Our first morning in India

Our first morning in India!
We wake early despite the fact that we arrived so late after 15 hours of travel.  I am too excited to sleep… I am actually in India!! Yahooo!!!  It was dark when we stumbled into the hotel last night and we are keen to survey the landscape of our local surroundings.
A quick glance out the window reveals an overgrown block of vacant land beside a half finished derelict building across the dusty laneway.  I notice sheets wafting in the breeze between unfinished concrete walls on the second floor, and realise it is an haphazard attempt at privacy for the squatters that have set up camp inside. As the sheets swing up with a gust of wind, I see a lounge chair, the flickering of a TV and a family busily preparing breakfast in a small pot, balancing precariously on top of a single flame cooker on the floor of their makeshift home. Sounds of the latest bollywood tunes waft through the window, amplified by the empty concrete building for the whole street to hear.  There is a cow eating from a pile of rubbish on the roadside who seems to be blissfully ignorant of the motorcycles, tuk tuk’s and odd car whizzing past. We can hear the distant sounds of traffic and horns, but the hotel is tucked away from the main road and just like the cow, we are blissfully unaware of the chaos that is unfolding at the end of the street, in the middle of India’s 5th largest city, Bangalore!
Filled with excitement and anticipation, I grab a pen, notebook, my pristine copy of Lonely Planet India and head down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast.  The intoxicating smell of sizzling mustard seeds and curry drifts from the kitchen, I draw a deep breath and float into the restaurant – I have arrived in food heaven.
The waiters nervously nod their heads and shy smiles emerge.  They appear to be as unsure of us, as we are of them. We are both foreigners! Our uncertainty of what to expect is equally matched by them.  The waiter hands us a menu ‘Continental Breakfast’, my heart sinks!  Toast, Jam Eggs?? NO!!!!  The waiter notices my disappointment and quickly turns the menu to the other side.  I glance down and am pleased to see a variety of pictures featuring traditional *Thali breakfast options, with accompanying Hindu descriptions. This is the moment I have been waiting for, I point to the tea (Chai) and hold up my hand. “One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Yes Five Chai please!” My first REAL Indian Chai, in INDIA!!!  We all laugh and cheer, even the waiter breaks out into a chuckle.  The ice is broken.  We order way too much food, trying everything on the menu and begin the fun of planning what to do on our trip….
The next hour is spent sipping tea and chatting and arguing about who wants to go where.  We map out a very rough ‘ plan’, each person throwing in a suggestion.  Maddison and Matilda want to hang out on the beaches in Goa, Adelaide wants to see the Taj Mahal, I am keen to visit the home town of my Idoil, Shah Rukh Khan and experience the spectacular ghats at Varanasi.  Just as we finally all agree on the plan, a lovely English couple come into the restaurant and we strike up a conversation about their experiences in India over the past three months.  We show them the mud map, highlighting all the sights we want to incorporate starting today, until our departure from Kolkata in 5 weeks, and chat about how we are now working on the transport logistics, whilst consulting the Lonely Planet India Travel guide for best value and budgeting. I mention I have heard many wonderful stories about trains in India, and am excited to make them a key part of the trip.
At this moment, they both stop and look at us with a peculiar expression and ask, “Haven’t you already booked your train?  We had to book online and pay for ours 6 weeks before we left home! You can’t just turn up, they sell out weeks in advance!”
Holy Sh*t!! The thought of not being able to just turn up and buy tickets to anywhere, had not even crossed my mind! I had envisioned thousands of trains laying in wait at stations across India, waiting for passengers to make last minute, impromptu plans to travel. In fact, it is quite the opposite.  Indian people, are avid local tourists and as the safest form of affordable travel, trains are extra-ordinarily popular in India, booking in advance is essential if you want to guarantee a seat!!
This is a disaster! Day 1 and my expected budget for travel and our timeframes for getting to our final destination on time has been shattered before we even step out the hotel door!
Ok, time to re-group!!
Mud map in hand we ask the hotel manager to help us find someone who can ‘pre-purchase’ our transport for the next few days, so that we do not end up stranded in Bangalore for four weeks.  He hails us two Tuk Tuk’s and before we know it, we are speeding up the lane way, weaving through traffic with the wind in our hair, to see somebody’s brothers father in law, who is a travel agent!
Well, almost!!
We arrive at a small shop sporting a faded promotional poster of the Taj Mahal in the window. All five of us bustle in and the manager quickly pulls out a couple of extra seats from the back of the shop for us all to sit on. His english is not bad and we manage to convey our needs.  There is a second man behind a desk that must be 50 years old with a computer almost as antiquated who comes over and offers to buy us a cup of chai each, we all nod and wait for the computer to reboot.
There are no train tickets to anywhere in the next two weeks, and certainly not five tickets together on the same train.  He does however, have bus tickets!!!  AWESOME!! Bus is good! We can do buses, they even have fancy overnight sleeper buses that you can, ‘sleep’ on.
And guess what…. they are cheaper than the train!  Bargain!! Two hours later, we have bus tickets booked for the next three destinations, and the budget is back in check!  Life is good!
Back at the hotel that afternoon, I do some research on bus travel….”not recommended” was the general vibe! Pickpockets, dangerous driving and accidents were a few of the reasons not to travel by bus.  But it was too late! There were no trains, the option for a private taxi or plane was not in budget, buses are cheap….so, bus it is!  How bad could it really be?? It’s a sleeper!  We will sleep like babies all night…… or will we???!!!!
*Thali – a selection of various South Indian dishes served in small condiment cups with rice and indian breads.

Fear of the unknown

We arrived at Gold Coast airport bright and early with our backpacks ready to go. I was nervous and excited about flying (after 40 years and with about 100 flights under my belt, I still experience butterflies getting on a plane!).

We had traveled to Malaysia and Thailand 18 months ago as a family and the kids were feeling confident as ‘seasoned’ travelers, however, that trip had only been for two weeks, and we had planted ourselves in base camps, IE; pre-booked hotels and flights. One hotel was booked for a week in Malaysia, and one hotel for a week in Thailand. Both were in locations I had traveled to in the past, and was happy to take my kids. Both were places I felt comfortable being in, comfortable with the culture, comfortable with the food, confident in knowing I could navigate my way – familiar!

I held my composure, for the sake of the family, but I had a gnawing feeling inside me, and it was making my head spin, maybe I should have done more research, booked all the transport, organized tours, collated a complete itinerary instead of simply booking the flight into Bangalore, then leaving a blank canvas to create our own adventure along the way for 5 weeks until the flight home out of Kolkata.

I had never traveled to India before, I hadn’t tested the waters before exposing my kids, like I had on previous trips. What if I got lost, what if India was like a strange planet I couldn’t navigate or communicate, what if I lost my money, what if I lost someone, what if….. BLAH BLAH BLAH!! I am beginning to think I am somewhat CRAZY!

What sort of parent just books tickets to India for their family with no plan and no ‘Indian experience’!!

Arrrhhh, yes, that would be me!

My love of adventure, the yearning to simply go and BE in India and the prospect of eating authentic Indian food daily for five weeks had intoxicated my intellect and completely overridden my sense of responsibility. Now while the thought of no structured travel plans as a parent was nagging me a little, I happily justified in my own mind… “Being spontaneous is fun and more often than not, it allows you to engage in extra-ordinary situations that are rarely possible to plan!”

I still hold this to be absolute truth, however, it also turned out to be one of the biggest challenges on our trip. Being spontaneous as a single backpacker, or even as a couple, is significantly easier when you are trying to negotiate accommodation, or a taxi, or jump on a moving bus as it pulls out of the station or even arrange a simple tour, than it is when you are a family of five. Especially when that family are not well known for their ability to co-operate or agree on anything, or be organised!

Our destination was Bangalore, for no other reason than, that’s where the cheapest flight to India landed! Simple!! The extent of our travel plans consisted of a hotel booking for the first two nights so we had a place to go to on arrival. Straightforward and easy, right! Well almost…..

There is definitely a certain level of vulnerability in not knowing where you are or what to do when you are in a foreign country. This is particularly evident when you need to ask someone for help if you arrive into an airport in the middle of the night without a clue as to how the local taxi service operates, if they can speak English, or if they can read the invoice with the hotel’s name (or are willing to take you to that hotel without diverting to another one that is ‘a much better hotel, madam’!) or indeed if there even is a reputable or reliable service! Is it safe? Or should we just find a piece of floor in the corner & lay on our backpacks until daylight? (Everything always feels safer in daylight!)

However, what I have found, it is this vulnerability that opens up the channels of communication and allows the local people to expose their generosity and a sense of pride in being able to assist strangers on their turf – except for airport taxi drivers who appear to be exempt from this as they have a captive audience!!

We joined the immigration line and I started chatting with the man in line behind us. Turns out he was working for a telecommunications IT company (Bangalore is the biggest IT hub in India – if you have ever chatted to an Indian sounding tech support from Telstra, it was possibly this guy – or not? the odds are probably a million to one!!! ) He fly’s in and out of Bangalore occasionally to visit family and was more than happy to share the process of hiring a legitimate taxi service and more importantly what it should cost – thank you lovely IT man, our first kind Indian hospitality experience.

Unfortunately the taxi rate ended up being a very rough estimate & possibly our most expensive taxi in India – with the exception of the taxi service to the airport in Kolkata! There is clearly an unspoken difference in rates for locals and foreigners!!! It was now almost midnight, we had been traveling for more than 15 hours, the taxi was already piled high with all our luggage and the five of us were squished in to a four seater car like sardines, I was in no mood to argue with the driver.

We left the airport at high speed, joining the highway into the city a few minutes later, which was under construction. The staccato of the broken shock absorber’s vibrated through our bodies as the driver unsuccessfully attempted to navigate around the pot holes that were illuminated only by the high beam headlights of oncoming traffic. The condition of the road did not appear to slow down our driver or the hundreds of other cars rushing into the city, jostling to pass each other like they were in a dodgem car race. The jolting stopped periodically as we swerved onto the detours around areas being dug up with heavy machinery only to be replaced by the noise and thumping of jack hammers pulsating through the taxi. The melodic cacophony of truck and car horns pierced the air generating a deafening intensity.


The sides of the road were lit with street lamps, then every now and then we would pass a pop-up tin shed with multi-coloured banners and signs, flooded with lights, full of people hustling to buy the wares. We questioned the driver who did not speak much English about this midnight shopping frenzy, and he started to make a crazy banging noise with his mouth and flapped his arms about. He noticed the puzzled expressions on our faces and promptly pulled over at the next shed to invite us in for a look.

Hundreds of varieties of firecrackers lined the large wall behind a long makeshift timber counter, like a carnival show-bag stand. The city was preparing for Diwali, the festival of lights, and once a year, it is legal to buy fireworks – it was pandemonium! People waving money in the air, trying to reach across the counter and over the top of other people, pushing to fill their bags with the magical crackers, as if the shop would close when the clock struck Twelve.

Diwali firecracker pop up shop

Our bedraggled group arrived bleary eyed at the hotel after midnight, checked in and climbed the stairs to our rooms on the 3rd floor. The hotel entrance was quiet, off the main road and the outside was in darkness except for a small street lamp shining down the alley. The silence was broken by the occasional random firecracker and shouts of excitement, but we were too tired to be worried about what might be out there. We had a comfortable room and beds with fresh sheets. It was time to sleep, so we could wake up fresh to the first day of our adventure in India….. tomorrow!!