India, part 2

Our whirlwind tour of India continues…

Day 78: And now to Agra we go

We got an early morning start on our 6 hour (bumpy) drive to Agra and stopped in Fatehpur Sikri along the way–former capital of the Mughal Empire. It served as a home for all 3 (!) of the former king’s wives as well as a place of work, if you will, for the king, so it was plenty spacious and also featured some beautiful architecture (more red sandstone, as has been the theme for most of the historical structures we’ve seen in India so far). Here are just a few pictures:

After checking into our hotel, we made a quick visit to the Taj Mahal gardens, also known as Mehtab Bagh, for an evening peek at the Taj. This view of the Taj is pretty far away so you can’t quite grasp its magic (yet), but it’s gorgeous nonetheless:

Day 79: Holy shit, it’s the Taj Mahal.

I am not a morning person. This is not news to anyone who knows me, but I mention it because our tour guide promised us that it would be 100% worth it to go see the Taj Mahal at 6am. I was not excited to wake up early, but I did as I was told, trusting that the guide knew what he was talking about. Ultimately, it was right for a few reasons–1) the view shortly after sunrise really is beautiful (pictures below to prove it, as well as a picture can), 2) it gets hot FAST out there, so earlier is better to prevent dripping levels of sweat, and 3) it also gets crowded FAST, so earlier is definitely better if you want to avoid feeling like a sardine once inside. Don’t get me wrong–it was still pretty busy when we went at 6am, but the lines behind us were way worse than the lines in front of us. It’s definitely a task and a half to get into the grounds, but it’s worth it.

You know how the Taj Mahal is one of those famous structures that you read about and see pictures of and it looks awesome and huge and beautiful? Well, it’s awesome-r, huge-r, and beautiful-er than you think. Some say that it isn’t as grand as it used to be, that the marble doesn’t gleam like it used to, but honestly? Whatever. This building is ah-maze-ing. I mean, think about it — an emperor in the 1600s loved his wife (his favorite of 3 wives… 🙄 a little but work with me) so much that he commissioned a 30+ million rupee mausoleum to hold her remains after she died in childbirth (their 14th child, mind you–how she birthed 14 children is beyond me). A little Googling tells me that 30+ million rupees in the 1600s is equivalent to $1+ BILLION US dollars in today’s world. Was this a preposterous use of money? Obviously. But man, talk about a romantic gesture. There’s too much we learned about the Taj to list here, so you’ll just have to visit it yourself 😉 In the meantime, enjoy these photos:

Next up, Agra Fort. More red sandstone architecture:

There’s red sandstone under that plaster!

FYI – there are bats in the crevices of Agra Fort, just napping away the day… 😳

Last historical stop for the day was the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, also known as the Baby Taj. Much less grandiose than the real Taj but still quite pretty and intricate. Since the Taj is a little much, I told Ben he could build me something more like the Baby Taj when I die 😂

We stopped for a quick lunch break at Sheroes Hangout, a cafe run by women who have survived acid attacks. Their goal is to both help stop these horrible incidents and change societal norms around beauty and appearance. The food is decent, but that’s not why you come here–you come to be in the presence of some of the fiercest women in the world and help support their cause. Truly impressive.

After a couple of hours to nap and relax at the hotel, we were off to the next (and last) part of our day: an evening tour of Agra. This was a group tour so we finally got to interact with some other visitors and compare experiences and mishaps. The tour started with a rickshaw ride through the city and there are no words that can describe the shambleyness of that ride. I have a video, but it just doesn’t do it justice either…the traffic and noise was out of this world. Lesson learned? Don’t take a rickshaw ride on a Saturday night. Ever. Here’s a picture that gives you a tiny glimpse into what I mean:

Once we finally got off the rickshaw, our guide walked us through the streets of Agra and showed us Hindu temples, a mosque, various shops, the spice market, etc–much like our Old Delhi tour. We also got to taste some (safe) street food that was really delicious. (One downside to our final food stop? It was right next to open raw sewage. That smell is burned into my nose and brain forever.)

One of many shops selling decorations for Diwali–just a couple of weeks away at this point in time!

Super delicious chicken @ Mama Chicken…right next to raw sewage 🤢

After a long day, we were beyond ready for bed when the evening tour was over.

Day 80: Back to Delhi we go

Our tour ended with a return to Delhi, and our driver dropped us off at our hotel by early afternoon so we still had a whole day to kill before we headed off to Mumbai the next day. Since our original plan was to take the train to Mumbai, Ben had booked a hotel near the train station for convenience. Of course, now that those plans had changed (we decided that it was just going to be too ridiculous to attempt a 16-hour overnight train ride with our level of exhaustion), the hotel was sort of in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, Uber is a thing in India (we hadn’t even had the chance to use it yet given our fancy private driver for the tour 💁🏽) and SUPER cheap. (Actually, like too cheap? I felt SO guilty about the prices that I ended up giving each Uber driver a cash tip.) We took an Uber to Select CityWalk, one of Delhi’s major malls (thanks again Neha for the recommendation)–I was looking for something to eat to remind me of home and they had a Johnny Rockets. Score! Or not. I perused the menu, salivating as I looked at the list of their mediocre burgers, and then I saw the fine print at the bottom stating something along the lines of “Pictures are an approximation. We do not serve beef.”…well then WHY do the menu pictures have beef patties?! Are you trying to be cruel? It was tragic. I had a chicken burger and it was blah. At least the onion rings were good. Plus, the mall had a Haagen-Dazs and there’s nothing that can’t be fixed by some H-D Cookies n’ Cream ice cream! (So overpriced but so worth it.)

Asian malls are SO FANCY.

Eventually we headed back to our hotel for a quiet night in–it was nice to do nothing for a few hours for a change.

Day 81: A hop and a skip to Mumbai

Thank goodness we decided to forgo the 16 hour (!) train ride to Mumbai and fly there instead…the more I think about the train ride, the more I 😳😳😳. The flight there was no picnic–Delhi airport’s security situation is a complete and utter SHAMBLE, not to mention the crappiest lounge we’ve seen yet (I know, I know, #firstworldproblems)–but whatever. We got there in 2 hours instead of 16 so that feels like a win.

Can I just say that walking into Mumbai heat is like hitting that Florida humidity wall (anyone who’s been there knows what I’m talking about) times 27? Holy hell it was hot. By the time we found an Uber (not the easiest process, FYI) and got to our hotel (The Trident, Nariman Point–which by the way was amazing and our fave hotel in India), we had half melted and never wanted to leave the hotel again–so we didn’t. It was late afternoon anyway, so a perfect excuse to stay in, order room service, and properly enjoy our #permanentvacation at our swank hotel. I forgot to take pictures of our room service but OMG we got this avocado bruschetta thing that was DELISH (I miss avocados SO MUCH). I wish I had just ordered 3 of those things as my meal. (Don’t get me wrong, my curry was good, but mmmmmm avocados 😍)

Day 82: A whirlwind tour of Mumbai

With just one day in Mumbai, acknowledging that we couldn’t see it all, and after experiencing the suffocating heat and humidity the day before, we decided to book a private half-day city tour by car, to maximize both the number of sights and air conditioning time 😂 They packed a lot of sights into 4-5 hours, so I’ll stick to pictures with some details in the captions of the key stops:

Banganga Lake – the source of water for this lake is completely unknown–they apparently tried digging upstream to figure it out and never could. Pretty neat! There’s a myth tied to its existence and so it’s considered a sacred site. 
Hanging Gardens – Took a short walk through here as the guide told us about Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India, who lives in the building on the left (above). The home is valued at USD$1 billion. Sort of makes you want to vomit when you think about the number of people living in extreme poverty in India (estimated at 20%+ of the population, or 240+ million people).
Taken at the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum – really interesting to learn more about the life and work of this amazing man.
Victoria Railway Station
Gateway of India – built for the Queen’s visit, was also the point of departure when the British finally left India
Dhobi Ghat – the world’s largest open air laundry
India’s Big Ben

After our tour was over, we were dropped off at our hotel and decided to make our way to Suzette for a little Frenchie lunch. It was 👌🏽.

Ben’s savory crêpe
Given my level of homesickness, I went with a fancy grilled cheese (and a sweet crêpe for dessert, obvi)

And that ends our time in India! Some final comments and tips on India:

1. If you’re not coming with a local, book a proper tour. DIY is too stressful and won’t be easy to sort out. The Golden Triangle tour is worth it if you’ve got the time (at least 7 days to maintain your sanity, 10 days if you want to be more leisurely about it) and don’t mind the long hours in the car. Mumbai was interesting as well, so also worth a visit if you’ve got the time.

2. The driving will scare the shit out of you for the first couple of days but you get used to it. Somehow, it’s disorganized organized chaos.

3. India is a country of tipping. Lots and lots of tipping. They say tipping isn’t mandatory, but that’s not real life. You WILL get serious stink eye if you don’t tip someone. You will need to tip drivers, tour guides, and bell hops for sure, plus bathroom attendants (they provide toilet paper at the public bathrooms). It’s also nice to tip housekeeping staff and hotel staff in general (if they have a central tip jar especially), plus other people I’m definitely forgetting. It does add up so factor that into your budget, but remember that one less Starbucks coffee for you could mean a meal for a small family.

4. Despite our failed tiger safari, we’d still recommend this too–though probably at a national park with a higher density of tigers to increase viewing potential. Yes, you can see a tiger at the zoo, but it’s never going to be the same.

5. All of your senses will be slightly assaulted on this trip, especially your sense of smell…you may go from smelling something amazing (e.g. a delicious curry) to something gag-worthy (e.g. raw sewage, or worse, a dead animal on the side of the road) within just a few minutes. There is no preparing for or avoiding this, just be aware and practice holding your breath.

6. While the presence of so many animals in the streets is a little nuts sometimes, it’s also one of the coolest things to see when coming from a western country with limited exposure to animals outside of dogs and cats. Where else can you really see a cow actually navigate traffic or adorable (yet sneaky) monkeys cross power lines and steal a snack?

7. There is a very high likelihood that you will get “Delhi Belly” (or something similar), either during your time in India or shortly thereafter. We only drank bottled water (even brushed our teeth with it) and ate mostly at 5 star hotels and still both got sick–me more so than Ben but still. It is not pleasant but you will survive it–just come prepared.

8. People will try to sell you stuff on the street, all. the. time. This is something I’ve experienced before in other countries so I wasn’t shocked, but they do take it to another level. If you’re not interested, either don’t engage or very firmly say no and keep walking. If you answer just ONE question about yourself, you will be nagged to death.

9. They have security everywhere–car undercarriages are inspected as you pull into a hotel, baggage is put on a scanner belt before entering the hotel, and you will need to walk through a metal detector and receive a pat down before entering most buildings (monuments, hotels, etc). Don’t be freaked out by it–though it does get annoying after a while. BTW, the metal detectors and pat downs are usually separated by sex.

10. Lastly, and most importantly, take it all in! It can be a stressful trip because professional tours are usually jam packed and there’s so much going on all of the time–and let’s not lie, it’s not necessarily the most relaxing trip with the potential stomach issues, etc–but there are so many amazing things to see and learn that make it totally worth it, at least once in your life. I mean, don’t you want to see the Taj??? 😍

Next up, Nepal!

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