First, an apology for neglecting the blog the past few weeks. We are not, in fact, dead or dying. In the spirit of the holidays (and, well, of being in Thailand), we’ve taken a bit of a vacation from our vacation.
It’s easy to fall behind on work (yes, the blog is work to us) and the more jam-packed our current itinerary is, the more likely we are to procrastinate. And ever since we left Hampi, we’ve been surprisingly busy. Our last week in India was straight chaos and Bangkok just FLEW by. Then as soon as we got to Koh Tao we lapsed into island time, and with the holidays approaching, anything that didn’t involve cold Chang beers, scuba diving, or spicy Thai curries took a back burner.
So for that, we apologize. But it’s a new year, and that means it’s time to return to our regularly scheduled programming. During our last week in India we covered two fairly large areas - Goa and Mumbai - in a short amount of time, so I’ve decided to combine them into one blog post.
Goa is kind of weird (as far as India goes) for several reasons. First, it’s a state, but people talk about it as if it’s just one place. For example, people will say “I’m visiting Mumbai, Goa, and Delhi” and it’s a little confusing, because you can’t just ‘go to Goa’ - you have to pick a specific part, and there are LOTS of places to choose from.
Plus, Goa is just an odd place compared to the rest of India. It’s got a VERY strong Portuguese/European influence, it’s extremely western (it’s cool for women to wear shorts here and tourists can definitely rock bikinis at the beach), and it’s ridiculously popular with package tourists from places as diverse as England, Israel, and Russia.
Goa can be roughly divided into North and South, and within those two sections there are lots of different beaches. South Goa has more of a chill vibe, with lots of fancy resorts, while North Goa is more of a party atmosphere with backpacker hostels and good nightlife. We decided to go with North Goa because it seemed easier to get around, more affordable, and a little more lively.
Once we settled on North Goa, we needed to select a beach. We eventually narrowed it down to Arambol or Vagator. Both seem to be fun, lively areas with chill crowds, good food and nightlife, and nice beaches. Arambol seemed to be the most hippie-like area, and Vagator sounded a little more party-focused.
Having been in India for almost two months at this point, we didn’t think our bodies were prepared for nights of intense partying, and we loved the hippie-ish vibe in Hampi. For those reasons we settled on Arambol Beach. We were pretty happy with it, although I wish we’d had a chance to stay in another part of North Goa too so we could compare. It was definitely a hippie paradise - it seemed like every store sold the kind of New Age clothes you really only see at music festivals, the smell of ganja wafted through the air constantly, and we saw a really horrifying amount of dreadlock-clad people walking through the streets barefoot, which I will NEVER understand.
Four nights isn’t really a lot of time to visit Goa, but it’s all we had. The area around Arambol Beach was so lively and crowded (we arrived right at the beginning of peak season) that there was always something new to see. We stayed at Radhabai Guest House, which we found via booking.com, and we would recommend it. We didn’t have A/C and I would suggest you try to get it, because it was hot at night even in winter. It was in a good location about an 8-10 minute walk to the beach, with lots of restaurants and shops around. They also rented us a scooter for a fair price.
As far as food goes, Arambol isn’t the place to go for authentic hole-in-the-wall Indian fare— it’s more of a hodgepodge of generic food from around the world, but if you put in some effort you can find some incredible places. And anyway, after our horrifying food poisoning in Hampi, we were a little burnt out on Indian food so having some variety was nice.
One of our favorites was Shimon Falafel, which is (you guessed it!) a falafel shop! The falafels here are seriously incredible - crispy, flavorful, and perfectly seasoned - and the hummus and shakshuka are also tasty. Lamuella Bistro, which is actually in the back of a clothing boutique where I spent WAY too much money, serves amazing smoothies and great coffee. Black Pearl Coffee is also great for a caffeine fix, and yes it is pirate themed so obviously I was in heaven.
For Indian, we loved Lulu Cafe, which served a thali with the most incredible cashew curry. There’s also a huge number of restaurants right along the beach, and inevitably when you stroll down the beach a promoter from every single one will approach you and try to bring you in for drinks/dinner. Honestly, there’s not much distinction between all of them, although we thought Zen Oasis was really good. If you’re looking for really good, cheap food, you can do better than one of those tourist traps. Definitely drink here, though - the cocktails at all the beach bars are pretty cheap and strong.
Between all the eating, drinking, and occasional beach time, our time in Goa flew by and before we knew it, it was time to get on one last sleeper bus and head to Mumbai. We’d taken a sleeper bus just once before, to get to Goa from Hampi, and absolutely hated it. We wound up on the non-A/C bus, and although the sleeping compartment was comfy and we could actually share a two-person bunk instead of sleeping separately (as we would on trains), our trip was marred by a) the miserable heat, b) our crazy driver navigating equally crazy and poor-quality roads, and c) a casual cockroach crawling across our window 20 minutes into the journey.
So when we found out the trains were booked from Goa to Mumbai and we needed to get a bus, we learned from our mistake and booked the fancy, more-expensive air-conditioned tourist bus. Great idea, right? Wrong. This bus was somehow MORE shaky, MORE dirty, and LESS pleasant to travel in than the non-A/C bus. Luckily, we didn’t see any cockroaches but whoever was in our bunk before us left us the present of a bunch of biscuit crumbs, and the roads were so bad that we were constantly at risk of falling out of our bunk because for some reason there was no guardrail on our bunk. Neither of us slept for even one minute, so when we arrived in Mumbai we were NOT in great condition.
Let me tell you, Mumbai is not a place you want to arrive in less than tip-top mental condition, even if you’ve been in India for as long as we have. It felt like everyone could sense that we didn’t have our guard up and tried to scam, pester, harass, and generally bother us as much as humanly possible the entire time we were there. It was next level insanity - even in Delhi we didn’t have as many difficulties getting around or getting people to do what they said they would do.
It started with the Uber drivers. Throughout India, I’ve had zero issues with Uber - in fact, it’s been a godsend, enabling us to avoid the common taxi scams so widespread in India. But the Uber drivers in Mumbai seem almost as bad as the cabbies. We had to cancel 2 or 3 rides in a span of 20 minutes near Marine Drive because they would just drive past us in the opposite direction but never cancel the ride. In one instance I had a guy actually start the trip without us getting in the car! I’ve never had that happen in all my years using Uber. I reported it, of course, but it really put me in a foul mood that only worsened as the day continued to get more difficult.
We then tried to get a cab, and he wouldn’t take us. We tried another, and another, before he gestured us to the other side of the road. After 4 or 5 cabs on THAT side rejected us, we finally gave up on anyone picking us up on Marine Drive and walked several blocks to a side street and (mercifully) were able to get in an Uber there. I forgot to mention that this whole time, we were in the blazing sun in 90-degree heat. Emotions were high, and Mumbai wasn’t done with us yet.
Later that afternoon we wanted to visit the Gateway of India, one of Mumbai’s most famous sights. We’d eaten lunch on a narrow crowded street and had no prayer of getting an Uber in less than 20 minutes, so when we saw a cab go by we hopped in. He charged us double what an Uber would cost, got offended when I haggled, and then at the end he tried to charge us Rs 20 extra for using A/C. I feel terrible about this, but I just laughed in his face. I literally told him “It’s not our first day in India, dude,” handed him the agreed-upon fare, and climbed out of the cab. I know Rs 20 amounts to literally 30 cents, and most of the time I’d let these things slide, but on this particular day I was just NOT willing to put up with that shit. It’s the principle of the matter - I would have felt worse if I’d given in and tacitly approved of scamming tourists.
By now it was like 4pm and we were pretty much emotionally done with Mumbai, but Mumbai still wasn’t done with us. As soon as we got to the Gateway, we were accosted by random people trying to sell stuff or get us to buy tours, pretty standard for India. But there was one guy that was REALLY persistent. Let me preface this by saying the Gateway was CROWDED on this particular day. This guy came up and started telling us the Gateway was closed. We played along.
“Oh really? Why?” we asked.
“Because it’s Tuesday!” he replied confidently.
The craziest thing is, I ALMOST believed him because India is the one country in the world where it being Tuesday is grounds for closing a national monument - it seems like everything is closed one day a week but there’s no rhyme or reason as to which day it is. For a split second I hesitated, but Alex chuckled and kept walking, completely ignoring the man. Instead of giving up, he followed us for 10 or 20 meters, shouting at Alex “Sir! Why are you running away?!” By the end of the whole ordeal we were laughing hysterically, which I guess is a better reaction than punching a stranger, which is what I actually wanted to do.
Needless to say, the Gateway of India was very much NOT closed. We got in, snapped a few photos (and took lots of selfies with Indian tourists), and then looked at each other and saw a dead, vacant look in one another’s eyes. We’d had enough of Mumbai for a lifetime, and we agreed to go back to our hotel early that day and order Domino’s pizza and watch TV instead of staying out any longer. And let me just say, Domino’s in India is AMAZING. You can get a paneer tikka pizza! It’s the best of both worlds.
We were prepared to be overwhelmed by Mumbai, and we certainly were. It certainly felt like the appropriate cap to our seven-week Indian adventure. It may not have been our favorite city in India, but it was thoroughly Indian and for that reason it felt like we really came full circle: from the chaos of Delhi, through a zillion beautiful places, and out through another kind of chaos in Mumbai.
We do have a few recommendations. First, stay in Colaba if you can. We didn’t - we stayed in Navi Mumbai which is actually almost an hour away from all the sights, and while an Uber was only like $10 each way we wasted a LOT of time just getting around, and for that reason when we were burnt out after our misadventures near the Gateway, we were less incentivized to go back into the city. Colaba is expensive, but that’s where all the action is. Stay there.
Second, definitely visit the High Street Phoenix mall. It’s just a regular old mall, but it’s great for people watching and the restaurants there are all really good. There’s a movie theater, a Starbucks, and all kinds of Western chains. We were really in need of some Western amenities and this was a great little escape from the chaos of the city.
For food, our favorite meal was at Shree Thaker Bojanlay, an all-you-can-eat thali restaurant run by an intense but lovely Indian mom and her family. The food is unbelievable and they explained everything that came out so we always knew what we were eating - chapattis made with different grains, for example, and lots of different kinds of sweets. It was a great, memorable last meal in India and our favorite part of Mumbai by far,
That’s a wrap on India! We felt such strong mixed emotions upon leaving - sadness, because it truly is a lovely place and we had so many positive experiences during our time here. But we also felt a lot of relief, because doing pretty much anything is a lot harder in India and after seven weeks we were ready for some good old fashioned tourist infrastructure.
India is certainly not for the faint of heart, but for those who visit life will never be the same. We had our privilege and our perspective checked countless times per day, and I can definitely say that I look at the world a lot differently now. We met incredible people, both locals and fellow travelers, and heard new stories and interesting opinions and learned a lot about ourselves along the way. We pushed ourselves to our mental, and sometimes physical, limits, and sometimes things got tough. But we grew from those experiences and came out smarter, stronger, and a LOT better at haggling.
Until next time, India. We love you, we miss you, and now that we’ve known you we’ll never the same.