Where should we go? Nathan and I puzzled over this question, determined to work our way down our bucket list but restricted by costs. ‘Well… there’s a flight to Mumbai, return, for R5500’, Nathan said. ‘I’ve always wanted to go to India’. And as it turned out, so did I.
The next question on my mind was what camera equipment to take. I’d restricted myself to one lens and vowed to take only holiday snaps – sort of like a photography detox. After much debate I settled on a 50mm lens and a 2gig CF card.
Just over two months later saw us sitting in Dubai airport, where I was having a mild panic attack. In the rush of last-minute deadlines I hadn’t had a chance to sink my mind into our imminent backpacking trip, loosely organised with the idea of ‘going with the flow’. I stared on my phone while we waited for our plane, scrutinising our sketchy overnight accommodation in Mumbai, Hotel Sea Lord (chosen partly because of the name). It was failing miserably to impress. Reports of dingy, dank rooms and proximity to the train station hadn’t seemed so bad when we booked from the comfort of Cape Town. Nathan pried the phone from my clutches and assured me that it will be okay.
‘We’re together. It will be fine.’
And it was. Our hotel was (only slightly) better than we anticipated, and being nearby Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus was a good thing. There was grand, decrepit architecture all around and we were reasonably close to the places like Colaba Causeway, where we found the famous Leopold Cafe and visited the Gateway to India.
Mumbai didn’t charm us, but there were pockets of it we enjoyed. We weren’t sorry to get on our overnight bus the next evening and make our hot, long-winded way down to Goa, where we arrived on Anjuna beach in time for their Wednesday market.
Clothing and goods from India and neighbouring countries filled the space, as did the expat and tourist community. It was a colourful change from Mumbai, but after a few hours of haggling and sitting on the beach drinking orange juice, we decided it was high time to escape the crowds and head to quieter waters. So it was onto Agonda beach, where we had booked a beach hut at Secret Garden. We arrived to find the place just what we had imagined – stilted huts under the shade of palms. It was nice; we felt relieved.
‘You must tell me soon if you want to extend your stay. Most people want to stay longer but then there is no more space’. Godwin, the owner, said as we put our backpacks down.
It turned out that we did stay longer – not solely because it was a good base of exploration from the back of hired motorbikes, but also because I had caught one of India’s infamous bugs. Turns out you should heed warnings about things like ice cubes in water, or avoiding the the local orange juice. Now we faced a cross-roads: our original plan was to start in Mumbai, spend a few days in Goa, head to Kerala in the South, then up to Delhi. Now that we were running short on time, we had to choose between Kerala and Delhi.
‘Kerala.’ I said. ‘I’ve heard it’s amazing.’ Nathan doubtfully consented and we booked two Tatkal (last-minute) train tickets in third class for just over a 500 rupees each (R120). Our carriage slept eight, but with every stop on the 14 hour journey to Allepey we gained and lost passengers. It was cosy to say the least.
Alleppey is famed for its houseboat cruises on the backwaters of Kerala. We opted for a day cruise on a row boat at a fraction of the cost, and ended up covering most of the route done by the larger houseboats. Our guide took us through shallow canals between islands and through villages nestled on the edges of the water, children splashing on the knee-high steps and women washing their hair. We stopped for lunch at a waterside restaurant, eating a vegetarian meal off large banana leaves, while being closely watched by the restaurant’s resident brahminy kite.
We’d had our full of the backwaters after a few days and embarked on a torturous trip to Munnar, a mountainous area filled with tea plantations and fresh exploration, where we booked into a homestay. Days were spent the days wandering the hills and the town of Munnar, drinking flavoured tea and being embroiled in ceremonies at the Lord Muruga temple.
Candles offered and tea bought, we made our way back to Mumbai. Time had gone fast, as it typically does on these short holiday stints. Our plans definitely hadn’t gone as envisioned, but we’re okay with that. We stumbled around, generally making mistakes, but learning how things worked and discovering places we hadn’t researched or anticipated. We spent a lot longer in public transport than we had planned, but while it certainly cost us in time, it barely touched our wallets.
And we’ll go back, next time to explore north of India and cross over into Nepal, hopefully for longer. India’s back on the bucket list; with so much to see, it never really got struck off.