I stepped out of the car onto the crunchy gravel driveway, groggy from napping on the long ride to Munnar. I took one breath, and felt my entire body relax. Eucalyptus filled the misty air. It smelled like rain. I was surrounded by flowers and trees, and a cute guesthouse sat in front of me. Two people came rushing out to meet Garren and I, big grins on their faces. This is India?
Those words, This is India, had been like a refrain in my mind whenever something shocking, funny, or crazy happened. I adopted the phrase from Hippie In Heels, a popular expat blogger in India. But this time was different. This time India completely threw me for a loop. It was peaceful, quiet, and welcoming. It was beautiful.
I grew to be amazed by this country, but it didn’t start out that way. With some time and some experience, India started to open up to me. It wasn’t a smooth transition, but each day I understood it just a tiny bit more. I’ll never fully understand – I don’t think anyone could – even with a lifetime in this beautiful, crazy country.
India is full of contradictions. If you read my last post, and the slew of comments that followed, you know that travel in India can be rough. Experiences vary widely and some people love it, some people hate it, and some feel both ways at the same time. I fell into the third category. While there were things that drove me mad, there were also things that captivated me that I’d never find anywhere else in the world. That alone, made most things worth it.
Here are some of the things that tipped the scale in India’s favor:
A Land of Extremes
You can go from low to high in a matter of seconds in India. It can be an emotional rollercoaster for even the calmest of people. The trick is to just let it happen and have a sense of humor about it. Sometimes you’ll have bad days. Those make the best stories.
Even doing the exact same thing twice can get you wildly different results. Sometimes this worked out really well for me! If I had a bad experience, I could try again and have a great one.
Remember the fisherman in Fort Kochi that lied and tried to trick me into paying him? I decided to try again just half an hour later. I approached a different fishing net with a different crew and asked if I could come aboard to take some photos. They smiled kindly, and welcomed me, and went about their business.
I took some photos, and talked with the fishermen, answering their curious questions about the United States. They taught me how the fishing nets operated and showed me their catch (not much more than a few crabs and seaweed). When the guy yelled, “look, dolphins!” I thought maybe he was trying to trick me, but no, there were real dolphins jumping just a few hundred yards from shore. As I left their rig, the crew didn’t pressure me for anything.
Before walking away I told the head fisherman how much I appreciated his respect and kindness, and I handed him a couple hundred rupees. “Share with the rest, ok?” I said, and he nodded with a genuine grin. I got some of my very best photos from that encounter. It’s crazy how the two scenarios played out so differently.
Sometimes a change of scenery was all that I needed. The crushing population had taken its toll on my mood after the big cities of Hyderabad and Mumbai. We moved on to a remote hill station up in the mountains of South India, and immediately, I felt better. I was back in my happy place, up in the mountains surrounded by bright greens and clear blue skies.
My regular readers know about my love of Indian food. The food in India was like my soul food. The streets and markets of India were filled with carts of big juicy mangos, ruby colored pomegranates, and coconuts ready to have the tops hacked off and replaced with a straw for sipping.
I loved the South Indian idlis, a spongy steamed bread made from lentils and rice, used to soak up sambar and chutney. In Kerala I went wild for thalis and eating chili-spiced dishes straight from a banana leaf. Hyderabad left me with an addiction to its masala-layered biryani, smoky and full of spices that had been blending over coals for hours. After spending three days in Hyderabad, I had biryani three times. I wish I’d had it more.
I get a kick out of American fast food chains in foreign countries, so I just about died when I got to India. Pizza Hut and KFC were hot spots to meet. (I’m actually being serious. The McDonalds outside the Hyderabad airport at 3am was one of the most happening fast food scenes I’d ever seen!) The menus are similar to the US menus, but with some Indian flare. KFC’s popcorn chicken is laced with red chili powder. Actually, it seemed every snack food was infused with a bit of red chili powder. Even Lay’s potato chips were flavored ‘Magic Masala.’
Bright colors are auspicious in India, and each has special meaning. Beautiful saris boasted deep purples, hot pinks, and opulent turquoise. Gold necklaces, rings, and earrings glimmered with jewels. Red has special significance to Hindus, and can be found everywhere from the vermillion bindis and parting of women’s hair, to the mehndi adorning brides’ hands and feet.
Meals, too, were spicy shades of red, yellow, and orange. No need for yellow #5 or red #40 here. India had natural color, and plenty of it.
The silky fabrics, shimmering bangles, and exquisite patterns draping Indian women had me rushing to the nearest Fabindia store to swap my boring t-shirts for patterned tunics and kurtis. I had thought Western clothes had infiltrated just about everywhere, but I was surprised to see how many women were wearing traditional saris. Some had real silver or gold thread woven into the silk.
While some of the extravagant accessories were a bit over the top for my tastes, with fabrics and patterns so interesting, I could see why women kept their traditional dress. Men dressed more casually, often in jeans or khakis and a plaid button-up shirt. For special occasions, though, both men and women went all out. It depended on the region, but many men wore ornate kurtas and sometimes turbans and women transformed into living works of art, applying intricate designs of henna (mehndi) to their hands, arms, legs, and feet. And I can’t even manage to get my nails done.
India’s temples, monuments, and palaces were unique and impressive. Ornate patterns and stone carvings adorned each arch and spire. Whenever I was in need of a respite from the chaos, I’d go to these beautiful buildings to take a break and collect my thoughts.
One of my favorites was Birla Mandir, a temple in the heart of Hyderabad. The white marble glowed warmly in the sunset light, but was cool on the soles of my bare feet. It was peaceful, spiritual, and beautiful. I watched the families as they toured the temple. Couples leaned over the balcony to look out over Hussein Sagar Lake, parents watched their kids chase each other around the grounds, and groups of teenagers joked and laughed. It was a really sweet glimpse into normality occurring at a very special place. Don’t overlook these gems.
I’m perfectly happy roughing it with a sleeping bag and tent in the wilderness, but this is India. It’s different. Each time I returned from the smog, soot, and incessant honking of the streets, I belly-flopped on that big comfy hotel bed, popped a couple ibuprofen, and laid in silence for a good 30 minutes before recuperating enough to even consider leaving the room again.
Once we discovered how much hassle we could avoid by hiring a private driver, we booked them for the rest of our trip all in one late jet-lagged night. It was so cheap, by US standards, yet this luxury saved us so many headaches for the rest of our trip. It’s my #1 tip when people ask me about India.
The big Indian cities had some of the coolest and hippest hangouts (And now I just excluded myself by using the words “hippest” and “hangout”). Pinterest led me to AER, a rooftop lounge atop the Four Seasons Mumbai. Garren and I just LOVED it. The atmosphere was unlike any other, with its orb-like bar glowing blue and purple and the glass walls showing off 360° views of the city. We didn’t even have to pay cover because we got there in time for their happy hour, with 2 for 1 drinks before 8pm.
Men, women, teens and grandmas all wanted my photo. Many even wanted to be in the photo with me! In some parts of India this is more common than others, but it happens throughout the country, to some degree. It seemed intrusive and odd at first, but once I realized it was just harmless curiosity, I found it quite amusing and fun.
Even when they didn’t ask for a photo, I was always being watched. I had a lot of fun going through my photos from the trip, finding Indians in the background staring at my camera. Kids were the funniest – their reactions completely unfiltered.
I love how the man (who had been smiling excitedly at the prospect of getting his picture taken) turned his expression to stone when I brought my camera to my eye. But even better are the other subjects in the photo. The little boy pouting, the father’s parsed expression, the curious little girl eating an ice cream bar intrigued by us and my camera, Sid peering above the crowd wondering where our family friend John had wandered off to this time and John, right behind him, with his eye on another glass bangle shop. Take note that if you wear a white shirt and white pants and have white skin, this is how badly you will stick out in India. Might want to bring some darker colors. Unless you tend to get lost and you want your friends to find you easily.
At each place we stayed, our hosts went above and beyond. From the grand luxury hotels in the cities to the tiny modest guest homes in Kerala, we were met with more hospitality than any other country we’ve visited. Sometimes too much!
Visiting with Sid’s family gave me the first glimpse into Indian hospitality. We arrived over an hour late for dinner, after getting crushed in Hyderabad traffic, but Sid’s mom insisted we eat before her, a common custom in Indian homes. The chef always eats last. We did convince her to join us in the end, and I was grateful that she did. We would have felt rude letting her eat last! Besides, it was going to take us all night to make a dent in the two pressure cookers full of Biryani she had whipped up for the four of us.
Our homestay in Munnar at the end of our trip was exactly what we needed. Anil and Jeeva, our hosts, were so friendly and open with us. Anil took us for a walk into the tea plantations, talking openly about both the beauty and corruption India faces. Jeeva cooked us homemade breakfasts and dinners, and all but tucked us in for bed each night. When we mentioned we missed our dog at home, they even let us play with their feisty pug puppy. When making our travel plans, Anil and Jeeva helped us find a driver, suggested places to visit, and unlike most, they told us what to skip. Sometimes knowing what not to do is just as important.
Is India all refreshing homestays, beautiful temples, tasty thalis, and vibrant colors? No. India can’t be described in a sentence or a paragraph. It can’t be described in a lifetime. Everyone’s experience in India is different and, in a way, unpredictable. As someone who likes to know exactly what I’m getting into, it was hard for me to adjust. Logic didn’t always apply, my usual tricks often failed me, and what I expected was rarely what I got. Plans changed, expectations shattered, and what I thought were universal truths were turned upside down on me. But somehow, after all that, I can’t quite seem to stop thinking about India. Something keeps making me want to go back.
Travel in India, and you’ll be forced to reevaluate everything you thought you once knew about the world. It’s a weird, crazy, beautiful, troubled, and enchanting place.
Follow along on my travels through Hyderabad, Mumbai, Fort Kochi, and Munnar. I can’t wait to share them with you.
Are you up for the ride?