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Posts Tagged ‘historical sites’

The roads in India are different...

Driving in India is like playing a large and very real game of chicken. The roads are full of every kind of transportation imaginable: men on foot pushing carts give way to carts being led by buffalo; small pedal bikes are skirted by whole families perched on one motorcycle; small yellow Tata Nano cars get passed by larger Innovas which honk as they go around a gargantuan colorful Goods Carrier. And when they all share a two lane highway the result is like an elaborate dance sequence, with everyone mostly knowing their part until you get to the number that’s a little too complicated and the group hasn’t practiced enough. Two dancers are bound to make a wrong step and crash into each other.

My parents had been shocked throughout their trip by the insanity of the roads. But in Aurangabad the roads were even more precarious.

One of the caves at Ellora

We were in Aurangabad to see the Ajanta and Ellora caves. They’re a full plane ride from any other place worth seeing in India and my dad had been wondering throughout the course of the trip why we were leaving Delhi in order to go see some caves. The answer is very simple: these rock-cut ‘caves’ are magnificant. They are a combination of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain structures (they would be amazing just for detailing the relgious tolerance that existed in this part of India during that period). They all are large rooms, temples, and art carved out of sheer rockface from the 2nd century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. Ajanta, the older group, is renowned for its carvings and well-preserved paintings.

One section of Kailash Temple in Ellora

But Ellora holds the masterpiece: Kailash Temple, built from approximately 600 A.D. to 900 A.D. The temple was created by vertical excavation, meaning 200,000 tons of rocks were slowly chiseled from above to build and form a temple larger than the Parthenon. There are many levels and areas but in the center stands a gargantuan and intricately carved singular temple, made from just the one piece of rock left in the middle.  It is the largest monolithic structure in the world. It would be unbelievable to create today, but to that the whole thing was carved out of a mountain from above with only a chisel and hammer is truly staggering.

One of the ancient paintings of Ajanta

Of course, to get to these staggering, incredible feats of human artistry you have to drive along some pretty small and terrible roads. It was nerve-wracking to say the least. Our driver on the first day was a man with places to go and things to see. He swerved around in his large white Innova, honking to alert everyone in his path that he was going around them. Hairpin turns or traffic jams didn’t stop him. He only slowed down for potholes and cows, deftly braking while moving around them.  On our way to Ajanta – which is a much longer trip from Aurangabad than Ellora – we were secretly quite happy at all the time we had saved.

The infamous goods carrier truck

But on the way back, as the late afternoon sun started to dip towards sunset, he clearly was in a race of his own making. At one juncture in the road we saw a huge Goods Carrier truck trying to make a three point turn. It was stuck: every little motorcycle, every small car was trying to go past it as it turned and in essence it couldn’t move.

“No one is going to let that guy go!” my dad said, as we started approaching. But there was a large gap between the cars that had just passed and our car – and there was clearly the first window for the truck to move back. But our driver decided to make a go for it.

Unfortunately, so did the other driver.

Our sad smushed car

Sitting on the drivers side of the car, I saw it coming like in slow motion. He thought he could make it. He thought he could slickly pass beyond the truck and keep going at the pace to which he was accustomed. But the truck had seen his moment and he wasn’t letting it pass. They both played chicken and they both failed.

The truck came at us with a crunch. I let out a little yelp but thankfully none of us were hurt. The driver jumped out and we rolled down our window to look at the damage. The side of the car was badly dented and it couldn’t even open.

Immediately the conversations started between the truck driver, our driver and a few other men who had materialized out of nowhere to discuss the action. The drivers traded information and then the truck driver left. But our guy kept scheming with the men on the side of the road. We sat there, watching women working in the fields and cars driving by, and it started to seem like something was up.

“Sir? What’s happening?” I asked, even thought I knew he wasn’t listening and didn’t really speak English.
“Ek minute, ek minute,” (one minute, one minute), he replied, ignoring the fact that the sun was going down and we needed to get back to the hotel.

It started to seem like we were part of a cover-up.

After a few more minutes I called my friend D and asked if she could speak with the man in Hindi and get a sense of what was happening. The cover-up became clearer – he was waiting for paint. It was kind of hilarious that he thought paint would cover the big dent in his car. We didn’t want him to lose his job (he worked for our hotel) but on the other hand we didn’t want to be standing on the side of the road in the dark.

All of us in one of the Ajanta caves

We finally convinced him to go and we piled back into the car (not using our smashed door, of course), and made our way back to civilization. It was a fitting end to our travels – my parents had seen some of India’s greatest sights, met a lot of great people, gotten a little bit of food poisoning, and now had gotten into a roadside altercation. It doesn’t beat spending a year in the place, but it certainly was a good overview!

 

We’re all back in Mumbai now and it’s going to be very difficult to watch them go, but it’s been so wonderful to have them experience India. And at the very least we all came out unscathed!

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In India you always have to take the good with the bad. It’s part of the experience. So I suppose it’s only fitting for my parents that one day after seeing the Taj Mahal they’ve come down with a case of Delhi belly.
 

The 'Great Gate' at sunrise

We woke up yesterday at 5:30am to get ready to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It’s a strange feeling anticipating seeing a monument that you can picture so well without ever having laid eyes on it. There’s only a few places in the world like that: the Eiffel Tower. The pyramids of Egypt. The Chrysler Building. And of course the Taj Mahal. Part of the joy of India is that you usually don’t even have a concept of what to expect. But this is an entirely different scenario.

 
We arrived at the ticket counter and hurriedly purchased tickets before taking a trolley-like vehicle up to the South Gate (regular cars aren’t allowed within a certain radius of the Taj because of the pollution). We waited in separate security lines for men and women and my mom and I huddled together to try and minimize the chill from the pre-dawn air. As we stood in line waiting to be searched and prodded I watched as the sun slowly began to rise. I kept expecting to see a glimpse of the Taj every time I stepped forward but it was hiding from the gazes of all the tourists waiting in line.
 

The Taj in the morning fog

When we finally got through the gate we had to go through a magnificent sandstone arch and then… there it was. It wasn’t yet its magnificent white color due to the hazy morning light. It was almost gloomy, towering over us as the sun began to peek out in the distance. And it was beautiful. It seemed almost like a postcard or a mirage – it was so new and yet so incredibly familiar. We took the many requisite photos as we walked closer and closer and as the rising sun made the marble gleam whiter and whiter.

 

All of us in front of the Taj Mahal

Close-up of calligraphy and inlaid stones

When we finally reached the steps the sun was high and we made our way up close. From every angle it was beautiful – immaculate marble everywhere you turned, Arabic carved in delicate black calligraphy four inches deep into the stone, semi-precious stones were inlaid into the marble that fanned out into flowers and vines. We looked from the front, from inside, from the back, from inside the neighboring ‘guest-house’. I just couldn’t stop looking at it. Maybe it was the actual beauty or maybe it was seeing the legend up close, but I certainly was not longer tired from my early wake-up.

Me and the Taj

One common sight driving in India

We let the memory sink in as we drove the long drive to Delhi. The highways of rural Uttar Pradesh are a stream of different Indias. Farmlands of wheat give way to dusty smoggy towns. Huge goods carriers swerve around camels pulling carts loaded with goods. I haven’t minded the drives because there’s always something to look at.

 
But after settling in to Delhi, eating dinner at our hotel, and going to bed I woke up with some bad news – my mom was sick. She hadn’t eaten anything questionable (no roadside food, no salads, no water from a tap) but she had a case of the notorious Delhi belly. One day after India gave her the gift of marveling at its beautiful architecture it had struck her down with its just as renowned stomach problems. My Dad wasn’t feeling great but he was excited to sightsee, so we let my mom sleep and we decided to venture out into Old Delhi
 
My dad has been reading a book called City of Djinns (thank you to Daniel’s parents for giving it!) which is William Dalrymple’s memoir of his year living in and exploring the history of Delhi while trying to find the  remnants of the Moghul and British culture and architecture. My dad really wanted to find some of the places mentioned in the book (not normally on the tourist trail) and we set out to see if we too could spot the old architecture and charm amidst the chaos of the old city.
 

A ride down the street

We haggled a price with a bicycle rickshaw driver and made our way up Chandni Chowk and then turned down a narrow road. It was like stepping back in time- on this road bicycle rickshaws, men pushing large hand-carts, vegetable-wallahs, cows, people carrying goods on horses and pedestrians made their way slowly along the road, past crumbling old shops with dirty retro signs. Monkeys climbed along the balconies. The electricity and telephone wires were a jumbled mess above and even motorcycles were few and far between. It was odd to watch the street-life pass by as we sat in our rickshaw, slowly meandering through the very dense traffic. And it was so different to the India I know in Mumbai.

 

A monkey making his way in Old Delhi

When we came to the end of the road we found what we’d been looking for: Turkman Gate, one of the old major gates to the city walls. It was like crashing out of an old city into a new one- once you stepped past the gate the narrow ancient lane morphed into a modern highway. Next to the gate was the Delhi Stock Exchange. You couldn’t come out of time travel faster if you tried. It was a shock.
 

Where we bought some extra medicine...

But the more difficult shock was that my dad had slowly started to feel bad as well. We headed back to the hotel, disappointed that Delhi belly had claimed another victim.

 
They’re resting now and my fingers are crossed that their illness is the food poisoning it appears to be – usually these things don’t last more than 24 hours. It would be a shame to miss seeing the highlights of Delhi, even is some would argue that the illness might also be an ‘Indian highlight’. We’ll see tomorrow!

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Dad with a turban

“Hey Al, what do you think of this?”

I looked up from the enormous pile of intricately designed camel leather shoes. My dad was sporting a large colorful turban and laughing to himself.

“Are you really buying that?” I said.

“Oh, I already did. The guy was wearing it so I know it’s really great. It makes me look like the Maharishi.”

“You mean Maharaja.”

“Yes!”

Traveling in India with parents is one part hilarious adventure and one part I-am-an-adult-so-I-must-not-get-frustrated-or-embarrassed-by-my-relations.

They arrived on a Thursday night after I had stood nervously at the outdoor arrivals area waiting for them. I knew I couldn’t miss them in the sea of Indian faces – especially my mom’s shock of blond hair. I waited and waited, nervous that they would get lost or go the wrong way. Daniel kept laughing at me and reminding me that they had survived their entire lives; they could make their way out of an airport. But this was India and this was foreign to them and I wanted more than anything for them to love it here as much as I do.

When I saw them I ran out, excitedly. They were fine – and as ready to embrace India as I was.

All of us at VT in Mumbai

Their first days in Mumbai I tried to warn them about everything- don’t brush your teeth with tap water; don’t eat that tomato until it’s been cooked; no ice; wash your hands; look the other way when you’re crossing. Every time they would just remind me that they were only eating things I gave them and that they were following me, so I shouldn’t worry.

The funniest thing is that once again their biggest problem was with me: while buying my mom a kurta in Bandra’s winding stalls on Linking Road my dad stopped me mid-haggle.

“You’re arguing over $2! You’re being rude to a grown man!”

“It’s not being rude- it’s just how business is done here! He offers me a price, I counter with something much, much lower, then we argue, we both say we’re insulted, I begin to walk away, he offers me a new price, I counter. Trust me, Indians haggle much more than I’m haggling now.”

But everywhere we went it disturbed them that their little girl was always wary, always ready to argue over a price or a bill. I’m so used to it now that I don’t even notice. But they certainly did.

Mumbai's dhobi ghat

They were, however, much happier with Mumbai than they were with my haggling.  They loved the gothic architecture of South Mumbai. They were amused by the plethora of Indian tourists wanting pictures with them at the Gateway of India – villagers who wanted to show they’d seen a real-live white person. They marveled at the fishermen as they cut off fish heads and re-tied their bright blue nets. They listened intently as our guide explained the dobi ghats, the vast outdoor laundry business.  My mom chatted up our tour guide at every stop trying to understand each complexity of this new place she was in.

All my fears about India overwhelming them were unfounded. They took in every sight, asked every question and continuously seemed amazed by the beauty amidst the chaos. I was really proud that they were enjoying ‘my’ city so much.

Mehrangarh fort

But the trip must continue and so off we went to Rajasthan – the capital of tourist India but the place that inspires so many dreams of Maharaja’s forts and palaces towering over cities and colorful saris against a desert backdrop.

We started in Jodhpur and the Mehrangarh fort there took my breath away – I’ve purposely stayed away from every place I was visiting with my parents so I could be as surprised as they were. And this truly was stunning- 400 feet up a steep hill and very well preserved. It was built in the 16th century and when you walked up the ramparts into the fortressed walls, you felt like you were stepping into another time.  We wandered around, listening to a particularly engrossing audio guide, and enjoyed the scene. I also enjoyed watching as my dad sat down to ‘learn’ sitar with a musician, decided to take pictures in a funny maharaja photo booth and put on the aforementioned turban.  For all my attempts to be a non-tourist, it was hard to resist watching.

A view of Jodhpur, the 'blue city', from above

 

Mom with one of the cows she loves so much

Dad's new best friend selling him a painting while on an elephant

The hijinks continued as we made our way to Jaipur. We stood in line for an elephant ride up to the Amber Fort and I was finally vindicated – after warning everyone, once again, that being polite would only make all the sellers think you were willing to buy something, my dad politely declined a painting a man was trying to sell him.  For the next 20 minutes the man whispered in his ears, tapped on his shoulders,  lowered his price and generally berated my dad. When he asked for help I just reminded him that my brand of helping would be construed by him as ‘rude’. When the guy followed him up the ramparts even as they were on the elephant I couldn’t stop laughing – the polite tourists finally gave way to realistic understanding of the new culture (although, just to make it stop, my dad did buy the painting).

It’s wonderful seeing India through fresh eyes and it’s really a treat to see the majesty that Rajasthan has to offer. Tonight we drive to Agra and tomorrow morning at sunrise we’ll be greeted by India’s greatest treasure- the Taj Mahal.

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I sometimes forget that only a few months ago India was a complete unknown to me – I think and behave now as though I belong or that I have a deeper understanding of my adopted country. I haggle and head-bobble to the point of surprising (and maybe even disturbing) friends who aren’t accustomed to my adopted Indian ways.

But of course, every time I think I’ve got it all figured out, India reminds me that I know nothing.

Coming to Tamil Nadu was like a kick in the gut – my Hindi means nothing here in a Tamil-speaking stronghold. After being assured by everyone up and down that there was no possible chance of rain post-monsoon, we encountered an afternoon storm. Familiar food staples have been upended by a world of thalis and dhosas. Despite having spent time in South India in Kerala, Tamil Nadu seems like an entire world away from safe familiar Bandra – and every Tamil I meet is happy and eager to explain to me how different they are from ‘northerners’. I have to say, it feels amazing to be reminded that whatever Indians might call me-  white person, foreigner, gora or ‘Canadian,’ (what one Tamil person seemed to think the Tamil word was for Caucasian) – as a perpetual outsider I will always have quite a lot to learn and be surprised by.

Sri Rangan temple

Our time in Tamil Nadu has centered around seeing temples- another thing I thought I could no longer be surprised by. After Angkor Wat and Borobudur and Prambhanan and Ranakpur I sort of thought I’d run the gamut. But because I’m traveling with two friends who hadn’t been to India before I thought that temples were a pretty important stop – and I’m lucky they let me come along with them, because South Indian temples are unique and powerful unto themselves. Over the last four days we explored temples in Trichy, Tanjore and, today, the epic Meenakshi temple of Madurai.

All of us on a roof facing one of the Vimana's of Sri Rangan

In Trichy we saw the Sri Ranganthaswamy Temple (Or Sri Rangan for short, thankfully). Dedicated to the god Vishnu, it’s a massive temple within walls within other walls over 156 acres that has been continuously built over the last 1,000 years. The most recent tower was only completed in 1987, but others date back to what is believed to be the 11th century. We got all of this information from a guide named ‘Bruce Lee,’ who insisted on telling us serious stories about Hinduism interspersed with showing us his favorite Karma Sutra carvings.  He also showed us how to be blessed by an elephant representing the god Ganesh – I told M and K they’re probably going to have to fib on their customs forms when asked whether they’ve been near livestock (see video below to watch the elephant in action!).

Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjore

Our next temple was the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjur, dedicated to Shiva. Built in 1010 during the Chola Empire, this UNESCO World Heritage site boasts India’s tallest Vimana, or temple tower. Standing under the sandy-colored intricately carved granite stone, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the structure – how could anyone reach those heights and carve stones so finely without scaffolding or machinery? These thoughts kept getting distracted by the dozens of tourists hounding us to take our picture – I was once again reminded of how bizarre we must seem. Two white women and a white man wandering around their temple, snapping photos and laughing amongst ourselves. One man wanted to try on M’s sunglasses while children crowded to look at the magical photos popping up on the back of K’s camera. It was a funny sensation to be among the familiar- two of my oldest friends – while being treated like the most interesting oddities around.

Exterior of Meenakshi Temple

But we certainly saved the best for last.

Interior of Meenakshi Temple

In Madurai we got to see Tamil Nadu’s most renowned and beloved place of worship – the Meenakshi Temple. We were delighted to learn this was the only Indian Hindu temple devoted to a woman, Meenakshi (or Parvati), the wife of Shiva. It is one of the largest Hindu temples in the world and certainly one of the most elaborate. While the structure was built in the 17th century, it is believed a temple has stood in this spot since at least the 7th century – and today it represents the center of the sprawling, dusty, decidedly non-colonial city of Madurai.

Getting a bracelet knotted

It was hard for me to ever imagine a city crazier than Bombay, but I think Madurai is it. It is loud and bumpy and often incredibly over-run with advertising and run-down buildings – but it has also proven to be a place where M, K and myself have all relished in meeting and interacting with a population that wants to display their (self-described) southern hospitality.  Everyone we meet – even the people blatantly trying to sell us something – has wanted to convey to us that their portion of India has as much to offer as the more heavily-trafficked north. And our guide, Natarajan, at the Meenakshi Temple, made it a point of pride to try and make sure no one took advantage of us or sold us anything too expensive. It was wonderful to take in the beauty of the temple, but I think the highlight by the end was the jokes we could share with the tailors we were haggling with or the bracelet tied on our hands (for no money! no money!) by a shop-keeper.

Tomorrow we are leaving Tamil Nadu to go into the mountains of Kerala. It will be a sharp departure from the crazy city into the lush plantations, but I feel glad just to have gotten this taste of the south. And if I forget, I’ll be able to look down at the bracelet securely knotted on my arm and remember the place that helped jolt me out of my own India bubble.

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Kerala

In Kerala you can almost feel the world creaking to a halt and demanding that you stop along with it. Whether standing to watch waves crash against a cliff or gazing into the hazy distance of the backwaters, all you can do is just stand still and watch as the beauty of the world happens right in front you, slowly but deliberately.

The view from our hotel in Varkala

After running around Sri Lanka, arriving on the beach in Varkala was a welcome change. I’m not normally a person who likes vacationing on beaches, but Varkala was a little moment of perfection.

Fishermen with their nets in Varkala

We were staying on Odayam beach, away from the tourist-hub on the cliff and a place where fisherman outnumbered tourists.  I found myself watching them, wondering what they must think of this recent foreign infiltration of their beaches. They didn’t seem fazed – some fisherman sat carefully carving and piecing together oars, while others tied up fishing line.  The small bungalows and boutique hotels that had started to pop up around them didn’t change the work they had clearly been doing for generations.

We spent the day in the most relaxing of fashions – staring at the sea, swimming in the sea, and eating.

Incredible huge prawns

The fisherman certainly weren’t for show – at night when you stroll along Kerala’s cliff-front hub (if you walk a little bit off course you’ll find yourself in a straight long drop down into the sea), you can survey the wares at each restaurant because they keep the seafood right out front. You can make a decision based on what you see – does that marlin look fresh to you? How about this barracuda at the restaurant over here? Or how about the huge tiger prawns that look more like lobsters? You pick your food after looking at it up close and then the price haggling begins. It’s quite a way to start a dining experience before you’ve even sat down.

It was a much-needed respite from reality. Swimming in the waves and having a cup of tea looking out at the horizon it felt a little bit like we had found our own secret place in the world. I would have been sorry to go except that I was even more intrigued by Kerala’s more famous attraction: the backwaters.

View of the backwaters from the tip of our boat

Having read Arundhati Roy’s the God of Small things many years ago, I’ve always been intrigued by the depth and beauty of her descriptions of the Keralan backwaters. I had always wanted to languidly cruise through the canals and jungles I’d pictured in my mind. I worried that the proliferation of backwater tours and houseboats might ruin the experience – but I was ready to take the chance.

We boarded our very own houseboat early in the day and began slowly making our way along the backwaters. The beauty of this experience is that there is literally nothing to do but sit and gawk at the beauty of it all. As the boat cruised along we attempted to read or have conversations, but they continually got interrupted by someone saying, “Oh wait, but look at THAT”. And the ‘that’ they were usually pointing at was a far-reaching landscape.

A view of the backwaters as the sun goes down

The backwaters look like something you’d only see in a movie that has an other-worldly setting. Small plants grow up in the middle of each canal or lake, as though they are rooted only in water. We found ourselves first in an expansive lake with palm trees and bird-filled paddies in the distances and then later in smaller canals, bordered on either side by a jungle of trees growing straight from the water.

A woman doing laundry in her backwater-adjacent home

In many of these canals entire villages flourished, their pace of life dictated by the narrow strips of land they lived on and the water-buses that ferried them and their neighbors around. Like the Varkala fishermen, I wondered how odd it must be for these people living this rural, water-logged existence to see the ever-growing stream of boats with white people staring back at the beauty of their lives. But our captain seemed to think (however biased he must have been) that the growth in the industry was positive, since many of these people now were able to get higher-paying jobs in tourism.

A typical houseboat on the water

It was a bizarre experience, sleeping on a boat while mostly trying to avoid the onslaught of mosquitos that had come as night fell. But enjoying breakfast and a cup of tea in the morning light was really priceless. I could understand why the place had inspired such vivid prose from Roy.

We left the boat and headed for our last stop – Kochi, an old Portuguese colony at Kerala’s northern end. It was a sudden change from the rural waters, but it was made all the more easy after being welcomed at Sui House, a 3-room bed-and-breakfast run by a wonderful family who also specializes in selling antiques (so you can imagine how beautiful the furniture was). After an explanation of the sights to see we went exploring.

The beautiful Sui House

The main attraction, for us at least, in Kochi was the city’s 16th century Paradesi synagogue (The oldest in the ‘Commonwealth,’).

Inside the synagogue, courtesy of Creative Commons since no photos were allowed

It was a strange sight seeing a colonial-era Jewish house of worship in the middle of an Indian town, but it was beautiful. It was made funny by the fact that everyone calls the area where the synagogue is located, “Jew Town.” I guess that would explain why the owner of the hotel had no problem asking, “Are you Jew?” The population has dwindled (it’s estimated less than 20 Jews still live in Kochi) but enough people have stayed along to make sure the synagogue remains – and it was really beautiful. Kochi is the kind of city you imagine colonial India to be – still as crazy as ever, but with the architectural and culinary flourishes left over from a past era. It was a fitting way to end our trip.

As we left Kerala behind to go back to Mumbai I couldn’t help but try to spend my last moments soaking it all in, because that to me was the best of Kerala: taking the beauty from the beaches to the city and enjoying it at the pace Keralans seem to demand from its visitors. I hope I can someday make my way back to stand still and enjoy once again.

(Also – there are a few new signs added from this trip to the Amazing Signage tab at the top, if anyone was hoping for more!)

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I always assumed that Sri Lanka was like an extra Indian state, an island country with its own charm but one that would ultimately be reminiscent of the country I now live in.

How naïve I was.

A beautiful Sri Lankan rainbow

Daniel’s parents are here visiting, and for many months now we had planned to go away for a week to Sri Lanka and Kerala. I planned the Kerala portion and they planned Sri Lanka – so I really had no idea what to expect.
Sri Lanka was such a surprise to me – it’s a country that has spent so many years at war and yet from the moment you land it looks so peaceful and tropical that you couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to upset that balance. And it is so unlike India in so many ways – the language, the Buddhist people, and (I hate the say it) the cleanliness that pervades. It reminded me more of South-East Asia than its most immediate neighbor.

 

A temple at Polonnaruwa

But the best part was that even in a few short days you can see an incredible array of varying cultures and sights and history. Sri Lanka is one of the more multi-dimensional places you can imagine.
This was certainly true even on our first day. We spent the morning at Polonnaruwa – an 11th century Buddhist capital that now lies in well-preserved ruins – and the afternoon spotting elephants at a national park. To go from roaming a lost city to riding in a jeep through the jungle was a whirlwind juxtaposition. Luckily, we had success in our elephant adventures- about an hour into the journey, we came across a whole troop of elephants standing at a watering hole. It’s amazing to watch these huge animals as they roamed free and enjoyed their afternoon as much as we did.

 

A slew of elephants

Sigiriya from afar

The next day we ‘conquered’ one of the true highlights of Sri Lanka – Sigiriya. Sigiriya is a rock that formed as the molten core of a volcano. The volcano has eroded but the core remained, and a civilization flourished in the fifth century. It’s an imposing sight – a huge rock with a plateau top – and it’s hard to imagine how anyone was able to scale it so many years ago.
But for this era, we were up to the challenge. You can walk into the fortified area that once was a royal garden and then you climb your way up and up until you reach the top. It’s a combination of original stairs and newly imposed spiral staircases – all frightening but all with an incredible view. Halfway up you can see frescoes that have remained in tact for at least 1,000 years. When we reached the top I think we were all exhausted, but it was victorious. Looking out, we could see across Sri Lanka and no amount of aches could take away from the moment.

 

Cave temples in Dambulla

There is just so much diverse history to take in when you’re visiting Sri Lanka – in Damublla we spent time in the Rock Cave Temples, a series of caves that have dozens of Buddha statues carved starting in the 3rd century BC, and then in the 18th century every inch, from the walls to the ceilings, were painted so that no matter where you look you see a Buddha. In Kandy we went to the home of Buddha’s ‘Tooth Relic,’ where Buddhists come to pray at the resting place of one of Buddha’s teeth (though it’s hidden away view).

 

The winding road up into Hill County - covered with tea

I loved getting immersed in the history – but the real highlight (among highlights!) was when we switched gears, climbed altitudes and indulged my love of tea.
I think its safe to say that I am an avid tea drinker. I can’t remember a day in which I didn’t consume and enjoy at least one cup. So I was quite excited to go to the tea plantations in the world’s second-largest tea-producing country. I just didn’t realize how beautiful the view would be alongside my cup of tea.

 

Tea pickers in the fields

As we drove around the winding roads up into the hill country of Sri Lanka I was reminded of the phrase many use when describing Kerala: “Gods country.” It seemed apt for Sri Lanka as well. Up and up we went and with each turn we saw a better view – short tea plants covering the entire sides of mountains that led down into valleys and up into the sky. We got up so high eventually that we were in the clouds – if a cloud was passing through we could barely see more than a few feet in front of us.
Of course, we had to stop at one of the plantations so I could understand how they took the lush green leaves and somehow turned them into the loose tea I am so familiar with. It’s amazing- tea pickers (mostly woeful underpaid Tamils) go through the fields each day plucking the top leaves from each branch of the tea bush. They are dried, rolled and then fermented. The tips of the leaves are made into a special tea, called ‘silver tips,’ and the size of the remaining leaves determines the lightness or strength of the ‘regular’ tea. It was thrilling for me to see my favorite beverage created from start to finish. It was even more thrilling to sit outside with a cup of the finished tea and a chocolate cake while looking out onto the mountains continuing to grow more and more tea leaves. It was certainly a moment of perfection for me.

 

Inside the drying area of the tea factory

Less thrilling for me was Daniel’s suggestion that we wake up at 4:30am the next day in order to go hiking. I am not a hiker – I am a person who describes perfection as sitting, drinking tea, eating cake and looking out at a nice view. But I wanted to be a sport and go along with the plan – so I hiked.
There was, admittedly, a good reason for the early rise- Daniel wanted to hike to a point known as ‘World’s End’ in Horton Plains national park. It gets its name from its stunning view and 800 meter drop. But starting at about 9am the clouds come in and the view is obscured. So in order to drive to the park and then get to World’s End in time, we needed a brutal start-time.
So we woke up and went on the way – my outfit consisted of skinny jeans (the only long pants I’d brought) and three sweaters to try and keep out the early morning cold. I looked ridiculous and I felt like a hiker fraud – on the rough and wet terrain I stumbled and bumbled my way up the mountain.

 

Me and Daniel at 'Worlds End'

But we got to World’s End just in time – as I stood panting and completely winded I started to understand the place’s dramatic name. Huge mountains led down to lakes and waterfalls and a valley. And just as quickly as we had arrived, so did the clouds- it was incredible, they came up from below the mountain, like a rising force and soon the entire view was completely obscured. It would have been breathtaking if I had any breath left.

 

It was a lot to take in in five days – a lot of history, a lot of culture and a lot of changing altitudes. But Sri Lanka is a place one should go if you want to find yourself marveling at the world. It’s incredible to me that cave sculptures and structures and frescos have survived for hundreds and even thousands of years here. It’s jaw-dropping to see an animal whose weight is in tonnage sauntering around and kicking up grass right in front of you. And it’s hard to tear your eyes away from stunning views, whether from the top of a molten core, out the window of a car on a winding road or on the vista of a conquered mountain.
But hopefully Kerala can give us a run for our money.

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I’m probably a bad patriot for deliberately wanting to leave my new city because my President was coming for a visit. But amidst road closures, traffic and increased security – along with a 2 day vacation for Daniel because of Diwali – we decided to high-tail it out of Mumbai for a relaxing weekend in Goa.

I had heard a lot of different things about Goa, all seemingly contradictory: Some derided it as a crowded over-hyped place for hippies and backpackers; others gleefully declared it Mumbai’s Hamptons. I was pleasantly surprised to find that if you stayed in the right places, Goa could be neither. Instead for me it was a relaxing blend of tropical paradise and historical oddity.

One of the Siolim House rooms

On the advice of numerous friends we stayed at Siolim House – a 17th century Portuguese mansion that had been restored as a labor of love by an Indian private equity manager. Siolim House is off the beaten track – it’s situated on a small lane in a tiny village that’s a ways away from the beach, but it means no other tourists are around. You sort of feel like you’re staying at a friend’s very nice country house (shouldn’t we all have friends like that?).

I’m ususally a sucker for historical houses anyway, but this one really was something to see. Our room made me feel like we could really get a sense of what it must have been like to live in colonial India – except we still were able to have running water and the use of a fan.

Siolim House lounge

We spent the next few days driving between the various beaches and the sights of Goa. It’s a funny place to tourist-watch – I’ve never seen so many people trying to embody the Goa fantasy life. White people with dreadlocks and kurtas made their way around on scooters along treacherous windy paths while getting honked at for going too slowly. European tourists happily paid 50 rupees for a fresh coconut without negotiating and apparently without considering that the coconuts grew on trees right in front of them and therefore shouldn’t be that expensive. A lot of the people we spoke with were spending up to two weeks in Goa – deciding that the rest of India would have to wait, since they were only in the mood for their tropical plans. I kept wondering what the local people must think of this specific type of tourist that wants to live the ‘chill’ life in India. Then again, what must they have thought of us? I think sometimes we’re naive to assume that we embarrass ourselves less just because we happen to have lived in Mumbai for a few months.

But Goa does live up to its hype. We went to one of the quieter beaches, in Mandrem, and it really was a new view of India I hadn’t been privy to in all my time on Mumbai’s sullied and crowded beaches. Hills gave way to white sandy beaches and palm trees. Locals made use of the tourists by selling us fresh-caught fish and prawns. It was hard to think of a better place to spend a day.

Inside of Bom Jesus church

As a history buff I also enjoyed Old Goa – which apparently a lot of beach travelers give a miss. It was striking to see 17th century grand churches in India. I watched an Indian Christian wedding- white dress and all – and I was struck by how odd it seemed in a country that seemed to promote every color but white in their average wedding. I certainly felt like I was in some remote part of forgotten Europe. The whole setting reminded me of some of the churches I’d gone to in Amalfi – a bit forgotten with the paint peeling off, but still glorious in their size and decorations.

I was also amused to see the ‘remains’ of St Francis Xavier. It was a bit of an inside joke for me – I was born in a hospital called St Francis Xavier hospital, and oddly enough I am the only person in my family who was born there. So I thought it was sort of fitting that I got to witness his bizarre mummified self (I would say I got to see him in the flesh, but that might be too terrible a pun).

At any rate, when it was time to board our plane Sunday night, I couldn’t help but wish I was able to spend more time in the slow-moving Indian state that seemed to belong to many cultures at once. And for a moment, the wish was granted: our flight out was delayed – a result of President Obama’s closure of the Mumbai airport for a full forty-five minutes. I guess we couldn’t avoid America even in Goa. But it certainly had been nice to try for a little while.

(I also found some great signs in Goa, so I’ve added a few to the slide show on the signs tab)

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