The Best-Kept Secrets in Florence

I admit I’m terrible at keeping secrets, but only the kind that you’re bursting to share with people. The kind where no one is being talked about and no one will get hurt.

I would have loved to keep the Novio completely in the dark about our Tuscan holiday until we arrived to the airport in January 2013, but as someone who hates surprises, it was easier to tell him to pack for a weekend of eating and drinking, with a little bit of walking around in between courses.

It’s not secret that I love Italy and just about everything I’ve experienced – my great aunt married an Italian just off the boat, and together they founded Chicago-based Italian food import company Dell’Alpe. Italian food and language have always been present at my family gatherings. The Novio had never been to anywhere north of Cagliari, so I bought him round-trip tickets, a secret I kept for less than three hours. 

Having spent my first solo trip in Florence, the city’s main sights held little mystique, so I got a local to spill the beans – Tiana Kai, an American married to a Fiorentino, who sent me a list of bars, enotecas and hole-in-the-wall trattorias. But everything went out the window when we arrived cold and hungry to Florence after 10pm.

Despite wrong turns, nearly scratching our rental car and being at the inability to find our hotel, the concierge suggested a hidden trattoria for dinner. When I say hidden, I meant really was – even after an exhaustive Internet search, I still can’t find the name. It was near the Mercato Centrale and just as nondescript as every family-run restaurant on the street.

We arrived just before the kitchen closed around 11pm. Ushered to a table and poured glasses of wine, we blinked blindly at the menu, which was all in Italian. A group of American students chattered nearby, crinkly their glasses of Chianti together every opportunity they got.

I found two words I knew – ravioli and gorgonzola – and settled on it. The Novio ordered another ravioli dish and a plate of antipasto. We broke a no-pasta-or-rice-before-bedtime rule.

The restaurant’s kitchen was just over his right shoulder, so I watched the chef hand roll the pasta, shape the raviolis and stuff what looked like pulled pork into the small squares of pasta. Lumps of cheese went into mine, which were then tossed in a wine sauce and garnishes with walnuts. The Novio had unwillingly chosen wild boar, which is also the unofficial mascot of the city (hence the photo).

The following morning dawned cold but bright. I walked the Novio past all of the important sites – the Uffizi Galleries, the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio. We vowed to spend our euros on food and drink, and therefore skipped the lines at the Medici palace for an espresso in the square, just steps from the iconic David statue.

We ended up near Santa Croce at noon. Entrance was a few euros, but as soon as the Novio found out it was Franciscan, he was willing to fork over the equivalent of a nice glass of wine. Though not a secret, hidden church, this basilica houses the remains of illustrious Italians, like Galileo and Michealangelo, in addition to providing respite from the cold sun. It’s a simple church, though its 16 chapels house frescoes from celebrated Italian artists.

We sat in the adjacent plaza after our visit,and I turned on my data to try and find a hole-in-the-wall pizza place I’d visited a few years back and found an open wi-fi code at a nearby wine bar. 

A college friend of mine had studied in Florence and recommended Il Gato e la Volpe. I had a meal there five years before, during my first trip alone in 2008. The waiters had sat me with an Italian American family who shared their wine and breadsticks with me as I devoured a pizza by myself.

Secret or not, this is as dive bar as classy Florence gets – wood paneling, rickety chairs and the smell of burnt pizza crust. We shared a liter of beer, a pizza and gnocchi with pesto for less than 12€, the price of a plate of pasta or individual pizza in a moderate restaurant near any major site in the city. (Via Ghiballina, 151, near Santa Croce. Open Daily)

We walked off our plates in the neighborhood, exploring roadside monuments and tucked-away piazzas before ending up back at the Arno and within view of the Ponte Vecchio.

The last place on our list was Piazzela Michelangelo – not an off-the-map place by any means, but most tourists don’t know it’s accessible by car. Tiana had clued us is, so we grabbed our bags from the hotel, shifted into first gear, and climbed the winding street in our Fiat.

The views were stunning on the clear day. We traced our steps through the narrow roads of the so-called Cradle of the Renaissance, from the Mercato Centrale to the Duomo to the backstreets of Santa Croce.

We were soon on the road to Bologna, food capital of Italy, where we’d skip again the leaning towers in favor of pasta, oysters and wine. Even in Emilia Romagna, we’d find locals willing to lead us to local foodie hangouts and invite us to rounds of grappa in the university area.

We left Italy after 48 hours, easily a few kilos heavier and without seeing any major sites. Unless, of course, you could seeing the Ponte Vecchio from afar.

Have you ever been to Florence or Bologna? 

Romancing the Charm of Dunedin

Dunedin is the perfect blend of the contemporary and historic. The city charms couples with its bluestone Victorian buildings, hilly suburbs, tempting bars and cafeterias, live-music, wildlife-viewing opportunities, thriving theatres, and pulsating nightlife. This vibrant ‘University City’ is a preferred destination for a romantic day out. It helps lovers strengthen their vows in the beautiful locales of Lamach Castle, Speights Brewery, Tunnel beach, Otago Peninsula and more.

The many delights of Dunedin are best discovered by pre-booking Hertz car rental services. With the best chauffeur driven services at their disposal, couples can look forward to many more relaxed moments as they drive from one sightseeing location to the next –in an easy and convenient manner.

Culture and Character—Close to Nature

Dunedin, set amidst a celestial landscape and fringed by the sea, hums vibrantly with culture, colour and natural bounties alike. Here, nature dominates the innate character of the city and makes it an ideal destination for honeymoons and/ or romantic weddings. Dunedin’s cityscape is punctuated by Edwardian and Victorian spires, neo-Gothic buildings and stately homes. No wonder it reminds visitors of the autumnal charm of New England and the bustling cafés of New York. One of the most popular haunts for tourists of all ages, its city centre boasts of its own distinctive ambience and aptly contributes to the unexpected cultural delights.

Art, Craft and Wildlife!

From fashion design outlets to high quality local art and crafts, professional theatre, orchestra, “Writers’ Walk” through Dunedin’s central areas and quaint marketplaces, there is lot to keep one busy across the day. Additionally, the city’s proximity to wildlife introduces enthusiasts to the world’s rarest penguins, New Zealand’s sea lions and the flight of the royal albatross at the magnificent Otago Peninsula.

Places worth Visiting in Dunedin

A luxurious drive takes visitors in Dunedin to Larnach Castle that sits above the harbour and offers stunning 360° shots of sea, city and its surrounds. The dramatic cliffs located near Lover’s Leap offer landscapes of striking intensity while its Botanic Garden presents a diverse selection of plants in beautiful topographical locations. The other places worthy of a look are the Edwardian Railway Station with fanciful stained glass windows, First Presbyterian Church built way back in 1873, the St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral with 38 Takaka marble steps, University of Otago with picture perfect architecture, Glenfalloch Woodland Garden and so forth.

 In other words, Dunedin rocks—even if you visit it for a day! 

Have you ever been to New Zealand?

A Peek at Life in India: the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

From where we stood, halfway up the hill to the Monkey Temple, the waning light was turning ‘The Pink City’ a pearly, golden hue. The jagged skyline’s stack of buildings and telephone poles, a thousand candles, was like a fanciful birthday cake.

I scanned the horizon across Jaipur, noting the immense desert city that sat sprawled between mountains. We’d come because the city that had been painted the color of hospitality was rumored to be beautiful but gritty, busy but manageable. The Amer palace was the draw, but I had my eyes locked on the cake topper in the center of the cake – the Hawa Mahal.

Our tuk-tuk driver, Ali, warned us that the Hawa Palace was not really worth seeing. “It’s a house. A pink house. Better at Mughal market for the shopping.”

I’m sure you say that to all the ladies, Ali. Tu t’aime las filles, after all.

On our only full day in Jaipur, we did a whirlwind tour of the Fort, skipping the elephant ride as we climbed the hill on which the intricate palace sits before seeing the Janta Mantur observatory. While Ali tried to persuade us that it was better to skip the pink palace for a lassi drink and browsing the spice market, I couldn’t get over the pink lattice windows that peeked out above the city palace.

Like in many countries I’ve visited, the Hawa Mahal is essentially a fancy brothel, beautifully constructed living quarters that once included gilded doors and extravagant fountains against a facade that resembles a honeycomb. The five-story building is riddled with staircases, rooms, windows and lattice-work, allowing its inhabitants to see life on the streets below without actually being seen themselves.

Hayley and I saw a great deal of India from a tuk tuk, not quite on in a hit-the-pavement sort of way I had craved when we booked tickets. Even through the kindness of hotel owners, who helped us when we were scammed, through driving tuk tuk down deserted roads, to posing in pictures with sari-clad Indians in front of the Taj Mahal, I feel as though we barely scratched India’s expansive surface.

Like the women who once lived in the small bedrooms of the Palace of the Winds and could witness the trading and chaos, the wandering animals and the comforting hum of daily life in Jaipur, our India experience felt like theirs – someone not quite on the inside. I suddenly had the urge to skip Mumbai and stay in the Pink City, to consider India in the future. After five days, two train rides and countless interactions with strangers, I knew one trip to India would never be enough for me.

Ali was waiting for us at the Tripolia Bazaar, feet up on the narrow dashboard of his motorized tricycle. “So, very boring, yes?” he questioned as we climbed into the back and he sped off towards the spice market.

I somehow knew India had gotten under my skin in that very moment.

Have you ever wanted to learn more about a destination after you’d visited? Or do you see things and then mentally cross it off a bucket list?

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.

Is Neuschwanstein Castle Worth It?

Sometimes, as a traveler, I struggle with taking the road less traveled and getting off the beaten path. I also struggle with not using idioms because I not-so-secretly love them.

Anyway, I am the first to admit that I love what everyone else does. Duh, that’s how they get popular in the first place.

Munich has always been a city in the back of my mind to see, just as Spain was since I first learned to say, “Me llamo Cat.” After attending Oktoberfest, I was hooked. Taking advantage of having my family’s arrival to the Munich Airport for our Viking cruise, I planned three nights in Bavaria.

I knew I could see Munich in a day, exploring its Christmas markets and beer halls with my cousin, which left me a full day for going elsewhere. Top contenders were Dachau, Nuremburg and Neuschwanstein Castle.

By the time I boarded my flight, I was still undecided and started considering whatever was cheaper. 

I arrived to my hostel after midnight, falling asleep with the internal wrestle of to do what was popular and what was probably better for the history nerd in me. The following morning, as I set off to meet Christyn, a group of Brazilians introduced themselves and revealed they’d be renting a car to drive to Neuschwanstein the following morning, in case I felt like joining. I politely turned the invitation down, imagining I’d choose to go to Dachau.

An hour later, as we sipped our first glühwein in front of the Rathaus, I announced my plight: visit a castle, pay respects at Dachau, or nerd out in Nuremburg. Christyn revealed Neuschwanstein was one of her favorite sites in all of Germany (this, from the girl with just as much adventure and curiosity as me, just types “schloss” into her GPS and follows the highway to a different castle on free weekends). Without so much as a second thought, I resolved to follow her advice.

The following morning, I boarded the first train out to Füssen, the end of the line. The train was chock-full of tourists, and I cursed the 44€ train ticket and the two-hour trip and the two girls seated opposite me who talked on their phones the entire time. I was moderately hung over from all of the wine and beer yesterday, and my stomach churned from overdoing it on the sausages, too. 

The landscape went from industrial to flat and without so much as a trace of a village for hours. By the time we got to Füssen, a small town near the foothills of the Alps, I’d gotten over myself. Like cattle, everyone emptied out of the carriages and directly onto the bus bound for Hohenschwangan. I kept my nose pressed to the glass to see the fairytale castle that inspired a hundred, um, fairytale castles, but the swarm of fellow tourists gasped as it came into sight. 

Built as a retreat for Ludwig II in the 1870s and 1880s, the castle is visited by more than 1.4 million people each year. On a crisp day just before Christmas, the whole place was alive with activity, and I felt like there were 1.4million people there with me. I chose to walk on foot to the nearby Hohenschwangau castle first.

I overheard two other tourists claim that the best, unconstructive view of Neuschwanstein could be seen from the chapel built right into the mountain. I eagerly climbed, Camarón ready, but it was hard to see the celebrated castle. 

Already feeling a bit disappointed with German Disneyland, I decided to forgo entering the castle, as I already felt overwhelmed by the number of tourists, the wait time (nearly two hours!) and the cost of the guided tour (12€ or 23€ to go into Hohenschwangau, too). The train ticket had already cleaned me out of cash, so I grabbed a grabbed a glühwein at a small cafe in town before starting the trek up the hill.

The thing about traveling alone is that you have no one to pull you one way or another and no one to take pictures of you. I grumbled as I looked for someone who spoke English or Spanish to take my picture (see above). In the two hours I’d spent at Neuschwanstein, I didn’t feel inspired or awed or even able to find a reason why it was worth making the trip.

In the end, I didn’t think visiting Neuschwanstein was worth the day or the money. The train trip was long, the cost to visit the castle itself was steep, and I worried I’d have to photoshop the hell out of my photos to remove the other baseball caps and elbows that surely snuck into my shots.

Don’t get me wrong – I will go to the Eiffel Tower every time I am in Paris, and I will enjoy it. I gleefully step into Plaza Mayor in Madrid and marvel at the fact that it was once a bull ring. Seeing the Taj Mahal was an intense experience between the heat, the people and the sheer beauty of the place.

But Neuschwanstein didn’t do it for me, even after I’d braced myself for the tourists, the prices and the cold.

Turning on my data to search GoEuro for busses back to the train station, I found I had enough time to walk down the hill, grab a few postcards and stand in line for the bus back to Füssen, where I would kill nearly two hours before the train back to Munich (and I ran into the Brazilians there, after an all night binge).

Füssen, as it turned out, was a lovely surprise to end the day. The Christmarket on the main shopping street was small but lively, and the morning bustled with shoppers and partygoers. I camped out on a bench with a beer and a bratwurst and listened to Tyrolean horns toot out Christmas carols.

Later that night, after wandering in the Christmas markets, I called the Novio in the hostel’s atrium before saddling up to the bar for another weisserbier. The bartender addressed me in Spanish, confessing to having overheard me on the phone. Inquiring about my time in Munich, I recounted my day and my disappointment with the castle.

My heart sunk when he told me that I could have bought a youth pass or even used my Carnet Joven to get a hefty discount on the train at 10am, something I would have known if I had actually done more research, as I intended to. I gulped down my beer and ordered another, sharing travel tales with the worldly bartender. Like many travel fiascos, a drink and a laugh do me wonders.

I’d consider going back for half the cost, and perhaps during the warmer months. I feel at home in the mountains, despite being from the Prairie State, and find Neuschwanstein more breathtaking in the summer. 

Love Germany? Been to the-Castle-with-the-Impossible-Name? Or have destinations that didn’t live up to your expectations? Check out my other posts that you’ll liebe:

A Guiri Guide to Oktoberfest // Passau, the City on Three Rivers // Karnevals of Cologne

 

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!

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