Official Language: Hindi, English
Currency: Indian Rupee
Population: 1.3 billion in India
Region of the world: South Asia; Rajasthan is a northern state bordering Pakistan and Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, is just outside of Rajasthan to the east
Religion: Diversity of religious beliefs, most commonly practiced are Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism
Travel Partner: Hannah from Curio Trips, a boutique trip design business dedicated to helping travelers book unique vacations around the globe. This is one of Hannah’s Purposeful Trips meant for clients to travel with purpose and dive deeper into cultures with a greater understanding and a never ending quest for making a difference.
The 13 hours to Delhi were filled with people watching and horrid sleep, even though sleeping aids were running through my body at full force. It was 2pm in India when we landed, and even though I was all out of whack, our driver took us on a tour through the capital city chock full of almost 22 million people before arriving to the hotel. See also: Ambitious. My first glimpses of this place had my Ambien-hangover eyes wide with disbelief. Countless tuk-tuks were weaving in and out of traffic. Nobody minded the actual lanes. Horns sounded with each passing millisecond. Locals stared hard into our van. I smiled and waved a friendly gesture, to which it was almost always reciprocated. “I think I’m gunna like it here,” I thought.
We arrived to the Trident Gurgaon, a tranquil oasis set amongst the bustling city center, if you can believe it.
Jet lag, my old friend, visited yet again on our first morning in India. 5am was met with a gym session, then breakfast and a flight to Udaipur via Jet Airways. A two hour delay due to record-breaking smoke levels had me trying to login to the Delhi airport wifi entirely too many times. I even called the help desk contact number out of desperation and sheer boredom, but to no avail. To all visitors, please note that the Delhi airport wifi is non-existent. Before visiting India, I received some good advice from a friend. Always have a book with you everywhere you go because life can be slow. They weren’t wrong. We eventually made our way to Udaipur where there’s less pollution, lots of mountains, copious amounts of marble and a different culture and way of dress entirely. After a sunset tour of the lake, it was time to check-in, receive our bindis (traditionally used as a sign of marriage but recently used in tourism as a welcome custom), and rest our heads at the Trident Udaipur.
This morning, I was met with poached eggs and a tour of the City Palace, a truly majestic complex dating back to the Mewar Dynasty and built over a period of 400 years on Pichola Lake. Protein is necessary prior to visiting the Palace if you fall into the History Buff category. This place is massive and deserves a slow pace to take it all in, but we had lunch to get to.
My first Indian feast came at Oberoi Udaivilas. It should be noted here that India has a polarizing economy between the wealthy and the lower class. We experienced both sides on this trip which will be woven into the itinerary intermittently. I don’t think I’ve ever been so stuffed in my life. At what I can only believe to be about a 6-month pregnant level, I put the fork down. Between the curry and the sauces and the spices, my taste buds were spent. If you’re a foodie, definitely read through my Tastes of India: What to Eat from North to South. Disclaimer: it’ll have you dialing up your nearest Indian food joint in mere seconds.
During our short stint in Udaipur, one of my favorite regions of India, Hannah and I counted our lucky stars to able to put our bags down for one glorious night at the Taj Lake Palace Hotel, and what a dream it was…
We woke up with the sun to see the floating hotel in its best lighting. This was one of those photoshoots that had me running around like a crazy person, tripod over my head, shoes thrown in some corner of the hotel, lens caps misplaced, etc. I was exhausted because India does that to you in the best way possible, but I wasn’t leaving until I captured every.single.corner here. Well, that, and then there was breakfast. I wasn’t leaving until I had tried every exotic fruit and pastry on offer inside this insanely beautiful eatery on the lake.
Built on rock in the middle of Lake Pichola in 1746 out of marble, the Taj Lake Palace may just be the most romantic establishments I’ve ever visited. I feel so fortunate to have been able to even lay eyes on it, and I’ll probably die and go to heaven if I’m able to return with a significant other one day. *Le sigh*
After check-out, we immediately went to see the markets of Udaipur. Hanging with the locals and seeing what they grow, gather and create on a daily basis had my camera going a million miles a minute. My favorite moment was buying Jalebi! NAME THAT MOVIE. Anyone? Lion is my jam (DROOL Dev Patel), and I couldn’t have been more excited to find this pretzel-shaped treat on the side of the road. It was sweeter than I could have ever imagined which made sense once I found out it was made from deep fried flour and sugar syrup. Nommmmm.
After some clean eating, we made the two hour drive to Kumbleghar, a badass fortress and UNESCO World Heritage site designed to protect the citadel from its enemies. The scenery was unreal and only locals roamed the grounds. I knew we’d come far enough out of where many tourists are’t willing to venture, a good sign of a local time. After basking in what felt like the Great Wall of China meets Game of Thrones goodness, we then embarked on a 3 hour dark and bumpy drive to Jodphur. I couldn’t sleep a wink, but the upside was I️ felt like we were on our own safari without the safari fee. Camels, monkeys, cows and bulls littered the roads to Jodphur. It was a scene out of a movie, probably Lion, and I made up my mind that I’d slap a GoPro to the rearview mirror next time because it was a sight that everyone needed to see.
Rising above the city’s skyline is the impressive Mehrangarh Fort where you can see the sprawling blue city below. The most interesting thing about this fortress to me was the small set of handprints or sati marks left by royal widows who would throw themselves onto their husbands funeral pyres after death from a battle. Talk about dedication right there.
After such a history lesson, we then ventured to the ever opulent Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel, another jaw-dropping Taj property for a look around the grounds. I’ve never seen anything so palatial in my life except for maybe in Dubai, and I was stunned at the luxury that this place exuded. I didn’t want to touch anything, oh but I did. But I didn’t. But I did. We ended up leaving after a short gawk around and a few glasses of champs later.
A short visit to Jaswant Thada temple was next. I couldn’t get over the fact that this was a mausoleum. Talk about a lovely parting gift from son to father.
My favorite moment in Jodhpur came when we took a tuk-tuk into the thick of the blue houses. This was the real India where power lines were in a tangled mess above stacked housing developments and 50 shades of blue were everywhere I looked. School boys and a heard of cattle came barreling down the narrow passageway taking no prisoners as a women carrying a large basket on her head walked passed. Motorcycles and livestock and stray dogs seemed to outnumber the people, a group who was thought to be rough around the edges…but you can’t and shouldn’t always believe what you hear.
With our guide at our heels, I felt an immense sense of security roaming these streets. I felt alive amongst these people and this beautiful mess of a development. Our time ended in the region with a “conversation” between us and a young Indian boy who carried a notepad. We didn’t speak the same language, but we were able to talk through smiles, laughter and hand gestures. Love really is the international language 🙂
And then back to the van it was for a 6 hour drive to Jaipur. I️ remember thinking that one of those days, we’d definitely have a head-on collision. Driving here was insane. Nobody stays in their lane, if there actually is a lane on the road. It’s a free for all. My boobs hurt and I️ remember having to take my out my earrings because the roads were so bumpy and uneven. We were going over them at about 90km, so I️ couldn’t do anything but wonder if today would be my dying day. What a way to go, huh?
Elephants, palaces and forts. That’s what today consisted of. The Pink Palace, or Hawa Mahal, is beautiful. And pink. Amber Fort is intricate af.
And here is where I have to be honest. At this point in my India journey, I was in history overload. Dates and rulers and dynasties were running together, and it was hard to separate one palace from another. I absolutely don’t say that to be insensitive or come across as aloof. I tried my best to be very present while in this beautifully complex country. It deserves that much, and it’s required out of all visitors. There comes a point in time, however, when my mind turns to mush and that’s what happened at the Pink Palace. So then we turned into tourists and got henna tattooed on our bodies.
A half hour drive from the hustle and bustle of Jaipur led us to a remote bush jungle full of adopted and rescued animals. Yay for nature and no horns. The elephants that reside here were rescued from the city where they had a torturous life taking tourists up and down the popular landmark of Amber Fort multiple times a day. Dera Amer Wilderness Camp seemed like a world away, and sometimes, isolation is the best kind of luxury.
I feel like there’s been a lot of fort and palace talk. That’s probably because there has been. And here we go again. My favorite fort of all is known as Nahargarh Fort above the city of Jaipur. I found it truly stunning at sunset while getting all kinds of (wo)Man of the Night’s Watch vibes (disregard if you’re not a GoT fan).
If you’re in need of a great restaurant while in Jaipur, Samode Havali is my jam. The food was good was the company was great. I sat down to dinner expecting not to know a soul besides Hannah in all of India. I looked to my immediate left and was shocked to see a friend of mine sitting next to me! (Crazy part is, last year we quite literally ran into each other on a bus in Vietnam.) I travel to feel small in this great big world, but I swear it’s actually shrinking ha! Lastly, if you’re in need of a bar scene, Bar Palladio is straight out of my dreams…
For extreme opulence and tented luxury, may I recommend the Oberoi Rajvilas where we were greeted with bindis, sandlewood refreshments and a look around before driving as fast as our van would take us in order to make sunset at the Taj Mahal in Agra. What a TRIP that was. I live for moments during travel when my eyes widen, my jaw drops and my heart beats a little faster. Those keep me inside the adventure and this was one of those times.
I bought a saree, a traditional female dress, a few days prior and thought I’d throw it on in the bathroom outside of the Taj for such a landmark viewing. I was given a tutorial on how to dress myself in 9 meters of cloth, but a clueless foreigner just can’t quite do it like the locals do. A women in the bathroom found me struggling hardcore and so graciously tied me into my saree. She pointed to my skirt, asking where my pants were in order to tuck all the cloth inside for a stronghold, but alas, I’d just have to wing it. Well, “winging it” while surrounded by hundreds of thousands of pushy tourists (can’t exactly exclude myself here) and being in no less than 100 selfies with the locals (it was the blonde hair) had my saree coming off right around the time the guards told me to immediately put my mic inside my bag. No video allowed. Another friendly local came to my rescue to tied me back into my 9 meters of bedazzled cloth before the sun faded behind the horizon and the many thousands of us were shooed out of the gates. Phew. I remember being nothing short of exhausted as we only arrived JUST in time to get tickets before closing and had JUST enough time to photograph the masterpiece before the sun went to sleep. What a day, what a day.
This was a LONG day, so stay with me. Day 7 took all of my energy, emotions and strength I had to finish the damn thing. I think, if my memory serves me correctly, we started at the Red Fort. It was beautiful and grand, but it didn’t make an impact like our next visit quite did.
Hannah has launched a new arm of her business called ‘Purposeful Trips‘ which aims at traveling with purpose, understanding the world and new cultures, and learning how you can make a difference. This particular day brought on such a powerful meeting with some of the fierce women I’ll never forget. We walked into Sheroes, a play on the words ‘she’ and ‘hero’, an initiative started by acid attack survivors in hopes to spread awareness and create jobs for women who’ve been victimized by such a horrible act. With acid attacks still prevalent in India, many victims are unlikely to marry, thus having to support themselves in mainstream society.
Meet Rupa, a young woman with a fierce ambition to be a fashion designer. She had acid thrown on her face at 14 years old by her stepmom who didn’t want her in the family. With the support of Sheroes, she has since launched her own collection called Rupa Design.
We were walking out the door, completely in awe of the women we’d just met and moving forward with an insane amount of appreciation for life when a few Spanish women walked into the cafe. We introduced ourselves and they did the same, saying how they had come to Agra after watching a documentary on Sheroes and the amazing work they put out in the universe. They then felt compelled to travel all the way to India, take the Sheroes women back to Spain with them, and introduce them to a new culture while educating people about acid attacks. Keep in mind some of the victims were left blind due to the acid. This would make a trip across the world a bit difficult, but both parties were willing and able to make it all happen. I left that day thankful for life, for health and for being able to witness random acts of kindness from complete strangers. Girl power forever and always. I will never forget that inspiring experience.
Next we visited a marble factory, which I’m going to graze over because this post is already 2500 words long, and that’s just stupid. We did stop at the Oberoi Amarvilas for lunch and a look around (every room here guarantees a view of the Taj – SWOON). I strapped myself into my beautiful saree again, because obviously, and off we went on a Taj Mahal mission.
Look. I didn’t know when I’d be back to see this astounding landmark again, and I knew I wanted a second glance. Call it greed, call it desire, call it crazy. We wanted to see this thing yet again, but this time, we wanted to see it from a boat.
We made it to the River Garden area on the opposite side of the Yamuna River and found Pooja, the sweetest girl who kindly tied me back into my saree when it came slipping off my body (I’m a shitshow and should not be allowed to wear one). We then realized that the traditional boats couldn’t even venture over to our side of the riverbank after spending an hour in traffic getting there. We eventually made the decision to go back to where we came from (other side of the river next to the Taj Mahal) in order to get on one of these boats that ONLY left from that specific riverbank. Oh, the joys of traveling. I was going to see the Taj from the water if I died trying. Like the previous night, it was a race against the sun and we made it just in time. It ended up being an amazing experience (and stark contrast to the first hectic visit) during an unforgettable sunset.
Taj Mahal Bits:
- Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his favorite wife who died during childbirth, and he wanted so desperately for it to be a unique masterpiece without an equal.
- To ensure it would be the one-and-only, the Emperor apparently severed the hands and gouged the eyes of the its craftsmen.
- It took approximately 20 years to build and around 20,000 workers to complete. There were also about 1000 elephants used to transport the materials.
- UNESCO has designated the Taj Mahal as a World Heritage Site and it is also one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
- The cost to build the Taj Mahal was about 35 million rupees, which would be about 1 million USD. In 1632 that would be an enormous amount of money to spend on a mausoleum.
- Around 3 million people visit the Taj Mahal each year.
After the boat visit, we then had a 4 hour drive ahead of us to Delhi where we’d board a plane to the south. New post coming soon!
Further Reading on India: