South India

On my birthday, which happens to be on May 27, also known as the hottest day (literally) of this year so far, Matthijs took me out for breakfast, and while we were in the city centre anyways we went shopping for some summer clothes for him. And then the strangest thing happened. While he tried on a t-shirt we were both transported back to India by the smell of the shirt. And for a split second we wanted to buy it just for that smell. We didn’t because it didn’t suit Matthijs. But we did check the “made in” label, and indeed, it was made in India.

By now, it has been six months since we were there for the second time around. And it took me a long time to be able to write my story on this country. I did feel this urge to write about it, but instinctively I knew that it wasn’t time to start, for I didn’t know what to say other than the facts that occurred. I guess this happens to me every time I travel to a country with a culture so dissimilar to my own. For weeks, but often even longer than that, I can only sum up what we did. And that’s not exactly a problem, for people like to hear about those events. But actually I don’t really care for them. It is not the story I like to share. I prefer to share what happened; the brief encounters, how being there made me feel, my experiences, the tiniest of details. But it takes a while before they are filtered from the big picture. I have been writing on this story for weeks now, but since the t-shirt incident, I feel it is time to wrap it up. So here we go.

Many people travel to India. Some for holidays, some for an extended stay in an ashram, and some for work. On the world wide web there are thousands, maybe millions of stories from people who went there. And all those travel journals tell about how people fell in love with the country, the people, and the food. And there’s also the “now I’ve been in India, I totally know who I am” – aspect. Well, I’ve been to India. But by now you already knew that. It was the first country Matthijs and I visited on our eight month journey around the globe. The first day was indeed magical. When we took a taxi from Mumbai Airport to our hotel, it felt like we were in the movies. But when reality kicked in, we both intensely hated to be there. And that feeling was so profound that we decided to leave after only two weeks and two days, instead of the planned four weeks. We just couldn’t stand to stay there any longer. But as time passed, and our strong sentiments faded we were also able to see the nice things about this country. And for the past couple of years we have been wondering what it would be like to go there again. Especially since we have heaps more experience in travelling outside of Europe than we had at the time. So we went again. A little over four years after our first encounter with this incredibly fascinating part of the world we decided to find out for ourselves what all these people are raving about.

Thus on the evening of December 9, 2016 we boarded a plane to Abu Dhabi, from where we travelled to Chennai. The descend was beautiful. We flew over a district of the city with so many different coloured houses it looked like confetti. I didn’t know what to expect from the moment we would leave the aircraft, because of my not so brightly coloured memories of our earlier visit. But of every single scenario I could have imagined, what happened wasn’t one of them. Until the moment we passed customs everything was fine and fairly easy, but as soon as we stepped outside of the airport it wasn’t as magical as four years earlier. We were immediately confronted with the fact that it was nearly impossible to acquire rupees. And without rupees we weren’t even able to leave the airport. Fortunately we had some euros, so we could exchange them. But then at the prepaid-taxi stand the guy behind the counter, who had some difficulties staying awake, was reluctant to let us pay with a 2000 rupee note. After making clear to him that we didn’t have any smaller notes, he gave in and we were finally able to get to our hotel. Welcome to India. At the time we were perfectly aware of the fact that the Indian government had declared all 500 and 1000 rupee notes invalid to take action on false money. But we didn’t know that that would mean that for the first week we were in India we would mainly walk around and try out all the ATMs we could find. Which was made more challenging by the facts that on Saturday the ATMs were empty, on Sunday they were closed, on Monday a cyclone hit Chennai, and on Tuesday all power was out because of aforementioned cyclone. Well… I think you might understand we were questioning our decision to go to India again. And these doubts only became stronger when we found ourselves on Wednesday sort of in the middle of nowhere in a town called Ooty, or Udagamandalam as it is officially called, with only 50 euro and about 280 rupee, empty ATMs, and not one bank that would let us withdraw any money.

But at the same time everything felt surprisingly familiar. This country has a specific smell, unlike anything else. I think it could be best described as a mixture of burned wood, drought, and spices. And in that first taxi from the airport to our hotel, it felt as if I had come home. Which to this day I think is a weird realization for I hated to be in this country to the core. And the sense of being home only became stronger in the next couple of weeks. Because of the weird cash situation, we got to encounter Indian people in a different way. For example, we had a funny conversation with a rickshaw driver on the day after the cyclone. It was already our last day in Chennai, and we hadn’t seen much of the city, so we decided to walk around. This way we could also see what the impact of the cyclone was. About 3000 trees were uprooted, and everywhere people were trying to clean up the mess and fix what was broken. At some point we took a little break on a bench in a bus stop. Many rickshaw drivers looked at us with the question if we wanted a ride in their eyes, but continued driving when we shook our heads. And then there was one very persistent driver. He stopped and offered us a great deal. But great deal or not, we couldn’t pay for it. And every time we told him that, the deal got better and better. He thought we were trying to bargain, but we really weren’t. I think he asked about ten times if we were sure. And I can still see the disbelief on his face when I told him for the eleventh time we were going to walk. And then he asked another time if we were sure, and when he was about to drive off he checked again.

This time, we also experienced the kindness of Indian people. When we were not sure if we were able to leave Chennai on Tuesday because the railway infrastructure was severely damaged by the cyclone, one of the receptionist at our hotel let us use her personal mobile phone to call the next hotel we were going to stay. And when we were lost as to if, and if so where, our train would leave, and it was crazy as anything with people pushing and yelling at the information counter, one man told me to wait outside the bustle and came back to give me the information I needed. And when I asked a lady how I could see which train was the right one, she took the time to explain me how, and assured me that that was the right track. But when things changed, she also went through the trouble to find me, and take us to the right place. And when we were in Ooty, and it dawned on us we were not going to be able to withdraw money, and therefore wouldn’t be able to afford to get to this exciting guesthouse even further in the middle of nowhere, the hostess redirected us to a guesthouse in walking distance where we would be able to pay with a credit card. And when we arrived there, she had already called to let them know we were on our way. And when we told the host there about our situation, he informed the manager, who had connections with the manager of the bank, so we could go and have a chat with him, Indian style – by that I mean you have a nice chat, get to business, and chat some more. And he gave us some great advice on where to go next. So of course we listened to him, changed our last 50 euros, and instead of going down South as we had vaguely planned earlier, we travelled up North. But before we left, the hotel manager used some more of his connections, and arranged that someone withdrew 10.000 rupees for us, which we paid him back through the hotel. And because we are talking about India, I am  glad I don’t know about the exact facts of this matter. I sincerely hope he did get his money back.

This was a side of India we hadn’t encountered before. Four years earlier we felt we were treated as walking wallets. Because white skin equals lots of money. And to be honest I can’t really blame those people. When I was twenty-three years old I was somehow able to travel across the planet whereas most people there were scrambling to get by. Sometimes not even able to go visit their sister who was about to get married. This time we were a bit apprehensive at first, for people still started conversations with us in the middle of the street. But soon I realized that this time they weren’t only trying to sell me something. They genuinely wanted to know about our visit to India. So I started to enjoy this small talk, and meanwhile I started to trust the people we met. To get to Ooty, we had to take a toy train up the mountain, a ride that lasted about five hours. Five hours spent with the same people in one carriage. And it was really funny for they acted like they were on a school trip. Laughing, chatting, and when we we’re in a tunnel waving and screaming as if we were in a rollercoaster. So we laughed at them, they noticed, and started to laugh at themselves as well. And we had small conversations, and they shared their food with us. At one point we asked the person who was sitting opposite us if he could take a picture of us, and then other people asked if they could take a picture of us as well, and I asked if I could take a picture of them too. But then I noticed something: that most Indian people do not smile when their picture is taken, however vibrant they are when they communicate. Later I asked our guide while walking through a protected nature reserve why that was, and he told me that Indian people don’t smile when their picture is taken, because they never know what you will do with this picture, and it is better for their reputation to look seriously. An interesting given.

I also noticed that to every positive story there is a rough edge. Still there were moments I felt like a walking wallet. From the moment we had the 10.000 rupees the hotel manager tried everything to get us to spend as much as possible. One day we went on a hike with a lovely young man through the protected nature reserve his tribe lives in, where you can only go when you are a guest of one of the locals. It was the most wonderful day walking past a tea plantation, through open fields with buffalos, and in the woods. We went on a surprise visit to his aunt and uncle, were we were invited for a small lunch. There we realized that there are some elements of life that are the same wherever you live, like three-year olds colouring on the walls. But at the end of the day we had quite an embarrassing situation. When we made the appointment for the hike, we thought the hotel manager meant that we could pay for it through the hotel, but as soon as we had the money, all of a sudden that was no longer possible. It would take weeks before our guide would get the money, “we didn’t want to be responsible for his family not having anything to eat, would we?” And that was our cue to pack our bags and hop on a bus the next morning. Of course, after we left an envelope with money for our guide and a note to apologize for the misunderstanding. The following day our hotel manager explained to us that there was only one option to get to Mysuru, by Volvo AC bus. We knew that wasn’t true, because we had read about the options in our travel guide. And although the bus station was in walking distance, there was a rickshaw waiting for us in the morning. The driver spoke barely any English, but he did manage to explain there was a much cheaper option to get to our destination. So he dropped us at the local bus stop.

It was the first time we travelled in India by bus, and it was a fascinating experience. It took about five hours to drive 200 kilometres. And we were fortunate enough to sit on top of the back wheel so with every bump in the road we were catapulted towards the roof. But after a while we managed to deal with it: when the driver pushes the brake, hold the handlebar and pretend you push it toward the seat in front of you, and lift from your seat, like you’re doing a squat. Then you’ll be fine 90% of the time. To this day I still push against the seat in front of me when a bus driver uses the break, which is kind of unnecessary in the Netherlands. Despite getting a bit bruised by all the bumps in the road, it was a nice trip. On our way we passed through  two nature reserves, where we saw a couple of elephants bathing. But I was quite happy to arrive in Mysuru.

We only had a couple of hours because the next day we would hop on another bus, so we did some touristy things like visiting the palace and a market, learned that dosas are only for breakfast, but did have some other delicious food, asked a local dressmaker if I could take a picture of his vintage sewing machine, and had some more delicious food. We also learned that traveling a bit more upscale wasn’t a completely superfluous luxury. Until then we had stayed in places where we could pay by credit card, which in a cash economy means you cannot stay in supercheap hotels. Since we were in Mysuru for only one night, we could afford to stay in a cheap hotel near the bus station. The next day we noticed immediately how little we were able to handle, being very cranky and upset about next-to-nothing. So if you’re sensitive like us, and still would love to visit India, I definitely recommend to budget a lot more for hotels then you planned at first. The more luxurious guesthouses are in more quiet areas, so you have some time to unwind and recharge.

I would also recommend to not eat street food. After Mysuru we travelled by bus to Madikeri, and from there another eight kilometres by rickshaw to a plantation with a guesthouse. The day of travelling we were fine, but the next morning I was not so fine, hugging to toilet for several hours. Luckily, our host knows a lot about Ayurveda so he gave me some concoction of tea and herbs, some homemade organic curd, fruit, and vegetables, and a couple of hours later I was as good as new. But then the same thing hit Matthijs. But by the evening he was fine as well. We learned that some street vendors mix cooking oil with petrol, and that is probably what made us sick. But of all places to get sick, this was probably the best one. We were in the middle of nowhere on a plantation with an ok bed, some nice chairs, a great view, and someone who would prepare all our meals for us. All we had to do was walk around the plantation, and read some books. Oh, and travel eight kilometers to the village every day, because we could only withdraw 2000 rupee a day, and we had to pay in cash. But that wasn’t too bad. That gave us the opportunity to explore the local supermarkets, and see if we could find some nice souvenirs. For one, I found a bottle of ketchup with a sign that says “no onion, no garlic”. By now I regret I only took the small bottle, because it is one of the best ketchups I ever had. Not too sweet, and it has a lot of spices in it.

After three days in paradise we hopped on another bus, this time to Bangalore, one of India’s most westernized cities. Here we strolled around, visited a museum, drank coffee at Starbucks, perused bookstores where I met a serious limit as to how many books you can take in a backpack, were surprised by the amount of girls in jeans and the fact we found a beer bar (hello prejudices), and went to the movies, a must whenever you are in India. It is quite the experience which I’m going to keep for you so you can find out for yourself. And so we eased into going back home. We spent Christmas at the beach with a million French tourists and some French food in Pondicherry, a former French colony. And from there we travelled back to Chennai with the 6 AM train which gave another new experience: a completely empty train. Although that only lasted for about ten minutes.

Despite all these new experiences and insights, I still think India is a difficult country to travel in. Nothing is easy. Literally nothing. And when I wasn’t aware of that – and even when I were – I had a hard time being there. But at those moments I was able to look past that, and accept that our days were filled with making arrangements like acquiring money or buying a train ticket, it is a wonderful country to be in for a limited amount of time. Would I say that I totally know who I am now I’ve been to India? No. But I do think that when you get so far away from your comfort zone, it is inevitable that you learn new things about yourself.

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