I’m sitting in a chilled out bar in our hostel in Cambodia at the moment – a world away from India and all the experiences we had there! However, after visiting the killing fields of Choeung Ek yesterday (more on that in another post), we’re having a day of relaxing, reflecting, and catching up before heading off to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow to meet up with Tessa – yay!!
So – here are the top ten things that struck us while visiting India. (I was thinking of trying to write it in a kind of Top of the Pops/chart radio/ ‘Climbing three places to five’ kind of way … but Hels assured me it wouldn’t work and I’m inclined to agree!)
In no particular order…
1 – The roads are insane. I could write an entire top ten about this single subject! Our first experience of India was Delhi and I think I wrote a little about the roads then… mainly about the beeping! Since then, we’ve learned that the rules of the road are widely open to interpretation, so much so that the pavement (on the occasion that there is a pavement) makes as good a road as any when the traffic is bad. You’ll often be wandering down the pavement and a motorbike will flash past because the road is at a standstill! Speaking of motorbikes – they’re everywhere and they do everything with/on them. In India, a small motorbike IS a viable method of transport for a family of five! (We witnessed this!) Walking in India is frowned upon – even though it’s normally quicker – but if you do walk, it’s often safer to walk in the road. And finally, on this first point, crossing the road is as much an art form as it is blind faith. You have to pick your moment and go for it, confidently, stubbornly, even belligerently and when you’ve started, don’t stop whatever you do! With tuk-tuks and motorbikes howling past, you are, at that moment, part of India’s massive perpetual game of chicken.
2 – Cows get everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere! So much so that we started collecting a bit of a picture gallery – cow on the street, cow at the bakery, cow at the guest house, cow at the temple, cow at the ruins…and so on…and my personal favourite: cow at the beach!
3 – White people are a tourist attraction. I think I mentioned this before too – but it persisted – and has stopped the moment we have reached Asia so it deserves its place in the Top Ten. We had photos taken of us everywhere, from the Red Fort in Delhi, to the Amber Fort in Jaipur; the beaches of Goa to the backwaters of Kerala. It mostly happened at tourist attractions and monuments, but also at train stations, on the street, in shops… pretty much anywhere! It was mainly in good faith and we didn’t mind but we kept thinking that some of the photos would be quite good to have for ourselves but we were always in front of the camera. So, when we were walking around Hampi, there were a load of school parties there and a young girl ran up to Hels waving and saying hello. Hels waved back happily and said hello in return, and in seconds she was surrounded by excitable school children. I quickly grabbed my camera from my pocket and the resulting photo is one of my favourites so far!
4 – The curry isn’t that spicy. Now, I’m not sure of the reason for this but we have various theories… Let me begin by saying that I was expecting to find some volcanic curry in India, and was looking forward to it as a huge chilli fan. So I was really surprised when we were ordering food and it simply wasn’t that hot. We began ordering things specifically to find the hot dishes and the waiters would always ask, ‘You want it spicy?’ ‘Yes please,’ I’d say. Which was often met with a look of concern mixed with doubt. ‘Medium spicy? Full spicy?’ came the tentative clarification. ‘Full spicy please,’ I’d reply, and off he would go to the kitchen looking worried. Once or twice we did get some rocket hot food but our theories about the lack of heat are that either a) we eat hot curry at home and so are used to it, b) the chefs/waiters always tamed it down, fearing for the life of the westerners, c) that’s just how Indian curry is and the UK curry is unnecessarily spicy. Who knows!
5 – The Royal Enfield is the best sounding bike in India. Well this pretty much speaks for itself! Amongst the melee of beeping horns, shouting drivers and engines, you’d occasionally hear the deep, throaty ‘frap, frap, frap, frap, frap’ of the Royal Enfield. It is unmistakeable – and I found myself wanting one!! I have no idea what it is about the bike that makes it make that noise, but it was a delight to both see and hear them.
6 – ‘Ten rupees for change’. We only got duped with this once, and it was partly the fault of the Lonely Planet! The short story basically goes that on arrival into Agra, our first time moving around, we got off the train and opted for a ‘pre-pay’ taxi to get to our hotel. It was 50 rupees, which we thought was a reasonable price, but having just been to the cash point, we only had 500 rupee notes (equivalent to about five pounds) Helena handed one over and the guy, without looking up asks for a smaller note. We explain that we only have 500s and he just says, ‘Ten rupees for change.’ Looking at each other we kind of shrug and, knowing no better, say ok. At which point he brings out a large bundle of notes of all values and gives us 4×100 rupees and 4×10 rupees, having taken his ten for change! We learned later that this was a complete scam and although the Lonely Planet tells you to have the correct fare ready for tuk-tuk drivers and such, they DEFINITELY HAVE CHANGE! Every time after that, we simply refused (politely), and they would look at you for a moment before producing the change. Lesson learned!
7 – Terrible toilets and toilet paper treks. The toilets in India leave a lot to be desired, and the worst ones are to be found at the places that overnight buses decide to stop to let you use one. The urinal stench is indescribable – I literally cannot find the words. The only thing I can think to say is that you had better hope your pee lasts for less time than you can hold your breath for or you, my friend, are in bother!! The second part of this comes from a short episode in Mysore where, just before getting back to our room we remembered that we had no toilet paper so we decided to pop out and grab some. We went to about 15 shops on a walk that ended up being about five or six kilometres before we found a shop that stocked it … and even then it was one single roll, tucked at the back of a top shelf, and we’re not sure the guy even knew he had it! He certainly didn’t know the price!! So he made one up, we paid it, and everyone was happy!
8 – There are dogs and puppies everywhere. Pretty self-explanatory really! Similar to the cows, they’re all over the place. They do have cute puppies though …
9 – There’s always an old guy. This was one of our first observations and kind of started off our list. We noticed that, whenever we went somewhere to eat, there was always an old guy sat somewhere who dealt with all the cash. We first noticed it in Cafe Mondegar in Mumbai, where this small chap sat on a chair behind the bar looking not unlike yoda. All of the orders went through him, all of the bills came from him and all of the money went back to him. It was the same in Leopold’s, the bars in Delhi, restaurants in Goa and throughout the South. Invariably, these guys had one thing in common – they all looked fairly pleased with themselves!
And finally – 10 – we never had a hope of covering India in a month. What were we thinking?!! On reflection, it wasn’t always the easiest experience in the world, and the Northern cities in particular were challenging to visit, especially since it was quite cold and damp, but it is certainly one we won’t forget anytime soon. Having only been in Thailand and Cambodia for a week, it may be too early to say, but India is somewhere pretty special. It’s diverse, confusing, chaotic and unrelenting. I’m not sure we were quite ready (or had time) to fully surrender to India’s charms … maybe we will have to return!