India has always been one of the countries I wanted to visit most. My family and I share a love for Indian food, so I grew up eating almost weekly at the best local spots. Some of my favorite movies are Slumdog Millionaire, Outsourced, and Lion, films shot in India that depict the many different cultures and lifestyles of the country. One of my best friends, Laura, is slightly obsessed with Bollywood, and I have been entertained by her song and dance renditions since we met. The colors, the music, the food, the people – for so many years I wanted to see it all in person, and the time had finally come.
The recent tension between Pakistan and India had the whole ship worried about possibly rerouting, and the rumors went rampant about what substitute country we would be visiting. Fortunately, the presumptions were incorrect, and we sailed our way into Cochin with no intention of turning back.
When we docked in Southern India, I had one thing on my mind: food. As soon as I got off the ship, my mission was to find the most authentic restaurant possible. Just outside of the immigration area, a hoard of tuk-tuk and taxi drivers swarmed the students, practically pulling us into their vehicles whether we wanted to go with them or not. I had six men fighting over who was going to drive me around, and I had to repeatedly shout at them to stop and weave through them to get into the open air where I could think straight. Already feeling a bit overwhelmed, my friends Camila, Lauren, Brendan and I took a taxi with one of the more polite drivers to an island right across the water from the ship to eat and escape the commotion.
My friends and I googled restaurants in the area, but every time we navigated to these places, we ended up in residential areas with no restaurants in sight. Giving up on technology, we ended up going to the first restaurant we found called “Grandma’s Kitchen”. So much for authenticity! It actually ended up having some really delicious samosas, dosa masala, and paneer dishes, and we all left happy and full.
Keeping up with my international beer tour, I ordered a King Fisher Strong from a beautiful upstairs bar by the ocean before heading back home that day. Not my favorite beer, but it was refreshing on the hot and humid afternoon. I spent the rest of the evening relaxing on the ship to prepare for the long day of transit ahead of me.
THE ROAD TO RANTHAMBORE
I woke up at 4:30 to go to Cochin international Airport the next morning. I signed up for a field program called “Tigers and Taj Mahal”, an all-inclusive trip which, like my Vietnam program, was completely arranged by Semester at Sea. We were headed to see the wild tigers in Ranthambore, the most renowned national park in India in the northern state of Rajasthan. Although I am not a morning person, I was wide awake and stoked for the journey that morning.
The airport was the biggest shit show I have ever experienced. All 45 members of my program arrived an hour and a half before take-off, and the lines were already wrapped around the building when we got there. When we finally received our boarding passes and made it to security, the line we formed was promptly broken up by a large group of Indian men who pretended they didn’t notice the massive queue of confused Americans.
When we finally got to the front of the line, the plane already in the boarding process, more men came up and started launching their luggage over our heads onto the scanner. The lines were separated by male and female, and of course the eight guys in our group breezed through. The rest of us were left to fend for ourselves against the unrelenting force of these men who pushed on with no repercussions from the security guards, who gladly helped their bags onto the pully even though they were cutting the women’s line.
My trip liaisons panicked about missing the plane, so they started grabbing our bags and throwing them to the other side of the scanner, yelling at us to just get through security and run to the plane. In the midst of the chaos, I unknowingly dropped my boarding pass, and when I got to the security check, I was empty-handed.
As my friends furiously checked my bags for the pass on the other side of the room, I called out to the crowd behind me to check the floor for the little slip of paper. They blankly stared at me and then carried on with their conversations, completely disregarding how I was on the verge of tears.
After being blatantly ignored for several minutes, I forced myself back into the crowd, shoving tiny Indian men and women to the wayside like a human plow. Lo and behold, I saw my boarding pass through the forest of legs, heavily trampled and blackened. Finally, someone noticed my panic when a young man leaned down to pick it up and pass it over a dozen other heads that didn’t even turn to look at what was happening. I don’t know how those people had no reaction to me nearly having a mental breakdown. I profusely thanked the kind man, stared daggers at the rest of the crowd, and sprinted for the gate.
By this time, the plane had been held for over 20 minutes, and we still had to catch a shuttle to the entrance. My liaisons looked like they were about to have heart attacks, and I was so stressed by the boarding pass fiasco that I couldn’t even speak. Somehow we made it, and I have never been so relieved to sit down in a cramped, middle-row seat.
The rest of the travel that day was long, with an additional flight, lunch in Jaipur (where I ate about 12 pounds of the best naan, curry, and lentils I’ve ever had), and a four-hour bus ride. My driver was an elderly, 5-foot-tall Indian man who must have driven with pegs tied to his feet to reach the pedals, and he drove the bus like it was an ambulance en route.
I hate to generalize, but I’ve concluded from my travels in the past few countries that drivers in Southeast Asia have a death wish. This man weaved into oncoming traffic like he wanted someone on the bus to crap their pants. He came within inches of buildings, motor-bikes, Sikhs and their goats, but he was always sure to give the cows in the middle of the street plenty of room.
If you didn’t already know, cows are sacred in India. Go to any Hindu state and you will not find beef on the local menus. According to the Hindu religion, your soul takes on 84,000 lives before becoming a human, and your last stop before that is in the body of a cow. My tour guide told me that cow killing is illegal in nearly every Indian state, and if you kill a cow for any reason — for food or by accident — you have to go on a repentant journey across India for several weeks before you can be cleansed of your sins (in addition to the repercussions of the law). You really don’t want to murder a cow.
I couldn’t get over how my previous impressions of India so closely matched the real thing. The stereotypical sights of colorfully dressed women, children running through the streets, and cows in every direction were entirely real. The cows really impressed me. I lost track of how many times I saw one inside a building, just standing there in a repair shop or a convenient store while people maneuvered past them like water around river rocks. When I asked my tour guide if he even notices them anymore, he said, “only if they cause a traffic jam.” What an odd society.
We barreled on, dodging cows left and right, through the most intriguing little villages with camel-drawn carts and enormous herds of goats led by turbaned men that blocked the road. At one point, we passed about 200 goats, and at the end of the herd, there were about a dozen dead goats just sitting alongside the road with stiff legs sticking straight up in the air (probably killed by erratic drivers like mine). It was such a horrible and ridiculous sight that the whole bus couldn’t hold back the laughter.
We arrived at the wildlife resort during sunset that evening. After eating dinner and checking in to my tent-style room in a beautiful little courtyard with my roommate, Tori, I collapsed on the bed and slept like a rock until yet another early morning wake-up call.
RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK
The next morning, we awoke to rain patters on the roof and the sound of Hindu prayer hymns echoing from somewhere nearby. Tori and I, hopelessly unprepared for cold weather, shivered our way to the front driveway to start our first game drive. After 20 minutes of confusion about who was sitting in which safari bus, roofless vans with multiple rows of metal benches, we finally began our drive as the sun peaked over the mountaintops.
Ranthambore National Park is a beautiful piece of land spanning 392 square kilometers. Our buses split up into different zones that morning, and mine went to zone three, the area that recently had had a handful of sightings of a mama tiger and her two cubs. I desperately hoped to see the trio along the way.
As I passed through the stone gates of the wooded park, I admired the beautiful wildlife right away. The road was lined with long-tailed grey monkeys that hopped overhead in the trees over the bus. Small deer flecked with beautiful white spots filled the woodlands, so accustomed to the buses that they never ran when we stopped to take photos of them.
The scenery was entirely different from what I expected; I thought we would be in a jungle landscape, but the forest was dry, very similar to something I would see in the canyon areas around my hometown in Arizona. Although there were large trees here and there, the majority of the foliage consisted of bushes, cacti, and ground vines.
My guide conversed with other guides as we passed them, asking where the tigers might be. When we first caught wind of a sighting, we drove in reverse at top speed until the man almost drove us off the side of a cliff and into a crocodile-infested lake. Everyone on the bus screeched at him to stop, our eyes wide and hearts beating fast. He chuckled, then carried out a horrendous three-point turn, taking out several shrubs as he turned in the opposite direction, then launched forward to the tigers.
When we made it to the site, we struggled to see anything because there were about two dozen other safari buses fighting for the same view. I saw some of the most massive camera lens I have ever seen in those buses, one with a radius of about three feet. Some of those photographers must have been working for major nature publications because nobody in their right mind would travel through India with equipment like that.
Through the sea of bus railings and khaki bucket hats, the magnificent mama emerged from the woods. She walked past the buses like she was on the catwalk (pun intended), stopping to pose for a group here, turning to look back at a goliath lens there. She was truly one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen.
When the tiger moved on, we continued to look for her for the remainder of the ride. Nearing the end of the drive, we heard once more that she had been spotted, and my driver stepped on the gas again. We arrived at the site on the opposite side of the road where everyone was parked and waited patiently for a few minutes.
Suddenly we heard the buses across the way give out a collective gasp. Down the hill appeared the big mama followed by two mini versions of herself. The cubs chased her past the swarm of vehicles, then angled directly toward my bus. They approached slowly, weaving through hanging tree vines and tall grasses, coming right for us.
My guide saw me with my camera and yanked me from the middle of the bus to the very front bench seat and told me to shoot, and shoot I did. I had a front row seat to see the most gorgeous creatures in their natural habitat, and I don’t think I will ever get over how lucky I was to experience this.
After the tigers came and went, we drove back to the wildlife resort, freaking out about what we just saw and hoping that the other groups had had successful drives as well. In the dining hall, we learned that the others had not been so lucky and did not find any tigers in their zones. There were still two game drives to go, though, so we weren’t too concerned about their odds.
The second drive that afternoon took us to marshy grasslands. We didn’t see any tigers that time, and neither did the other groups, but the landscape was incredible and the wildlife was abundant; monkeys trailed our every move, wild hogs rolled around in mud patches by the side of the road, peacocks pecked around in all directions, and buck deer fought over a doe beside a pond covered in red algae. It was the most enjoyable nature drive.
After dinner that night, my tour guide announced that he had a surprise planned for us. We walked over to the courtyard beside my tent to find three musicians surrounding a campfire on the grass. We gathered around them in wooden chairs, and the show began.
As two of the men kept up a continuous song of guttural chants and tribal drumming, the third danced around the circle with the most energy I have ever seen. This man was tiny, maybe 5’3”, and my God, he could move. He pulled every single one of us into the middle of the lawn and taught us his traditional dance. We rolled our hips, gyrated in place, and skipped around the fire for hours. It was the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen, and I don’t remember the last time I laughed so hard.
For the last song, we did an “Indian train” around the entire courtyard, yelling more than singing, undoubtedly pissing off the rest of the guests at the resort. Nobody cared. We would never do anything like that again, so we let ourselves go, and it was more enjoyable than I can put into words.
The next morning, we took our final game drive through the park, and this one proved less exciting than the others. All three buses visited the same zone, and the most interesting thing we saw was a group of peacocks. I felt bad for the people who never got to see tigers, and some of them were pretty upset by the fact, but the tour did specify that tigers are wild animals and won’t always come out of hiding for tourists. We packed our things back at the resort and boarded the bus for a six-hour drive to Agra.
The trip to Agra was long, but the eclectic visuals throughout the journey kept me thoroughly entertained, and the time passed fairly quickly. We stopped at a women’s craft shop along the way where we got to interact with the sweetest women as they hand-sewed the most intricately beautiful sarees, quilts, and tapestries I have ever seen. Though we could barely communicate with language, it was enough to simply sit with them as they worked. Their purity and kindness radiated from their smiling faces, and I was beyond blessed to meet them.
By the time we made it to the busy city, the sun had set, and I watched the world go by in dusky light. Agra was one of the most cramped areas I had seen yet, with pop-up shops selling used clothing set up over trash-clogged drainage systems, dogs wrestling on rooftops, and families eating dinner around waste basket fires.
After waiting in a traffic jam for nearly an hour, we finally reached our hotel just five minutes away from the Taj Mahal. Dinner was held in a banquet hall downstairs, and when my group finally made our way down there, we were surprised to find that several other SAS programs were dining as well, and the hotel had set up a mini “prom” for us. A small, wooden dance floor and a DJ with the worst song transitioning skills I have ever heard played loudly from the corner.
I ate yet another wonderful buffet dinner, getting seconds within about five minutes of my first meal. My friends and I danced for the remainder of the night. It reminded me of high school dances where everyone was actually having sober fun (my high school breathalyzed our dances), and it brought me right back to those fond memories. We all danced like idiots and had the time of our lives to the beat of early 2000s throwbacks. It was awesome.
The next morning brought me to a moment I had anticipated my whole life; we were going to the Taj Mahal. Bright and early at 5 a.m., we drove a short way to the main gates, smooth-sailed through security, then made our way in.
The morning was thick with fog, and as I passed under the first gate that opened up to the postcard scene of the crystal blue pools leading up to the Taj, I didn’t even realize where I was. The fog was so heavy I could barely see my hands stretched in front of me. The complaints of not being able to see tigers and now not being able to see the Taj drifted through the crowd.
I refused to accept that this was the case. I did not go to India, take stressful flights and long bus rides, and finally arrive at the Taj Mahal just to stare at it through impenetrable haze. Life simply would not do that to me. So I waited. I sat by the water and gazed at the space where the incredible mausoleum was supposed to be, and I patiently waited for it to appear.
As the sun rose around 6 a.m., a faint outline of the building appeared, and I knew my luck had not run out. The fog lifted ever so slowly, revealing bits and pieces of the sight I so desperately wished to see. The drifting mist made the place look like a video game animation, and I felt my heart race the more it cleared.
I entered the building before the fog had totally lifted because my tour guide had only allowed us a couple of hours, and I was running low on time. Shah Jahan, ruler of the Mughal empire during its golden age, and his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, laid in the center of the round hall, white marble ceilings arched elegantly over the couple. The ruler had built the structure for Mumtaz in 1631 when she died giving birth to their fourteenth child, honoring her in the most lavish way he could imagine. According to my lessons on the topic, the two were inseparable.
Even though the security guards ushered me out faster than I wanted to leave, I was able to appreciate the sheer beauty of the architecture during my brief visit.
I returned to my viewing spot by the water as the Taj finally emerged in her full glory, new light illuminating the white marble dome and surrounding minarets. I sat and stared at it, tuning out the chatter of the tourists surrounding me, and took it all in until it was time to leave. The Taj Mahal was the most exquisite piece of architecture I have ever seen and probably ever will see.
The rest of my time in India consisted of transportation from one end of the country to the other. We finally arrived back in Cochin that night after 14 hours of bus drives and flights. When I finally laid down in my bed on the ship, I could hardly comprehend that I stood in front of the Taj Mahal that morning. It felt like it had been weeks.
I spent my last day touring Cochin in a tuk-tuk with my friends Sophia, Erika, and Tori. We enjoyed coffee, shopping along the beach, and henna tattoos by two of the sweetest women I have ever met. I realized after getting the tattoo just how much of an art form henna is; the intricacy and precision of the drawing on my arm was truly incredible.
When I got back on board that evening, I watched the sun set over Cochin as dolphins leapt from the water around the ship (my first dolphin sighting yet!). It was a picture-perfect ending to my favorite experience of the voyage thus far, and I cannot wait to return with my mom and best friend, Laura, one day. My time in Asia had drawn to a dramatic close, and now I am headed for Africa. I don’t think life gets any better than this.