I know now may not be a good time to catch up on my travel blogging. But in a melodramatic way, I’m back to writing about the places I’ve been to, just in case I forget. The world will never be quite the same again after this lock down and I want to remember every bit and piece, every memory.
I must admit, India has never been in my list of countries to go to. I have the usual suspects though – France, Japan, Switzerland, Iceland – relatively cold places. And cold places are all the pleasantness in the world when you live in a country as constantly hot and humid as the Philippines. Hahaha
But my husband is all for anything off the beaten path, and with the promise of all that spicy food, we headed to New Delhi with curry on our minds.
I am not one of those adventurous budget travel backpackers. Not that I wouldn’t have loved to. The thought of that 10 years ago would have been thrilling! What I am though is a mom who has limited time to spend away from my then 3 yr old son and a husband who doesn’t like the thought of the uncomfortable unknown in a foreign country. So I travel with ease and comfort on my mind. Its a much needed vacation after all. Most of our trips last for a week, 3 weeks at the most. It’s the usual dependable stuff – get a decent hotel with airport pickup, sign up for a tour or two, spend at least a day exploring things on your own, get an Uber when time is of the essence. That’s my take on it.
We stayed at Radisson Blu – yes, I am the predictable mom who stays at chain hotels hahaha. Just a tip though, there are several branches of this hotel all over Delhi. The one we stayed at was near the Indira Gandhi International airport and was too far from the center of Delhi. With the daily traffic jam, it took us an hour or so to get to the tourist sites. And going back to the hotel at the end of the day was a bummer too, especially during rush hour. Being Filipino though, the place reminded me so much of our very own disastrous commute in Metro Manila, so it was no biggie. But if you’re used to much less traffic though, you may find it a tad bit stressful. Get a hotel in a more central location. Trust me.
We arrived in Delhi a little after lunch. It was a hot, dusty day in the middle of May. As usual, I arranged for airport pickup (it’s what I always do when I travel to a country for the first time) but Radisson Blu didn’t send anybody to come get us. Bummer! And yes, I left a nasty comment on Trip Advisor for that mishap, especially after emailing them a couple of times to confirm. You’d think you can never go wrong with a dependable chain hotel right? So there we were, tired and sweaty under the midday sun, desperately trying to book an Uber. We waited for nearly thirty minutes (yes, I know you can argue that we could have used that time to look for a bus or a train, but old habits die hard I guess). Good thing Radisson Blu is just a few minutes from the airport, just off the Delhi Gurgaon Expressway. We checked in and rested for a bit before meeting our guide for a short afternoon tour of Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk.
Pro Tip #1 India won’t change your Bangladeshi taka for rupees
Before going to India, we stayed for 3 days in Bangladesh. Upon leaving the airport in Dhaka we had some taka left but we opted to just exchange it for rupees when we reach India. Turns out (for some reason unknown to us) not a single one of the money changers at the airport or most anywhere in Delhi would accept Bangladeshi taka. A friend of ours from Bangladesh did a bit of research and told us a local market in Delhi has a money changer that may allow us to exchange our leftover taka. So yes, we spent an entire morning looking for this oasis in the outskirts of Delhi. Hey, don’t judge me though, the amount was significant enough to spend for another decent tour and some souvenirs.
Jama Masjid is the second largest mosque in India, built by the very same man responsible for the magnificent Taj Mahal, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Built using red sandstone, this impressive example of Mughal architecture can be found near the Red Fort and towers above the city street with 30 steps leading up to its entrance. Before going in though, you need to pay 500 rupees (35 rupees if you’re Indian) and you need to remove your shoes. Yup, you read that right.
Pro Tip #2 Wear socks or bring a pair
If you’re visiting for the summer, wear socks for tours such as this. Unless you’re comfortable walking barefoot with a crowd of people in a Mosque, it pays to be prepared with a pair of socks in your bag somewhere. And some hand sanitizer, and possibly a cloth mask for the dust. I know, I’m sounding like such a mommy. Hahaha.
Chandhi Chowk and a walking tour
After touring the mosque, we headed to Chandni Chowk for a street food tour. Yes, we just had to kick start the trip with a must-have eating session. But first, here’s a little background info on Chandni Chowk. It’s considered one of the oldest and biggest markets in Asia, subdivided into different parts with different products. If you’re Filipino like me, its much like Divisoria (complete with the crowded streets and the overwhelming array of things for sale, and street food on every corner). While writing this, I have been to India twice already but I have yet to explore the entire Chandni Chowk area. I’m a fashion designer and as usual, I am always in the lookout for materials I can use for my designs. That being said, I specifically asked our guide to point me to Kinari Bazaar after our afternoon snack. Kinari Bazaar has all the frills and bling you need for a traditional Indian wedding- so the lace, sequins and beads were all there for me to drool over hahaha. It’s actually pretty cheap too, even cheaper than Divisoria.
Pro Tip #3
Indians love their shiny shimmering and splendid weddings. Yes, the stones, crystals and beads were there but most of the stores carry them in sizes that were a tad too big for my taste. But don’t take my word for it, maybe I just have to look into a few more stores on my next trip (oh please COVID be over soon). Kinari is Disneyland for a fashion designer like me.
On our second day in India, we asked our guide from the Chandni Chowk tour to hook us up with a private car and a tour of Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Thanks to the Yamuna Expressway, we accomplished this in just one day. We left the hotel at around 7 in the morning. Most tips would say its better to leave Delhi earlier so you can reach Agra before the big crowds arrive. But having just arrived in India a day before we had no energy for a super early wake up call. It took us about 4 hours to get to Agra. I kind of thought the driver could have done better what with him just driving at maybe 60 km an hour. I very nearly wanted to grab the wheel hahaha. Patience patience patience.
Pro Tip # 4
I don’t really know why but for some reason, Indian men prefer to talk with men and not their wives. From the airport in Delhi as I was lining up at the money changer, Indian men ignored the fact that I was there in front of them and just simply cut the line, like I was invisible or something! The fact that some of them thought I was Indian too, didn’t help at all (apparently I look like one of their own) It’s like they expected me to understand the blatant display of gender inequality. Hahaha. This didn’t really sit with me all too well. My husband appreciates the fact that I take care of everything when we travel – all the plane tickets, hotel bookings, tours, tips, everything. When the Indian driver or receptionist asks questions – they expect my husband to answer. Too bad they had to talk to the nosy little Asian wifey.
You can’t really go to India without seeing the Taj. I know some say its a bit overrated, but this white marble mausoleum is a sight to behold and I should know. In comparison to what I have seen so far in Europe ( Versailles, Windsor, Buckingham, Sterling, etc ), the Taj is just something else entirely. Its scale, its magnificence, its heartbreaking back story. The Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his beloved favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal, when she died in childbirth in 1631. Located in the center of a 17-hectare complex and surrounded by manicured gardens, its the best example of Mughal architecture India has to offer. It’s a love story set in intricately decorated ivory-white marble. And you can’t beat that!
Agra Fort and The Shish Mahal’s Hall of Mirrors
After a big lunch of mutton Biryani, we headed to Agra Fort for the second part of the tour. By this time it was about 2 in the afternoon and the heat was a killer. We noticed there were more visitors in the afternoon as well. So if you can afford to rise earlier, and make the trip before the rest of the tours, you can have more time to roam around.
Pro Tip #5
Always bring some water with you.
The Fort was massive, with intricate structures all throughout made of colored stone and marble. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is about 2 kilometers away from the Taj. It was the main residence of Shah Jahan and the other emperors of the Mughal Dynasty before the capital was shifted to Delhi. There are several spots of interest located inside the Fort. But my favorite has got to be the Shish Mahal and its Hall of Mirrors. Yes, India has its own Hall of Mirrors as well. It looks nothing like the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles but it is a bit more interesting. Closed off to most tourists, the Shish Mahal is part of the summer palace built by Shah Jahan. It features exquisite glass mosaic throughout its walls and ceiling. The glass pieces would reflect the light from any source and it would twinkle like stars in the night sky. We actually got to do this with candles! Our guide in Agra offered to take us inside the chamber for an extra 500 rupees, hahaha. Bribery is key. Oblivious to the crowd outside, we got in thru some sort of side door, handed him the money and from a little spot in the corner, he picked up two candles for us to light up. It was pitch black inside but the minute we moved the candles the room was sparkling! Here’s a link to the video, I was clueless for the first few seconds though. My husband had to ask me to move my hands hahaha
Qutub Minar is also a UNESCO world heritage site and the highest brick minaret in the world. Its located in the Qutb Complex in the heart of Delhi. It also houses the mysterious 1, 300 year old Iron Pillar – standing tall, proud and untarnished after all these years. There are several theories and explanations for this though, I like this write-up from Historic Mysteries if you want to know more.
There are a lot of IG-worthy spots throughout the complex for taking pictures. But to be honest, aside from posing for photos, I equally enjoyed chasing after the adorable squirrels running about (yes, we don’t have cute rodents in the Philippines, just filthy huge rats that ruin your day). On a normal day, the entrance fee would be 250 rupees for foreigners. It was our lucky day though, there was some kind of festival or celebration (not sure if it was World Heritage day, because I am writing this in 2020 and this was a trip we made back in 2018, ooops) and we got in for free.
Lajpat Nagar Central Market
Before going back to the hotel, we stopped by the Lajpat Nagar Central Market for some souvenirs. Less crowded than Chandhi Chowk, Lajpat Nagar is also known for its fabric and trimmings. I bought some traditional Indian snacks, scarves and colorful earrings for the ladies back home.
Pro Tip #6
We spent about 30-40 minutes trying to book an Uber from Lajpat Nagar. We had to walk a couple of blocks away from the market to get a ride. If you do want to visit, do it during the day and not so late in the afternoon like we did.
We ended the day with an eat-all-you-can dinner at the Great Kabab Factory. There were six kababs, a few curries, dals, a biryani, some dessert and very attentive waiters who made sure our plates were never empty. A word of warning though, its a bit pricey and the food is so good but you have to be really really hungry. If we knew what we were in for, my husband and I would have gladly missed lunch to make room for this meal hahaha.
Its day 32 of our community quarantine here in the Philippines. If there’s some silver lining to this COVID crisis, it is that nature is healing. News reports have said that the air quality in India is improving immensely. For the first time in 30 years, the snow-capped beauty of the Himalayan mountains can be seen from parts of Northern India. When this is all over, I would like nothing better than to go back to this wonderful country and experience it under a slightly better patch of blue. Yes, Great Kabab Factory, we will be back for you!
How are you quarantine-ing over there?