…people in a country one third the size of the United States. The population of the US is approximately 311 million. Imagine if our country was 1/3 the size and the population increased by almost 400%! Knowing this, we were expecting to arrive in Mumbai and be completely swarmed with people. This was not the case at the airport, but as soon as we got into our ride to our hotel we were greeted with the sights and sounds of congested Mumbai traffic, and it was nearly midnight! With horns blaring and traffic going every which way without any semblence of order, we were welcomed to the world’s 4th largest city (pop. 20 million).
Our driver informed us that traffic eventually calms down at midnight, as we sat fully awake after our 10 hour journey from Bangkok now that our senses had been assaulted with the sounds of Mumbai. What they say is true: India is loud, dirty, and pushy, which we saw first hand as we made our way to our hotel which was practically underneath a highway overpass. However, we didn’t mind because that’s what we were here to see- India in all it’s pushy, dirty, loud glory. Despite the surroundings, the hotel was decent except for the dirty sheets and paper thin walls. I have to admit I was stressed that first night, coming from SE Asia where we had been staying in rather nice rooms for $20/night, to Mumbai where we paid $43 for an “executive” hotel with dirty sheets. I tried to keep my chin up however and tell myself that it was one night and things would be better tomorrow, and be thankful I had a sleeping bag.
Turns out, I was right and the next day we took a taxi an hour and a half into the city and found a little international hotel on a quiet tree lined street run by a very kind and hospitable Indian family. The room was even more expensive than our hotel by the airport, but the guidebooks warned us that Mumbai was exceptionally expensive for India. The sheets were clean and the a/c worked so we were happy. Mumbai turned out to be a nice couple of days. It was really hot, but the Colaba district had plenty of attractions to satisfy us for a few days. The architecture left over from the British is stunning, and the people of Mumbai are quite friendly.
We had our first taste of excellent vegetarian food in Mumbai, on a recommendation from our hotel, and Nick was beside himself as since visiting South Africa & Malaysia, Indian has become his new favorite cuisine. India is a vegetarian’s dream as pretty much every restaurant (we have yet to visit one that doesn’t) has veg and non-veg dishes.
After a few days of sightseeing, we took the overnight train from Mumbai’s central station to Goa. Just visiting the train station was an experience- it was PACKED with people. The Indian Railway system carries 30 million passengers and 2.8 million tons of freight daily.
To be honest, the train was very uncomfortable and I barely slept at all because the berth was rock hard and the train rocked from side to side all night. It was like trying to sleep while having a seizure. Thankfully it was only about 12 hours and ran pretty much on time.
From the main station in Goa, we took a cab to Patnem Beach, about 1 hour from central Goa. It is a misconception that Goa is small, as you hear many people say. Goa is a region not a town itself, but the towns within the region are pretty small. Patnem Beach is in south Goa and was a lovely little oasis next door to Palolem Beach, which has a little more action if you need it. Patnem and Palolem, though on the hippie trail, are not the trance filled, drugged out Goan towns you hear about; for that you must go north.
Palolem and Patnem were quite ramshackle in the sense that most everything is made of wood and can be taken down and put back up every monsoon season (usually June-Oct). This is actually required by law in Palolem & Patnem, but it gives the beaches a really laid-back unpretentious feel and we liked it. The vibe in Goa is very different than the rest of India, even the locals will tell you “this is Goa, not India.”
While in Patnem we took a day trip to Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary in the hopes of seeing some of India’s native wildlife, but no dice. The sanctuary seemed devoid of anything but a few monkeys, so it ended up a quick nature hike instead of wildlife spotting. You can actually stay in a cottage in the sanctuary for really cheap ($8-$15), and had I known this I would have liked to have spent the night and taken an early morning hike when wildlife viewing is at it’s best.
After 5 days in Goa, we hopped a flight to Delhi and braced ourselves once again. We were prepared to be overwhelmed as we’d heard from many travelers that there wasn’t much to like about Delhi. Once again, we were surprised as Delhi was actually enjoyable for the day that we spent there. Yes, it is extremely busy and crowded and very dirty. In fact, Old Delhi, were we stayed, smells like urine and garbage, but it really wasn’t as bad as we were expecting. I think if we’d had arrived in Delhi straight from the states we may have been shocked and a little disgusted, but we have been traveling for 9 months now and not much shocks us anymore. If you can get past the negatives, and focus on taking in the unique sights and sounds, it’s quite possible to enjoy yourself.
We stayed really close to the Red Fort area, a major tourist attraction in Old Delhi. We spent the day exploring the fort and the surrounding palaces, which were beautiful and very well maintained.
We also visit the Jama Masjid Mosque, the principle mosque of Delhi and the largest and best known in India. Truth be told, it was a really awkward and uncomfortable visit. Both of us had never been inside a mosque before, and were unsure of what to expect- would we be welcomed as non-Muslims? Are we dressed appropriately? It is a big tourist site so non-Muslims are allowed in, but only foreign tourists not Hindus, which I thought was strange. They provided a lovely mu-mu for me and a sarong for Nick so we could cover up and enter the mosque.
It was very pretty and felt so exotic to us, but unfortunately we didn’t get to really look around freely because we were dragged around on a “tour” by the man who sold us our entry tickets. He then demanded $10 as a “tip”, and Nick reluctantly gave him $6. This type of con is typical- before you know it you are being whisked around and they’re taking photos of you and then asking for money when you never asked for a tour nor did you agree to pay anything. This has happened to us many times, not just in India. The visit was also awkward because we felt like intruders interrupting prayers and religious reflection. Muslim women stayed in a separate part of the mosque, except for me being a foreign tourist, which made me really uncomfortable. Clearly, they did not want women in that part of the mosque and here I was as some exception to the rule. On top of that, people were filming us and taking our photos, this had been happening all day actually, but it felt even weirder at the mosque. One group of visitors kindly asked to take a photo of me with their young daughter and our “guide” admonished us? them? (not too sure, we were confused) because they were Kashmiri…needless to say it was a strange visit.
As you can tell from this post, we had been told and read so many things about India and though some of them turned out to be true, many of the negative things we heard were not. We’ve learned that you can’t let naysayers scare you- you have to see for yourself and make your own judgements. People have been much kinder than we expected, and the touts and hawkers haven’t been any worse than anywhere else (so far). We do get a lot of attention here- in 9 months this was the first time people have taken my photo with or without my permission, video taped me, and just outright stared (however this was mostly in Delhi and not so much in other places). That has taken some getting used to, but hey, it’s not hurting us so we let it go. We take pictures of people all the time so I guess it’s only fair. So far, India has been a feast for the senses and thankfully we are enjoying ourselves or these 25 days would be going by very slowly.
India has such rich culture and history it’s almost overwhelming. The Lonely Planet guidebook is 1,232 pages long if that gives you an idea of how much there is to see, and we’re probably seeing less than 5%. India is a cultural and religious melting pot- Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Arabs, Tibetan refugees, you name it. It truly is Incredible India, as their tourism slogan says.
Stay tuned for our next post from Dharamsala- home to a Tibetan refugee colony, the Dalai Lama, and the beautiful Himalayan mountains.
Freeman Fun Fact:
Everywhere we’ve been there has been some sort of black market. I have come to understand that when need/greed meets control, a black market is created. India use to have one of the biggest black markets for passports and US dollars. Because Indian visas used to be granted for a 6 month stay and obtaining an extension from the government was very difficult, a need for fake visas was created for travelers desiring to stay longer. But the market also needed real passports to make the fake visas look as authentic as possible; genuine passports were either stolen or sold on the streets. The sellers of these passports eventually would need a new one when it came time to depart the country, so this made the scheme go round and round.
US dollars were another huge market. The government used to limited the amount of rupees a businessman could exhange for dollars per year when leaving the country for business. They then had to report to the government how much was exhanged, but the amount was insuffient. With the Indian economy booming over the last 20 years, they needed more dollars. So dollars were bought on the street for a price higher than the offical bank rate, which made the seller happy (usually a tourist) and made the businessmen happy for they did not need to declare this in their yearly report. However, due to new global markets, the internet, and a faster flow of information, these black markets have desolved for the most part in India.