Travel is cheap in India—unless you go to a big city like Bangalore or Mumbai, in which case you may spend more money on food in three days than you would on everything from rooms to cab fare for twice the time in a more rural location. Even so, for Americans, who have a 50:1 currency exchange rate in their favor, travel is highly feasible, so long as you play your cards right, don’t stay at the expensive hotels, don’t fly unless you have to, and don’t miss too many days of class.
It’s a small village in northern Karnataka, very touristy, but also chalk full of active temples and administrative ruins. Hard to believe now, even with the abundance of gutted stone halls and abandoned baths, but Hampi was once the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire. To reach the village from Hyderabad takes ten hours by bus. A satisfying trip can be made in a weekend.
Seven of us went, including Sharath, an Indian student who’s lived in Dubai and so stays with us in the international house. We arrived a little past seven in the morning and emerged from the bus, blinking and shivering in the unexpected chilly air, before being assaulted by rickshaw drivers all offering to take us from the bus station down the road to the fairy, which would take us across the river from the semi-touristy district to the very touristy district. The boat we boarded was a short wooden craft decked out with an outboard motor. We squeezed in tightly with French, German, Japanese, and Indian tourists, one of whom brought his motorbike onto the boat with us.
Across the river, we rented guesthouses, enjoyed a continental breakfast, and set out to explore the countryside. Hanuman’s Temple, rumored to be the monkey god’s birthplace, is the biggest attraction on that side of the river. We drank from coconuts at the foot of the mountain before commencing to climb. It took us the better part of an hour, but as we ascended, the plains, forests, and river behind us coalesced, becoming a single painted entity upon which we could gave—until other tourists or worshipers (for they pressed together as if one and the same) pushed us from behind and made us keep moving. At the top, we snacked on sunflower seeds until a band of monkeys arrived and forced us into hasty retreat, almost stealing Justine’s empty camera case and scarf.
After leaving Hanuman’s Mountain, we found a lake and went for a swim. Rumor had it that there were crocodiles around, but they must not have been feeling especially sociable. We could see a group of Indians splashing and washing their clothes on a far shore, and a man in a boat that looked like an enormous wok without oarlocks for handles drifted by, propelled by his one enormous oar.
Munnar is a small town in southern Kerala, much less touristy than I’d expected after hearing descriptions, although popular among university students studying abroad. It’s famous for its tea plantations, which one must drive through for four hours if coming from the airport in Coimbatore. The bus ride met every expectation I’d had of mountainous third-world public transit systems, including perilous hairpin U-turns on 45 degree slopes and frequent passages by other buses that pressed our wheels against steep drop offs and faces of sheer rock. But the tea bushes, which covered the hills for kilometers in every direction, defying the logic that insists teams of humans must somehow be able to manage and harvest them all, made up for everything. Lush, verdant, glowing as though imbued with the burn of the sun, they took our breath away.
This time we were five, and had no locals along to guide us—although one of us, Connor, was a returning student who’d studied at the University of Hyderabad during the Spring semester. We wandered through Munnar for an hour, searching for food and rooms and finding only full guesthouses and a small shack advertised as Infant Jesus Tire Works, before finally finding dinner at a swanky hotel that served only bad sandwiches, then second dinner at a roadside hut offering thalis of steamed puffy Kerala rice, and finally a room at the Lake View Guesthouse. (Hotel typically means restaurant in India. There may be rooms attached, or there may not.) The Lake View Guesthouse lacked a lake, but it had a small, tar-colored river out back, and a dirt lot full of rusting trucks and men adjusting their skirts. The manager was very friendly. He gave us a discount, let us all stay in a single large room with a blocked up toilet, and introduced us to his young son.
In the morning, we ate a breakfast of bread omelets and chai before setting out on a six-hour hike through the tea plantations. We packed a lunch and picnicked in a grassy field beside a creek. That night for dinner we ate from street vendors: parothas (bland round breads whose true glory lies in their texture: at once doughy and flaky), fish fry, egg curry (literally a pool of thin curry with a hard boiled egg lying in it), and black coffee. The next day we bought chocolates and locally grown tea before leaving Munnar.
In Alleppi, popular for its decadent houseboat tours of the backwaters, we were greeted as we got off the bus by an excitable young man who claimed to be named Oshin. He ran a guesthouse near the beach, and talked us into staying a night in his rooms. When asked if he was from Alleppi originally he insisted with a deadpan expression that no, originally he was from the moon.
We stayed a night in his guesthouse and a night in unmatched and surprisingly affordable luxury on a houseboat before packing up and heading to the bus station.
“Where are you going?” asked as our rickshaw driver as we bounced down the narrow cobbled roads.
“Cochin,” we told him.
“I’ll take you there,” he joked. “I’ll take you all the way there! Only one thousand rupees!” But he only charged us fifty, and didn’t hassle us. This, above all else, proved that we were far from Hyderabad, where autowallahs are notorious even among locals for their fierce tempers, piranha-like bargaining, and ridiculous rates.
Cochin is divided amongst a series of small islands, and draws tourists—not the Annoying Kind with sunhats and cameras, but the other kind, who boycott deodorant and prefer to carry their belongings with them all day in huge green mountaineer backpacks rather than leaving them in their hotel rooms. The streets were packed full of them—also cats, goats, and children getting out of school. We arrived at Ernakulum, then caught a ferry across the channel to Fortkochi where we wandered for an hour, bartered with an elderly hotelier until he gave us two rooms for 500 Rupees each, and finally headed out to catch the last few days of an international modern art festival. As students enrolled in an Indian university, we were able to get the tickets for only 10 Rupees each.
The festival was divided among several venues, so we headed for the one with the highest concentration of installations. Many of them, including a rickshaw covered in Christmas lights and speakers blasting Marilyn Monroe, sat outside in the large courtyard. In one of the buildings surrounding the courtyard, we found a concave disc suspended from the ceiling and emblazoned with an elderly man’s face that shone from a projector hidden in a large industrial pipe, also suspended. As we clustered beneath it, the face wrinkled up its larger-than-life nose and sneezed. The roar that filled the building shook the foundations and the rafters and the air in between, and rendered us all momentarily deaf. The sneeze, which repeated itself every few minutes, could be heard from every building in the compound.
After passing through several more installations, we left the compound, bought ice cream and samosas from street vendors, and headed down to the beach. In Alleppi families had taken their children to build castles from the white sand, but here in Fortkochi, kelp and seaweed mingled with cast-off sandals and burnt-out light bulbs. As we wandered back to the hotel to get some sleep and pack for the bus back to Hyderabad the following afternoon, I found myself imagining that somewhere there must be a barefoot man in a dark room.
Unlike my previous trips, the Mumbai expedition was sponsored by ISA. Diia, Chelsea, Melissa, and I spent the weekend wandering along paved or cobbled boulevards, dining in fine Italian restaurants, and attending musical and dramatic performances. To offset the decadence, we also went on a tour of Dharavi, Mumbai’s (and Asia’s) largest slum. A controversial activity, the slum tour has been criticized as exploitative and unethical, but as far as I could tell the people who ran the tour were doing their best to avoid such ethical pitfalls. All of the tour guides were hired from within the slum, and all of the revenue went back into the slum community. Dharavi, which has been given the moniker Five Star Slum, is unlike its sister slums throughout the city. We moved through hot, dark covered alleyways so narrow that I had to turn sideways to avoid scraping my shoulders, passed doorways to cramped rooms housing eight or ten people, peered into fume-filled warehouses with buckets for walls where fifteen-year-old boys chatted on cell phones while pouring vats of molten tin into molds…but we also entered areas of the slum that looked like cleaner, less crowded versions of Hyderabad’s Muslim quarter, the Old City. The slum boasted a variety of thriving, locally-run businesses, including supermarkets, as well as private and public schools, and free wi-fi. What couldn’t be found within the slum, such as public hospitals, were situated immediately outside. Balaji, our tour guide, showed us the slum’s four main sources of income (recycling, garments, leather, and pottery), and told us the prices, measured in the hundreds of US dollars, of tiny rooms in the residential district, weaving and navigating the web of paradoxes that is the Five Star Slum.
- 6 Beautiful Spots in India (isastudentblog.wordpress.com)