My Love Affair with India

There are so many books and movies depicting India, with its exotic beauty, lively chaos and romantic drama.  But nothing compares to actually being there and experiencing this amazing country for yourself. Enjoy this first hand story from Jacqui Budd, President, GateCheck.

I arrived early morning into Delhi, India’s capital city with around 17 million inhabitants, and was met by my personal driver, Raj, and a representative of Worldwide Adventures Asia, who draped a garland around my neck and handed me a beautiful hand-made wallet with my trip book. I immediately felt warmly welcomed into this incredible country.

We arrived at The Leela Palace, located in the heart of Delhi, a hotel that is a testimony to grandeur, seamlessly blending with its majestic surroundings. After receiving a bindi (red dot) on my forehead, (that I soon came to learn upon arrival at every hotel following, became an official welcome); I was dutifully checked in for the next two nights stay.

My eyes, heart and spirituality were truly opened to this amazing country and its people when I met my kindred spirit and guide “Pretty” Priti, (also an astrological and numerology counsellor, and prior Indian TV series actress).

We spent the afternoon wandering around Gandhi’s deathplace museum; Humayun’s Tomb, considered to be one of the best examples of Mughal architecture; and then took a rickshaw through the narrow winding streets of Old Delhi, passing colourful bazaars, sacred temples and colonial monuments.  We continued to the white marble Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), the largest mosque in India; drove by the Presidential Palace, Parliament House; and the iconic Red Fort; and finally arrived at the Sikh Gurudwara temple where more than ten thousand people flock each day to pray and are served a free lunch, made in the most gigantic cooking vessels I have ever seen. Our day ended with a late afternoon cocktail at the rooftop bar of the impressive, contemporary Oberoi Hotel, where the first cappuccino ever to be served in Delhi, and first to employ female staff in 1965, was at their 360 restaurant, known as the fashionable drawing room of the city. 

I was told there are three things you need to remember when driving in India. Good Horn. Good Brakes. And Good Luck! 

After a short flight the following day, I arrived at Varanasi, location of the Ghanges and holy site of Sarnath, the birthplace of Buddhism. Formerly known as Benares, Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. Hindus believe that one who is graced to die on the land of Varanasi will attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. That evening, along with my tour guide Ajit, we walked the streets of the city. In all my travels I have never experienced anything so crazy! On our way to the river, we shared the road with honking scooters, motorbikes (some carrying families of 5, including babies), pilgrims, worshipers, sadhus, cows, goats, buffalo, and stray dogs.

As the Aarti fire ceremonies took place, bells rang, smoke billowed and chanting and singing provided a fascinating, magical and spiritual experience.

We arrived at the ghats at the Ganges to witness the Aarti Ceremony which is part of the evening prayers. During the ceremony deewas (oil lamps) were offered to Mother Ganges with thanks and devotion for the light of the sun and for her divine light.

Morning surprise! Not many people get to wake up and be blessed in India on their birthday. (Well apart from the millions who live here of course)!

This morning I received a foot bath in the amazing executive suite I had been upgraded to, and a delicious chocolate cake, along with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Following that, my guide, Ajit, took me for a stroll through the congested city streets to the foot on the Ganges for my surprise blessing by a priest. I am now truly blessed in all ways! After which Ajit purchased a stone deity for me as a birthday gift from a local market stall, then took me to a reputable silk weaving company where authentic hand looms are still used, and of course I bought myself a beautiful silk scarf. 

That afternoon I flew to Agra. I was met by my personal driver Raj, who had driven down from Delhi, and my Rajasthan Tour Manager, Shiv. Together we visited the Agra Fort, a great monument of red sandstone. And to complete my amazing birthday, Shiv and I enjoyed platinum front row tickets to a live theatre performance of “Mohabbat-e-Taj” with traditional Indian dancing based on the love story of the Taj Mahal.

Today was the day that every first-time visitor to India longs for. An early morning sunrise visit to the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal.

And it didn’t disappoint...apart from the weather. Being cloudy we didn’t get to experience the sunrise reflections of rose and gold hue. So surely now I have a reason to return.

To my delight, my guide Al Haj, a historian and professional photographer, (called Al Haj, as a Muslim who had taken the coveted pilgrimage to Mecca twice), took over my camera and left me with so many incredible memories.   

The long journey to Jaipur offered a delightful spectacle!

Accompanied by Shiv, we continued our five-hour road trip to Jaipur, known as the Pink City. One of the great cities of the Rajput, with historic forts, palaces and gardens. A true contrast to where we had been for the past few days. The drive was full of spectacle, and as Shiv said “the view is never boring”. The constant traffic, honking horns, bikes, pedestrians, bicycle riders carrying huge loads, markets, and of course an array of animals, cows, donkeys, buffalo and stray dogs wandering around in the road, just added to my delight and enhanced the journey for me. 

What a highlight to be initiated as a Rajasthani by the children at the Bharatpur School

Enroute we stopped at Bharatpur to visit one of the many schools that Worldwide Adventures Asia has been helping to support, funding newly built bathrooms, drinking water projects and creating training programs. The children were so delighted to greet us and initiated me as a Rajasthani.

Upon reaching Jaipur we checked into the Taj Jai Mahal Palace, a heritage hotel and former palace. And my final highlight before dinner was to fulfil my request and visit a jewellery manufacturer to see the process, where of course I indulged in a little purchase.

Jaipur is a magnificent contrast in atmosphere and scenery from where we were yesterday morning, with its hilly terrain, wider streets and green countryside. We entered through one of the eight gates of the old walled city, recognized as a World Heritage site, where the streets feature continuous colonnaded businesses that intersect in the centre, creating large public squares called chaupars. Markets, stalls, residences and temples abound. We visited the Jantar Mantar, the largest of five remarkable observatories built by Jaipur’s founder, representing medieval Indian astronomy. Next the City Palace, a formal royal residence.

We continued to Amer, to see the Amber Fort, a spectacular complex of palaces, temples and apartments that offers a stunning view of the city. You can really feel the pomp and grandeur within this magnificent structure, as you move between the royal halls, with walls decorated in intricate ivory, mirror, and glass.

A surprise visit to Dera Amer, a small wilderness camp to interact with the elephants

Then to Dera Amer for lunch, a small wilderness camp, where you can enjoy an exclusive glamping experience, interacting with the elephants and nature walks.

Finally, and another highlight for me personally, Shiv took me to a textile manufacturer where I was shown the process of block printing; and had the opportunity to make a small piece of my own.

Today we were joined by another tour manager, Sajid, and continued our journey to Jodhpur, the “Blue City”.

The six-hour highway road trip to Jodhpur was anything but boring, with the usual array of animals; cows, buffalo, dogs etc., wandering around, standing or lying by the side, or in the road blocking traffic.  

This evening we dined alfresco on the patio of Khaas Bagh. Inspired by the Imperial legacy of a bygone era, Khaas Bagh is Jodhpur’s tribute to the swashbuckling lifestyle of Princely India. An exclusive niche of Royal luxury, Khaas Bagh is a ‘hallmarked’ boutique hotel that epitomizes Victorian grandeur. The restaurants, bar & suites on offer are complemented by handpicked memorabilia of the “Raj Period” that include a fleet of dazzling Vintage Cars.

We spent the entire day today exploring the amazing sights of Jodhpur. Our first stop was the incredible Mehrangarh Fort, towering above the city, with amazing views, and setting of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

Next a short walk-through Sardar market, where locals buy their daily wares. Surprisingly tourists are not hassled to buy, as tourism is not this city’s main form of income. Jodhpur is well known for their marble and stone, along with wood furniture.

We visited a well-known textile manufacturer often frequented by celebrities such as Richard Gere and Paul McCartney, whose other clients include custom made throws in cashmere and silk for famous designers such as Hermes. The owner supports Women’s Welfare offering employment to hundreds of women throughout the country. Of course, I wanted to support the cause and bought an exquisite, luxuriously designed throw (limited Hermes overstock), for a fraction of the retail cost in Europe or North America.

Next a short visit to see the mind-blowing Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace, truly the most opulent hotel I have ever seen. Only accessible if you are a hotel guest or have a personal invitation to visit.

Not surprisingly as the palace is divided into 3 areas. The museum, the hotel and residence of the current Maharaja Gaj Singh ii. It took 16 years to build between 1928-43 and is the second largest residence in the world, covering 25 aces. On arrival we were greeted like royalty with red carpet treatment, as you cannot enter the palace gates unless you have a reservation to stay or have a personal invitation to visit.

We left Jodhpur and drove 22kms into the countryside to the village of Salawas, to the home of Roopraj Durry Udyog and his wife, now recognized globally for their contribution to a Rug Making Co-op that helps women in surrounding villages to be self sustainable. I had a go at interlock weaving and have to say it takes quite the skill.

We continued into the picturesque Aravalli hills making a detour to stop by the famous Jain Temple in Ranakpur. We were met by the Priest and shown around this beautiful 15th century marble complex, noted for the 29 halls supported by 1,444 pillars, each adorned with hundreds of carved figures, with no two alike. This Zen structure, that took 65 years to build was strategically planned in a symmetrical design to bring light to every corner.

Our next stop was lunch at the delightful Mountbatten Lodge, an opulent 4-suite hideaway nestled in a ruggedly scenic valley and bordered by the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary.

Mountbatten Lodge offers a luxurious base to experience the true essence of Rajasthan, with multiple activities including horseback riding through jungle trails, leopard and jeep safaris, and sundowners in the mountains

After a relaxing gourmet lunch under a 300-year-old banyan tree we left to continue our drive to Narlai.

To my delight, the road to Narlai offered exceptional viewing with a smorgasbord of animal livestock including cows, goats, sheep, dogs, pigs, monkeys, a mongoose, a chameleon, and some camels, wandering around at the side of the road, or in the road blocking traffic as usual.

We arrived at the 17th century village of Narlai late afternoon and checked into the Rawla Narlai, a beautifully restored hunting lodge, now a delightful heritage hotel with amazing views of Elephant Hill, a spectacular granite rock that you can climb to the top and admire the view. We took a short stroll around the village including the temple and were invited into the villagers’ homes where the children followed begging us to take photos with them.  Later we returned to the hotel for a turban tying lesson before dinner. 

Continuing on the road to Udaipur – the ‘City of Sunrise’ – India’s most romantic city and ideal destination for fairy-tale weddings and magical honeymoons

We said goodbye to the wonderful people of this village for the three-hour drive to Udaipur. This was the first fast highway I believe we have driven on, and although it made the journey quicker, I have to say I really missed the cows!

Upon arrival at Udaipur, we drove to the dock to meet our boat transfer over to the Leela Palace Hotel. I was overwhelmed with the scenic beauty of this city. Once again, this city offered something completely different from where I had been before, and the one before that. I now understood why it’s called the “City of Sunrise” and is considered India’s most romantic city (and most popular wedding location). Built around four lakes, with shimmering white palaces and temples across the water. The view from my room was incredible.

Taj Lake Palace Hotel – world renowned location for the James Bond film “Octopussy’

We enjoyed a lovely relaxing day with a morning visit to the Jagdish temple; the City Palace, and an afternoon boat ride to visit the Taj Lake Palace Hotel, located on the island of Jag Niwas in Lake Pichola, originally built in 1746 by the young Prince, Maharana Jagat Singh as his own pleasure palace. Restored to its pristine glory, spread over 4 acres, this spectacular palace hotel became world renowned when the James Bond film ‘Octopussy’ was filmed there. Its location on an island in the midst of the lake affords every room with breathtaking views of the neighbouring City Palace, Aravalli Hills, Machla Magra Hills and Jag Mandir.

Known as the Venice of the East, the city of Udaipur, with its elaborate palaces, serene lakes, exotic temples and resplendent gardens, has become known as the most romantic place in India, and an ideal destination for fairy-tale weddings and magical honeymoons.  After experiencing the splendour of the Taj Lake Palace, we enjoyed a long relaxing boat cruise around Lake Pichola to watch the sun go down.

Today was bitter-sweet as we said goodbye to the wonderful people of Rajasthan and flew south to Cochin.

Today was bitter-sweet! Sweet, as our little group including our two tour managers Shiv and Sajid, were now altogether for our last night in this incredible and amazing state of Rajasthan in northern India. Bitter, as I felt overwhelmed with emotion that our time together had come to an end, and it was hard to say goodbye. I now know for sure I will return again soon, as Rajasthan and all the people I have met are deeply in my heart.

After an early breakfast, one of my group companions and I flew south to Cochin, the commercial capital of Kerala, which took up most of the day.  We arrived early evening to a gracious welcome by our tour representative, who accompanied us to the Brunton Boatyard Hotel, a colonial style hotel that was built on the site of an 18th century British boatyard, and operates under the CGH Earth system (clean, green, healthy). The hotel has its own Eco filtered reverse osmosis rainwater system and operates under fundamental principals and core values.

Here we would encounter a very different Indian experience –– Yoga, Ayurveda, Balmy Swaying Palms and Gourmet Cuisine - Time to slow down and chill out!

I woke up early this morning to the sound of ships horns from the nearby harbour and then floating past my window along the shipping channel, part of the Vembanad lake that flows through to the ocean. First on the agenda was yoga. After the hustle and bustle of the north it was time to slow down and chill out. And where better than in “God’s own country.”

Breakfast was a culinary experience and I broke all my rules of no fruit, salad, dairy, pre bottled water, and only eating Indian vegetarian food that I strictly stuck to during the northern part of my journey.

Once again, I was astounded by this city, in contrast to the last one, and the one before that. The difference in south to north, is like being in a different country.  Here Hindus live alongside Christian’s, Catholics, Buddhist’s, Jains, Jews (now only 2) in complete harmony. As for the sacred cow roaming the streets, there are none!

Here we are on the ocean with balmy breezes and coconut palms. Everything has slowed down.

We took a walking tour through Wilmington island and the historic part of old Kochi, at Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, filled with picturesque tiled roofs and pastel coloured buildings. Kochi has the best natural harbour in India, set amidst picturesque lagoons and backwaters. After participating in the very manual heave-ho process of pulling up the fishing nets, we visited the Dutch Laundry. This seems to be a very enterprising business where men and woman set themselves up in the manual laundry service. First, they collect their clients’ laundry, then hand wash it in brick cubicles banging it on the stone. Then rinse and hang out to dry on their dedicated lines. Following which there’s ironing with a ten-ton iron that I couldn’t even lift. Folding and delivering it back. So cool!

Next, we went to see St. Francis church, the oldest church built by Europeans in India, and finally Jew Town, location of the only active Jewish synagogue in India. Until 1948 when Israel declared its independence, this was once the heart of the thriving Cochin Jewish community. After most of the Jewish community departed to Israel, their houses were turned into quaint shops around Synagogue Lane and Jew Town Road, selling antiques, carvings, vintage collectibles, along with Keralan crafts aromatic spices and clothes. Laid-back outdoor cafes and artsy eateries, some in heritage buildings serve local specialties and Western fare. Until a few days ago (at the time of writing this in October 2019), when Sarah Cohen unfortunately passed away aged 96, there are now only two Jews remaining, both over 75. I wonder what will happen to the synagogue after their demise with no one to care for it.

Personal Sari Dressing Experience

Later that day, we were presented with the most gorgeous golden silk saris, including the customary petticoats and blouses; and enjoyed a personal sari dressing experience courtesy of World Wide Adventures Asia (just another example of the amazing customized experiences WWA offers to their clients).  All six of the ladies in our group now beautifully dressed were treated to a private performance of a spectacular Kathakali Dance drama, a unique combination of literature, music, painting, acting and dance.  Finally, our evening ended with a delicious gourmet dinner of local fish specialties, and a desert to die for.

Kumarakom, voted among the 25 best getaways in the world by Conde Nast. At Coconut Lagoon, a CGH Earth Experience and Ayurveda Spa Retreat, you can feel the stress dripping off your body!

Today we travelled 2 hours to Kumarakom.  On arrival we transferred to a wooden canoe to reach Coconut Lagoon, a CGH Earth Experience and Ayurveda Spa Retreat. This exquisite hotel is constructed from fragments of Kerala palaces with beautiful carvings and brass work, set on an abandoned coconut plantation that can only be reached by boat. You can feel the stress dripping off your body as you enter this gorgeous property. Our luxury villas were outstanding with front porches overlooking the water, a walled-in private back patio and plunge pool leading through a gate to a back covered deck overlooking water on the other side.

Keralan Cooking Experience at Philipkutty Farm

Later, we took a leisurely boat ride to Philipkutty Farm, set on an island in the backwaters of Lake Vambanad. Our gracious host Anu Mathew and her mother treated us to a Keralan cooking lesson made with age-old recipes passed down over generations, cooked with wholesome local ingredients, which we then got to enjoy for lunch along with an array of other items.

In the evening we watched the sun go down on the boat and then returned to the hotel to enjoy an amazing Martial Arts show and a lovely private dinner by the water.

Time to really chill out!  First an early morning yoga meditation, followed by an Ayurveda spa experience, a 5,000-year-old Indian system in natural healing.  

This incredible experience began with a consultation with the doctor to discuss any physical and emotional issues, and to see what type and pressure of massage I should receive.  I was directed to sit on a stool for a traditional Indian head massage. I don’t think I have ever felt anything so amazing as the therapist rubbed her fingertips through my hair with medium head pressure. I then laid face down on the table whilst two therapists poured oil all over my body, then all I could feel were 4 hands pressing and chopping in complete synchronization. Rotated over for the same on my front, followed by a shower scrub. Forty-five minutes of bliss ended all too soon!

Houseboat cruising through the backwaters Keralan style

Now totally de-stressed, we boarded a deluxe houseboat for an afternoon relaxing cruise through the backwaters, passing along a series of canals, lined with village homes, coconut trees and various other vegetation. Lunch on-board was freshly cooked by our on-board chef and presented in true Keralan style on banana leaves that we had docked to collect along the way. Our guide said we had to eat it the Indian way. No cutlery. Somewhat challenging picking up rice and sauces with your fingers, and very messy when wearing a white top. At the end of our cruise, we returned to the hotel to plant a tree.

Our evening ended with a dance show followed by a relaxing buffet dinner, and I was somewhat sad as this was my last night in south India and with our lovely group.

Our last morning in Kerala, and my last day in the south. Early this morning with our luggage, we boarded a country boat for a trip to explore the backwater villages and discover more about village life. The villagers live a simple, hassle-free self-sustaining lifestyle. We moored the boat and interacted with some of the families who demonstrated the coir yarn process, made from coconut fibre found between the hard inner shell and the smooth outer surface of the coconut. They also showed us yoga mat weaving, how to climb the coconut trees and the many plants growing around their herbal gardens.

We then returned to the dock for our transfer back to Cochin airport for our flights home.

My love affair with India may be over, but I am taking the most wonderful memories and a huge piece of India in my heart. Until next time!!

Did you know that Central India offers an amazing SAFARI experience!

Meet the Heart of India

If you want to move away from the regular tourist trail, then take your torch and hit the spotlight on the quiet hear of India – Madya Pradesh.

Sprinkled with artistic temple complexes, forts and stupas, this state is an architectural wonder. Tigers make headlines here too. Step into the wilderness of some of the most celebrated Tiger reserves and view the royal animal in its many moods.

Apart from jeep, elephant and boat safaris, Satpura is the only park of its kind in Central India that offers walking safaris, giving enthusiasts a ‘one of a kind’ opportunity to explore a tiger reserve on foot.

Tucked away in the Eastern part of Central-Indian Satpura Range, Kanha promises to be a special experience.  Legendary for its wilderness, tiger sightings and birding, Kanha has the distinction of harbouring the last of the highly endangered Hard Ground Barasingha, a major conservation milestone.

Join Worldwide Adventures India on an unchartered journey to take a dip into the wild culture and grandeur of Madya Pradesh!

Here are my tips to ensure you have an amazing and healthy experience; and avoid “delhi belly” during your trip.

  1. Prior to traveling, visit your travel clinic for all up-to-date suggested inoculations and health requirements.
  2. Take travel insurance, ask your travel agent or travel advisor for advice
  3. Pack light, many domestic flights only allow 15Kg of checked luggage.
  4. For women, pack loose fitting clothes in cotton or breathable material, below the knee dresses and tops that cover your shoulders.
    • Take or buy a pashmina or two (you will find beautiful silk pashmina’s at very low prices);
    • You may also want to buy a beautiful cotton salwar kameez on arrival. This outfit consists of pyjama-like trousers or loose fitting leggings with a long and loose fitting dress worn over the top. This outfit has become very fashionable and incredibly popular in India, due to appealing designs and textures.
    • Wear comfortable walking shoes, and don’t forget your sunhat and sunglasses
  5. Pack a small medical kit in your luggage, include
    • bandaids
    • antiseptic cream (polysporin)
    • painkillers (acetaminophen, ibuprofen)
    • antiacids, diarrhea tablets, and an antibiotic (as prescribed by your travel clinic); electrolyte sachets or tablets. Should you get sick, these will be a lifeline for ensuring you don’t become dehydrated. Also pack probiotics for extra stomach protection
  6. Take lots of hand sanitizer, handwipes and tissues (use hand sanitizer every time you handle cash money as it passes through millions of hands).
  7. Ensure you take any medications in your hand luggage
  8. Even if you are staying in 4-5 star hotels, and the food is probably very safe, I suggest you avoid dairy (including cheese unless its Paneer served in many delicious Indian dishes), meat, cold buffets, raw fruit and vegetables.
  9. DO NOT drink tap water, or ice
  10. ABSOLUTLY AVOID food from street vendors
  11. Consider going vegetarian. Throughout my trip, I dined on delicious freshly cooked vegetarian Indian cuisine, drank bottled water, black tea and coffee, and local wine with my dinner. It’s safer to eat freshly cooked Indian cuisine than western food that can be hit or miss.