Many of you know (but some of you may not) that as of Tuesday, February 10th we are officially back in the USA! It’s been quite a whirlwind of tourism, family, friends, love and life-planning since we landed, but I wanted to make sure I sat down and shared some of our last experiences in India (especially some of the wonderful photos we took along the way).
We had a lot of terrific experiences in India, but one thing we did not focus on during our trip was getting around to do tourist activities. But since we had no idea when we would be making it back to India, we wanted to make sure we set aside some time at the end of our trip for a vacation around to a few of the stereotypical tourist attractions. During our last 10 days in India, we travelled over half the country, spending 72 hours on trains to visit the cities of Agra, Delhi, and Shimla. It felt fantastic to let go of any responsibilities and spend 10 days as simple unfettered tourists 🙂
Agra : Agra is primarily a tourist city as it is the home of the Taj Mahal and a few other Mughal historical monuments. We of course came to Agra for the Taj Mahal, but we also came for another unique experience – playing with elephants!
I was lucky to find an awesome organization called Wildlife SOS – check them out here. They originally started as a sanctuary for “dancing bears” in 1996, and over the last 20 years they have saved over 620 bears across India. In 2010 they also started to take in injured elephants, and since then they have rescued 8 elephants at their Agra location. In case you had heard about Raju, the crying elephant, who cried when he was saved from his poor conditions — WSOS was the organization that saved him.
We scheduled a visit to their elephant centre on Sunday, February 1st and it was one of our favorite experiences in India. Our wonderful host, Prathamesh, gave us a leisurely tour of their facility introducing us to each of their 8 elephants (3 males and 5 females). The males were all in their period of heat (which makes them a bit aggressive), so we weren’t able to interact with them up close. The females on the other hand were extremely friendly and gentle. We spent lots of time hugging, rubbing, and feeding the beautiful elephants 🙂
An expected elephant quality: They can hold a LOT in their mouth! One elephant took a whole huge, melon-sized papaya and crushed it in one squishy bite. Another elephant would just sit with his mouth open while you put in banana after banana – he wouldn’t close it until he had at least a dozen!
An unexpected elephant quality: They purr like cats! The caretakers at the elephant centre would come and make an “oooo”ing sound, and the elephants would go crazy: flapping their ears, tossing their heads around, and purring. The noise they made was very similar to the transmission of a car and vibrated their entire bodies 😀
Our next stop was the Agra fort, a Mughal fort that was renovated into its current red sandstone structure back in 1573. Wende and I spent an afternoon walking around the fort and listening to an audio tour. The audio tour was a bit depressing and had highlights like: concubines, murder, imprisonment of a father by his son, dictators, more concubines, and elephant fighting (resulting in their death). Despite a morbid history, it was an incredible structure and definitely worth a visit.
Our last stop in Agra was of course the iconic, wonder of the world the Taj Mahal. When visiting a tourist attraction, you’re never sure if it’s going to be as impressive as it’s cracked up to be. Well, that doubt was misplaced with the Taj Mahal because it was breathtaking like a “teardrop on the face of time” (as our audio tour said :P). In case you were unaware (as I was), the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum that was constructed in honor of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1632. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Delhi: Our next stop was the second largest city in India – New Delhi. Since this was probably going to be our last vacation by ourselves (without a small child in tow), we decided to splurge in Delhi and stay in a fancy room (at least nicer than our typical choice of cheapest in the city :P). We reveled in the comfort of a squishy bed and hot shower, and in general our stay in New Delhi emphasized relaxation over site-seeing.
That doesn’t mean we spent all 3 days in the hotel though! One stop we made was to the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a sikh temple constructed in honor of the 8th Sikh guru. We made this stop in honor of our friend Gurpreet Singh, because we wanted to learn more about her religion and to see a Sikh temple in-person. Ideally, we would have visited the “Golden Temple” in the city of Amritsar, but with our limited time-frame we decided to visit Gurudwara Bangla Sahib instead.
I had done a little research about the temple before visiting, but we weren’t sure what to expect for our visit. When we arrived, we were happy to see that there was a foreign visitors office where we were greeted by our tour guide Polly. Polly showed us all around the temple, explaining some of their beliefs as well as the significance of various structures around and inside the temple. In general, I agreed with many of the Sikh philosophies and I enjoyed hearing about the history of the religion. One of the most impressive parts of our tour was a walkthrough of the kitchens used to prepare an astonishing number of free meals they serve every day. Online I read that they serve 10,000 meals each day, but Polly said that on weekends that number can be as high as 50,000. People from all walks come for these meals at the temple including impoverished locals, foreign tourists, and wealthy New Delhi citizens who just want to be reminded of their privilege in life. In addition to these free meals, the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib also runs a full-service free hospital!
Our last stop in Delhi was a temple called Swaminarayan Akshardham. When I read about this tourist attraction online, I got the impression that it was an exhibition of the diversity in Indian cultures. However, I was a bit surprised to realize that the entire complex was built in honor of Swaminarayan, the figurehead of the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism. The modern complex, built in 2005, is constructed in the style of ancient Indian temples and has 3 exhibitions: 1) An animatronic exhibit highlighting various moments from Swaminarayan’s life, 2) a biographical IMAX film of Swaminarayan’s life, 3) a “boat ride” that basically shows all of the different ideas (like trigonometry, pi, gravity etc.) that India invented before the individual’s who are given credit for their discovery. Sadly, the temple very strictly enforces a ban on cell phones entering the premises (with a thorough patdown/boob grab), which is why I’m lacking photos of this activity and was unable to fact check any of the invention claims.
Overall, even though I felt like the attraction was advertised in a misleading way, we still enjoyed learning more about Swaminarayan and seeing the exhibits/temple created in his honor. But what made the visit completely worth it was the water show we attended at sundown. At this point in life, there are few shows/performances I attend that offer something really unique and captivating, but this water show blew me away! Here’s a teaser of the show (which doesn’t do it justice).
Here are also some photos I did not take –
Shimla: Our last stop in India was the city of Shimla, a beautiful village just inside the Himalayan Mountains. During the reign of England over India, Shimla acted as the summer capital of the country because it was a cooler retreat for the British who were unaccustomed to the brutal India summers. We were in Shimla for a total of two days and spent most our time relaxing (while Austin recovered from a bout of sickness).
I was initially attracted to Shimla from the description of the unique way of travelling to the city. You may reach the city by bus or car, but the most interesting form of transportation is a narrow gauge train that winds its way up into the mountains. Over just 60 miles of tracks, the train climbs 4600 feet, passes through 102 tunnels, crosses over more than 800 bridges, and winds around 900 curves (many of which are full switchbacks). The ride gave me a bit of motion sickness, but the views were breathtaking.
Last night in India: After Shimla, we made our way back to Mumbai with a marathon 26 hour train ride down the western edge of the country. That night, we were hosted by one of our Indian friends, Sandeep Patil. Sandeep is the husband of our boss back at the Gram Seva hospital, and father to our good teenage friend Nandini. Sandeep’s family offered the Indian hospitality that we will deeply miss in America. They made us feel very comfortable during our few hours together until 3AM when we had to leave for the flight.
Airport/Flights: When standing in line at the Mumbai airport, waiting to check in for our Kuwait Airways flight, we had our last instance of standing out as the only white people in a crowd. As we transitioned through each of our 3 flights (India –> Kuwait –> England –> USA), the passenger mix became progressively more diverse. By the time we reached our final destination, we stood in a fantastically motley custom’s line at the JFK airport in New York. Wende and I felt perfectly anonymous for the first time in a long time. 🙂
Back to America: My father was kind enough to meet Wende and I at the airport, embracing us with big bear hugs and welcoming us back to the country. We collected up our plethora of luggage and drove back to my uncle’s house, who graciously offered to host us. Since my uncle has never seemed like an animal person (at least from my experiences), Wende and I were reflecting about how we were sad that the first house we stayed at wasn’t going to have a single pet to cuddle. But when we arrived at the apartment/house, we were surprised by a tiny black & white kitten named Spot. Spot was the newest addition to the family, and Wende and I spent a significant amount of our first week back in the US playing, petting, and holding this adorable and unexpected BONUS kitten.
Full Circle: Since we had just completed a 7 month stay in India, we thought that it felt right to make one of our first stops back the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island. It seemed fitting to visit the same place that was many immigrants first glimpse of America. In a sense, we were re-immigrating back to the US ourselves. It was fantastic to lay eyes on the iconic green statue, but one of my favorite parts of the trip was hearing dozens of languages spoken on the ferry and seeing the diverse collection of tourists from around the world that had come to visit lady liberty.
Our day of travelling around the English speaking city of NYC made one truth apparent – we’re home. Reflecting back on our trip, it’s hard to believe that 7 months passed so quickly. I can still remember those painfully long first days at the hospital, when we would say to each other “only 299 days to go.” Despite the difficulty of our first days, we grew to love our time in India. We had a wonderfully simple life there, where we could take a nap every day! We made new friends, and we were constantly having new and memorable experiences. We got the opportunity to participate in a number of festivals and to learn about Indian customs. When planning our trip, we hoped that our time would be transformative, providing a new more well-rounded perspective on the world. Well, our time in India provided that benefit as well as many others we had not anticipated. I’m so glad that we took this chance to push ourselves outside our comfort zones, and I’ll always look back on this time as a keystone experience in our lives.
Until next time,