Mike here, along with the input of the rest of the team. This weekend, SETCO generously took us on a sightseeing excursion to the western coast of Gujarat. We saw Palitana, Gir, and Somnath, and experienced a lot in between.
First up was Palitana. At 4 PM on Friday, we (the team, plus our friend Viral, Raju bhai, Gayatri ben, and Fuzela bhai) packed into a large van and hit the road. Eight hours later, we pulled into our hotel and immediately went to bed; we had an early wake-up ahead. At 6 AM the following morning, we got up and left for the Jain temples in Palitana. Like the Mahakali Temple (which we visited last week), the Palitana Temples sit atop a lonely mountain surrounded by plains. There is a footpath that runs all the way to the top, boasting an impressive 3500 steps.
As a rite of passage, devout Jains run up and down this path 108 times in 60 days, and are not allowed to have food or water during trips. We met someone that was running up and down seven times in a single day. We, however, were just planning on doing it once. The hike itself was great, and even though there were three times as many steps as at Mahakali Temple, we all felt that this hike was easier. We started at 7 AM, long before the heat of the day, and were bombarded by cool wind the entire time. The atmosphere on the trail was very calm; there were no stalls or shops to create crowds and noise. When we finally got to the top, we took in the view and explored a few of the beautifully intricate temples. Also, compared to many historical sites in the US, there was much more freedom to explore. There were few barriers or restrictions; any staircase or door was fair game. After descending, we stopped for sugarcane juice and headed back to the hotel.
Following lunch (featuring a killer mango raas) and a midday nap, we hopped back on the road to travel to Gir, a lush preserve famous for its lions and other wildlife. Late that night, we finally arrived. Our journey took several hours longer than expected due to an unforeseen detour; the road we had planned on taking closes after dark because of lion activity! After a short night of rest, we again got up at 6 AM, but this time, it was for a safari. We climbed into the tour bus, not really sure what to expect. Mike felt dumb because he was wearing the brightest, most fluorescent, neon green shirt in the history of the universe, while there were signs that warned that colorful clothing scares away the animals. Regardless, we saw four lions and many other animals, and none of them seemed too bothered by the squeaky bus brakes, let alone Mike’s squint inducing t-shirt. After the safari, we had delicious aloo paratha (think potato tortillas stuffed with veggies) with yogurt for breakfast before getting ready to drive back to Baroda. Mitch, Mike, and Erica threw a Frisbee for a while, and remembered just how quickly 100+ degree weather will drench you with sweat!
On the way back to Baroda, we stopped in Somnath to see the Somnath Shiv Mandir, an enormous temple on the western coast of Gujarat. This was our first glimpse at the Indian Ocean, and Brianna, Erica, Mitchell, and Zoha took full advantage of it by wading into the water. Erica and Mitch, unknowingly volunteering to captain the “wet row” of the van, jumped all the way in and body surfed. In the meantime, animals surrounded Jon and Mike; there were many people on the beach selling rides on camels, horses, and donkeys. We also stopped for coconuts at a local stand. After we drank the water, the owner chopped up the coconuts (in a fashion that would terrify any boy scout troop leader) so that we could eat the fruit inside. Finally, we began our long car ride back to Baroda.
We spent upwards of 24 hours in a van this weekend, and that time was an adventure in itself. Because most of us are experiencing India for the first time, car rides are the perfect opportunity to soak up what is happening around us. The villages and cities that we pass through are bustling with a kind of activity that is foreign to the US. In New York City, for example, busy means thousands of people rushing up and down the sidewalks in one frame of vision. But even with so many people, few people stop on the street. In Gir, though, there are few people rushing up and down the streets. Busy means countless shops and stands on the sides of the road. There’s always people standing outside at these shops, or working a trade, or stopping to chat. In the places we’ve visited, roads aren’t just a means of transportation, they are the life of the town. All in all, it took us 13 hours to travel just over 300 miles, and we got home at 3:30 AM Monday morning. While this may seem slow, even with traffic, the road system we traveled on was different from the interstate system we are used to in the US. Many times, the highway ended and we had to drive through towns or on back roads, slowing us down significantly. We also stopped periodically to enjoy, as Mitchell would say, the wide varieties of roadside chai. Another interesting point is that, according to Zoha, many people don’t use GPS in India, even if they have access to it. Navigation is often accomplished by word of mouth alone. Viral, Raju, and Fuzela, for example, didn’t use GPS at all, and would periodically pull over to a stand and ask for directions.
We had an amazing weekend, and are extremely grateful that SETCO gave us this opportunity!