Kotor Revisited, and How to Deal with a Travel Slump

Kotor was moody and fickle. Storm clouds – dark and heavy – threatened to ruin our hike, but midway up the mountain, the temperature had surged five degrees, leaving me sweaty for a picture proclaiming I’d reached my 30th country.

MEXICO

But, joder, she was worth the wait.

I’ve always traveled with a heightened sense of awareness – most notably, with my five senses. I can nearly savor the fried grasshoppers in Beijing or hear the call to prayer in Marrakesh (maybe those are just the annoying church bells at my local parish). In Kotor, though, I felt nearly numb to anything else but sight.

Emerald water and beet red roofs contrasted the ominous grey mountains that wrapped around the bay and the slate houses. Small boats bobbed as the waters lulled and lapped against the port. The mountains seemed hung from the sky.

picturesque Montenegro

Our road trip around Europe’s newest country had very loose rules. From our base in Herceg-Novi, we spent a few days doing our normal travel thing:  wake up, drive the car around until something pretty caught our eye, gorge on cevapi sandwiches and local beers (and the addictive JOST! snacks). 

The weather turned from bad to worse as we descended on Montenegro via Dubrovnik, including a hail storm and power outage once we reacher Herceg-Novi on empty stomachs. Each day, we’d simply drive out of town on the main road, keeping the Bay of Kotor on the right hand side of the vehicle and tick towns off the map: Perast, Tivat, Budva.

Fog over Kotor Montenegro

The undisputed jewel of the Montenegran Adriatic is Kotor. An unblemished Old Town, traces of Venetian, Ottoman and Napoleanic prowess and a varied population make it a popular destination and UNESCO World Heritage city.

2013 was a red-letter one for me as a professional and as a traveler, but only now, two years after our trip, do I feel like I found Kotor to stir up some weird feelings in me.

Historic Center of Kotor

Arriving in the early morning, we were told to take the stairs out of town that led to the old fortifications and a smattering of old Via Crucis and roadside temples. The 1350 steps were steep and the humidity hung heavy over our heads. Layer by layer, I took off my scarf and blazer as we climbed closer towards the castle and the gradually lightening sky.

Always privy to climb to the highest point of any given city to see it from above, Kotor didn’t disappoint. I probably blinked a few times. Like Dubrovnik, the views were storybook, like something I’d seen on social media and had dreamed up. 

The Bay of Kotor and mountains

The rain held off enough, but the dark clouds of the morning seemed to have cleared up in the sky, but were beginning to cloud my thoughts. I took my obligatory picture at the top, under a red flag emblazoned with a black eagle. Thirty countries, jaw-dropping views…and I was rather blasé about it.

Back in town, we tucked into a cheap local beer and greasy pizza slices before wandering the small but stunning well preserved old town. I can’t recall many details from the afternoon, save the pristine city streets juxtaposed with the jagged rock face of the surrounding mountains, the cats leaping onto café chairs, the domes of the Orthodox churches. My sight prevailed, but I failed to catalogue sounds or smells or even a local taste.

Nothing exciting, nothing unordinary, nothing particularly great or not great describes my day in Kotor, and even the way I’m beginning to feel about travel.

Historic Kotor, Croatia

Kotor marked a beginning and an end, in a way. Since I was 20, I’d longed to travel to world and learn a language or two. I told myself 25 by 25 would suffice, and pulling into an abandoned bus terminal in Prague at the break of dawn before my 25th birthday meant I’d have to rethink my goal.

Afterwards came Romania, Turkey, Andorra, and Montenegro (and then Slovakia and India), and I surpassed that goal before turning 28. A beginning to more mature travel and an end to constant moving.

Boats on the Bay of Kotor

I’ll be 30 in less than two months, with a mortgage and a new husband to boot. Travel hasn’t lost its sheen completely, but my preferred web sites are decidedly devoid of budget airline sites. I still get delight out of pinning places and reading blog posts about travel gear and news apps and far-flung destinations, but I’ve strangely not had much urge to travel.

A close friend asked me recently about my upcoming travel plans and I realized I hadn’t been on a plane sine January, and that was to Barcelona. That my airline miles on AA had expired from disuse. That my rolling suitcase had collected dust. I’m not packing up my passport, but then again, I’m not 100% certain as to its whereabouts.

St Tryphon Cathedral Montenegro

Since money again became a concern after the house (those things cost a lot of money to maintain – who knew?), my trips have been limited to weekends and any place I can reach by car. That’s meant a bachelorette party in Málaga, a solo hike on the Caminito del Rey, scattered weekends in Madrid or San Nicolás. For someone ready to comerse el mundo, it’s a weird – albeit welcome – feeling.

Back in Kotor, we bought and wrote postcards, sipped free beers as we checked our emails and caught up on Facebook, occasionally popping into a shop or craning our necks for a photo. But, as a destination, it garnered a mere, ‘meh.’

Shutters in the center of Kotor

I didn’t have any profound or life-shattering epiphanies upon reaching my 30th country before turning 30, just as I didn’t find enlightenment in India (just a stomach virus and a love for tuk tuks) nor did I figure out the meaning of life on the Camino de Santiago. For the woman who vowed to never feel tied down, I found that I needed a limit, a destination that failed to wow me, a place that made me choose how to spend my money. Kotor was undeniably beautiful, but lacked spark. 

I have no big trips on the horizon, and even our post-wedding road trip to New Orleans is an afterthought for me. Walking back over the Triana bridge on a balmy late spring night, I felt tears fill my eyes as the sun was setting. The gentle buzz of traffic, the smell of churro grease, the cobblestones under my feet.

As it turns out, my senses feel most alert in the very place I live, so I think I’ll be sticking around here for a while.

Have you ever experienced a travel slump? How did you overcome it?

Yes, Boss! : On Learning to Drive a Tuk Tuk in India

“Ok Boss, you take over now.” Mukul grinned widely as he took his hands off of the glorified bike handlebars that constitute the steering wheel, ignition and gas pedal of a tuk tuk, and motioned for me to take over. We were in the middle of rush hour traffic in Agra, India (which is, for the record, every waking hour of the day in my observation). My eyes most have grown wide in the rearview mirror because he took over again just as soon as I’d shaken my head no.

A tuk tuk is a ubiquitous symbol in many Asian and African countries, used to transport passengers most commonly. It’s like a motorized tricycle with a rudimentary automobile body resting on top. We had been warned: keep your hands and feet inside, and don’t take any babies offered to you on street corners.

Tuk Tuks in India

From the first time we took one in Delhi – from our hostel in M Block to the Lotus temple – I was hooked. In fact, we’d skip bicycle-pulled rickshaws and even elephants to get around India, always amazed at how fast the little things zipped, and how easily they’d maneuver through traffic.

Tuk tuk drivers have to have their driver’s license, but you’d never know. On more than one occasion, I was nervous the thing would tip over (or I’d fall out) when a driver would take turns to fast, or that the whole “Oh, everyone honks their horn, even though it’s illegal” excuse was enough reason to garner a fine. It was thrilling but oftentimes scary. 


In Delhi, we preferred taking the women’s only train car on the underground, but gritty Agra merited a tuk tuk. Mukul was employed by the homestay we’d be staying at and offered to be at our service the whole day – for 6€. The ride from the station took ten minutes, as the road ere clogged with commuters in trucks, cars, motorcycles and tuk tuks, along with the odd cow or goat. I was impressed with how the tuk tuk’s three wheels could navigate roundabouts with no clear traffic signs or lanes.

“You see, to drive is so fun!” Mukul said. I would take his word for it. 

After dropping our bags and adding our names to an ancient guest book that registered travelers from all over the world, Mukul took us to the Taj Mahal. Built along the Yamuna River as a mausoleum to Shah Jahan’s third wife, the whole reason we’d come north was to see the building said to make the sun and moon shed cheers. He dropped up near the bazaars to the south of the complex and told us he’d wait there for two hours.

Visiting the Taj Mahal Agra

The Taj was stunning, just as I imagined it would be.

And that made Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned until his death, facing the mausoleum, all the more meh.

Deciding to skip the Baby Taj that afternoon for a nap (old habits die-hard, even while traveling), Mukul was waiting for us outside the homestay, napping himself with his feet sticking out of the tuk tuk. “Hop in boss! You drive?” he asked, stepping out of the vehicle.

Tuk Tuk Drivers

We again declined and had him take us to the Mehtab Bagh, manicured lawns facing the northern facade of the Taj. We admired the temple from afar as the sun begin to wane. It was one of those moments where the world seemed to stop and I found myself nearly short of air – it’s that magical, and I felt at the same time 8 and 80 with wonder. I made an announcement:

“I’m going to ask if I can drive Mukul’s tuk tuk.” Hayley gave me the same bewildered look that I had given our driver that morning.

Mukul was having a chai tea at the stand across the street from where he’d left us, chatting with other drivers and holding the cup with just three fingers. He immediately sat up, gulp his tea down and unleashed the grin when I told him I’d like to take him up on his offer. 

How a tuk tuk works

There wasn’t much of a learning curve: you switched on the engine, then rolled the handbar throttle to get the thing going. We tuk-tukked down the road back towards the Red Fort, Mukul sitting at my side to steady the handlebars. The cylinders seemed to be in the steering mechanism – I could feel all of the energy pulsating through my hands.

I felt like I was speeding, risking an accident (or insurance claim), like I could maybe take on the traffic on the ring road. 

Tuk Tuk Driving

Then another vehicle passed and I told Mukul I was finished, just before we found the Muti Mahal neighborhood buzzing in the wake of the elections, which took place that very day. Marigold garlands had been strung in doorways, and people were drinking fizzy water while sitting on plastic chairs. We sped past them, honking.

“Ok, Boss! Next time you come to India, you drive to the city!” he offered, but Agra was sadly a disappointment overall.

Riding in tuk tuks in India

We took one more tuk tuk ride with Mukul, from the home stay to the train station, stopping for a milky chai tea at a roadside hut. Ali would be waiting for us on the other side of  a sleeper train with a decked out tuk tuk, stories from his guru and the same large grin it seemed every Indian we encountered had.

When I think about India, I can almost feel the two-stroke engine under my butt and the potholes, just the same as I taste a warm butter naan or smell the sandalwood. 

The Colors of India - Tuk Tuks

On our last day in India, trying to spend our rupees as we suffered through a humid day in Mumbai, a street vendor on Elefanta Island was peddling small, plastic tuk tuks. We bargained him from 100 rupees each to 100 for both – about 1.30€. The toy barely fit in my bag, already replete from clothing purchases, tea and spices. It’s now sitting near my desk as a reminder of road trips, of awakened senses and that lonely road near the Mehtab Bagh.

Would you ever drive a car in a country like India?

Want more of this eye-opening country? Check out Learning by Watching | The Colors of India | The Hawa Mahal

My 2014 Travel Roundup

2014 will be a year that marked just as many beginnings as it did ends. It’s a year that I can’t decide whether or not it goes in the win tally or not, as I just crossed one destination off of my Spain wish list, and a major purchase left me in financial shambles. After a successful 2013, both professionally and in travel, 2014 passed quickly with several small trips in Spain, a life-changing sojourn in India and several personal victories.

sunshine and siestas 2014 Travel

But, ugh, my passport isn’t getting enough exercise lately, thanks to the end of financial whimsy and the beginning of a shared future.

January

My year in travel started with a huge face palm: After a nine-day Danube cruse with my parents – and stopping in Slovakia, my 31st country – I was looking forward to ringing in 2014 with the Novio and his family in Madrid. Instead, my plane was rerouted to Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

spanish airport departure board

Instead of eating my twelve grapes, I spent hours trying to find a way back to Spain, finally paying a local to drive me over the Romania-Budapest border to catch a plane the next morning. I began 2014 with two freshly minted passport stamps, 300€ less and a story of bad travel luck.

Read More: My Biggest Travel Fiasco

February

metro of Madrid

Being a short month, I only escaped to Madrid one rainy weekend for a baby shower. I have a deep-rooted love for the Spanish capital, so roaming a new neighborhood while snacking on tortilla is always a good way to spend a weekend.

Plus, there is thai food in Madrid.

Read More: Rainy Days in Madrid

March

By far the busiest travel month of the year, I spent nearly every weekend away from Seville.

the village of Carmona Spain

I took my friend Phyllis to nearby Carmona, with its beautifully preserved Roman ruins and towering churches, for a day. Carmona makes a perfect little day trip from the capital because of its proximity and the fact that it’s so darn picturesque. We pounded the pavement and visited several small chapels before tucking into local sweets.

The following weekend, I took advantage of a free Vueling flight to visit my friend Julie on Tenerife. Though the island is a haven for sun-seeing Northern Europeans, Julie and her boyfriend have made the less-touristy north their home. They took me all-around the island, from hiking the Teide volcano to eating at local wineries, called guachinches

Tenerife Road Trip - The View from Las Teresitas

And finally, a week later, I cashed in on a contest win in Trujillo, medieval city in Extremadura hat is considered to be the cradle of conquistadors. Using the luxurious Trujillo Villas as our home base, we explored the Yuste and Guadalupe Monasteries, along with the hidden gem of Garganta la Olla

Read more: Carmona, the perfect day trip from Seville | A Tenerife Road Trip | Trujillo Villas

April

My ten days off for Holy Week is always a welcome respite from work, but especially because it gives me a great window of time to explore Europe. While our plan was to enjoy a Berlin springtime and perhaps jet to Poland for a few days, an internet search yielded reasonable plane tickets a little further afield – Hayley and I headed to India.

Learning by doing in India - Taj Mahal

It took us well over a day to get there – five hours overnight to Madrid, two flights, a bus transfer and another flight up to Delhi – but it was worth it once we’d gotten our sea legs (only to be replaced by Delhi Belly..ugh). We spent eight days between bustling Delhi, smelly and cramped Agra, soulful Jaipur and muggy Mumbai.

In short, I loved it, and can’t way to go back.

driving a tuk tuk in India

I have so many more stories to tell of India – it’s been on my heart and mind since our business class ride back to Europe.

Read more about India: The Dream of India | Learning by Watching and Doing | Should I Ride an Elephant in India? | The Colors of India

May

sunset over porto montenegro

While my cousin was visiting in late May, we received a phone call from my mother, asking us to say goodbye to our beloved, if slightly mischievous, grandfather. Those were hard days, being so far away from home, but a week home to be with my family after his passing helped me out things into perspective in the face of my 29th birthday – and soon afterwards, wedding planning began.

Another end. Another beginning.

Read more: Grieving as an Expat

June

new house

Just after returning from the US, the Novio and I signed a mortgage on our new house. This is the ultimate end (of my freedom to travel, to buy clothes and to eat out all the time) and the beginning of a new stage of my life. 

July

July was a weird month – moving into a cavern of a house, having my bank account frozen for 13 days (if that isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is) and having my sister and her now fiancé visit us. We spent a few days around Seville, mostly eating and drinking and eating more.

family travel in Southern Spain

And for the first time in five years, I didn’t head to Galicia for summer camp. Instead, I co-wrote an eBook on Moving to Spain and showed the Novio around the Midwest.

Read more: all of my posts on Galicia and La Coruña | Culture Shock in My Own Country

August – December

When I checked into the Madrid-Barajas airport before Christmas, the warning said it all – It’s been four months since you’ve checked in at an airport. A sad reality when you’re a homeowner struggling to budget after four years of rent-free living.

20141116_133554

I have escaped back to Madrid for another soggy weekend, spent some time in Valladolid visiting my host family, and have managed a few small day trips to places like Ronda and Setenil de las Bodegas, El Puerto de Santa María, San Nicolás and Ávila, but my browser history shows no travel sites or booking portals. 2015 has me dreaming of a honeymoon, or at least a trip away somewhere with my husband-to-be.

As I write, I’m sitting in our Condo in Copper Mountain, Colorado. Mountains truly feed my soul, and getting back on the slopes after six years has my legs fried but my heart happy. After spending eight Christmases in five countries and seven cities, I’d say we’re leaving behind our childhood traditions for a new one: TRAVEL.

Looking ahead

Cat+EnriqueEngagement078

photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

I don’t have any big things locked in for 2015, but I am looking forward to a new year and what it will bring: turning 30 and marrying the Novio. I’m a follower of the School of Let’s Have an Adventure, so I’m pretty confident that I won’t need an excuse to jump in Pequeño Monty and chase one down.

What was your most memorable travel memory this year, and what’s on your schedule for 2015? 

Five Places in Spain that Surprised Me

When you’ve criss-crossed Spain as I have – both on four wheels and on foot – you’re bound to see a number of sites, of cities, of open road. While Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Granada are the cities most synonymous with a ten-day itinerary through Spain, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the, um, surprises in lesser-known cities and towns we’ve hit along the way.

Some have been planned, others were by pure luck or a because of a tummy rumble, or the place where I’d planned to rest my head. If you’re planning a trip to one of Spain’s big cities, there are plenty of other stops to consider not too far away:

Don’t go to SEVILLA: go to Jerez de la Frontera (Cádiz)

Sitting smack dab in the sunflower fields between coastal Cádiz and Seville is Jerez de la Frontera, a city renowned for its sherry and purebred Andalusian horses. Their fair is open to the public, their pubs fun and cheap, and the city is a gateway to the pueblos blancos in the region (as well as the beach!). I love Jerez because it’s like Sevilla lite – all of the andalusian salsero without the cost or the snobbery.

read more about Jerez.

Don’t go to OVIEDO: go to Avilés (Asturias)

Choosing a place to start the Camino del Norte last year was easy: we had two weeks, so we counted back 14 stages and ended up in Avilés, the third largest town in Asturias. While we’d heard that the city was smelly, industrial and a little unwelcoming, Hayley and I explored the town on foot the night before starting the big hike and found it a beautiful juxtaposition of traditional and up-and-coming. The food choices were outstanding, the buildings colorful and there were small pocket plazas and green spaces throughout the city center. It’s a quick FEVE ride from Oviedo and worth an afternoon.

Read more about Asturias

Don’t go to CÁCERES: go to Garganta la Olla (Cáceres)

After a disappointing visit to the Yuste monastery in the backwoods of Extremadura, we steered our car down the steep, cherry-blossom covered hills to the hamlet of Garganta la Olla. Rumor had it that it was one of Spain’s most beautiful villages – and it was – but it won me over with its bountiful free tapas, its dilapidated wooden porches and its local legends. It’s a bit out of the way, but a wonderful little place to wander through.

Read more about Extremadura

Don’t go to BARCELONA: go to Girona

I ended up in Girona after booking two flights with a long layover in the RyanAir hub of the same name. I expected to find an airport with something to keep me entertained, but instead saw little more than a snack bar. Plan B: get my poor culo to Girona and walk around to kill time. The city’s colorful buildings seem to tumble into the river, and its medieval alleyways and religious statues provide plenty of entertainment. It’s also home to some of Spain’s best dining! I don’t like Barcelona, but Girona is a quick escape away.

Read more about Cataluña

Don’t go to BENIDORM: go to Calpe (Alicante)

I was psyched to be invited on my first blog trip, #Calpemoción. I knew very little about the beach destination, other than that it was just north of Benidorm. From our first glimpse of the Ifach to the fresh seafood to stand-up paddle surfing, it was a beach escape worth repeating. What stood out about Calpe were the people we met, who had worked hard to be sure that tourism – while the city’s lifeblood and its most important sector – didn’t take away its charm.

Read more about Calpe

Spain is most like itself in its small towns and off-beat destinations. There are plenty of other places I’ve really enjoyed – Murcia, Cádiz, Alcalá de Henares – and others that are pure hype. Sure, Madrid has its museums and Barcelona has Gaudí, but getting out of the big cities makes trips more and candid. Thanks to a new house, I’m sticking close to home for my next few trips – Valverde del Camino, hiking in the Sierra Norte and a quick jaunt to Madrid with a visiting friend.

This post was brought to you by Booked.netTop Destinations to Go There Booked.net – Top Destinations to Go There, and I’m encouraging other bloggers to take part. So let’s hear it, Jessica | Mike | Tiana | Kaley | Courtney!

What’s your favorite city or town in Spain? Why do you love it? Have you been to any of the places listed above?

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?

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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