Musings From Incredible India

(Cochin Carnival)

David and I just returned from a whirlwind tour of Southern India – from the legendary streets of Bombay to the backwaters of Kerala. India’s quite a challenging destination, so it’s not without its ups and downs, but by and large we had a fabulous time!

(Amy and David at India Gate)

(Streets of Bombay – love the old taxis)

(Taj Mahal Tower & Palace Hotel)

Surprisingly, after two years of living in Hanoi, it’s changed our perception of space. So when we arrived in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) we were astonished at how open and spacious the city felt. We kept wondering, ‘where are all the people?’ – which is ironic considering Mumbai is the most populous city in India – with an estimated 20.5 million inhabitants!

(Dhobi Ghats)

(Dhobi – Local washer)

(Dhobi Ghats)

That said, Mumbai, the commercial and entertainment capital of India, is a stunning city. We stayed in Colaba, the touristy part of town, which boasts the Gateway of India, the art deco style Regal Theater (where we saw Mission Impossible 4), the famed Leopold’s Café, and the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel (one of the nicest hotels I have ever stepped foot in).

(Dhobi Ghats)

IMG_0231 (1)
(Dhobi Ghats)

(Dhobi Ghats)

Each morning we woke up early and went for a lovely jog along Marine Drive. Unlike Hanoi where the streets are a buzz by 5am, India is on a completely different schedule. We were amazed by how deserted the streets felt prior to 8:00am. Nothing was open aside from a few street vendors selling chai masala and dahl.

(Haji Ali Mosque at low tide)

But we relished those peaceful, quiet mornings…and cherished each and every meal!

(Fishing Village)

(Drying fish)

(Fishing Village)

Indian food, in general, is simply amazing….and in Southern India, it is divine! We experimented in various restaurants, just pointing at dishes that looked good on other people’s tables, and ordering more than we could possibly eat at every meal!

(Leopold’s Cafe)

We entertained ourselves each day with various excursions – Elephanta Island, Hanging Gardens, Gandhi’s Museum, Fishing Villages, Juhu Beach, Haji Ali Mosque, and the Dhobi Ghats.

(Elephanta Caves)



(Monkeys on Elephanta Island)

(Cannons on Elephanta Island)

The whitewashed Haji Ali Mosque, containing saint Haji Ali’s tomb, sits off the Mumbai coast at the end of a long, unprotected causeway protruding into the Arabian Sea. Thousands make the pilgrimage to the mosque each week at low tide.

(Dharavi along the tracks)

(Welcome – the last photo I was allowed to take)

(Entrance of Dharavi)

And the Dhobi Ghats are the famed outdoor Laundromats. I was surprised to see only men as washers, locally known as Dhobis, who wash the clothes from Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals. The concrete wash pens, each complete with its own flogging stone, were quite fascinating!

Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen
(Photography by Jonas Bendiksen – A girl walks along a water pipe in the Industrial Area of Dharavi.)

Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen
(Photography by Jonas Bendiksen – In the Khumbharwada, the Gujarati potterer’s neighborhood, a potter’s son plays among hundreds of drying clay plates. The gujarati potters are one of the original inhabitants of the area, and are among those who stand to lose the most in the city’s redevelopment plans)

Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen
(Photography by Jonas Bendiksen – A business for recycling tin cans mainly used for cooking oil. The workers clean the cans, repair any leaks or dents, and reconstitute them for sale back to the oil factories)

Elephanta Island, located 10 kms off the coast of Mumbai in the Arabian Sea, are famous for its caves – a network of sculpted Hindu and Buddhist caves of worship.

(Energy plant along the banks)

(Port in Mumbai)

I marveled over the complexities of creating such a place of worship! To burrow through the side of a mountain and to rock cut stone sculptures dedicated to the god Shiva seems pretty remarkable.

(On the way to Munnar)


We spent the day hiking around the island – and at one stage I was even attacked by monkeys (well, a minor exaggeration – two monkeys jumped on me to rip a sprite can out of my hands). Regardless – it freaked me out!

(Hiking in Munnar)

(Amy among tea estate)

(Amy and David in Munnar)


And seeing that I’m in the midst of reading Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, I felt compelled to visit Dharavi – the largest slum in Mumbai where over one million residents are crammed into 520 acres of land (that’s not even one square mile)!!!

(Lone Tree)

(Again….the tree)

However, slum is too derogatory of a term to describe this microcosm of a highly functioning, environmentally and socially sustainable society.

(Munnar Village)

David and I navigated the public trains to reach Dharavi, situated between Mumbai’s two main suburban railway lines, the Western and Central Railways. It was there that we met our guide who gave us a tour of this remarkable place.

(The famed Mountain Goat, Nilgiri Tahr – Head peaking out)

(Crowds at Eravikulam Wildlife Sanctuary)

Unfortunately, I was told that photos were not allowed – which KILLED me…as everywhere I looked I saw the most amazing shots. Alas, I was forced to experience the slums only with my eyes….and my heart (with a few smells thrown in, too)!

(On the way to Thekkady)

(Beautiful man)

(Stunning Vistas)

What I found most surprising was the abundance of commercial industries within Dharavi, ranging from recycling, pottery-making, embroidery, bakeries, leather tanning, soap factory, poppadom-making, and many more! These industries earn annual revenues of $665 million, a major contribution to the economy!

(Hanging out in villages)


(Making friends outside of Thekkady)


(Loving my sunglasses)

The other aspect of ‘slum dwelling’ that astonished me was the residential spaces! A labyrinth of dark, narrow alleys with hundreds of ladders leading up to small living rooms. I kept thinking how easy it would be to get lost in those passageways…especially in the dark!

(David as happy as can be in Varkala)

(Amy in Varkala)

(Beach outside of Varkala)


(Waiting for the fishermen on Varkala Beach)

(Fishermen coming in with their daily catch)

Yet, as crowded and cramped as the residential areas appeared, I again marveled over the sense of community, the lively spirit, and the friendly nature of everyone we met.

(Road to Cochin)

(Came across a series of these processions – not sure what it was)

Despite the poverty and diversity inside Dharavi, everyone seemed at peace! Even temples, mosques and churches all stood side by side!

(Gorgeous Sunset)

(David at Sunset)

(Amy at Sunset)

Our guide must’ve said hello to two hundred people, by name, on our walk! There was a plethora of health clinics, pharmacies, schools, and other facets of daily life. And we also noticed that there wasn’t a single beggar inside the slum…

(Kerala Backwaters)




I must admit this experience was enlightening on many levels! The human spirit is resilient; and with a strong community of support, anything is possible.

(Kate in Cochin)

(Kate’s brother, Alex)

(Kate’s family)

After four days in Mumbai we flew to Cochin, the Gateway of Kerala, to begin our tour. This lovely seaside city is flanked by the Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. Our first stop, the stunning hill station of Munnar on the Western Ghats! The scenery was gorgeous, with endless tea estates and spice plantations. The winding roads also pass through rubber plantations and small towns.

(New Year’s Eve)

From Munnar, we ventured to the Eravikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, home of the rare Nilgiri Tahr (mountain goat). Granted, India’s sense of national parks is not quite the same as what we’re used to.


(New Friends on NYE)

We ended up waiting in never-ending queues. First, to take a bus up the side of the mountain – only to be dropped off where we could only walk along the road for a half mile – where we then had to turn around and wait in another queue to go back down the mountain. No nature trails…no hiking, no mountain bike riding, or any other outdoor activities. Just the tarmac, a bus, and a goat!

(Venu, David and Tim)



On Christmas day, we left for Thekkady and the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Now without sounding too much like an ugly American, I’ll just say that that outing was a full-on nightmare! Under normal circumstances, I’m sure Thekkady is a lovely destination – but on Christmas day, we were one of THOUSANDS of people…wasting our time standing in endless queues for a boat ticket to no avail. In short, Christmas was a bust….We decided to nix our second day in the national park and head straight to Varkala Beach – an excellent decision on our part and definitely one of the highlights of our trip!

(Jew Town – in Cochin)

(Chinese Fish Nets on Vypeen Island)

Varkala is the only place in southern Kerala where cliffs are found adjacent to the Arabian Sea – and the views are phenomenal!

(Another game of frisbee on the beach – one of my favorite pastimes!)

(Frisbee on the Cherrai beach)

David was happier than I’ve ever seen…as he was able to wake up, go for a swim, and even go for a surf! And I was in a shoppers delight, with endless streams of jewelry, clothing and shoe stalls!

(Waiting for the parade)


(And more waiting…)

Plus, the food was incredible! It didn’t matter if we were even hungry….if it was time for lunch – we would stop! And if it was time for dinner, then by all means, we’d order another ‘sloppy dish’ with garlic naan…and wash it all down with a giant bottle of Kingfisher beer! Pure bliss…

(Police trying to contain the large crowds)

We said good-bye to the beach and made our way back to Cochin where we made arrangements to see the Kerala backwaters, a chain of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea.

(Elephants leading the parade)



(Elephants eye)

And remarkably, my dear friend, Kate (whom I worked with in Malawi), also happened to be in Cochin for the holidays! We all met for lunch, followed by a day of sightseeing in Fort Cochin! I loved meeting Kate’s brother, Alex, and mom, too! Such a small world!

(Cochin Carnival)



New Year’s Eve was quite unique, interesting and maddening….for some unknown reason, it has now become a tradition to burn an effigy of Santa Claus at midnight, followed by fireworks. Hoards and hoards of people paraded up and down the promenade to witness this event!




New Year’s Day was a bit more mellow….as David and I caught a ferry over to Vypeen Island, then a bus to Cherrai Beach.




That evening was the famed Cochin Carnival of Kerala….an impressive procession led by a caparisoned elephant accompanied by drums and music, spectacular floats, and different folk art forms.




And what could be better than topping off our trip with a gorgeous sunset with the Chinese fishing nets in the background?

(Sunset at Cochin)




On our return to Hanoi we had a forced overnight in Bangkok where we once again made the most of the situation. David has never been to Thailand, so we wandered off to Khao San Road where the energy of the crowds kept us awake! We dined on street food (Pad Thai) and walked up and down this backpacker strip, people-watching all the while. Great fun!

(Street Food in Thailand)

(Illegal tiger paws and tiger skin for sale)

(Wat Arun)

And of course, we did the obligatory trips to the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, and Wat Phra Kaew.

(Grand Palace)

Now we’re back in Hanoi trying to settle into our daily routines….granted, ‘tis the Tet season where all the Vietnamese are gearing up for their big celebration! David and I will also take advantage of this paid holiday and will be Borneo bound in the weeks ahead.

(David on Khao San Road)

Can I just say one more time how fortunate I am!?!

Sending much love to all,


3 comments to Musings From Incredible India

  • Amy, awesome pictures!!!
    that one unidentified procession you mentioned is the shivagiri pilgrimage. (all those people in yellow)
    I assume you took that in varkala?
    Here is a website that explains what it is about:,_Kerala

    Glad you had a good time!! we’ll be following in your footsteps in couple of weeks.

  • Gwyneth

    It looks like a wonderful trip Amy, and I love your photos as always. There’s one in particular from the Cochin parade that I just lvoed. I think you need to submit to the National Geographic Traveler photo competition!

  • Nadia

    Okay I gotta ask. What’s your source for all of those fabulous dresses you’re sporting in those pictures? You look terrific!

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