My Bollywood Adventure… Well maybe not quite that glam.
By Amanda Vallone
Picture this, I am in my last year of grad school at Auburn University and my husband (yes, husband- I was a child bride) was completing his second bachelors degree in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering also at Auburn University. It is 2008 and George (hubby) is taking graduate classes at university and working on some scientific things I couldn’t even begin to explain pertaining to everything from space travel, rockets, to providing sufficient hydration and protection for our military while learning about renewable energy sources.
December of 2007 we were offered the opportunity only seven students in the whole University were awarded- the chance to travel abroad to India all expenses paid if we came back with a research project and an international perspective of the “foreign -exchange student” experience to share with other Auburn students in our own curriculum.
So what would any other poor, working (three jobs)- yet barely surviving, adventurous student do before they had to graduate and get their “big boy and big girl jobs”?
I don’t think you need to think hard to figure that one out… We of course said YES to the opportunity to travel to India and take part in the 4 month research program. No Questions Asked!
Hahahaha- we were literally crazy. We knew nothing about India and we had to apply for our Visas, find a place to stay, work, research, and figure out the travel. We were connected to one of the most prestigious universities in all of India and even the wold- IIT Madras.
Except, upon arrival, they did not have housing for us- party foul! How does one travel this far and plan for 6 months without a place to stay?
So what did we do? We left Chennai and traveled 7 hours down mostly unpaved, bumpy, dirt roads to Tiruchirappall, IIT Trichy to stay at a neighboring university for our first two weeks until we could find other accommodations and come up with plan B.
The drive was… rough. I will leave it at that. No, I am not talking about the bumpy roads. That was difficult too, but getting off at street markets and needing to use a eastern facility that is similar to an outhouse is a bit more of what I am considering rough. And figuring out what to eat, or what not to eat, and the conversion of money… it was all a bit much on extreme jet lag.
- At this point in my story I am wondering if those reading it are questioning how I got into the travel industry if I am “complaining” — keep reading on…
So we arrive in Trichy after asking directions (because there are not street signs everywhere) and people just give head nods to our drivers questions “Ana Trichy Bono” Which means “Which way Trichy, thank you?!”
Things I saw along the way:
- Signs for STD’s everywhere- say whaaaat? I later found out it was their sim card for their phone. Totally different from what I would have ever guessed.
- Coconut Oil- You think you are up on the latest trend by using beauty products or cooking with Coconut Oil in the last few years? India has been doing it forever. No conditioner to be found… but Coconut Oil is sold at the street corner shop in individual packages.
- Monkeys… they just ran right across the street like squirrels do here. Difference is, if we hit a squirrel in the states we might be upset or even cry about it… In India if you hit a monkey you will sell your car because it is bad luck and some believe monkeys are gods.
- Rickshaws- an awesome form of transportation to try once or twice.
- Motorcycles as the family vehicle- with 5-6 people piled up on them
- Traffic lanes that fit three times the amount of vehicles we would ever dare into the same area.
So we spent our two week allotment at IIT Trichy worked in their lab and met with countless professors about engineering stuff that was over my head. I am not dumb by any means, it just was not interesting at all. The culture however, was extremely interesting. I went to temples, bazaars, and watched traditional dance performances after every single meeting. One of my favorite parts of India was mingling with the people.
We went to the famous Rock Fort that is said to geologically date back a billion years (the actual rock). This historic Rock Fort and temple complex are built on the very top of this huge hill/ rock that measures 273 feet high in the city of Tiruchirapalli. It was truly a pilgrimage to so many. For us, it was our first temple and an amazing experience. We had to take our shoes off before going in and walk barefoot out of respect. The colors on the walls were spectacular and the carvings and designs of the gods and deities were spectacular. There are two Hindu temples inside the Rockfort, The Uchchi Pillaiyar Koil and The Siva Temple.
This temple was just the beginning of us visiting countless more temples and faith-filled places. It really was quite an experience.
So onto the rest of our time.
I had a professor in the states, Dr. Veena Chattaraman who had a connections with the Gandhi Rural Rehabilitation Centre (GRRC), which was located in a little rural village just a couple hours away in Alampoondi. GRRC was originally founded by monks who wanted to help those of society who were considered “castaways” including those who had leprosy. GRRC is now working with the disadvantaged and under privileged village youth, children, women, widow and handicapped people.
Since I was an undergraduate student of Fashion Design and a Masters of Science in Consumer Affairs with emphasis in Entrepreneurship in the apparel industry my project was to come to GRRC and help the handloom weavers and the tailors create designs that would be marketable to a more “Western” market. And to then help with the marketing plan of this.
George was to stay with me and bring solar energy to this community or at least this compound, as they were so far off the grid there would be three days at a time we did not get electricity.
Some of the best people in all of India we met were located right here… they did not speak English, and our only way to communicate was pointing and hand motions or with the one gentleman who could speak Tamil and English. Mr. Kumar was the director of the compound, welcomed us into his facility and into his home for dinner on a few occasions. He had a different type of home because it was whats they called a “love marriage” rather than an arranged marriage. They educated us greatly on the cultural views of marriage, cast system, and what they thought of the US… it was an election year and an Olympic year too. Being an outsider looking into these events was quite an interesting experience.
We stayed in India for about 4 months traveling all over the place. We explored Southern India going back and forth from Chennai to Trichy to Aloompoondi and we even took a vacation to the backwaters of Kerala in which we stayed on a houseboat. Kerala’s backwaters is somewhat similar to the bayou as it is a network of interconnected canals, rivers, lakes and inlets. It is truly a labyrinthine system formed by nearly 600 miles of waterways.
Though I have been a vegetarian collectively almost 1/2 of my life picking it up and dropping it on and off over the years, I found it difficult in India. The one thing I looked forward to was when we would go to Chennai (one of 2 times total) they had a Pizza Hut and I ordered myself a whole large pizza with real pepperoni…. omg it was delicious.
At the end of our trip we had the forethought to plan to fly out of Northern India so we had no excuse not to visit the tourist sights and see the Taj Mahal. So George and I visited a Indian travel agent and set up a trip to see the Golden Triangle which included Seeing the Taj Mahal, visiting New Delhi, Agra, the Pink City of Jaipur, Rajastan New Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan.
Jaipur is the capital city of Rajasthan and is also known as the Pink City. The maharaja painted the whole city pink, the color of hospitality, when Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales visited Jaipur in 1876. We visited the city’s historic forts and palaces.
We also visited Amber Fort- a marvelous example of Rajput architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The interior of the fort has various royal halls decorated with intricate ivory, mirror and glass work complemented by exquisite wall paintings. It was here that we took an elephant ride around the fort and realized if you give an ounce of interest to those selling you something you will miss all of the sights and you will only haggle the whole tour…
Luckily today I have 2 beautiful blankets with round mirrors on them to tell everyone about the scenery I missed because I had to buy these blankets.
This Golden Triangle Tour really was everything that people think they will see in India. We ran into so many Western Tourists who said they absolutely LOVED India because they only stayed in Northern India. We had such a different and life altering experience in India the two weeks we spent doing the golden triangle was like a vacation that I only remember sparse memories from. The sights were beautiful and I would totally plan to go back for this Northern India Experience again… Ask me to move to India all expenses paid again? I would have to decline.
So moral of the story, I LOVE what I do in tourism… I think traveling the world opens your mind, heart and soul to people. There are new experiences all around you waiting for you to enjoy. It opens your life to opportunity, and it opens your eyes to the world.
I will be sharing pictures of my experience at our upcoming event “Spotlight on Travel” Wednesday, February 8th and would be more than happy to share the full story with you. Want more information on a specific destination in India? Just let me know. 386-734-7245