Sunrise over Kanyakumari
Moonrise over Kanyakumari
I wrote the following note in January 2009, a few days after returning with friends from my first “backpacking” trip abroad. It would be my first (and definitely not the last) time in India, having visited Mumbai, New Delhi, Agra, Fatephur Sikri, Cochin, Munnar, Trivandrum, Kovalam, and Kanyakumari.
I wrote this note almost exactly a year before my first solo backpacking experience, having been left alone in Egypt (unfortunately, not by choice), and 16 months before I left for a 3 month adventure to South and Southeast Asia, officially launching The Monsoon Diaries.
Finally, when this note was posted on Facebook on February 9th, 2009, I had no idea at the time it would be the first of many; no way of knowing that I would keep traveling, and that I would keep writing.
Sunset over Munnar
My greatest epiphanies from my trip to India would hit me when I returned to the States. Ironic, but not even remotely surprising.
I was careful not to approach India through the lens of a Westerner that fetishized India as this magical land of spiritual enlightenment; I refused to board The Darjeeling Limited. I went to India like I would on any trip — bringing an open mind to figure out the things I needed to figure out without even knowing what those things were. It’s not like my life needed fixing, but rather it needed more questions; questions that were elusive, the answers unreachable . . . but I knew that with every experience I was one step closer to finding profound. And as I watched in quiet observation all the sights and sound of a foreign land, I began to comprehend the realm of the subconscious.
The Taj Mahal just got served
Along the way in Kerala I backpacked with a friend that went to India for an opposite reason than my own — to confirm answers to questions rather than ask new ones. Although we started on opposite ends of a thread, we were able to share our thoughts, trade off ideas, and find our answers in the middle.
View of Munnar in the Kerala district of India
I armed myself with my father’s 2001 Nikon D1X SLR camera, a tank of a gadget. With it I was able to capture a slice of time, the eternity of a moment. It was another way of taking what intrigued me that instant, and placing it into another realm of possibility, affording me countless stories through the convenience of playing it back on LCD.
Through these stories I was able to see moments of daily life unfold before me, on the dusty roads of a Delhi highway and the backwaters of Kerala. India is a fascinating place in that there are always people thriving in corners, treating a small space like little insulated microcosms.
Whether its the corner of a street, of a dirt road, of an office building, of a drug store, you’ll find two to three people huddled together, involved at their own leisure, and in their own stories.They can either be quietly observing you, giving the 1000 yard stare, or lost within themselves.
In NYC, which is similarly chaotic, you never see people in corners, let alone their little worlds; they’re always working on a job, walking with a purpose, sleeping on a train seat; they’re part of an everyday script with little mystery for guesswork. Not for people on the other side of the world, however; their mysteries thrive in the constant spontaneity of the ordinary.
If the idea of being poor suggests a sense of dissatisfaction, a feeling of destitution and desperation, then the majority of the Indian people cannot be called poor. They may not have nearly the same amount of material goods as one living in the West; at the same time they do not possess the superficial attitudes toward wealth like we do.
For them, it doesn’t seem it’s about reaching the next financial ladder, feeding the obsession with social mobility, or dreaming to be a future billionaire. It’s a different way of life that requires a completely different state of mind, point of view, whatever you call it. I’m afraid that my own ability of perception cannot grasp it; these are just mere observations. I’ve been to Dharavi and I been to the Agra villages . . . and prior to those experiences I’ve read and heard stories of Westerners traveling to India and becoming shocked at the “conditions of living” there. But either do something about it or don’t gawk at all; I believe these are a people that don’t want to be pitied by foreigners; for them, they dare to survive in a way we would never understand.
While there and coming back I dared myself to confront the vastness of an unknown. And I found out that I could tackle it better than I thought. For too long I lived on an agenda where any room for spontaneity could have been planned for. Backpacking in an unfamiliar land with no cell phone or any means of useable technology, I wondered how life can be more than just different versions of growing up in a country like the United States.
There are other dimensions, other kinds of experience that could require skills beyond anything you’ve ever been taught. You can be stricken with the unsettling possibility that as much as you dare to live life to the fullest, you can die still feeling like you missed out on living.
Sunset over Fatephur Sikri
Well you’ll say duh, we all knew that Calvin, you didn’t have to go to India to figure that out.
Of course I didn’t have to. I knew that was the way things were long before I left. But whether or not you always knew about it, actually exploring it takes on an entirely new meaning. No I never needed India for that, but in one way or another I was bound to confront these emotions.
Either way, traveling anywhere teaches you things about yourself. I didn’t go to India to seek spiritual enlightenment, find closure, or any of the bullshit you read on newsgroup forums. I just wanted to learn something, and I did. And perhaps I still ended up fetishizing India in the end; I’m still learning. But it just so happened that it would hit me the second day I was back in New York City; I realized in the middle of Fifth Avenue that only a week ago I was a foreign man in an undetermined location on a nameless dirt road, where everything around me transpired in a constant state of flux. Some had never seen a Chinese American, I had never seen tea plantations, some never had their pictures taken, and I never held a blowfish.
Back home, I don’t think life for me changed as dramatically as I could have expected it to. But in the minute little subconscious details of the way I act and how I approach new experiences, perhaps something small in the vastness has changed. I wouldn’t know unless I find myself on the spot in the ER, on the train, at work, in the medical school interview, or on a random phone call. I won’t know until maybe I go back.
Probably you’ve noticed it and I haven’t. And although ironic and not even remotely surprising of an idea, I’m okay with that.
Moonrise over Munnar
After arriving into Trivandrum from Kanyakumari by an early afternoon train, we had a few hours to kill before our evening flight back to Mumbai. So Isaac and I decided to hit up a few rickshaw drivers to find us a place to get some toddy’s, an Indian beer fermented by coconut.
They wouldn’t let us down:
However, we started to feel like this after a few jugs:
Needing a place to cool off from the beer, we then took off one last time to visit a local beach by Trivandrum, before heading straight to the airport with sand in our trunks and all.
- At time of posting in Trivandrum, it was 25 °C -
Humidity: 60% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy
From Trivandrum, we took a late morning train to Kanyakumari and arrived in the mid-afternoon:
Apparently, we stumbled upon a Hindu pilgrimage that was also taking place that week. You can notice them from their all-black attire.
Kanyakumari is India’s southernmost city, where it overlooks the confluence between 3 large bodies of water: The Arabian Sea, Laccadive Sea/The Indian Ocean, and The Bay of Bengal.
They say you can actually see the 3 different colors of those respective seas come together. Usually travel rumors don’t hold up to truth that well:
Take the cheap ferry across to the rock island memorial known as Vivekanada Rock Memorial, which is India’s version of the Statue of Liberty:
And take in the views at sunset:
And enjoy the moonrise:
We suggest that you request your hotel/hostel/homestay to give you a wake up call at 5am the next morning, so you can see the sunrise from India’s southernmost point:
And as this is happening, you may notice the fishermen around you greeting their day with reckless abandon.
Afterwards, we headed back into town for a meal and a train ride back to Trivandrum.
- At time of posting in Kanyakumari, India, it was 40 °C -
Humidity: 60% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy
From Munnar, we took a 9 hour overnight bus ride towards Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram (aka Trivandrum by its shorter name):
When we arrived, we decided to take a rickshaw to check out nearby Kovala beach, 16km south from Trivandrum:
Upon our arrival, we saw local fisherman chanting and patiently holding onto a rope presumably connected to a giant net in the sea.
We waited for them to bring the net back onto the beach where we checked out their catch of the day:
I procure a pufferfish from the net:
After an hour on the beach, we took a rickshaw back to Trivandrum to get lunch at the famous “Indian Coffee House”, known for its winding floors up to the top:
Then we headed to the local station to take a train for the southernmost city in India, Kanyakumari:
- At time of posting in Kovala, India, it was 25 °C -
Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After a few days with Rahul and his family, Isaac finally reached out to me when I returned to Mumbai. He had already been backpacking on his own in the south, and invited me to join him. It would be my first time deciding on making a unplanned travel detour.
Upon his instructions, I flew into Cochin from Mumbai and waited for him alone. He came by 2 hours later (he overslept, haha) and then we were on our way to a hill station in the Western Ghats called Munnar…
From Cochin to Munnar, you can take a 4-5 hour bus that winds around hills like a caterpillar.
After 5 hours on the road, you’ll arrive at one of the more famous hill stations in the Western Ghat mountains and a former resort for the British Raj elite. This is Munnar.
We ended up sleeping at a half-finished hostel, taking up a room that at least had a bed, but lacked a roof. We didn’t mind:
The next morning, shivering and unsure how many times we were bit by mosquitoes, we picked up some cups of cardamon tea and were greeted by our rickshaw driver for the day, John:
From there we headed for a hike through the famous tea hills for which Munnar is famous:
If you’re feeling up for it, climb as high as you can go:
Enjoy views of the Western Ghats:
Not everyone may survive the brutal elements:
After about 3 hours of hiking, we descended back to the tea hills:
And then John took us back into town.
And from there we headed 15km back out from Munnar towards Top Station.
Along the way, don’t forget to check out Echo Station: a small lake among a series of rolling hills where — fitting to its name — you can hear your own echo when you call out.
About 37km from Munnar (1 hour by bus) is the edge of Munnar’s border and Top Station: a viewpoint that overlooks the Western Ghats “above the clouds” and on the border between the Indian states Kerala and Tamil Nadu:
Grab some fruits back before you go…
…and enjoy the sunset leading you home.
- At time of posting in Munnar, India, it was 23 °C -
Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy
After a day acclimating ourselves to New Delhi, the next morning we headed for Agra:
Dancing and showering in the streets
Agra is about a 3-4 hour drive from the capital city. You can watch entire communities that live and die on the road as you get there:
Once in Agra, you can be peer-pressured to take a horse to the Taj Mahal:
Once you get to the outer gates surrounding the Taj Mahal, let your heart race a little…
…because the Taj Mahal’s ‘reveal’ is as beautiful as you could imagine it to be…
Built as a monument to love, the Taj Mahal is one of the few places in the world where it actually lives up to the hype. It truly feels like you’ve stepped into a painting.
Walk around to the back and you’ll be rewarded with more views of fabulous Mughal architecture.
You’ve made it here, so why not dance a little?
Not to be outdone, however, about 40km and 1 hour west is another Mughal wonder and one of the best preserved example of Mughal architecture: Fatehpur Sikri. Founded in the late 1500s, it was built to honor the Sufi saint Salim Chishti, and it served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585.
Today it remains a ghost town and a surreal off-the-beaten-path place to visit.
If the Taj Mahal is known to bloom at sunrise, then Fatehpur Sikri unravels at sunset; standing before this fort is as ethereal as its better known cousin, but this time you won’t have any tourists around you.
Save for the occasional tout selling random goods, you’ll feel like you truly stepped back in the time of the Mughals.
After night fell, we then returned to New Delhi.
- At time of posting in Agra, India, it was 30 °C -
Humidity: 80% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear