Northern India Travels
I’m alone, it’s midnight, and I’ve just arrived. My last 24 hrs were spent either on an airplane or connecting to the next flight. Chicago, Detroit, Amsterdam, and now, finally, Mumbai. I cant wait to grab a cab, get into bed, and sleep for as long as my jetlagged body allows. But first, I need money.
I always depend on ATMs for foreign currency. They offer the best exchange rates with the lowest fees, and they’re plentiful at airports around the world. But I quickly learn that this city of 16+ million people has only one ATM at the airport, and its in a permanent state of disrepair. I wasnt expecting this, but I should have. After all, I’ve been here before.
Mumbai has contributed strongly to India’s rapid rise to the world economic stage, it’s THE player in India’s Bollywood movie scene, and it’s flush with some of India’s richest people. But since their one atm is broken, I head for the nearest currency exchange stall to trade my emergency stash of US dollars for rupees. I don’t normally bring an emergency stash, but given the destination this time I did. An involuntairy half grin sweeps across my face as my last-resort greenbacks transform to rupees mere minutes after arrival. I remind myself that this is India, nothing is easy here, and after a 6 month haitus this is my welcome back.
As travel experiences go, India is in its own league. Thailand has natural beauty and friendly smiles, Japan has culture and respect, Europe has good beer and carefree afternoons. India is interesting. Everything about it is wonderfully fascinating and terribly challenging at the same time. And it’s that unique mix of frustration and amazement that makes India such a compelling destination. Everywhere else I’ve been feels like travel. India feels like being on a different planet.
A general rule of thumb for India travel: if something can be made less comfortable, more confusing, and/or louder, it will be. It’s hardly ever anything major, but a lot of small frustrations add up fast if you don’t have the right attitude. The Indians take it all in stride, and they’ll often go out of their way to help the poor confused traveler. But they’re likely to be just as confused as you are.
It’s no wonder they’re confused – nothing makes sense. Here’s a perfect example: A cluster of tourist hotels are within easy walking distance of the Taj Mahal in Agra. It seems obvious that to see the Taj, one needs simply to walk there. But this is India and that’d be far too simple. You’ll need a ticket first, and that office is some distance in the opposite direction, well away from the Taj grounds. And nobody seems to know when the Taj closes. The ticket office will tell you 5pm, the hotels say 6, but in actuality they close around 7 (at least they did the evening I was there).
Overpricing is huge. Most of it is petty but some scams are harmful to the wallet. Be suspicious of anyone who seems overly friendly. The locals mostly are overwhelmingly decent people, but the ones who aren’t force the traveler to stay on guard. Touts in India are VERY aggressive. Its difficult to do initially, but seemingly innocuous shouts of “hey friend” or “where you from?” are best ignored. For the touts, even eye contact is enough to encourage them to follow you down the street.
Added to the list of challenges are the low sanitation standards. Trash is discarded on the street and left to rot in huge piles. It’s common to see men and children urinating in public places (defecating’s not unheard of).
The volume level in Indian cities ranges from loud to eardrum busting. Horns blare at all hours of the day and night. The most important part of an Indian vehicle, apparently, is the horn. If it doesn’t make noise its not worth driving. Bring earplugs if you’re a light sleeper like I am.
The traffic is insane and the street designs are crazy. Take a bus, ride a tuk tuk, walk down the street. You’ll wonder how anybody survives their morning commute. Random gates blocking traffic, small mosques built in the middle of a lane on a busy road (no kidding), cows meandering about, sleeping in the street or wandering into oncoming traffic. They’re all common sights.
Given the challenges, by any practical measure it’s pure chaos. But there is a beauty to how it works despite the madness. I mean “works” in the sense that things get done, just not necessarily in the way you thought they would. Trains full to your next stop on your Indian adventure? There’s probably a bus that can take you. Are the tuk tuks on your street massively overcharging? Walk down a bit and find another.
There is tremendous beauty to the land. Ancient forts, unique architecture, sweeping mountains, tropical beaches. And the food is some of the best in the world, once you gather the courage to try it (no easy task). Sure, small frustrations add up and you’ll have bad travel days. But if you’re able to breathe, slow down, and try again tomorrow, you’ll be far more receptive to the travel experience. And you’ll be able to dig a little deeper to find the beauty of being there.
My initial reaction to most Indian cities has been negative. Chennai, Hampi, Goa, Mumbai, Jaipur, even Delhi. All negative. You’re always greeted by tuk tuk driver after tuk tuk driver offering their services. You’d think by the 10th “no” the 11th guy would get the idea. But if nothing else, they’re persistent. In fact the only city I’ve half-liked on arrival was Agra, and that was only because I arrived by bus, the streets were flooded, and it was fascinating seeing everyone move about as if the water wasn’t even there.
After a combined 3 weeks in India across 7 cities, I’ve finally figured out how to cope. First, emotion is pointless. You can be frustrated but you have to be able to go with it. It gets easier when you learn, really learn, to expect the worst. And you have to expect the worst in India. Power out in your hotel? No big deal. Trains booked up? No worries. The AC doesn’t work? Turn the fan on. Because of all the challenges, it’s extraordinarily taxing to travel from one city to the next, and therefore it’s easy to form a negative first impression. To mitigate that, on arrival in a new city I’ll hide out in my room for a few hours to collect myself. I’ll have a beer, eat some delicious Indian food, rest up for a bit, and try to find some semblance of inner peace. By the time I leave the hotel I’m refreshed enough to give my new locale a chance. And that’s the key to traveling here, you absolutely must give it a chance. More often than not you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and at the very least you’ll be interested.
I’m in Delhi now and it’s raining. My top floor budget hotel room inexplicably flooded last night and I hope it doesn’t do so again. After the time I’ve spent in India, flooding seems so inconsequential that it doesn’t even register as a problem. In this last week alone, I’ve already experienced three power outrages in three different cities; two were issues with the hotel’s wiring. The other was a problem with the power grid for the entirety of northern India – six hundred million people lost power (THIRTY times the population of Australia), and I was one of them. I hope it stays on today.
As I write this in my third floor room I’m being serenaded with a symphony of Indian traffic from below. I’m going home tonight, having finished what I set out to do: travel solo from Mumbai to Delhi via Jaipur and Agra. It’s been a humbling and thrilling challenge.