For almost all of my three years in India, I worked barely two kilometres from Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). VSSC is a premier rocket and space vehicle development facility and the major hub for in India's accelerating space programme. A partcipant in a school visit to VSSC described it as “really a wonderful experience”.
On my regular commute from Technopark back to Varkala, I twice met employees of VSSC and excitedly questioned them about their life and work. I turned into one of those social remoras that are nearly impossible for good people to shake off, and my questioning would only end when we reached my destination. As is the case for most of us, the wonders of space exploration hold me in some thrall.
But did I ever seek to visit VSSC? No, I did not. I can tell you exactly what the bland Food Corporation of India buildings at Kazhakuttam look like because my train stopped beside them every day, but the high-tech, cutting-edge facilities of India’s aeronautical efforts? Never got close enough to even see them from the outside.
About 200 kilometres up the Malabar coast, Kochi is, by all reports, a fascinating urban mix of colonial architecture, two-thousand-year-old sites of religious significance, the art of Chinese net fishing, and modern consumer conveniences – and a lot more besides. One of my colleagues recommended I take the four-hour train journey just to taste karimeen pollichathu at the Grand Hotel. Another friend, who was brought up in Fort Kochi, insisted I take a weekend to wander around the old-world sights of his hometown.
I never did. (The best unnu in Varkala is at Hotel Suprabhatham, though. You can trust me on that much.)
The list goes on and on. It's amazing how is easy it is to take for granted the splendour at your fingertips when you're working a nine-to-five job. Here's a selection of other places in India I always wanted to visit but never got round to, along with what I've learned about them from others. There are only five here, but they were culled from a list of hundreds.
THE PLANTATIONS OF MUNNAR.
Two friends from Seattle, with whom I lived for a month in Varkala, went there for a week. They came back relaxed and effusive, with a laptop full of magnificent hill station photography. Living as I did in a coastal climate limited to the sticky tropical range of temperatures, crisp high-altitude air in Kerala summer sounded like magic. For now, that dream of climbing out of thick humidity remains an unknown.
THE SEAT OF THE DALAI LAMA AT DHARAMSALA.
On the flipside of that weather equation, I met a woman named Zopa in Varkala. She lived in Dharamsala for most of the year but spent the winter months soaking up the Kerala sun. Zopa was a pale-skinned Englishwoman in her 60s (or so), clad in maroon and yellow robes and without a single hair on her head. Her manner was mostly calm, and she was comfortable sharing the details of her life and how she had ended up a monk in the Himalayas. If I were to visit Dharamsala, I would be less eager to glimpse the Dalai Lama than I would to see Zopa again.
THE GOLDEN TEMPLE AT AMRITSAR.
Harmandir Sahib. Just look at it. A Canadian Punjabi I know on Twitter said her experience visiting Amritsar was confusing and rather less holy than her expectations, but for me, the sight of a temple covered in gold would be a fair reward for just about any challenges posed by aggressive tourism industry professionals. Kinkakuji in Kyoto holds a similar appeal (but did I visit it when I lived in Japan? Did I f---).
THE COLLEGE STREET AREA OF KOLKATA.
A Bengali friend tells me he used to wander around the streets of this famous quarter, joining in with 'gentlemen' for an adda over tea and cigarettes. I don't smoke any more, and I might take tea a little different from the standard Kolkata blend, but to sit with a group of Bengalis and enjoy their impassioned global policy discourse would be a treat.
THE (BLEDDY) TAJ MAHAL (FOR GOODNESS' SAKE).
Three years in India and I never visited this universally adored wonder of the world. Plenty of people come away from Agra unimpressed, however: the last friend who visited described her tour through it as “honestly one of the worst experiences of my entire life”. Still, “the Taj Mahal in particular transcended cliche. It was heart-stopping, serene, and almost spiritual.” Amen. * To each of the above paragraphs, you can add 'I will go there someday.' Someday. Now it’s your turn to own up: where have you always wanted to go but never gotten around to visiting?
Photo credit: Mani Babbar