We made it to India! After 33 hours of plane/airport time, Wende and I’s adventure has officially begun.
Wende and I decided to fly out of Dulles airport in Washington, DC for two reasons: 1) It saved us about $2000 round trip on plane tickets (vs Charleston, WV), and 2) It gave us a chance to visit the home of my terrific brother and sister, Richard and Caitlin Hulver, in Charles Town, WV. Their home is about an hour drive from the airport, so it made Dulles very convenient.
When I asked Caitlin about staying with her our last weekend in the USA, she asked, “What would you like to eat for your last meal?” Even though that question gave the impression that we were headed off to a death sentence, it was a very nice thing of her to consider and something Wende and I hadn’t really given any thought. Since my favorite foods are Thai and Wende’s are Mexican, we just said, “Surprise us!”
We arrived in Charles Town just in time for dinner on Friday night, and when we walked in we were hit with the smell of delicious comfort foods. Caitlin said, “Since you aren’t going to be here for Thanksgiving, we thought we would make you an early Thanksgiving dinner.” 🙂
What a wonderful surprise! The spread was incredible and included mashed potatoes, candied yams, home-made “butt rolls”, green bean casserole, a vegetarian “holiday roast”, corn casserole, salad, and cranberry dressing! Not to mention homemade berry cobbler and two pies with whipped cream for dessert! I cannot think of a better “going-away” meal, and even though we never would have thought to ask for it, we were extremely appreciative of the work they put into making thanksgiving come early for us.
The rest of our weekend was just as wonderful: sleeping late in a super comfy bed, roasting s’mores in the backyard, fighting over board games, watching the Lego Movie, eating freshly filled cannolis, playing video games, loving on animals (Duke), and laughing with family.
Flights: D.C. –> Atlanta –> Paris –> Mumbai
After tearful farewells, we checked in for our flights and dropped off our overweight baggage (If any occasion calls for super heavy luggage, it’s a 10-month trip to India). After passing through the Dulles security, which looks eerily similar to a futuristic security checkpoint in Minority Report, we boarded the first of our three flights: Dulles to Atlanta. We arrived in Atlanta just in time for dinner and had a couple hour layover to waste. Since this was going to be our last meal in America, we felt like the restaurant had to be a step above the Chili’s or Subway we might typically settle for in an airport.
The restaurant we chose is called Café Intermezzo, and if you are ever looking for a place to eat in the Atlanta airport, this is the place to be. The Café is an interesting mix of bookstore and French café. They have a 15 page drink menu full of teas, coffees, hot chocolates, and alcoholic twists on all of the above. Wende and I got a mushroom gnocchi and fresh vegetable crepe, then we topped it all off with a truffle hot chocolate. I’m drooling just remembering the meal…. Mmmmm.
We finished our dinner at Café intermezzo with plenty of time to spare, and boarded our flight to Paris. Despite having the sweetest, most motherly flight attendant ever, the flight was pretty bland. The seats didn’t recline, the in-flight movie was “Divergent”, and the vegetarian in-flight meal was some strange black bean mush with sautéed greens. But who am I to complain? The flight did allow me to sleep most of the night while traveling 4000 miles over the ocean at 550 mph. When you think that the pilgrims had to endure months on the ocean in order to reach America with only a chance of surviving, it makes any in-flight meal pretty tolerable.
We had a six hour layover in Paris, where we ate tasty food, napped, and even did a little sight-seeing (see picture below). As the departure gate slowly started to fill with Indian people (including the all Indian flight staff), the fact that we were headed to a whole new world really started to sink in.
Our flight into Mumbai was fantastic. The chairs were way more comfortable than our previous flight; they reclined a significant amount! Enough that when the person in front of you reclined, there was definite potential for injury. Each TV console had a selection of movies, music, and games – which we took full advantage of by racing against each other in super old school video games and watching “X-men Legends: Wolverine.”
My favorite part of the flight was our inflight meal, a taste of what to expect during our time in India. The default for every passenger was vegetarian, many of the items were served in reusable dishes, and everything on the tray was delicious 😀 .
At long last, we had landed safely in Mumbai (changed from Bombay in 1995), India. Immediately upon touchdown, the most striking thing we noticed was the prevalence of poverty in contrast to the airport. On one side of the fence was the pristine, manicured grass of the runway. On the other side were the slums of India, constructed from discarded sheet metal and the iconic blue plastic tarps. In America, we are aware that there is an income disparity between its citizens, but we are often blind to it. In India, the presence of slums and high rises within a few blocks of each other make the income disparity impossible to ignore.
This dichotomy continued when we walked outside the shiny, new airport to be confronted by multiple impoverished people who surrounded us, trying to carry our bags. We did not realize they weren’t associated with the taxi until we got there and were pressed for a donation/tip.
Extreme Taxi Cab
When we got to the taxi, and found our driver napping in the back (an awesome practice we now realize is common in India), he hopped out and threw our luggage on top of the car. Since many of the cars are small in India, instead of using trunks for storage space, owners will install basket like roof racks. We were just taking a taxi across town to meet a friend of a friend named Rashna Master, but the entire drive felt more like an extreme taxi video game. I’m sure this feeling was only enhanced by the lack of passenger seat belts in the taxi.
It was immediately clear that driving in India was a totally different ball game than in America. A few examples of how it is different: 1) Everyone drives on the left side of the road, 2) lines painted on the road seem to only be a suggestion, and 3) honking is constant activity, used to alert other drivers of your presence. After some white-knuckle close calls with other cars, wemade it safely to Rashna’s office.
Shopping and Dining
We were meeting with Rashna, a friend of our contact at the Gram Seva Trust, because we hoped to do some shopping in Mumbai. Gram Seva thought it would be unwise to shop alone in a new city with very limited communication ability, and I’m very glad they thought so because Rashna made our first day in India wonderful!
We met at her office (she works for a non-profit that fights corruption), where after some general niceties we loaded our stuff onto another taxi and headed to a mall. From the outside, you couldn’t even tell it was a shopping center, but after passing through airport-like security we entered into a grand multi-level shopping center. We were there to buy two things 1) Clothing for Wende, since women do not expose their cleavage or shoulders here… which pretty much throws out her entire closet, 2) A wifi-internet USB dongle for our computer, since the area we are going to does not have internet availability. We bought our items at the department/bargain shopping stores, but the mall also had stores like Chanel and a Rolls Royce dealership…. A little outside our budget 😛
After multiple amusing interactions, where Rashna bargained or argued vehemently on our behalf, we had done all of our necessary shopping. Then we went to lunch at a Thali style restaurant – Thali style restaurants have many servers that are constantly rotating around the restaurant loading different types of food onto your plate into small bowls. The experience was kind of like a fusion between a Tapas restaurant and all-you-can-eat buffet. Since I would prefer to try a number of small plates, over eating one large entrée any day – I was In Heaven! Just when you thought they had brought the last dish, they showed up with four more for your plate!
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Well, we had ridden on planes and automobiles, all we had left were trains. After being thoroughly stuffed at lunch, we headed across town to the train station. When we arrived, we were unable to find the main entrance to the station, so we had to improvise (see photo below). We said farewell to Rashna and thanked her extensively for making our day so great, then we hopped onto the train for Bilimora.
The train was very comfortable, and each seat converted to a bed bunk. Wende and I didn’t realize how tired we were from the day until we laid down on our bunks and both instantaneously passed out. I luckily still had enough wits about me to set an alarm for 30 minutes before our train would arrive in Bilimora.
When the train stopped at Bilimora around 9pm, I checked one end of the car only to find that it was five feet off the ground and still a distance from the platform. Hoping the other end of the car was different, I rushed back to Wende and struggled to get our 70 pound bags off the top bunk. By the time we got to the other end of the car, we opened the door to see that the train was already moving! Do we try to jump??
Well… we may have jumped if we didn’t have giant luggage to contend with, but under the circumstances (and it being our first time trying to jump off a train), we thought “better safe than sorry.” Gram Seva Trust was sending a car to meet us in Bilimora, but luckily the next stop was only a 30 minute drive away. We got off at the next stop (Navsari) without any issues, met Jitu the driver, and started the final part of our trek to the hospital.
Housing and New Beginnings
We arrived at the Gram Seva Trust around midnight, so it was hard to tell what the hospital was like, but we did get to check out our housing for the next 10 months. In communication with the hospital, it was unclear what our housing was going to be like. We had prepared ourselves to live (possibly separately) in something similar to a dorm room, with a bed and a bathroom. What we were given was a full apartment that exceeded our highest expectations; we found a living room, balcony, kitchen (barren), a western style toilet, and they had even pushed two twin beds together for us in our bedroom.
We were very happy to see the comfort we would be living in for the next year, but we were also exhausted and ready to go to sleep. We laid down to go to bed, only to realize that our room was completely infested with mosquitos… At one point I was laying there trying to fall asleep and realized I had 4 mosquitoes on my face and arms. Aww!!
We got up to liberally apply mosquito repellant on our bodies, but the damage had already been done… Each of us was covered with bites (see photos below). We laid back down, safely soaked in DEET, and sunk into a peaceful sleep. I’m glad we brought some bug spray!
The next morning, we awoke, stepped out onto the balcony, and saw the beauty of our new home. It’s going to be a good year. 🙂