Asia, India, Travel

Traveling Through India – Diwali and Other Special Experiences

In addition to all of the sightseeing around India (see my previous posts), we were also there for a very special time of year (Diwali), as well as to spend time with family, doing more local activities.

Diwali

To read about Diwali, click here.  Now that you have the background, we did see so many lights on every building, as well as the colored sand art, and lit Diyas!  We also heard more fireworks, over the course of a week, than we hear in one day on the 4th of July!  It took a bit of getting used to, since there are no restrictions on WHO can light them, and at what time.

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We also were a part of the prayers in the family home, along with the dinner (all meals that day are meatless).  To learn about a new religion, the importance/meaning of their prayers, as well as being a part of the rituals, were very meaningful to me.  It allowed me an opportunity to be fully immersed into their culture, which I love!

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BUT, hands-down, the most incredible part of Diwali were the parties.  In much of Delhi, the wealthy take turns throwing opulent parties in the weeks, leading up to Diwali, as well as on Diwali itself.  We were fortunate to tag along to a couple of the best parties I have ever been to.  The traditional couture outfits and large jewels were brought out of their closets and bank safes; magnificent mansions and compounds were transformed into chic party atmospheres; top DJs in India were spinning a mix of Global EDM and Punjabi (with people dancing everywhere); cards were being played; and the food from some of the most notable restaurants in Delhi, was absolutely incredible.  These parties ranged from 100-2,000 people.

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Golfing/Country Club

Our trip to India wasn’t without special trips to a few exclusive country clubs in Delhi!

The Delhi Golf Club is part of the Asia PGA Tour.  It boasts a driving range, an 18-hole course, and a 9-hole Peacock course, which is what my other half, played with his family. Throughout the courses, you might be looking for your balls amongst tombs and groups of peacocks! Note: You have to be a member to gain access.

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The Delhi Gymkhana Club is one of the oldest British-established country clubs in India.  It has a 40-year waitlist with family legacies getting privilege before outside people are given a chance to become a member. We went there for dinner and drinks one evening and it is definitely heavy on British influence, and quite beautiful!

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Heading to the country club with his family!
Asia, India, Travel

Traveling Through India – Agra

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All over India, the natives make the joke, “90% of the crazy people are sent to Agra”, or “Agra has the biggest insane asylum”.  If they are referring to the traffic, it’s spot-on.  Otherwise, Agra held two of the most beautiful sites in the world, along with some of the most prestigious hotels in the world.

Driving to Agra

On our way to Agra, we drove through Udaipur, which is nothing but farm land and more modern neighborhoods.  However, as we got closer to Agra, the road became quite bumpy and we noticed that block by block, the living conditions were different.  Some blocks were exquisite mansions and others were nothing but tents, rubble, and piles of trash.  We saw makeshift huts, cows, and stray dogs everywhere; more people than I had seen in any other part of India; and some of the worst begging (given that it’s a high-traffic tourist area, it makes sense).

However, people truly only come here for one thing and that one thing can trump any bad experience you might have had otherwise.

Sights to See

Taj Mahal (1500rs per foreign visitor)

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The Taj Mahal (pronounced Taj-mahell by the natives) was built, based on an enormous love story between Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal (as she was come to be known). Upon her death during childbirth, she requested that the Emperor never stop loving her.  Thus, he built the Taj Mahal as an everlasting reminder of her and his love for her.  Shortly after its completion, he was arrested by his son (the successor to the throne) to spend the rest of his days in jail.

To get to the Taj Mahal, you will driven to the visitor’s center, where you will need to take a battery car ride (suggested mode of transportation by me) to the path that goes to the gate.

Note that security is VERY HEAVY there.  No outside food and drinks are allowed. You will be searched in separate lines (per gender) and a guard will look through your bags, pulling out anything offensive.

Once you are through, you walk a short path to the gate.  The minute you see the gate, you will see how perfectly framed the sight of the Taj Mahal is.  This was done on purpose.  The Emperor believed that the first sight of the building should be a delicate view, much like how a man would pull back the veil of his bride to reveal her delicate features.

Once inside, it is absolutely MAGICAL.  As cheesy as it sounds, you can feel the love and the peacefulness.  Time sort of stands still.  Take your time, walking the grounds and take lots of pictures and video!  For some, seeing this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you don’t want to ever forget.

When you get close to entering the Taj Mahal, make sure to remove your shoes or snag some covers.  If you choose to take them off, you may carry them in with you.  Also, there are no pictures, once inside so be sure to take as many pictures as you can of the facade.  Why?  In the video, you will notice some of the floral details.  Semi-precious and precious stones were used in the ENTIRE building.  It’s one of the most expensive memorials/buildings ever built.  My joke to my other half was, “Most women get jewelry, and others get palaces” 😉

Agra Fort
The Agra Fort was also built by Emperor Shah Jahan and ironically, is where he was banished to for the rest of his life, by his son, the successor to the throne.  It’s another architectural wonder with sweeping views of Agra and the Taj Mahal.  A few times, it was under attack and once, also hosted British military.  It’s another must-see in Agra!

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Evening Tour of Mohabbat the Taj Show  (1800rs per foreign visitor for platinum-level seats)

Next to seeing the Taj Mahal, the Mohabbat the Taj Show was absolutely incredible. Performed in the beautiful theater of the the Kalakriti Cultural and Convention Center, the show was all about the love story between Shah Jahan and Mumaz Mahal, and the temple he built for her.  When you’re in love, or have ever experienced intense love, it can be quite emotional!

To accommodate visitors from all over the world, you are given headphones that an assistant will set to your specific language.  They also have servers who will take drink and food orders.

NOTE: I recommend getting Platinum level tickets – we were three rows back from the stage!

Where to Shop

Marble

Our tour guide took us to Oswal Arts to watch the marble design process.  The manager there showed us the manual-intensive process of etching the design, placing the semi-precious stones in the marble, and lacquering the final product.  It’s truly remarkable how this is done and gives you a great glimpse into how this was done for the Taj Mahal.

NOTE: They will tell you price is determined by the intricacy of design.  They do not haggle well at all, so prices will not come down much.  I’m very happy with the purchases I made though!

Jewelry

We were also take to Abhushan Jewellers for a lesson on different stones and what powers they hold (in Hindu religions, each stone has a different power, such as calmness, wealth, love, etc.).  It’s a family-owned business and one of the most respected in Agra.  When you walk through the gallery to the back part of the store, you will notice all of the art and antiques.  It’s like walking through a treasure chest.  If you know enough about India, you know that they hold 30% of the world’s gold (they do not make jewelry under an 18k yellow gold weight) and an even larger percentage of precious stones.  Thus, it makes jewelry much cheaper to purchase.  I selected a small Emerald with two diamonds, set in 18K yellow gold.  They are willing to haggle, which brought my price down significantly.  They even resized it within 30 minutes of purchase.

The added bonus to my experience there was the family taking my other half and I, into the music room, where they played ancient Indian instruments and sung old Indian songs.  It was a lot of fun!

Where to Stay/Dine

Our tour package included two nights at the Hotel Crystal Sarovar Premiere.  It’s a newer hotel, which looks amazing, but I found the staff and the food (we ate every meal there) to not be as great as Jaipur‘s.  In fact, the staff was quite rude to me most of the time, even telling me there wasn’t a single ATM in Agra to use (note there are ATMs EVERYWHERE).

The highlights to our stay there were 1) Our room (room 430) had a view of the Taj Mahal.  2) The rooftop pool, bar, and restaurant were exquisite.  We spent much of our free time up there.

Tour Guide Company Information

We had our tour guide for four nights and five days.  We paid a total of 56,600rs for hotels (including breakfast), English speaking driver/guide, taxes, tip, and driver accommodations.

The company that handled the planning was Tours Mangalam.  We worked with Malika Kapoor – the owner of the company.

Asia, India, Travel

Traveling Through India – Fatehpur Sikri

While only a stop on the way to Agra, it was well worth it.  Fatehpur Sikri is a small city in Northern India, just west of Agra, founded by a 16th-century Mughal (Muslim) Emperor.

For 1050rs per foreign visitor, we got to see Buland Darwaza (the gate), which is the entrance to the Jama Masjid mosque; Tomb of Salim Chishti, Diwan-i-Khas, Jodha Bai’s Palace, and Panch Mahal.

Jama Masjid

The first thing to note is that in order to see the site, you will be ushered onto a crowded bus to get to Buland Darwaza (the highest gate in the world).  Once you arrive, you walk up a path to an area where you must remove your shoes at the gate for the mosque.  They will charge 25rs per foreign visitor to watch them.  Also, if you choose to enter the Tomb of Salim Chishti, women will be required to have their heads covered, and men will be required to cover their legs.)

I wasn’t too thrilled with this experience, particularly because this site was one of the WORST places for males (of all ages) to relentlessly badger you into getting a “real” tour guide.  DO NOT let them do this!  Our own tour guide seemed to be getting along with a particular kid and since we couldn’t understand their conversation, we assumed that the kid was okay to be with us.  We paid him a few rupees to go away, after he tried to take us to a back corner of the site to check out his family’s wares for sale.

Jodha Bai’s Palace

When you exit Jama Masjid, you follow the path back down and to the left to get to Jodha Bai’s Palace. This site is a complex of six areas with astounding construction of red sandstone.  It features such buildings as the Diwan-I-Khas – the is the bank where all money and jewels were stored;  Panch Mahal – a 5-story open sandstone pavilion; as well as the Akbar’s (King’s) bedroom, whose massive bed was hoisted up one story.  The city was abandoned when the water ran out, and was ransacked shortly thereafter.

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Asia, India, Travel

Traveling Through India – Jaipur

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There was no way we could travel to India and not see some of the best sights in Jaipur!  We were fortunate enough to have a driver/tour guide with us to take us from New Delhi to Jaipur, as it’s a six-hour drive!

In this post, I’ll cover our drive, who we hired, what we saw, and where we stayed/dined.

The Drive to Jaipur

The drive to Jaipur is a long one.  It took us six hours to get there for a variety of reasons – traffic, toll booths, villages, horrific intersections, etc.  It was through this drive, through, that you begin to experience the other side of India – the side that is the most talked about and also very sad.

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It is true, while people (and animals) coexist with each other, there is also a defined caste system in place.  Outside of the metropolitan area of New Delhi/Noida, we saw homes in villages that could crumble at the slightest touch (it looked almost war-torn), tents and makeshift roofs attached to sticks; and even just areas where people’s belongings were, indicating they were sleeping on the dirt.  With each area we drove through, we saw massive amounts of people everywhere, proving that the country grew too fast and couldn’t support all of its inhabitants.  The interesting thing about this is that each and every individual does what they can to support themselves and their families, despite their living conditions.  Women with babies would incessantly knock on your windows, begging for money, until it was your turn at the toll booth; and older kids would be selling their wares in traffic.  Not once would you see an officer, or any other native individual, prevent it from happening.  It is an unspoken reality that they all do what they can to survive.

Our drive was mostly this, as well as farm land, until it abruptly gave way to the Himalayans and the city of Jaipur.

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Jal Mahal, across from our hotel.

Things to See/Do

Amber Fort and Palace (1000rs per foreign visitor)

The Amber Fort is pretty amazing.  It’s a series of interconnected palaces and areas, making up one, large fort.  The Mughal (Muslim) architecture is so ornate and so wondrous that you could spend quite a bit of time taking in each and every detail.  And, from the tops of each tower, you get an incredible view of Jaipur and the Himalayas!

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Pink City

The Pink City is appropriately named for the pink (salmon)-colored buildings throughout. This was a mandate of Maharaja (Sawai Ram Singh) over his capital to impress Prince Albert during his 1876 tour of India.  The mandate is still in effect today.

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Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds)

City Palace (1000rs per foreign visitor)

Located in the Pink City, is the City Palace.  This was one of my favorite things to see in Jaipur because not only is it pink, it also still dons a ton of crystal chandeliers, as well as two of the world’s largest sterling silver urns (which were used to carry holy water from the Ganges, to London).

Jantar Mantar (200rs per foreign visitor)

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Built in 1728, Jantar Mantar is one of Sawai Jai Singh’s observatories.  It has instruments that have been scientifically designed to predict the movement of the major stars accurately. While it was built in medieval times, it is still used today to predict weather patterns, sunrises and sunsets, monsoons, etc.  Take the time to read each description of each instrument – it’s pretty fascinating!

Elephant Ride

I debated sharing this because of my experience. In Jaipur, there are several places where you can get elephant rides and all of them are not good.  The most popular place is at the Amber Fort but the elephants look sickly.  (The ironic thing about this is that at almost all forts, back in the days of the forts being inhabited, elephant fighting was a source of entertainment.  But I digress.)

We were advised to go to Elefantastic however, our tour guide preferred to take us to Elephant Village.  Initially, we were offered the deluxe package of 9500rs per person to ride, wash, feed, paint, and hug the elephant.  I managed to get the owner down to 4500rs for two people for a ride and a picture (which I will not be posting).  I immediately regretted it upon seeing the female elephant.  It was clear she was not in good shape and looked quite sad.  Unfortunately, the deal had already been done and if anything at all, it gave me an opportunity to be with this lady for 20 minutes or so.

The ride itself was awful – the jungle was full of bugs, and it took us around the property, exposing that they keep their elephants tied up in large barns, isolated from one another.  By the time the ride was over, I was sad and angry.  When we went to take the picture, I reached over and petted the trunk of the elephant whispering, “It’s okay sweet girl”.  This little lady actually shed a tear and it completely broke my heart.  While it’s impossible to know if elephants weep from emotion, it certainly got at me.  It was enough to make me extremely angry when I left.

While it seemed like a great, authentic experience to do, I’d highly suggest a camel ride instead – they are everywhere in Jaipur!

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Place to Stay

The best part of our trip to Jaipur was our accommodations.  We stayed at the Hotel Trident on Amber Fort Road (across from Jal Mahal).  We had a garden view room.  However, from the moment we walked in to check-in, we were treated like royalty.  I’ve never interacted with a more accommodating and welcoming staff! The only word that comes to mind for this hotel is “impeccable”.

We also ate most of our meals at the hotel.  If you choose to stay there, make sure to get breakfast included.  Our mornings started off with one of the best breakfast buffet spreads I have ever had, which of course, we took by the pool.  It was truly impressive.

Where Not To Eat

After our day at the Pink City, we were taken, by our tour guide, to City Palace Restaurant.  Unfortunately, the owner/manager, as well as the food, were horrible.  Almost all the dishes were undercooked and inedible.  We were urged to order many different things to try (which we were happy to) and when we left much of our food on the plates, were individually questioned, as to why.  While we didn’t have the heart to tell them we do not eat our food undercooked, we should have.  They stopped speaking to us, once the check was paid.  I advise anyone who is urged to go there, to NOT!

My suggestion, do research for the best restaurants in the area and demand your guide take you there instead.

Where We Shopped

Our tour guide took us over to Channi Carpets and Textiles to learn the difference between handmade Persian and Turkish rugs are made.  It was incredible to see the looming, pulling, burning, and finishing process.  Some of these carpets take up to two years to make!  We ended up buying a 4X6 camel hair carpet for $450USD, which is a bit of a steal, considering how much they go for in the US.

Tour Guide Company Information

We had our tour guide for four nights and five days.  We paid a total of 56,600rs for hotels (including breakfast), English speaking driver/guide, taxes, tip, and driver accommodations.

The company that handled the planning was Tours Mangalam.  We worked with Malika Kapoor – the owner of the company.

 

Asia, India, Travel

Traveling Through India – New Delhi

From the end of October until the first week in November, my other half and I went to India to see his extended family, as well as see some of the most iconic places in the world.  In my last post, I focused on all of the need-to know essentials on how to travel to and from India.  In this post, I’m focusing on all that we experienced in New Delhi, giving you some helpful tips on where to visit, shop, and dine!

Things to See

There is SO MUCH BEAUTY in Delhi!  Most believe that Delhi is overrun with people and debris, which can be true in sections.  However, there are many areas, filled with grass, trees, and quiet splendor as well!  Below are the places we visited, all of which I highly recommend.

Lodi Gardens (free admission)

This was the very first thing we did when we got to Delhi!  The Lodi Gardens are best viewed in the morning – there are far less people, giving you plenty of time (and space) to walk around and enjoy the grounds and temples!

 

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Indira Gandhi Memorial (free admission)

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The Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum is one of the  most powerful museums I have walked through.  Her former home gives you a glimpse into not only how she lived her life, but also how she impacted an entire country. The artifacts included are unapologetic and very emotional, ending the tour with a glass block over the exact part of the walkway she was assassinated on.

Secretariat Building and Surrounding Government Buildings

If you have ever been to Washington, D.C., you will think the buildings here are impressive… until you go to Delhi.  The red sandstone buildings and British architecture are a beautiful wonder!  If you have the time, take a walk around the buildings and down to the India Gate.

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India Gate (free admission)

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The India Gate and its surrounding grassy areas (Krishi Bhawan) are easily one of my favorite parts of Delhi.  People come from all over the world, picnic in the parks, practice yoga, and spend time with friends.  The India Gate is also host to many parades and many protests.  I highly encourage spending your morning or afternoon there, taking in all of the scenery.

Lotus Temple (free admission)

Built to invite all faiths to pray together, the Lotus Temple (Ba’hai House of Worship) is one of the best hidden gems of Delhi!  Once inside, no shoes (they will give you a bag to carry them), talking, or pictures are allowed.  Instead, people come to pray to their own deity, making this one of many places that fosters peaceful coexistence.

ISKCON – a Hare Krishna Temple (free admission)

From the Lotus Temple, you can see the tops of the ISKCON buildings – arguably one of the biggest religious compounds I had seen in Delhi.

While the temple was closed for services, the surrounding areas were available to walk through.  While I have never been to other parts of Asia, the architecture is unmistakable far east influence. It’s stunning and very peaceful.

NOTE: In order to visit the higher grounds, closer to the temple, you must remove your shoes.

Raj Ghat – Gandhi Memorial and Museum (free admission)

Every leader from around the world pays his or her respects to Gandhi when they visit Delhi.  The memorial grounds are simple with an eternal flame, flickering over his tomb. It’s very peaceful.

The museum gives a detailed account of his entire life with artifacts throughout, including the jeep that transported his body.  It’s very powerful and very moving.  If you’re short on time, at least visit the Memorial.

NOTE: No shoes at the memorial.  They will collect them upon entrance and return them to you when you return (it will be a couple of rupees as a tip when you collect them).

Qutub Minar and its Temples (500 rs per foreign visitor)

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In Old Delhi, is a very old and very large UNESCO Heritage site.  Built by the Mughals (Muslims) in 1192, the Qutub Minar and its temples are still standing today, giving visitors a glimpse into India’s very early religious history.  The Minar (tower) is an architectural wonder of the world, still standing upright as though it wasn’t built all that long ago.  Its grounds are very reminiscent of Pompeii to me, as it’s expansive, still much in-tact, and gives you a glimpse into how people lived almost nine centuries ago.

Red Fort (520rs per foreign visitor)

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Much like how important political happenings, take place on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., many important announcements are still made at the Red Fort.  It’s a place where many Indians, from all over India, come here to learn more about their country and how it has evolved.

While the buildings themselves are in a poor state of upkeep, it is very interesting to see the different political/architectural influences from different periods of rule, including Muslim and British.

Places to Shop

Gaffar Market

The Gaffar Market is in one of the oldest parts of Delhi, and also happens to be one of the largest hubs of purchasing just about anything you could need. You can get lost in the alleyways, checking out all the different stalls, or heading into any number of stores.  BUT, it’s a MUST to bring your A-game when it comes to haggling.  For $150, I was able to obtain a complete, hand-made Lehenga(see below) at New Handloom Emporium, a crystal-covered clutch, a hairdryer, nail polish, and a traditional jewelry set.  To provide reference, it would cost upwards of almost $600-$1000 elsewhere.

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My traditional outfit for a Diwali party

For men, there are great genuine leather shoes, hand-made for about $50 a pair; polo shirts for $15-$20, jeans for $20-$30, etc.

FOOD TIP: Make sure to visit Khurana Restaurant for the best Tandoori Chicken you will ever have.  Do not order anything else.

Lajpat Nagar

Lajpat Nagar sits in another section of Old Delhi and since we went on Diwali, it was mass chaos, due to fire sales.  It is one of the best markets for costume jewelry and textiles.  For $20, I bought to cocktail rings and a crystal hair clip to complete my outfit.  It easily would have cost $40-$50 elsewhere.  I already know I will go back there when I visit India again, bringing a separate suitcase for all the jewelry and home wares I want to buy.

FOOD TIP: Try Bhutta (corn on the coals).  It is the traditional way to cook corn and it tastes amazing.

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DLF Malls

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If you are a creature of comfort and need more modern day shopping facilities, head over to DLF.  It literally houses every brand you can think of, from Tom Ford, to Christian Louboutin, to Louis Vuitton, all the way to Zara (which is where I went).  While I have no idea on prices for most of these stores, I can tell you that Zara is cheaper, based on the dollar conversion rate.  It was also the day after Diwali, which meant big sales!

For The Best Sweets In Town

EVERYONE heads to Haldirams for all of their traditional sweets.  The one in Delhi also has a small cafe to eat there.  I’ve come to love all traditional sweets (that are gluten-free anyway), with my favorite being Burfi.  If you go, ask for the pink and white (coconut) or the traditional silver leaf.  Both are amazing and quite addicting!

Places to Dine

Varq

We were very fortunate to be staying with family during this trip, so most of our meals were at home, with the exception of one very special evening, where we celebrated our first anniversary at Varq.  Located in the Taj Mahal Hotel on Mansingh, this was hands-down the best dining experience we have ever had.  For $300 for two people (with tip), we were treated to a five-course meal, a special anniversary cake, rose tea (with a gift of it to take home with us), and drinks.  I strongly suggest going there for dinner (even if you order a la carte) for not just the food, but the atmosphere, and staff as well.  I’ve eaten at some of the best places all over the world (food is an EXPERIENCE in my opinion – and I live for this), and this was hands-down, the most unparalleled experience we’ve had, to-date.  Rajesh Kumar Singh, the Sous Chef, made sure to visit with us on multiple occasions, during our experience, to not only make sure I understood the ingredients I was eating (I have a severe gluten allergy), but also to ensure that our food was exactly what we had hoped for (which blew away any expectations we might have had).  This was in addition to the extreme kindness of our wait staff, as well as Rashminder Singh – the Guest Service Supervisor, who ensured we were provided with everything we needed.  This is a MUST DO, when in New Delhi.

Havemore

Havemore is literally the only restaurant in Delhi that is open late night. It’s a Chinese restaurant that has been serving the party crowd, since 1959.  Do not leave there without eating the Butter Chicken – it is the best you will find in Delhi.  Our family even took the leftover sauce home to use on rice the next day!

Other Places to Try

Next time we come back, we fully plan on doing a food tour of some of the top places in New Delhi.  If you get there before us, here is a short list of places to try:

 

Asia, India, Travel

Traveling to India – What You Need to Know

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A shot I took of the Taj Mahal.

For many in the US (and other parts of the world), India is a place many only dream of traveling to.  It’s far, (seems) expensive, and takes a lot of preparation to go for your first time.

When I started planning out our trip, it took me a few months of research, shopping, and preparation.  Unfortunately, while going through this process, I didn’t see  a whole lot of the information I needed, in one place.  In the following series of blog posts, I will help to make your planning as easy as possible!  Note that this is MY experience with traveling from the US and with all experiences, they can vary slightly.

India Visitor Visa

In order to travel to India, you will need to apply for a Visa (can only be done one month out).  The price is $60 for one month.  There are no other shorter options, I checked.  Click here to begin the process.

U.S. Embassy/Travel Safety

Below are the following steps I took to make sure I was prepared for any unfortunate events, while overseas:

  1. Since we were traveling to Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra (which are all close enough to some of our more war-ridden borders), I decided to sign up for travel alerts with the State Department, as well as notify them I was traveling there.  The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), only takes a few minutes to complete and can be invaluable if something should happen.  Click here to begin.
  2. I also advise you to locate the nearest U.S. Embassy (Agra and Jaipur do not have one, only Delhi).  Make sure to not only jot down the address, email, and phone number of the Embassy, but also any emergency contact numbers for them.  I wrote it down, printed it out, and emailed it to myself.
  3. I made copies of my passport and health insurance cards and stored them in my travel wallet, in case something should happen to the originals.
  4. I gave a copy of the following to my main emergency contact:
    1. Passport
    2. Insurance card
    3. U.S. Embassy contact information
    4. All flight information
    5. Trip itinerary for when we were in Jaipur and Agra

Staying Connected

While cell plans are always an after thought and seem expensive, I’ve never regretted the money I’ve spent.  Here’s why:

  • Wi-Fi in India is very slow.  It isn’t made to stream videos, upload videos, or even really view pictures at a fast rate.  Unless you prefer to stay completely disconnected (I don’t), it makes sense to get an International data plan.  I’m with AT&T and they have some great packages.  I always opt for the 800MB one (at $120), which is perfect for two weeks.
  • You will always have to make at least one call.  International per-minute calling rates go down with an international data package.  For me, it was about $0.15 a minute and became invaluable a few times.
  • Email/text your emergency contact, once every few days.  Given the heightened level of threat, it will help him/her work with any officials, in case of an emergency.

Plugging In

Almost everyone treats power as an after thought when traveling.  The US has a much different standard for power (110 volts) then the rest of the world (commonly 220 volts), and requires different plugs, as well as a voltage converter.

The most common plug type in India (as well as Europe) is the two-prong.  Since I travel a lot overseas, I invested in the following:

  • Voltage converter – Get one with a power strip, and all the plugs you need, for a variety of countries!  Note that American hairdryers and any other large-power needs will NOT work on this.  The one by GeekPro is $30 and 100% worth it.
  • Hair dryer – I bought one at a market in Old Delhi for 500 rupees (about $8)
  • Hair straightener/flat iron – I bought a dual-voltage ceramic iron for about $60, here.  If you have crazy hair like me, this thing will be your best friend!

Other things to note:

  • Men, if you are staying in an upscale hotel, most bathrooms accommodate all types of plugs for shavers.  Otherwise, same rule applies to the voltage converter

Medical/Health

  • Depending on when you go, you may need vaccines.  Check here for the complete list.  Make sure all vaccines are administered at least one week in advance.  Note that late October, and into the winter, the mosquito count is extremely, so the malaria vaccination is not required.
  • Obtain a prescription for Ciprofloxaxin (Cipro) in case you need it.  This will treat any bacterial infections – especially those related to consuming water accidentally. Which, brings me to my next point…
  • DO NOT CONSUME TAP WATER.  What this means: Do not drink the water unless it’s in a SEALED bottle.  This also means no ice cubes, no fresh vegetables, no fruits that do not need to be peeled to eat; no opening your mouth in the shower, no rinsing your toothbrush, no rinsing your mouth; and if you want to go one step further, no washing your face with water.  Sealed bottle water can be found everywhere.  If you are concerned that you consumed some native water, that is what the Cipro will be good for.  If you are concerned you will not have access to bottled water, purchase the SteriPEN.  While a bit pricey, it’s completely worth it for peace of mind.
  • Breathing can be hard.  While we were there, the smog levels were at incredibly dangerous levels.  In my first 24 hours there, I ended up with a burning throat and congestion.  Here are some things to have at all times:
    • DayQuil and NyQuil – enough for two weeks
    • Vicks Vapo Rub
    • Many MANY travel packs of Kleenex
    • Throat lozenges
    • Bottled water – you will be constantly thirsty, so keep drinking!
  • There are some local remedies/advisements that help alleviate any respiratory issues:
    • Heavily increase your intake of kiwi, pineapple, oranges, and bananas – all peel fruits, so they are all okay to consume
    • Mouth rinse – gargle it to help alleviate throat
    • DO NOT consume refined oils or milk – they will produce more phlegm that will agitate your throat
  • For other issues you might face: Pack a travel size of rubbing alcohol, Q-Tips, cotton rounds, bandaids of all sizes (I went through a lot), Neosporin, chapstick, laxatives, and pain relievers.
  • Using the toilet.  Each country I’ve been to, seems to have a different toilet than the next.  In India, while they do have modern toilets, there are things you should know:
    • Do your best to stay out of public restrooms.  They are often unkempt and do not include toilet paper.  In the one situation (rest stop on the highway) I needed it, I had been carrying travel rolls of toilet paper, which can be found at Bed Bath and Beyond travel section.
    • That sprayer thing with the drain – many people in India do not use toilet paper but instead, use the sprayer to wash. I note this because many toilet floors are extremely wet.  My advice – wear close-toed shoes.
    • You might need to pay to use public toilets – make sure to always have Rupee coins on you (about 1-2 Rupees per visit).
    • In most public bathrooms, there will be squatting stalls, in addition to regular ones.  In more rural areas, I’ve heard there are sometimes just the squatting stalls only.

Currency

  • The Rupee is their currency.  Check here for latest conversion rate.  When I was in India, it fluctuated about 6 cents, from $0.68 to $0.62.
  • Cash is key.  Very few places, outside of name brand stores, resorts, and upscale restaurants, will take credit cards, nor do you want them to.  In my following posts, I’ll be sure to include the break down of costs and method of payment used.
  • Before you leave, make sure to put travel notices on your cards, even if you do not plan on using them!

Transportation

Flying

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Enjoying the 13-hour first leg of our trip!

We flew Qatar Airways, Economy class (about $876 roundtrip) (except for one leg of the trip).  I STRONGLY recommend them, as they are one of the best long-haul flight carriers I’ve been on. Here are some things to know about flying with them:

  •  I signed up for their rewards program.  One long-haul flight generates a ton of points that can be used towards another flight or an upgrade!
  • If you sign up for the program, there is a GREAT chance of at least one upgrade (we got Business class for one 3 1/2 hour segment and it was the best 3 1/2 hours I’ve had in the air!)
  • You can choose from a myriad of dietary restrictions.  I’m gluten-free and the meals were great! (Note, also bring snacks too!)
  • They hand out LOTS of water – make sure to drink it!
  • The planes are equipped with USB power outlets, personal remote controls, and great touch screens with hundreds of entertainment options
  • Their connection hub is in Doha, Qatar.  This is one of the best airports I’ve been in.  If you have a long layover, take advantage of your time there!

Airport Security From Dulles, to Doha, to Delhi, and back.

On the way to India, security was a breeze but on the way home, it racked up to about 5 hours of our time.  Below are the processes at each of the locations we were in – things I wish I had known:

Dulles to Doha

  • Check in with Qatar – bags cannot be over 70kg each.  You are allowed two checked bags and one carryon for the overhead compartment.  EACH BAG, including CARRYON, MUST have a bag tag – this is important.  (See India to Doha for more on this).  They will also ask for your passport and visa.
  • Go through security, and go to gate.

Doha to Delhi

  • Have your Visa and passport ready when going through security.
  • You will stick your bags on the conveyor belt but shoes do not come off (hats, belts, etc., do).
  • You can then head to your gate
  • When it’s time to board, you will go through a metal detector, will be checked in, and then will be asked to sit in a waiting room for your boarding zone to be called.
  • Once in Delhi, you will be directed to immigration.  Make sure to have your passport and visa handy.  Get in the FAR RIGHT LANES (the ones marked “eVisa) – it’s very confusing there.  Be prepared to answer questions about your stay – make sure to have the address of where you are initially staying, memorized.
  • Liquor is very cheap at duty-free, and not so cheap in India.  Stock up if you think you are going to need it however, note that they will try to charge you for additional items, so make sure to be watchful of that.
  • When you come out of customs and into the airport, it will be overwhelming and crowded.  My suggestion is to have a pre-coordinated driver waiting for you INSIDE.

Delhi to Doha 

  • Depending on where you are staying in Delhi, make sure to give yourself enough time to get there.  The Delhi airport is extremely busy at all hours and given the heightened security, it can take over an hour to get through the road checks before you reach the physical airport.
  • Give yourself three hours at the airport to get through all checks:
    • First check is to get in the door to even check in.  The military officer (wearing an AK-47) will check your passport and visa, as well as flight information before they will let you in.  Make sure your flight information is easily accessible!
    • Go to information and ask where your airline check-in stand is located.  They are not like the US and the location can change!
    • There will undoubtedly be a long line to get checked in – make sure all of your documents are handy, and that all bag tags are still secured.
    • Once you are checked in, you will get in another line to go through security.  Again, belts, etc. must come off but shoes stay on.  NOTE: They are VERY THOROUGH in their checks.
    • There are two lines for security – men’s and women’s.  Women’s are behind a curtained area, as each woman has to be wanded and searched.
    • Once they are okay with your stuff, they will stamp each bag tag, to denote that everything has been checked.
    • After your are done, you may proceed to the gate.
    • When it’s time to board, have your passport ready, as well as your Visa and boarding pass.

Doha to Dulles

  • Have your visa and passport ready.
  • When you de-plane, you will head back to security to go through your routine again (shoes on, everything else goes through).
  • When you are done, head to the gate.
  • When it’s time to check-in for boarding, you will go through another security process – the bags will go on another conveyor belt, and you will go through a metal detector.
    • Be prepared to unzip all carry ons and let them go through your stuff.  Be accommodating.  No joke, they thought my tweezers with the light on it was a spy camera, and they almost didn’t let the candles I got as a gift, on the plane.
    • Your bag tags will be stamped, acknowledging that they have been approved.  (This is why the tags are so important).
  • When you are done, you  will be asked to sit in a waiting room for your boarding zone to be called.
  • When you de-plane in Dulles, you will head straight to customs.  NOTE: You will NOT need to fill out an immigration form if you are a U.S. Citizen.  They have Express kiosks to do everything for you!  Once you have completed that, you will get in line to have your receipt and passport checked.
  • Pick up your bags at the international baggage claim area
  • Go through security again, by handing them the receipt, and then you’re free in the U.S.!

India Transport

Traffic is bad.  If you are thinking about renting a car, don’t.  Parking is at a premium, they drive on the right side (think U.K.), and natives are used to being in very close proximity with one another at varying speeds.  Ubers, drivers for hire, tour guides, and rickshaws (not recommended) are all available. The metro rail system is currently under construction in many of the hot spots, so that will also be an option, depending on when you go.

If you are traveling to other parts of India, other than Delhi, hire a driver or tour guide; or take the train.  Once at the train station, you might be limited to rickshaws (which if you’re traveling with a ton of luggage, will not be a great option).

Dress

India is a conservative place 99.9% of the time (Delhi nights are an exception).  Below are my go-to fashion staples when traveling there:

  • Kurtis or any longer tops that cover your butt and leggings or skinny jeans
  • Maxi skirts that are loose fitting (I shopped here for most of my items)
  • Maxi dresses that are loose fitting (I shopped here for most of my items) – note that if they have side slits, it’s probably a good idea to safety pin them to a reasonable length.
  • Light cardigan to wear, in case your tops/dresses are spaghetti strap or are too tight
  • Pashmina scarves – find ones in light-weight fabrics.  They are a beautiful alternative to cardigans.  I always carried one on me, in case I was heading into a mosque, where my head needed to be covered!
  • Crop tops are okay but nothing too tight-fitting or risqué-looking
  • Hat – especially if you’re going in the hot months
  • Loose-fitting pants (I shopped here for most of my items or you can go to Sudara for those.)
  • Loose-fitting cotton muscle tees – the only kind of tank top allowed!
  • Wedges, sandals, or athletic shoes – anything COMFORTABLE that can easily be removed.
  • If you head out to nicer places for dinner/drinks/dancing – shorter dresses/heels are okay but spaghetti straps/halter/strapless never are!

NOTE: You can never go wrong with traditional dress – especially if you are heading to an Indian party!

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What Else to Shop For

I’m a creature of comfort, and of portable things.  Check out some of the other items I bought to make my trip easier:

  • Portable battery-powered toothbrush by Panasonic ($20) – make sure to pack an extra pair of AAAs just in case
  • Deep conditioning treatment ($20) – the water in India is different to wash with – make sure to pack a conditioning treatment that will keep your hair from drying out.
  • Neutrogena makeup removing wipes ($8 per pack of 25) – these are a GOD SEND when you cannot wash your face with regular water.
  • TSA-approved lock with open alert indicator ($7) – This was for complete peace of mind
  • Memory foam neck pillow ($25) – It comes with ear plugs and an eye mask
  • Longer iPhone charging cables ($10 for a pack of two) – Since you will need a voltage adapter to plug in your phone, chances are, it will not be in a desirable location.  These 10 ft. cords are super handy and durable!
  • Travel wallet by Kate Spade ($228) – This was one of the most handiest (and stylish) items I could have bought!  It holds all documents, passports, money, cards, etc.
  • Large cross body bag  – I went onto The Real Real and bought a large Prada one with an adjustable strap.  You want something with a thick strap (thin straps can easily be cut), lightweight, and can hold not just the travel wallet, but everything else you need as well.  It’s worth the investment if you travel a lot.
  • Mophie external battery charger ($150) – These can charge more than one device at a time and are such life savers!
  • Travel book on India ($21) – By DK Eyewitness, this guide became invaluable!  It covers every part of India, history, food, words, etc.

It’s Crowded – Be Aware of Your Surroundings!

And by that, I mean there are almost 1.3 billion people living in a space the size of Texas (for reference there are $350 million living in all of the US). While every person (from every part of the caste system) and every animal, live in peaceful existence, there are some things you should be prepared for:

  • There is trash and rubble everywhere – it’s worse in poorer sections.  Closed-toed shoes are best to walk around in!
  • There are cows, goats, monkeys, and stray dogs everywhere.  DO NOT FEED or PET any of them.  They oftentimes carry a lot of diseases.
  • People have to make money any way they can.  This means:
    • They will come up to your car (in traffic and at tolls) and knock on the window until you say no and wave them off.
    • At tourist sites they will follow you and relentlessly, offer to be your tour guide, while then directing you to their area of hocking their wares.
    • They will come up to you on the street and ask for money to feed their children.  While it is tempting to help those in need, you MUST SAY NO!  I’ve heard stories of others who have given one person money and next thing you know, they are swarmed by a whole heck of a lot more.
    • Tour guides will often take you to factories so you can learn about a native craft, which then after, you are pressured into buying (the tour guide always gets a cut).
  • If you have blonde hair or any other stand-out feature (my boyfriend and his muscles are another example), they will ask to take a picture with you.  While it’s flattering, you must always say no for two reasons: 1.The pictures will then not stop (it happened to a friend of mine) or 2. They will do what they can to pick pocket you (happened to another friend).
  • Always carry your belongings in a cross body bag – men, throw your items into the bag as well.  Then, hold onto the purse in front of your body at all times.  This is especially important for over-crowded tourist areas
  • Expect to go through security everywhere – Often times, it’s in two separate lines – one for men and one for women, as there is usually a pat-down.  I never minded it, as  safety has always been my number one priority.

While I know this is such a long list, it’s so much better to be over-prepared than not prepared at all.  All of these preparations paid off big time for me and my other half.  It allowed us to fully enjoy ourselves and all of the adventures we went on (check the Travel section of my blog for my adventures)!