Friday, April 1, 2011

Southern India

The last portion of our six-week backpacking adventure consisted of visiting a few cities in the southern part of the country. From Udaipur, we traveled for over twenty-four hours by train to reach a Mumbai suburb, Dahisar. Instead of staying directly inside the city, we chose to stay in this town where Holy Cross Fathers were located. As expected, the hospitality of the Fathers was wonderful (a commonly found characteristic of Indians that trumps Americans any day!). Here, we traveled into the city for one day hitting up the essential tourist sites: Taj Hotel, Gateway of India, Elephanta Island, and we even attended a Western-influenced wedding with one of the Fathers. It was great to see people having fun and dancing to music that I recognized. The overall lifestyle in the Mumbai area could not be more opposite of that in Agartala, but it has been amazing to witness the cultural differences within this one country.

Onto Goa! We joked that our trip to Goa was our vacation, from a vacation, from a vacation. Explanation: Extension India is our vacation from real life in America; the six-week backpacking trip was our vacation from Agartala life; the trip to Goa was our vacation from backpacking. This was our time to relax for one week, tan on the beach, enjoy numerous happy hours, and eat an unspeakable amount of food. And we did just that.

Hampi, in the state of Karnataka, pleasantly turned out to be my favorite stop along the six-week trip. Although we did not spend numerous days at this site (though I wish we had) it was such a refreshing city. The entire landscape was beautiful rocky terrain, bright green rice paddies, flowing rivers, and (semi) clean air! The city is full of fascinating old ruins with so much to see. The roads near our cozy guesthouse were even quiet enough that we got some exercise by bike riding to many beautiful scenic spots. The three of us weren't eager to depart from this relaxing oasis, but the last couple cities of our trip were approaching!

Bangalore is the America of India. Don't get me wrong, on no occasion does it slip one's mind that you are still in the country of India while on the streets, but this city is as close to the feeling of home as any American can get. Located in a fantastic spot in the center of Bangalore was a Holy Cross affiliated guesthouse in which we stayed. The Fathers provided us with beds and home-cooked Indian cuisine, which was such a help with the state of our financial situation at the end of the six weeks. Not only were we lucky enough to have incredible accommodations, but we also had a friend to guide us around a few sites within the city and nearby villages. Our additional American companion was Ellen's cousin, Holly, who was working at an orphanage in the Bangalore area. Minus the fact that Holly became rather ill towards the end of our stay (perhaps from the over-consumption of Hard Rock Cafe food?), it was nice to talk to someone new and hear another American's perspective on Indian culture.

Kolkata. First, throughout these travel blogs, I have tried to highlight the positive aspects of my many experiences during this holiday season because this opportunity that I was given to travel the country has been life-changing. However, traveling in India is not your typical vacation. Maneuvering around these cities and modes of transportation is not always full of smiles and positive eye-opening experiences. After being raised in organized America, India is frustrating and frequently brings you through an intense emotional roller-coaster ride. It may have been because Kolkata was the last stop before returning “home”, but at that time, Kolkata left me speechless. I have never been exposed to such intense air and ground pollution, persistent hagglers and beggars, overcrowded streets, and loud surroundings. I cannot even imagine a more overwhelming city and thankfully, there truly aren't many in the world that actually do beat the poverty and pollution that exist here. We stayed at the hotel for one night and only left our rooms once. Even though at this point we had been in India for almost half a year, Kolkata was still physically and emotionally exhausting for me. Nevertheless, Kolkata, along with the other ten cities that we visited, was quite a journey full of ups and downs. We have gained so much knowledge in just these six-weeks, not to mention the incredible amount that we have learned throughout the entire length of the program. Many thanks to Stonehill College for providing this unbelievable opportunity for us.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


The next leg of our holiday travels consisted solely of the female portion of the Extension India group since Ben returned back to America for three weeks. India is predominately a patriarchal society and three girls traveling without a male may cause some to worry, but we did just fine! The three of us have grown some truly tough skin in India (which is essential as an American female located in a male-dominated society) and were proud to have extensively traveled around the country with confidence in our abilities.

From Delhi, our next destination along the route was to stop in three different cities throughout Rajasthan, the beautiful desert state. First, we took a twenty hour train ride to the quintessential Indian city, Jaisalmer. This sandstone city lies in western India and is only a couple of hundred kilometers away from the Pakistan border, but located at a safe distance from the danger that occurs in that section of the world. It was a nice change of pace to travel from chaotic Delhi to low-key Jaisalmer. Immediately upon arrival, we booked an overnight camel safari in the Thar Desert, a must for all tourists traveling to Jaisalmer. Overall, fantastic experience, but PAINFUL! Riding on a camel for two days is not a smooth journey and really strains muscles that I was unaware even existed within my own body!Our desert companions (one couple from the U.K. and another from America) were great to have around because it had been so long since the last time we interacted with anyone who completely understood our home culture and language. The tour guides who were taking care of us and the camels were also good company and cooked up some fantastic meals in the sandy desert. It still amazes me how Indians are capable of whipping up such extravagant and tasty meals from scratch in a matter of minutes. At night, we slept without a tent, but only with a pillow, quite a few blankets, and extremely close to one another so that we each could absorb as much body heat as possible since the desert becomes surprisingly chilly at night. Strange enough, there was even a man selling Kingfisher beer deep into the desert, which made for an excellent night!

Other than the camel safari,Jaisalmer was filled with an extreme amount of souvenir shopping and delicious food. We were then off to the next Rajasthani city! Jaipur (the recent Katy Perry and Russell Brand wedding venue) was our next stop and a very short one at that. Since we were on a tight budget, the most inexpensive route to travel through the state was to spend approximately fifteen hours in the city of Jaipur. Due to the overwhelmingly high intensity of this location, we only explored a couple of typical tourist sites: Jantar Mantar (a famous astrological park), the City Palace, and we climbed a tall minaret which gave us a fantastic view of the “Pink City”. After a few hours, we were prepared to climb aboard yet another overnight train and head to our last destination within Rajasthan.

Udaipur would be the site for our Christmas holiday and we were crossing our fingers for a stress-free city with great accommodations. Fortunately, we could not have asked for anything better and were incredibly happy with the guest house in which we stayed. If you ever find yourself traveling to Udaipur, the “Venice of the East”, I would highly recommend staying at Mewargarh Palace. The owner and his family were extremely welcoming, helpful, and took the time to get to know each and every one of his guests. He even hung a stocking with candy outside of our room on Christmas morning! Besides ordering a Christmas breakfast feast, consisting of every pancake flavor on the menu, we sure did treat ourselves nicely for the entire day! All three of us received a much-needed full body Ayurvedic massage, indulged in some serious jewelry shopping, and celebrated the holiday over a large glass of Italian red wine at a glamorous Udaipur hotel. It was difficult for all of us to be without the comfort of home during the holidays, but this was definitely a Christmas that none of us will ever forget!

Next up, Southern India!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Uttar Pradesh

After eleven trains, three flights, ten cities, and six weeks of traveling, we have finally made it back to Agartala and are relieved to no longer be living out of a backpack! We are excited to have returned “home” and to begin teaching at brand new schools. Considering Ellen and I start at the Saint Andre School on February 1st, stay tuned for blog entries in the near future regarding our teaching experience in the village!

On account of the length of the trip, I am going to divide up the blog entries and begin with the first leg of our journey, the state of Uttar Pradesh. The four of us began our backpacking adventure in the city of Varanasi, India. Two days before arriving, a bomb blast occurred at a well-known ghat on the Ganges River killing one individual and injuring many others. Our booked hotel was extremely close to where this incident took place and because of its close proximity to the incident, we decided to stay on the campus of Nav Sadhana, a college located just outside of Varanasi. One of the Holy Cross Brothers working at Holy Cross School has family in that area and we were very appreciative that he helped us organize these accommodations. The four of us were put up in great rooms, provided with delicious meals, and were thrilled that this quick change of plans worked out so perfectly. On the first day in Varanasi, we became accustomed to the city and toured four-well known temples and also visited the very large campus of Benares Hindu University. Our second day in Varanasi was highly anticipated because we planned to tour the Ganges River by boat at sunrise. This river is the “Mecca” for those who practice the Hindu religion and the Ganges is thought of as holy water. We witnessed many individuals cleaning and bathing in the river water, deceased bodies undergoing cremation on the ghats, and many Hindu rituals taking place. Varanasi was a rather overwhelming city with shocking sights, but I felt privileged to be able to observe characteristics of India that could never similarly resemble anything in the "Western World".

Our next stop was the tourist trap city of Agra. The pollution, trash, beggars, and hagglers are all intense aspects of Agra and if we could go back in time, we would have planned a day trip to the city instead of staying overnight. Agra is extremely lucky that it hosts one of the world's greatest wonders because other than that one beauty, the city is rather unpleasant and frustrating. I may also be a bit biased because other aspects of the city that did not positively effect my opinion were 1.) Being sick with a stomach bug and 2.) Experiencing a sleepless night due to a loud and never-ending Muslim festival occurring directly outside our window. Nevertheless, watching the sunrise at the Taj Mahal the next morning soon replaced our negative mood with an unforgettable adrenaline-rush. The feeling of witnessing the Taj Mahal for the first time is similar to that of seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum, but, in my opinion, ten times as amazing and stunning. We stayed in the Taj Complex for almost four hours absorbing the scenery, examining the beautiful marble carvings, and taking too many sunrise pictures. I was upset to say goodbye to the fascinating Taj Mahal, but thrilled to say hello to a new city.

Our last stop in the state of Uttar Pradesh was the nation's capital, Delhi. Once again, we were extremely fortunate regarding our accommodations. In this city, every aspect from our arrival to our departure was taken care of by a publishing company that supplies Holy Cross School with textbooks. The publishers were incredibly gracious to have provided us with rooms, food, laundry services, and a driver to tour the city. We had heard some stories from travelers along the way that Delhi was a chaotic and overwhelming city. Consequently, we were all extremely appreciative of our accommodations in this location. The city itself had its nice parts and its bad parts, but overall it was wonderful to be exposed to semi-Western culture for the first time along the trip. We even may have indulged in some rejuvenating McDonald's and Domino's Pizza! Besides spending marvelous hours acquainting ourselves with familiar American foods, we did, in fact, do quite a bit of sightseeing. Visiting Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, was a very beautiful and unique experience for Aja, Ellen, and I. Upon walking into the mosque, all foreign women are given baggy clothing so that all areas of a woman's body are entirely covered. I have attached a picture of our attire and the mosque to this blog entry! Among some of the other sites that we explored throughout our few days in Delhi included, the Red Fort, the India Gate, an astrological park, Connaught Place, Humayun's Tomb, and the Lotus Temple. We had a enjoyable time touring the city, but were excited to continue on to the next part of our journey!

Next up, the desert state of Rajasthan!