Expat Life Then and Now: My Seven Year Spaniversary

I can’t clearly remember my first days in Spain. Between the jet lag, the whirlwind tour of the Iberian Peninsula with my grandmother and the nagging thoughts and regrets, it didn’t fully hit me that I had up and moved to Spain to teach English until nearly three weeks after my plane touched down on September 13th, 2007.

Cue my Jessie Spano moment once Helen was boarded on a plane back to the Motherland.

I was terrified to start a life in Span alone, barely 22 and not proficient in Spanish. Every challenge – from getting my residency card to remembering how to separate the trash – seemed to come with a mountain of self-doubt. Que Dios bendiga my bilingual Spanish roommate and my bilingual coordinator for helping me through those rough first weeks.

My first year in Spain seems like it was both so far in the past and like it was last year. I met Lucía and Valle, old coworkers from Olivares, last week for dinner, and the piropos rolled in – You look more womanly. You and the Novio seem to be a balanced couple. WAIT you and the Novio are still together? And you’re getting married?! And there’s a HOUSE in the mix!?

My, my you’ve come a long way (proof is below, as far as flamenco dresses are concerned).

Seven years is a long time, leches!

WORK then: auxiliar de conversación // now: director of studies

When I first arrived to Seville, I worked at a high school in nearby Olivares as a language assistant. For the first time, I was deviating from my goal of becoming a magazine journalist, and I’d have to do a job I had no experience in. Actually, in having a teacher for a mother, I swore I’d never run a classroom.

My job in Olivares was fun – I was respected by my coworkers and students, and found I was actually considering teaching as a vocation. After three years, I was given the equivalent of a pink slip and thanked for my participation in the auxiliar program.

Faced with no job prospects, no magic paperwork solutions and no money in my bank account, I thought I’d be done for in Spain, but both a loophole in Spanish law and a school desperate for a native speaker fell into my lap in one week, thus launching my career in teaching.

The longer I do it, the more I love it. In fact, I’ve turned down a few job offers in favor of my current job, directing the academic side of a small academy in town. I still have contact hours and get my kiddie cuddles fix daily, but not enough to leave my voice ragged and my nerves frayed at the end of the week.

SIDE JOBS then: student tour guide and tutor // now: freelance writing and voiceovers + entrepreneur

I came overly optimistic that my money would stretch forever in Spain – and it did, but only because I saved up a ton of green by working two jobs and cashing in a scholarship. But as someone who despises boredom, I needed to find something to do midday other than siesta.

Doing research for an article about volunteering abroad brought me to We Love Spain, a then baby student tourism company. I began asking questions about what the company did and where the trips took them, and was offered an internship as a PR rep. Let’s be clear – PR like you learn in journalism school doesn’t prepare you for Spanish PR. I spent time passing out flyers and making phone calls, but got to know my city and a lot of people through WLS. We amicably went our separate ways when I realized I wasn’t making enough money to support my travel and tapas habits.

I tutored up until last year as a way to make some quick money, but as my professional network grows, it’s hard to find time to commit to biking around Seville and giving homework help.

Nowadays, I fill my mornings with more than sleeping until a late hour and lazing around the house (me and lazy can only be used together if it’s post-work week, and even then, it’s a stretch). I do freelance work in both writing and translating, record children’s stories for iPads and tablets, and am getting a business up and running, COMO Consulting Spain.

Even during my ‘summer vacation’ I found time to plan half a wedding and co-author an eBook about Moving to Spain.

Hustlers gonna hustle, after all.

LIVING SITUATION then: shared flat in Triana // now: homeowner in Triana

The 631€ I earned as a language assistant my first year didn’t go too far each month, and paying rent was my first order of business with every paycheck I got. Turning down a room with a balcony right under the shadow of the Giralda when I first arrived, I ended up in a shared flat in Triana with two other girls – a Spaniard and a German.

 

Living in shared accommodation is one thing, but when you add in another couple of languages and cultures, things can get complicated. I thankfully escaped to the Novio’s nearly every night before moving all of my stuff and my padrón to his house. Four years later, I moved back to Triana with my name on the deed and way poorer. 

SOCIAL LIFE then: bars, discos and botellón // now: bottles of wine and the occasional gin tonic

Working twelve hours a week allowed me to explore other interests, like a flamenco class and loads of travel, as well as left me with two new hobbies: drinking beer and eating tapas. But that didn’t come easily – I actually had many lonely weeks where I’d do little more but work, sleep and walk around the city to stave off boredom.

Once I did make friends, though, life become a non-stop, tinto-de-verano-infused party. My first few years in Spain may have been chaotic, but they were a lot of fun!

Alcohol – particularly beer and wine – is present at meals, and it’s perfectly acceptable to have beer with lunch before returning to work. When I studied abroad at 19, I’d have to beg my host family not to top off my glass with wine every night at dinner, or remind them that I didn’t want Bailey’s in my coffee. But as soon as I met the Novio, he’d order me a beer with lunch and dinner, despite my request for water. 

Now, most of my social plans are earlier in the evening, involve far less botellóns and garrafón, and leave me feeling better the next day. I sometimes get nostalgic for those nights that ended with churros at 7am, and then remember that I have bills and can’t drink like a college kid anymore. I still maintain my love for beer, but hearty reds or a crisp gin and tonic are my drinks of choice when I go out with friends.

SPANISH SKILLS then: poquísimo // now: C1+

To think that I considered myself proficient in Spanish when I moved to Seville. I couldn’t understand the Andalusian accent, which is riddled with idioms and missing several syllables, despite studying abroad in the cradle of modern Spanish. My roommates and I only spoke to one another in English, and I was so overcome by the Novio’s ability to speak three foreign languages, that I sheepishly admitted to my parents that I’d let myself down on the Spanish front when they came to visit at Christmas.

I buckled down and began working towards fluency. I made all of the mistakes a novice language learning makes, including have to put my foot in my mouth on numerous occasions, but it has stuck. In November 2011, I sat the DELE Spanish exam, passing the C1, or Advanced, exam. I then one-upped myself by doing a master’s entirely in Spanish the following year.

I’d say I now speak an even amount of English and Spanish because of my line of work and my choice to have English-speaking friends.

FUTURE PLANS then: learn Spanish and travel a whole bunch // get married, decorate a house and start a bilingual family

A college friend put it best this summer when the Novio and I celebrated our engagement. He told me all of our friends thought I was insane for passing up a job at a news radio station in Chicago to go to Spain to teach, and that I’d made it work.  I can clearly remember the stab of regret that I had when I boarded the plane, the moments of confusion as I navigated being an adult and doing so in Spanish, of missing home and friends and hot dogs and baseball.

But here I am, seven years later, grinning as I remember how different my life was, but that I grabbed life by the horns and made Seville my own. I’d say I’d surprised myself, but I would expect nothing less.

Now that I’m planning a bilingual wedding, dealing with the woes of homeownership and starting a company, I realize my goals are still in line with those I had long before I decided to move to Spain. In the end, my life isn’t so radically different from 2007, just more polished and mature.

Reflections of My Years in Spain – Año Cuatro / Cinco / Seis / Making the choice to live abroad

Five Weird Things You’ll Find in Your Spanish Apartment

Everything came full circle on my first day back in Spain after a summer in the states – the Novio asked me to pick up a few housewares and suggested I head to the cheap bazaar shop two blocks away. My jet-lagged body was on auto pilot as I walked in, found the corner dedicated to tupperware and kitchen utensils, and picked out a few necessities.

It hit me: this was the same place I bought my household necessities when I first moved into a shared flat in Triana seven years ago. And now, with a big kid paycheck and an entire house to fill, I was back at the same chino to buy dishes and tools.

As we settle into our newly purchased chalet in Barrio León, we’re slowly learning the quirks of the so-called ‘Alcázar.’ Our outside lights don’t work, the oven takes an hour to heat for a morning tostada and the lock on the heavy iron door to our parking spaces split a key in two. But it’s ours! Part of the fun (or agony) of looking for a place to live in Spain is the differences between homes in the US and homes here. 

It goes far, far beyond the house versus apartment debate.

Bombonas

Melissa was clear about setting down the rules: she would shower every evening at 8pm once she was done with her classes, so no one could use the hot water from 6pm. When I inquired why (first world problems, indeed), she opened a cabinet in the kitchen to reveal a bright orange tank  - of propane.

In order to heat water, the bombona uses pressure and a small flame, which flows into the pipes in your sink, shower and washing machine. When the tank runs dry, no hot water: you’ll have to call up Repsol and wait for them to deliver a new one, or just wait until siesta time, when the truck will inevitably drive by and clank all of the fuel tanks together to wake you up.

I ended up joining a gym nearby just to have unlimited hot water.   Flash forward to 2014 and there’s an electric hot water tank in my house that holds enough water for a family of four!

Lights on the Outside of the Room

How many times have you fumbled around in the dark to find a light switch?

Surprise! Spanish living spaces tend to have the light switches outside of the room they correspond to. This isn’t always the case, but you may have to reach around the doorframe to illuminate the kitchen after a night out. That, or use the fridge to guide you.

The lights above correspond not to the hall or study, but to my bedroom. When I’m just waking up in the morning, I’m thankful it’s already daylight.

Persianas

I never leave home without a pair of sunglasses because the Andalusian sun is far too bright. Your house has an answer to that, though, as one of the greatest inventions known to man – persianas. These industrial strength blinds are awesome for cutting out light and noise when you’re taking a midday snooze or wanting to sleep in late, but they also mean zero air flow. Fine when it’s cold, but not fine when you’re on the fourth floor and it’s summertime.

Now that I’m living in a house and not a flat, curious neighbors are always peering into our living room, so we often have the persianas down and the lights on. I’m still bumping into walls as I search for the lights.

Braseros

Believe it or not, it gets cold in Spain – even in the south. While houses in the north are more prone to have central heating and thick carpets, Andalusian houses have thick walls, tile floors and often a noticeable lack of central heating and/or air.

Take it from a Chicagoan: you do not know cold until you have lived a damp Andalusian winter.

Spaniards cope with homes that are colder than the temps on the street by installing something called a brasero. Simply put, a space heater is put under a table, and a thick blanket is draped over the table to trap in the heat. People gather around the brasero and try to cover as much of their bodies with the blanket (extra points if it’s velvet). Ingenious? Maybe. Dangerous? Definitely.

Jesus Tiles

There is nothing more Spanish than bad decor. It was hard for me to imagine living in my new house while the former tenants’ things were still there – heavy wooden furniture, mismatched fabrics and enormous portraits of the Virgin Mother above every bed.

It’s not uncommon to see a flat that has hand-painted tiles depicting Jesus Christ crowned with thorns or a weeping virgin (or, if you’re that lucky, the timeless Spanish rose known as Cayetana de Alba). Each city and town have their own patron saints, which grace buildings, benches and even bars. Sevillano favorites? The Virgen of the Macarena, Jesus of the Great Power and the Queen of the Swamps, Our Lady of Rocío.

The Novio and I have one new tile, a housewarming gift courtesy of my younger sister: 

If you’re lucky, your digs will have modern furniture, an oven and a dryer – and you will have essentially won the Spanish housing lottery. Snatch that place up if the price is right! You also won’t get mosquito screens or air conditioning, so start training your body to cope with bugs and heat rash.

Our second year on Calle Numancia, we were able to give the place a good coat of paint, though the mint green in my room clashed with the heavy, dark wooden furniture. But somehow, it felt a little more like my own place in the city. Now that my name is on the deed, I have come to miss those days when I paid rent and utilities, and left the rest to Manolo, my landlord.

Are you stressing out over the apartment search? Fumbling through online ads and not understanding the lingo? COMO Consulting’s guide to Moving to Spain has an extensive chapter on finding flats, from deciphering online ads to what questions to ask your landlord, plus two pages of relevant vocabulary. And that’s just one of nine chapters! Click on the button above or here to learn more about Moving to Spain: A Comprehensive Guide to Your First Weeks on the Iberian Peninsula.

More links: Where to Live in Seville // How to Survive Spanish Convivencia

How are you going about searching for an apartment? Have you found anything strange or kooky?

 

Driving the Amish Country in Indiana

I sat with an ice cream outside of the small, harshly lit shop in Shipshewana, slowly licking the only ice cream cone I’ll allow myself until next summer before it melted all over my hands. Two girls in bonnets, perhaps about 12, kicked down their kickstands, giggling arm in arm as they entered the shop for their own cones.

I smiled to myself: even in a Midwest tourism hotspot, summer traditions never die. Even when you throw an entirely different way of life into the mix.

Faced with my most hectic summer yet, I had been looking forward to the Novio’s Third American Tour and a respite from planning our wedding (surprise?!). After every big decision had been made, we treated ourselves to a day out. We tossed around several ideas before sticking close to Chicago – Iowa City, Milwaukee and Indiana Amish country.

The planner in me cringed when the website was down the day before our trip, and rain clouds had me balking at getting in a car and driving two hours. 

The Novio and I decided to take a chance and drive just east of South Bend to Elkhart, Indiana, perched city on the Saint Joseph river. The County Visitor’s Bureau is located just off the highway, and the woman behind the desk simply stood, handed us a CD and a driving map and sent us off. No explanation, no upselling – just an honest (though strong) opinion on what to do.

I just wasn’t thrilled to stay in the driver’s seat and continue driving.

Logistically speaking, the Heritage Trail is on-point: the CDs provide you with driving instructions along the 90-minute loop that starts and ends in Elkhart, as well as signs that mark the upcoming change in directions. As we straddled towns (and counties), the tracks on the two disks provided us with local lore and history, as well as insight into the Amish way of life.

Country roads snaked us from Elkhart past Bonneyville, onto Middlebury, where we had an Amish-style lunch, and out-of-town to Shipshewana, the mecca of Amish country. Tempted to stop at cheese factories and furniture stores along the way, I instead opted for slow living, driving five under the speed limit instead of five over, and banjo music as we town hopped.

As soon as we turned down State Road 4, the only vehicles we met were horse-drawn buggies. Horses grazed overgrown fields, stark white against the peeling red paint of the sort of barns I passed as a kid on my way to my grandparents’ in the countyside. 

 The Novio was surprised to have everyone we passed raise an arm in salutation as we crawled along the country roads. Buggies were tied up to feed stores, replacing parking meters, and clothes gently flapped in the wind. Even the buggies we passed let out a wool of a hello as we signaled to pass them. 

 

Try as I might to be a city girl, I grew up visiting my best friend Megan on her farm when we were children. Back them, my hay fever didn’t bother me, and we’d play with kittens in the barn, ride horses and play endless round of hide and seek in the cornfields before laying out our sleeping bags on the deck with the wide sky of the outskirts over our heads.

After the stressful start to the summer, I could feel myself breathing normally again.

Once we reached Goshen, the count seat, things went from Amish Paradise to Small-Town-Gone-Sour. Once a bustling city that Chicago gangsters preyed on, the town’s charming storefronts no longer gleamed, and yet another old theatre was being threatened with demolition.

We settled on Goshen’s only bar for a beer, but pitchers were less than a beer in downtown Chicago. As we chatted up the folks from down the road, we decided to call it a day. Driving back home, as the traffic got thicker and messier thanks to a sudden downpour as we crossed the state line, I dreaded the following day’s wedding planning.

Once we were out of Goshen and skipping the second half of the tour, which led to purely Amish Napanee, the Novio whispered to me that he was a little let down with the trip. 

“I saw an Amish woman reading a fashion magazine downtown.”

Have you ever taken a driving tour in the US? Do you love small towns and out-of-the-way places? Check out more stories about road trips: Montenegro // Gran Canaria // Tenerife

Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock (or, why my country confuses me)

When my phone buzzed with a friend inquiring where I was, I had an excuse for being late: I was overwhelmed with being back in the US and had gone to get a coffee. Then I got overwhelmed again with how to order that and settled on whatever it was that the woman gave me.

“Yeah, sorry. America confused me, so I consoled myself with a gallon of coffee.” I then proceeded to be perplexed by the El’s new card system and nearly walked onto a southbound train rather than heading up to Lakeview.

Two weeks into my American foray, I’m still feeling like Cady Heron in ‘Mean Girls,’ and even my friends who have known me for years are puzzled by my being puzzled by America. I have become the adorable foreign girl who squeals over brunch, IPAs and oversized supermarkets and who answers the same questions day after day:

“You mean there’s internet in Spain?” Duh, how would I maintain this blog?!

“Let’s go for tacos! Wait, you’re probably sick of them.” I WISH I had that problem.

As I’m focusing on party planning and COMO launching, I find myself making rookie mistakes when it comes to American life. 

As my sister puts it: America, 364. Cat, 0. For the first time ever, I can honestly say that my American way of life is all but a thing of the past. Apparently 22 years count for next to nothing but my native tongue, and even that seems to be getting lost in a flurry of British expressions and colorful Spanish interjections.

Cash is all but a foreign concept

In Spain, I always carry cash on me and try not to use bills over 50€. In America, you can pay with your debit card, your cell phone and probably the promise of your first-born. As a matter of fact, I’ve only taken out money once in two weeks!

Condiments puzzle you

In a country where mayonnaise is king, this just made me nervous:

Ranch dressing on a Wisconsin brat? I just can’t.

You try to pay in any other currency but American dollars

Going along with the money issue, I’ve accidentally accounted out European coins or forked over my remaining 20€ bill for a gyro. The woman behind the counter gave me a confused look and then launched into an interrogation about how I got the money, how much a gyro platter would cost in Spain and do they even eat gyros over there? My food was practically cold when she was finished.

You ask silly questions like, “Can I use debit here?” or “How will we get groceries if it’s Sunday?”

My Spanish timetable is now a well-oiled machine, so getting a new cell phone on a Sunday and running to the grocery store at midnight is blowing my mind and upping my productivity.

People judge you for having a beer with lunch or wanting to sleep immediately after

In the US, I am usually the one who skips drinking with meals and only need a day or two to adjust to chow times and a conservative grandma, but not this time around. Naps and cervecitas still figure in to a part of my day.

Driving an automatic car is a challenge (and it’s twice the size of Monty)

I keep reaching for a gear shift and trying to push down the clutch. In fact, my sister told me I’d been demoted from driving after I got lost in O’Hare airport (which is one big loop) and was late picking her up. I should also say I’m driving a minivan, so that in of and itself merits a lunchtime beer and nap.

You walk away from a counter without tipping (and after freaking out over a) how big the beers are and b) how much they cost) 

You see, there’s a reason why I usually skip a midday beer – they’re costly! And then, once you factor in tip, it’s not even worth it.

America, pay your wage workers something decent so I don’t feel like a terrible person when I walk away when I forget to tip.

People say hi to you everywhere you go, and you give them your best sevillana stink face

I was the type of person to say hello any time I went into a store and I normally chat up strangers. You can imagine the surprise when people were allowing me to cross the street with my dogs or just waving hello. My confused face is strangely like my sevillana stink face.

It’s freezing

Afternoon showers and 75° weather? Wearing a jacket in late July? Lake effect? Chicago is cold, and I’m not adjusting to the air-con being on all the time.

The joy that is texting for free, and abusing that freedom

Americans have not embraced whatsapp – I’ll send my mom on my favorite free texting system, and she’ll respond with a text message rather than directly replying. I asked why, and she reminded me that texting plans are really generous. Oh, right.

Just as I’m starting to get settled in and remembering cultural cues, I realize that the Novio is coming to visit on Friday for two weeks, which means I’ll practically undo everything I’ve assimilated in these past few weeks. But it also means more siestas!

How are you adjusting to life in your home country after time abroad? Any good stories to share?

Elephant Riding in Rajasthan: Good Idea, Bad Idea?

“Ok, you have one minute to decide: ride elephant, walk.”

Ali swung around, eyebrows raised. His heavily-decorated tuk tuk’s engine shivered as it halted to a stop and he used his leg to steady it. I looked at Hayley and took a deep breath. “I can’t do it, I’m sorry.”

The city I most looked forward to visiting in India was Jaipur, a metropolis dubbed “The Pink City” that is famous for its salmon painted buildings and the Amer Fort. Once we’d gotten our bearings in Delhi and Agra, Hayley and I were set to enjoy endless lassi yogurt drinks and climbs to some of India’s most jaw-dropping forts and palaces.

Other travelers told me that Jaipur rises out of the desert like a mirage, but we rolled in on a sleeper train that was delayed several hours through a seedy part of town. The porter knocked on the door and motioned for us to get off. Jaipur, after Delhi’s chaos and the scam-laden town of Agra, was already a dream.

Ali stood, arms crossed, waiting to take us to Hotel Kaylan. Though illiterate, he pulled out a journal that was full of recommendations and reviews from other traveler. He stood up and opened the compartment under his seat, taking out a photo album so we could settle on an itinerary.

Apart from the city’s main sights, like the various forts and palaces, the Janta Mantar and the Hawa Mahal, he pushed the Elefantastic park, allowing us the opportunity to paint, feed and swim with the pachyderms. After all, the Rajasthani state is famous for its Indian Elephant festivals and breeding grounds, and elephants have been used for centuries in trade and commerce. What’s more, one of Hinduism’s most beloved gods, Ganesh, the god of good fortune, is depicted as an elephant.

Ali drove us to the Monkey Temple at sunset. Animals are quite commonplace in the streets in India – not only are sacred cows able to freely roam cities and eat all the trash they can find, but we saw goats in rickshaws, pigs and warthogs complacently lying on patches of cracked cement, and now monkeys swinging about temples as the faithful prayed.

India is different when it comes to animal treatment. As an American, I’ve always had a pet and have been taught to respect animals. My parents contribute to the National Parks System and sent me to summer camp as a kid, and I’ve been riding horses since I could walk. That said, I eat meat and would probably defend a human over any other four-legged creature.

I found India to be a strange paradox: Gandhi once said that you can measure a nation on how they treat their animals, but there were scores of abandoned creatures. In fact, I didn’t see an animal on a leash until our last morning in India.

We spoke softly to a man who carried around a bag of mangoes and spoke good English. Despite leaning on a cane for support, he’d been climbing up the slippery slope that wound up a steep mountain a few times a day to feed the massive flock of Rheus Langur monkeys that lived in the vicinity of three small temples.

We’d given the Amer Fort a full morning before hiring Ali to take us to the Mughal markets for shopping. But I was still faced with the decision of whether or not I’d want to ride an elephant up to the magnificent, sprawling residence. We spent the breezy night up on Hotel Kaylan’s terrace restaurant, sipping fizzy soda water flavored with lime and salt. While Hayley settled something with her bank, I dove into researching elephant treatment in Rajasthan. 

Part of the hesitation about the ride came from participating in the Travel Blogging Calendar to raise money for Thai elephants. After being clued in to exactly what happens to elephants when they are tamed there, I would have been horrified to support a rehabilitating practice.

I was encouraged to learn that the Indian Government opened and has sponsored an elephant compound since 2010, meant to be a refuge for the pachyderms and a tourism center for Indian elephants. There’s also an Elephant Wellness Office to which abuse and mistreatment can be reported.

The 100+ elephants working at Amber Fort have specific rules about how many trips they can make per day and are limited to two passengers, plus their Mahout, or handler. In fact, most are able to stop working for the day by 11am, before it gets too hot. No downhill trips are permitted.

But get past the first few pages of Google, and the horror stories crop up – elephants dying of heat stroke, of mahouts being trampled to death, of lack of funding for sick and suffering animals. I didn’t even bother investigating how the animals were trained.

The issue, of course, is not black and white. As animals have traditionally been domesticated by man for millennia, and this sort of tourism is crucial to many communities in India, I began to weigh those points as well. The Novio has trained horses and dogs, and his family relies on animal to earn their living, so would I be hypocritical by refusing to take the ride when I’ve ridden horses and camels?

By the time we went to sleep, I was still uneasy about the decision I’d have to make. I’d imagined elephants would be a part of my India experience, just as dosas and a guru reading my chakras and learning to drive a tuk tuk were.

Ali showed up early the following day to pick us up and take us for a lassi before driving to the palace. He pulled off the road adjacent to the Maota Lake and asked: to the elephants, or are you walking up?

I had asked his opinion on the ride, and he admitted that he wouldn’t think about doing it. Ever. Full stop. Ali is a spiritual and respectful man, so I trusted his judgement.

We set off walking, having to dodge hawkers and other tourists on the ramp and stairs that lead to the Suraj Pol, or Sun Gate.

When I saw my first elephant, trunk decorated with paint, I gasped. Having only seen elephants in zoos, I couldn’t believe I was just a few paces away from one – so surprised, in fact, that I narrowly missed a pile of fresh poop.

The climb itself was incredible, and we passed by the elephants through narrow gates. I didn’t, for one second, regret my decision to forgo the ride – it looked shaky, so I wouldn’t have gotten any good photos anyway.

Watching the passengers dismount in the lower courtyard, called the Jaleb Chowk, the elephants turned around and went back the way they came. I couldn’t deny that it was beautiful to watch them sway as they left the sun gate and went back for the next batch of passengers. 

Elephants, in Hindu culture, represent strength, prowess in war, majesty and royalty, and a vehicle to the divine world. But in no way does a vehicle to the divine world mean sitting on top as the elephant trudges up a slope.


  

This article was written as part of Contiki Storytellers’s campaign for Costa Rican sea turtles (please watch the video above!). Animals are an important part of ecosystems, after all. I cannot tell you it’s right or wrong to ride an elephant in India or Thailand or elsewhere, merely that you investigate and make the decision based on your personal feelings. I am not a conservationist or an animal rights activist – I’m just a traveler who didn’t feel right taking an elephant ride. I was not paid for this article.

What’s your take on animal tourism? I’d love to hear from other bloggers like Green Global Travel, Wanderlusters and Hole in the Donut, who are into responsible tourism.

The Amer Fort is located 11 kilometers from Jaipur in the village of Amer and is open daily from 7:30am until 5:30pm. Foreigners pay a 200 rupee entrance fee (about 3€). The cost of riding an elephant is 1000 rupee for two people, plus a tip for the driver.

Learning by Watching and Doing in India

There is no way to prepare yourself for India. Not by reading books or watching Monsoon Wedding or scouring the latest edition of Lonely Planet.

Nothing can prepare you for the heat. The crush of bodies. The smells (both good and bad). The menagerie of animals eating trash on the street. The traffic. True to every single thing I heard about it, India was an assault on the senses.

I woke up groggy every morning from listening to the cacophony of tuk tuk horns that had my ears ringing all night. Every meal seemed to taste better than the last. I was humbled by the simplistic nature of the barefoot kids who were happy in their ambivalence. I have a newfound love for Bollywood tunes, marigolds and milky chai tea.

India got under my skin in a way that only Spain has.

But India comes with a learning curve as steep as they come. After more than 24 hours of travel from Seville to Delhi, and countless more hours awake, Hayley and I were burped out into a muggy, overcrowded city, which was beyond foreign. And our room wasn’t ready either, so we gingerly ventured into the mess of streets in the Kailash Colony area of South Delhi, only to get lost, whine at one another and take a tuk tuk to the closest thing on our map, the Lotus Temple.

After a nap and shower (and a fresh change of clothes), we wanted to see the Jawa Masjid temple in Old Delhi, in the shadow of the overpowering Red Fort. We took the metro to the wrong stop, couldn’t fend off the dozen tuk tuk and rickshaw drivers who tried to pick us up. We walked through a part of town where it seemed that tourists were anywhere but, finally using the call to prayer to direct us to the beet-colored Muslim mosque.

We had a disastrous first meal in India at the celebrated Karim’s (WHY would we order mutton? We must have been that jet lagged…), and then after having women ask to take pictures with us Hayley the streets and dodging every sort of traffic imaginable, including pushcarts, cows and people crawling, we treated ourselves to frozen yoghurt and a sleep not punctuated by anything else but blackness.

As we crawled into the tuk tuk the next morning, I was not excited. In fact, I was ready enough to leave India without seeing the Taj or eating aloo gobi or giving it a second chance. I kept my feelings silent to Hayley for the entire day, realizing that this was her dream, too, and that the only way to make up for the previous day was by opening my mind and heart back up to incredible India.

We soon found that adapting to locals’s customs was the only surefire thing we could do to not stick out as a gora as much as we already did. We watched, and we repeated.

Customs and Religion

India is full of idiosyncracies, especially across regions. In such a large country, each part of the patchwork is just a little different from the rest. I maintain that just walking across the street, one can see everything and nothing, an array of headgear, mustaches, body types, sari styles, skin tones and accents. It’s not called a sub-continent for nothing!

The head bobble: Ah, the Indian head wiggle. While in Delhi, Hayley and I didn’t see much of the ever-famous head movement that is used to communicate both yes and maybe.

 

But when we got to our hotel in Jaipur, run by a family from Kerala, we were taken aback but the range of motion used when communicating a simple yes or no. It took us a few days to perfect, but on our last day, we had a conversation with a five-year-old girl from Pune, in English, who mostly answered by wiggling her head. Learn it and love it.

Clothing: Other travelers suggested buying a salwar kameez, the long tunic worn over loose-fitting bloomers, and not bringing sandals, but sturdy sneakers. I figured we’d buy something in India, but those salwar blouses looked far too hot for the 90° and humidity. 

We did stick to modest clothing, but in urban centers like Delhi and Mumbai, we saw younger women sporting everything from dresses to leggings to saris. Dress modestly at all times, but wear what’s comfortable and breathable. Just like the Camino, we brought clothes that would dry easily and a bar of laundry soap. I caved and bought sandals, as well – my feet couldn’t take it!

Men holding hands: In Spain, many female teenagers hold hands with one another. In India, it was mostly grown men. We observed, and we did, but only for fun and because we love each another.

Bartering: It’s common knowledge that there’s an added gora tax in India – if you’re a Westerner, you’ll have a more inflated price than an Indian. This was evident in none other than the Taj Mahal, where we paid ten times as much to see the world’s most beautiful building (and elbow people out of our pictures).

Bartering is quite common in India, for everything from taxis to clothing. We couldn’t really watch locals haggle, but we’d watch them walk away, only to have the salesman follow and seemingly offer a better bargain. I personally like Hayley’s take on bartering: only offering the price she was willing to pay, and repeating that figure over and over!

Touching Feet: One morning, we found ourselves at the Agra train depot on our way to Jaipur. Our train had not only moved tracks, but had also been delayed several hours. As we staved off sleep and tried to take in everything around us, a crawling man approached us and touched our feet as we watched, bewildered. 

As it turns out, touching feet is a sign of respect called pranama, and it is usually performed by children to elders, or by women to their husbands. After leaving us (and asking for money), he did the same to other travelers, who shooed him away.

Travel

No getting around it – there are 1.2 billion people or so in India, and they’re mostly crammed into its major cities. The sheer amount of bodies and cars and rickshaws and random cows on the street are enough to make you considering a private driver (we did in Agra and Jaipur).

Crossing the street: As Todd from the hilarious show Outsourced quips, crossing the street in India is like a real-life game of Frogger with people. When we’d timidly set out to get from one side of the road to another, one of us would pull the other back, until we decided to stick with big packs of locals and cross when they crossed, or just start walking and hope we didn’t get hit.

After all, the tuk tuks always seem to find a place to squeeze into!

Tuk tuks: Our favorite way of getting around was by tuk tuk, which looked like glorified tricycles with a backseat and a roof. Not only is this option economical, but also hilariously scary when you’re zipping through traffic.

We saw entire families cram into one backseat, so we treated our trekking bags like small kids and stuffed them between us so as to evade possible bag snatchers. We also learned early on to ask the price of your trip and reach an agreement before getting in (head wiggles works), and please keep your limbs inside the moving vehicle. May not be Disneyland, but the same rules apply.

Trains and Undergrounds: We hadn’t yet been assigned seats (India Rail’s website is the most inefficient and confusing mess of words ever), so we inquired at the ticketing office.  The elderly woman scribbled something on our printout and directed our gaze to the electronic board, which announced comings and goings.

It had been easy to find out seats the day before en route to Agra, as train cars were clearly labeled, and the train stopped completely on the tracks for five minutes. First class seats are assigned, whereas lower classes have simple wooden benches and people cram into the compartments.

When our delayed train finally showed up, patrons were jumping onto the platform from a still-moving train. There were close to 80 cars, and not one was labeled as first class. A man snatched the ticket out of Hayley’s hand and showed us onto a sleeper car. 

We tried to protest as we were shown a berth where an elderly couple sat drinking chai. The morning before, we’d shared a table with a wonderful older couple who had shared stories as we had a complimentary breakfast. Snackless and exhausted from an early wake-up call and over waiting, we fell asleep right away, and when we woke up, the couple was gone.

I ventured out to see if there was a snack car, or at least someone who could tell us where we were and ended up in third class. It was muggy and I had about 100 eyes on me. Turning on my heel, I reported to Hayley that we were on our own until we saw the station. As we watched out the window, Rajasthan’s deserts and stark hills soon came into view, and we arrived to the Pink City three hours after we were meant to. (for more on trains, check out this episode of Outsourced)

Delhi has an underground system that was a life and penny saver when we visit the capital city. While the system itself is not complicated, we found out the hard way that you have to pay in exact change to get a token, which you then place into a machine. This token must be kept until you exit the system.

We were delighted to find that every train has a specially designated “Women’s Only” car, meant to keep gropers at bay. The cars were clean, roomy and air-conditioned, though we were in for a shock when we arrived to the hub at Central Secretariat, where we had to change platforms and run to the other end of the train for the women’s car. We did as the Indians do: pushed hard!

There’s also hella security in the underground. Apart from having to actually pass your bags and body through scanners, there’s always a man with an AK-47 right at the entrance to the trains. I can honestly say I felt safe in India!

Food

Confession: the real reason Hayley and I wanted to go to India was for the food. My mouth watered for baby corn masala, naan and fresh coconut water from the moment we touched down in Mumbai. Thanks to my strong stomach, I had zero problems with food while in India.

Indian meal times are similar to Spanish meal times, but a tad earlier – breakfast usually before 9, lunch around 1 and dinner at 8 or so. To everyone who told me not to eat street food, I both love and hate you – so much of it looked so enticing, from fresh coconut slices to fried churro-like candies.

Meal time was one of our favorites – we could relax, plan the rest of our day and tuck into delicacy after delicacy. I have a new appreciation for vegetarian cuisine, for long meals and for using my hands and pushing pieces of bread as a utensil. 

Safely eating: “No, no, you eat this way.” The man in 32K next to me shook out the dried spices and sugar into his mouth, chewed it up a bit, and spit it in his napkins. “Very nice breath!” he said with a smile, and I followed up my Indian dinner on the plane following suit.

I clearly know less about Indian food than I thought.

After a disastrous first meal at Karim’s, we decided to give its second branch, near Humayan’s Tomb and the Hazrat, a try. Tucked into a small street in the Muslim Enclave, the place oozed Far East. The wait staff lead us to a table in the corner, under and air vent, and the power went out as soon as we ordered.

A British couple sat next to us, sharing our table and their stories of three months of non-stop travel around India. They explained things on the menu to us and warned us against eating anything that was able to reproduce. Paneer, a bean curd tofu, stuffed chapati and aloo gobi became our staples during the week, and we mixed them with different sorts of sauces and curries.

We also tried to avoid uncooked food or anything fresh. I missed vegetables and yoghurt after a few days, as well as beer. Taxes on alcohol are exorbitant in India, so lay off the slosh if you want to spend your money elsewhere. I did order a “pitcher” of beer at Leopold’s that was easily three litres.

Water bottles: India was just on the brink of the hot weather when we went in mid-April. Warned not to drink the water, we were sure to have a few bottles on hand for drinking and brushing our teeth, and were willing to shell out for untampered water bottles.

If you see that the security ring on the water bottle has been broken, return immediately. Some restaurants or roadside booths will re-use bottles and fill them with unfiltered water. Be cautious with the fizzy lemon drink that’s a popular alternative to pop, as well. Ask the waiter to open the bottle in front of you.

The Takeaway

India didn’t leave my consciousness right away – I had a nasty virus or parasite or magical fat burner for a week after returning to Europe – and it still hasn’t, a month after we returned to Spain and drinkable water. My body heaved a sigh of relief as soon as we’d been bumped to business class for our long haul flight, as if I didn’t have to have my senses sharpened and my head on straight all the time (I missed you, beer).

My boss was right when she said that India has all of the beauty in the world, but it is full of shadows. We were scammed and once put in a potentially dangerous situation. Women offered us their babies at corners. Heat, anxiety and lack of vegetables left us weak and then made us both quite sick. 

But I think that India is the sort of place that you have to plunge into, headfirst.

I sometimes envied the travelers who were seeing India on circuit trips between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. They didn’t deal with train delays or scams, but then again, they didn’t have any sense of adventure when it came to figuring things out on their own and recovering from mistakes. Hayley and I discovered more than we had imagined during out eight days in India, evident with her quick stride as she crossed busy avenues and pressing our hands together in the Namasté greeting.

India did as good a job embedded itself into my heart and my head as the parasite did in my rock-hard immune system. I just hope the memories of one last longer than the other!

Have you ever felt like a fish out of water on your travels? Tell me about it!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...