I kicked off this whole blog shabang by saying that I was going to write about both the extraordinary and unextraordinary things we’re experiencing in India, but I’m realizing that I haven’t quite come through on the latter yet. We seem to have had one wild adventure after another.
So I’d like to change the pace a little. The crazy stories may make for a more enthralling read, but I want to give you a sense of what our daily lives here have been like for the last six weeks. In between all of the action-packed adventures, there have been plenty of normal moments. Well — “normal” is a relative term, I suppose.
I’m writing this early in the morning, which is my favorite time for coffee (although, truth be told, I love coffee at any time of the day). But I’ve found only a handful of places here that serve real coffee — most places only have instant! If a restaurant lists “coffee” on their menu, likely they mean they will boil water and stick some Nescafé powder in it for you. I expected coffee to be difficult to track down in India, but I didn’t think I’d have to get out my trenchcoat and magnifying glass every morning just to find an actual grind.
Perhaps nobody cares that coffee is sparse because tea is all the rage here. Tea (chai) is the glue that holds the hopsitiality ritual together. If someone comes to your house, you share a cup of chai with them. If someone comes to your hostel, you welcome them with a cup of chai. If someone comes to your shop and you’re feeling especially benevolent that day, you might even offer them a cup of chai. Basically: stop and drop chai, any time, any place. Traditional Indian chai is quite a milky drink, and it’s delightfully spiced. I’m a big fan of both the tea and the charming custom. What cracks me up is the amazingly small portions people drink it in! It’s essentially served in a shot glass. If rural Indian villagers ever saw a Starbucks trenta, I’m sure their brains would explode.
Now, as far as food is concerned — I know Indian food is famous for its complex flavors and array of spices, but when you boil it down there are really only a few nutritional staples: rice (chaval), lentils (dal), potatoes (aloo), bread (naan, roti, chapati), and curd (raita). Not to say that Indian cuisine is at all monotonous! The food here is as varied and as delicious as everyone raves about it being. But these 5 items are ones that, in one form or another, you can find anywhere. The nicest restaurant by beach, the smallest gyspy village in the desert, and the highest tea house in the Himalayas will all serve them. And, most important to our story: they are the cheapest foods to consume here. We’ve had enough rice and dal to last us a lifetime. On our trek we even ate it for breakfast (read: we had to eat it for breakfast).
Some hostels have provided us with a kitchen, so we’ve also cooked for ourselves on occasion. The only difficulty with that has been electricity. The power goes out at least once a day here, and usually more frequently than that. We both have headlamps we can use when it happens at night, but usually guest houses have either generators or candles at the ready. It’s a bit of an inconvenience (especially because it means the fans don’t work, so it gets very hot very quickly), but there’s also something magical about cooking by candlelight. Then again, last night I chopped all of my vegetables in a giant puddle of soy sauce without realizing, so… it has its challenges.
Now, let’s talk about cows for a second.
They are everywhere. In the cities, in the towns — in the middle of roads, on the side of them — on the beach, in the desert, in the mountains… I mean, everywhere. Dodging cows has become second nature at this point; I barely notice them anymore. They usually keep to themselves, though. Except for one sassy cow in Pushkar that headbutted me… Remember when I said I had a turbulent relationship with animals?
But it’s not just cows you have to be mindful of dodging when you’re going from Point A to Point B. No, no, no — that’s MUCH too boring. On any given road you’ll find a motley combination of: cows, dogs, cats, goats, monkeys, roosters, pigs, camels, elephants, motorized scooters, rickshaws, bicyclists, cars, children playing cricket, women balancing baskets on their heads, men pushing heavy carts of materials or food… I could go on. Sometimes there are even surprises; our friend Wes got hit in the face by a bat the other night while riding his scooter.
Oh yeah — scooters! Learning to operate a motorized scooter is imperative in India. It’s by far the most effective way to get around, and is also the best way to get off the beaten path and explore the more rural areas. Our first attempt at riding mopeds was a little dicey (I’ll keep that embarassing anecdote to myself), but we quickly acclimated and are now able to drive confidently even though we’re up against quite an obstacle course. Driving on an Indian street is like a high-stakes 3D video game; +500 points if you get over 10 MPH.
Now, hold that picture in mind (make sure you take special note of the man in the bottom right corner balancing a ladder on a scooter) and imagine how much noise is created by a scene like that. One crucial sound to make sure you layer in: people honk constantly in India. It’s not like in America or Europe where honking is a generally aggressive behavior used to get another driver or a pedestrian’s attention. Here people honk just to let you know they’re on the road. Coming around a corner, crossing an intersection, zooming past someone on the highway, cajoling a cow to move… Essentially, the rule is: anytime you approach anything, you honk.
Put all of these noises and traffic congestors (and their accompanying smells) together, and you start to get a sense of the overall sensory overload that is India. And I say that as a New Yorker! I figured my senses had already been stimulated to maximum capacity. Clearly I was wrong. Granted, there are absolutely places that offer respite from the many haywire crossroads, but as a tourist you have to be diligent in seeking them out. Sometimes you have to earn your tranquility by traversing some sketchy terrain.
Water is readily available to us, but local water from the tap isn’t a safe option. We have to buy it in bottles 100% of the time. A bit of a hassle, but since the exchange rate is very much in our favor here, we’re only spending 1.50 USD per day on water (so, for the price of half a Smart Water, we stay hydrated for 24 hours). Fortunately we’ve been okay to use the tap for showering and tooth brushing, but sometimes we are without access to a tap entirely, so we always have to make sure we have enough water to last us. But, we also have to beware to not drink too much water. Too much water will mean we have to go to the bathroom more frequently, and the bathrooms… well…
I’ll leave you with a few final words about the bathroom experience here — and it is an experience. The more upscale places have actual toilets, but many places just have holes in the ground. No wonder India is home to so many yogis; you have to hold an asana just to urinate. Also, it’s a 50/50 chance that a restroom will supply you with toilet paper. Actually, it’s probably more of a 20/80 chance in favor of not supplying toilet paper. Every bathroom has a small faucet with which you are supposed to clean yourself. When we first arrived in India we were wondering why it was customary to only eat with your right hand, but after some expert Googling, we discovered it’s because your left hand is the one you’re supposed to use to tidy yourself up after going to the bathroom…
Ah, the luxury that is toilet paper. Appreciate it a little extra for us today, will ya?