India: The Beauty and The Mess – A Backpacker’s Adventure

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a 2 part series about our travels through India and the Middle East. Part 1: 40 Things I Learned Backpacking in India. Travel articles will come about 2-3 times a year. In the future I’ll break down the economics of the trip and offer suggestions for individuals looking to see the world without spending millions.

Why go to India?
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This is the question we started with. Why go? There are so many other places in the world. Why India? I think the foremost thoughts that drew our attention were: the uniqueness, the cuisine and the ability to identify with almost 1/3 of the world’s growing population. India is a place unlike anywhere else in the world. And without expectations, it was one of the most unconventional travel experiences that exist to westerners.

Initial Thoughts and Reaction
India takes a long time to process. My view of the experience is much different now then right after I returned. That is partially the reason I waited until the one year anniversary of the trip to publish any of my writing about it. Overall, the trip was incredible. It was not a vacation. It was amazing and inspiring, yet dirty and frustrating too. A budget backpacking trip through India will test your mind, patience and stomach but the reward is an experience unlike any other type of travel. A trip to India reads like a Charles Dickens’ novel with the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty that is virtually inescapable. The most impressive thing about India is the uniqueness of culture, architecture and the food. I love Indian food. I am amazed by Indian architecture. And I met some of the most interesting people in my life during my short journey. What I will carry with me for the rest of my life will be a miniscule understanding of what life is like in India and a strong appreciation for the billion + people who call India home.

Our Journey
We spent a little under four weeks traveling with our route beginning in Dubai. We then took a small plane over to Mumbai then proceeded to travel every four days to a new city. We stayed primarily in northern India on our circular route. Our trip spanned the end of March into early April and the weather was quite nice. Shorts and t-shirts during the day and light jackets in the evenings. The traveling party included myself, my wife and one of my best (and adventurous) friends. We walked a lot; we ate a lot; we slept a little and we covered some ground. We packed everything we needed into small school size backpacks (even more impressive for sorority lady Ms SE) and carried our stuff everywhere. We traveled in every possible way. Literally, in one day, we took a train, road bikes, walked, rickshawed, motoricked, taxied and flew. By the time we finished our trip we were exhausted and amazed.

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Word to the wise: If you are about to embark on a backpacking trip through the second/third world; don’t start your trip in one of the most ostentatious cities in the entire world. Save that until the end! Dubai is a crazy place. It is a tall, strangely spread out city. It is odd to see fifty story buildings surrounded by two story ones and empty lots (much different than HK, Tokyo or NY). It is the fusion of east and west where you are equally as likely to see a bikini and t-shirt as a hijab and a suit. The beach is clean and nice but most beaches are owned and quarantined by fancy hotels. Dubai doesn’t lend itself to walking (not unlike Vegas) but public transport is available and taxis are everywhere (nice, but expensive). We enjoyed browsing through the malls, seeing tall buildings, checking out the cityscapes, and visiting the fancy resorts. Honestly, it felt comfortably, yet uncomfortably Western. The most entertaining evening was spent renting manual powered Mario Karts and riding through the large public park on the water almost getting lost and stranded in the process. Oh, and seeing that whole Mission Impossible tallest building in the world thing.

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Wow. One of the craziest cities in the world. This place is insane. I think it was a perfect place to touch down. It really embodies so much of what is good and bad about India. And it only takes about 30 seconds inside the city to take in the sites, smells and people of Bombay. We arrived at night and took a taxi to our little guesthouse right near the airport. The poorly lit, trash filled back alley would be our surprisingly pleasant (once the shock wore off) home for the next few days. After a tasty 25¢ breakfast, we spent most of our first day walking and rickshawing in the area around the airport . I’ll go ahead and say it: Truly, the first two things you will notice in Mumbai are the intense pollution and the trash. There is no escaping it and very little I’ve experienced like it. It is utterly pervasive and takes days to mentally adjust to the sight of it. It doesn’t go away but I quickly learned to mentally remove it so it wouldn’t distract me from all the other amazing things around.

Mumbai has some really cool things to see. We enjoyed the incredible hotels, temples, bazaars, arches, islands, people, central park and even a cool Bollywood movie. We ate street food (Pani Puri) and fancy food (buffet at the Taj Hotel) and they were both awesome! But mostly, seeing the densely packed people, both rich and poor was something that is impossible to forget. Also, animals. There are a lot of animals in Mumbai which is particularly odd given the fact it is so densely urban. We saw monkeys, cows, dogs, pigs, chickens, goats, camels, even an elephant.

One moment I remember specifically was being packed three deep in a motorick speeding along breathing in the burning diesel as we were passed by a fancy air-conditioned charter bus filled with fanny-packs and rich white people. I could only think of them looking down at the poor people with strange disengagement. I remember the strange feeling that came over me that was a mixed sense of envy and pride. I couldn’t help but to feel like they were the ones missing out on the real experience. You simply miss something intangible being privately whisked from photo op to tourist spot without soaking in reality.

The most entertaining event to me was taking a passenger train from northern Mumbai to Dharavi. The 6¢ ride was impressively packed, hot and entertaining. The craziest part is when the train arrives extra full then proceeds to become insanely full. In fact, you can just stand near the door and the crowd will actually put you into the train. We actually had a vehicle but I really wanted to take the train. My thought on the final night in Mumbai: It is hard to complain about not having hot water when there are 4 million people within a five mile radius who don’t have consistent access to clean water.

New Delhi
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Of all the cities in India I found Delhi to be the most livable. It has most of the trapping of a modern city with fancy public transportation (still growing), displaced poor people and lots of monkeys. The street food is good and the Michelin Star-esque restaurants are also incredibly delicious. I found Delhi to be slightly more walkable and the most western friendly city in India (didn’t make it to Bangalore). The tourist traps are aplenty and we made the obligatory rounds checking them all off our list. Akshardham Temple, which doesn’t get a lot of press (probably because it is not that old), is one of the most impressive places in India. The carvings are spectacular and the level of detail is unreal. We enjoyed some modern malls, fancy temples, incredible gardens, and saw our first country club (with a population of displaced homeless camped against its outer-wall; ironic?). I particularly liked the parks and relative cleanliness of the inner wealthy areas. I think Humayun’s Tomb is completely underrated and actually makes better, although less iconic, pictures than the Taj.

Our timing was great and we had a few days to relax in Delhi as the Cricket World Cup was beginning. We enjoyed our evenings in small garden style outdoor restaurants watching and learning how the game is played. Watching cricket reminds me a lot of watching a relaxing game of baseball. The pace, concepts and play all remind me of watching a playoff game. We were pulling for the Mumbai Indians and they made a good run for the few days we watched. I always enjoy sports in other cultures even if I know nothing about the game.

One of the most frightening experiences in my life. We once again hopped into a motorick on our way up to the Central Ridge Reserve Forrest. We actually needed to go on one of the larger highways to get there and so we were pushing the rpm in the far left hand lane when we see a sign for the park that says exit here. We yell (above the wind at 50 mph on the back of a scooter) that we needed to get off at the exit we just passed. Hey, no worries. Just hit the breaks on the interstate, put the rickshaw in reverse and drive backwards as cars pass at 70+ mph until we get back to the exit ramp. I’m happy to still be alive.

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Taj Mahal & Domino’s Pizza. That’s it. Check it off the list.

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I would say the place that exceeded my expectations the most was Jaipur. Probably because I didn’t have any expectations and I have a soft spot for riding elephants.  Known as the third leg of the Golden Triangle, Jaipur is in Rajasthan and home to several amazing forts and temples. Something else to note; this place is pink, and really hot. The Amber Fort was incredible sheerly based on its size. The cobras and elephants were a nice addition. The downtown was hip with lots of outdoor shops and the Hawa Mahal. And we also enjoyed the modernist buildings in Jantar Manter. Right outside Jaipur was a neat little place they called the Monkey Temple. Guess what, they have a lot of monkeys there. In fact, the evolutionist in me was amazed as I watched a couple of little monkeys frolicking by the water. It looked like they were playing as they judged the distance before doing back flips into the pool. I think what was creepy is how humanish they looked and acted. It was almost like watching two little kids play with each other. Those were some cute monkeys.

So, we arrived at our hostel in Jaipur. Which was actually a neat hostel/guesthouse. We actually had a bathroom so that was pretty cool. And that was about the only thing that was cool. We booked online and put in a reservation for an air-conditioned room. We even paid $1 extra for the privilege (the room was $5 for a night). But when we got to our room it was about 95 degrees or so and no air-conditioner in sight. So we went to the front desk and asked him about it. He came into our room and turned on the fan. I had to laugh. That was the first time I’ve ever slept in a room that was over 95 degrees at the coolest point. I actually enjoyed the cold shower. Should I really complain when my house is 80?

This is where I introduce you to our hired amigo driver. Apu (my nickname for him) was a cud spittin’, teeth are optional, deal getting, money taking, helper, driver, translator, car fixer, negotiator and all around bad (or good?) guy. We spent five days on the road with our main man and learned more from him than the sights themselves. He primarily drove us around but also introduced us to various stops along the way and made sure to visit his friends to show us the ‘real’ India. I’m sure we saw and learned stuff from him that would never be known from any official tour guide you could hire.

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Lesson learned: Expectations have a huge impact on your experience. “The nicest beach in India.” If you have ever been to another beach (that has bluish water) lower your sand and water expectations. Aside from the beach, Goa has one of the most unique vibes of any city in the world. It is distinctly bohemian and one of the most eclectic mixing pots of people I’ve ever seen. I would describe it as Bob Marley + sketchy tecno rave dancer + some Russian mofia dude and a dash of flea market hawking gypsy. Add in some rented scooters, fresh seafood, Germans, $2 a night hostels, cheap beverages of all types and cows. Which, in summation, actually make a pretty entertaining place to spend a few days. We spent most of our time in the significantly less commercialized northern part of Goa riding around and getting nice and fried on the beach.

It is cheap. Yep, this place is one of the few you could live off $100 a month and have a pretty happy existence. Food, lodging, and transportation are all remarkably simple and inexpensive. Hammocks, books, and relaxed people were all in abundance. One of my favorite things (may have permanently raised my traveling partner’s blood pressure) was renting scooters and riding miles and miles up and down the coast. We rented Honda 120cc bikes for $4 a day (for reference, a similar rental in central Italy was $125 for a day!). The crazy part of Goa is the fact that there are 3+million people and no traffic lights. It is ‘biggest car wins’ and scooters are not very big. I loved it. Seriously though, the busy makeshift roundabouts where absolutely terrifying.

In our heads we had dubbed Goa as the ‘vacation spot’ on the trip. We were looking forward to spending time laying out and playing in the water. We did spend a little time in the sand but this brownish murkey water reminded me of a dirty eastern Georgia coast. It was actually more of a party place than a relaxing beach. I did enjoy playing a pickup game of cricket on the beach with some Indian teenagers (who completely schooled me). On our last evening, randomly, and I mean that in the most absolute sense, as we were walking miles to some supposedly mythical tasty restaurant we were given a tip by an unknown stranger that a huge birthday party was happening and our pasty white skin was the only ticket needed for entrance. We decided to follow the advice and happened upon a large fancy house with hundreds of caucasians dancing to a fancy techno DJ and hired hands distributing drinks throughout four bars located in the house. We somewhat autonomously danced along with people who seemed to be in a different world for an hour or two before continuing our mystical walk.

What We Ate
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Here are a list of our favorite foods. We at a ton of different things but these made the final list:

Puri Puri
Eggs and Pancakey things with cheese
Tikka Masala
Dal (Didn’t eat as much as expected)
Cheese and Butter Naan
Kabobs of all Kinds
Description of all the foods

We primarily ate on the street or from small local restaurants. The country has very few chain style restaurants (even though we did manage to try the McVeggie once).  Most restaurant meals would cost somewhere between 75¢ and $1.50 so it was a great place to try new foods. I really enjoyed the food. It was probably the highlight of the trip for me. My favorite part about traveling is eating new things. I’ll try anything once and I put that to the test on this trip. Our stomachs held up pretty well especially considering the gauntlet we put them through. I still have flashback hankerings for tandoori, tikkia and cheesy garlic naan bread. My mouth literately watered as I was putting together the list of my favorite foods.

Final Thoughts
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India is different than every other place in the world. It is amazing and beautiful but equality frustrating and dirty. The poverty and slums can be gut wrenching yet the temples and sights will leave you inspired. It has a few of the amenities of western culture but the lack of westernization is what makes it unique. It is a place with its own identity. I feel like India deserves a place on almost everyone’s bucket list. I learned so much while I was there and I wouldn’t trade the experience for a different one. I don’t think I would suggest India as a first backpacking destination as I would rate it slightly advanced trekking. But do I recommend it? Yes, absolutely. I don’t think you can spend a few weeks there traveling without changing your perspective. A trip like this stays with you for a lifetime and gives you context for the lives of billions of the world’s people. I’ll never forget that clean air and clean water are extremely underappreciated. This trip made me appreciate so many of the things I take for granted everyday. One thing is for sure: I’ll never forget India.

4 thoughts on “India: The Beauty and The Mess – A Backpacker’s Adventure

  1. very cool. Thanks for sharing your expirience. Clean water and air are definitly under appreciated 🙂

  2. I have never been to India, but have read/watched a lot of stories about the problems that they face. They have so many people fighting for resources. It’s easy to forget all of that in the U.S.
    I’ve also read about the huge disparities between their rich and poor.

    • There are a lot of issues facing India as a whole but it is also how many people there are happy and content with what they have. I think there is a lot to be learned from that too!

      The rich/poor is much more ‘in your face’ there especially in the major metro cities.

  3. Thanks for sharing the pictures and your thoughts. We are truely blessed to have clean air and water in America. Unfortunately, if we continue to take it for granted, in the future we may have to face some of the problems that India is facing now.