I spent two weeks from December 2010 to January 2011 traveling the Indian southwestern coast. I can tell you I sampled a good amount of that country - and I can tell you that I most likely will not be moving there any time soon.
India was actually pretty great - in hindsight. I did not take Malaria pills or get any typhoid shots, so I guess I have 3-6 months to go before I can say that I made it out alive truly, but I can say so far that I survived. And that's saying something.
Mumbai - Wedding Festivities
My best friend and I traveled to Mumbai from New York on Christmas Day, literally minutes before a gigantic blizzard dumped 3 feet of snow on the area, to attend a wedding for the first 5 days of our trip. The wedding was for my friend's former coworker who is first generation American, but Indian by family. It was a fairly traditional catholic mass, but the events surrounding the wedding were traditional. On our first full day/night in the country, we stayed in a suburb called Bandra, and went to the bride's home for a party. We participated in a fascinating tradition called a Paani, where the entire party has a live band follow them around in the streets dancing, singing, eating, drinking homemade whiskey from tea kettles and having an all out parade. We stopped at a house and danced on a patio and had buckets of water thrown on us, and the party/parade continued back to the bride's home where more events and a wondeful buffet of traditional indian dishes awaited.
Five days in Mumbai is far too many in my opinion. It's a very loud, dirty, abrasive, and difficult city. I swear I will hear the sound of carhorns in my head for the rest of my days. The rickshaws and cabs use their horns in such a way that it's practically another language, and with no kind of public transportation system setup for a billion people, it's a kind of controlled chaos. The sound makes rush hour in midtown Manhattan sound like a whisper. The beaches the surrounded Mumbai are trash ridden and you can see raw sewage flowing into the ocean. The water is quite toxic, so I wouldn't get too close.
You might think at this point that I actually didn't enjoy Mumbai, and you'd be wrong. In a lot of ways, it's exactly what I pictured. It was fun to walk around central Mumbai and see buildings that are 2, 3, 4x older than America itself. The people were so nice and friendly that it made all the difference. The food was unbelievable - though of the 50 American wedding attendees, I'd say 99% of them got what's lovingly referred to as "Bombay Belly" and it did a number on more than a few. Some couldn't even get out of bed they were so dehydrated. Whether it was the bacteria in the food, the water not being safe, or just not being accustomed to the spice level, it wasn't pleasant for a few.
Fort Cochi - Kerala
After five days though, we flew down to the southern state of Kerala and into the city of Cochin. We hopped in a cab with a fine Australian lady and drove 2 hours into the little backpacker town of Fort Kochi. We stayed for 3 days in a god awful little homestay called Costa Gamma where we slept on bricks and our bathroom was the gateway to Mosquito hell. It was lovely.
I decided to nap a bit on that first day, and my friend wandered the abandoned down which was New Year's Day. After a few hours he returned to inform me that I had missed Carnivale - a gigantic parade with floats, dancers, drag queens, and elephants. Figures. We went out for dinner and there were thousands of revelers in the streets of this tiny town - it was amazing! The community that lived in this little town known for ancient Chinese fishing nets and backwater tours was vibrant and so excited to be celebrating the New Year.
We didn't plan very well, but one of the days we took in a cooking class from a lovely woman named Leena who was off of Tower Road. We were the only two students that day and she taught us to make Banana Lassi, Chicken Masala, Roti, and Coconut/Carrot Salsa. It was...one of the most amazing things I've ever done.
We hired a rickshaw driver for the day as well and he took us all around to shops, and a spice market, and the Dutch Palace, and a temple. A few hours for a couple hundred rupees ($5) and it was rather nice. Though he brought us to two shops that were basically the same - one we were in for hours and I walked out with more knowledge about rugs than I ever imagined possible AND a brand new orange bedspread that would come in handy more often than I'd like to admit for the rest of the trip - and one that if we went into, our driver would get a free shirt out of the deal. We ended up creating a whole side story about the life we lead and how we owned 10 houses and needed rugs for all of them. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right?
After 3 days in Fort Kochi battling the mosquitoes that owned our room, and the only town where we found pretty decent coffee, we flew up to Goa. Goa is a weird place. It's a place of beaches and tourism and hippies. If you're a foreigner, you are pretty much going to wind up in Goa at some point, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but you're going to be amongst so many other foreigners. Many of whom are pre-packaged British tourists on holiday who've spent thousands to stay at the most ridiculous resorts. Just be forewarned.
We spent a few days in Candolim and checked out the Anjuna Market that's a village that sprouts up on Wednesdays only. Again we hired a cabbie to take us here, and to the largest lighthouse in Asia at Fort Anjuna. The beach in Candolim was nice - very clean, flat, beautiful sunset, and beach shacks that lined the sand as far as you could see that served breakfast, lunch, dinner, and booze until 10pm.
The one really cool thing about Candolim is the marooned River Princess Tanker that ran aground in the 90s and no one ever bothered to clean up. It's only a few meters off shore, and I bet you could swim out to touch it if you really wanted to. Though it's a large rusting tanker, so I wouldn't advise you to try.
We actually got out of Candolim and drove 2 hours south to Palolem to stay the night in our own pretty spacious beachhut. It was glorious. Falling asleep to the sound of the ocean right outside my window is exactly what I want everyday of my life. The cool thing about Palolem is that it was featured in the Bourne Supremacy so my feet have touched the same beach that Matt Damon has ran on. It's the little things ;)
And that pretty much sums up my experience with India.
Some things that I would like to share with those who may also be going to India:
- Bring plenty of antibiotics. I never do this on trips, but I was glad I did this time.
- Bring plenty of random meds. Immodium, Tums, Vitamins, Allergy medications, etc. You WILL need it.
- Don't touch the animals. You WILL see dogs, cows, elephants in the streets, in the cities, on the beach. Don't touch them. Though I will say I broke down and picked up a little fluffball of a puppy after noticing he was on a leash and had a collar and assessed the risk. He was maximum levels of cute.
- Don't drink anything with ice in it from anywhere. Ever. (Ice may not be from filtered water)
- If you're going for an event - flat shoes. Heels are a really stupid idea.
- Eat breakfast at the Kashi Art Cafe in Fort Kochi. You will not be disappointed.
- Read the book Shantaram and freak out that you're in Mumbai, at Leopold's Cafe, just like in the book!
- IF someone asks you if you want Weed, and you say, "No Thanks, I don't smoke" that's not an acceptable answer. They'll offer you cocaine, heroin, and other such stuff that you can snort or shoot. Be specific & say, "NO DRUGS THANK YOU!"
- Everything will smell like mothballs. Seriously. They put them in bedrooms, sinks, bathtubs, anywhere they can. Burn your clothing upon returning home, b/c it will smell like mothballs for the rest of eternity, even after multiple washings.
- Everyone will tell you that their items are made in Kashmir. I am convinced that the entire population of India is Kashmiri.
- Make sure to print out your itinerary for EVERY trip you take in the country. To get into an airport you MUST show them you're confirmed flight status or they WILL NOT let you into the building. Showing them a picture on your iPhone of the confirmation MIGHT work, but will cause a lot of questions to be asked. Trust me.
- In airports your bags, checked AND non-checked, will be scanned 1000x and be stamped. Make sure this stamp does NOT wash off before you get to your gate on your carry on luggage and they will not let you on the plane. Again, TRUST ME.
- Make sure to read the cab meters correctly. On the first day we were giving 10 and 20 rupees to people instead of 1 or 2. The difference is pennies in USD really, but no sense in over paying.
- Download Google Maps for the cities that you're visiting before you go. Not having a data plan abroad blows. The maps in Lonely Planet weren't terrible accurate either.
- And that brings me to last point: You will get to know the areas you're staying in better than the locals because you're using a map. I can't tell you how many times we had to direct our drivers to the places we were staying b/c they had no idea what planet they were on, much less what street.
India is not the feint of heart. It's NOT a starter country to visit if you've never left the good ol' US of A. It's a fantastic challenge though, and one that I am really glad that I took. Traveling to a third world country is never a vacation - it's nothing short of an exciting, exhausting, stressful, and rewarding adventure.