Despite the disapproval of my parents, I am in India. And it is the complete opposite of what you think it is.
Surely, that’s because we haven’t actually been to the worst parts of Mumbai/India yet, but I’m sure within this next week there’ll be another post about how I just want to find toilet paper.
The day started off with an hour and a half walk where, by the end of it, I felt slightly alien-like. Walking through the semi-slums and markets, everyone stares at you. If you look back and smile, they flash you back the biggest (yellowest) smile you’ve ever seen. Nobody begged us for money, nobody was inappropriate. Just curious as to what one ginger and one Asian were doing in their markets where not a lot of foreigners ventured to.
The market is filled with fresh veggies, stray pups, and mobile blacksmiths who have a man-powered grinding wheels on the front of their bicycle. You waft in and out of scents; garbage left uncollected for weeks, drying fish, and the most spice filled curries that leave you warm and toasty before you even eat (not that we ate anything in fear of Delhi Belly).
I had a cinnamon chai and Chris had a saffron masala chai. Mhmm.
After a total of two hours walking, we had to come home for siestas (we are, after all, Greek citizens).
We were given a choice from our AirBnB hosts to take an Uber or the train into Colaba. I wanted to take the train. In the train, the guy standing beside of us chatted us up, giving us all the tips, even giving us his number in case we got into any trouble. He even told me when it was safe to hang out the door to snap some shots of the open door train system.
Later, on Marine Drive, a French couple with a pug sent us to a restaurant where they promised us we wouldn’t get Delhi Belly. Unfortunately, it wasn’t authentic enough for us so we kept drudging on (note: by this time we’d been walking for a total of four and a half hours in 35° weather).
Along our walk, we find what can only be described as a matsuri by the water and decided that would be the best place to have some grub. We walked into (what we thought was) the entrance and asked if there was a restaurant/food available.
“You sit. Wait”
We did as we were told.
A short while later, a fat-bellied Indian man in a purple and blue checked shirt came in and claimed “You are my guests. Please, come.” We are ushered outside onto a large cricket lawn with plastic tables and chairs scattered about, and the first thing you noticed was the amazing smell of coal BBQ. The menu was in English, but all the words are foreign to us expect for “naan” and “bhaji”. We get one of the Saturday BBQ specials and point at some other things. As we order, the entire staff crowds around us to hear what we order (or to make fun of our accents pronouncing Indian words), and the manager double checks the waiter’s notes to make sure he got our order right.
The children are playing soccer, the older generation is playing cricket. The men all around us are drinking chai or fresh lime juice water with sugarcane. We each tried it and boy, we don’t miss alcohol at all.
Along with our new alcohol free diet is a new Indian diet. Never can I eat an ordinary nan again. It’s not fat and heavy, but airy and light. Imagine the difference between an American meat-lovers pizza with cheese-stuffed crust, and an Italian thin crust margherita. The tandoori tikka tasted like homemade outdoor BBQ, complete with the organic tomato red colour.
The manager, the board member who sponsored us, and all the staff wants to know everything; where we’re from, where we live, why we’re here, if we’re having any trouble with the currency (not yet), and how we’re enjoying India so far. I go to the bathroom, and the manager comes to keep Chris company as to not sit alone. In our chats with the staff, we were told it wasn’t a matsuri, but a wedding. A wedding that was as big as a matsuri/panigiri for a small town!
After a full meal for 450 rupees (6.2 euros) including tip, we were given some sugar cubes with fennel seeds (don’t hate it til you try it). As we depart, we try to tip the manager, but are refused because “we’re friends now”. Hospitality is key. It is probably the foundation and cornerstone of their culture. The manager grabs Chris’ hand to hold as they pose for a picture. Its a sign of friendship.
Exhausted after a full day, we find our way to the local train station. Even though we bought first class seats both times, we never found our way to those cabins. This time, we hop into one of the tin cabins no larger than a walk-in closet. Men and women have separate carts, so I make sure to ask someone if I am allowed on that cabin. It is full with men, and even as a confident traveler who thrives by herself, I am glad that I have Chris with me.
We jump on, and immediately people start aggressively yelling at us. I fear I upset the men getting onto a men-only cart. I soon realize, they’re not yelling, they’re trying to help! They just sound deceivingly aggressive! The cart is systematically chaotic; you stand based on where you get off and some local man on the floor yells at you where to stand. Immediately, they take the two baby birds under their wing. They tell us where to stand, how many stops to go, and roughly how long it will take. They make sure that there is a barrier between us and the open door so the clumsy first-time foreigners don’t trip out the open cargo. They offer us their travel snacks of nuts, and continue reassuring us “don’t worry, I help you”, or “everything ok, ten more minutes”.
If you think rush hour in Tokyo is bad with a designated man to push people in the carts, you need to see India. Since there are no doors, people jump off/on the cart before it stops moving. There are billions of people in this country, with a limited amount of train space. You get in first or you don’t get in.
When Bandra West nears, we are ushered to the front of the exit. A man in a swanky royal blue shirt tells me to stand next to the open door but keeps his hand across the exit. All the men explain that you need to push off, or wait until the last station. It’s every man for himself. We get there, the train is moving, and people are jumping into our cabin. When we stop, the man in blue uses his body to make a barrier for us to make sure we are able to get off before hopping back on himself.
India might be my favorite country thus far, and the people most genuine.