Colleen Alsberg of Fox World Travel recently went on a trip to India. Hear what she has to say here!
In all honesty, I never had a strong desire to visit India, but with the many compelling arguments from several of my co-workers, I applied for the Signature trip. The application was a bit daunting, but in the end it worked as I was accepted! I was one of only 6 recipients that would be traveling. What an amazing honor!
Travelers Woes: Working in the travel industry, we really like to experience everything that our clients would (the good, the bad, the ugly) as they go along and we had that in spades at the start. The journey began from JFK Airport on Emirates. We met in the Emirates Lounge as we were scheduled to fly Business Class on their new and huge A380. We boarded and then were informed of a minor outbound delay that turned into about 4½ hours. As we sat on the tarmac, I settled into my seat, watched movies and enjoyed warm nuts and champagne and was all good on my end. Apparently there was a mutiny going on in Economy on the lower level. They had to disembark about 30 passengers and bags which delayed us longer, but eventually we took off, bound for Dubai. Long story short, we missed our connection, spent many hours in the Dubai lounge, got a dayroom at a questionable local hotel and eventually found an airplane that would fly us all to Delhi! With patience and humor, you can survive any situation!
Colorful Chaos: It was an immediate immersion into Indian culture from the moment we arrived in Delhi. A virtual sensory overload! India was everything I imagined; traffic jams, honking horns, throngs of people, dogs, horse carts, camel carts, electric rickshaws, buses packed tight, dirty garbage-filled streets, slums, a cacophony of odors, elephants, monkeys, peacocks and so many cows! Everywhere! I loved every minute of its wonderful, colorful chaos!
Our journey would not have been as wonderful as it was if it were not for our Abercrombie & Kent guide, Vivek. From the moment he met us at the Delhi airport, he was a new friend, taking the best care of us.
Our time was abbreviated in Delhi because of our delays, but we did get to enjoy the beautiful Hotel Taj Mahal for a few hours. The property was stunning, as were the public areas. My room was lovely and comfortable with a picture perfect view of Delhi.
On to Agra: Talk about mutiny! There was some chatter that we might miss the Taj Mahal, but A&K did some shuffling of transportation and made it happen for us. After our few hours in Delhi, we jumped right into the swing of things, boarded our comfortable sprinter bus (equipped with wi-fi and plenty of bottled water) and started the trek to Agra. We made our way outside the city and onto the new, smooth highways, through wheat-farming country. It’s like stepping back into time, watching the locals cutting and stacking the wheat into sheaves, women tossing baskets of grain into the air to remove the hulls, literally separating the wheat from the chaff, shepherds herding goats, and camels pulling carts full of undefinable goods packed tight in burlap. Grey colored antelope shared the fields with workers, everyone tending to their own business. Smoke chimneys as far as the eye can see, producing red brick for the construction of endless high-rise housing. There was so much to take in that I never grew bored, even on the longest of rides.
The city of Agra was a mini version of Delhi with the same craziness. Winding our way through the city streets, we came upon a bus park to switch to a different ride that took us to the gate. How overwhelming it was to catch first glimpse of one of the “new” 7 Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site! The Taj Mahal was brilliantly white against the blue-gray sky! Commissioned in 1632 and built over 20 years, it is a mausoleum to house the remains of the beloved wife of Shah Jahan. As well he should, considering she died giving birth to his 14th child! We arrived midday, but were told that the most popular times to be there would be either at sunrise or sunset, when the color of the marble changes with the sun. From a distance, it looks rather plain, but up close is where the magic begins. To be able to touch the smooth, cool white marble with the inlaid gems (jade, crystal, blue lapis lazuli, amethyst and turquoise) was nothing short of amazing. The intricate marble carvings wove around the entire structure. We donned our shoe coverings and explored the inside where the tombs were centered, but the real beauty was outside. This was also where my first experience with the paparazzi began. The Indian boys (in the age 5 to 6 range) were entranced with my “whiteness!” They were so polite asking me for my photo, then whipping out the latest and greatest iPhone for the shot. I even caught a few older gentlemen grabbing “selfies” with me in the background.
After the Taj Mahal, we were treated to lunch and a site inspection at the Gateway Hotel by Taj. This was my first experience with real Indian food. Indian food is spicy, but not hot spicy (unless you want it to be). It’s a melding of spices that is almost magical. How do they know that oodles of different spices if cooked with lentils for hours are going to create an amazing dish? I’m now a huge fan of dal and garlic naan and could have made my every meal of that! American dishes are truly bland in comparison.
Before departing Agra, we visited a marble factory, where we saw workers with fairly simplistic implements, carving and inlaying gems into marble slabs. “Just for us” everything was 20% off and we could have had our own little piece of the Taj! Just a little pricey and heavy for my taste, but I have the memories and those are free!
Our long day continued as we did a little city tour, passing the gate to the famous Red Fort and then on to the train station. To get us back on track (pun intended) with our schedule, we had to head to Jaipur right away to catch up. Vivek booked us in a first-class car, so it wasn’t stuffed to the rafters with travelers hanging out the doors like we’d seen everywhere else. The Indian people sure love to feed you. In the 4 hours on the train, we had 2 meals, tea and ice cream. With that came naps, as we were all trying to catch up a little bit. Vivek was also a bit of an instigator, making me hold a banana by the window to taunt the monkeys at a couple of the stops. Those monkeys were NOT happy with me (but the baby monkeys were sooo cute)!
A Grand Palace Greeting: The Rambagh Palace by Taj became my favorite quite quickly. Upon arrival, we were greeted by elegantly dressed doormen, pink petals thrown under our feet, women in traditional saris marking us with a bindi and a jasmine blossom necklace. Smiles and Namaste from everyone! I asked what the bindi symbolized and was told peace to you and welcome. Through the trip we had red bindis (vermillion) and yellow bindis (saffron) at all of our Taj stops.
Since this was our first real stay with the Taj properties, I’ll give you a brief history. The first Taj hotel opened in Mumbai in 1903 and Taj has since been recognized as one of Asia’s largest and finest hotel company. They were active in converting former royal palaces in India into world class luxury hotels such as the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur and Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, two properties I had the extreme pleasure to reside for a few nights. They have grown a lot and now consist of 93 hotels in 55 locations across India with an additional 16 international hotels in the Maldives, Malaysia, Australia, UK, USA, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Africa and the Middle East.
My very gracious bellman took me to my suite and was delighted with my reaction upon entering. It was absolutely the most beautiful room(s) I have ever stayed in! I was in the “Sheesh Mahal Suite” which was quite literally my reaction when I saw it! SHEESH! It was dazzling! The ceiling was domed with backlights and a beautiful chandelier, the walls were decorated with mosaic mirrors and the four-poster bed was elegant as were all the furnishings and soft goods! It smelled of jasmine and could quite easily become my home for a good year or two! Spoiled-City Sister! It was late and my first chance in quite a few days to get a good night sleep…..and yes, I did get a good night sleep in my palace!
The Great Wall of Jaipur: We hit the road running in the morning; lots to do, lots to see. We started our day driving out to the countryside and let me tell you, every drive to anywhere in India is an adventure. Nothing is ever a short jaunt! Our destination this morning was Dera Amer, a small elephant “farm” for breakfast and an elephant safari. We enjoyed a lovely breakfast with made-to-order omelets and as much fresh juice and champagne as we wanted. AND NOW…. I’m now officially an elephant rider! To mount up, you had to climb stairs to the top of a stone structure, then ever so gracefully (NOT!) hop into the, I guess saddle for lack of a better word. You sit side-saddle on these plodding pachyderms with your feet on a little shelf. Hanging on for dear life, we slowly made our way up and down sand hills, through trees, carefully avoiding the branches and trying not to fall off this small building of an animal. Not since my camel ride in Cairo have I felt so uncomfortable or fearful of falling! But hey, I survived and can check that off my list!
With my elephant riding days behind me, we continued back to the beautiful pink city of Jaipur to visit the Amber Fort. Here we traded our bus for some Jeeps and took off through the bustling streets and what a fun ride it was! After passing a few elephants and stopping at a very official military-run card table to pay our fee, we made it up the great hill to the Amber Fort gate. Set into the rugged hills of Jaipur, the fort and walls go on forever, hence our claim that it is “The Great Wall” of Jaipur. It’s an ancient citadel, originally a palace, built with white marble and red sandstone. It was reputed to be the treasure vault of Rajasthan, but I thought it was a treasure in itself. There were courtyards, gardens, a temple, private chambers and a most spectacular mirrored-hall. The architecture, art and especially the views were stunning.
After one of my favorite lunches on the whole trip and a site inspection at the Jai Mahal Palace, we saw more of the sites of Jaipur including the Hawa Mahal. We returned to the Rambagh Palace for the afternoon to explore its beautiful grounds and relax in its calm serenity.
After our lovely afternoon, we did a quick tour of the palace and saw some of the even more incredible suites. Later, we were never to go hungry as the Taj hosted drinks in the Polo Bar and a wonderful dinner in the most spectacular Suvarna Mahal. We dined like kings, or should I say maharajas?
Trekking India: On to Johdpur, via a bus and a very long ride! I was a bit melancholy leaving my beautiful suite and the Rambagh Palace, but there were new ventures ahead. Vivek made arrangements for us to leave a little early so we could visit a true Hindu Temple, the Birla Temple. Fairly new, built in 1988, it is pure gleaming white marble with intricate carvings all around the exterior. The three marble domes of the temple represent the three major religions of the country. The Birlas have thus attempted to keep the temple out of religious bigotry and made it a place of secular worship. You will even find a carving of Jesus among the many Hindu gods and goddesses.
We made our way across the continent, taking the occasional “diversion” around road construction. That could prove to be a comical if not frightful venture. Our bus driver was prone to taking a more convenient, time saving route by driving on the wrong side of the road, on-coming traffic and all! We had both a driver and a water boy with us the whole route, who got a kick out of Catherine (Emirates Rep) and me in the front seat with our very vocal commentary about head-on collisions among other subjects. I believe our driver was Sikh, so we were in good hands, because as their religion dictates……. “Sikhs think religion should be practiced by living in the world and coping with life’s everyday problems.” Rock and Roll!
Some of our diversions took us through small villages that we would have totally missed were it not for the construction. The friendliness of the people was never more apparent until we started going through these villages. It was neat to see the school kids in their uniforms, holding hands as they walked down the street. The women walking….somewhere, dressed in saris every color of the rainbow. The kids especially were intrigued by this bus full of Americans, waving with huge smiles on their faces; all just beautiful people.
After lunch at the Country Inn & Suites (somewhere between Jaipur and Jodhpur), we rolled into the overwhelming Umaid Bhawan Palace. Home to the current Maharaja Gaj Singh in one wing, the rest of the palace was ours! Again the greeting was over-the-top, all the same bells and whistles, but this time drum music greeted us too! As I walked up the red carpet and entered the palace, I was overcome with “WOW!” This was the most castle-like of all the palaces we’d visited so far. The interior was spectacular, winding spiral staircases, marble pillars, tall domed atrium and lovely people greeting you along the way. Namaste!
Stay tuned for part two of Colleen’s Indian Expedition next week! View her photos here.
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