India: A magnificent mess…

Chrissy and I spent over three months in India between May and August, 2016 and to say it left a lasting impression on us would be a gross understatement. The challenges of traveling in India were unlike anything we had ever experienced. The most basic amenities we were used to in the west, and even in the rest of Asia, were luxuries in India. After about two weeks into our trip in India, I started writing this narrative about our journey between Varanasi and Shimla. It tries to capture some of the nuances of Indian life that make it so fascinating and challenging.Even today, as I finish this narrative, I feel the anxiety creep up on me even at the thought of this story. It was traumatizing. This narrative is very unlike all of our other posts, but I hope you can still appreciate it.

Hope you’re ready for this. Here it goes:


I write this in a state of composed frustration; “composed” indicates that I have been here a while; “frustration” indicates that I haven’t been here long enough. This is India. What that means, however, is difficult to describe. Scores of travelers, journalists and authors have fallen comically short of capturing it. Most people, myself included, resort to simply saying: “you have to see it for yourself”; a sordid cop-out. What exactly is so difficult to describe, is itself even difficult to identify. It’s not the overbearing smell of urine, but that’s part of it. It’s not the cacophony of the street orchestra: honking, yelling, belching, but that’s part of it. It’s not the heat, dust, or herds of urban cattle, but that’s part of it. In truth, it’s probably a little of everything.

What I could never capture in prose, I’ll make an effort to capture as a narrative, detailing a simple journey from Varanasi to Shimla, our first real travel experience in India. The train ticket was easy enough to book, easy by India standards at least. We went to the train station two days early to play “the people are lava” game, a hilarious adult version of the children’s game “the ground is lava,” whereby the player tries his best to hop from space to space over luggage, legs, sleeping babies, poop, heads, animals, etc. which are strewn haphazardly about the station floor.

Having made it through the minefield to the ticket  counter with only one slip-up (luggage, not poop), we were lucky to get the last two seats in a third class air-conditioned train car, the lowest class most foreigners dare to travel. For the moment we were safe. We would take a 17 hour train ride to Ambala Cantt., arrive around 3:30 a.m., get another train to Kalka in the middle of the night, and then take the famously scenic narrow gauge train to the beautiful Hill Station of Shimla in the Himalayan foothills.

…or not…

We arrived at the Varanasi station the morning of our trip in high spirits, and after a second round of the lava game, we made our way towards our platform. Without a second glance, we strolled past the digital information board, naively negligent of the fact that we were leaving the world of concrete information and entering the world of confusion.

On the platform, the chaos began. In the absence of any uniformed authority figure or any signs, we scampered up and down the platform, asking where the third-class AC cars were. Eventually we were herded into an unmarked car by a non-uniformed man who seemed to know what he was talking about. He then vanished, leaving us again in a world of confusion. We tried asking about our seats, but were met with only smiles and head bobbles. Another non-uniformed man approached, and without asking us about our seat numbers, proceeded to tell us that he was trading seats with us so he could be with his family in that cabin, and that we could take his seats, better seats, in the next car. We objected. Other non-uniformed men stopped by one at a time to see what the commotion was about, bobble their heads, yell something in Hindi, and then vanish. Other non-uniformed men stopped by just to stare at us and sometimes take a picture.

Eventually we agreed to go look at the other seats, “just looking!” but after a loud, hazy, confusing succession of yelling (in Hindi), head bobbling, and parcour-ing through the packed train car, Chrissy and I found ourselves awkwardly crammed onto a bottom bunk that we would be sharing with a grumpy woman who just minutes before had been peacefully spread out on her bed.

“Where do we sit?!” we had asked.

“This one and that one, number eighty-one and eighty-four,” he replied, pointing to two windowless, cramped top bunks, already laden with other passengers’ luggage, sort of next to each other but separated by a doorless partition that split the car into cabins.

“Ya, ok, but where do we sit?!

He looked at us with confusion, then again pointed to the top bunks.

“We can’t sit up there for seventeen hours, sir, they’re not even next to each other! We need to sit together.”

The man pointed at a bottom bunk, with a woman sprawled out peacefully. “You sit here.”

“We can’t sit there, sir, that woman is sleeping there!”

“These your seats.”

“No, they’re not, that’s her bed!”

A sort-of-uniformed man appeared to see what the commotion was. The two men yelled and bobbled their heads at one another for a minute before the new man pointed at the woman and said: “you sit here.”

“We can’t sit here, there’s a woman already there! It’s only big enough for two people anyways even if she wasn’t!” They made no effort to move her. Did they intend for us to sit on top of her? Eventually the whole cabin was yelling in Hindi and bobbling their heads, and after a couple minutes, the woman sat up grudgingly and vacated half the bed for Chrissy and I to share; Chrissy sitting cross legged in the corner and me with my head on a cup holder and legs in the aisle for passers-by to trip on. Seventeen. Frikin. Hours.

Chaos in third-class AC.

After only an hour, Chrissy and I gave in and moved up to our bunks, at which point the woman immediately returned to her sleeping position, this time inviting her daughter over, who had previously been stuffed in some blind corner of the crowded cabin, as backup. We succumbed. We read. We wrote. We napped. And just before sundown, as we got ready for bed, we were ambushed.

It started with a simple question. The man had been sitting there the whole time without saying a word. To my knowledge, he had never even looked my direction.

“Where you from??”

I had been lying on my bunk, inches from the ceiling, someone else’s bag under my feet, embarrassingly engaged in my Lonely Planet India Travel Guide. I didn’t even recognize the question was for me. I didn’t even recognize the question was in English.

“Where you from??” he repeated.

I looked up from my book, surprised to have a dozen pairs of eyes, the entire cabin, directed at me.

“Umm, the U.S.A…America,” I replied.

“Ahhhhh, A-mer-ee-kah. Obama. ”

“Hehe, yeah, Obama,” I followed awkwardly.

“You married?” came the next question.

Chrissy and I had just had a novelty, unofficial Tharu wedding in Nepal, and recognizing the importance of marriage in the Indian culture, I replied:

“Yes, I am. My wife is in the restroom.”

My heart skipped a beat as I realized I had forgotten to warn Chrissy that the toilet was just a hole in the train car that emptied directly onto the tracks. She would probably be pretty traumatized by the time she returned, and probably not in the mood to be ambushed. I looked around frantically to try to warn her before she wandered in unknowingly. New faces appeared from other cabins to see; really to stare. Kids filtered excitedly into the cabin and dissolved themselves into the adults on the already full benches and bunks, filling every gap.

“What your job?” the next question.

“Excuse me?”

“What your job?”

“Umm, Engineer,” I replied.

“AHHH, very good! Software Engineer. Very good!” The man exclaimed, obviously elated.

“No, Civil Engineer, actually.”

“Ohhh. Well also good,” with a hint of disappointment.

Chrissy returned unexpectedly, and before I could warn her they had vacated a spot on the already full bench and wrestled her down half in between them, half on top of them, kids sitting on laps and shoulders, legs dangling from bunks in a chandelier of feet from the low ceiling. They coaxed me down from my bunk and somehow made another spot on the bench next to Chrissy. New people poured into the cabin. They took pictures of us. They took selfies with us. They took selfies of themselves admiring us. They gave us each a brown thing, Indian sweets, that I’m pretty sure was made from processed beans and sugar. We politely pretended to like it. They were thrilled. They gave us a pink thing, another Indian sweet that I’m pretty sure was the same as the brown thing, but pink. Again we pretended to like it, and not repeating our mistake we pleaded that we were already full from dinner and couldn’t take another bite.

They insisted we sing them a song. We hesitated. They insisted again, this time with a cell phone camera for motivation. We gave The Star Spangled Banner a try, ending our last lines “…and the hooome of the braaaave” to exuberant applause, not only from our cabin, but also from the neighboring cabins. Ever felt like an animal in a cage?

Uncomfortable? Yes. Manageable? Also yes. Happily ever after? Afraid not.

It’s a little known fact that Murphy was from India. Ever heard of Murphy? Perhaps you’ve heard of his Law.

New friends on the Indian train.

I awoke 10 minutes ahead of my 3:00 a.m. alarm. The people in the next cabin were rustling about, trying to pack their things. We had stayed up far too late to be waking up this early. After our song, the rest of the cabin had given us a twelve song encore that we were too polite to interrupt. Not that we hadn’t enjoyed it, but we weren’t accustomed to overlapping butts with strangers for hours with a roomful of eyes on us.

The scene at the Ambala Cantt station was dire. What was a game of “the people are lava” during the day in Varanasi, was a game of “try not to look” at night in Ambala Cantt. In Varanasi, it was pretty clear that people were lying around waiting for their train. In Ambala Cantt, I wasn’t so sure. With the station mostly empty of trains, the ghosts of a thousand train toilets manifested themselves on the bare tracks. A man with a makeshift rake hopelessly prodded sludge down a drain. He paused occasionally as people hopped down to cross the track rather than go up and over the walkway. He didn’t pause for rats scurrying between his legs. There were people lying everywhere, at least a thousand. On the stairwells, in the doorways, outside near the gutters. Not lying peacefully waiting for a train, but lying in contorted positions, as if in pain.


We hurried to a ticket window, asking for the next possible train to Kalka. The man said it was at 4:30 a.m., but that we couldn’t buy a ticket from him, his was only the enquiry window. In India, the people selling the tickets have no idea where the trains go, and the people who know where the trains go have no idea about ticket prices or seats. As if to spread the nonsense evenly throughout the station, the enquiry window and the ticket windows are commonly located on opposite corners of the station; an inconvenience that ultimately led to our next mistake.

On the way between the windows, in the midst of a sea of contorted bodies on the cold pavement, we passed a misinformation board where Chrissy spotted a train called The Kalka Express that would leave in ten minutes. We could make it if we hurried. We rushed to the ticket window and, forgetting that the ticket window guy knows nothing about where the trains go, asked if the Kalka Express would go to Kalka. The man smiled and bobbled his head.

This part warrants a digression, for few things in Indian culture are as ambiguous and confusing as the head bobble. It sometimes means “yes”. It sometimes means “no”. It sometimes means “I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but I want to be helpful and friendly”. Normally, I take it to mean “Sure, whatever”. I’m told there are subtle differences in the bobble that could indicate the true meaning, but again, “frustration” indicates that I haven’t been here long enough to pick up on them.

I asked the man more clearly “Does The Kalka Express go to Kalka?”

Again the man bobbled his head and smiled. A little irritated and out of time, we took this particular bobble to mean “yes”, bought ourselves two tickets and hurried back towards the platform. We glanced up at the misinformation board to see that The Kalka Express would be departing from platform two, and with diverted attention we almost collided with a group of four men trying to move the limp body of another man by each of his limbs, his head dangling an inch from the asphalt. The man must have been drunk. The only drunk man I’ll never forget. I hope he was just drunk.

Trying best to ward off thoughts of the man’s other possible fate, we walked up the steps in search of platform two. At the first junction, the stair on the left showed simply “2,3” and the stair on the right said “2,4.” Both stairs obviously led down to the same platform, so we opted to go right. On the platform, a digital sign shuffled through a series of five or six trains in both in English and Hindi; not displaying the next expected train on platform two, but displaying all incoming trains for all platforms. How the hell could that be useful?  Confusion began to fuel frustration, a flame which would soon grow to an inferno.

I waited for The Kalka Express to light up the screen, and then I pointed to the sign and asked the nearest person, “This train goes to Kalka?” The man smiled and bobbled his head. Crap. I waited for the sign to come up again and asked another man, “This train go to Kalka?”

“Yes, yes, Kalka Express.”

“So it goes to Kalka?”

Head bobble.

“Sir, can you tell me if this train goes to Kalka?”

“Yes, Kalka, Kalka,” with a punctuated bobble

I searched frantically for someone with a uniform. There was no one. I quickly pulled up a digital map on my cell phone, to see if I could figure out which direction the train would be coming from if it were going to Kalka. No luck. I sprinted back to the Enquiry window as a train pulled up to platform two. I plowed through a mass of people to the front and gasped, “This train. Does it go to Kalka!?”

“Yes, Kalka Express.”

I know, but does it go to Kalka!?!?”

“No. Goes Narwana.”

“Why the hell does The Kalka Express go to Narwana!?”

“Kalka train coming now, platform two.”

“You just said the train on platform two goes to Narwana!”

Head bobble.

“When is the train toooo Kalka?”

“Same train. Waiting. Coming now. Platform two. Two parts. One goes Kalka.”

Being experienced with train travel outside of India, I knew that splitting a train at certain places to go different directions was not uncommon. But the fact that there was absolutely no indication that such a thing was happening left me absolutely flabbergasted. I sprinted back to the platform where Chrissy greeted me with her “where the hell have you been!” face.

“This train splits and one part goes to Kalka!” I filled her in frantically.

I asked the nearest person, “Which part goes to Kalka!?”

“Doesn’t go to Kalka, no Kalka” the man replied with a bobble, and in better English than everyone else we’d asked that morning.

“Part of this train goes to Kalka,” I pleaded.

“No, no Kalka, train coming now.”

Fuming and defeated I tossed my bag on the platform and plopped down on it with a grunt. As The Kalka Express pulled slowly away, I looked up on the map how far Kalka was in case we decided to take a taxi. It was much too far. It was 4:05 a.m.

About ten minutes later, another train approached from the same direction The Kalka Express had departed. I bolted to my feet and asked the nearest person:

“Sir, please, can you tell me if this next train goes to Kalka. Please.

The man bobbled his head.

“Does that mean yes? Can you tell me yes this train goes to Kalka?

“Yes, yes. Kalka.”

People materialized on the platform; Hundreds of people arisen from the dead. They were agitated. Most of them were running and yelling in one direction or another as the train grinded to a stop. The platform sprang to life. We tried to intercept one family but failed. We ran down the platform alongside a woman carrying a toddler, trying to get her attention:

“Maam, which part of the train goes to Kalka!?”

The woman’s husband, loaded with two backpacks, a duffel bag and a sack of rice on his head sprinted ahead of them.

“Are you going to Kalka!?” I repeated.

In between breaths, the woman gasped:

“Yes….hhhhhhhh….Kalka…hhhhhhhhhh…this way.”

I bolted past her in pursuit of her husband, but lost him in the crowd. Just when I was about to give up and call a taxi, I spotted a maybe-uniformed-man beside the train, showed him our ticket and pleaded:

“Sir, can you please tell us where we go? We’re trying to go to Kalka.”

He meticulously pulled out his reading glasses as the tornado of frantic passengers migrated from the platform onto the train cars. Chaos in a can. As he read the ticket, I realized that we had bought tickets for The Kalka Express, not for this train. The man, having caught the mistake, but not having the patience to deal with it, grumbled, pointed the direction we’d just come from, and said: “Your car that way.”

“Please sir, can you show us where we go?”

He grumbled again, then reluctantly led us one car down to Sleeper Class, the class just below third class AC, and just above riding in the toilet. It was packed to the brim. Body parts dangled out the windows. The top bunk beds were shared three to a bed, either spooned or stacked or both. Benches that were meant to fit three were fitting seven. There was no aisle, only piles of luggage and people and what looked like a goat on the far end of the car. I tried to toss my bag onto an empty spot on the overhead luggage rack, only to hit a man in the head who was lying up there.

An elderly Sikh stood up and offered Chrissy his seat. She was probably the only woman in the whole train car. Across the aisle from Chrissy, the bench of seven scooted down just enough to fit seven-plus-one-butt-cheek. I plopped my bag on my lap and sobbed. This was the last thing we needed at 4:15 in the morning. I looked across the aisle, and in between a pile of luggage and a man’s crotch I could see Chrissy, looking just as distressed as I was. We just wanted to sleep.

Then the man sitting across from me started fiddling with a little LED light clipped onto the outside of my bag. Trying not to be rude, I showed the man how to turn the light off and on. He was amazed. Then he showed his friend, whom he was sitting right next to and who had clearly seen my initial demonstration, how to use the light. The friend was also amazed. Then the curious stranger started fiddling with my luggage lock. This made me a little nervous; I had about $200 in that particular pocket, enough to cause a commotion. Naturally I didn’t show him how to open it.

Then, as the sun rose to dismiss a sleepless night, the questions started coming, “Where you from? You married? What your job?” The questions came from all corners of the car, always directed at me, never directed at Chrissy. In India, it seems taboo to speak to a woman who is not your family member, and as I looked again between the luggage and crotch to see Chrissy fast asleep, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of envy.

The young man next to me, a Sikh as evident from his turban and huge beard, pulled out his phone and took a selfie with me. Then another. Then his friend scooted over to sit half on my lap, half on his friend’s lap, to take a couple more selfies. The man looked at the pictures, pleased. Then he shuffled through the rest of his photos, pausing occasionally to show me selfies of him with other white strangers.

“This lady from Germany,” showing me a picture of himself, his arm around a very confused looking middle aged woman.

“This lady from London. This man from Australia. These two from Texas,” he asserted with pride as he shuffled through the photos. It seemed pretty clear that he didn’t know any of these people, but I didn’t want to ask. Somewhere between a Dutchman and a Spaniard I stopped paying attention, wondering if everyone else on the train had a similar archive of photos with confused looking westerners. I tried to change the subject, “Where are you guys going?”

“Chandigarh,” they responded in unison, “Where your go?”

“We’re trying to go to Shimla. We’re going to Kalka, and then taking the train from there.”

“Ohhhh, no, no. Shimla train not go until 12:30. Better go Chandigarh, take bus Shimla.”

Crap. The last thing we needed now was to spend six hours in the Kalka train station waiting for another six hour train to Shimla.

“When does the bus go from Chandigarh to Shimla?”

“Many bus. Every fifteen minute bus.”

“Is it easy?”

“Yes very easy. You go bus station. Station forty-three. You go bus Shimla.”

As the train pulled into the Chandigarh station, we made the quick decision that we should just get off and catch a bus to Shimla to save us some extra headache (HAH!). One of the men from the train lead us to a rickshaw driver and after a few seconds of yelling and head bobbling, said: “He take you bus station.”

“Wait. What? How much will it cost?” I asked with warranted suspicion.

“250 rupees,” he replied.

“Woah, no. That’s double what we paid to get here,” I argued in a paltry attempt to haggle.

The man frowned, turned back to the driver, and the two resumed yelling and bobbling at one another.

“OK OK YEESH!” I interrupted, “250 rupees.”

Stylish Indian rickshaw.

Chrissy and I crammed into the back of the dilapidated rickshaw and the driver sped off. We were about halfway to the bus station when the driver pulled over and hopped out to analyze one of the back tires, which was obviously flat. He then ran frantically across the street, dodging a spotless Mercedes, just in time to intercept another rickshaw driver going the other direction. After a couple seconds and a half dozen bobbles, he ran back across the street and motioned for us to go get in the other rickshaw.

“Wait! What? Who do we pay?”

“Give him. Give him.” The man responded, motioning to the other driver. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what kind of deals these guys make with one another, but I was too tired and delirious to press the issue. We obediently hopped in the other rickshaw, who calmly whipped his little rickshaw in a violent U-turn across four lanes of traffic. Another 10 minutes, and we had arrived at the bus station.

The chaos continued. Station forty-three in Chandigarh was spread out across a quarter mile, with no signs and a makeshift ticket window, every 50 meters or so. We braced for another round of the bobblehead game. After asking about a dozen people about the bus to Shimla, and getting a dozen bobbles in return, we somehow found our way to the stations enquiry office, which was not really an office but a dingy room with a couple men who very obviously had slept there. We asked about the bus to Shimla.

“Many bus. Every fifteen minutes bus.”

“Are they the nice air conditioned busses? Can we reserve a seat?”

“No aircon bus, local bus.”

“Ok well when does the aircon bus come?” It was June in north India, and a non-aircon bus was going to be borderline unbearable.

“Aircon bus come later, two-oclock,”

The man turned to ask the other man in Hindi, and then turned back, “yes three or four-oclock.”

It was a little before 6 a.m. and I had already exhausted my patience for the day. Screw it, we would take the local bus. The men told us where to go to buy a ticket, and as we approached the counter, we were met by a crowd of at least 50 men piled around a small desk with a very angry looking clerk. The men were all simultaneously pushing their way to the front and stuffing their cash in his face while yelling how many tickets they want. Without looking up, the clerk would grab the nearest cash and issue the tickets to the lucky winner. There wasn’t any crisis going on. The busses would leave every fifteen minutes or so. The whole situation was entirely ordinary. I took off my backpack to leave with Chrissy, pulled out some cash, and pushed my way to the front, yelling in the little Hindi I knew “Do, Shimla.” (two to Shimla). Although most of the men were smaller than me, they were fierce at boxing out, and much more experienced at pushing into crowds. It took some time, but eventually I made it to the front and got our tickets, just as the next bus was pulling out completely bursting at the seams with people.

As the bus bounced off, bottoming out on every pothole, I decided to run to the station kiosk to grab some food and water for the journey. I was just about to cash out, when I realized I didn’t have any money. Crap. I left all the food at the counter and ran back to Chrissy to get some cash. I had only been gone two minutes, but Chrissy and our bags were nowhere to be seen. Terror struck as I imagined all the horrible things that might have happened to my fiancée, and just as I began going into emergency mode, I heard Chrissy yelling at me from across the station. A new bus had pulled up, and the bus was already packed, but there in the front row was Chrissy and our bags. I could imagine all the men trampling over one another to get on, and to this day I have no idea how Chrissy was able to manage that alone.

I sprinted over to the window and asked Chrissy to toss me some cash. The driver was impatient and yelling at me in Hindi, “Challo! Challo!” meaning “Let’s go!”. “Ek minute! Ek minute!” I yelled back, “One minute!” I sprinted back to the kiosk to pay the cashier, and when I turned around, the bus was already bouncing halfway across the lot, with Chrissy freaking out in the front seat. I took off after the bus with an armful of bottled water, samosas and chips. I guess this was the driver’s way of showing he means business. He slowed down just enough for me to catch up, but he never stopped, and the second I hopped onto the step into a pile of people, the driver cranked up the Bollywood music, kicked the bus into gear and took off like a madman. He would play the same cd on repeat for the rest of the bus ride. I clambered over the people in the doorway and plopped down on the bare metal bench next to Chrissy.

There was no glass on the windows; the bus was completely open allowing all the olfactory sensations of the Indian streets to come wafting through. I had a man’s butt in my face, so for the moment I didn’t mind so much about the street smells. A man behind us was consoling a young boy, who was clearly getting carsick, and as we passed some of the other local busses on the road, we noticed that every single one of them had multiple vomit stains running down the side. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the kid started puking out the window right behind us. Nobody batted an eye. The driver turned the music up a little higher.

The Indian street smells…

A few hours later, on a terrifying mountain road, the young boy was still puking out the window as we overtook another bus…into oncoming traffic…around a blind corner. Our driver was casually running smaller cars off the road as our Bollywood blaring vomit bus careened around the crumbling mountain curves. In some places, the guard rail was missing where a car, or bus, had run off the cliff. Our driver didn’t seem concerned at all. As long as he laid on the horn so that the oncoming traffic could hear him, all was well.

A typical vomit-bus near Shimla.

By the time we arrived in Shimla, my white knuckled hands had to be pried off the bar in front of me. We had made it. We couldn’t believe it. It had been about 26 hours since we’d first boarded the train in Varanasi, and we were extremely tired and irritable, but we’d finally made it. We thought.

As we would come to learn later after spending over three months in India, nothing is ever easy, and this was no exception. The Shimla bus station was located at the bottom of a steep hill, about ten kilometers from the city of Shimla. The taxi from the bus station to the city would cost twice the price of the bus tickets to get there. We were spent, and didn’t have the patience to barter over the price, so we bit the bullet and hopped in a cab. Fifteen minutes later and the driver was kicking us out at the bottom of a cliff.

“This is not where we wanted to go!” we yelled at the driver. “We need to go to Shimla!”

The driver pointed up to the top of the cliff and said “Shimla, Shimla!”

“We aren’t going to pay you unless you take us to Shimla!”

Again the driver pointed to the top of the cliff, “Shimla!” then he gestured to a spot about 100 meters down the road where hundreds of people were piled around a dilapidated outdoor elevator that would take them up the cliff six at a time. It was going to take hours.

“No!” we yelled at the driver, “you need to take us up there, we’re not waiting for that thing!”

The driver, clearly frustrated, got out of the car and disappeared somewhere. We were on the verge of tears. This had been way harder than we expected and it wasn’t getting easier. The driver came back a couple minutes later with another man who spoke passable English. The new man explained to us that cars are not allowed in Shimla, and there’s no way for the cab to drive there. The elevator was the only way up.

I was not ready to accept our fate. We had come too far and overcome too many hurdles to just passively take another punch in the face from India. We got out of the cab and set off down the road towards the elevator.  As I explored the map for some way for us to hike up to the city, Chrissy noticed there was a second elevator a little farther from the one where people were crowding. It seemed that it ran directly up the cliff to a hotel, and we assumed that only hotel guests were able to use it.

We didn’t really have anything to lose at that point, so we sauntered up confidently to the elevator teller, and told him we had reservations for the hotel. To our surprise, the man let us right in and pushed the button for the lobby. The place was extra fancy and well outside our price range, so when we got off the elevator we walked as quickly as possible through the lobby and out the door to the street before the concierge had a chance to yell at us. We hurried up the hill to the top of the city where we booked a night at the YMCA, the only affordable hotel in Shimla. The room was in pretty poor condition, and gangs of monkeys were constantly running by our window occasionally stopping to stick their hands through the bars to see if they could reach anything tasty. We were too exhausted to complain, so we switched off the light and let the nightmare drift away.

This was the first of many harrowing journeys we experienced in India, and although they never got easier, we eventually did start learning to deal with it.

Two weeks after this trip, we had to figure out a way to get from Shimla to Rishikesh. We could take a taxi to the bus station, then a bus to Chandigarh, then a train to Haridwar, then another bus to Rishikesh, then a rickshaw to our hostel.

We spent $100 on a 7 hour taxi ride instead. Totally worth it…

Hanging off the train somewhere outside Jodhpur.

6 thoughts on “India: A magnificent mess…

  1. You have all of my sympathy here. Character building experience no doubt. Its the kind of story that kills my wanderlust and makes me cherish the security of my comfort place…home sweet home. Maybe in the future, perhaps in my 70’s, i will face my fear of the unknown, the disorganized, the chaotic, the antithesis of my being, and cherish the journey rather than the destination. You will, I think, cherish this time in your life if only to highlight in bold an understanding of the world outside your own.


    1. Amen to that. We have learned from personal experience how important it is for people all over the world to see and understand one another. There’s no better time to take that step than now, and it’s never to late to learn something new.


  2. Oh gosh, this had me cracking up at times, but overall it was really eye opening and intriguing! I want to know more! I ended up googling Varanasi and Shimla to see how far apart they are – around 700miles – so might take around 12 hours via car and US highways? So crazy!


  3. Great to read about your indian experience. I know its kind of messy. Being in a different nation and going through the local travel options, its a grumpy ride. But its worth the effort. I hope you remember the sangla homestay and mesmerising himalayas all over probably worth the effort.


    1. India was unforgettable to say the least. We met some amazing people and grew a lot. With this story, I mostly wanted to convey that travel is not all rainbows and butterflies. There are often challenges while traveling…but especially in India 😉 Sangla was definitely a highlight!


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