Namaste from India! We left off last week after just touching down in Delhi. It’s my first time visiting India and there’s so much to explore so let’s not waste any time! Let’s dive right in and see what’s out there!
INDIA: FAST FACTS
It would be impossible to tell you everything there is to know about India in this newsletter but I’ve gathered some fast facts that I thought were interesting to share:
India is in South Asia and borders Bangladesh, Bhutan China, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.
India is the world’s largest democracy.
India is the second most populous country in the world (an estimated 1.14 billion).
India is the seventh-largest country by geographical area (1.27 million sq. miles).
India has 28 states and seven territories.
In 1947 India gained its independence from Britain, which is also when the Muslim-majority areas were partitioned to form a separate country of Pakistan.
India is home to 7.6% of the world’s mammals, 12.6% birds, 6.2% reptiles, 4.4% amphibians, 11.7% fish, and 6% of all flowering plant species.
India’s largest cities are Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Delhi, Kolkata (Calcutta), Chennai (Madras), Bengaluru (Bangalore) – the anglicized names were changed back to their original ones in 1996.
India’s main religions are: Hindu (81.4%), Muslim (12.4%), Christian (2.3%) and Sikh (1.9%).
India’s official languages are Hindi, English and 16 others you’ve probably never heard of.
For more background information on India, click here.
IS INDIA SAFE?
I am asked this question all the time since I was in India during the November terror attacks. To be honest, I don’t know quite how to answer it. The American, Canadian and British governments are not advising travelers to avoid going there. However, Australia‘s government is. One security expert recently told USA Today that, “India is no more risky than it was before.” No one really knows if India is safe … or any country for that matter … but if I had the chance, I would go back tonight.
TAJ PALACE HOTEL
Natalie and I spent three nights in New Delhi at two different hotels. The first two nights were at the eight-storey, two-tower, 462-room Taj Palace Hotel. There are three Taj Hotels in New Delhi, which by the way, is the capital of India. The Taj hotel we stayed at was the Taj Palace, which is on Diplomatic Row, so as you can imagine, lots of heads of state from around the world stay here. Even Bill Gates. Before our taxi went into the driveway, the undercarriage was searched and the trunk checked for bombs — and this was a few days before the November 26th terrorist attacks. The moment we pulled up, an army of Taj staff, all wearing colorful and beautiful traditional attire, greeted us. They’re ready to help and make sure you never have to open a door. The lobby is incredibly grand, full of white marble andornate furniture. It’s huge and sprawling and the staff is polite almost to a fault. For example, when I called down to the front desk to see if I had a package, the clerk would wait for me to say it’s okay for them to put me on hold while they checked.
I was excited to be in India and staying at such a prestigious hotel (though this isn’t Delhi’s grandest). But the moment I walked into the room, I found myself wondering if I was still at the same Taj that had just moments before greeted me with its lavish lobby. The room was so outdated and in need of a renovation (the same goes for the pool area). In turns out that the rooms on floors six through eight had already been remodeled and our floor (five) was next. Don’t get me wrong: The room was comfortable but I bet it was nothing like the plush, renovated ones on the floors above. For those addicted to TV, there was a flat screen with a ton of English, American and foreign channels: HBO, National Geographic, Discovery, Travel & Living, Animal Planet, Hallmark, Fox History/Entertainment, Australia Network, TV5 Monde … All I cared about was Wi-Fi Internet, which they had for 749.00 INR ($15USD) for 24 hours.
Each room comes with a bottle of water which wasn’t enough for Natalie or me because we were both paranoid about getting sick. We even brushed our teeth with bottled water, which the hotel representative said was unnecessary … but we weren’t taking chances. In fact, when I take a shower, I usually love to stick my mug under the spout and let the hot water splash on my face with my mouth open. Not here. Instead, when I took a shower, it was as if I was under water — I held my breath when shampooing and rinsing my hair and kept my pie-hole shut. The windows weren’t soundproofed so I could hear horns beeping most of the night and a train every once in a while but nothing too bad. What’s interesting is that the Taj has designated certain rooms as Earth Rooms. Ours was one of them, which meant that the linens were changed every two days instead of daily, the pad of paper was made from recyclable paper and there are no plastic bags. I know it’s kind of a joke but hey, at least they are trying to be aware.
FOOD AT THE TAJ
Breakfast is served in the 24-hour Mediterranean eatery Kafe Fontana. There’s no dress code here though one of their restaurants is semiformal. Inside Kafe Fontana we found anumber of wealthy travelers and fantastic service. The breakfast buffet had everything a high-maintenance American could want … and then some. There were fresh smoothies, pastries,pancakes, eggs, omelets, bacon, beans … you name it. There was even a dessert table and a salad bar. I thought the people eating salad were nuts because everything I had read and heard before going to India had advised travelers to stay away from cold stuff, especially salad (since the lettuce and veggies have to be rinsed). But we sat next to a Canadian tour group with 30+ travelers who were in India for three weeks and were just wrapping up their journey. The seasoned travelers said it was their best trip ever and not one of them had gotten sick from the food — and they were eating the salad in the hotel. That eased some of my fears but not all of them. The hotel has a restaurant called Masada that serves Indian artistic style cooking and they use olive oil to make it healthier. You also don’t want to miss having tea or coffee in the lobby. The hotel offers 94 different teas and 18 coffees. Taj Palace Hotel, 2, S.P. Marg, Diplomatic Enclave, New Delhi, Tel: 011-26110202.
The other place we stayed was at the Shangri-La Hotel, New Delhi, which opened in 2001. Shangri-La has 58 deluxe hotels and resorts worldwide (mostly in Asia) and the ones I have been to were all fantastic (especially Abu Dhabi, Chiang Mai and Hong Kong). This hotel seemed to be the same but unfortunately, we arrived very late at night and left really early in the morning so I didn’t have a chance to use any of their facilities or dine at any of its restaurants. But I can tell you that the room was really styling. The 19-floor hotel has 320 guest rooms and though the rooms are compact, they are luxurious. They are modern-chic with an Asian flair. Decorated with rich colours and luxe fabrics, these rooms are elegantly appointed. The desktop was glass so you can see what’s in the drawer without opening it. Favorite features: Fresh flowers; blackout curtains; hypoallergenic pillows. This room had the most comfortable bed you can possibly imagine. I didn’t want to leave. The only thing I didn’t like was the smoke detector’s green light constantly flashing (I prefer a room to be pitch black).
My favorite part might have been the marble bathroom and its soft, oversized towels. There was a window (with a curtain) in the shower so you can see what’s going on in the room or on the flat screen TV while washing up, using the complimentaryL’Occitane products. The website says there’s free Internet but maybe that has changed in the past few weeks because I paid 300 Rupees ($6 USD) for two hours. The other option was 880 Rupees ($18 USD) for 24 hours and they use Ethernet cords not WiFi. One interesting observation is that the people at the front desk take pictures of guests upon check-in with a digital camera for recognition purposes. It’s the first time I’ve seen this since Vatulele in Fiji (they used a Polaroid). Shangri-La Delhi, 19 Ashoka Road, Connaught Place, New Delhi; Tel: (91 11) 4119 1919.
DELHI TOUR GUIDE
I arranged a tour guide through India Safaris. Ms. Neelam Rajmalani (Nraj0705@yahoo .com) arrived right on time with a well-dressed, attentive driver in a clean car. On the way to our first stop, she told us a lot about the history of India and how people are greeted here with a Namaste. Namaste literally means “I bow to you.” The word is derived from Sanskrit and is commonly accompanied by a slight bow with the hands pressed together (palms touching and fingers pointed upwards) in front of the chest.
RANDOM THINGS I LEARNED
- Delhi has more than 350 roundabouts.
- In India, they still arrange marriages and there’s a less than 2% divorce rate.
- There are between 15 and 20 accidents a day in Delhi and about five are fatal.
JAMA MASJID (FRIDAY MOSQUE)
The streets are completely chaotic. The constant cacophony of horns and sirens became like an anthem of the city. Everyone is beeping their horn, there are street beggars, vendors, wholefamilies on a moped, people carrying supplies on their heads, kids pushing rickshaws, elephants, animals wandering aimlessly, funeral processions, wedding processions – you nameit, you might encounter it on the streets of Delhi. By the time wearrived at our first stop, my head was spinning and I didn’t want to get out of the car. For one thing, there were children tapping on the car window, begging for money as they followed us all the way down the street in the slow moving traffic. It’s illegal to give them money and it’s absolutely heart wrenching to turn your head and ignore them. But if you look them in the eye, you’re in for a long, painful goodbye. It’s incredibly difficult but because you’re accosted at every turn, it’s best to not even acknowledge them. If you give money to one person, you will get the same reaction as if you’d fed a lone pigeon. In the blink of an eye, there will be twenty more on your sleeve.
INSIDE THE MOSQUE
Walking up the three flights of red sandstone steps of the Jama Masjid really makes you feel like you’re in a foreign country … and out of shape! Jama Masjid is also known as the Friday Mosque for its Friday noon prayer service (Friday is the Muslim holy day). The courtyard of the mosque is huge and can hold up to twenty-five thousand worshippers! Jama Masjid is one of the best-known mosques in India and is the largest mosque in Asia. It was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal. The mosque took six years to build and was completed in 1656 AD. The three black and white marble domes that cover the prayer hall are majestic. It’s free to enter but everyone has to take their shoes off. A guy standing outside will watch your shoes for 10 rupees ($0.20USD). But since I spent a lot of money for my orthotics, I always pull them out and carry them. For more on the Jama Masjid, click here.
Jama Masjid is situated right next to the Chandni Chowk, which is a popular street in Old Delhi. Ms. Neelam arranged for two trishaws to take the three of us down the narrow alley of Kinari Bazaar. If you think the regular streets are crazy, just wait until you cruise down the Kinari Bazaar – it’s really bizarre! Theplace is packed with shoppers, street vendors, hawkers, shops,businesses, animals… Entering the alleyway, my driver pointed up to the low-lying wires, which reminded me of Episode 7 in this year’s Amazing Race (if you are in the U.S. you can watch it here). I read that Kinari Bazaar is a favorite for locals to shop for their wedding supplies and there was even a wedding procession with a band making its way through the jostling crowd. See the video below for a better visual. When the 30-minute trishaw ride was over, I asked our guide how much it cost. It was 100 rupees ($2 USD) per person. Is that crazy or what? In New York City, a trishaw ride cost me $10 for an eight-minute ride this summer.
Our next stop was Raj Ghat, which loosely translates to the King’s Court and is a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi (October 2, 1869 – January 30, 1948) was India’s most important political and spiritual leader. He led the way of the Indian independence movement and believed in total non-violence, which inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. Unfortunately, Gandhi was shot and killed during one of his nightly public walks on the grounds of the Birla Bhavan, here in New Delhi. Raj Ghat is the spot where he was cremated one day after his assassination. There’s a black marble platform that marks the exact spot and an eternal flame. The memorial has the epitaph He Ram, (literally ‘O’ Ram’, but also translated to ‘O God’), believed to be Gandhi’s last words. The park is free to enter but again there’s a 10 Rupee charge to leave your shoes guarded. FYI: If there’s a foreign dignitary in town, it’s customary for them to stop here and pay their respects by laying flowers or wreaths on the platform. There’s also a commemorative ceremony held every Friday and prayer sessions are held on Gandhi’s birth and death anniversaries. For more information, click here.
Our guide took us to lunch at the Chicken Inn. You know it’s a tourist trap when there’s a security guard out front, more street hawkers than you can count and a tour group of pale Englishmen waiting to go in. While walking up, a Yogi-looking man with a red turban asked if I wanted to take a picture of him and his two pet cobras, which were in a closed basket. When I said yes, he lifted the lids and played his flute until the venomous reptile danced. The shots were worth the 100 Rupee price but I kindly passed on sitting next to him so he could put the creature around my neck. Normally I wouldn’t welcome a touristy restaurant but since I was in India, starving and this was my first lunch, I wanted to be sure I didn’t get sick. The Chicken Inn was perfect even thought they serve both Indian and Chinese food (what the heck?). Of course, we had Indian food! Our meal consisted of one order of butter chicken, three orders of naan bread, one roti, a serving of raita (a cucumber yogurt dish to cool the palate), a Fanta, a Coke and a bottle of water for 1400 ($29 USD). The tip isn’t included and it’s customary to give 10%.
No trip to Delhi would be complete without seeing Raj Ghat. It’s like a mini Taj Mahal but without the four minarets. In fact, Humayun’s Tomb is what inspired the Taj and several other major architectural innovations to be built. Humayun’s Tomb was built in 1570 (62 years before the Taj Mahal) and is an elegant example of early Mughal architecture. Humayun’s Tomb is one-third smaller than the Taj Mahal and it was commissioned by Hamida Banu Begum, a widower, for her husband, the second Mughal emperor. Humayun’s Tomb took 10 years to build (the Taj Mahal took 22) and like the Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it has a Persian-style garden. It costs 250 rupees ($5 USD) per person to get in.
No tour would be complete without going to a shop that’s exclusively for tourists. I would have passed but since I was with Natalie, we went to Mughal Bazaar. The place didn’t have any customers so when we walked in, all the different shopkeepers perked up. The main sales guy was an amazing salesman – he knew when to lay off but kept instilling key words to create a need for us to buy Indian presents to take home. On cue, his workers brought out tea encouraged us to look around. There really wasn’t much pressure to buy and I did end up getting a painting. Natalie bought a scarf and a garnet necklace to take home.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Before I sign off for the week, I thought I would share a quote from India’s father: “Civilization is the encouragement of differences.” — Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948).
Next week: A dream of a lifetime is fulfilled! Stay tuned!
Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Jet Airways.