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Vassar Travel Program: Seeing the Unexplored India

Why Gujarat? As India’s far western state, jutting into the Arabian Sea, it was virgin territory to explore for the veteran Vassar trip leaders, spouses Glen and Sipra Johnson, professor emeritus of political science and international relations at Vassar and associate professor emerita of anthropology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, respectively.

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Having conducted more than 10 tours in India, the Johnsons are proven guides and a lure for Vassar’s intrepid travelers. Being on the road with them offered us an intensive short course in the country’s history, politics, and culture. And though it is off the beaten track, Gujarat claims the current prime minister, Narendra Modi; Mahatma Gandhi; and the country’s founding father, Sardar Patel, as famous sons.

The trip began in the capital of Ahmedabad on the auspicious first day of spring and the annual kite festival. From there, the group of 22 Vassar travelers, including alumnae, husbands—two of them doctors—friends, and a parent, covered 745 miles of bumpy and dusty roads by bus, led by Immersion Journeys founder Rumit Mehta and two of his team members.

We visited the ruins of the Harappan civilization—one of the world’s oldest—ancient Buddhist caves, mosques, and intricate stepwells.

As the birdwatchers among us diligently added new species to their lists, we explored pristine wildlife sanctuaries that revealed unique migratory and native birds, wild asses, and the last remaining Asiatic lions.

In one town, we joined early-morning pilgrims climbing 3,500 steps to the top of a hill covered with 900 Jain temples dating back to the 11th century.

In a private visit, we met national leader Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). By organizing, training, and offering credit to millions of India’s poorest women, SEWA works to improve their lives. As we sat in the shade at one of SEWA’s organic farms and ecotourism sites, we heard heartfelt, heroic stories from women whose difficult lives had been transformed. They welcomed us with a song and a delicious lunch straight from their farm.

Near the Pakistan border, we walked through the Rann of Kutch, a desert landscape of stark white, salt-encrusted plains stretching far into the horizon. In tiny villages nearby, ancient tribes peddled colorful handmade textiles and crafts.

As the trip came to a close back in Ahmedabad, and we said our goodbyes, we gratefully cheered the two doctors “in the house,” alumna and spouse, who worked hard to keep everyone healthy while traveling.

—Carla De Landri ’78

--RM photos by Rumit Mehta-Immersion Journeys, CD by Carla De Landri '78, and AJ by Arthur and Judy Topilow '63.

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, March 3, 2015