The first time I came to India was with Semester at Sea in fall 2006, and I hated it. I was so sick and tired after a six day whirlwind where I barely slept and got my first case of Delhi belly. We ported in Chennai, flew to Delhi, whizzed around the Golden Triangle in 72 hours. We saw Mahatma Gandhi’s last home in New Delhi, the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Pink city of Jaipur, traveling half a day between each of the three, before flying back to Chennai and reboarding the MV Explorer. In between, we rode Elephants, fed monkeys and received henna tattoos, but just before sailing away, I drank a cocktail with bad ice and was immobilised for the next 3 days on the ship.
My second visit to India was only to Bangalore and surrounds, including Hampi and attending a Hindi wedding, which was a whole other world of experiences. India is never simple or easy, and I threw a vertebrae out on a jaunty train ride in economy class, but this visit made me want to return.
Here I am, in Mumbai, the New York and LA of the east, affectionately known as Bollywood. Its worlds away from South East Asia, and different than Delhi and Chennai, but somehow so familiar. India is always a whirlwind, a chaotic circus of cultures, languages, tourists and religion. I try to be a passerby, watching from the sidelines, but I’m already so deep into it by the time I sit in my first rikshaw I’ve hailed from the street outside Mumbai international airport.
The meter goes up, and I pay less than one euro to travel 5 km’s to my hostel. There’s an above-ground metro system, newly installed, which costs three times the price of the deteriorating public railroad transport. I ride both during my day visit to the sights, and hanging outside of the open doors of the train compartment overfilled with women only was much more exciting than the sterile, air-conditioned skytrain.
I go to the Gateway of India, and leave from there instead of arrive. I’m on a ferry to Elephanta Island, to see the caves and monkeys. I eat only street food – vada pav, panipuri and bhel puri, breaking my gluten-free diet. I don’t drink anything except lemon soda since I’m starting my one month of detoxing yoga teacher training in a couple of days in Goa.
I stay at a hostel, making sure to pick the women’s only dorm. Indian men have all sorts of construed perceptions of western woman. There was a banner in Mumbai recently that advertised “Go to Goa to see the Western Whores” with a picture of Pamela Anderson from Baywatch. I wondered if we all really look like that on the beach – light-skinned, blonde bimbos in skimpy bathing suits working on our tanlines and beach bods and thought ‘yeah, touché.´ Mental Note to self: dress more conservatively and try to blend in as an Indian tourist. There are local tourists with my complexion also suffering language barriers so I should fit right in!
I took an overnight train, the beloved Konkan Kanya Express, getting a top bunk in a 9 person berth. It was like a lower level second class, since first class and third class were fully booked, but I was relieved to travel by the cool of the night, undisturbed by others so close to the ceiling. I looked forward to waking up in Goa, and was surprised to find myself the only one left in the train by the time we pulled up at Madgaon.