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Last day in India

29 Nov

Today was our last day in India. (sad face). We looked into postponing our flight and going to Goa with the wedding party. We also looked into going to Rajasthan with the rest of our party, and even stopping in Dubai on our way home. 12 days is tough when you’ve already come so far, what’s another 3 or 4 days right? But changing plans last minute can be tough when you need to book new flights and hotels and change the date of your original flight.

Instead, we did our research, and then decided to get a late check out at the hotel. We went to the pool ordered our free platinum amenity (pizza and a bottle of red wine) and then took our driver to the center of arts and crafts for our last shopping trip. Knocking out your Christmas gifts before December 1st in a country where 1 rupee equals $.02 feels pretty amazing. I should do this more often! 🙂

Now we’re on our way to the airport to begin the long journey home and suddenly neither of us wants to leave. We can only hope that the new year will bring more fun and exciting trips!

Cheers till next time!

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Mumbai, post wedding

28 Nov

There’s nothing worse than waking up at the crack of dawn with a stomach ache and the feeling that you might not make it to the bathroom in time. This morning it was my turn to feel the pain. After making friends with Captain Sharma at the wedding, the boys took the driver and went off to the golf course in south Bombay. In order to play, you need to be a member, or know one who will vouch for you.

The girls and I decided to go shopping and called Puneet for some answers. We originally thought of going to the many bazaars, but due to a fire a couple days ago, 350 shops were destroyed so we decided not to chance it. We took a “cool” cab aka air conditioned, to linking road in Bandra and never looked back. This is almost like canal street in new York. Handbags, jewelry and shoes are hot commodities. We walked into a couple of the stalls, but the heckling and commotion was making us clausterphoebic. Our cool cab driver has mentioned Saga department store and thus we set off asking how to get there. Everyone told us “15 minutes” so we hopped in a tuk tuk which took no time at all. Saga was like the Bloomingdales of Mumbai but without the crowds. Our next stop was Yoko for lunch which was highly recommended by Puneet. We flagged down another tuk tuk and went on a wild goose chase. Eventually we called Puneet and had him tell the driver where to take us. Yoko did not disappoint. Not only did we get steak and seafood sizzlers, but the ice tea (sans ice) was exceptionally good. We hopped in one last tuk tuk and headed back to the hotel. Puneet and Shagun met us for dinner at Mahesh lunch home which is one of mumbai’s famed seafood restaurants. Anyone who knows Puneet knows that he’s extremely picky when it comes to where he sits and what he eats in a restaurant. We let him do the ordering and had a fabulous meal of pomfret (specialty fish) jumbo prawns and fish stew. To cap the evening Puneet made the guys try a digestive off the street made with bay leaves and mint and tried to convince me and James we should continue on to Rajasthan with the rest of our group. His offers and reasonings were very tempting, but changing our plans at one in the morning was a little ambitious. 20111129-100216.jpg20111129-100231.jpg

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Christian wedding day

28 Nov

Luckily we didn’t have to wake up quite as early for the Catholic wedding as the service didn’t start until 11:30am, or in Indian time roughly noon. St. Andrew’s church in Bandra was very charming and un-air conditioned! Christianity is the third largest religion in India, roughly 2.3%. Now you may look at Noel Curtis, the groom and think, “how the hell did he get the name Curtis?” If you remember back in elementary school a famous Portuguese explorer named Vasco de Gama first encountered India in 1498 and therefore many of the Christians in India are of Portuguese decent.

The ceremony was slightly different than US Christian weddings. The vows came before the mass, the priest never asked if anyone objected to the union, nor did he say, “and now with the power invested in me…i now pronounce you husband a wife, you may now kiss the bride”. And I know I haven’t been the best catholic, but since when did they change the responses and the Penitential Act? The priest referred us to the new “Order of mass” which now has “the lord be with you,” response as “and with your spirit”. The service was over in about an hour and we returned to the hotel for a dip in the infamous J.W Marriott pool. The reception started at 7pm at the Army officers institute, where the sangeet (cocktail reception) was held. It lasted for three hours and included plenty of food, drink, and dancing to a great band called Crimson Rage.

We are all sad that the wedding festivities have ended, but now it’s time for some relaxing, site seeing and shopping!

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Sikh Wedding Day

26 Nov

Although we missed the first wedding event on Thursday, yesterday proved to be a relaxing yet fun filled day. Sahiba (the bride to be) was already bicep deep in mendhi in her parents apartment. We met many other wedding guests, including other New Yorkers, family from Toronto and the UK. We all drank Kingfisher beer and ate lots of Indian food while dancing and getting our own mendhi. The women that came to do the mendhi looked very young, but were extremely skilled and worked quickly. The henna itself is made out of leaves and needs to sit for about two hours. We then dabbed some sugar water in order to let it set. The longer it sits, the darker the design sets, especially in the palm, which lasts the longest. Of course, it was now lunch time, meaning the boys had to feed us! This proved to be funny, yet frustrating. Relying on someone to blow your nose, pull down your pants and pour beer down your throat, really makes you feel like you’ve reverted back to infancy.

Once the paint had set it was time to look through Shagun’s closet for sariee’s to wear for the Sikh wedding. (Shagun is Sahiba’s older sister and is married to my manager Puneet. Shagun and Puneet also happen to be my neighbors in New York).

Traditionally, the Sikh code of conduct dictates that only those who follow the Sikh religion may marry under the ceremony, therefore, Sikhs cannot marry persons professing other religions under it. However, Noel Curtis, the groom, is Christian, and therefore technically not allowed to be married in a gurdwara, the Sikh temple. Fortunately, we live in modern times and the gurdwara on the Naval base in Mumbai where Sahiba’s father used to work, is fairly liberal. Since foreigners are not permitted on the base, we all had to get advance clearance. We arrived bright an early as our hotel is on the other side of town and the traffic in Mumbai is actually worse than Delhi. (James has been doing quite a bit of research as we’ve been traveling and discovered that 14 people die in car crashes every hour across India). When we got to the gurdwara Noel helped us pass security and we had breakfast while we waited for Sahiba to arrive. The boys wore their head pieces and the girls covered their heads before entering the temple. In the temple women sat to the left and men sat to the right. During the ceremony, or Anand Karaj, the Amritdhari (officiator) read/sang from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh Holy book). Also, the four Lavan (marriage hymns) were sung, while the groom led the bride around the alter and her two male cousins and brother-in-law (my manager Puneet) gave her away. This is because Sahiba doesn’t have any brothers. One of the things that impressed me the most was the Amritdhari had a powerful voice and hit some pretty difficult high notes, This is pretty unusual amongst priests. I never remember going to mass and thinking “wow! this priest has an exceptional singing voice.”

After walking around the alter, singing and chanting, standing up, sitting cross-legged and bowing, we were given a wheat paste that sort of tasted like cream of wheat, but 90 times oilier and with more flavor. Out of 6 of us, only two of us, including myself, had the cajones to eat the wheat. We were a little sketched out that the same man put his hand in a bowl and pulled out the wheat for everyone, but what the hell, you only live once right? Plus the wheat was actually really good!

Following the ceremony was the langar, which is a formal lunch or reception. This one was on the naval base at the US Club, (don’t get too excited it stands for United Services), aka. a country club over looking the ocean. There was more food than you could possibly imagine, and coincidentally, Elvis. Sahiba’s father is a die hard Elvis fan and sang about 3-4 Elvis songs karaoke style with the grooms uncle. I must say, they had shockingly excellent singing voices as well. No wonder Bollywood is all the range…Indian’s can really sing. I guess I should have known Indian Idol really would exist.

While the wedding party slowly disappated, we changed clothes and took our new mute, non-english speaking driver to the famous Taj hotel and the Gateway of India. It probably wasn’t the brightest idea to go to the Taj on the 3 year anniversary of the terrorist attack, but business ran as usual. And I guess if 14 people are dying in car accidents every hour, they have more important things to worry about. The Taj was absolutely beautiful, but at over $1k a night, I’ll take my points anyday, thank you very much.

Tomorrow morning we have the church wedding and reception and I’m really looking forward to the bride’s gown, especially since the outfits today were so elaborate and elegant.

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Mumbai womens wedding day

25 Nov

Sahiba’s Mehndi:

They started her henna around 10:30am and finished at 6pm. Traditionally, the bride gets a whole scene painted. On one arm the groom on the horse, on the other a scene with the bride.

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Arabic design and traditional design.

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2 hours to dry

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Singing traditional songs and putting turmeric to “beautify the bride”

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Travel to Mumbai

24 Nov

Nothing turned out how we envisioned. The hotel yoga session from 6-8am was a complete mystery. Luckily, James ran into the yogi at the gym and was able to get a private intro lesson. Breakfast was our usual full display of food and juices with many attendants.

Although seeing the Taj again would have been nice, the fog does not permit optimal viewing until the late afternoon. Thus why we went so late in the afternoon the day before. Our hotel had a Taj observation deck though, so we thought we should check it out before we left for the airport. Visibility was surprisingly decent! However our luck quickly changed.

When we arrived at the airport we checked our names off at a security checkpoint. Something that all airports should consider. We said our goodbyes to Rampel and waited for the check in desk to open. 30 minutes before our flight was supposed to board, they cancelled it due to poor visibility. There is one flight a day out of Agra and it had apparently been cancelled the last 4 days.
Rampel returned and we braced for another 4-6 hour drive back to Delhi. Unfortunately this also meant we would miss the wedding cocktail reception. I thought if we hustled we might be able to make an earlier flight, but the roads were not on our side. We caught a later flight and buckled in for an hour and a half…or at least we thought. An hour into the flight, the pilot tells us we are going into a hold pattern for and additional 45 minutes. There’s nothing more painful than watching the little airplane cartoon loop around 4 and a half times on the in-flight map and the time to destination slowly increase.

As you all can guess, I was pretty much a basket case. The only thing missing was the airline losing my luggage. Not only did we spend 12 hours traveling, but we also missed the first big wedding event.

We are all settled in at the J.W Marriott in Mumbai, probably one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed at. Hopefully things can only go up from here.

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Agra

23 Nov

We left Delhi in the wee hours of the morning on a 4 hour drive to Agra, the city of love and home of the Taj Mahal. The farther outside the city we got, the thicker the smog/fog. Apparently, this is not only due to the pollution, but the “winter” weather. The visibility was terrible and most of us were too afraid to sleep. However, Rampel did a fabulous job and avoided a couple of dicey situations. We hit a couple of traffic jams on the way, along with tolls and tax stations. We even closed the blinds of the windows to avoid the hawkers and monkey men. As soon as you look, or wave, or smile, they start to do their tricks and ask for money.

We made stops at Akbar’s tomb and “mini” Taj before arriving at our hotel, ITC Mughal. While we checked in and lunched, Rampel secured a tour guide for the Taj Mahal. He did not disappoint. Our guide was not only a pro at cutting lines and making people move for us, but he was also a great photographer. He brought us from the van to a tuk tuk since only energy friendly vehicles are allowed near the Taj. He also got us water and shoe covers, (many of the tourist sites require you to remove your shoes). The Taj was absolutely breathtaking. Unfortunately, none of us can see it how it originally was built since the British raped it of all the gold and rubys it was meant to have. It took 22 years to build and has all inlaid smooth stone work of 5 different types of stone that come from different parts of the world. The tombs of Shajahan and his beloved third wife are in the center of the Taj. A second Taj made of black marble was meant to be built on the opposite side of the river with a silver bridge. However the Shajahan’s evil son locked him in the red fort before construction could begin.

After taking every picture possible, we went to learn about the art of marble and inlaid stone work. There is no tax in Agra, which is why most tourists wait to buy from here, and we were not any different. Of course Rampel and our tour guide also get a cut.

At the end of the day we were all pretty beat and were looking forward to getting back to our luxurious hotel filled with gardens and fountains.

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Last day in Delhi

22 Nov

The breakfast at our hotel has been phenomenal. Every morning there are at least 3 attendants waiting on our table, offering us tea and coffee, taking our orders, and bringing us samples of food and juices. This would never happen at a Hilton in the US unless you were paying top dollar.

Our first attraction of the day was Swaminarayan Akshardham, which is an extremely elaborate Hindu temple. It only opened in 2005. So let me get this straight, there are naked babies running around the streets and people eating fly-infested chicken, but yogiji Maharaj envisions a temple with mixed metal murti’s (statues) and 3,000 tons of elephants carved in rock and volunteers come running. And forget construction unions, it was built in less than 5 years! Cameras, bags, and phones are prohibited so outside snaps were the only option.

Finally, we made it to the Bahai House of worship or the lotus temple, which is also relatively new, built in 1986. It is one of the most visited buildings in the world, surpassing the Eiffel tower and Taj Mahal.

We were driven to a bazaar and clothing store where we purchased more scarfs and a tunic that was tailored to me in less than 10 minutes…amazing.

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Delhi day 2

21 Nov

Today was by far the “real” Delhi experience. Our day started off with an argument with Rampel over going to Old Delhi and Jama Masjid. Yesterday, he reminded us the Muslim call to prayer is noon to 1:45pm, therefore he suggested we wait to go until 2pm. We agreed, but then this morning he said “no we go tomorrow” but no, we wanted to go today because knew it was open and we dressed accordingly. Rampel reluctantly gave in, but first took us on a quiet, peaceful tour around Qila Rai Pithora, the first city of Delhi. What a tease…

The next stop was to the Qutub Minar, which is a world heritage site and the tallest minaret in India. We were literally flocked by mass amounts of school children who apparently had no supervision and looked like they had never seen white or Asian people before. Now we know what celebrities must feel like, because for the rest of the day, especially later in old Delhi, James begged me to keep my hair wrapped up and my sunglasses on to avoid stares and kids asking us “one photo please”. Fortunately, there is still corporal punishment here, because we saw at least three kids get backhanded for climbing on the ruins, hounding us for pictures, and fighting.

We climbed back in the bus and begged Rampel to book it to Old Delhi and the Jama Masjid ‘world-reflecting mosque’. On our way, Rampel thought we might like to see Safdarjangs tomb, which is basically a poorly maintained, less popular version of Humayan’s Tomb.

Jama Masjid is the largest mosque in India and the biggest scam too. Everyone must remove their shoes, but if you leave them with the attendant be sure and be ready to tip. We opted to carry ours. Then a man fines you for bringing in a camera, even a phone, and gives you a ticket to carry. This fine is very loose at all other places we visited but heavily enforced at the mosque. Walking into the mosque, another man wrapped us in unwanted, colored bed sheets that smelled and looked like they had never been washed. Clearly this was a rip off since only foreigners were wearing the sheets and other indians who wore jeans and t-shirts were not reprimanded. Obviously I was furious about all this and couldn’t wait to get out of there, without tipping anyone.

Rampel was kind enough to organize a rickshaw ride through Old Delhi for Rs. 150 or $2.93 usd. And thank god he did because walking and driving around old Delhi is to certainly tempt fate in the narrow roads and tiny back ally ways. I’m positive we must have hit about 3 people walking because one lady even smacked our driver. Luckily, we made it out okay, feeling seriously grateful for the luxuries we have, and significantly less hungry.

Our final stop of the day was Ghandi’s memorial park. We were hesitant to go inside when we saw a large school group exit, but Rampel assured us everything would be fine. We refused to take of our shoes again and therefore only got an aerial shot of the memorial, but we were still nursing our tempers.

After such a traumatizing day, we indulged ourselves at Punjabi by Nature where happy hour was 2for1 beers and non-spicy really means “lets make my face sweat with a side of heartburn”. 🙂

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Qutub Minar

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Safdarjang’s Tomb

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Qila Rai Pithora, the first city of Delhi

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Jama Masjid (I was really close to losing it here)

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Chicken anyone?

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Nap time in the middle of the street

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Feasting at Punjabi by Nature

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Sheep

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Stray dogs sleeing

Delhi day 1

20 Nov

Our morning began bright and early with a full buffet breakfast of indian and american food including, dragon fruit, papaya, mango yogurt, eggs, French toast, etc. Here we met up with Christine and Kevin, who arrived a day earlier. Our driver, Rampel, met us at the hotel and decided where we should go based on the traffic patterns of the day. Our first stop was Humayan’s Tomb, which is the precursor to the Taj Mahal. It was built by the Emperor Humayan’s grieving widow and holds over 100 graves.

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Our next stop was the India gate. This was our first time experiencing blatant stares, people taking photos of us, and vendors following us around. The amount of trash was also a bit overwhelming, making this a fairly quick stop.

We quickly moved on to the buildings of parliament, which were heavily guarded and have quite a population of monkeys. This was our first experience crossing the street, where luckily everyone obeyed the laws while we were making our way across.

By this point we are ready for lunch, but of course, don’t really know where to go. Trusty driver to the rescue! Rampel brought us to Pindi restaurant, where we were not disappointed. Garlic naan, lamb kabab, butter chicken, mutton in spinach and basmati rice, was our first real Indian meal. We got a little nervous when we saw the server pour water from a pitcher into a water bottle and re-seal the bottle “slum dog millionaire style.” But there were many other foreigners in the restaurant with their Indian guides and so far no one has had significant complaints. Here’s hoping!

The next stop was the location of Ghandi’s assassination and his Delhi residence. This was a great exhibit because it wasn’t the coolest, but it was definitely the most informative.

Lastly, we ventured to Dilli Haat, for our first shopping experience at the out door market. Luckily, Asians are gifted negotiators, and therefore we were able to buy gifts without getting completely ripped off. 🙂

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Dinner of champions! Spicy Paneer sandwiches from Micky D’s. (Note: Paneer is cheese, NOT chicken, as the packaging suggests.)
Conversation:
Sonya: “Wow this Paneer sandwich is really good, I bet it would sell in the US. People love spicy food.”
James: “Yea maybe”
Lucy: “What is Paneer again?”
Christine: “Cheese”
Lucy: “Sh*t I can’t be eating this I’m lactose intolerant.”
James: “Oh yea, once people found out what this is there is no way they would eat it in the states.”
…major fail!
While too expensive for the average Indian, our meal,(despite not knowing what it was half the time,) still came to about $6.