When I arrive in Andheri East, at the most awesome Aussie, Elise’s place (she has too!), it was two or three in the morning. It was my first time in India. This was over a year ago.
The roads were empty, I’d paid 5x as much as I should have for a cab, and the driver was angry I wasn’t tipping him. There were mean looking dogs outside her gate, and a meaner looking security guard. It was dark and dirty and I was pretty sure I was in the Mumbai slums (I SO wasn’t!). I was starting to second guess backpacking India alone! Looking back, it’s so nuts to think I felt like this.
I stayed awake because of jet lag and waited for my couchsurfing hosts to wake up for work. All my fears were eased when the sun came up and I could see out their window that I was not in the slums, but was actually in a nice area of Bombay. I felt a little silly for being so worried the night before. Elise offered me a cell phone for the day, made me a chai, and I was off to explore. I should have decided from this point on to only stay with girl CS hosts in India, because Elise made everything go so much smoother, but I’m just not that smart.
First thing to do in Mumbai: Be a badass with Elise and take the slow local to Colaba during morning rush hour. I don’t care what anyone says (Ben), it was fun.
My First impressions of India
Looking back through the journal I kept while backpacking India, it makes me laugh at what used to shock me and now feels like the every day norm. Just like when I explained my first time abroad, I was just as niave almost two years ago in India! Here are some things I jotted down my first four days in Bombay.
- Just because an Indian woman looks beautiful in her sari, doesn’t mean she won’t throw an elbow in my face to get on the train. Still true. Yesterday at LuLu’s grocery store in Cochin, a lady elbowed me to try and steal my green pepper from my cart to claim it as her own!
- Hindi on the phone sounds like a lot of angry yelling. Everyone seems mad all the time, but it’s just the way they talk on the phone. Takes some getting used to; even now, I think my friends are always mad at each other.
- Showering with a bucket takes some new squatting muscles. It’s also really hard to get all the tangles out of my hair this way! I like to brush my hair in the shower while the water’s running over it to help the tangles escape. Hello tangled hair for the duration of my Indian trip! Thankfully, at my house in Goa we have a real shower, but somehow with the scooter rides and ocean swims I still have tangly hair most days.
- The toilet situation… or the lack of a toilet I mean. The hole in the floor was okay… but no toilet paper was definitely a deal breaker. It took me 15 months in India to adjust to the “bum gun” and I’m an idiot for not switching sides sooner. Add on the fact that most public restrooms in Mumbai that aren’t “fancy” have no sinks to wash up. Make sure you have your antibacterial! And Seriously, practice squats before your trip or your legs are going to kill. Indians must have the strongest quads.
- I felt no sense of personal space. It was magically gone. My body was just a big blob always in the way of people. They were going to stand as close to me as possible, until I almost fall over. Still no personal space but not AS bothered by it anymore. If you are waiting in line for something and get lucky with a group of Indians who want to be proper and not line-jump… you better bet they are standing so close they are leaning on you.
- Men at the train station just cutting in line… shocking. Looking back, over a year later, it doesn’t even register in my mind anymore. Neither do the cows in strange places, like this one at the train station.
- At first, I wore a kurta because the stares made me nervous. I thought I needed to basically pretend to be Indian. Websites had advised me to try to blend in and dress traditionally. Now I stay true to myself and wear what I want as long as it covers me up. My Indian friends would give me so much shit if I was walking around in traditional clothing every day that they don’t even wear on a regular basis. If you’re traveling India as a solo female be sure to check out my tips on safety.
- So much gold everywhere!! Even on the women begging. It may not be real, but who knows. As long as I’ve been here I haven’t bought any gold. It’s a different quality than what we use in the U.S. Here in India is is richer, brighter, and has that look that you aren’t sure whether it’s even real or not. In the U.S. people like a light gold or white gold- minus the rappers.
- It’s hot… really really hot. Indians don’t seem to mind, they aren’t dripping in sweat constantly like tourists seem to be, and they don’t need A/C. Our Indian friends actually think the reason our beloved Piso who passed away, got sick because we have air conditioning in the house. Add on trash, pollution, and fish markets to the heat and you’re in for an uncomfortable first day in India! It’ll end with you blowing black snot out of your nose.
- Security is tight. There are men with guns near tourist attractions with them loaded and pointing out at you as you walk by. At clubs they search EVERYTHING looking for drugs. They opened my friends’ cigarette box and searched it. In Goa it’s very different. Now, I just walk past security as my Indian girlfriends have taught me. It confuses them but they never stop me and asked me to come back. Silly.
- Drinking chai all day everyday! For 5 rupees. You can’t beat it! Never crossed my mind the water could make me sick, and it never did make me sick. I say go for it! The dirtier the pot looks, the better the chai ;)
- Even in the chaos and trash on the streets, Indians are a group of people who get shit done. Watching the Dabbawalas at the train station deliver over 200,000 hot lunches from home and not mess up a one was pretty incredible. Anything I’ve ever asked our “helper guys” for gets done. It’s magic. But this is India… where anything is possible! One 7 year old boy even said he’d get me a tiger and he probably could have to.
I loved India when I first arrived, but so many things were new and different. I couldn’t communicate properly, I wasn’t dressed properly, hell I couldn’t even use the bathroom properly.
A year or so later, and I still haven’t learned more than 10 words of Konkani, but at least now I can drive myself around- although my taxi confuses people as I go by. I even drove a rickshaw in Cochin yesterday. I go to the butcher and pick out my dinner from chunks of hanging meat, use head wobbles and “clicks” to communicate with my idiotic internet providers until they fix the cables properly, buy fabric and show my seamstress what I want done, and drive my dog to the vet to get his bollocks chopped. I’ve finally converted to the Indian bum gun, and I even plan on learning a little Hindi this monsoon. (anyone have a good book idea or website for that?) These sound like such simple things but actually took me ages to be able to just go DO THEM without having a driver take me or Ben help me.
The other day Ben texted me asking if there was a lot of traffic or if I’d missed it. I replied “ah yes, much traffic”, and did a head wobble as I typed it without giving that reply a second thought. Ben texted back, “wtf that was so Indian…” I hadn’t even realized!
No matter how long I’m here I know things will continue to shock me. Like just recently I needed a new tire because I ran over a nail… so I went to the mechanic which is easy to find in India- they hang a yellow tire out the front door. The man took the old one, pulled out an inter-tube, patched it, and put it back in. First of all, what in the world…. Second, it was 40 rupees. That’s less than a dollar, people.
I always felt safe in India, but now it finally feels a bit like home.
I have been writing a lot about past travels and random tips for traveling India, but now I’m finally going to be giving advice about the cities and small towns I’ve been in India when I did my first backpacking trip (along with more random tips). Get pumped because first is Udaipur, the “Venice of India“, aka the most romantic place in India.
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