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!
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.