I spent the day in India today… while lying in bed at home.

I was not reading a book or watching a movie and yet I flew across India, diving down into villages at the base of the Himalayas, standing at the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi and enjoying the vibrant beaches in Kerala.

Sick in bed with a cold, I needed something to amuse myself with and recalling the recent mention of Google Earth, I thought that sounded like fun. I started out by Googling my mom’s house in Oregon. Arriving at the house I thought, Yep, that’s where my mom lives. And then the house I grew up in near Santa Barbara. Yep, that’s our old house. And look, they painted it. And then I decided to Google some places I had always wanted to visit: Prince Edward Island in Canada, the coast of Main and The Isle of Man in Great Britain. The more I looked around I was startled by the detail in the photos. In a way, I felt like I was really there. The Google earth cameras had captured people jogging, going to the post office, driving their cars, I could see puddles on the road, mud on tires and paint chipping off old buildings. Oh my goodness, I thought, what on earth would I see in a place like India?

I have always wanted to go to India but feeling a little nervous about what I might find there and not currently having the means to go, this seemed like a good way to test the waters. In the U.S. and many other Western countries you can drop down into almost any place on the Google map and you will find yourself in a 3D landscape. The visceral response I had to dropping down into places was surprising to me. The screen dives into each location making you feel as if you are falling out of the sky with no warning about what you might land on. Apprehensively, I flew over to Mumbai and randomly clicked on a spot. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I half expected to see children in slums missing eyes and limbs like in Slumdog Millionaire. I know India is much more than the poverty and trash you hear about but based on the detail I had just seen in the Google Earth images, I expected (and secretly hoped) I might get to see a more real India; more real than I would find in a guidebook.

To my dismay you cannot just choose anyplace on the map and see detailed images of each and every street. There were however many designated spots all over India that had captured 360 degree images of different places and to my excitement they were filled with real life scenes including trash, bird poop, rusty bicycles, and dusty cracked feet poking out of sandals; images that a guidebook would most certainly leave out. There was nothing romanticized or air brushed about the photos. Just the real India, the India I would love to see.

First stop… Mumbai. Ever since I read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts I have dreamed of standing at the sea walls of Mumbai, listening to the waves of the Arabian sea. Preferably at night like the main character often did to clear his mind or do dealings with the underground mafia, but something tells me I should stick to daylight hours in this city. Along a paved seashore path, I saw a man walking a cow. A lovely sand colored bull with big, curvy horns on either side of its head. The man and the cow walked past people sleeping on benches that lined the walkway. As far down as I could see there was someone asleep on each bench. The sun was just coming up over the city as they were in the final deep stages of a restful sleep. Not even the clip-clop of a cow’s hooves passing by could wake them up.

All pictures courtesy of Google Earth.

mumbai sleepers

mumbai cow

The sea walk in Mumbai

mumbai ocean view

Bandra Lands End

What I noticed immediately was that most people were wearing sandals. Which makes sense because it’s India and It’s hot. The men almost always seemed to have buttoned up collared shirts on and I noticed that most of the bicycles I saw were rusty. Some were very rusty, covering the entire bike in a muddy brown film. I saw people riding bikes or standing beside bikes while talking to other people. I even saw one person holding a bike up at his side while wading across a shallow river; a small child, just wearing shorts, was wading across with him. The Taj Mahal was off in the distance across the water, the air was misty and balmy looking as I would have hoped and there was trash along the river bank at my feet; bits of paper and plastic wrappers.

taj watertaj rusty bike

Bird poop at the Taj Mahal

bird poop

I love the looks on their faces

kids with bike

Southeast of Mumbai, I walked down another seashore path, this time along the Bay of Bengal, in a city called Pondicherry. Here I visited  a statue of Gandhi where I noticed that most of the men had taken off their shoes. I took this as a sign of respect, suggesting that this was a sacred place. Gandhi had an orange marigold mala around his neck as children climbed all over him. I enjoyed seeing the Indian tourists taking photos, perhaps fulfilling a lifelong dream of visiting this popular little town. Pondicherry was part of French India so there are many beautiful colonial style buildings and everything looks much cleaner than Mumbai. I also stumbled upon the cutest restaurant called La Maison Rose. Everything was pink. There were pink Christmas lights in the outdoor courtyard and adorable pink paintings of Nandi, the sacred Hindu cow. I have to be honest, Pondicherry was a lovely surprise.

pondicherryghandi memorial

La Maison Rose

la maison rose

Pondicherry was a lovely surprise because it seemed like an India I could probably handle. But I didn’t go today looking for clean streets or French cafes, I wanted to see what it really looked like there. Yes, I would love to see the majestic palaces, lush gardens and ancient temples that make India famous but that’s never what makes a place real. It’s the stench and the noise and the taste of the food and sound of the people who live there and that is of course what Google Earth can’t give me but I was grateful at least to see some of it and get a little more comfortable with what I might find there, outside the picture perfect world of a guidebook.

Some friends at a boat house in Kerala.

boat house indiaindia boat house