City #1: Kochi
Our ship pulled into the port at Kochi early in the morning, giving us a “free day” to walk around and see a bit of India’s southern state of Kerala before we’d fly out of town to visit Jaipur, Agra and Delhi in northern India. So, we jumped on a bus with a bunch of Semester At Sea students and toured a local village and took in the sites of the city of Kochi.
The air was thick with humidity—though it wasn’t as hot as Myanmar, it sure FELT hotter. We were sweating pools in our t-shirts even though the tour-guides had furnished everyone with straw hats to create some “local shade”. Everywhere we went, the palm trees and native plants carried the tropical look of big-dark-leaves, adding to the shade but not quite enough to make up for a complete lack of breeze. Our first day in India thus was a steamy, jungle day. We toured a village watching the locals create rope from coconut fiber.. we sampled fermented sap from a coconut tree (the kids first “beer”!) … And we finally cooled off with a lunch right on the shore.
City #2: Jaipur
Our “big trip” around India began on day 2, when we would depart with a Semester at Sea expedition to tour “Princes & Palaces” across Northern India… hundreds of miles away. To make our flight, we had to wake up and meet at the Lili Marleen lounge on the ship at– 3:30am. Yes … 3:30. Can you imagine how our kids felt about that?
It was a stroke of good luck when we were about to leave the lounge for the bus at around 3:50am .. when the field office learned that our flight was delayed until noon. Back to bed! Of course it was bad news when we arrived at the Kochi airport and at first no agency (airline? tour company?) would take responsibility for the missed connecting flight. We passed the time at the airport eating lunch and trying some local fast food… and ultimately we arrived in Jaipur just 7 hours late.
Once we made it — our time in Jaipur was sublime! Our hotel and dinner, though late, were fantastic… and we greatly enjoyed seeing this lovely city with its reddish-pink tint that dates from the late 1800s when the local Maharaja welcomed the Prince of Wales.
Our first tour stop was the “Amber Fort”, sitting atop a tall hill and accessible only by ELEPHANT! (well… I guess you COULD walk or jog or take a jeep.. but for us it was accessible only by elephant!) We were amazed at the architecture– and the persistence of the local salesmen, one of whom literally climbed onto the back bumper of our jeep for the entire ride down the hill until we relented and bought the photo album he was offering. (yes, for a HUGE discount!)
Our time in Jaipur wasn’t over yet. We spent the rest of the late morning and early afternoon touring the streets, taking in the “organized chaos”: cows walking about, tuk-tuks swarming around cars and bikes and an occasional camel or mule. Pigs on the loose, and even an occasional human urinating on the side of the street (!). Of course it was all gawking at this unique city life, we did a bit of shopping too– we looked at beautiful Indian carpets and Kristina and the girls all bought Saris for our upcoming trip to the Taj Mahal.
Our next stop was the City Palace of Jaipur.. another example of lovely pastel colors and distinctive Indian architecture and art. We saw the viewing areas used by the Maharajas, the girls got henna tattoos and we listened to a haunting live performance echoing through the courtyards. And– last– before we left the city and started our 4-hour bus ride, we enjoyed a magnificent lunch at the well known Taj Rambagh Palace hotel. We even had to put on “business casual” clothes! It was delicious and certainly memorable…
City #3: Bharathpur
Arelatively small city in between Jaipur and Agra, Bharathpur is well known for its bird and wildlife sanctuary, which we visited before the sunrise. Our hotel that night was quirky– labyrinth corridors, multiple courtyards, and no air conditioning in one of our rooms. After our arrival, I (Joe) skipped dinner with a pounding migraine and went to bed under the ceiling-fan-on-high-speed.
The next morning we woke at 5:30 and left the hotel before daybreak. We piled into a flock of pedi-cabs and peered through the dim, misty morning to spot peacocks, cranes, storks… and roaming deer, monkeys and (of course) bovines. Alexander dimly neglected to bring long sleeves or long pants… so he shivered until the sun brought the temperature up to “sweltering”.
After the wildlife park, we returned to the hotel for breakfast and had time to pack. And swim. And watch a puppet show! 🙂 And then before leaving Bharthpur, we visited a local village where we handed out toothbrushes on behalf of Global Grins (their founders are Semester at Sea board members and alums), saw the local hospital and schools– and even were invited into one of the schoolmaster’s homes for a cup of delicious chai tea.
City #4: Agra
Our second bus ride was a short two-hours and took us to Agra– ages ago a glorious capital of India– and now home to not only the Taj Mahal but also the majestic Agra Fort which we visited first. The fort’s lovely gardens, marble and sandstone buildings all tell the story of India’s long Moghul period and the dramas that happened between father and son.. leading to the construction of the Taj which you can see across the forest.
We had a delicious (and spicy!) dinner at the Hotel Oberoi Amarvilas, and woke up the next morning at 5am to visit the Taj as the sun came up… but that will be the subject of my next blog post.
City #5: Delhi
The Taj Mahal exceeded my (very high) expectations, and after a 9:30 breakfast we packed our rooms and left Agra for another 4-hour bus ride to Delhi. This bus ride was smoother than the first, on an actual expressway whose potholes and bumps only catapulted us out of our back-of-the-bus seats every 20 minutes or so. That meant I could see the laptop screen well enough to work on all these photos!
We again passed through rural fields growing peanuts, mustard, wheat and other crops. And of course, we dodged cows, bikes and the occasional near-head-on collision with a well decorated Tata truck.
In Delhi we did a quick orientation tour of the capitol city – passing by the India Gate, Presidential Palace and Ministry buildings…and finally stopping at the historic Qutub Minar tower to understand just how far back the timeframe goes in Delhi.
We had an amazing time.
India was delicious and majestic and beautiful and historic. Quirky for sure.. sometimes not so clean by our western expectations…but at other times we reveled in finery. Our kids had been scared to visit, but by the end everyone left as a big fan.