Last January my family and I spent 6 months living and traveling in India. My wife Abby is a South Asian Historian at the University of Vermont, was on sabbatical, sponsored by a Fulbright Scholarship. Accompanying us was my wife’s nephew Ross who would become like a big brother to our son Zachary. We lived in Mumbai where Zach attended kindergarten and Ross 10th grade at the American School. The weather in India varies by region, ranging from triple digits and humidity to snow and cold in the Himalayas. In Mumbai, the temperatures range from the 70’s to low 80’s in January progressively climbing toward the high 90’s with increasing humidity hitting 80% as the monsoons approached in mid-June.
Packing for the trip required some thought because one had to bring clothing that would perform over a range of conditions and was low maintenance. To meet the rigors of daily use in Mumbai, I brought a number of items including: two pairs of Patagonia Quandary Pants and Capilene Cool Light Weight Shirts. The Quandary Pants and the Capilene Cool Light Weight were amazing! The pants breathed, dried quickly and had zip pockets which guarded against accidental cell phone loss and secure wallet transport. They proved to be my “go-to” pants because shorts are not commonly worn by men socially. The capilene wicked efficiently, dried quickly and had low odor retention. We had a washing machine in our flat, in India driers are uncommon. All of the items washed well and air dried quickly even in humid conditions. For our trip to Sikkim, a Patagonia Nano Puff and Torrentshell Rain Jacket was key. The Nano Puff was priceless since Sikkim is at 5410 ft. and typically gets in the 40’s at night with daytime highs in the 60’s to low 70’s. It was cool and rainy when we visited making the Torrentshell indispensable and the Nano Puff fantastic in the evenings.
There are 22 official languages spoken in India. In Mumbai alone, Hindi, Marathi, and English are common. The major religions are Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism and Christianity. We lived in a Christian area. Most of our daily shopping was from street vendors for fresh fruits and vegetables. Among our favorite fruits were fresh pineapples, bananas, papayas, grapes and mangoes. We had a butcher shop where we purchased lamb, chicken, buffalo tenderloin and pork. All of our shopping was a 10 minute walk from our flat. Indian cuisine is a fantastic fusion of textures, flavors and ingredients. A South Indian dish we enjoyed was Masala Dosa which is like a potato crepe. It is served with Sambar which consists of Tamarind broth, lentils and vegetables. For meat based dishes we enjoyed Lamb or Chicken Biryani, which is a curry served on saffron rice and of course anything made in the tandoor including Naan.
We traveled to Udaipur in the State of Rajasthan, Pune in the State of Maharashtra, to Kochi and Munnar in the State of Kerala, Madurai in the State of Tamil Nadu, and Gangtok in the State of Sikkim. Udaipur is known for its palaces and artificial lakes. The city was founded in 1559 by Maharana Udai Sing II. We visited City Palace which overlooks Lake Pichola which contains beautiful courtyards and exquisite tile work. While visiting Udaipur we traveled to Kumbhalgarh Fort, located in the Aravalli Hills in the district of Rajsamand. Built in the 15th century it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the walls of the fortress extend over 38 km and are second in length to the Great Wall of China. The fortress was occupied into the 19th century. Kochi has a rich maritime history which attracted traders, explorers, and travelers for over 600 years. Located on the south west coast and bordering the Laccadive Sea, it was a major port for the spice trade. There are an amazing mix of cultural influences, Portuguese and Dutch era houses, a 450 year old synagogue, and large Chinese fishing nets used along the coast line.
Munnar has an Elephant Sanctuary we visited and I got to ride one. Munnar is South India’s largest tea growing region. The hill station is located in the Western Ghats mountain range where tea plantations form an emerald green carpet that stretches as far as the eye can see. We stayed at a Home Stay that grew its own tea, coffee, cocoa, spices and fruits. We enjoyed hiking trails with fantastic mountain views. Madurai is an ancient city dating back to the 3rd century BCE. The city is the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu, where Tamil is the spoken language. We visited the Meenakshi Amman, which is a historic Hindu temple and a major pilgrimage site. Meenakshi is the principal deity and reflects the matrilineal traditions in South India. The temple dominates the skyline with 14 gopurams (gateway towers) that are composed of colorful carvings of Hindu gods.
Gangtok is located in the mountainous northern Indian state of Sikkim. The city was established as a Buddhist pilgrimage site in the 1840’s and became a major trade route stop over between Lhasa in Tibet and cities like Kolkata in British India. Gangtok was part of the 1921 British Everest Expedition approach route which started in Darjeeling and accessed the mountain from the Tibetan side because of tensions between the British and Nepal. After Indian independence from the British in 1947, it became an independent monarchy until 1975 when it was integrated with the union of India. To gain access to Gangtok we had to get special permits, and to travel it’s quite regulated with areas that are closed to foreigners. Much of the restrictions are based upon shared borders with China and Tibet. There is a military presence with many bases and permit check points.
Sikkim is home to the 3rd highest Himalayan Peak, Kanchenjunga at 8,598 m. We visited the Rumtek Monastery which is the home of a community of Buddhist Monks where they perform the rituals and practices of the Tibetan Karma Kagyu lineage. There is also the college, Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies. One of the fun activities was wandering the hill terraced city featuring steep stairways and streets. The Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary was a big hit with Zachary. We hiked to various outlooks where you could see animals in their natural habitat. Among the many animals we saw were red pandas, Himalayan black bears, leopards, blue sheep and yaks.
Our time in India went quickly and formed family experiences that will be remembered. This was my second time living in India and we will be looking forward to the next sabbatical in six years. It was fun being half a world away, but makes one appreciate all we have back home.