This is part of an ongoing story, published in digestible chunks, about our first experiences in India. These were some of the most intense moments on the road so far, and in writing about them, I went way overboard. So, tune in most days for a short, serialized snippet of the two of us struggling through our culture shock. If you’re tuning in partway through, all of the previous parts are on the blog.
We decided to go to India while sitting on a rooftop. This is something we try to do as often as possible on the road and we’re pretty good at making it happen. This particular rooftop is in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, and we’d been on the rooftop a lot in the past month. The rooftop felt like home and it made India seem like a distant challenge, something difficult, a little scary and likely rewarding, but so far away that it wasn’t threatening. Like signing up for a marathon six months in the future– you’ll get in shape in time, don’t worry. We applied for visas online, bought a cheap flight to a place we’d never heard of and said goodbyes. We’d made KL our home for almost a month and walking to the train station had many of the travel jitters that we experienced several months prior, when we embarked on our first chunk of travel: a night bus from New Mexico to California.
I felt those jitters, but pushed them down. After all, we were experienced travelers at that point. We’d been to several countries, navigated tiny villages and big cities alike, no problem. Well heeled and gung-ho, we knew what we were doing.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is real and India delighted in proving how little we actually knew about travel. More on that below.
It was and it wasn’t our fault. Kuala Lumpur had made us fat housecats, confident that if we we’re just let outside, we could tear that alley cat apart. Or catch that pigeon taunting us on the ledge. Or just live forever outside, a feline Jeremiah Johnson conquering the rugged outdoors in this extended metaphor. In KL we had a little home: a room at the end of the hall in a loft style hostel. We had neighbors that we knew. We worked regular hours. We had friends we saw everyday, a coffee shop we frequented after work and we were even regulars at a local restaurant. Life was great and grand and easy. I whistled as I walked the bustling Chinatown streets, feeling just at home sashaying past camera toting tourists outside of temples as I would walking past crowds in downtown Albuquerque. More so, actually– I never felt unsafe in KL, which is not something I can say for the Burque and, unless you’re half brother is a strangely quaffed dictator, it seems extremely unlikely you’re going to get hurt/abducted/harrassed/mugged or killed in Malaysia. The place is safe and we felt safe, which made us comfortable, which made us think we had this whole travel thing licked. Travellers extraordinaire, glamorously jetsetting on a shoestring budget and hopping from country to country with the greatest of ease.
Enter Tiruchirappalli, India. And enter hard earned travel lesson #1, which is, tickets are cheap for many reasons. Before you buy, make sure you know your ticket is cheap.
The tickets to Trichy were cheap for the wrong reasons, but we didn’t know that yet. We bought them without much fanfare or research, the same method we used to get to Malaysia (another previously unplanned stop) and that worked out great. Before making that decision we toyed with the idea of returning to Cambodia, but it felt too much like moving back in with your parents, retreating to the known and comfortable. We didn’t travel just to sit on a beach somewhere the whole time (only part of the time, we’re reasonable people), we traveled to see the world, to have some adventure, and to interact with cultures we weren’t familiar with. Travel is supposed to be uncomfortable and strange and a little scary; a voyage into the unknown.
In this instance the unknown began with a familiar trip on KL public transit, something we were smug about mastering during our time in Malaysia. It’s a modern public transit system with regular trains and buses and signs in English. In retrospect it shouldn’t have been a source of pride to not get lost in a place bedecked with signs pointing you the right way. After that (which we did navigate like locals, for what it’s worth) a standard flight with our old friend Air Asia, who always feeds you, even on flights less than an hour and is always on time. A few hours later we were walking across the tarmac of the dust and smog filled Trichy airport. Trichy is located in the south of India and our plan was to start in the south and head north via long trains, traversing the whole country in our visa-allotted 30 days. This plan, made by fat cats sizing up the mangy alley cat through the safety of a plate of glass, drastically underestimated the task at hand and overestimated our ability to get it done.
Trichy was waiting, looming just outside the airport, waiting to give us our first taste of India, ready to remind us that fat house cats need to reevaluate their decisions and harden their resolve when they decide to leave the comforts of home and go outside.