The Cost of Being Cheap

Day 735 – 5 March, 2017

After several visits to the straw hut on the beach marked “Travel Agent,” Jill, Mel, and I all agreed to take a night bus to Hampi. Mel changed her flight to extend her trip. Jill convinced us all to book the lowest fare seats on a night bus with reclining seats. I had searched out a hostel that seemed to suit everyone’s budget. Things were going well.

Backpacks flailing out of the auto rickshaw, we left Om Beach for the bus station. At the bus station, we unload only to be told that our bus was leaving from a different location and that it was “very” far away. Suspicious that we were only being told it was far in an effort to garner a higher rickshaw fare, Jill wants to walk, which I would normally fully support, but we didn’t know exactly where it was, it was hot, and we had all of our belongings in tow. I wanted to hire another auto rickshaw. Meanwhile, we are surrounded within a very close proximity by about 20 drivers barking the price for a ride as Jill and I smiled at each other through gritted teeth as to whether we walk or drive. I offered to cover the whole cost of 100 rupees (less than $2USD) so we could stop debating and get moving. I’m all for saving money (and walking for that matter), but if I’m going to be cheap about something or even tolerate discomfort for the sake of it, I really try not to let my choices have any affect on other people. And therein is where the conflict began.

So far, I had made some decisions as part of this trio that I wouldn’t have made if I was on my own, but it wasn’t overly burdensome. I had been sleeping head to toe with two other girls in a full size bed with no air con. I had skipped eating at the most recommended cafe on Om Beach because Jill thought it was too expensive. I had just purchased a night bus ticket in a reclining seat (instead of an actual bed) so that we could all stay together. None of this had really bothered me up to this point, but it was beginning to compound. Don’t get me wrong; being frugal is how backpackers get by. It’s what we do. It’s how we learn to travel for extended periods of time without employment or a trust fund. In some ways, I admired Jill’s determination in sticking to her budget, but it was becoming a tiresome subject and beginning to detract from my independent experience.

Our second auto rickshaw dropped us off at a roadside bus stop. I only know it was a bus stop because there were lots of stalls selling spiced nuts and multi-colored spicy rice snacks and lots of people lugging heavy burlap sacks of something or other. A few token cows poked their noses into the stalls only to be given random scraps of plastic, which they seemed to savor with every scrawny rib protruding from saggy skin. We were told to board a small metal van that sort of resembled a bus. Except for the windows, the whole contraption was metal and I couldn’t help but think about what it would feel like to smash my nose into the back of the seat in front of me when I was thrown forward from my seatbelt-less seat during the inevitable head-on collision. Yeah, ok, my morbidity was in rare form in India. Somehow we ascertained that we would only be on this bus for a short while as we made a connection with the real bus in a different town.

Our real bus wasn’t much better and it was a learning lesson for sure. We had purchased 3 of the 4 reclining seats that were on the single side of the bus, meaning that Jill, Mel, and I would be immediately behind each other. The rest of the bus was either reclining seats on the 2 seat side with “extra” leg room OR actual beds like we had enjoyed from Mumbai to Goa. Completely my fault for not asking the right questions, but if I had known there were beds on the same bus and we all could still travel together, I would have chosen differently. As circumstance would have it, our reclining seats were so close together that when the first person reclined, all the seats had to recline and it was impossible to stand up or adjust position until all seats had returned to the normal position. Well, this is not ideal… There were no shocks and no muffler and the bus puttered along like a dead man walking. I didn’t sleep even one iota.

At one of the toilet stops in the night, we discovered that Donal, our Irish friend that we met in Mumbai, was on our same bus. He was sharing a double bed with an Indian man and was convinced that if he asked the man to trade with me, the man would do it. It was a nice offer, but I chose to suffer in my own poor decision-making. Every time we would get up for a toilet stop or coffee break, though, one man from another seat kept stealing Jill’s chair and falling asleep. I shooed him away at least twice.

By the time we reached Hampi in the morning’s bright sun, I was blurry-eyed and cranky. I had booked a hostel that I thought would be ok for Jill’s budget, but it was some distance away from the actual town, which would add to our commuting cost. I tried to ignore the passive aggressive jab since I clearly wasn’t the only one that was grumpy.

An auto rickshaw dropped us off at the edge of a brown sludgy river where we would take a broken little skiff about 10 meters to the other side before hopping another auto rickshaw a few kilometers into the rice paddies and arriving at our hostel. As I walked down the smooth stone embankment toward the river, we were followed by several local men offering a tour guide or a place to stay or another ride. I tried to concentrate on my footing because my flip flops tend to treat the wet stone like ice. In slow motion, my sandal slipped and I went down to my knees, but under the weight of my backpack, the momentum pulled me forward so that I also landed on my face. I was too tired to care so I laid motionless for a second trying to decide how to gracefully get up. All I could see were about 16 leather sandals and all I could hear was a chorus of “Ma’am! Ma’am! Are you ok ma’am?!” When I finally lifted my head, there were several hands thrust in my face offering assistance. I’m told that my glasses were also askew as if I had orchestrated the whole thing for comedic relief.

At the “hostel,” the little bamboo shack was open air as almost every domicile in Asia turns out to be. The common area had about 8 lounging cushions separated by tables so you could lay down to sleep or sit up to eat without moving from the same cushion. One hostel guest, Jeremy from California, spent almost two days straight just laying in one of these pillow beds, smoking weed, and talking to his girlfriend on the phone, “I love you. No, I love you more… no, no, I love you the most…(kissing noises)”. He told us he was planning to hop a bus to “Sari Lanka” and I just didn’t have the heart to tell him Sri Lanka is an island.

We were led up to the sleeping loft which was a room with about 6-8 thin foam mattresses, each covered with an individual mosquito net, and a couple of fans. The bathroom, back on the ground floor, was only accessible from outside. It had a toilet hole, a drippy faucet for the shower, a dim lightbulb, and an ample-sized toad that would peek his head out of the drain just when you weren’t expecting it. Now I know this sounds luxurious and why on earth would I have been disappointed, but in full honesty, the only part of this place that I didn’t like was how far it was from town and that we would have to take bicycles back and forth. In case you missed it, I despise biking and I was just tired enough to spout some venom and make it known. I was unfairly blaming Jill for the location of this place, but I was mostly mad at myself for not just making my own decisions in the first place. The tension between us builds with one concrete brick and then another.

Eventually, after a rest and refresh, we agreed to rent bikes and cycle back towards town. The countryside was dotted with rice paddies and the locals were friendly, eagerly waving to us as we rode by. There was one section of road where we had to go uphill (translated as hike a bike), but it was generally ok aside from the oppressive heat. Luckily, Hampi had its own version of the German Bakery (we were finding this to be a popular name!) and it was just at the river so was a good place to leave our bikes for the day since we couldn’t bring them with us. Back at the murky river, we discovered that just upstream there was a natural bridge if you leapfrogged over some boulders. I removed my flip flops this time before attempting any boulder hopping. Now that we had officially arrived in Hampi and had a brief rest, things were looking brighter.

The town was small and compact, famous for its collection of UNESCO-recognized Hindu temples and monuments in and around Hampi. It was touristy, but not in a flashy lights expensive attractions kind of way. It was touristy in a backpacker kind of way, stalls selling brightly-colored cheap dresses that no self-respecting Indian woman would ever wear, restaurants with lounge chairs instead of normal chairs and strong wifi encouraging people to while the afternoon away, lots of travel agents selling bus and train tickets, plenty of street food. Straight away, we bumped into Donal again. He was staying in a hostel close by and tried to convince me to change, but somehow I felt committed to my decision now and I stayed on. The mood was improving amongst my travel companions and I didn’t want to rock the boat so to speak.

In the Virupaksha Temple in the center of town, we got our first glimpse of Lakshmi the Elephant when she paraded out to the central courtyard for a drink of water. Mel was over the moon to see a live elephant walking around the temple. If you give her 10 rupees, she would bless you with her trunk after passing the rupees on to her handler. I looked in her eyes and could tell she was super bored of performing that trick so I just smiled at her, hoping she understood that I was sorry for her tiresome routine. We never arrived early enough, but every morning Lakshmi would take a bath in the river and put on quite a show for whoever was there to witness it. It was perhaps the only time she ever got to play.

Renting bikes again the next day, we sailed through the rice paddies back to our “parking spot” at the German Bakery. Jill and I rode ahead of Mel and were keen to eat egg dosas, a type of pancake layered with egg and sometimes curry, from the street vendor by the river. Plastic crates were scattered on the ground as seats at the roadside makeshift restaurant. The cook/server might as well have had 4 arms to manage such a high volume of requests, cooking, plating, and delivering them correctly in exactly the order of the queue. His chai was sweet and creamy and heavenly even while clouds of dust coated us every time a person, dog, or cow walked by. When Mel arrived, we skipped across the boulder bridge at the river to meet Donal back at Virupaksha for a cycling tour of the monuments.

The ride was hot and dusty, but it was flat and definitely allowed us to cover more ground. Monkeys watched us from the shade of the trees. Some of the oldest monuments date back to the 3rd century BC, with many more added by the Hoysala kings between the 10th-14th centuries. It changed hands several times between Hindu and Muslim rule before finally the Vijayanagara Empire took hold. By 1500, it was considered to be the world’s second largest medieval-era city after Beijing with the wealth and prestige that tends to imply, attracting merchants and traders from oceans away. Of course, these things never last and in 1565, an army of Muslim sultanates recaptured the city, beheaded the king, and burned it to the ground. What remains is 16 square miles of well-preserved monolithic temples baking in the desert.

I really enjoyed Hampi and I was beginning to think if I had more time, I would have stayed longer. I can’t exactly put my finger on what I liked so much, except that the people were incredibly hospitable and the vibe was relaxed. It turns out almost everywhere I went in southern India felt this way, but I didn’t know that yet. I had allowed six weeks in the country before I would be meeting Martyn in Nepal and then onward toward the dreaded place of HOME. I already began fantasizing about returning to India for a six month stay or six years instead of a measly six weeks.

For our last day, we tried to start early and failed. The unforgiving desert sun seemed to take on a life of its own while we did a relatively short hike to some of the closer monuments. I covered my head and it seemed to help block some of the oppressive heat on the exposed rocky path, but still the sweat poured in rivulets as we meandered in and out of one temple and then another. The most famous and extravagant monument, Vittala Temple, with its carved stone chariot, would be at the end of our loop before we would circle back toward town. About 100 school children were waiting at the entrance gate as Donal and I purchased 500 rupee ($7.50USD) all-access tickets to enter. Jill and Mel deemed it too expensive and decided to wait for us outside. The ornately carved pillars and maze of gateway towers pay homage to Lord Vishnu, who is worshipped as the deity for cattle. I had not really known that ruins such as these existed in India so I was fascinated, all the more with Donal who seemed to share my interest in the history.

In spite of the chattering and hyper juveniles inside the temple, I felt a sense of calm relief to be separated from my companions, even if only a short while. Our situation was not sustainable, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. We were relatively on the same timeframe and were planning to visit the same towns so even if I made an intentional effort to separate, we would inevitably be on the same path anyway. I felt trapped. And truth be told, I liked them, but we had different styles. So while sitting in the shade of an imposing Hindu temple, I decided the only way this would work is if I started making decisions for myself. If our plans aligned, then great. If not, that’s ok too. We did not have to be an unbreakable unit. We had come as independent backpackers and it was important for my sanity that I stay that way.

Beach Bums

Day 728 – 26 February, 2017

The bus from Mumbai to Margao, the transportation hub of Goa, was meant to be about 9 hours. Then we would have to locate a local bus that would take us another hour or so to Palolem. Natalie and I shared a double bed, while Jill and Mel shared another. And when I say a bed, it really was. Night buses in South America were usually just regular seats that reclined further back. Night buses in Southeast Asia were individual buckets that were almost fully reclined, but were usually short in length and a hard plastic surface. In India, the night buses almost always had an option of a full bed with a pillow, a foam mattress, and a privacy curtain. Some had a blanket and bone chilling AC as well. If you were traveling alone and placed in a double bed, you would definitely be paired with a stranger, but booking a double bed with a friend gave us plenty of room to store hand luggage and spread out. I was pleasantly surprised.

There wasn’t a toilet on board so usually a bus stops every couple of hours for smoke/snack/toilet breaks. Not this one. I was jarred awake 6 hours into the journey when we drove over a bump in the road and I realized that I kind of had to pee. I checked the time, realized how long we had been without a break, and assumed we would stop soon. I tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate as I could feel us swerving back and forth between lanes of traffic. I had been on enough buses around the world to imagine the driver narrowly cutting off a petro lorry and barreling head on toward a another bus, horn blaring all night long. How the heck did I go to sleep through that to begin with?? I was freezing from an over-achieving air con as I wrapped myself in my fleece and sleeping bag liner and tried to think about anything besides my nagging bladder. An hour passed and another. Natalie slept like a rock. I contemplated the swerving and the physics of which position my body might be found if we were to ever smash into another bus. Since I was lying down, would I be thrown upright into the wall separating us from another bed or would my legs somehow protect me if I was thrown straight forward? Or would I just be sandwiched between both separation walls, one of them breaking my legs while the other broke my neck? And don’t even get me started on the many ways to die if we flipped on our side. Maybe I should try reading again…

A few more hours passed and now I was getting desperate. The sun was rising already and thoughts of a toilet stop were now dominating over impending death. I thought about flagging the driver, but that would require me to walk down the aisle toward the windshield where I could actually see the oncoming traffic. According to my map, we were in the province of Goa and only a few kilometers from Margao. I can do this. Several minutes later I was squatting between two auto-rickshaws and peeing in the dirt. Even holding to my rule of not drinking anything before a long bus ride, we arrived after a good 12 hour journey which will break even the best of us camels.

Bidding farewell to Natalie, the rest of us made our way to Palolem. It was reputed to be a more quiet beach amongst Goa’s raging nightlife. I had agreed to not book an accommodation in advance – plenty of options we were told. Jill, Mel, and I unloaded from the local bus and tramped a short distance toward the beckoning sound of the waves. First off, we passed some beach bungalows that were adorned with fake bright green plants and holiday lights. The price was 1500 rupees (about $23) for one room and the 3 of us were planning to share. The rooms were equipped with AC and strong wifi right on the beach. Considering we had just come from a hostel in Mumbai where we paid 900 rupees each for a bed, the price sounded good to me. However, Jill hesitated and wanted to look around so we moved on. The next place had a similar price. We tried to offer less, but they wouldn’t take it. Meanwhile, it was boiling hot and we were carrying our packs as we trudged through the sand, each grain sticking to the sweat as it rolled down my legs. I quickly realized that my budget was different than Jill’s so I offered to grab a seat at a cafe and sit with all of our belongings while the other two found us a room. I didn’t mind sharing a room. I didn’t mind if they picked a place off the beach. I didn’t even mind if they picked a place without AC. It’s true that I would have just chosen the first room we saw, but if they wanted to spend less, then so be it.

Ultimately, we booked 3 nights in an off beach no AC bungalow. It had a little wooden porch with laminate that was peeling on the edges. The only fixtures in the room were a full size bed, a small wooden table, and a big industrial size fan. The bathroom was what became typical of almost everywhere I stayed in southern India – a squat toilet, a sink, and a shower nozzle (meaning that the entire bathroom was a wet room when someone showered). It was great actually. This place cost 900 rupees per night (300 each) and it had everything we needed.

We had our first power outage that night. I know this because the fan stopped working and I woke up in a puddle of sweat. Apparently, when you have several bungalows all operating their industrial fans off the same generator at the same time, power outages can be common. Jill, Mel, and I were sleeping head to toe, which wasn’t really a problem except when you start to get warm. I’m not sure how long the power was out that time, but it was a recurring event – several times a day. You know what, though? It was still great. I secretly loved staying in such a seedy place with a few discomforts. We easily made it our home.

I was pleased to learn that my companions loved breakfast as much as I do. Every morning we would camp out at a little joint named the German Bakery and peruse the menu that read like a novella. A few concepts that were common at almost every restaurant in Goa:

1) The menus are long, like really long, several thick laminated and sticky pages long.

2) They almost all serve breakfast, Israeli food, Chinese food, pizza/Italian food, and of course, Indian food.

3) They almost all have an entire page dedicated to lassis (a yogurt-based drink) and smoothies in various flavors.

4) Very few places blatantly served alcohol and if they had it (usually beer only), it was pricey.

5) Service was characterized as any other Asian beach cafe would be (i.e. slow, relaxed, inaccurate, optimistic).

6) There were usually dogs and/or cows loitering nearby.

Since almost every restaurant had the same menu choices, the German Bakery really stood out because it ALSO had a prominently-displayed well-stocked dessert cabinet – big gooey chocolate cake oozing with dark chocolate ganache, a moist and plump cinnamon-speckled apple strudel, bright orange carrot cake with perfectly coiffed cream cheese frosting… India had not ceased to surprise me.

Jill and Mel took off for some shopping while I stayed behind to soak it all in. There was nothing about Palolem or Goa, for that matter, that were authentic India. The eroded beach was relatively clean with mostly calm and swimmable waters. The eclectic mix of restaurant food indicated a global population. Conservative dress melted away to reveal nearly naked international tourists and Indian female tourists wearing shorts rather than long pants. Nightclubs pounded electronic music all night long, yet cows wandered aimlessly sifting through discarded plastic as their next meal.

When Jill and Mel returned, they had secured a bikini for Mel. It was a little yellow two piece that could barely contain her, but it would do the job. The three of us rented some beach chairs and spent the better part of the day in and out of the water. Jill was a few inches taller than me with short blonde hair. She and I both claimed to be runners, but we both looked like we had consumed more German Bakery recently than running. Such is the way of the backpacker… She had completely shaved her head some time before her travels and was in the indecisive stage of whether she would grow it out or not.

Mel had box braids, trailing all the way down her back. They would float on the water if she was submerged more than their length and she proved to be a self-proclaimed “fish,” almost always in the water. Her yellow bikini would dip in the back if it became too full of water, but you could tell she was on Cloud 9 in the salty surf and couldn’t care less. She was American, but I couldn’t place her ethnicity. She had creamy almond skin that seemed to glow in the sun. We were standing in the water, almost neck-deep, having a conversation about race in America. I asked her. And you know that moment when you’ve said the wrong thing, but aren’t really sure why it was wrong? Well, she scowled and her retort was, “I’m black.” Of course, I didn’t hear her the first time over the waves so I had to ask again. I’ve offended her. Crap.

That was the same day that Mel also got a serious sunburn. I can’t remember if she used sunscreen and missed a few places or if she forgot to use it at all, but the sun showed no mercy to her exposed skin. She could barely get dressed or shower or sit down. I think it was a first sunburn for her.

Then I picked a restaurant for dinner that was right on the beach so we could watch the sunset. It reminded me of the restaurants I would frequent in Bali and Thailand. It was kind of touristy with mediocre food, but with an incredible view. It wasn’t dirt cheap like street-food style, but well within my comfort level. I had assumed Jill and Mel would join me, but certainly wouldn’t mind if they made other plans. They did join me and I found out much later that I was making too many decisions “for the group.”

After three days of beach and three nights of cozy quarters, we all made a “collective decision” to visit Gokarna in the district of Karnataka. It would be an hour or two by train further south along the coast. I had heard great things about Om Beach and wasn’t quite ready to turn inland yet. To this day, I’m not sure if it really was a collective decision. I just know that I wanted to go there and the three of us were still having a great time so we went together.

As we checked out of our little beach hut in Palolem, I left a pile of clothes on the bed. I had accumulated new things and my backpack was getting heavier so I had to ditch some items. I wonder if anyone made use of my jeans there in the tropics? The local train was slow and stopped frequently, but all of the doors and windows were open so that warm dusty air would blow through as an Indian-style air conditioner. A few hawkers walked up and down the aisles selling chai from a thermos and other snacks.

From the train station, we hailed an auto rickshaw to the beach down a long windy road with no development. I was assured we were going the right direction by following my map, but otherwise it seemed super sketchy. The three of us in an auto rickshaw was always kind of comical. There was never enough space for our backpacks so we usually had to juggle them on our laps or hanging out the side of the cab.

The driver deposited us in a parking lot that appeared to just be the end of the road. We paid him and he casually gestured us toward a grove of trees. It seemed weird, but as we got closer I realized there were some stone steps carved into the mountain that opened up toward an isolated expanse of beach.

So this is where the hippies come, I thought (the first of many times in India). As we tramped through the sand toward finding a place to sleep, the air smelled of pot and cow patties. This was no surprise as there were cows and lots of people smoking. Someone playing the guitar while others danced around throwing a hula hoop in the air. It was a super relaxed vibe and I was beginning to understand when someone says they got “stuck” at Om Beach, it was completely voluntary.

There were lots of ominous signs about how you could drown here in the seemingly calm waters, complete with photos of recently drowned victims. It was disconcerting to know this idyllic beach was a graveyard.

We crossed paths with some guys walking the opposite direction, backpacks in tow, and we asked them if they recommended a good place to stay. Not the first restaurant we would pass, not the second, but the third was really good with a good price, they told us. Good enough. There weren’t many, like in Palolem, but each of the recessed beach restaurants had a cluster of bungalows associated with it. They all basically looked the same from the outside. The one we chose had several little houses with hammocks and plastic chairs on the porch situated amongst palm trees. The inside was almost identical to the one in Goa. The cost was 750 rupees total per night (about $12USD), split 3 ways.

I ordered fried cauliflower with a cucumber yogurt sauce for dinner. It was my 2 year anniversary of round the world travel. I had almost forgotten if Facebook didn’t remind me at every turn. Jill and Mel pitched in to buy me a beer and the day came and went with little fanfare, the way days pass when you are living on circadian rhythms, day turns into night turns into day. It kind of hit me like a ton of bricks that night that there wouldn’t be a third anniversary. I would need to start thinking about when I would go home and what I still wanted to do before I got there.

The next morning Jill and I rose before the sun and followed a path to Half Moon Beach that had been recommended to us by our bungalow neighbors. It could only be reached by foot, clambering over rocks and a narrow dirt track that meandered around the mountain. The views were beautiful, but it appeared that the Half Moon residents had only recently gone to bed after a late night of partying so the beach itself was abandoned except for a single yogi doing sun salutations in the surf.

Back at Om Beach, in between romps in the ocean, we began making plans to go to Hampi. Mel was due to go home within a few days after a 6 week stay in India, but was weighing the options to stay for another 2 weeks beyond that. Jill only had a 30 day visa and was thinking of flying to either Sri Lanka or Nepal when her visa expired. I had a 10 year visa, valid for a 6 month consecutive stay, although I had made plans to reconnect with Martyn in Nepal in 5 weeks time. Basically, I don’t know how it happened. I don’t remember making a conscious decision to travel together. We seemed to be interested in visiting the same destinations on roughly the same timeline and we were enjoying each other’s company. I had serendipitously traveled with people before and it was fun to have familiar faces around, but in my heart, I am a solo traveler. Whether it be viewed as selfish or as independent, I make decisions for me. So when we began making plans to travel to Hampi together, I reluctantly tried making some sacrifices that ultimately drove a poisoned stake right through this friendship.

The Scariest Place I Could Think Of

Day 725 – 23 February, 2017

India. I really can’t think of another word that terrified me more than that. I didn’t want to go. I had heard horror stories about projectile vomiting and punishing heat and rats the size of frisbees and Homo sapiens pooping in the street. The thick population and the legendary rancid smell…it all gave me knots in my stomach. But there was something. Something about all of those terrifying nightmare scenarios that lodged itself in my subconscious, something that pulled me toward the subcontinent like a magnet. I had to see it for myself. I was sure I would hate it, but what if….what if I didn’t? It was meant to be so mind-alteringly different to anywhere I had been. It was meant to be challenging in ways that were beyond my imagination. In a way, India would be the final exam after two years of travel pop quizzes.

After a serendipitous night out with some Argentinian girls I met in South Africa, they convinced me to go and what’s more, they convinced me that I could do it by myself. I don’t know why I ever thought I couldn’t handle it alone. I mean I’ve been almost everywhere else alone and I always figured it out, but India was the mythical big bad monster that will chew you up and spit you out so over time, I had begun to doubt my fortitude.

I had a connecting flight from the Seychelles to Mumbai via Abu Dhabi. My gate in Abu Dhabi was set apart from the other gates, seemingly in the basement with flights going to places like Tehran and Baku. I consciously dressed that morning wearing loosely fitting pants and a conservative top, yet I felt every set of eyes follow me through the cramped terminal anyway. I scanned the terminal for a place to sit, landing my gaze on two other western-looking travelers. One was a young blonde girl with a yoga mat tucked firmly under her arm and the other was a dreadlock-laden hippie with leather sandals and a burlap sack as his carryon. Almost as soon as I approached, they got up to leave so I just took a seat in one that they had vacated. I later learned she was from the UK going for a yoga retreat and he was from the Netherlands planning to travel on an extended visa. It’s perhaps for the best that my encounter with them was brief, for I would meet countless other souls that fell into these two categories – yogi and hippie. Truth be told, I secretly wanted to identify with either of these cliques because they always seemed super brave and confident in their decision to go to India. That certainly wasn’t me.

Somehow, I was lucky enough to be seated in the bulkhead next to the window. A middle-aged Indian man sat in the aisle and when the boarding was completed and our middle seat was still vacant, he and I exchanged a subtle smile for our good fortune. The flight departed at 1:00am and was expected to land around 6:00am so true to form, I spent most of the flight not sleeping because my body absolutely refuses to shut down while in flight. I can sleep anywhere as long as I’m horizontal. A seated posture just doesn’t work for me. By the time our flight was landing in Mumbai, I was tired and cranky and a huge ball of nerves about leaving the airport. The Indian man sitting in my row asked if I was traveling alone and I noticed that his accent sounded more westernized than I had expected. Turns out, he was originally from Mumbai, but had lived in Chicago (!!!) for about 20 years. He and his wife had moved back to Mumbai only a year earlier with their teenage children – they wanted their children to experience living in India for a little while so they would have a better appreciation for their citizenship in the US. His name was Rajan and while we only began talking during the landing and taxi to the gate, I noted his warmness and admiration for what I was doing. He didn’t seem at all worried or surprised that I was alone; he was encouraging and optimistic. He even gave me his phone number in case I needed anything. I typed it into my phone and hoped that I didn’t actually need to use it, but I felt comforted in the fact that I had my made my first contact in this scary country and that I was no longer alone in spirit.

Passing immigration was a breeze with my 10-year visa securely affixed in my passport, but I made a novice mistake about 5 minutes past that point. Chalk it up to unease with my new surroundings, but instead of trying to hire a taxi or auto-rickshaw the traditional way, I went to the transportation desk. Stories of shady taxi drivers were superfluous, i.e., they will take you somewhere other than your predetermined destination and insist you pay an extra fare to go to the correct address, they will take you somewhere with a similar name to your destination because they may get a kickback from the new location, or they might tell you that where you want to go is closed or burned down so that they can choose your new accommodation (for a fee, of course). By going to the transportation desk, I thought I could avoid this game and get a straightforward taxi fare. Yes, indeed. For 1000 rupees, I could get a non-AC taxi. For 1200 rupees, I could get an AC taxi to go the 2 miles to my hostel. 1200 rupees is about $18USD for a 2 mile taxi ride…in India. For perspective, I ultimately traveled around the whole country for 6 weeks on $32 per day, including food, transport, and lodging. I paid it, blindly, for I was new and unrested and hadn’t worked out the conversion yet. I had no idea that I was willfully getting completely ripped off.

On the bright side, my taxi driver was polite. But on the other hand, the AC was broken, the car smelled like the exhaust was being filtered right through the large hole in the back seat, and the driver had absolutely no idea where he was going. Like always, I followed along on so that I could make sure we were going the right way. I had to direct him by yelling “left!” and “right!” over the clanking noise of the engine and the other traffic buzzing by outside. He only followed my directions 50% of the time so I was off to a rough start. But with that said, I immediately found I wasn’t intimidated by this. It felt very familiar, no different than being with a rogue taxi driver in Ecuador or Paris. I was in India, but just like confronting the shadows under your childhood bed and realizing it was nothing more than your lost teddy bear, I no longer felt scared when I acknowledged the reality was nothing compared to my imagination.

I had chosen one of the only hostels in town. Old Bombay was surprisingly light on backpacker accommodation. There was only an obscure low-profile sign, depicting a small squat house between a tire repair business and a cluster of food stalls. It looked suspect, but once inside it was brightly painted and the powerful AC left condensation on the exterior windows. It was about 7:00am and the adorable couple that owned it had prepared breakfast – a type of millet porridge laden with Indian spices. The other residents were typical of any backpacker hostel; there were several Germans and Brits, and a quite a few more Americans than I would have expected. An interior room was designated for smoking and a haze hung behind its exterior glass wall that would form new shapes every time the door swung open and a cloud would escape to the non-smoking area.

That first day I was reluctant to leave the hostel. I told myself it was because I was tired from my overnight flight, but the reality was because I was still a little intimidated. It was one thing to be in a taxi, watching the chaos bubble and blur around me. It was an entirely different matter to walk in it. That day I met Sarah, an American who had actually been traveling as long as me and was due home within a few weeks. She convinced me to go with her for an afternoon meal (only two doors down) and I entirely credit her with my first steps outside that day. We ate thali, a plate of curries and rice and marinated vegetables that will be replenished as long as there is still room in your stomach. We ate with our fingers, as is customary, and shuddered as a group of boys repeatedly set off firecrackers that sounded like gunfire. I retreated back to the implied safety of the hostel, but I was gaining my travel legs for India already.

The next morning as people were gathering for that day’s complementary breakfast concoction, lentils in a spicy broth, I met Jill and Mel from America and Natalie from Canada. These three and several others had pre-booked a slum tour in Dharavi, the most famous of Mumbai’s slums. Of the nearly two months I spent in South Africa, I had never visited the impoverished townships. My original reason was on principle that it somehow seemed vile for me as a white privileged American to tour a poor black township as if it was a novel attraction. Later, I changed my mind, thinking that a visit to a township could only help to improve my understanding of the complicated history and perhaps open my eyes to the pervasive racial tensions that permeate every layer of society, while contributing the cost of my tour that goes directly to the township you choose to visit. Unfortunately, by the time I had changed my mind, I had run out of time in South Africa. Now, here I was confronted with the same opportunity to visit an Indian slum so I decided to go. Not only would I glimpse some of the maddening injustices of the country on my very first day out, but I wouldn’t have to do it alone.

There were about 7 of us Westerners together, which is a bit of a rare sight in India, especially in the part of town where we were staying. As we walked the few blocks to the commuter train, we learned that staring at white people is common cause for traffic accidents and other general calamities. We boarded the train at Kurla, northeast of the tourist district. Five of us were women and we boarded the train on the ‘Women Only’ car, agreeing to meet the 2 guys at our destination, the UNESCO-designated Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminal. The implication was that the ‘Women Only’ car would be less daunting for a first timer, foregoing the presumed groping and aggressiveness of the shared cars for another day. The sheer mass of bodies in India takes on a character of its own. At times, the collective humanity of the entire country seems to march in organized chaos and you either move with it or you fall into an otherworldly hysteria that is at once both paralysis and panic. It felt natural to me to choose the former. I already felt like I was a part of it.

Women dressed in magenta, marigold, emerald, and scarlet saris gathered on the platform. Many of them sat on the ground or on top of their goods to wait. They gossiped in Marathi or Hindi, stared at the five white women awhile, and were generally in a jovial mood. I was so entranced by my new surroundings and the colorful dress that I was imagining I was in a field of rainbow poppies when the train arrived. When the doors to the train opened, this somewhat lethargic hum of feminity turned into a throbbing mob of WWE wrestlers angling for position. The white women were not spared. Pushing, shoving, pinching, hair pulling, and tripping are all fair game to ensure yourself a square foot of standing or sitting room on the train. A brightly-saried elbow to the gut. Body-checked by a literal sack of potatoes. Clothes-lined by a long black braid. I had to admire their creativity. In a matter of seconds, the train was departing the station and the white women confirmed that we were all still alive and accounted for. I looked around at these female warriors and they had turned back into mild little old ladies and warm-eyed mothers carrying infants. One woman even insisted that I take her seat while she stand with her sack of potatoes. The irony of this place was puzzling and wonderful and I was immediately absorbed by it.

We met at the train station for our tour to Dharavi. Our local guide was a lifelong resident of the slum and had started his own business, giving tours of his very own neighborhood. Out of respect for the occupants, I didn’t take any photos, which is usually what drives my memory for the details of a place, but the most important thing I took away from our visit was the spirit of Dharavi. You imagine that people that are living in some of the most deplorable conditions on the planet, with open sewers for toilets and cardboard for a roof, would be downtrodden and apoplectic. The essence was something quite different, full of energy and entrepreneurship. Every business imaginable was represented in Dharavi. The residents provided for themselves after being shunned from every other aspect of society. Doctors, carpenters, grocers, fishmongers, shoemakers, medicine men, and yogis were mixed in with naked children playing with rocks and barefoot mothers washing their laundry in plastic buckets in front of their shacks. The structures that served as sleeping quarters for Dharavi’s one million residents were haphazardly stacked in uneven rows and spaced so closely together that a fire could (and often did) take out massive blocks of homes. Scraps of canvas or cardboard or flattened out paint cans served as walls and roofs. The floor was often left bare. The air hung stagnant with the ripeness of warm sewage with an overlaying scent of saffron and open fire, while a mangy stray dog, ribs protruding, nosed an empty plastic bag, trying to scavenge his next meal.

Nothing was wasted as I witnessed one of the best recycling programs anywhere in the industrial world. Plastic from all over the city would be collected and sorted by color before being brought to a factory in Dharavi where it was broken down and resold. It could be reused for anything except children’s toys or drinking containers. Paint cans would be reused three times, fired and sterilized between each use, before finally being flattened and used in construction when the integrity as a paint vestibule had run its course. Textiles were fashioned from ripped clothing into blankets and from ripped blankets back into clothing.

I didn’t know what to expect in Dharavi. I had assumed it would be the worst that India could show me. And perhaps it was. Perhaps from my perspective having spent the previous four months in Africa my view of poverty had been tempered, but I didn’t sense any deprivation in the little girl with uncombed hair and a toothless smile. These people didn’t want my first world pity. These are the definition of survivors. When the world gives you lemons…the residents of this Indian slum would use the rind, pulp, seeds and juice to make something bigger and better than I can conceptualize. Dare I say that they seemed happy? Westerners often want to believe that poor citizens of a developing country would be sad and depressed and struggling to get out. Perhaps this desire does exist; however, I saw a strong sense of family and community and making their way in a city where they have been marginalized for decades.

Bangkok has long been heralded as the king of street food, but I found that Mumbai brought my tastebuds to life. Eating street food is always a risk, but one I’m delighted to take. You must look for stalls that are busy to ensure high turnover in the product. If a vendor doesn’t sell his kebab today, he will just try to sell it tomorrow or the next day or the day after that so turnover is key. You must also seek out the stalls where the locals eat. A touristy stall doesn’t really care if you get sick because they will likely never see you again and have an endless supply of tourists to take your place tomorrow. A stall that is popular with locals has more of an incentive to provide good food because their customers will return again and again if they like what they are served. And as for what items to select from a street vendor, anything prepared with unboiled water is a big no-no. Eating meat in India reflects your personal tolerance of risk. I know plenty of westerners that ate meat and didn’t suffer any problems, but I also know a few who did. Many Indians are vegetarian so the meat-free options are plentiful and delicious. For me, as an on-again/off-again veggie, the choices were endless.

We ate potato samosas, pav bhaji (bread served with mashed spicy vegetables), pani puri (hollow fried bread that you fill with a mash of chickpeas, spices, and potatoes), and my favorite, vada pav (fluffy potato patties mashed with garlic and chillies, fried, and served on a bun). Ok, I need to stop…thinking about this now makes me want to return to Mumbai for the food alone!

For nearly every backpacker in India, the book Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts has been read and reread. It’s 936 pages of the author’s love affair with Bombay and is one of the reasons why so many hippie travelers make the pilgrimage to this city every year. I read the book nearly 5 years earlier and it romanticized India in such a way that I couldn’t quite divert my attention even when the fear of traveling there had almost paralyzed me. When I found myself in a posse of backpackers that had also read the book, there was no question we would visit Leopold Cafe. To be clear, Leopold’s is a true tourist trap. It’s located near the Gateway to India and on the opposite side of the Taj Palace Hotel. It’s full of white people, paying exorbitant prices for lattes and chocolate cake, rock n roll music blaring through the speakers. Shantaram made it famous for being the place where Lin, the protagonist, meets many of the other characters in the novel, but its more recent fame is for the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai when members of an Islamic extremist group wanted to target a site popular with western tourists. Bullets are still lodged solidly in the wall by the stairs.

Continuing our self-made Shantaram tour, we walked along Marine Drive, the Queen’s Necklace nicknamed for the street lights that resemble a string of pearls at night. The Arabian Sea glistened in the afternoon sunlight and I watched modest young couples hold hands as they talked quietly with each other. We were a group of 7, mostly talking amongst ourselves, and I found myself falling back so that I could appreciate the atmosphere and absorb the details. You miss too much when you’re with other people. I wasn’t ready to give up the crutch of a group, but my love affair with this country was just beginning to blossom; I needed to be alone with my thoughts.

For my last night in the comfort of this family-run hostel, they were preparing a feast. Folding tables were set up outside; only a concrete wall separated us from the exhaust-choked city streets. The outside community was invited to purchase tickets for the buffet, while the hostel guests were permitted to eat for free. There was curried okra, spicy lentils, steamed cabbage and so much more. A large bucket filled with soapy water was available for dirty dishes, but our hostess insisted that we not wash our own plates which violated our code of being good hostel guests. Meanwhile, the locals gathered around us to watch these strange foreigners sloppily eat with our fingers while they effortlessly scooped up mounds of rice and sauce from hand to mouth without dropping a grain. They gawked as we tried the various dishes, waiting for our reaction whether it be a smile reaching for a second serving or a red face recoiling from the intense spice. I tried to maintain a poker face even when a whole black pepper caught in my throat.

The dress in India is much more conservative than other places I had visited. In good practice, women should keep their knees and shoulders covered at a minimum. And this is not about feminism or making a point or pushing the limits to see what a woman can “get away with” – for me, it was about respect. I saw several western women that wore whatever they pleased, but for better or worse, I needed to go shopping.

Jill and Mel and I had decided we were traveling to Goa together. Safety in numbers, after all. We went to the mall where we ransacked a store that we dubbed the Indian TJ Maxx. I bought some plain t-shirts; Mel bought a bikini for our beach vacation. Jill debated between several shirts for quite some time, but ultimately only bought one. Jill was in her 30s and from middle America and had been traveling for the previous 8 months. She had spent a lot of time in Albania, working on an organic farm (wwoofing) and had most recently traveled in Morocco. In contrast, Mel was 22 and was from the east coast of the US. It was her first time out of the country and she chose India, which I greatly admired about her. She had already been in the north of India for the previous 4 weeks so of the 3 of us, she was the most experienced with Indian culture. I liked them both immediately. My confidence of traveling on the subcontinent was growing in leaps and bounds since my arrival a few days earlier, but I gratefully accepted the crutch of travel companions on my first bus journey out of Mumbai.

The three of us and together with Natalie shared a taxi to the tourist stand where we had purchased our bus tickets. We had tickets from Mumbai to Margao, one of the main transportation hubs in Goa. Natalie was due to fly from Goa to Sri Lanka so she wouldn’t be continuing with us to the beach. To my surprise, a courier arrived right on time to take us to our bus. He beckoned for us to follow him as he darted between the crowds in the street. We were laden with our backpacks, trying to avoid obstacles in the road like people, animals, auto rickshaws, cars, garbage, curbs, and excrement, dripping with perspiration, and not wanting to lose sight of this nimble courier. We walked for about 10 minutes, through back alleys, up and down sets of stairs, finally pausing on a quiet street with several other passengers who had arrived with other couriers. I know this all sounds a bit sketchy, to follow some random guy from the bus stand for 10 minutes, hoping he is taking us to our bus, but believe me, this seemed perfectly normal after 2 years of travel. And it felt equally normal that once we arrived, the bus was nowhere to be found.

I checked the sidewalk for obscene ickiness (not to be confused with general ickiness which is par for the course) before I tossed my backpack on to the ground so that I could use it as a seat. I could tell from the posture of the other waiting passengers that it might be awhile. Jill, Mel, and Natalie followed suit. Street vendors passed by offering to sell us a packet of warm nuts or some freshly cut mango. A plump Indian woman in a blue sari checked her watch and smiled at us apologetically. An orange and white cat swatted at a cockroach and disappeared in pursuit over a short wall. After approximately an hour of waiting, the courier collected our tickets and began hailing a series of taxis to ferry the 20 or so passengers to yet another location. Each taxi was filled with 4 passengers, while our luggage was carelessly strapped to the roof. So far, no one had addressed us in English so we didn’t really know what was going on, yet we went through the motions unquestioning. Twenty minutes and several kilometers later our taxis pulled up behind 2 half-filled buses in another part of town. My backpack was still attached to the taxi’s roof and while the seat I had purchased was already occupied, there was another one available only 2 rows back. Success so far! As I boarded my first of several night buses, I thought, “India, here I come…”