The past few years the idea of this place wedged itself in my mind. I knew I would find myself there soon I only had no idea when. While taking my school year abroad in Israel the opportunity revealed itself and I jumped on it. Here was the chance for my dream to come to fruition. The three people I would be traveling with had been there before so I felt confident in doing the minimum amount of research and putting my faith in their existing knowledge of the country as far as places to see and visit. Although I seemed to the only one to show any interest in going to visit one of the wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. Anyway, on January 8, 2015, in the middle of winter in Israel, the four of us were on a plane to Mumbai.
Even after landing in India the fact that I was there still barely registered in my mind. The whole thing was still dream-like. But India didn’t give me much time to adjust, when I walked out of that airport I was abruptly awoken.
From Mumbai we would catch a flight further south to Goa. Leaving the international airport some “taxi” men informed us that we needed to take a taxi to the domestic terminal and that they would be more than willing to help us. After some discussion we were fighting our way through traffic in a beat up old van to their boss where they would find us a hotel at a “good price” in Goa. The whole transaction turned out to be a waste of time and was close to being disasterous. Our friends wanted to exchange American dollars to rupees. The men told them that there was no need to go to a currency exchange, but they could do it themselves right there in the van. Talk about convenience! They must not have done business with many Israelis before, if they had they would know an Israeli would unquestionably know the amount of money with which they were doing business. Our friend gave the man three one hundred dollar bills, the Indian man switched one of the one hundreds for a dollar and made the claim that he gave him the dollar instead of the hundred. I wonder how many poor tourists that works on. How many people are conned into believing that they made a mistake and give the con-artist an extra Benjamin. As it turns out these men became less confident in their accusation at the mention of involving the police and our friends were given the correct amount of rupees. Moral of the story: do not change money anywhere else but a proper currency exchange! We immediately left the crumby van and tricky people and that is when I had my first rickshaw experience. If you do not know what a rickshaw is it is a sort of closed three wheeled scooter that is a very popular form of transportation in India. So much fun!
It only takes one time driving in India to get an idea of its complete disorder. There does not appear to be many rules or acknowledgement towards lane assignments. One could call it a free for all. Also it is not unlikely that the driver next to you is some sort of cow. Moo.
Cars, trucks, bicycles, mopeds, rickshaws, farm animals all honking their horns or moo-ing in these frenzied races to here or there. In most places stop lights do not exist. It can be an impressive but frightening experience all at once. I’ve heard also that as crazy as the traffic is, there aren’t as much accidents as one might expect. But I spent many long hours driving in India (one of our main means of transportations was taxi) and I felt like kissing the ground more times than not at the end of the ride. Constant braking, and twisting, turning, heat, intense cultural Indian music, and lots and lots of smells. It was an intense experience; especially while ascending up a mountain. My recommendation is that if you ever plan on traveling up any mountains in India do not do it by any land vehicle. I think the most comfortable and best option would be by helicopter ride. 😉
Our first stop in Goa was Arambol. It’s a beach town full of color, life, and crazy good characters. We went up and down the beach searching for a nice and clean room with hot water. I quickly learned that when a place says that they have “hot water” it does not mean that they have an actual shower. Most of the time my rooms came with a big bucket and a smaller bucket. What you do with them is put the bigger one under the faucet, where (hopefully) hot water will come out, you can adjust the temperature by adding cold water. Once you find the right temp you use the smaller bucket to dump the (again, hopefully) hot water on top of yourself.
One thing besides the culture and the country itself that makes traveling in India such a great experience is the cost of it all. Everything besides airfare is dirt cheap! See the view from our hotel room in the picture above? It had an actual shower, this beautiful view, and it cost us only 600 rupee a night. That is the equivalent to about 9.59 U.S. dollars. It was hard for me to start to wrap my head around while eating in restaurants. Oh, I ate all day long. Any type of fruit smoothie or juice concoction you could imagine. Except for mango sadly because it wasn’t in season. At the beginning I was adventurous and tried the traditional Indian dishes, until I found one that never failed me, veg thali. Many places offer international or “continental” food. Most people in India are vegetarians (myself included) so I’m not sure about the meat there, but the majority of the people I talked to went vegetarian for their trip, if they weren’t already. Crepes and toasts are popular menu items. At times, in places where the food was not so good, I lived on toast and jam.
Our favorite place to eat on Arambol beach is a restaurant and guesthouse called the Olive Garden owned by a really nice man by the name of Panna. Everything about the spot is enjoyable: the food, the atmosphere, the people. The first time that I tried their Organic Veg Thali I became addicted and had to eat it at least once a day. It came with fried rice with veggies, dal (lentils), aloo gobi (cauliflower and potatoes), and if you’re into it, some sort of curd. All for 120 rupees, which is just under two dollars. The service there was family-like. Young men (from Nepal I think), they spoke great English, and always are wore a smiles. I love that about India, positive attitudes everywhere. The only thing, and this goes for any restaurant in India, be prepared to wait a minimum of forty-five minutes for your food. Minimum. It can take longer, much longer. They even warn you on your menus, most times in extremely incorrect english (one of my favorite things to do while waiting for food was to go through menus and find all of the funny misspellings).
In my own words the definition of a Bubba is an old man who spends his days is smoking Charas, more commonly known as hash, out of a chillum. They are well respected for their knowledge and experience with the chillum. The two bubbas that I had gotten to know were regulars at the Olive Garden. When I say regulars I mean they come to this same exact spot, sit at the same exact table, in the same seat, with the same pillows, and mostly the same people every season. So if you go to the Olive Garden during the season and look to the right of the restaurant, there you will see the Bubba emblazoned with long white beard and single tooth, sitting on his throne of pillows, sharing his wisdom. The people that sit at that table, we learned, are like a family (some of them actually are family, with kids and everything). Not only do they travel to that spot every year together but they also travel around the world going to different festivals. The table had a culture of its own. We met a lot of personalities sitting at that table. The bubba from Afghanistan was our favorite. He told some amazing stories about his life at the base of mountain in Kabul. What an opportunity it was to talk to a man like that.
Home Away from Home
We came back to Arambol in the perfect time. We came back during the time that was supposed to be the end of our trip, but who would want to go back to rain and cold when they could have another month of sunshine? So we stayed an extra month; it wasn’t a hard decision. During February and continuing slightly into March is when all the good festivals and also Hindu holidays take place. I’m not a big trance party goer myself but if that is your scene, Goa is the place for you. Anjuna is town thirty minutes away and has a different vibe than Arambol. All of the serious partiers go there. It doesn’t give you the same relaxed and warm beach vibe that Arambol does, but it has great restaurants. Yipee. Better believe I was there every day after I found a totally vegan place; switching only occasionally for sushi. The Anjuna day market on Wednesdays and night markets on Saturdays were always good for some bargaining and cool souvenirs. If you don’t mind the heat and prefer less of a crowd then the day market is a good choice. I always cooled off with some coconut water. But if you’re up for more of a serious Anjuna experience involving tons of people, music, food, and the cooler temperature of night the night market is where it’s at. There are two night markets that are going on on Saturday nights so its easy for your cab driver to take you to the wrong one. It happened to us twice. If you enter the market and there is not a person within six inches of every side of you, you have gone to the wrong market.
Kudle Beach, Gokarna, Karnataka
Next thing we were in a taxi crossing the state line from Goa to Karnataka, about a six hour drive. We didn’t arrange a place to stay before we arrived so it required a bit of driving around, of which our driver was not too thrilled. Eventually he wouldn’t go any further so he left us at a guesthouse that belonged to a friend of his. We didn’t like it, and there were no other rooms available on this strip known as Om beach so we loaded our backpacks into a boat and went on our way to the other side called Kudle Beach.
My friend Michal and I waited in the boat with the bags while the boys went looking for rooms. Sitting there in a tiny boat and taking in the scenery, it gave me the feeling of arriving on a tiny island. There were no big resorts or fancy restaurants, most people lodged in bamboo huts.
The guys came to get us when they found a guesthouse (they tricked us and said it was icky). I took off my boots, jumped off of the boat into the ankle deep water. We trudged up the beach and were greeted by this pleasant surprise:
I was surprised to see such a “hotel” looking building. The entranced dotted with palm trees and freshly watered green grass. We were greeted by a charming young Indian boy in bell-bottom pants. At that point the guys couldn’t keep their little game going any longer. It was paradise! We had balconies, a gorgeous view of the beach tiny, and most of all hot water (by order and bucket)! Yipee!
A couple times we took a boat to try and see dolphins. Of course when you’re looking for something is never when you find it, so all that we saw were some fins from the boat. It wasn’t until we reached shore again and resigned to a cafe for some juice and freshly cut pineapple that we saw dolphin after dolphin jumping in the distance.
My memories of Kudle Beach are some of my favorite. Waking up in the morning, making myself some Turkish black coffee, grabbing some toast with peanut butter and India’s super sweet and sugary jelly and sitting on the beach watching the day begin. On most of the beaches I experienced in India I saw a lot of characters. Basically a beach goer can’t go more than three minutes without a cute Indian child trying to sell them jewelry, sarongs in every color imaginable, cd’s, henna tattoos, a foot massage, or the removal of unsightly leg hair. I, apparently, looked like a sucker because I would have swarms of children and their aunties sitting around me on every trip to the beach.
But at Kudley beach we met some really interesting and good characters. One friendship started during a necklace sale. I don’t remember his name but the word that comes to mind if ever I think of him, is friendship. I remember him saying time and time again over the five days that we were on that beach, and not in these exact words. But he said how money doesn’t matter, friendship is what matters. There’s only friendship. All of us ended up spending a lot of time together. Playing frisbee, sitting and talking, enjoying a lunch together, one time the five of us even went to Gokarna (the city there) where he served as good company and as our tour guide. He bought us some street food of some interesting taste, I’m not one-hundred percent but I think it was corn with masala or something like that. Like I said, interesting. But he was so excited for us to try it, it was one of his favorites. Let’s talk about the fact that this eighteen year old boy who sells jewelry on the beach for a living (most days he doesn’t have much business), bought his new friends some of the local food to try. Not only did this boy talk about how he believed in friendship, he practiced it.
Gokarna is a bustling little city. The streets are congested with people, rickshaws, and cows.
Hell…and then Kodaikanal/Vattakanal, Tamil Nadu
We planned on staying only five days but when Roei became sick after giving up his vegan status to eat an entire cheese pizza to himself, we were forced to stay an extra day. It was sad to leave and say goodbye to our new friend. We gave him our flashlight and some euros as a gifts, the flashlight so he could see on the hike back to the beach (he walked us up the hill/cliff in the forest to our taxi). At 11:30 p.m. we were in a tiny taxi on our way to a town in the mountains of Tamil Nadu by the name of Kodaikanal. The ride was supposed to last nine or ten hours. Those nine or ten hours ended up turning into twenty-one hour nightmare. The hellish journey included the driver stopping to sleep in a scary looking deserted street, the ascent and descent of one mountain, a tour of one village and then another and another, and then a tour through them again because the first time was not enough, and then up another mountain. The entire drive, every five minutes or so, the driver had to stop and ask for directions. Most people would simply answer with hand gestures.
But let’s talk about the freaking mountain. Indian doesn’t really believe in guard rails; just the week before there was a bus full of people that drove of the side of a mountain in India. It was not very comforting having read that in the paper just a few days before. Hairpin turn after hairpin turn. Most of the time, not wanting to look out the window or pay attention to the reckless driving from which I was almost certain was soon to drive us off a cliff, I had my head between my knees. To get to the village on top took us hours and hours. I won’t go into too much more detail about when we got there, but when we woke up the next morning we were in the wrong city. We found ourselves in Kodaikanal not Vattakanal. Most of what I could see out of my window were clouds and some houses. Early in the morning before the sun we were sung out of our beds by the Muslims call to prayer. When we left the hotel to go explore we were quite disappointed with the town. It was dirty. And gray. Not much to see or eat.
Talk about relief! So we found a house to rent. Luckily because most were already rented by Israelis. Anyways we hiked all the way to the top of the side of the mountain and that’s where we got our house for 250 rupees a night per person. The old, barefoot woman who came to tell us the details about the place, informed us that the house belongs to her son and she simply manages it. Cleaning and fetching firewood and then delivering it by carrying the fifty pound pile, who knows how far she walked even, on her head. Imagine your grandma going out into the woods barefoot, collecting logs and sticks, putting them in a pile, throwing them on top of her head, and then walking a few miles. It was hard for me to imagine. But the firewood proved itself useful during the nights when I was freezing my butt off in two pairs of sweatpants, two hoodies, and my boots that I never took off. So each afternoon the little old lady delivered us two or three piles of wood. All for the whopping amount of 300 rupees.
It was basically like camping up there on the mountain. No running water, or plumbing. The electricity was..ehh. And water to bath with we had to take from a bucket outside and heat up ourselves, it took hours.
The scenery up there was like nothing I’ve ever seen. We went on a couple hikes and the sights were breathtaking!
Our friend Deepa owned a little shack at the bottom of the mountain side. She sold the same food and snacks that every other place did, but she had no menu. With the majority of the tourists being Israelis there we all agreed a menu in Hebrew would help her significantly. And we were right! During the process of me painting it people came and order things off of my menu! I was so happy that we could make a difference for this sweet woman. She was so happy and appreciative, saying how she would never forget us.
Much to my objection, we took a taxi back down the mountain rather than I helicopter, even after all my effort of persuasion. We were headed to Munnar; Munnar is basically the tea capital of India. Not only does it have a ton of tea (which I’m a fan of to say the least), it is one of the most beautiful places in India that I visited. We arrived to the rolling hills of Munnar, greeted by signs warning us to watch out for elephants crossing the road. I swore that I saw one between the trees, no one else did though, so I’ll never know for sure. The best word I can think of to describe my feelings of Munnar when I saw it for this time is enchanting. This is why:
In search of a hotel after our reservations didn’t hold due to a certain holiday happening the exact weekend we arrived. We met an angel of a rickshaw driver. An angel I tell you. He drove us all around, running into one hotel after the next trying to find us a room. It took hours. He didn’t even ask for more than the original price we agreed on, when he was only supposed to take us to one place (of course we paid him more). He gave me his number in case we wanted to go sightseeing the next day, so call him I did!
Needless to say I bought multiple packages of tea to take home, black and green, since the white was so darn expensive. I will never ever forget our friend, his kindness, or magical energy! We knew him for three days and it was so sad to say goodbye. Though we did get an extra day due to a major lack of planning around India’s major holidays (it continued on throughout the entire trip). The mountains and the tea were pretty and all, and it was nice to get some fresh air. But I must say, there is nothing, nothing, like being snuggled up in the sand like a turtle soaking up the sun. I was too glad to jump into an all open jeep and inhale dirt riddled air for the next eight or so hours. And it was worth blowing all of the dirt back out of my nose when we got there, the next week was paradise.
Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
Varkala was the perfect break from the craziness of backpacking. We stayed in a resort-like hotel, looking out at the sea, eating like royalty (it was the best food we had throughout the entirety of our trip). Real food! And it didn’t take two hours for them to make it. I remember being shocked the first time my order came out in a timely manner. What a treat. We made friends with the Nepali boys working there; they always made dining there a fun experience with their lively personalities. One of my favorite parts about this little tourist nook on the cliff was the plethora of books to choose from. I was one happy camper; everywhere I went I could exchange a book or purchase one for cheap. So after a whole week of self indulgence (beach, eat, repeat), we decided it was time to surprise our friends and fly over to meet them back in Arambol. It took waking up at 3:00 am, taking a rickshaw to take a train, to take a plane to Mumbai, to wait for our flight and drink Starbucks, and finally a flight to Goa, at long last.
Arambol, Goa (again)
Our month looked like this:
Main Bazaar, Delhi
I’m glad that I was able to see Delhi (since it wasn’t on our original itinerary), I feel like it is an important part of India to see. It’s easy, when you’re sitting on one of India’s beaches eating pineapple slices, to be less aware of the poverty. But in Delhi it’s inescapable.It is everywhere you look. One boy I will never forget. While I was sitting in a restaurant waiting for the bill I saw him picking up trash through the window, we locked eyes and he smiled at me. Smiled. Walking back to the hotel I looked back several times. Each time, a smile.
Delhi has the cheapest prices for souvenirs. If you don’t get overwhelmed by the endless amount of options at your fingertips, some major shopping can be done. My mom asked me to bring home ten scarves for gifts for my aunts and cousins. Now that was a task. Do you know how many stores sell scarves in Delhi, and at different qualities and prices? Hundreds. And they all looked like this one:
Taj Mahal, Agra
The beauty of this wonder of the world was hard to believe even when I stood before it. When I walked through the entrance and laid my eyes upon it for the first time I remember thinking that it looked as enormous as a mountain, but even more majestic. I couldn’t look away from it for more than a second. I have about five hundred pictures of the thing because I felt every time I looked at it it deserved a picture. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had the mausoleum built for one of his wives, upon her request I’m pretty sure. Now that must have been love for something so stunning to be created.
I guess my handstands combined with my unusual blonde hair and blue eyes attracted quite a bit of attention:
What would you do if people lined up to take a picture with you for some unclear reason? I was in tears from laughing.
Seeing the Taj Mahal was a dream come true! It was so hard to leave that I walked out of the place backwards to keep looking.
Traveling to India was such an enriching and enlightening experience. The people, the country, and beliefs are all so beautiful. I’m so grateful for the new perspective I have to look at the world from this trip. Experiencing the culture and the people was simply wonderful and I’m so thankful for everything I’ve learned and taken away from this. I have every intention on going back there and staying much longer! Until next time India..