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India can be quite assaulting at times. I’ve heard people call it overwhelming. Lonely Planet calls it “bamboozling.” But let’s be honest. It’s assaulting.
First of all, there are the horns. Every single moving vehicle on the road from bicycles to auto rickshaws to cars to trucks have ear-piercing horns which drivers use about as often as they use the break and gas pedals.
But just when you thought the horns were assaulting, you meet the touts. As a foreigner in India, you are the primary target for all kinds of touts: vendors, drivers, would-be tour guides all wanting your money (and if they’re good enough rip you off) at every given opportunity no matter what time of day or day of the week. You are constantly being bombarded by “where you from?” and “where you going?” not because they care. It’s clear they believe by engaging you, you’re more likely to follow them into a store, get into their auto, or give them a tip for their information.
The scams are similar to ones that we’ve encountered in other countries including the simplest of them all: jacking up the price on everything from water to rides. But in India it feels institutionalized. And in some ways it is. When visiting the sights in India, as a foreigner you are often charged 25 times more for admission than Indian citizens. I understand they do this so their own citizens can afford to see the landmarks of their cultural heritage, which is very important. But it also sends a message to touts that its ok to charge foreigners more, they can afford it.
These kind of experiences make you so defensive that even when people are just being nice or chatting you up because they’re curious or really do want to practice their English, you’re waiting for the moment they break out the full sales pitch or demand money.
And you get stared at lot no matter what you’re wearing. I always thought we blended in but that illusion has been fully shattered. By the end of our time in India, I stopped noticing the stares for the most part. But every once and awhile it would still make me feel super self-conscious. My two favorite kinds of stares: 1) slow stare and 2) the backwards bike stare. The best example of the slow stare happened one day Nellu and I were walking home from the store. Eight shirtless, grown men stood perfectly still only slowly moving their heads with dumbfounded expressions on their faces as we walked by. I couldn’t help but laugh. I wanted to shout, “We really can’t be that interesting!” The backwards bike stare is just what it sounds like. People on bikes (motor and manual) stare back at you even as their bikes continue to move forward up the road. Sounds safe, right?
I don’t want to make India sound all bad. It’s certainly not. It’s just a lot more upfront, even honest, about it’s not so niceties than a lot of other place we’ve been. It’s bad and it’s ugly aren’t hidden. They’re all out there right in front of your face and sometimes in your face. Even the scams are relatively transparent and easy to spot once you’ve got your wits about you.
The good news is that the good is right out there too. We’ve certainly seen the good in a lot of people that we’ve met and the hospitality we’ve been given in so many places around the country. And sharing our experiences with our new friends only made things better. (It turns out that you don’t have to be a foreigner to get harassed every five seconds at Connaught Place in Delhi. I was feeling bad by having such strong negative reactions to the constant bombardment, but locals often feel the same way. Knowing that made me stop having such strong reactions.)
The food in India is diverse and delicious. And the country is chock full of color and beauty at almost every turn.
Oh and I almost forgot my favorite thing about India – the Indian nod. It is this strange head swagger response you get to questions that looks more like maybe than yes, but it means yes. Our friend Hamilton described it as the head gesture equivalent to “It’s all good.” I asked our host Nyamat, a Delhi native, to demonstrate:
The challenge for us on this trip to stop reacting so hostility to the bad. As full-time travelers, we already feel exposed, which makes any negative situation grate on us further. But we can’t let the bad dominate so much that we miss the good. In the weeks that we spent in India, I think we largely came to peace with all of our experiences there and even look forward to coming back.
You may remember from our earlier post that we attended a fundraiser for Nyamat’s work at the Real Medicine Foundation. At the party, we chatted up some of Nyamat’s American co-workers and other expats. We wanted to know if they had similar impressions of India. They did but added some insight, “India will give you both its best and its worst,” they told us. I don’t think we could have found a more honest assessment.
It was really sad to leave Rio and the friends we had made at Casa Cool Beans, especially in light of the pending two bus trips (the longest we have ever made, while also traveling in 2 foreign countries). We were confident enough in our abilities having secured tickets at the Rodoviario (bus station) on the sketchy part of town earlier in the week and having survived 3 weeks in Brazil, that we thought this would be just two ordinary days. Big mistake!
The trouble started on our final night in Rio, when we hung out in Lapa with our new friends from Cork, Patrick and Nicola, till the sun came up. Hunter Thompson said it correctly; “No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…”
Lack of sleep & with a hangover, we somehow managed to pack, eat breakfast, say goodbye to our new friends and cab it to the Rodoviario without incident. Though we arrived with plenty of time and planned on securing our final sucos de acai, we were unable to find a vendor. This should have been a warning to us, but we were enchanted by the bus driver named “Washington” who took the time to come all the way to our seats and repeat his message to us in English. He emphasized that there would be a three-driver-shift and we would stop for “lunch” at 17:00.
The trip was uneventful as we stopped several times along the way to pick up more people. “Lunch” was around 17:00 as initially announced at a very modern, self-service buffet-restaurant with a very good selection of fresh food, beverages and pre-packaged goods. We were the last people on the bus, but the drivers waited for us.
Further down the road, we encountered the most interesting event of the entire trip. First a few, white clad men and women on horseback with matching gaucho/cowboy hats passed our bus window & then more and more until we came upon this :
We can only assume it was an Easter festivity, but it looked vibrant and exciting. Sadly the bus did not stop, as expected. The next 15 hours comprised of more stops and drop-offs, about half-a-dozen mini-naps and included a “dinner” stop at 2 in the morning . Why? I don’t know. 90% of the bus was already asleep, why wake us up? Perhaps it was to fix the growing situation coming out of the bathroom. I am sure the smell of urine could be sensed by the driver all the way up front, behind his separate door, because he went in there to drop a “cake”.
Around noon the next day (23 hours after our departure), we both start getting antsy. We had limited time at Iguazu Falls and needed to get on at least 3 different buses just to get to the falls itself and that didn’t count crossing the border into Argentina and catching yet another bus (for 18 hours) to Buenos Aires. We were quite familiar with the Brazilian sense of time, however, we didn’t seem to be getting any closer to our destination or had any idea how far away we were (highway signs seemed to be devoid of distances).
Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. One of the remaining handful of passengers remaining, a little old lady I had inadvertently walked in while in the bathroom earlier because the door didn’t close properly, left us all a “treat” right before her stop. Since I have never been much on subtly, she dropped the smelliest deuce that would have put Kansas animal manure to shame. I’m not sure of her medical condition or what horrible thing she ate, but the smell lingered for the remaining three hours of our trip. I eventually adventured into the bathroom for an unwanted, but quite necessary break and discovered the problem: The waste had not flushed and would not flush. 6 long, blue flushes later and it had not moved 1 centimeter.
We finally arrive at our destination, 2.5 hours later than planned and even though we gave ourselves a large enough buffer, I had already resolved that we would not get a chance to see the falls. Molly was still somewhat optimistic and would need more convincing. It came in the form of Tom, an Israeli woman (of Romanian ancestry) that asked us questions about the bus to the Argentinian border in Spanish and pleasantly discovered we spoke English. She told us that it would take approximately 45 minutes to get to the falls and 45 minutes back, plus that the park would close at 18:00. I could see the hope in Molly’s eyes dwindle and we resolved to cross the border and make it to our final bus ride.
Yet another delay at the border, where one bus drops you off to go through customs on the Brazilian side, only to have to wait for another bus to take us to the border and then get off again to go through the Argentinian side. Argentinian customs only asked me if it was my first time there and let me pass while asking Molly several questions. I then got detained through the baggage screening, when one of the officers asked me to open my camera bag and asked about the equipment. He must have thought my accent was curious because he asked if I was Italian. When I mentioned I was Romanian, he cleverly said “Bucuresti”, “Dracula… Jack Tepes” and then turned jokingly to the female baggage screeners and said “Transylvania”. I smiled, laughed and said ‘Si’. We were through the border and thankfully we were back on the same bus with Tom, all the way to the same bus station, where she shared pictures and stories of Iguazu Falls.
A short time later we separated from Tam, whom we hope made it to her bus, and got our first real meal in more than 24 hours at a restaurant called Color, near the bus station. It was good, though we picked up at least another dozen mosquito bites each for our troubles. We went back to our bus, where we were eagerly anticipating the full-160 degree reclining seats, movie, food, booze and much needed sleep. Look at the joy in my eyes when I initially sat down :
Who would have guess what the next few hours would bring….
About 2-3 hours into our last bus ride for a while, trouble started brewing. The 160 degree reclining seats were actually worse for me than the seats in the Pluma bus to Foz de Iguacu. In the Pluma bus, I was able to shove my feet under the next person’s seat, thus full extending. This seat put me in a perpetual squatting position; now just imagine holding a squat for 18 hours. To make matters worse, the bus drivers were having the grandest of time and we could hear this perpetual and recurring cackling from the bus cabin. No one around us seemed to have heard of vibrate mode on their phones, several babies were crying, a snorer was right behind us and the Brazilian cleanliness had disappeared, replaced by a more European approach, sans deodorant. I could see Molly become increasingly more agitated and cagey, especially when at one point she went down in the dark and “shushed” the drivers. This did not help any and I slowly started to think this might end with us on the side of the road somewhere in Argentina in the dark with no idea where we were.
Thankfully, after dinner and a nap, I awoke in the middle of the night to find that the bus was quiet and Molly was sleeping. Two checkpoints, breakfast, some bad parenting (an infant actually fell head first out of his seat while his ‘mother’ put something in the overhead), two viewings of ’Creation‘, a broken toilet and twelve hours later we were in Buenos Aires. Deliverance is grand as we now spend the next two weeks here (civilization with a bidet) :
Stay tuned for more.