Week 4: Experiences are the Best Souvenirs
“[India is] like a wave; resist and you go under, ride it out and you arrive at the other side.”--The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
6:30 AM, Saturday, June 23rd:
After a three-hour car ride, we awake to find ourselves at the entrance of Mysore Palace. With its fairytale-like architecture and fake-looking green gardens, it could be Disneyland. We lose ourselves in bold colors, high ceilings, and intricate architecture that saturate the former residence of the Mysore Kingdom’s Wodeyar family. I daydreamed about getting married in the
Wedding Hall; the beauty of its stained glass dome ceiling surrounded by gold and turquoise pillars is enough to make even the plainest bride look stunning. After a casual play date with the ground’s elephants and camels, we arrive at Chamundi Hills to find monkeys enjoying orange soda. A lavish temple and bird’s-eye view of majestic Mysore await at the top of the rocky hill.
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8:00 PM, Friday, June 29th:
I drift in and out of sleep between road bumps, the itch of bug bites, or blaring Bollywood music at rest stops en route to India’s east coast. We’re in the rural outskirts of Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu when I wake up for the last time eight hours later—sticky from the bus’ lack of AC. We watch the sun by the boardwalk overlooking the Bay of Bengal; enjoy pancakes India-style at a fan-cooled, tropical rooftop restaurant; and stroll along the French-named streets lined with fruit stands and Parisian-style buildings. The city is surprisingly calm as it awaits the arrival of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The 5AM flat tire was only the beginning. It’s now hour 18 on our 10-hour drive to the monsoon-fed greens of Goa. Snacks from a grocery store in the bare coastal town of Karwar sustain our stress-diminished hunger, our driver keeps stopping for directions, and the sun begins to set. Exhausted, he dozes and swerves off the road (someone grabs the wheel). We realize we’re in danger, give up any hope of reaching our original lodging destination, and scurry into the safety of a nearby hotel.
The next day is calmer; we enjoy chocolate croissants on Baga Beach amidst the curious stares of locals and unbury the Portuguese history of Old Goa and the conquests of Vasco Da Gama before a treacherous bus ride back to Bangalore (we couldn’t get in that car again!).
We’re jolted through the air. Eight hours into our journey, the bus’ suspension broke, and we had to switch buses around 5AM. Seats ran out quickly; I was the last one standing. “Just stand or sit on this cardboard box,” men said from their seats. It wasn’t until my travel mate made a scene that a man who decided to take an extra seat for comfort confessed. I walked through the stares
down the aisle of the bus to the seat where I’d sit for the next seven hours.
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10 PM Friday, July 13th:
In an old taxi, the rolled-down windows give way to the salt-saturated breeze as we drive along Mumbai’s coast illuminated with the lights of skyscrapers from across the water. The next day, after a breakfast of French toast, chocolate sauce, and bananas, we wander through the grounds of the India Gate, witness the photographs that catalogue the famous guests of the lavish Taj
Hotel, experience the colors of Colaba Causeway, and brave the windy seaside pathway to the Haji Ali shrine.
While Saturday was filled with glamorous Mumbai, Sunday is spent traversing through the Dharavi slum—the largest slum in Asia. People bathe with buckets of soapy water as we walk through narrow, dark alleyways—ducking our heads to avoid the wires that hang above. Smiling children run between close quarters, yelling, “hello!” Tiny living spaces with cloth doors exhibit women on the floor cooking or men watching television. Despite the lack of electricity or running water, televisions and cell phones are staples. Our day ends devouring mango kulfi (Indian ice cream) and freshly grilled masala lime corn on Chowpatty Beach.
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12:30AM Sunday, July 29th:
We’ve just arrived home from a trip to Agra that commenced at 5AM. Yesterday, we ventured into South Delhi through the India Gate, Humayun’s tomb, Dilli Haat marketplace, and Qutab Minar (tallest minaret in India). But today was the trip our cameras had been waiting for. I was the one walking, but it was the Taj whose glimmering marble made the entrance as it floated in the distance.
The site now is horrific. Sheets are torn, jewelry from Dilli Haat is strewn across the floor, the Bible lays shredded on the bed. On the far side of the room, a high window lays ajar. Panic runs through my body. “Oh no, I think we just got robbed,” I say to my roommate. But nothing is missing. A robber who didn’t find what they were looking for, a mischievous monkey, had pillaged our room. …Only in India.
The next morning is spent traveling via the pristine metro and later bicycle rickshaw through the crowded streets of the historic Chandni Chowk marketplace. Stalls make pani puri on the street, and brides shop for saris. We venture up the narrow, dark staircase of a minaret in Jama Masjid to catch a glimpse of Old Delhi from a crowded, circular platform before visiting the vast Red Fort. Luckily, we escape to the south just before the world’s largest blackout strikes northern India.
About the Blogger
Shaira Bhanji is a Economics major with a secondary in Global Health/Health Policy at Harvard, where she is the Scientista Foundation Harvard Chapter Director. Her science experience includes research internships at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as at
City of Hope National Medical Center. In addition to her studies, Shaira enjoys playing soccer, taking walks along the Charles, and making frequent visits to Boston Tea Stop. This summer, she is pursuing a research fellowship in malnutrition at St. John's National Academy of Health Sciences in Bangalore, India.