Sunday, July 20, 2014

India (19) Jaipur

In a desperate attempt to escape the heat, we decided to chill off at a mall. Even managed to watch a new movie that had just been released (Humshakals) Errr...don't judge!

Spent the evening at Chowki Daan - the perfect ending to our Jaipur experience! We were able to have a taste of Rajasthani life as well as dress up in traditional clothing. Food was spectacular and was included in the entry ticket. A must-visit!

India (18) Jaipur

As usual, Sonu was right on time to pick us up. We met our tour guide for the day and started on our tour. 

Highlights of the day:

Amer Fort & Palace

Jantar Mantar Observatory
Hawa Mahal Palace

India (17) Jaipur

It was completely evident that Jaipur had a different vibe to the other places we visited (Mumbai, Goa, Delhi). 

Our place to stay at would be "Ramada" (which if I could have my way, would not have been my choice). However, it served its purpose of providing bed and breakfast. 

It was on this particular day that my mum started to feel homesick. It was understandable. We'd been away for two weeks already. 

Mention must be made of the staff who were friendly and kind enough to help me recharge my phone with credit - Thank you :)

India (16) Agra

The drive to Agra was fine, but thanks to our driver - Sonu. It was scorching hot and utterly necessary to take the breaks that we had. After checking in at the ITC Mughal (and being upgraded to the Royal Mughal Suite) we set off on our tour with Khalid, our tour guide.

First stop - Agra Fort. Absolutely beautiful, but with a horrible stench. Disgusting! The heat was unbearable.

Next. Quick lunch / snack. 

And then - TAJ MAHAL! It took me a moment to catch my breath when I found myself before this great monument. I was awestruck. My mum didn't make it inside though. Lucky that I told her to rather stay in the shade...there were quite a few steep steps to climb to get inside.

After that, we went to a place where marble ornaments are made. It was really interesting to see the process from scratch!

Back to the hotel for a bit of R&R and then for a bite in the hotel restaurant. Food was delicious and the hotel? Magnificent!

India (15) Delhi

Spent Monday shopping... still shocked by the dirty conditions that were just everywhere around Delhi. What we were looking forward to was our trip to Agra the following day. And we would have the driver we requested: Sonu :)

India (14) Haridwar

Mum and I now remember this day with a slight shudder. We left Delhi with our driver, Shankar to make our way to Haridwar. Truth be told, I was really looking forward to this trip. We were doing some kind of pilgrimage and planned to do the 7pm prayer at the Ganges River.

The 7hr drive was nerve-wrecking. It honestly felt like our driver was just unleashed to cause HAVOC. He seemed to be so impatient. He overtook on oncoming traffic, where at one point, I thought - "it's over...". OMG!

Long story short - he was unable to understand or communicate in English and didn't even know the hotel we were staying at. When we finally reached SRS Lakshya Hotel, it was just about an hour or so before we were going to partake in the "aarti".

When Shankar picked us up, it didn't seem like he knew where we were going. He turned into a car park and looked back at us, expecting us to leave the car. 

"Where's the aarti?" we asked. He said it was two minutes away and that we'd have to walk there. We were promptly on the phone with our tour operator, Shamsher who spoke to Shankar on our behalf. Mum and I refused to leave the car.

"I'll be fine if I don't do the aarti," said mum.

We couldn't fathom that Shankar wanted us to leave the car - walk alone to goodness knows where and then...make our way back. In the dark. NO WAY!

"Uncle, please take us back to the hotel," I asked. It was getting late, we were already stressed out from the drive to Hardiwar and...I was trying to convince myself that this wasn't meant to be.

One the drive back to the hotel, I suggested to mum that we skip the following day in Rishikesh and go back to Delhi. Once we were got back to the hotel, we made arrangements with the hotel to check in a day earlier. Of course this was over and above our tour price and would need to be paid separately. No problem!

The next morning we left at 8am. Back to Delhi. The drive was just as bad, but we asked Shankar to "calm down, please!" 

We couldn't have been more excited to see our hotel again. Next stop: Spa for a massage!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

India (13) Delhi Sighseeing

Our tour guide for Delhi was Dinesh.

Our first stop was Jama Masjid, which was the main mosque in Old Delhi. Situated in Chandni Chowk, it was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1650. They were just about to close to the public as it was time for the Muslim Friday prayer. I was really astonished to learn that the place can hold up to 25,000 devotees!

We then went to Raj Ghat, which was the exact spot where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated.

Made a quick stop at the India Gate, Parliament Houses, Red Fort & Qutub Minar.

India (12) Goa to Delhi

So Thursday, June 12 - the day we were leaving Goa, mum was surprised with a little cake in the room. Why? Because it was my parents' 33rd Wedding Anniversary! :) What a nice gesture from the hotel, isn't it?

The flight to Delhi was really bumpy and we arrived to grey skies and  a bit of rain. Our driver for Delhi was Sonu - polite and helpful. The drive to the hotel was about 20 minutes. Security check before even reaching our check-in point was once again tight, but we were soon checked in quite swiftly by friendly staff.

That evening, as we decided where to dine [there are a variety of choices]. By chance, we met Anmol - a hotel staff member in the elevator. He asked if he could be of assistance and we just told him that we were trying to decide where to have dinner. We thought we'd check out Twenty-9. With no hesitation, Anmol took us right to the restaurant where we met...Sajeev, the Executive Chef of the restaurant.

What blew me away first of all, was the exceptional presentation of the food. Each dish had been prepared with such care and pride. It was completely evident! My favourite in the whole place was the two "Chaat Stations", one of which had Paani Puri! The desserts are something quite incredible and I was really amazed to learn that absolutely everything is made on site.

Sanjeev and his team were very professional, friendly and attentive while we were there. Really impressed with the service! Our room was great and comfortable and well. Had an early-ish night as the following day would be spent sight-seeing around Delhi.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

India (11) Goa - Panaji

Decided to spend the day in Panaji (or the English name, Panjim). We were sent such a nice driver called Imran - who honestly made my day with this dialogue:

Me: Imran, where is your rear view mirror?
Imran: Madam, some tourist people do naughty...bad bad things in back. It distracting me!

Imran took us to Bombay Bazaar - which on website is described as "a department store with a twist". Come to think of it, it reminds of Yong-san in Seoul, South Korea. The moment you walk in, vendors are vying for your attention.

I swear, Bombay Bazar in Panaji is like shopper's paradise. As you enter, you're welcomed by jewelry. Earrings, rings, bangles... my heart was racing with all the bling bling bling! Walk further and you are drawn into a world of endless sari's (they have a very cool way of draping a sari for potential buyers - they put an elastic around the waist which acts as the inner skirt where the sari pleats can be tucked in.) Ornaments galore! But that's not all..there are 2 or 3 floors up!

I can't even remember how long we spent there, but now when mum and I talk about it - we figure that we actually COULD have spent more time and bought more things there.

Oh and then...we needed some lunch so we stopped and had KFC. But this wasn't just ANY kind of KFC that we had. We had ... a " Paneer Wrap" which was too delicious for words. Wandering around the mall, I met a lovely caricaturist called Lawrence.

On our way back to the resort, Imran stopped at a few beaches and guess what?! Mum and I were lucky enough to see a teensy bit of a film song shoot Miramar Beach! Security was tight - as much as I tried squirming my way through ;)

India (10) Goa - Spice Farm

Spent the morning laying at the pool. Yes, you read right! Not quite used to this level of relaxation, mum and I decided we needed to do something for the day. We agreed that a visit to the Sahakari Spice Farm would be a good idea. It was awesome seeing our favourite spices in its rawest forms - especially cinnamon! Visitors are given a welcome garland and drink upon arrival. After the tour (which lasts approx 45mins), you can enjoy lunch - price included in the entry ticket. Got a bit worried when I saw a mosquito on my mum's arm. Go armed! 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

India (9) From Mumbai to Goa

As usual, Santosh (our driver) was on time to pick us up from the hotel and take us to the airport. On our way there, though, it started drizzling. The first thing that comes to mind during this season is "monsoon" - but we were told that these were merely passing showers.

The flight to Goa was fine. Not a very smooth landing, though! and we were greeted by some light showers. It was a completely different vibe to what we experienced in Mumbai. Our driver was from the resort was right on time and we were soon off to Kenilworth.

The resort is situated in South Goa, giving opportunity for not much - except good ol' relaxation! We had a lovely welcome upon arrival at the resort. Check in was swift and done in a friendly manner. After a light bite, we made our way to the spa. We were actually fortunate enough that they had an opening and mum and I were booked in for an Ayurvedic Massage. Covered in oil from literally head to toe, they also have shower facilities available. 

It was the perfect welcome to Goa!

India (8) Visit with Fooi & Fooa

This is my mum's paternal aunt ("fooi") and her husband ("fooa"). It was my second time meeting them and only my mum's 3rd time meeting them. It was such a special visit with them at their home in Mumbai. Fooi and I communicated in half English / half Gujarati :) Mum and I were treated to glorious homemade masala tea and delicious snacks from fooi. Mmmmmmmm! 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

India (7) Sightseeing in Mumbai Day 2

Feeling a bit more settled, after breakfast, Santosh was right on time to pick us up. We also met our tour guide, Varun, for the day. He was openly passionate about his city, as he kept referring to it  as "my city"

I was very excited for our first stop - Dhobi Ghat. This is the world's largest open air laundromat that is still operational. When we were there, it was fairly quiet, because (as we were told) it was a Sunday and families were probably out.

Made a quick stop at Haji Ali Dargah. It houses the tomb of the Muslim Saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari as well as a Masjid. The entire structure was built on high rising rocks. Said to be one of the most popular religious places in Mumbai, it is visited by many people of various religions. 

The Jain Temple was a sight for sore eyes. Built in 1904, the temple is filled with beautiful and intricate sculptures and paintings. One needs about an hour to wander really take it all in. Visitors need to remove shoes and try not to be in the way of devotees. Photography is permitted in most parts of the temple. 

Mani Bhavan is said to be the spot where most of Mahatma Ghandi's political activities took place in Mumbai between 1917 and 1934. It was eerie being there...

India (6) Sightseeing in Mumbai

We arrived in the dining area just in the nick of time for breakfast. After an international flight and only getting to sleep after 04:00, it's quite understandable that we felt like we were slightly in zombie mode. Despite arriving just as breakfast was about to end, we were helped so graciously - especially by Manoj, who tended to us in a very polite manner.

Santosh was right on time to pick us up. First stop:

The Gateway of India

Men and women queue separately for security reasons. Everyone is checked before proceeding further. Although - the check is anything, but thorough! They merely open the bag, seem to glance inside...and that's it!

This was the first iconic spot we visited and it was magnificent seeing this great structure before our eyes. The Gateway of India was built in memory of the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911. 

Be cautioned of photographers trying to convince tourists to allow them postcard-like pics. Because of the intense heat - especially at that time of day, we didn't stay around too long.

As we made our way back to the spot where we agreed to meet Santosh, a little girl with henna stamps wanted to stamp our hands. She was quite persistent and said that it would last for a week. I already had a hunch that it wasn't true, but my mum said that it doesn't matter - she was just a little girl trying to make money. Well! It was only after she adorned our hands with henna stamps that she told us it would be 10 Rupees for each stamp! She didn't tell us this before. Never mind. We put it down to experience.

Our next stop was Chhatrapati Shavaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as Prince of Wales Museum). Please note the camera fees:

The museum is home to about 50,000 exhibits of ancient Indian history. There are 3 noted sections, namely: Art, Archaeology & Natural History. It can get terribly hot and claustrophobic inside. Don't forget your bottle of water and a fan.

Met my friend, Rajeev on Saturday night. We went to High Street Phoenix (formerly known as Phoenix Mills). 

Stopped for some chaat (best paani puri ever!) before proceeding to dinner. One of the best restaurants ever! Rajdhani. It was so good! They don't give you time to go hungry. They keep coming to fill up!  Despite a constant buzz of waiters coming to tend to your every need, it was a very chilled out atmosphere. Very clean... and the food? Absolutely scrumptious! Awesome night out with my friend :)

India (5) ITC Grand Central

We arrived at the hotel in good time. As we took the turn it to the premises, we were surprised by the guards who opened the boot (trunk) of the car and wanted to search the cubby (glove compartment).
"What are they looking for?" we asked Santosh.
"Bomb," he simply replied.

We just kept quiet (!) and made our way to the next lot of security checks before entering the actual building. We were greeted by warm smiles and the lovely Indian greeting of, "Namaste".

There are two things that hit you when you enter the ITC Grand Central. The first is the gorgeous scent of whatever spray it is they use. The second is the lovely flower arrangement in the middle of the foyer. I'm not kidding, but the ambiance of the hotel - even just the ground floor - can easily make you forget that you've been traveling for the past 12 hours.

Special mention must be made of Amit at the front desk who helped us with a warm smile & did everything for us with ease.

And then...I just happened to ask if somebody was able to help me purchase talk time and data for my phone. I didn't expect anything to materialize from my request, because I knew that stores were closed. But when Prashant, from the Concierge Desk said that he would help me by buying it online, I was struck by his willingness to help. Sure, we were guests at the hotel, but he knew me for literally 2 minutes.

"Going the extra mile..." I thought to myself. I work in an environment where my students are MY guests and I often get requests that are way over and beyond my call of duty. If I am able to, I am more than willing to help.

My mum was slowly losing steam and needed to get to bed. Our room was very comfortable with a great bed and pillows. What was very special was the little sprays they give to spray on the pillow before sleeping. The bathroom was also good, but I warned by mother to please be careful when taking the shower. It was in a bathtub and was quite high to climb into.
I think I was still on a high and it took some time before I eventually drifted off into slumber. Our first night in Mumbai!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

India (4) Arrive in Mumbai

One almost never feels a flight if you have (good!) company! Before we knew it, there was announcement that we were about to begin our descent. As we were about to land, we were greeted by the flickering lights of Mumbai's skyline by night. Excitement started to kick in as our adventure was about to begin.

The first thing I remember was that the air was thick and hot. Passport control and baggage claim was a breeze! 

Travel buddies!
I had the most pleasant surprise when my phone rang (my aunt kindly lent us her Indian sim card) and was greeted by our tour operator, Shamsher.

"Welcome to India!" he said. I remember it was just after midnight and I couldn't fathom that he was still awake, but wanted to be in touch until we made contact with our driver, Santosh who was waiting for us outside. 

After changing some forex, we met Santosh and off we went. He was polite and friendly, answering random questions we had.

Believe it or not, my first experience with Indian drivers was in the airport parking lot. It was busy and drivers seemed to seldom use their brakes, so even crossing from one end to the other was a bit of a hair-raising experience.

I thought I'd find a 24-hr convenience store where I could buy some airtime and data. It was only later that I realized that I should have said, "I need recharge / talk time" :)

The drive to the hotel was fairly uneventful, but the route reminded me a bit of Bangkok. We saw what we would liken to shanty towns on either side of the road and people sleeping alongside stray dogs on the island. In fact, we saw a few people sleeping outside what I assume was their home. At the back of my mind, I remember thinking: "I hope it's just safe enough that because these people are SO hot, they prefer sleeping outside!"

Next stop: ITC Grand Central.

India (3) Depart Cape Town

I woke up irritated by my ring tone. Irritation soon turned to panic when I saw it was my mother AND that the time was 04:45. WHAT?! I still can't figure out what happened. Had I actually slept through my alarm or did I simply ignore it? Did it even go off?

I took the quickest shower ever, pulled my clothes on (no makeup!), grabbed my luggage and ran outside to where I assumed my airport transfer would be waiting for me. When I saw no one there, I checked my phone again. They would have called me. I didn't want to start panicking at all. I still had time.

Long story short, my driver overslept too! We made it to the airport in good time and after wrapping my luggage and checking in, I was at my boarding gate.

It was a pleasant flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg. As soon as we landed, I got a message from my dad saying that my mum's flight was delayed from East London. Instead of meeting her at Domestic Arrivals, I would have to go directly to the boarding gate - where my mum was supposed to be escorted to.

At OR Tambo, I slowly made my way to International departures, but kept turning back expecting to see my mum, or the arrivals boards to see if her flight had landed. My stomach turned as I reached Passport Control. OK my mother will surely make it. I hesitantly made my way through to have my passport stamped. I continued walking ever so slowly to the gate. I paced up and down waiting for my mother. Passengers started boarding. Still no sign of mother.

Boarding gate to Mumbai
I was literally the only passenger still waiting to board, when I saw my mother huffing and puffing as she made her way to the gate. She wasn't picked up from the aircraft as promised, but was met by someone who helped her with her bags (thank you!). 

Absolutely relieved, mum and I finally boarded the flight. Relief!

India (2) Days before Departure

I had a ton of things to do before our trip started. I would be away from work for 3 weeks so had to plan everything accordingly. I also had to squeeze in coffee / dinner dates with friends and had to say an early "farewell" to some of my students who would leave while I'd be away.

My final day at school, Thursday, we held a special certificate ceremony for just five of my special students - Mohamed Abogila, "Memo", Abdulaziz, "Azoo" and Qasem. When I left work that day, I was sent off with such warm wishes and love from everyone.

Special send off for my guys!
On my drive home, I dreaded one thing that awaited me: packing!

I've inherited a few traits from my mum when it comes to packing for travels, but if there's one thing I still can't get the hang of is what clothes to pack. Ahhh...the bane of my existence! My bag was already almost full with gifts I bought for family members we'd meet as well as a few friends I knew I'd see in Mumbai.

In the evening, my phone was inundated with messages and calls from family, friends and colleagues.

I arranged for a 05:00 pick up the following morning, so I set my alarm and drifted off to sleep...