Sobel Takes India A Travel Blog

India. Where do I even begin?

Someone once told me that India is the greatest assault on your five senses in the world. I had no idea what to expect before heading over to India and I am a seasoned traveler; don’t get me wrong. All I knew about India was that I could make Indian exchange students laugh by cursing in Hindi and that I did a mean Panjabi MC impression.

I’ve seen the Andes of Argentina, the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and have driven on the Autobahn and not a day goes by where I take any of that for granted--I am one lucky guy.

However, India had a huge question mark. Ask any American 'would you ever consider going to India?' You’re either going to get radio silence or an uncomfortable “no.”

Friends with family in India reassured me that I would get sick about 100 times, which oddly made me even more excited for the trip. After hearing this, India had a huge question mark on it, as my entire knowledge base of India stemmed from Slumdog Millionaire and a Kwik-E-Mart cashier on The Simpsons.

The legend himself, Apu.

Fast-forward. I flew Etihad Airways from Dulles to Abu Dhabi and then had a short layover before continuing on to Mumbai. First of all, my hat is off to Etihad. There is a justified reason why this airline has won “Airline of the Year” almost five years in a row. The crew was flawless, the new Boeing 787 was a pleasure to fly on and the entertainment system made the long flight feel like a breeze. I still haven’t taken off my Etihad tag on my backpack as some sort of weird tribute or sign of admiration, I guess.

Getting some rest before the 14-hour haul to Abu Dhabi from D.C.

After a long journey, I arrived in Mumbai looking scarier than a Walking Dead zombie and was immediately hit with the harsh reality. Slums are scattered on the edges of the runway and the smell of the open sewers hits you the minute you land. Dorothy, you’re not in D.C. anymore.

This was unlike any place I had experienced before and honestly, it was oddly refreshing and just added to the excitement of finding out what sat outside of those airport doors. Was India everything I had imagined?

Mumbai’s airport, Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, was terrific and was one of the nicest airports I’ve ever flown out of, despite being impossible to spell and pronounce; but enough about the airport, let’s get to the fun stuff.

Immediately, driving from the airport to the center of Mumbai, it is different; even at 4 a.m. during the early hours of 2016. I grasped onto the seat that did not come with a seatbelt (welcome to India) and looked to my left where a plethora of cows were on the side of the road and beggars stared at me through the window as I took photos on my new iPhone.

I quickly saw some differences, as I’m sure you can imagine, as three-wheel auto rickshaws would zoom past, beautifully-decorated trucks would blast their horns and billboards in Hindi towered over the shacks on the sides of the road.

It almost felt like a dream.

Mumbai is a booming city and I will go ahead and say that it was my favorite city that I experienced on the trip. The common comparison is that Delhi is like D.C., being the political capital with more room to breathe and wider roads. Mumbai is the Indian New York; it has the same chaos and pointless “Do Not Honk” signage.

For the first few days, all I wanted to do was drive around the city because it was like a brand new Six Flags rollercoaster. You get in without a seatbelt, say a prayer and watch as your driver crosses onto the right side of the road and plays chicken with an 18-wheeler before jerking the steering wheel back to the left at the last second.

In other words, do not drive in India if you have heart problems.

In D.C., I’d probably get slapped with a multi-thousand dollar fine if I were lucky enough to escape jail time for driving on the left on Pennsylvania Ave. for an uncomfortable amount of time.

A crazy scene outside of the Lotus Temple in Delhi.

Location-wise, Mumbai is situated right on the Arabian Sea. I was also given the comparison that Mumbai is the love child of Tel Aviv and New York and that hit the nail right on the head. It has the beach of Tel Aviv, but the skyscrapers and craziness of New York.

I felt very safe and India does not mess around when it comes to security. Even before coming into the country, I had to have a visa that required answering tons of questions and then leaving the airport took over an hour.

If you want to go shopping, you have to go through a metal detector and have a pat-down. Guards with AK-47s and other semi-automatics were everywhere in the country. See the comparison to Israel now?

The main thing I enjoyed was how strong the U.S. Dollar was, compared to the Rupee. The conversion rate was 66-1 at the time of my visit, so a six-mile cab ride would cost me about $1.29 and a huge dinner would cost me a few bucks.

Clothing was very reasonable and I made sure I bought an India Cricket jersey to the confusion of every UMD student who will see a lanky Jewish kid walking around in a Dhoni jersey in a few days.

I'm sure you're wondering what were the people like. Mainly, I can’t stress enough how helpful and polite everyone was to me. Even on the street, people were fascinated by the fact that I was a foreigner and my travel companion and I would get the constant “how are you?” and “welcome to India” with a smile. It really is a beautiful country full of beautiful people.

The colors of the country are magnificent as well and just walking around is mind-blowing. At lunch breaks, large crowds of businessmen will flood a Chai Wallah’s stand or a stand that sells delicious samosas and dosas, where one single plate is passed around by hundreds of people.

Lunchtime chaos in Agra, India.

Having said that, I will warn you. I was advised by locals not to eat the street food without supervision. I didn’t end up having any, to be honest, because the sanitation is a lot different from a food truck back home. These food trucks don't have a jolly, bearded hipster serving tacos. I guess the main concern is the water. Many of the raw vegetables and fruits are washed in tap water, which is a no-go.

A lot of establishments have super deluxe filtration systems, so as long as you’re drinking filtered or bottled water, you’re good to go.

Let’s move on to Delhi, shall we?

We flew Air India up to Delhi on a short, two-hour flight. Now, I know The Simpsons says Air India will treat you like cattle and they were right…well, I mean sort of. It was fine; just your standard airline.

Heading up to Delhi on our Air India Airbus A321.

If you’ve been following the news, you know Delhi has a huge smog issue. We landed on a sunny morning and it could have been a cloudy evening for all I knew--it really is serious. Getting off of the jetway with my neck pillow I bring on every big trip, to my friends’ embarrassment, there was even smog in the airport.

Delhi is a wonderful city though and it was fascinating to be there during the odd-even trial. Basically, the local government said all cars with license plates ending in an odd number have to drive on odd days and vice versa for even. It’s actually genius if you ask me and it seemed to work quite well.

The traffic significantly lessened and many people used public transportation during the trial period. However, it sounds like it won’t last. That is beyond me, though, as I am just a journalism student and know nothing about Environmental policy (sorry).

It was actually a great week to be in India since Netflix debuted as well. They had every unrated, uncut comedy that I struggle to find on American TV nowadays. Take notes, Netflix USA.

My friend, who I stayed with and the reason I went to India in the first place, is from New Delhi and he is biased towards Delhi like I am biased towards D.C. I jokingly said, “where’s Old Delhi?” like a complete moron and was expecting a punch to the shoulder for being a smartass, but there legitimately was an Old Delhi. Talk about a backfire.

Not only was there an Old Delhi, but the differences were drastic. Old Delhi was much more of what you would see in a stereotypical India shot from a Hollywood film, with cows, rickshaws and huge crowds of women in saris and Sikh men with traditional clothing on.

I actually enjoyed Old Delhi more than New Delhi because it felt more authentic. My head was spinning from all of the things to look at. Vendors were selling knockoff Louis Vuitton bags and soccer jerseys, people were buying fruit and monkeys were climbing on the power lines. Kind of like Bethesda, right?

A vendor in Old Delhi, overshadowed by loose powerlines.

As a matter of fact, I think a lot of what I experienced is indescribable. I really tried to live in the moment on this trip and it really paid off for me personally. It is difficult to put into words what I just experienced.

The next morning, we took the train to Agra. We were in First Class for a whopping $26 and were served tea and a meal. The food was safe to eat and they even served bottled water as well. The train ride to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, was just a little over two hours and I ended up making a huge mistake.

Never ask an Indian cricket fan about the game, because I spent two hours listening to the different cricketers, positions, why India is so disappointing this year, the struggles of India recently, why this guy next to me would be a better manager and so on.

All jokes aside, it was just another demonstration of how kind, wonderful and passionate the people of India are. They want to make you feel as welcomed as possible and are very open to talking about their culture.

Agra is like going back 100 years in a time machine. It was the most chaotic place I have ever been. Tokyo has organized chaos. People walk in straight lines, all know where they are going and they are all wearing suits and business attire. Agra? Not so much.

It was insanity. Driving through Agra, you hit a top speed of about five miles per hour before a cow or donkey crosses the road (yes, lots of “that’s a great ass” jokes were made) and cuts you off.

It was fascinating. Women in traditional clothing clung onto their husbands on the back of motorcycles, monkeys did backflips on the side of the road for money and children tapped on the windows of the car at stops, as they stared at the (apparently) fascinating American whose stomach felt like it had knives in it, while getting accustomed to Indian cuisine.

The Taj Mahal is one of the few things I’ve ever experienced that I can say really lived up to the hype and was as stunning as everyone says. It was mind-blowing. The amount of detail and perfection on it is so hard to believe that you have to rub your eyes a few times, after using Purell, of course.

The breath-taking Taj Mahal in Agra.

It is magnificent and I would go back in a heartbeat, just to stare at it for hours. The Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned Mughal city, were equally fascinating and Agra was a very cool place if you enjoy history, like myself.

I will never forget the food I consumed in India. Rice is an essential in the Indian cuisine. Rice with dal, vegetable gravy, was a favorite of mine and roti with vegetables was another popular meal. The food was outstanding and I don’t think I can ever eat Indian food in the U.S. again because it wouldn’t be the same and would just be disrespectful.

The amount of color, spice and attention to detail associated within Indian cuisine is just a work of art.

Towards the end of the trip, we decided to head to Goa, a Portuguese province between Mumbai and the southern tip of India. We stayed at an awesome little guesthouse with a more-than-polite staff and great room for the three of us.

Not only that, but the gorgeous Sinquerim Beach was just a short walk away. Here’s where we hit a minor detour...

My fellow American friend got food poisoning and our two days in Goa were spent in the Bosio Hospital. Honestly, I think it gave us a true Indian experience and my friend now has a hell of a Med School essay to write.

My friends and I are horrible people. He was fine though!

Besides, Goa was great because not only were we in Portugal and India, but Moscow was checked off of the list with all of the Russian tourists.

He was fine after a night in the hospital and we headed back to Mumbai for a few final days. Again, Mumbai is just terrific. The people were all great, the food, the vibe and so much more were just flawless.

Over the last few days, we just did some shopping, stopped off at the Taj Palace Hotel, where the unfortunate 2008 terrorist attacks took place and the Gateway of India as well. It was nice to slow down for a few days after a very fast-paced couple of weeks.

We flew Etihad back to Abu Dhabi and then ultimately took the same flight back to Dulles, which took about 14 hours. Again, Etihad was outstanding and the rate we got was terrific in the first place.

Now, this is the part where I close out and say how great India is and how rewarding my experience was. It definitely had that, but take all of that and double it.

Over the last two weeks, I saw things that I just simply cannot describe. I felt the same way after leaving Japan, but this time I think it’s more genuine.

I can tell you that I saw beautiful Buddhist temples and ate amazing food in Japan, but I can’t tell you everything that I witnessed in India; it’s just not humanly possible.

An old Buddhist cave in the hills of Mumbai.

I remember turning to my friend at one point in the trip and saying, “just when you think you’ve seen it all in India, you haven’t” and I think that is a very special quality for a country to have.

The best word to describe India is “fascinating” or “beautiful.” Screw it, let’s just call it “beautifully fascinating” because that’s what it is.

Keep in mind that I only saw a tiny portion of the country, but I still travelled a ton for two weeks.

I was very lucky to be with locals throughout the trip’s entirety and I understand that many of you will say that’s the only reason I went. Truth be told, I was very nervous going into this trip. I thought I’d get sick or that something would go wrong.

It did. My friend ended up in the hospital and that easily could’ve been me. However, even if I had been lying in a Goa Hospital bed with a giant portrait of Jesus staring down at me for 24 hours, I think I would’ve enjoyed the country even more.

So many Americans want to go to places like the U.K., Germany and the Caribbean for a getaway and I get that--especially considering prices--but all I can say is that you’re missing out.

You simply are.

So the next time you’re considering being a little adventurous and you want to go to an exciting place, I think I have some damn good reasons why India is the place for you.

I can’t compliment the people and country of India itself enough and the beauty is just insurmountable.

As I put the finishing touches on this article, I have Bollywood classics blasting into my ears on my Spotify playlist; I have Ganesh (a Hindu God) looking down on me on my desk while I type and my Indian flag is comfortably hanging on the wall of my dorm.

Thanks very much for the memories, India and I hope many fellow Americans will come see you real soon; I know I will.

Gotta go, I have cricket practice.

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Nick Sobel is junior Journalism major at the University of Maryland.

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