India Part 1 – Mumbai and New Delhi

He Says: If the clean, sleek, organized streets of Singapore were refreshing then Mumbai’s streets were a bit discouraging. We arrived late at night and grabbed a taxi to our hotel. Along the way we saw too many homeless to count sleeping among garbage heaps and stray animals, some of them literally in the street. Not ideal conditions to say the least and pretty sobering for our first few minutes in a new country. It was chaotic, noisy, crowded and everything in between. We had heard a lot of good things about India so we were pretty excited to get there, but this had us a little worried. We only had 2 nights to spend in Mumbai so the plan was to make the best of it and hope the rest of India was more in line with what we heard.

Our first day we did a little exploring, checking out the major sites and getting a feel for the city. We’d practiced playing Frogger with the traffic in most of SE Asia so by this point it was old hat – these drivers couldn’t hit us if they tried. We made our way through the streets dipping and diving over, under and around the evil-looking buses and 1950s-style taxis.

First stop was another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the busiest railway station in India built in 1887. There’s close to 12.5 million people in Mumbai, that’s about 4 million more than New York City, so you can imagine how crowded it is…or maybe you can’t. We took a few pictures of the outside, briefly thought about taking a train somewhere, laughed then kept walking.

Like going back in time.

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus

We stopped at a book depot and picked up a Lonely Planet India guide to figure out where we wanted to go next and how to get there. Decided to just wonder around instead and found ourselves in a seaside slum following a goat wearing a sweater. We took a few more photos while some of the children stared and giggled at us. The plan was to make our way to the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s version of the Arc de Triomphe, which we could see across the bay from us. We turned around and started heading in that direction. On our way there we came across a street vendor giving henna tattoos so we stopped for a few minutes to get TB her very own. He smeared mud all over her hand and forearm using a stencil to leave the design. We actually drew a small crowd of onlookers who wanted to watch the white woman get tatted up. 🙂

The goat!

Typical Indian beach.. 🙂

A muddy business

The Gateway to India

The famous Taj Hotel

After that, we made our way to the Gateway but got stopped short by a young woman giving away small flower bracelets. We figured she wanted something in return so we initially said no and kept walking. She wasn’t one to give up easily so she followed us insisting we take her free flowers. We finally capitulated only to find she was hoping for a bag of rice to help feed her family. We figured this was better than just giving her a few rupees so we agreed and, after seeing the Gateway for a few minutes, followed her to a grocery store. We were a little leary this might be a scam but it turned out to be a genuine request. We bought her a 10 lb. bag of rice that she told us would help feed her family for a month. We asked her why we couldn’t have given her money to buy the food herself, but she explained this wasn’t allowed. We didn’t inquire further but we assume it had something to do with her status in society. We found it amazing how extremely poor and malnourished so many people were while so many others lived relatively richly. A very stark contrast compared to everywhere else we’ve been.

On a lighter note, seeing a Bollywood film in one of the theaters in India is apparently quite an experience so next we found a cinema to see “The Players”. There was unfortunately no subtitles so we decided to skip the theater and buy a pirated Bollywood DVD instead. A few weeks later we were told that no translation was needed to understand the intricacies of Bollywood drama. Upon watching our pirated movie, “Ra One”, we understood why. As corny and cheesy as it was, we couldn’t help but get hooked to the story of a boy whose father creates a video game to win his respect and love, only to have the evil villain from the game come to life  and kill the father. I won’t ruin the ending for you but there were lots of tears, distraught faces and music videos with everyone dancing. 🙂

Two nights in Mumbai was enough for us, plus we had to get to Rishikesh for our yoga retreat, so we started looking for a train ride to New Delhi. Unbeknownst to us, there’s apparently a lot of people in India, and many of them use the trains so they fill quickly. We found out the hard way that you have to book a train ticket at least two weeks in advance. The train ride would have to wait for another day. Instead, we bit the bullet and purchased a plane tickets for the next day.

She Says: Mumbai, “The Gateway to India” or so they say.  We believed in this saying which is why we booked our trip to Mumbai as our first stop into India.  No, not really– it was the city with the cheapest flight from Singapore 🙂  Regardless, we thought it would be a good introduction.  We arrived to the most  densely populated city in the country completely unaware of what to expect.  John painted the picture pretty well.  The one thing he missed that I discovered very promptly was the stares.  I felt that every single person on the street stared at us as though we were aliens from another planet.  I understand we are white but neither of us are really blonde and I dressed very conservatively the entire time I was in India.  It was a very uncomfortable feeling that took a little getting used to.  We found out that many uneducated men look at any western woman as  prostitutes.  I think this stems a bit from a lot of tourists visiting that dress rather provocatively.  It might also have to do with the fact that the only American TV we found in our hotel was that of Jerry Springer and the TV show Cheaters.  I felt a slight conspiracy going on… Once we left Mumbai the stares seemed to filter out or perhaps we just got used to them.  I often wished I spoke Hindi just to see if they talked about us as much as I felt they did.  Maybe one day.

We arrived to Delhi late afternoon.  I had booked a hotel pick up.  I was very excited because the guy was supposed to be there waiting with a placard with our name on it.  I always wanted to be one of those people who had someone waiting at the airport with their name on a poster.  I always felt they were  important people.  We arrived and no placard with our name :(.  After we grabbed a quick bite to eat John did one last loop around to make sure we hadn’t missed him before paying for a taxi.  John came back with a driver– apparently he was holding up the wrong side of the placard and our names were on the back.  Luckily J saw the placard from behind and spotted our names.

While driving through Delhi, I could already tell I would like it much better than Mumbai.  For one, it was much cooler.  Secondly it seemed less crowded and not as commercially built up.  The location of our hotel was definitely not built up.  We stayed in one of the poorest districts of Delhi.  We had read that a lot of backpackers stayed in this area so we thought we would give it a shot.  The hotel was actually pretty nice and had the best Indian chai we had, but the hotel did not match the area.  The street was pretty much a dirt road.  There were small shops and tea stands with lots of rickshaws and cows roaming about eating trash.  They do not eat beef in India as the cow is considered a holy animal.  However, even if it were not I would not suggest eating it as all they eat is trash and cardboard.  We ate like most locals while there and stuck to the vegetarian courses.  By the way, we LOVED Indian food!!

Our first couple hours of arriving to the hotel we met with the hotel’s concierge, Tinku.  Tinku was a young gentleman who spoke really good English.  He wanted to know our plans and tried selling us a package tour through Rajasthan.  J and I had no plans of visiting Rajasthan, nor did we know much about Rajasthan.  We kindly declined his sales pitch then went to our room to look up Rajasthan in our Lonely Planet book.  The writers highly recommended visiting this part of India.  J and I discussed whether or not it was a good deal and if we wanted to see that part of the country.  We decided we may do it if the price is right.  We negotiated quite a bit with Tinku before we accepted his offer.  His offer was contingent upon him inviting us to his son’s first birthday party the following evening.  Tinku was happy to invite us and arranged for a driver to pick us up at our hotel and bring us to his house for the celebration.

Part of the package was a city tour around Delhi.  We visited most of the major attractions.  The best part for me was the Indira Ghandi Museum.  Surprisingly enough– it was free!  Learning about her life and her families life was eye opening.  She and her son were both assassinated.  Buying a biography of her life is on my book list!  After a full day of site seeing we asked our driver to stop at a shop so we could buy a birthday gift for Tinku’s son.  We got him a big cuddly monkey.

Indira

The Indian Parliament

Soon after we were on our way to the party.  The taxi driver got pretty lost trying to find Tinku’s house.  After stopping a couple of times to ask for directions we finally made it to what seemed to be the right location.  Tinku met us out in the street.  We followed him through narrow winding alleyways that seemed more challenging than a couple corn mazes I have been in.  There is no way we would have found this place without him!  We finally arrived to his “house” which was a bit more like a room. Actually, that’s exactly what it was – a room.  One room with a bed, tv, and small wardrobe that was no bigger than most people’s bathrooms.  He quickly had us sit on his bed and introduced us to the rest of the family.  I believe by the end of the night we had at least 40 people squeezed in that tiny room.  The great thing is, he was proud of his house and you could feel the love of the entire family in that tiny room.  He, his wife, and two children all shared that space.  There was one more room downstairs where their parent’s slept.  It is Indian custom that once married you move your parents in with you.  Could you imagine!!??  Haha I love my parents and John’s but I would assume it is a pretty short honeymoon phase for most Indians.

The party was great.  It was such an awesome experience.  They cooked us a delicious homemade indian meal and even had a large cake, party hats, and confetti.  We enjoyed every minute of it!  Later after the celebration ended and everyone cleared out J and I decided to take off.

Tinku and his wonderful family

Sardines. 🙂

The birthday kids.

Our driver had been waiting the entire time for us and we felt bad keeping him waiting so late into the evening.  As we were walking down the stairs Tinku called us back up.  Some of his friends had come over with a bottle of whiskey and they wanted us to share a drink or two with them.  Ladies do not really drink so they wanted to wait until they all cleared out before they broke out the booze.  I was an exception since I was American.  The party turned into a photo shoot.  All of Tinku’s friends wanted photos of us white people– especially a white female.  In fact, all of India turned out like this.  We were instant celebrities!  We played along for awhile but after about 500 photos and a couple of pushy spectators–we decided we had done enough photo shoots and started declining.  Those poor celebrities–we now know what they go through.  I envy them not.

A little night cap.

The next morning we woke up nice and early for our journey to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal.  The Taj Mahal was magnificent!  It was beautiful– almost breath taking.  The size of it alone was enough to make it go down in history, however, the love story involved and the thousands of tons of white marble and intricate details of the structure guaranteed it a spot in history.  Story goes that the Taj Mahal is the greatest gift of love ever given.  I would have to agree with that– J said he would build me a Taj when I pass away.  It will probably be made out of toothpicks… 🙂

The Taj Mahal

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