While flying down an Indian highway at 100 km/h, I didn’t have the normal thoughts someone would have during their first trip to India: This is awesome! I’m in India! On a motorcycle! Why is there a cow in the road? Instead, at nearly 11 p.m. at night, after driving 470 km, all I could think was: Oh my god. I’m 30.
I landed in Jaipur around 1 a.m. Friday morning. After some confusion with my hotel shuttle looking for a Mr. Georgia rather than a Miss, I arrived at my room and collapsed onto my bed around 3 a.m., but I couldn’t sleep. I was too ecstatic. India, along with climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, has been at the top of my Travel Bucket List since the fifth grade, when I learned about Travel Bucket Lists. I don’t know what it is about the country. I could go with the cliche the colours, the people, the landscape, the food, but I honestly can’t pinpoint one single thing. I suppose it’s like my love of Chicago or the Greek Isles: sometimes a place just borrows under your skin and stays there.
Because of my new job, I could only stay in India for four days. That’s crazy for a country as large as India, right? Normally I’d wait until I had much more time off, but I’d been given the opportunity to meet a friend, K, in India. K, who is Indian, had just spent ten days biking through Jammu-Kashmir. He asked if I wanted to meet during the last few days of his trip. I wanted to respond like a teenager who has just been asked to the prom by her crush: YES OMG I WILL GO TO INDIA WITH YOU I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER ASK LET’S LEAVE NOW.
Instead, I went the less psychopathic route: “Yeah cool. Let me see about tickets and if I can afford it.” So chill.
Going to India has been such a long-held dream of mine that I’ve struggled with what to write about it. The one thing that keeps sticking in my mind is expectations. I had a lot of expectations for India; so many that it made me nervous. You know how you can build a place up in your mind, and then when you get there you realize it’s not as great as you’d expected? This happened to me with the Moulin Rouge. I loved the movie, loved the romanticism, and just the spectacle of the dance hall. When I saw the real Moulin Rouge, however, my body physically deflated. It was so shabby and seedy looking that I didn’t even care to stop and take a closer look. I snapped an obligatory picture and left, feeling mildly depressed the rest of the day.
India had been built up in my mind just like the Moulin Rouge, but–because it’s a country and not just a building–quadruple-fold. As I waited to meet K in the hotel lobby the morning after I’d landed in Jaipur, I couldn’t stop fidgeting. I had really high expectations for India. Expectations that were maybe too high and could easily be shattered.
Expectation #1: Food
Who doesn’t love Indian food? People without taste buds, that’s who. To me, Mexican food and Indian food are the best cuisines in the world (sorry, India, you get beaten out because the American in me still wants all the cheese all the time). I could eat both every single day. When K and I sat down to our first meal in Jaipur, he said that we would only eat Indian food during the four days. I had zero qualms with that.
The food in India varies depending on which state you’re in. Jaipur is the capitol of the Rajasthan state, which is extremely arid. Limited water means there’s a limited variety of fruits and vegetables. Instead, Rajasthani food has a lot of dairy and game meat (for someone who doesn’t like game meat, I have never eaten so much lamb in my life, although K later pointed to a group of goats and said, “Mutton!” so who knows what meat we were actually eating).
If you’re going to Jaipur, I’d recommend Chokhi Dani, a mock traditional Rajasthani village (think Epcot without the Disney stuff). There’s dancing, music, magicians, shops, etc. At the end of the night, you can eat at one of four different dining areas, all of which serve traditional Rajasthani fare: two indoor dining halls, an open air dining hall, and a royal fine dining place. K and I ate at Jeeman Khas, one of the indoor communal options. We sat in a hall without about twenty other people. We each had a large tray made of leaves and handmade clay cups. For an hour, waiters scooped ladles full of paneer, aloo, masala, and some other stuff that I don’t know how to search on Google, but it was delicious.
Expectation #2: Bargaining
Bargaining is standard in most of Asia. A street vendor will quote a price to you, you quote something lower, they go mid-range, and eventually you agree on some amount.
I am shit at bargaining. Not only does it make me feel rude, but the one time I tried to bargain I countered with a price that was just five Baht less, and I agreed to my own price before the shop owner could even give a counter offer (but why would she have? I took off five Baht. That is the equivalent of $0.15). I hate bargaining. Maybe it’s because I grew up helping my parents do art shows, where no one bargains because it’s handmade art, and if you bargain you’re likely to get a pot thrown at your head. Or maybe I’m just too polite…or a pushover.
K bargains. It’s either ingrained or a source of pride or both. He told me to let him know whenever I wanted to buy something, and he would bargain with the shopkeeper. Before leaving for India we had watched a YouTube video of a girl who traveled around the subcontinent for a month. In the video she held up a beautifully beaded tunic. “I got this for three pounds!” she says. K paused the video. “She got it for 3 pounds. I’ll get it for one.”
Unfortunately for K, my inability to bargain spreads like a cloud of perfume and clings to anyone in the immediate vicinity. As we walked past shops I would see something I liked and point it out to K. (Honestly it was hard not to buy everything. Colours, patterns, and sequins? India will help me realize my dream of becoming a Lisa Frank notebook.) K would speak with the shopkeeper (in Hindi), and then tell me the price. I would then pull out my wallet, and K would stare at the ceiling trying not to roll his eyes. Apparently the bargaining hadn’t actually happened.
At one shop, while the shopkeeper packed up whatever I’d pointed out, K said, “You are really bad at this.”
“What did I do?”
“You pulled out your wallet. I can’t bargain if he knows you’re willing to pay.”
“I thought you’d already bargained.”
“No! We were just talking.”
“You were speaking Hindi!”
“We could have gotten much lower.” K had one of those fake smiles where you’re annoyed, but you want others to think you’re happy.
For the rest of the trip, we used a code word.
Expectation #3: Animals
I expected to see cows in India, but I didn’t expect to see so many cows. I lived in Estes Park, Colorado for a summer, and that town is ruled by elk. If an elk wants to cross the road, everyone stops until his royal elk-ness has sauntered by. India is the same with cows–they are everywhere and they have the right of way. I’m not even sure if anyone owned any of the cows or if they were just free cows. Like the elk of Colorado, the cows did lose their allure with me after a few days (maybe I’m still scarred from being charged by elk for no reason). K had to screech to a halt to avoid hitting one on the highway. We left our shoes outside of a temple and had to wait on a cow walking down a flight of stairs to get them back. On the streets of Pushkar, a cow head butted me into a motorbike. Since cows are revered in India I squeezed out of the way to keep from getting completely knocked over, but I wanted to push the cow and tell it to shove off.
(Photo credit: Kishan Mishra)
We encountered camels, dogs, monkeys, and a weird furry pig, and a line of elephants at the Amber Fort, but the animal I lost my mind over were peacocks. Wild peacocks. I am ashamed to admit it, but I never thought about peacocks being wild. I’ve only ever seen them roaming around zoos as if that’s where they came into existence. When K and I biked up a mountain one night I heard high-pitched caw-caw sounds from the trees. I knew the sound was familiar, but I couldn’t remember from where or why. Then, when we came upon a muster of mating peacocks (the collective noun for peacocks is “muster”–you’re welcome) I heard the sound again: “Oh my god there were peacocks in those mountains?! PEACOCKS ARE WILD HERE?!”
We found the peacocks on a drive up to a Sikh temple. I was so shocked I may have shrieked. The males had their tail feathers in full fan mode. They bounced their butts and slowly approached disinterested females (been there, girl). Some of the guys tried to pair up and sandwich a lady peacock, but she’d just peck at the ground as if dirt and bugs were way more fascinating than overzealous bro peacocks. It was like watching frat boys at a house party continually strike out.
Expectation #4: Attention
In case it’s not obvious, I am white–very, very white. Picture the most generic white girl you can think of and that’s me: blond hair, blue-eyes, skin-that-turns-red-after-fifteen-minutes-in-the-sun-and-gets-burnt-through-a-tinted-car-window white. Because of this, I do get stares in Asia (and some photos taken of me). Even K, after we ate at a South Indian restaurant in Bangkok, told me that I’d probably get some attention in India and that I should refrain from wearing shorts or tank tops.
On our first day in Jaipur, K and I explored the Amber Palace and Jaigarh Fort. When we walked between the two sites, I took off my tunic (I had a tank top on underneath) because no one else around and it was really hot. As if on cue, a guy and a girl suddenly appeared and asked to take a photo with me. Then, inside Jaigarh Fort, three other guys asked for photos as well.
Had I been on my own I would have agreed to every photo. Why? Because it has been ingrained in me as a woman to be polite least you make someone angry and they take it out on you. Would I have wanted to take the photos? No. The photos I’ve taken with strangers are typically people who I’ve at least chatted to for a bit and then they ask if we can take a selfie. These guys, though, didn’t even say ‘hi.’ They’d just come up and ask for a picture. (K also mentioned that the guys possibly wanted them for raunchy purposes, which definitely turned me off of taking any photos.)
I ended up only taking two photos: that guy and girl we came across when I took off my tunic and a mother and her child (that one wasn’t creepy!). The rest were scared off or snapped at by K. On our first day in Jaipur, lots of guys asked to take a photo and were surprised when K said something in Hindi. On the second day, when K dressed (according to him) “more Indian,” (jeans and a t-shirt rather than Thailand-backpacker elephant pants) I’d see pairs of young guys look at me, talk to each other, pull out their phones, and walk in my direction. They’d turn the other way the moment they noticed K.
Finally the Un-Expectation: Pain
K wanted to rent a motorcycle so we could travel to Sambhar Lake (80 km west of Jaipur) and the town of Pushkar (148 km west of Jaipur). We rented a Royal Enfield bike. We traveled on the highway for half of the trip, and two-laned potholed roads for the other half (for my midwestern friends: think of Michigan’s roads).
Before traveling to Jaipur, the longest I’d ever spent on a motorcycle was 45 minutes. I don’t know how to drive a motorcycle and, apparently, I don’t know how to ride one either. I should have treated it like a horse and lifted myself before every jump (aka pothole). Instead, every time K hit a pothole or speed bump I’d fly off the seat and come down hard. My tailbone felt bruised and fractured after hours of this. When K stopped short I’d fall forward, straining and pulling my torso and tailbone even further.
This is when I thought: oh god I’m thirty. I landed in India just five days before turning thirty. I had many typical moments of: OMG I AM AN ADULT. SHOULDN’T MY LIFE BE MORE PUT TOGETHER THAN THIS? I’VE SCREWED EVERYTHING UP. Then I’d remember that life is short and you should do what makes you happy. Seeing/doing as much as possible and having adventures (and something to write about) is what makes me happy.
Still, riding a motorbike for eight hours (EIGHT. HOURS.) is a fantastic way to remind you that maybe you don’t feel older than twenty, but your body is older than twenty. A decade older. K is not only used to motorcycles, but he’s a few years younger than me. I tried really hard to act like I wasn’t in pain and that riding the motorcycle nearly 500 km was totally fine. However, by the end of the journey, K had to stop every half hour so that I could get off the bike. At the last stoplight before we reached our hotel I cried.
The next morning, K asked if I wanted to bike out of Jaipur again. I’d once mentioned wanting to see the Chand Baori stepwell, which is featured in a lot of films. The stepwell was in the village Abhaneri, about 94 km outside of Jaipur. Did I want to get back on a bike that felt more excruciating than when I got my IUD? Hell no. Did I want to seem like a cool, adventurous person, who was totally not feeling like oh god my body is getting older and I can’t recover as quickly as I used to? Yes. So I agreed to go.
We never made it out of Jaipur. Maybe there is a god who knew that if I rode that bike for even another 20 km I was going to break in half. We ended up getting turned away at the entrance of the highway. A toll booth worker said bikes weren’t allowed, but he gave no explanation. I have never been so grateful for an inane rule.
We were then pulled over by a cop. K went to the police stand in the middle of the road while I stood on the shoulder with the bike (right next to a set of speed bumps, where I got stare after stare after stare as cars and bikes slowed down). The cop asked where K was from, where I was from, and what we were doing. He told K that I shouldn’t be on motorcycle on the highway. It’s no place for someone like her. When K told me this, suddenly I wanted to get back on the Bike of Pain and drive as far as we could go until we had to be back for our 10 p.m. flight. I can’t ride a bike on the highway? Screw you, sir, I already went nearly 500 km. I will ride that bike until I can no longer feel the lower half of my body!
Instead, K paid a bribe and we left.
There you have it! Four days in India: forts, food, peacocks, cows, bribes, and a broken body. Did it meet my fifth grader’s long held, exceedingly high expectations? Absolutely. I loved India–love India. My next trip will be longer.