Memories and Good Times: The Taj, Forts, Elephants, and Tea

Read all the exciting things our scholars have been up to!

So my friend Margaret and I are now on the last leg of our vacation back to Chennai. I decided it was a good time to blog, we have a 13 hour train ride back to Chennai from Cochi, which took 3 hours to get to from Munnar.  We travel back to Chennai for a day to meet back with the group before leaving for China on Monday.  Words cannot explain just how extraordinarily mind blowing the past 7 days have been.  Some friends and I vacationed to the north for 3 days to Delhi and Agra and then came back south to Kerala.  We left with hopes for a relaxing trip, excited to see new things, and curious to see what the rest of India had to offer.  Being in Chennai for the past four weeks allowed us to explore Chennai, but we had also heard so much about the diversity of India and how different parts had their own local foods, cultures, customs, and environments.  I was curious to know what those were and to experience them myself. 

The first day of our vacation, we flew from Chennai to Delhi.  The flight was a little less than three hours. A couple of the domestic Indian airlines had names that brought a smile to my face, even at 5 am, when we arrived at the airport. Our airline was IndiGo Airlines (clever huh?) and another airline was named SpiceJet.  Security loved me that morning as a result of me procrastinating my packing the night before.  I had forgotten to remove a few things from my purse like my eyebrow scissors (don’t ask me why they were in there, things end up in the weirdest places when you’re traveling) and my Swiss Army knife, which I take with me everywhere.  There was a lot of roundabout running around but eventually we were seated comfortably on our plane and ready to roll.  We landed in Delhi, dropped our bags off at the hotel, and spent the day sightseeing.  In that day we saw the Red Fort, the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial where Gandhi was cremated, the India Gate, the house of the late Indira Grandi, Parliament, and my favorite, the Lotus Temple.  I loved the Lotus Temple both in terms of aesthetics and for the values it holds.  The Lotus Temple is a place that aims to unify through religion, where people of all faiths can go to pray and worship whomever they please.  I really liked that.  It was so refreshing to see an idea like that put into practice because so often, religions separate us. We walked up the the Temple, even more fascinated with every step we took towards it.  It was so beautifully constructed. We went inside and just sat in the pews.  Some of us prayed, some of us just sat there and listened to the peacefulness.  There were maybe about 200 people also sitting inside but it was so tranquil.  I could have sat in there all day.  We got up to leave and while walking out, I managed to embarrass myself as per usual.  I stubbed my toe on one of the wooden legs of the pews.  The blunt sound echoed through the temple, attracting the attention of many already staring faces.  My pinky toe still hurts, but it was well worth it!

The next day was our tour to the Taj Mahal in Agra.  We got on a bus at 6 am and  visited a huge temple on the way.  We then went to the Agra Fort, castles of many of the biggest rulers of the Akbar and Mughal empires.  They were incredibly designed and built.  It was like traveling back in time. The buildings were filled with arches and columns, domes, several corridors and special rooms, including a royal bath for the Shah and a sitting room for his wife with a perfect view of the Taj Mahal out of the window.  The next stop was what we had all been waiting for.  We drove a little further, had lunch, and stopped at a small shop where young men made and sold handicrafts from the same marble and precious stones  of the Taj Mahal.  One of them men was trying to show me how he carved the marble, then gave me the etching tool.  Let me tell you it was not as easy as he made it look.  The marble is so hard and dense.  It took so much strength to make a meaningful dent. To know that this was how all of the Taj Mahal was constructed completely baffled me.  We also later found out that the men teaching us were 8th generation sons to men who worked on the Taj Mahal (very cool). After passing through lines and crowds of tourists, we were finally there. Standing. In front of the Taj Mahal. I had no words.  It was so perfect and so massive.  All the pictures I had seen of the Taj had not done justice.  It was the most amazing building I had ever seen in my life.  To know that something that looked so flawless was made by the bare hands of so many men just added to the beauty.  Shah Jahan must have really loved his wife. As we walked closer and closer, we saw more of the detail and felt just how massive this building was.  I found myself saying the same things over and over again: “Oh my gosh, this is so amazing,” “Ahh, this is so beautiful,” “wow.” I needed to expand my vocabulary to accurately describe what was in front of me.  The four hour drive was most definitely worth it. I called my mom that night, ranting and raving about it.  I was so grateful for that experience.

The next day, we flew south to the state of Kerala, known as “God’s Own Country” for its lush green landscapes and scenery.  We landed in Cochin, got to our hotel around 2 o’clock and rested a bit before looking around. We visited a Dutch palace and a shore famous for its Chinese fishing nets (I still don’t quite fully understand that and I don’t think our guide did either) but it was fun nonetheless.  On the streets were many small shops selling handicrafts.  I tested my haggling abilities and was able to get some good deals on some silk scarves and small purse. We relaxed back to the hotel for the rest of the night, watching Gray’s Anatomy and eating butterscotch ice cream.

We were finally able to sleep in past 5 am the next morning.  We had breakfast and left around 11 o’clock to Allepey where we were to spend the rest of the day and night on a houseboat.  The drive was about an hour and a half.  We had a tender coconut (one of my faves) when we got the dock and were soon on our boat.  We headed out around 2 pm, sailing Allepey’s tranquil backwaters, both sides lined with towering palm trees.  We got settled and spent much of the afternoon on the top deck, looking out at the water and at other boats.  Occasionally, other boats would pass by and we would exchange smiles and waves.  The crew of our boat consisted of 5 Indian men; one chef, two captains, and two to help with all other things.  They were extremely nice and made sure we were comfortable every second we were there (that Indian hospitality).  It was smooth sailing, literally.  Later that afternoon, we went canoeing and swam with some classmates who were in another boat, pleasant surprise.  After showering and dinner, we listened to music and danced to songs we hadn’t heard for months.  Some of the crew members also let loose and enjoyed the music for the rest of the night. It was a great night filled with endless laughter, great people, great music, dancing, and unforgettable memories.

The next morning, we woke up around 8, had breakfast, and were headed back towards the docking station.  None of us wanted to leave. There was no place that I’d been on a boat that was as scenic, relaxing, fresh, and beautiful as on the backwaters of Allepey. We said goodbye to our crew and started our 5 hour drive to Munnar, a city in the mountains of Kerala.  We stopped at a few waterfalls and a spice garden, where several Indian spices are grown and sold.  The rest of the drive was up long, windy roads in the mountains.  The views from these mountains were absolutely breathtaking.  There were rolling hills of green tea plantation mazes, mountains scattered with trees, covered in halos of white misty fog.  We would come around a bend and gasp at one view only to see another one just as beautiful around the next bend.  We passed around the camera so many times, trying to capture everything we saw.  It was so vast.  We were literally surrounded by thousands of never ending greens of tea leaves.  

The next day was fun filled to say the least.  We woke up around 9 and had breakfast before heading out.  Our guide, Cuti surprised us with elephants!!  He took us to an elephant sanctuary where we were able to ride the most chill, even tempered elephants. When I got on, first thing I wanted to do was feel the skin.  I gently ran my fingers over the back of his neck in front of me.  It felt rough and bumpy but kind of soft at the same time. He had hairs on his head that looked soft from a distance but felt almost like long boar bristles like in hairbrushes.  I petted his neck again with my hand and did that as we were on the tour. It was a 20 minute trail, which at the end overlooked bright green forest and huge mountains in the distance.  When we returned, the trainers gave us pineapples to feed the elephants, who curled their trunks to their necks and practically suctioned the pineapples out of our hands.  They’d then eat the pineapple whole, leaves, spikes, and all.  I got down and hugged my elephant’s trunk.  I looked into his big beautiful eyes and his long lashes.  We definitely had a moment.  This was definitely one of the many highlights of our vacation.  Next, Cuti took us to Matupetty Dam, where yet again, there was another amazing view.  Later, we went on speedboats (probably the most thrilling 15 minutes of my life).  Later that day we were able to walk on the tea plantations, pick tea leaves, and learn how tea was made: from the leaf to the packaged, finished product.  

The last day of our vacation was a great way to end.  We slept in, shopped around, and ended the day with Ayurvedic massages by two lovely young ladies. This morning, we were up by 5:30 and on the road by 6 am.  We drove to Cochin, where we caught the train that I am currently on. It’s 9:30 pm and we have an hour and a half until we reach Chennai (woo hoo!!). The past week has been a blast and I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to experience such amazing things and to have spent it surrounded by great people.  It was definitely a great way to conclude our time here in India!