Netflix, which is a fantastic show if you like food by the way. Since we had our headphones we missed the front half of the bus getting really mad about diesel fumes in the bus.

I was a little frustrated, but the tickets said 25 and 26 and so did our bunk. It definitely wasn’t the bottom right, but the top middle, but there was no arguing this one. The next stop came and significantly more people climbed on than sleepers available. A guy came up and showed me his tickets, also 25 and 26. I didn’t want to move to go get the driver because I was nervous that we would be left sitting on the floor aisle all night, so I said you need to go get the driver after I showed him that my tickets also said the same numbers. The driver came told him that his seats were 25 and 26 and didn’t know what happened. He told the guy to take the open bottom right bunk, the one I had booked, but I quickly jumped off the top, threw my bag on the bottom and said that’s okay we will gladly move.

With our slightly upgraded luxury and larger sleeper, I was happy. We weren’t sure if at first, we would have preferred to go back to our recliner chair nights like we were accustomed to in South America. It was strange to be lying on a bed in a moving car like that, but once we did fall asleep, we slept better than in a chair.

It was quite the first 24 hours in India, and although very different, we love it so far. Our training wheels are still on, and we will take the first two weeks here at an easy pace, and we surely will reach some low points, but for right now, it’s all highs.

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