Posts Tagged ‘South Tour’

An Indian Year: Now on YouTube!

June 14, 2011

In addition to the 70,000 words I wrote and 1,800 pictures I took this year, I also took a sizeable amount of videos. Though not high in quality, and often taken with a shaking hand, they can show things that my words and still pictures can’t. You can browse through them for your enjoyment.

AnIndianYear’s YouTube channel:

Some videos you might enjoy:

Downtown Nagpur, so to speak

An “Ooty”-ful view from the South Tour

A view of the houseboats in Kerala


South Tour: Mumbai & Nagpur – It’s not “Goodbye,” it’s “See you again”

January 3, 2011

13 Dec – 14 Dec

NAGPUR: I’m trying to remember when I first fell in love with the city of Mumbai.

Was it when I walked through the train station to see the facade up front, after passing through a lobby that was the most crowded, bustling room I’d ever been in?

Was it when the skyline of the city’s downtown suddenly appeared on our bus ride in, a maze of skyscrapers sandwiched by pale blue sky and pale blue sea?

Was it when our bus pulled up between the Gateway to India and the Taj Hotel, as if one historic monument wasn’t enough for the moment?

Whatever it was, it was enough for me to seriously consider buying an I (heart) Mumbai t-shirt, although I ultimately decided to pass.

I think the consensus we reached is that Mumbai is like New York, Chicago, Miami and Toronto – like New York as a country’s metropolitan hub, like Chicago with its iconic skyline, like Miami in the glimmering marriage of city and sea, and like Toronto because…Toronto is also a big city that people know. Whatever city Mumbai most resembles, we spent our time enjoying the world’s largest city, not dreading our departure at the end of the day.

And that’s the way it should be.

Although our breakfast at the train station was probably the worst of the tour, that hardly mattered, given what we were to see that day. Our decision to skip the Elephanta Caves was a good one, as it gave us a full day to enjoy the city. Our morning was filled with great opportunities for photo ops. Both the road coming in and a park overlooking the sea provided outstanding views of Mumbai’s skyline. The Gateway of India, of course, looked great no matter where the picture was taken from.

While staring at the Taj Hotel, I was overwhelmed by poignancy as I realized what I was staring at. Saddened as I was by my memories of 26/11 and my recollection of the events from those days, I was equally inspired by the scene Wednesday – of people milling about as normal, Indians and foreigners alike. All the while the Taj Hotel stood monumental as ever, unscarred, as if nothing had ever happened 25 months before.

The rest of our afternoon was mostly spent shopping. Some of us got early starts on Secret Santa shopping, while others picked out souvenirs for themselves. We also visited a mosque at the end of a 500-meter long pier before splitting up and spending our afternoon in three separate groups. Our final four hours together were relaxing and free of obligation in one of the busiest cities in the world.

And just like that, the tour was over. One last walk back to the bus. One last group photograph. One last ride to the train station. Outside the terminal where the Indore kids were dropped, everyone from one district had a goodbye hug for their friends in the other. Some eyes were glossier than others, but I think we all agreed our goodbyes were too abrupt, and a narrow street next to heaps of trash was not the ideal setting in which to bid each other adieu.

Except it’s never “goodbye” with Rotary, they say. It’s “see you again”. When will “again” be? That’s the question.

But I know that day will come – for everyone on this tour.

Until next time, whenever that is, I have the memories inscribed in this journal to fall back on.

For me, “that day” has already come for fourteen in our tour group. For the nine others from District 3030, it came soon hereafter, as everyday practices began the next Monday for our Christmas Day presentation. For Sabrina, who left the tour early to attend a wedding in Mumbai, it came the day after the tour ended, in Nagpur. For Jordan, Amanda and Kelsey [Vermont, USA], it came about two weeks later, as they also came to Nagpur to prepare for the presentation. For RK, it was Christmas Day. For Nikolas and Hannah [Germany], it will probably come when we embark on the North Tour in February. That only leaves Sebastian and Aafreen [India], who I’ll be sure to meet on some future date.

You know home won’t be the same when you spend a month away from it.

Even though the home I came back to is my second home, halfway around the world from my first, a lot changed in the 25 days I was gone. Saket-dada, my host brother, is now staying in his hometown of Pune as he enjoys his school holidays. A new ping-pong table sits next to Jojo and Diana outside. A new rug lies upstairs, a MacBook Pro is my host dad’s new laptop, and the TV that used to sit idle in my bedroom is now featured by the dining room table.

It’s also a lot colder here, to the point that I actually wore my jacket – for five minutes. The 60-degree (F) nights will have everyone back home jealous, but here such weather is cause for two sweaters, a woolen hat, and a scarf.

Several nights, the temperature has dropped into the 40s, cause for me to wear my jacket to bed on more than one occasion. My tolerance for cold, while still higher than that of anyone I know here, is lower than it was in the US. It has dropped below freezing in parts of India, and there is snow in Kashmir.

This past week has been my vacation, not the 25 days before coming back. Because at the end of a vacation, aren’t you supposed to feel relaxed? Aren’t you supposed to be rejuvenated? Aren’t the monkeys supposed to have climbed off your back, leaving you ready to once-again face the world?

It’s because of my last week in Nagpur that I’d argue this tour was not a vacation. A departure from normal? Yes. But not a break. The only fatigue I’ve felt comparable to this is that of the first days of school breaks each year, following months of uninterrupted study. And this tour was just 25 days.

These were my thoughts as I lay in bed exhausted my first day back, my body still swaying to and fro as it had on the train, happy to finally be lying on a stable, familiar bed. You can’t make these kinds of memories in the places we did and call our tour a vacation.

That’s the best argument my mind can make right now, anyway.

As for my body, it’s too tired to argue. I’m bas.*


* – Bas is Hindi for “enough”. Although not proper Hinglish, we often used the phrase on the tour to say “I’ve had enough”.

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South Tour: Goa – The beginning of the end

January 2, 2011

11 Dec – 14 Dec

NAGPUR: In the three days since boarding a Nagpur-bound train in Mumbai, I’ve spent more time asleep than I have awake.

Sleep debt is the reason I’ve waited three days to write my end-of-tour recap, which I’d planned to write on the final leg of our journey, and the reason I penciled nothing in Mumbai or Goa – two destinations which gave me much to say and little time in which to write. I could have taken out my laptop to finish these entries, but it seems more prudent and appropriate for me to write these by hand first.

Now that I’m back in Nagpur, well-rested, well-fed, and more comfortable than I’ve been in weeks, here’s what I did before I got here.

Our train from Kochi to Madgaon arrived before sunrise on Sunday – the only time of day, in retrospect, when Goa actually seems to sleep.

I think it’s safe to call Goa the beach and party capital of India. Nowhere else on the tour – save perhaps the hill stations – can match the natural beauty of the beaches we visited. From the cliffs where we parked our bus, the beach looked just as it was billed beforehand: relaxing and beautiful.

As we made our way down from those cliffs, however, relaxing didn’t seem an appropriate word anymore. Unlike the beach at Mahabalipuram, tourists clogged the shores of Goa – especially after morning turned into afternoon. Rather than lying underneath a palm tree sipping coconut juice, I took an active approach to enjoying the beaches we visited: tossing around a small ball that Amanda [Washington, USA] had been “given”, taking a brief but exhilarating ride on a jetski, and attempting (and failing) to bodysurf the gentle waves that rarely came in higher than my head. Goa was the setting for a lot of great memories that day – and that night. I fell asleep before we could finish watching Scream together – at 4:30 a.m.

I woke up late Monday morning, and the day seemed much more relaxing than the day before. It was late afternoon before we drove to the beach and buried Jakob in the warm Goa sand. Our attempts at bodysurfing failed once again.

Mostly what I’ll remember from this day is the sunset.

Having missed it the day before, and having not seen a true sunset since the Golkunda Fort in Hyderabad, I was eager to watch the sun set over the Arabian Sea. After half a day enjoying the beach, I stood facing west with my arms crossed and my shirt over my shoulder as the others gathered their things, ready to head back to the hotel for the night. The sun crept lower in the sky.

“What are you doing, Chris?” someone asked me.

I’m brought back now to a lecture we had at the Grand Rapids conference in July. The speaker cited a survey wherein adults were asked an interesting question. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the jist of it was: How much time in your life have you spent really enjoying life – blissful, exhilarated, and purely happy?

The average response: ten minutes

For about ten minutes, I watched the sun fade into the clouds just over the horizon. It was a dull orange sunset, the kind that brightens the nearby clouds and makes them glow in multicolored streaks and puffs of light. The sun grew darker and darker as it went down, to the point that I could stare at it without holes being burned through my eyes. As we walked back along the beach, it grew fainter against the clouds until it nearly blended into them. I plucked my eyes away for a second, looked back, and it was gone.

What was I doing for those ten minutes? Just enjoying life – amidst some of the best friends I’ll ever have. Some were snapping pictures of the moment, some were chatting with each other, and some stood like I was, just looking, caught in the world’s best timepass. It was just one of many moments from this tour where I could put my happiness atop the scale from 1 to 10.

I feel bad for the people who’ve only been happy like this for ten minutes – not because they’ve never seen the sun set in Goa – but because moments like this aren’t about where you are in the world, they’re about who you’re with when you have them.

By our third and final day in Goa, it was becoming clear our time together was coming to a close.

Even for a tourist destination, Goa seems less like India than anywhere else on this tour. We found items we hadn’t found anywhere else in India – Oreos and Pringles for some, Gatorade and a Frisbee for me. Combined with the chips and pizza we so frequently consumed on the tour, we may as well have been in a different country.

The highlights of our third day in Goa were the two cavernous churches we visited in Old Goa that dwarfed the one we’d seen in Kochi. In a cathedral large enough to hold several houses, it was hard not to feel a sense of awe, however out of place a building seems amidst rickshaws and palm trees. Seeing this, combined with the imminence of our departure, was too much for some of us to stay composed. It was just too much like home.

I don’t remember much from our train ride to Mumbai except the arrangement of our seats. Normally when we traveled by train, our compartments were separated, sometimes even on different cars. This time, however, our three compartments sat next to each other, and we spent our last train ride together closer than ever before.

If for no other reason than symbolism, it was a nice arrangement.


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South Tour: Kochi – Calculating the improbability of this event is pointless

December 31, 2010

4 Dec

KOCHI TO MADGAON: This morning, we went to a Dutch Palace in Kochi.

There were foreigners inside.

Young foreigners.

Young foreigners with familiar faces.

Other Rotary Youth Exchange students.

Jaws dropped, lips began moving, and soon the palace was so abub with conversation that the staff told us several times to quiet down. We’d run into a group of exchange students from Gujarat who were on a tour of South India of their own, although theirs had just begun. Three of their number – Oona, Mary and Lila – had traveled with Olivia [Michigan, USA] and me into Mumbai, and several of us from the Central States conference in Grand Rapids were reunited.

The ten minutes our two groups shared passed by much too quickly. We had time to introduce ourselves, we were able to meet some fellow countrymen, and some business cards were exchanged. But as we split into two groups while boarding our respective buses, our meeting felt woefully incomplete.

I can’t tell you a single thing about that Dutch Palace. Whatever was remarkable about it got quite lost in the moment. It’s not surprising that another group of Rotary students would tour South India, and as this is the best time of year to visit Kerala, you could hardly be shocked the group was touring this time of year. But it’s still extraordinary that we met at all.

Calculating the improbability of our encounter is pointless – the way our faces lit up when we saw each other said it all.

Just fifteen minutes before, I’d visited a church for the first times since coming to India. St. Francis church doesn’t look like much on the outside, but at nearly 500 years old, it’s one of the oldest churches in India. The church was one of those places where quietness and piety overtake you, like the meditation room in Kanyakumari where I’d escaped the paparazzi the day before. For the first time in India, I sat down in a pew and prayed.

When I walked outside, I noticed the sun was shining after a week of rain.

It was a nice moment.


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South Tour: Trivandrum, Kanyakumari, Kovalum and Kochi – Kan-ya sea the paparazzi?

December 30, 2010

3 Dec

KOCHI: Sometimes, it seems like all of South India is just one big suburb.

There’s no apparent hub city from which all of these towns emanate, but it’s been impossible to go more than half a kilometer in this part of India without finding pockets of human life. I first noticed this on Tuesday (30 Nov), as we traveled from the backwaters of Alleppy to the southernmost town in India – Kanyakumari. As I looked out the window after the sun had set, I kept expecting the city lights to give way to darkness and the bustle of city life to disappear, but that never happened.

I can’t complain about the quality of the roads we drove on that day so much as the traffic that covered it. Our 80 kilometer journey down a two-lane national highway took about five hours to complete. I can ride my one-speed bike around Champaign more quickly than our 27-seater drove us through Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The highways, rather than weaving around the cities, cut through them, doing little to ease the heavy congestion.

I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the American interstate system as much as I do now.

In most cities on this tour, foreigners have not been hard to come by. Compared to Nagpur, Indore, and the other cities in which we’re being hosted, the sites we’ve visited have catered to tourists with ease. In general, the people by the temples, zoos, museums and palaces we’ve visited have all seemed comfortable in the presence of non-Indians.

Not so in Kanyakumari.

I’ve gotten very used to being stared at in India. As awkward as staring seems, it’s nothing more than looking. The initial unease I felt from the looks I’ve gotten everyday has disappeared. With other exchange students, the looks are distributed evenly, although we attract slightly more attention than we would alone.

The problems really begin when people start taking pictures of us.

Kanyakumari is the only place in India from which the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal can be viewed simultaneously. On clear days, Sri Lanka can be seen far off in the distance. Although the beaches are little more than walls of rocks, they’re great places from which to catch panoramic views. Ferries took us to three small islands south of the coast, which featured majestic seaside temples and statues. Naturally, many cameras were out, poised to take pictures of the surroundings.

Except were these cameras really taking pictures of the three seas? We were witness to several 360° videos that seemed to point towards us much longer than they were pointed at the sea. Cell phone cameras would be aimed just over our shoulders until thumbs clicked down on them – just as they swiveled in our direction. Most often people would just point and click without making any effort to be inconspicuous.

I looked behind us a few times, the optimist in me guessing we were blocking the views those pictures were trying to capture. Most often though, that was not the case – rocks, barricades and other people usually made up the backgrounds of pictures stolen of us. Only once do I think permission to take our picture was asked. Cameras would be poised as people stood in groups whispering to each other. Staring at us. Pointing at us. Laughing at us.

I think I can be forgiven for loudly singing Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi, although I doubt many of the picture-takers recognized the song. We devised several ways of dealing with our own paparazzi. Sometimes looking them straight in the eye would be enough for them to become flustered and turn the camera elsewhere. Sometimes we mocked their attempts at subtlety, holding our cameras in obvious places and clicking photos while looking away from them. At least twice, Jordan walked straight towards the picture-takers and told them flatly to stop. Our best (or worst) idea was charging people for pictures with us, but for some reason no one was willing to pay our Rs. 500 fee.

There’s a lot more I could write about being a foreigner in India, but I’ll save it for another entry. Kanyakumari, despite the day’s troubles, was still worth the visit.

For the first two weeks of this tour, almost every day was a busy day. Museums here and temples there. Botanical gardens left and spice gardens right. Hill stations in the morning and palaces in the afternoon. The incessant rain we’ve had since arriving in Mysore did little to ease the chaos.

Then we spent two nights in Kovalum, and we had to find the chaos ourselves.

All of our time yesterday was free, and a lot of it was spent on the beach, just as in Mahabalipuram. Although expectations for the beach were moderate, and rain tried to dampen our moods, Kovalum was too fun for us to have low spirits. The waves never exceeded a meter in height, but the slope of the coastline was so slight I could walk 100 meters through the water and jump off the ocean floor like it was the surface of the moon. I spent at least three hours on the beach, just enjoying the feeling of being in the water.

And for two days we were actually able to sleep in. This of course meant most of us chose to stay up late into the night, but for once most of my sleep came in a bed, not on a bus.

Today we did nothing. We spent six hours driving to Kochi, ate Western non-veg fast food for lunch and dinner, and watched TV in the hotel. Kochi, from my limited views of it, appears to be quite a modern city – I’ve seen more high rises here than anywhere else on this tour. The nightlife and modern amenities are like those of Bangalore and Hyderabad. I’m surprised I’d never heard of Kochi before this tour, save the loss of their IPL franchise.

Tomorrow, for the first time in two and a half days, we’ll be going sightseeing. It should be an interesting day.


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