TRAVEL DATES: NOVEMBER 27 – DECEMBER 09, 2016
I did not know what to expect before coming to India. To be honest I was almost frightened to go because of all the precautionary instructions we were given from family before arriving (like “don’t drink the water, don’t eat the fruit, don’t wear necklaces unless you want it ripped off your neck, don’t drive between cities, don’t take public transportation” the list goes on and on), however I was quickly swept up by the energy and power that is India and left humbled by the entire experience.
Accommodations: St. Regis
After our super relaxing time in the Seychelles, we boarded a 4½ hour red-eye to India and landed in Mumbai in the early morning. Before going to India, we digitally applied for our travel visas and were able to breeze through customs as a result. We spent 5 days in Mumbai, most of that time was spent in our hotel just because we needed some downtime to recuperate (from our African Safari) before we embarked on a cultural tour through the Golden Triangle.
Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) is the most populous city in India, located on west coast of India. Interestingly and ironically, Mumbai has the highest number of billionaires and millionaires amongst all cities in India and yet is also home to the second largest slum in Asia that is estimated to house 800k to 1m people! The income disparity is very evident when you come to India. Wealth and poverty live side by side unlike in the states where it is kept very separate.
Anyone that has ever been to India typically describes it as an “assault on your senses.” All senses (sight, sound, smell…) are instantly awakened upon arrival. My first real introduction with India, was on a trip to Vodafone to acquire local sim cards the day we arrived. An excursion that took us outside the safety of our hotel walls and into the madness that is India. The phone store was only a few blocks away from the hotel but in that short distance I was overwhelmed with the crowds of people in the streets, the deafening sounds of car horns blaring non-stop, and the overpowering aromas of spices, incense, dirt, cow dung, and garbage all mixed together into one potent elixir. I used to think in L.A. traffic was bad. It pales in comparison to the traffic in Mumbai. No one abides by the lanes, lights or any traffic regulation for that matter. Cars, pedestrians, animals (dogs, cows, goats), motorcyclist, and rickshaws all converge haphazardly on the streets and despite all the chaos (surprisingly) there are very few accidents.
Despite the immediate spike in my blood pressure, whenever we would leave the hotel, we were still motivated to get out and explore the city on occasion. We briefly visited (rather drove by) the Gate of India, a national monument located in South Mumbai located on the water’s edge of the harbour, grabbed drinks at Leopold’s, a cafe made famous by Shantaram (one of our all-time favorite books), and discovered an amazing restaurant on the south side called Bombay Canteen. It was a fun, hip restaurant with the most amazing food (best meal of our trip so far!) featuring fresh local ingredients. Our favorite dish of the night was the Kejriwal Toast topped with a crispy fried egg melted cheese and green chilli chutney (to die for).
We could not come to India without making time to visit family. We hopped on a quick 2 hour flight to Delhi, the second most populous city in India behind Mumbai. We were warned that the pollution was at an all time high and that breathing in Delhi’s air for one day is equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes! We thought people were exaggerating and that the air pollution couldn’t be that bad…nope we were wrong! It was worse than we thought. When we landed in the afternoon the visibility was poor, and what we thought was dense fog hanging over the city was actually just smog. Even breathing in the air proved to be quite challenging.
Despite the poor air quality and Amit catching a terrible sinus infection, we had a wonderful time with the family. Rhaki, Nikki, and Rohan were the best tour guides, taking us out to lunch at Khan Market and then shopping at Dilli Haat, an outdoor craft bazaar where we picked up a couple of bohemian style rugs and some papier-mâché elephants.
When shopping in India, never accept the first price. Here you can practice your bargaining skills. First start off by offering 40-50% off the originally asking price and don’t be afraid to “walk away” (I’ve been told this is the Indian way to wheel and deal) Ultimately if the vendor is motivated to sell, you can agree on a price in the middle :).
After a brief 2 day visit, we said our good-byes to the family and prepared ourselves for the adventurous part of our trip where we would be going on heritage walks and meeting experience guides that would take us off the beaten path and properly introduce us to India, uncensored.
To get a better view of the landscape, our travel agency, Encounters Asia, recommended we take India’s fastest train, the Gatimaan Express from Delhi to Agra. Navigating our way through the train station was very tricky. Our family warned us of pickpockets and sexual predators that would pinch and grope. I was scared I would get swallowed up in the crowd but luckily we had a representative from the agency escort us safely from car to coach.
Agra is home to the Taj Mahal, a great tribute of love built by the mogul emperor Shah Jahan to honor his most favorite wife after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. This mausoleum was constructed from beautiful ivory marble inlaid with semi precious stones. It took over twenty years to build with a labor force of 20,000 workers and 1,000 elephants (used to transport building materials). The result was an architectural masterpiece, acclaimed for its beautiful symmetry and magnificent marble domes.
We had initially planned on a sunrise visit but revised our plans to an afternoon visit due to the poor visibility. Visibility was still not the greatest but we were told it would have been worst in the morning. I was astonished at how crowded it was but then again 8 million people visit the Taj annually so I shouldn’t have expected anything less. We snapped some pictures, admired the beauty of the Taj from a million different angles, sat on Princess Diana Bench, and even ventured inside to see the tombs. Again beware of pickpockets and be prepared to be herded out like cattle when you exit. If you easily get claustrophobic, I would avoid going inside. Admiring the beauty and grandeur from the exterior was by far my favorite part.
Accommodations: Family residence
After a brief visit to Agra, we hopped in a car and made the 5 hour drive to our next destination. Fun Fact: Jaipur is our Dad’s hometown and where our folks met and fell in love! With deep family roots in Jaipur, it is no surprise that we would be well-connected. Uncle Sanjay and Auntie Anju graciously offered us to stay in their vacation home and connected us with their close family friend Suresh. He and his lovely wife hosted us for the next two days, inviting us to join them for every meal and making sure we were well fed and well taken care of.
On our second day in Jaipur, we were picked up by our driver and taken into Old Jaipur, a.k.a The Pink City, where we met our tour guide. Our first stop was the iconic Wind Palace, where women of the royal family could observe street festivals without being seen. Next we headed up the hill to Amber Fort, the original palace of the royal family before they relocated the capital to Jaipur, walked the grounds of the Sheesh Mahal (mirrored palace), followed by a heritage walk through the city ruins, visiting the famous Chand Baori (step well). The most fascinating part of our tour was taking a rickshaw ride through the old town and walking through Bapu Bazaar. It was hectic and chaotic but we found the energy of the city and the people incredibly infectious.