no amount of heat, smog, or intensely cramped traffic jams could detract from my excitement as we made our way through the city. That’s because we were here to cap our trip to India with a visit to the Taj Mahal, one of the 7 wonders of the world! Within an hour we had laid eyes on it for the first time, the marble domes appearing first through a tiny pocket of archway and then revealing themselves in their full splendor as we worked our way through the outer gardens and main gateway. Construction required more than 10 years and 20,000 people, resulting in the single example that best signifies the height of architecture for the Mughal empire.
Famous due to its selling point as the birthplace of yoga, Rishikesh has long inspired spiritual seekers. The city is also a draw for domestic tourists and pilgrims because it is situated in the foothills of the mighty Himalaya and serves as the origin of the Ganges river. Hindus consider this body of water to be a living manifestation of their god, meaning they will travel far and wide to pray at its banks and swim in the murky brown waters.
On the outskirts of town there were a few basic campsites, but as the population faded away nature began to dominate. The trees grew more tightly spaced and the undergrowth was thick with weeds and ferns. Eventually we came upon a small waterfall, which was gorgeously reflecting the morning light. Water rushed down across a series of two platforms, splashing and careening over smooth rocks to drown out all other sounds. Isaiah found the locale so peaceful that he almost instantly fell asleep, while I let myself become enraptured by the wild nature and solitude that is all too often difficult to come by in India.
While knees rubbed against noses, guns flew aorund shoulders, tight salutes were exchanged, and gut-wrenching screams were hurled across the border, both crowds exploded with energy. Despite the overwhelming feeling of competition between the two countries which have spilled so much bloodshed in defense of their storied border, there was a single moment of unification. A chant of "HINDU-STAN' began as a murmur and quickly surger to dominate both sides of spectators, a reminder that these two disparate countries share a joint past as a united empire.
We appreciated the seclusion and the magnificent beauty, but began to wonder, “who lives here?” and “where will we sleep?” Besides minor signs of altitude sickness, there wasn’t any physical dragon to slay; rather, just the mental concerns of where the next meal would come from. I sensed the day’s hike was coming to the end; thus, I exacerbated my NYC walking speed to ensure I could be the one to shout back “we have a home to sleep in!” After a slight hill, I turned the corner and saw a lady sitting amongst her barley fields sipping some tea.
Out here surrounded by rural communities and nature we began to forget some of the mindsets of society that we had so gleefully left behind. As the afternoon came upon us and the boat docked, we disembarked for a walk along on the many riverside paths. Lined with houses ranging from unfinished construction project to beautiful villa, each and every local greeted us with a smile and a wave. The friendliness seemed to emanate off of them, leaving us with fond memories of this destination.
On Sunday morning our breakfast was framed by a mountain and a luscious garden featuring flowers with shades of purple, gold, red and yellow. The scenery foreshadowed a spectacular day in nature. An hour long bus ride from our guesthouse into the town of Munnar brought us through gorgeous rolling hillsides dotted with teal plantations and vegetable farms before depositing us in the dirty and hectic city center. But soon enough we were aboard a rented scooter, whizzing again through a calm country road.
Beneath our feet and above our heads, the entire tour was a constant reminder of the skill and craftsmanship involved in creating a building of such repose. Every single pillar was extensively carved, every single archway designed with unique details, and every single door told an entire epic’s worth of stories about the people of Mysore. Our path led along the cool and colorful tiles to an outdoor wrestling courtyard highlighted by two stone sculptures of snarling lions. The scene looked perfectly prepared for the next trial by combat from Game of Thrones.
From a sloping, boulder-strewn hillside sporting a dozen more pyramid-shaped temples and multi-story stone buildings, we got our first taste of Hampi’s unique landscape. Mounds of boulders rose to magnificent heights in the distance with precarious rock formations making it look like God had been making sand castles. By combining this bewitching view with the seemingly endless choice of temples and it became clear we were going to enjoy ourselves in this little enclave of history.
Friday morning I awoke early and went out on the prowl for some coffee. Walking through the quiet sandy backstreets felt like a lucid dream: locals greeted my curious gaze with friendly cries of “good morning”, streaming rays of sunlight peaked through the fronds of palm trees, and my nose eventually led my feet to a German bakery sporting freshly brewed espresso and baked croissants. With the town still slowly waking up and only the faint intrusion of a few motorbike honks cutting through the endless supply of bird song, I felt as though I had uncovered my own personal paradise.
Finally the journey was complete when we reached the tiny overrun town of Arambol. Whether your native tongue is English, Spanish, Italian, Russian, German, or Hebrew, you can be sure you’ll hear plenty of it amidst the diverse tourism community of this village. The industry runs on two distinct yet intertwined promenades. The main drag sports every possibly kitschy souvenir shop, budget restaurant, and motorcycle rental outfit your heart could ever desire. Meanwhile, the beach is a collection of bars, restaurants, and palm-roofed huts backed right up against the surf. Here is one of the few spots in the world where you can order a cold beer, an Indian dosa, or a hamburger at every hour of the day.