Our trip to India was a spontaneous one. My sister Sofia was invited to a colleague's wedding in Mumbai and she really wanted to go. So I said I'd go but then my husband said 'No way of you girls going alone!'. So three of us ended up going to India in the beginning of July which is certainly not the best time to visit as it is a monsoon season. Indians don't even call this time summer - it is monsoon season as a separate time of a year! Anyway we decided to go and I booked almost all the hotels and flights through makemytrip.com website.They also have toll-free line in USA but the agents work very slowly so I don't recommend it.
Our journey started at the Newark airport where at first, my sister forgot her luggage key in the car and so her husband had to return to the airport with a key. A key was needed to take out some extra clothes as her bag was overweight. 10 min later we realized that Sofia took her passport but forgot the green card home! When a shock has passed she called her husband who had to go home and back to bring her GC to us. He was swift and also our flight was delayed for 30min, so my sister finally got her GC after walking back and fourth thru the security check point. Luckily the lines were very short. The plane supposedly was full and oversold but actually we saw lots of empty seats in the back. Not sure what was going on. Continental Airlines has good entertainment system and decent food so a flight was enjoyable except that 14 hours were quite long...
I was said that the air is very bad in Delhi and a big crowd of people usually stands at the airport. To my surprise it wasn't nearly as bad. We had hired a driver for 5 days who met us at the airport and we got to the car pretty quickly. Of course there were lots of cars parked randomly and occupying every slot, so I wouldn't want to park or drive there myself :-) BTW, I used Car Rental Delhi because I found very good travelers' reviews on the TripAdvisor and it was really a right choice. The driver brought us to the hotel and then picked us up in the morning. We stayed 2 nights at Delhi Bed and Breakfast in New Delhi. The hotel was nice, you could read my review here.
First day in Delhi.Our impressions. Delhi is very dirty, many poor people, everyone asks for money everywhere. Poor people live on the streets, sometimes even between the traffic lanes, in the houses made out of paper and dirt/clay. Many poor children , injured children and adults. Very depressing. And it's HOT. How hot? One bright sunny day was +48C (about +118F). This is the hottest place I've been to so far! You can see how sweaty we are here.
During our first day we saw Gate of India, presidential palace and other administrative buildings, they look impressive from outside as people are not allowed inside. Then we went to see Jami Masjid. Jami Masjid is an old Muslim mosque, looks very imposing but it's also dirty. Plus everyone looks with wonder at the foreigners, especially women. I wouldn't recommend going there alone, without a company of a man. People stare, try to make photos, touch you and of course beg for money and sell something. My sister and I were thankful that my husband is with us. Then we went to visit Red Fort that is really huge. It felt much safer inside although many people try to sell stuff and be your guide. A word of caution - some guides could be good but some just know few paragraphs out of the book. Also if you don't want to buy anything be agressive and say you are not interested otherwise a crowd is going to chase you to the car... Our driver was Sikh so he has accompanied us to Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple which is truly beautiful and people are much friendlier there as their religion accepts any god. The parking lot was crowded, so many cars just parked in front of each. So when we had to pull out our driver manually moved (!) two cars out of the way and were able to get out. Apparently all the cars have manual transmission and people don't put the break on ,so it's easy to move them around even without a driver :-)
We were concerned about the water so we tried to find a grocery store or a supermarket in Delhi, without any luck. Our driver didn't understand what we wanted and we didn't see any big stores so we ended up buying a case of Aquafina at the cafe. Thankfully our driver understood about lunch and would always bring us to eat at the good place. In Delhi he said we should go to a VIP restaurant, which turned out to be a regular place but clean, had English menu and of course more expensive but totally fine prices for us.The food was delicious, good meats and vegetables and of course desserts. In the future days we also had great meals during lunch.
Second day in Delhi. Quitab Minar complex is very impressive, not crowded and one can feel being at the very old places. We really liked the tower itself and the architecture surrounding it. The complex is actually clean and well maintained, even an English audio guide is available. Afterwards we stopped at Bhahai Temple, the sun was so bright and hot that we had to literally run towards the building because one has to take off shoes there too. It was kind of inconvenient for us as we had to take off shoes pretty much everywhere if we wanted to visit a mosque or a temple but the surface is so crazily hot! We had to dance and jump around to prevent our feet from burning :-) Once there we saw an Indian temple nearby which turned out to be IskCon Krishna Temple. It's very shiny, new and beautiful decorated. People are quiet and polite, it's interesting to go inside. There is a good vegetarian restaurant and cafe on premises, we really enjoyed the food there. IT was an afternoon time by then, so we left Delhi and started driving to Agra that is 5 hours away.
On a way to Agra we saw a beautiful temple made out of white marble - even the floor outside is white. It looks very grand and imposing. Apparently it's some kind of a Hindu religion but they accept any gods, very peaceful, you just have to be vegetarian! Once we arrive to Agra we saw a grand mausoleum called Sikandra. It's very nice and the best part are funny and cute monkeys running around the garden. You can have a photo with them too :-)
A note about safety. Our driver and people in the hotel said that they do not recommend women to go out after dark without at least a big man. Apparently Agra is very Muslim and they say it is not safe for foreigners especially. Our hotel here was not great, so I'm skipping its description.
Taj Mahal is open starting 7am which is unusually open in comparison to other attractions in India. It has much higher security and it's really well maintained, clean and the water stays in the pools like on the pictures people see! What can I say about Taj Mahal? It's a real wonder of the world! Breathtaking! Huge, magnificent and really white. We loved it. You could hire a guide for 200-400rp per group , usually the price depends on how well you can negotiate. But word of advice: never ever buy anything inside Taj Mahal complex. All shops are very expensive, their prices are 10-20 times higher, I'm not kidding. We were stupid enough to buy cool elephants, as we figured they were at least 5-10 times overpriced even after we negotiated 40% off! So if your guide says to visit a store - don't go, don't buy. After Taj we also visit Agra Fort - which is also very nice. Once on top one can see Taj Mahal on the horizon and the location where Black Taj Mahal was supposed to stand. They say old sultan who built Taj Mahal for his wife was imprisoned by his son for several years - he could only see Taj Mahal from a window. You can see photos from Agra here.
On a way to Jaipur we also stayed at Fatehpur Sikri and visited the sultan's palace and Jami Masjid. They both are certainly worth a visit but you gotta have a men with you as the area is very Muslim. And people again constantly beg for money, etc (see Delhi description). It's about 4 more hours drive from Fatehpur Sikri to Jaipur. This is a real separated highway which looks not bad except for some people driving in the opposite direction as they pulled out of the store/village and animals crossing :-) The worst driving time was at night, much closer to Jaipur. Apparently that part of the highway is unfinished (?) and so everyone drives on the one side but there are no rules. Imagine two lanes on the highway and cars go in both directions quite randomly, our driver had to maneuver like in a computer game. Also add darkness and some cars don't even have the headlights on! That was really scary, my sister and I didn't even want to look in the front of us. Thankfully we got to Jaipur safely and were really relieved to arrive to our cute Dera Rawatsar hotel. We liked everything there except for really simple continental breakfast.
Jaipur. What first comes to mind? Of course Amber Fort. Amber fort is located on the mountain top, pretty much every tourists takes an elephant ride to the top. Of course we did it too, it was a nice ride. Most of the vendors try to sell you gifts along the way and so we were haggling sitting on the elephant and they were walking besides our elephant :-) My husband didn't ride on the elephant so they chased him all the way to the top trying to sell pictures and Mike got a pretty good deal. And don't worry - there are photographers who make pictures of you along the way - so you can buy photos afterwards. They will find you anywhere but please negotiate! Amber Fort itself has several major attractions including Mirror Hall and many many small rooms and walkways. We were walking around trying to find a way to the top and finding new corridors, room and stairs instead. I see now how one could sneak out or in these fort without anyone noticing, you just need to know the right way thru. After the fort we went to see Jantar Mantar - a outdoor astronomy lab build by a famous astronomer. It's very well preserved and there are description of each instrument if only we were scientists. City Palace is located next to it and houses several historical and art artifacts, the museum itself is not impressive. I'd still recommend to go inside the palace walls itself to see beautiful architecture especially Pritam Chowk is worth a visit. Hawa Mahal is located on the other side of City Palace, we didn't go in but saw it from the street. It's certainly a different and amazing structure comprising of beautifully ornamented balconies for each woman of a sultan's harem. Jaipur photos are here.
In regards to shopping. There is a big bazaar located in the old city near Hawa Mahal actually. And there are several modern malls in the center of new city. We didn't go in but they looked good. If you go Mumbai I'd recommend it instead. It's a real modern city where one can find anything.
We flew to Mumbai from a new Jaipur International Airport which has good security and very efficient stuff. We were happy that our reservations worked and our flight wasn't even delayed. We used Jet Airways for all our flights as it is one of the most reliable in India but cheaper than Kingfisher. I wouldn't recommend using cheaper ones as they constantly delay or cancel flights without a reason and/or notification. The <2hour flight was nice and we even were served food and drinks. Mumbai greeted us with a rain as it was a middle of monsoon season. Apparently heavy rains were not starting yet, we had 4-5 days to our advantage. It rained a lot but we still could go out during a day; people say middle of July-end of August is the worst time there.On a positive site - it wasn't hot, nice and warm.
The main reason to visit Mumbai was to attend 1st and 3rd day of traditional Indian wedding. We had to buy clothes and ended up with modern kurtas for everyone (even Mike had one) and sari for Sofia and langa-chuli for myself for the last day of wedding. The hotel's driver recommended a fixed price store to us - they had really nice Indian clothing. We tried on many saris before choosing the right one. When we told the wedding is in the evening - they said, No Problem, we'll adjust the size in 2-3 hours and deliver to your hotel! And couple of words about the wedding. Everyone was late and apparently it's ok too. We were late by 1.5 hours on the 1st day but they didn't start yet. On the first day girl get henna decorations on their hands, family and friends dance prepared numbers and then everyone eat and drinks. The wedding itself should start at 8pm but instead it started around 9:30 and so we left around 1am. Surprising there were no open dance floor where everyone could dance. Our Indian friends that the actual ceremony depends on the region a lot, Mumbai's wedding is not very loud and much simpler apparently. On the second day of wedding for us people arrive only when food was served, only close relatives and us watched the actual religious ceremony. We were sitting among the family as we wanted to watch what is going on. Both bride and groom had very colorful clothes with heavy embroidery and lots of jewelry and they both seemed happy. Parents were happy too, only a bride's brother cried a lot when he was giving her up to her future husband. After the ceremony the huge buffet opened up and people were eating and mingling but again we didn't see any open space to dance. This night a really heavy rain started so even bride's parents were late! On our way back our tiny car got stuck in a huge puddle of water and we were all dressed up. To our amusement several rikshas and other drives stopped and helped our driver to get the car out and back on the road, and no one asked Mike for money! No Problems!
Our impression about Mumbai was actually very positive. Mumbai is a modern city, has many malls and normal stores with the fixed and reasonable price, so you don't have to negotiate every time. Also people are not that poor and seem to be more normal i.e. don't freak out when they see foreigners. We were able to walk around in the city, without a car and no one bothered us.We stayed at the Fariyas Hotel in Colaba, near Gateway of India. The area is nice, many travelers stay there, it's also close to the different museums, shops, restaurants and the main train station. Hotel Fariyas has amazing good breakfast which is included in the price. Lunch and dinner are equally good, their selection of desserts is out of this world - one could gain a lot of weight, they are so tasty :-) And they have an outdoor clean swimming - nice to relax in the sun. What to see in Mumbai? There are some sites but not as many as in Delhi's area. We took a very to the Elephanta Island which has an ancient caves with a huge Buddha sculptures inside. The ferry leaves from Gateway of India, the schedule is not definite though. On the way back our ferry even arrived at the different place completely because it was the last ferry and they didn't want to spend time going to Gateway of India. Of course they said it's because of rain and it's ok 'Because you can just take a taxi that will bring you back' , haha! This is not America, my friends. Gateway of India and Taj Mahal hotel deserve 5-10 min each but it is very expensive to eat at that hotel so we'd recommend going to another restaurant in the smaller hotel nearby if you want. We had really nice dinner sitting on the veranda of one of the hotels nearby. We also visited Victoria Terminus - it's grand outside but dirty inside of course, it's a train station, people! Prince Wales Museum is good, have very old statues and good audio guide but it is not air-conditioned! In general none of the museums in India were air-conditioned which makes you run thru exhibits in the summer. Of course there are couple of temples in the city that are worth a visit but we didn't have time. Our time in Mumbai is photographed here.
Because we had a plan to visit Osho International Meditation resort in Pune. We had to find a car by calling different agencies (fyi, Mumbai car rental is much more expensive than Delhi) and finally arranged the car thru the driver in our hotel. It takes about 3 hours to get to Pune, the road wasn't bad. Pune itself had pleasantly surprised us - clean, friendlier people and we were saw people jogging on the streets like in US! Apparently a big university and many companies are located in Pune. We saw a booming construction sites of new townhouses and condos. Except for Osho resort we also visited Pataleshwar Caves and Parvati Temple. Both sites are not impressive unless you want to eat yummy grilled corn and see the bird-eye view of the city from the hilltop near Parvati Temple.
A special word about Osho Resort. It's a very commercialized venue and basically a rip off!!! In order to get in you need to pay registration and one day fee and you need to pass AIDS screening test. Once all is done you need to buy a maroon robe additionally and if you want to attend evening meditation - you need to buy a white robe too. They have very large complex with multiple meditation halls and outdoor stages. They even have a swimming pool but you have to have maroon swimwear to use it! There is a also a cafe and a hotel on the premises.The main meditation is at 6 or 7am, so it cannot be done on the first day as the visiting center opens at 9am. Basically the first day you spend 3 hours with other stuff explaining the meditation a bit and showing you campus, it means you already missed half a day and can start only after 1pm. We attended 3 meditations and expected some kind of guidance or explanation but there was none. One was just a silence meditation, another one was Nadahbrahma mediation and the last one was Kundalini meditation. Kundalini meditation was fun as it includes a dance unlike the others. In general they have very strict rules about cell phones and cameras but we saw that during meditation an instructor was just standing there and even picked it up his phone to answer! If you are still not discouraged I advice you to go there for at least 3 to 5 days so you could attend a morning meditation, do some yoga and maybe a day or 2 day workshop. Workshops run on a certain schedule, not sure whether their site has any information about the actual dates. We didn't attend the evening meditation as we didn't like the others. Hopefully if you stay longer the experience will be different, they even have social activities during weekend nights.
And last but not least was our trip to Goa. Even Jet Airways cancels flight sometimes, we we had to wait additional 2 hours to fly on a different flight...Several Indians in US convinced us that Goa doesn't have much of a monsoon season and we'll be all right. But it is WRONG! Monsoon season was in full bloom there, it was raining for the whole week there. We were lucky as we had one sunny day on Friday before we were leaving. We even got sunburn that day as we were eager to lie on the sun :-) Fortunately we stayed at the very nice Holiday Inn resort. The rooms were spacious and clean, the stuff is very friendly. We liked their buffer and especially dessert again. I think their dessert chef is amazing. We also liked that we could buy a bottle of wine there and keep drinking it next day while they keep it in their refrigerator. While it was raining we all tried different massages. Mike absolutely loved Thai massage and my sister and I really liked Ayurvedic massages. Stuff is very attentive there and everything is very clean and really enjoyable. Do you want two people massaging you at once? No problem! The hotel has some night entertainment with games and social dancing with live music including a night club. We had at least half an hour to ourselves - Dj was making music and three of us had fun dancing in the empty club :-) The beach and the pool are both very clean and nice, of course the beach is officially closed during monsoon season because of the high waves. We discussed it with management and were allowed to swim nevertheless - No Problem, Only those Crazy Russians can swim in the sea now!
Unfortunately none of the water sports worked at that time so we were a bit disappointed but still had a good time as you can see. We also took a half-day excursion around Goa, visiting old Catholic church, Shri Mangesh Temple and taking a river cruise. A river cruise was entertaining as they had music for people to dance - couples, only Indian men and only women. It turned out Indian men like to dance much more than women - everyone was eager to go on the stage from 16 to 60 years old! Imagine what would happen if men were asked to dance like that in Russia or USA...
On the way back our flight was apparently canceled again but this time we were scheduled on the flight that departed 50 min sooner that the scheduled one. We were relieved that we arrive much earlier to the airport otherwise who know when the next flight would be. Thankfully Continental didn't make any changes to we flew safely back to Newark watching movies for 14 hours again :-)
In the end we were happy to be home but enjoyed our trip to India a lot - it's a another world, another culture, hopefully we'll come back some day to visit southern and eastern states as they are supposed to be as wonderful. Mike really liked spending monsoon season in Goa as we had lots of time to relax after the crazy trip. Besides the evident attractions the food in India is very good. They have high quality milk products, yummy ice cream and of course all the desserts. Plus actual Indian dishes in India taste much better and richer there in our New Jersey. I didn't like Indian food before the trip but I enjoyed it there nevertheless! BTW, you could read the my hotel reviews on a TripAdvisor websites, see links in the table below.
|New Delhi||Delhi Bed and Breakfast||Highly recommended, a real family house, homemade breakfast, quiet street(paid $85 for 2 in June)|
|Jaipur||Dera Rawatsar||Big rooms, outdoor swimming pool, restaurant on premises, breakfast is not god though|
|Mumbai||Hotel Fariyas||Very good food, clean, close to Gateway Of India, tourist safe area, but rooms are small for such a price|
|South Goa||Holiday Inn Resort||Beautiful and well maintained, 4* resort, great service, good food, amazing spa services, nice beach & pool|