Lesson One of India: Expect the Unexpected

Before I left for India for the summer, I brought my parents to the movie theater to watch “The Best Most Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a film about a group of British elderly men and women who outsource their retirement to Jaipur and find themselves fooled into staying at Dev Patel’s rundown hotel.  The movie was just alright, and between the British and Indian accents my parents couldn’t understand a word, but there were a few lines from the movie that really struck me and have resonated with me throughout my time here so far.  In the film, Dev’s character quotes some words of wisdom from his father: “In India, everything will turn out fine in the end—if it is not fine, it is not yet the end.”  Indeed, after a week and a half in India, the single most valuable lesson I have gained is that nothing will ever go as planned.  Every step of the way after the initial aberration from the plan will seem as if it will end in catastrophe, but ultimately, everything somehow works out. 

This first became clear to me the first few days I spent in Delhi.  I arrived at the Habitat Centre where we were staying in Delhi with fellow CASI interns, Eliana and Lucia, on Wednesday night.  I had come to Delhi armed with a plan for success for my time in Delhi designed by my friend’s mom.  Day one, book a private cab to take us shopping for clothes in and around Connaught Place.  Day two, Agra for the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri.  Day three, Dilli Haat and other South Delhi sites.

 However, on the first day, a wrench was quickly thrown in these plans when we realized that all the markets and shops were closed due to the workers’ strike in North India.  I won’t rehash what Eliana has already posted about our adventure acquiring our train tickets, but that ended up taking up part of Thursday and a majority of Friday.  We ended up cancelling our Agra trip to see the Taj because by Saturday we were feeling overwhelmed and Eliana, Lucia, and I had not yet gotten a chance to get clothes.  Many of the plans we had made fell through because the performance at the mosque was cancelled and the Red Fort and Jama Masjid had just closed for a few hours when we arrived.  Even so, we still had a lovely time during these days, taking in the sights and sounds of the mosque and experiencing the local color of Old Delhi.  I spent Saturday with Lucia market-hopping from Dilli Haat to Sarojini Market to Janpath, which was made even better by the mini-sandstorms and rainstorms we braved throughout the day.  We got some great bargains, ate dosas served by an Mandarin-speaking Indian waiter, navigated Delhi’s excellent metro system, and ended the long day at a classy and delicious restaurant in Connaught Place.  All in all, a successful last full day in Delhi. 

However, that evening, I found out that the travel agent had booked us train tickets that would arrive in Kathgodam Sunday evening at 11pm rather than on Monday morning as originally planned.  Since I had only booked a hotel in Nainital for Monday night, I spent Saturday night searching for another hotel to book at the last minute.  I was thrilled to find that a great mid-range hotel I had researched weeks in advance was newly open on makemytrip.com, and quickly secured a room.

The next day, I tried to call the hotel to ask if they could arrange for a car to pick me up from the train station.  Since Nainital, a Himalayan hill-station, was about two hours away from the train station, I was heavily advised not to take a chance on a getting a pre-paid taxi at the station that late.  When I finally reached someone at the hotel, I was informed that my reservation did not exist.  The makemytrip.com agents assured me they would find me another hotel, but when they made me a booking they told me the hotel would not arrange for a car to pick me up.  I decided to hitch a ride with my friends Shumita and Lucia up to their NGO Chirag in another hill-station, but the combination of the winding mountain road and Indian driving ended badly for me.  An hour into the drive, we had to stop the car as I got sick on the side of the road, but once I got back in the car, our young driver started blasting Hindi music the rest of the way and the ride became about a hundred times better.  When we arrived at the Chirag campus, we were led into a dark room full of beds at the intern hostel, where I crashed for the night.  I woke up the next morning to an absolutely gorgeous view of the mountains and to several confused interns who were confused as to how they ended up with three girls when they were promised only two.  After having the rare opportunity to check out their NGO’s campus, I bid my friends farewell and took a cab to Nainital for my 1.5-day vacation.

The ride to Nainital that morning was glorious.  During our midnight ride, many of the towns we drove through seemed like ghost-towns abandoned for years, but in the daytime they were bursting at the seams with life and color and sound.  The panoramic views of the mountains and valleys were so breathtaking I snapped photos out the window the entire ride.  It didn’t matter that my driver didn’t speak a word of English or that the drive was long and permeated with constant honking—I had a full day ahead of me in the beautiful and cool paradisiacal hill-station of Nainital.  I was so excited to be dropped off at the picturesque Earls Court hotel, at which I had made a reservation through Expedia weeks in advance. 

However, upon my arrival, I was told my reservation did not exist there either.  The hotel was completely full, and I was not sure where I could go since Nainital was such a popular vacation spot that most hotels were fully booked.  As I sat dejectedly in the room they had given me to freshen up, I completely regretted going through all the trouble to come to this place, and wished I had stayed at Chirag, in Delhi, any place but there.

By a stroke of good luck, I found out from the hotel manager that the hotel’s sister resort, the Naini Retreat, had an opening.  I was swiftly delivered to the Naini Retreat, the second best hotel in the city, and set up in a deluxe lake-facing room at the same price I had originally paid.  I had a room fit for honeymooners all to myself for the night.  Furthermore, the service was incredible.  I spoke with the manager, Ranjeet, who helped me book my return trip back to Delhi and make my travel plans for my stay in Nainital.  Since I would be checking out the next morning, I could store my luggage at the hotel and take a private car from 9 to 5 on both the local sights tour and the lake tour before my bus that evening.  He then personally drove me to the Tibetan market on Mall Road in the city.  We chatted throughout this drive and I told him what I had been through to get there.  At the end of the drive, Ranjeet promised to send his younger brother who was a lawyer to take me on my tour the next day to ensure that I would have a great time with an English-speaking tour guide.  I spent the remainder of the evening shopping at the Tibetan market and enjoying the view and the breeze from Nainital Lake.  I then returned to the hotel where I enjoyed a barbecued Indian dinner on the terrace overlooking the lake, complete with a bonfire and live entertainment, and retired for the night.

When I was picked up the next morning, I quickly realized the driver was not Ranjeet’s brother and definitely did not speak English.  He drove very violently down the mountain, with each hasty turn and horn blare adding to my growing resentment towards the manager for not remaining true to his word.  However, once we arrived in the city, the driver pulled over, and I saw the manager standing on the edge of the road with his brother.  The driver hopped out, his brother hopped in, and Ranjeet sent us on our way.  My new tour guide’s name was Ravi, and I soon learned that he was a 28-year-old ex-tour-guide-turned-lawyer.  His brother had told him that he had to take the day off from court to show me around the town.  As he said, “Everything in Nainital is small, but our hearts are big.”  After my day touring Nainital and the Kumaoni region, I certainly can’t disagree.

And so began the best day of travelling I have ever experienced in my life.  We started out the day driving to Bhowali, where we stopped at a fruit stand to pick up some local fruits—apricots (kumaonis) and little pears.  Ravi washed them for me using a nearby water pump and we munched on them throughout the entire drive as he told me all about the history and culture of the Kumaoni region, from the names of the monkeys along the side of the road to the Hindu stories behind the origins of the lakes.  We visited Hanuman Lake, Sattal Lake, Naukuchiyatal Lake, Bhimtal Lake, and a small lake filled with enormous fish that happily gulped up pieces of apricots that we tossed into the water.  We also stopped so I could sample and then buy a bottle of juice made from a special red flower found in the mountains.  As we drove through the mountains, Ravi played Hindi music for me while roughly translating into English the lyrics of the serene and melodic love songs.  And what better soundtrack could we have had for our chats about our life philosophies, dreams and aspirations, perspectives on the respective societies we live in.  His English wasn’t perfect and my Hindi nonexistent, but we were able to connect and to forge a friendship nevertheless.  

I started to get hungry, so I asked Ravi if we could eat lunch at a Kumaoni restaurant.  Because he didn’t know any good Kumaoni restaurants in the region, we drove down into the very bottom of a valley, where his uncle and cousin were serving Kumaoni snacks in a small shop by a lake.  We ordered Maggi, which is essentially a brand of Indian ramen, and something I can’t recall the name of, but were battered and fried vegetables.  He then took me to a waterfall, bought me another local delicacy from the side of the road (fried corn on the cob), and to China Peak, where I rode a horse for the third time in my life.  Unfortunately, during this season, the mist obscures the view of the snowy Himalayas in the distance; I was told I’ll have to return in October or November to get the full spectacular view.  We ended the driving tour with a quick turn around Cave Gardens, where we climbed through the nooks and crannies of several small caves and Ravi had a lot of fun making me pose with sculptures in the garden.

We had to return the car to Ravi’s brother, so we drove back to the hotel to get my luggage.  I found out that Ravi’s brother, the hotel manager, was not at work that day because he had taken his pregnant wife to the hospital in a neighboring town to give birth to his first child.  I was so touched to know that he had made it such a priority to make sure I had a good time in spite of the huge event going on in his life that day.  It’s rare to find that kind of hospitality anywhere else.

Ravi then decided he wanted me to meet his family and that it would be convenient to drop off my luggage at his home.  We walked to his apartment above some shops in the main marketplace, where I met a room full of his relatives, including his wife Sonika, a beautiful and intelligent woman currently pursuing a masters degree in geology at the local university.  They invited me over for dinner that evening for real Kumaoni fare, and I delightedly accepted.  After sipping on some chai while conversing with his cousin Nitin, I went out with Ravi and Sonika to go boating on Nainital Lake.  It was so cool and breezy on the water, a welcome change from the overwhelming heat I had faced in Delhi.  I loved the nighttime view of the light-studded hills surrounding the lake.  Our boat ride was quick due to the impending storm, which later hit when we were eating mutton momos (basically Tibetan dumplings) in a Tibetan restaurant near their home.  Since we were running short on time, once we finished, we sprinted through the pouring rain back to their apartment.  Sonika prepared dinner by candlelight, and I chatted with Nittin about the barriers to development in India such as population control, as well as about discrimination in India and in the United States.  I enjoyed a delicious homemade dinner of string beans, another traditional Kumaoni vegetable dish, raita (a yogurt dish), and roti by candlelight with Ravi and his family as the torrential rain relentlessly slammed against the tin roof above. After dinner, Ravi and I took a cab to the bus station, where I departed from Nainital on an overnight bus back to Delhi.

This was my first time ever vacationing alone, and I was already pretty nervous from the start.  It took a great deal of effort and so many wrong turns to get to Nainital, with each misstep making it seem so much less worth it.  But it culminated in such an unforgettable experience that was far exceeded anything I could have ever imagined.  Although that day touring Nainital was the best day of travel I have ever had, my last few hours were really the most incredible and valuable part.  I was so grateful to have met such warm, genuine people and to be wholeheartedly welcomed into their home.  In this new and foreign country, Ravi and his family reminded me of the universality of humanness.  I’ll never forget the lessons I learned in Nainital, and I can’t wait until I can go back and see the faces of the people who taught me them.  And they’ve invited me back for my honeymoon, so I know I’ll probably be back.

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About Christina Wu

Graduated in 2014 with a B.A. in Health & Societies at the University of Pennsylvania. Interned at Aravind Eye Care System in Madurai, Tamilnadu in summer of 2012. Awarded a 2014-15 Fulbright fellowship in China to conduct research on dementia care in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.