India's Wild Ride

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Matt and I had talked about hopes for the “second leg” of our trip on the plane ride from Madrid to New Delhi. Both of us suspected that India (and Southern Asia) was going to be different than South America, different than what we’d grown to know as “our trip”. People told us about the poverty, the congestion, and the smog. We felt ourselves as prepared as we could be to experience those things.  We had hopes of finding a spirituality for ourselves that Hollywood told us existed in a raw, overwhelming manner throughout India. We both were resolute in trying to be more social this leg of the trip by meeting new people and letting them into our lives, and being a part of theirs in return. And of course, I still harbored dreams of becoming best friends with a stranger and riding on the back of their scooter, my hair blowing in the wind, my shirt and harem pants billowing majestically behind me as we playfully raced Matt and his scooter-driving-friend along a scenic dirt path. Oh, and it was sunset. Or maybe just a clear night with a full moon illuminating our path to a bar or something fun. Who knows really, but I am sure you get the idea. 

Our first steps on Indian soil were out the doors of the New Delhi airport. Feeling regenerated from our two-week stint in the US seeing and celebrating family, we walked out confident, excited, and open. Delhi, oblivious and indifferent to us and our intentions for it, greeted us like the colorful, constantly churning machine that it is: with an exhalation of smog, a brash assault of horns mixed with “Hey bro’s and “Hey Friend’s, and a truly astonishing amount of movement. 

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The first time we were scammed in India was just an hour or so after we arrived there. Our taxi driver—who was really just a super nice guy— was scamming us the whole time. He was planting little seeds that he would water throughout our drive to ensure they would yield a delicious harvest of lies later. Driving through an underpass, he pointed to a shack on the side of the road and said, “Road maintenance taxes. They are so high, but we have to pay them. Right here actually!” Blissful and high on India’s energy, Matt and I nodded with an air of “Oh, how interesting” in our gesture—I may or may not have even said that out loud, which of course, it was not. The road taxes were not interesting to me. 

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We ended up at the “tourist information center” being offered cigarettes and chai and being told that we should stay at a different hostel. I passed on the smokes—I quit, thank you very much—but was interested in having a chai! As the man here tried to get us to change our hotel arrangements, we did the polite midwestern thing of dropping a lot of clues that we were uncomfortable. That we didn’t want to go along with what he was saying, that we just wanted to get to our hotel and maybe take a nap or something before exploring. It was practically oozing out of us. In Ohio or Kansas, we would’ve been considered extremely blunt and rude even! However, that was not the case here. The man seemed unaffected by our midwestern refusals communicated with “Well, um…I am not really sure” followed by, “Oh no, I’m sorry, I’m pretty sure we’ve already paid for our place,” and of course a “Yeah, I’m sure that hotel is very nice, maybe nicer than ours even! And we’d love to stay there if we could, but gosh, ya know, I just remembered, and we did pay for our other place already.” Finally, we realized that there was no escaping through nicety, so we cut the crap and said that we were leaving. Grabbing our bags and heading to the door, I noticed, much to my dismay, that no one was even making us chai. So even the chai was a lie. When we left the office, our cab driver tried to extract double the fare out of us to pay for these alleged roadside maintenance fees—remember those from earlier?—but the glass had been broken and we were aware now of what was going on.

Matt read about these schemes before we had left, I’m sure he even told me about them and I dismissed them as something born from his overactive and brilliant, yet slightly paranoid, mind. Some cab drivers take newcomers to these fake “Tourist Information Centers”—there are really only 2 official ones in Delhi—where the staff tells you that your hotel doesn’t exist, that it closed recently, burnt down, or some other nonsense. Sometimes they even pretend to call for you! All because they get a commission at the place they rebook you.

With a fire in me that probably came across more as teenage angst, I said “No, we are absolutely not paying you that. You’re a liar!” and then very cooly—read: not cooly at all—walked—read: sort of waddle-stomped because of double bagging (wearing a backpack on my front and back)—away towards our hostel. We had pulled it up on google maps and were only 1 or 2 blocks away. In those 2 blocks, someone else tried to get us to follow them to another destination starting with “Hey bro.” But we made it to our hotel, which actually was bad. It doesn’t substantiate what the tourist info center folks were doing, but it was bad. So we walked to another hotel and learned some new tricks of the scamming trade:

  • Don’t accept help from strangers: when you pull your phone out or stand still for too long or just happen to be white, someone will approach you and offer help, but they have ulterior motives!

  • Compliments, while fun and confidence building are evil ins of the conpeople: “Hey bro, nice hair!” or “Wow, those shoes sure are cool.” only lead to more deception. Regardless of how nice your hair is or how cool your shoes surely are.

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This kind of set the tone for our experience in Delhi. Within 24 hours of arriving, we had narrowly dodged two scams and were followed by 3 different people. Which, come to think of it, was pretty crazy. It was an almost mission impossible level of following where we looked back at one of the guys following us and he jumped into an open air store—so not the most effective—and threw a hood on! We had been yelled at, lied to by our best friend cab driver, denied a chai, and chased by strangers until we jumped into a store to escape them—a closed-air store cause we’re smarter than the bad guys. 

I want to tell you that we maintained our usual positive, adventurous, go-getter attitude. But, honestly, as we stood, huddled inside of our H&M refuge evading our pursuers, we weren’t sure what would happen. I think both of us were a little afraid, with the same thought in the smallest voice in the back of our brains asking: “Would India be too much for us?” We retreated to our hotel room—the nice one, not the bad one—, ordered room service, and we figured it out. We talked about our options and how we would move forward. We talked about what we needed to feel comfortable and we did some research. We moved to a fantastic hostel in South Delhi (Jugaad), which quickly became a home for us. We made friends there, explored, learned to haggle like a boss and how to identify and ignore scammers.  We were ready to see what the rest of India was like.

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India is massive. Like, truly massive. You could spend an entire lifetime traveling this beautiful country and I guarantee that 30 years into your weird life quest to explore all of India for the duration of your life, you’d check into a hostel and some 20 something in patchwork harem pants would bring up a part of India that you not only hadn’t been to, but had never heard of before. And it’d sound amazing and you’d have to go. 

But that same incredible size makes this retro particularly hard to write. There’s too much to say. India was hard, clearly. They have only recently decriminalized homosexuality, making it a place where Matt and I had to be on the highest of alerts. Whenever someone asked, we were brothers. Or step-brothers, I mean, I don’t have that jaw-line, team. We even talked about taking our wedding rings off because if someone looked closely enough, it would be all too clear who we were to each other. That was hard. 

The poverty is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We saw people born with their bodies configured in ways that their hips pointed their legs up so their feet fit into their armpits. People who needed to walk on all fours with their hands in sandals. “Pavement dweller” families who moved from the countryside to the city to earn money and cannot afford to even live in the slums, which, as it turns out, are actually expensive to live in—at least in Mumbai. Children who grab onto your arm as you walk down a crowded market street asking you for money for blocks. 

All of these things coupled with the scammers leaves you with a need to disengage in order to get through it. Literally, Matt and I could avoid scammers just by not saying anything to them. But that meant ignoring people when they say hi. Ignoring people who are asking for help because you don’t really know what’s going on. It left us feeling at odds with our natural tendency to be open to the world and people.

But that’s not all that India is. The India that we saw was resilient, constantly moving, colorful, working, and entrepreneurial.

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Sure, it’s behind a very dense and occasionally hazardous level of smog, but its radiance is there. The slums of Mumbai are not filled with desperately poor, lazy, thieving people. It’s the exact opposite. Well, they are definitely incredibly poor, but they work their asses off. Everyone works in the slums. They work all the jobs that no one else will, often to the detriment of their own health. And they invited us in to their home to have lunch.

While we didn’t have the spiritual awakening that Hollywood and the Instagrammers would advertise, India is saturated in spirituality. If you are looking, you can find tiny statues of Ganesh on fences and doors. Or paintings of Shiva set up at the base of trees. Orange flowers litter the streets from the temples. 

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And there are so many people who are so eager to share their culture with you! We happened upon a temple festival in the hills of Munnar that was so different than anything we had seen before. There was dancing, drums, people were fainting, animals were being sacrificed—actually sacrificed—, and everyone was part of it all. Matt and I approached cautiously, not wanting to intrude on something that is not intended for us, but we were met by people with bells on. Literally in this instance. A squad of dancers wearing bells wanted their pictures with us (happens all the time) and invited us to join them in their festivities! 

India is being invited to a wedding by a guy you just met and then being privy to the most intimate moments of that wedding. Not only that, but being encouraged by the family to bear witness to their traditions. We were maybe 4 feet away from the groom when he got married. We walked just behind the bride as she exited the wedding with her family crying around her because she was officially leaving the family to join her husband (by moving out of the family home that night).

This is not to mention the history here! The country itself is dramatically beautiful and houses some of the most amazing monuments and temples that I have ever seen. The Taj Mahal, the Lotus Temple, the tea plantations of Munnar, the beaches of Goa, the ports of Kochi; all of these places radiate history and grandeur. Well, the beaches of Goa radiate an odor of alcoholism, but it’s still pretty!

India was hard. And our experiences there were full. We were the most “touristy” we’ve been anywhere and crammed a ton into our 6 weeks, but just last night I heard a 20 something in patchwork harem pants bring up a part of India that I not only haven’t been to, but have never heard of before. And it sounds amazing. And I have to go. 

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P.S. I did get to ride on the back of scooter. But it was not with a new friend. It was not to a fun bar. None of my clothing billowed majestically, or otherwise, in the wind. It was with our host from Goa and I was double-bagging and gripping the back of the bike trying to balance the enormous weight of my backpack and not fall off. I may have bruised him with the many thigh squeezes I involuntarily gave him when we hit several particularly large bumps. Not what I had envisioned, but it happened all the same.

Next time though, I will have my motorcycle license so I can take some newbie on a scooter ride through India and give them an experience that matches the majesty of my fantasy ride.