Japan

This summer I traveled to Japan with my family for 10 days. Although I am half Japanese in heritage and my children are one quarter Japanese, this was the first trip for us. We really didn’t know what to expect.

We split our time between Tokyo and Kyoto, two very different cities. Tokyo has the largest population in the world (38 million) but you would never know it as everything operates smoothly, efficiently and extremely politely. Although we expected to sightsee in Tokyo, we learned that the city excels more in it’s different neighborhoods and districts (Harajuku was a favorite), each offering a slightly different culture or specialty. Tokyo is also well-known for it’s shopping and food.

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Although we are not big shoppers in general, we could not get enough of the food courts in the basement levels of the enormous and often opulent department stores in the Ginza District. We also found them in many train stations. The food choices were endless and the presentations were incredible. Ironically as I walked around snapping photos, I was politely asked to stop as it was against the rules. Funny, as Japanese tourists are relentless photographers!

We tried as many types of food in Tokyo as we could. Here is our breakfast after we arrived on our first day. I could get used to having sushi for breakfast everyday!

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And for dinner that night, we snuck into a basement ramen shop and were assisted in paying for our dinner from a vending machine and taking the ticket to the counter. That took us awhile to figure out! The ramen broth was meaty, rich and satisfying. Not anything like the Top Ramen we whip up in 5 minutes at home.

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We did a lot of walking in Tokyo, we rode the trains and we did a lot of eating. By the way, June is rainy season (which we didn’t realize) so pack accordingly if you go at that time. It really didn’t damper our excitement in being there. Wagyu beef and more sushi.

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After a few days in Tokyo, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. The bullet train itself is an amazing experience and one we never tired of. We bought a pass before we left for the US that allowed us limited but good access to the trains for one week at a reasonable price.

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Kyoto is the city of temples and shrines. We found a few temples on our own when we had a free afternoon but found it more efficient to take a one-day bus tour of some of the more notable ones to visit. Although we usually prefer not to travel in large groups, we knew we had limited time and made an exception.

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It was exciting to see people dressed in traditional clothing at some of the shrines and temples. They were very gracious about letting the many tourists take their pictures!

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A definite highlight of this region was our one day visit to Nara, known for the largest wooden temple in the world and for the many tame and affectionate deer that roam freely in the park surrounding it.

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On our last full day in Japan we took the bullet train to Hiroshima to experience a part of history. We worried that the site, memorial and museum would be very difficult emotionally and perhaps too much for our youngest teenage child. But it could not have been more well-presented.

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Ground Zero of the atomic bomb dropped on August 6, 1945 is also known as the Atomic Bomb Dome. This skeleton of a building is virtually the only thing that survived for miles because it lay just below the center of the explosion overhead. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park surrounds it with a number of moving monuments. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is informative and tastefully documents the events that led up to the world’s first nuclear attack. It’s theme focuses not only on the history but on prevention for the future of all mankind.

A touching part of the Peace Park is the dedication of 1,000 cranes in memory of Sadako Sasaki. She was 24 months old at the time of the bombing but developed cancer at the age of 12 due to the aftereffects of radiation. In Japanese culture, the folding of 1,000 cranes is believed to grant wishes such as recovery from illness. Sadako unfortunately passed away and did not finish folding her 1,000 cranes so her classmates finished for her. Since then, many, many people make pilgrimages to Hiroshima with thousands of folded cranes to add to the world prayer for peace. It is  beautiful and moving.

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Overall, Japan has left me yearning for more. More time, more culture, more experience, more immersion. It was so much more than I expected with so much more to know.

 

 

Cochin and Kerala, India

The last leg of our trip to India was Cochin and Kerala. Cochin is a lovely port city on the West coast of India. It was once a major spice trading centre and the place Lauren and I were looking forward to buying spices to bring home especially black cardamom which can be very expensive in the U.S. Cochin is a great walking and shopping city except at night when the mosquitos can be oppressive because of the open sewers. Lauren and I stayed at a lovely French style hotel with balconies attached to every room.
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The first day, we walked along the port boardwalk and encountered people selling fresh fish & vegetables and in town we went to a couple of spice vendors.

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It was also very interesting to see the fishermen reeling in their catch with the huge Chinese fishing nets.

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The next day we were invited in the hotel kitchen to observe the cook prepare our lunch. We learned how he combined certain Indian spices to create the flavor he wanted and we were served a sumptuous lunch on the patio.
Cochin-lunchAfter lunch we walked to an area called Jew town in the Mattanchery area of Cochin and shopped in the antique stores, visited a Dutch palace and observed a synagogue, church and Hindu temple within meters of each other. The last evening we were in Cochin, we ate a wonderful meal at one of the most expensive hotels in town.

The next morning we were picked up by a driver that was arranged by the houseboat we had rented for an overnight cruise through the backwaters of Kerala. It was about a two hour drive to where we were to pick up our houseboat but we asked our driver to stay with us until we got on the boat because we had made all the arrangements online and were not confident that we were ever going to see our boat. Once we got to the boarding area, we were told that it was being inspected out in the water and we were going to be ferried out to our houseboat. Our driver went with us. After about an hour and a half ferrying around the lake, we realized that something was amiss.  After complaining to the ferry crew and our driver, our boat finally arrived and we said goodbye to our driver, boarded our houseboat and met our crew which consisted of a cook, a Captain and Co-Captain. The houseboat was big and comfortable with sleeping cabins for us and our crew, full galley and a living and dining salon.

However, by the time we boarded it was getting dark so we were not able to visit the town of Kerala except when we disembarked to purchase some seafood with our cook for dinner the next evening.
Kerala-cookThe next morning we rode through canals and inlets and observed life along the river and motored around in the open waters most of the day.
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Our dinner that evening on the boat was fantastic but we had to eat it in our cabin because we were docked in the port we cast off from and there were so many bugs flying around the dining salon, it was impossible to be there.

While not the most beautiful of scenery along a lake that Lauren and I had ever seen before, we could totally understand why Indians loved this place. It is peaceful, serene and quiet and a real treasure after being in the noisy and frenetic cities throughout the rest of India. Our Kerala backwater cruise was a perfect ending to a fantastic trip to India.

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Goa, India

After our too short tour of Mumbai, Lauren and I flew to Goa to spend 3 nights on the beach.  When we were planning our trip to India, we decided to visit  Southern Goa rather than the Northern part because we were told that Northern Goa was crowded and noisy and the South was more sedate.  Since we had spent the last two weeks touring large, crowded and noisy cities, we were looking forward to a peaceful few days sunning on the beach. Our only reservations were this leg of our trip was going to be without guides or driver so we were going to be totally on our own. But since we were staying in a cabin on the beach and the town was small and walkable, we thought it would be okay. Our flight was in the late afternoon out of Mumbai and by the time we arrived in Goa, retrieved our luggage and went outside to hail a taxi, it was dark. We gave the cab driver the address of our beach hotel and after about 45 minutes he told us we were here and he was dropping us off in a place that looked like an alley behind some houses. There was someone to greet us and guide us the rest of the way in the dark through back yards, stepping over pigs and other animals while we dragged our luggage through the dirt. We finally arrived at the beach hotel and were pleasantly surprised with the setting. The hotel had a lovely courtyard with beautiful garden paths leading to each cabana.
Goa-2Goa-1Our cabana was supposed to be set up with two beds but instead we got a Queen bed with mosquito netting and a large shower room but we were steps from the beach.

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After a nice dinner at the hotel restaurant, we went to bed looking forward to our beach adventure. I remember the night being a sleepless one because of the many animal sounds we heard until the early morning hours. Something we were not used to during our previous two weeks in India.  The next morning we had a hearty breakfast and set up our place on the sand for some serious sun bathing, beer drinking and periodic swimming throughout the day in the Arabian Sea.

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One day we went walking into town for some souvenir shopping and checking out the small quaint town of Southern Goa. All three days were pretty much the same, breakfast, sunbathing, lunch and deciding where to eat dinner either at the hotel or at another great restaurant on the beach.

Lauren and I had a relaxing and quiet time in Goa and the most remarkable thing we saw was a cow walking on the sand in front of us. That was pretty exciting.

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Vietnam #2

Over 3,000 stunning limestone and dolomite rock formations jut from the waters of Halong Bay, a World Heritage Site about four hours outside of Hanoi. This area of over 1,500 square kilometers literally takes your breath away when you first see it, though you have likely seen pictures of it many times before. The scale, the colors, the expansiveness is something you can’t experience until you arrive. And it is absolutely worth the trek and effort to get there.

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We were fortunately advised to take an overnight boat excursion to properly appreciate Halong Bay. There are day trips out of Hanoi, but some feel that they are rushed and exhausting.

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We arrived at our boat midday, with about 20 other passengers. Our trip included bountiful Vietnamese meals, excursions within Halong Bay including incredible cave explorations, kayaking, and beach time. Activities on the boat included cooking demonstrations and a tai chi class.

After an amazing stay in Hanoi and Northern Vietnam, we headed for Central Vietnam via an overnight train to Da Nang. Our hotel was kind enough to send an employee with us to the train station and get us to the right platform, train and cabin. Phew! I’m not sure how we would have figured that out.

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Outside of a few backpackers, we are the only non-locals on the train, which is great! Only trouble is no one speaks any english and the train stops and directions are only in Vietnamese. The train is clean, comfortable and basic, and rattles through the dark of night at a pretty good clip. Not sure how much sleep we got, but we wake up to this view.

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The coastline of Vietnam is one of the most beautiful, unspoiled coastlines we have ever seen. We are totally unprepared for this breathtaking sight and would not have seen it if we had traveled any other way. GRATEFUL.

We arrive in Da Nang, near the former DMZ (De-Militarized Zone). A driver from our hotel takes us to Hoi An, a formerly busy trading port town and now a World Heritage Site. Hoi An is known for it’s genuine Vietnamese architecture, influenced by Chinese and French styles. Although much of Vietnam was destroyed during their many wars, Hoi An survived.

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The Old Quarter of Hoi An is filled with cafes and restaurants, shops, cooking classes, art galleries, tailors. There are boat excursions and an open air food market. Hoi An is especially beautiful at night when the town is lit by colorful lanterns. It can become crowded with tourists here but it really didn’t affect our experience.

When we are traveling for an extended period in large cities, we try to plan in some beach time somewhere. We attribute this to the needs of our children, but in fact it suits all of us. On this trip, we decided to stay on the beach just outside of Hoi An. Our hotel was on Cua Dai Beach, an extensive stretch of white sand and warm, clear blue water.

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A few days at the beach provided just the respite we needed before embarking on the second half of our journey in Japan. Our stay in Vietnam was extraordinary, from the breathtaking natural beauty to the chaotic, noisy cities … from opulent beach resorts to third-world living conditions for many. We will remember the exotic tastes of Vietnam, the aromas and sounds of the country, and especially the very warm and welcoming people. They are a population that has been through so much, much more than we can ever imagine. And they have risen from it, looked around, saw what unique treasures they still had and are capitalizing on it. And from that they seem to be building a better life for many. We will go back to Vietnam because there is so much more to see, but in the meantime we promised we would tell everyone we knew about our time there. It was wonderful, in a very different way. But wonderful.

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Vietnam #1

Asia. This is my first trip and I am a little apprehensive. Usually when I travel, I try to learn some basic phrases in the native language to be more helpful in getting around. Vietnamese? I tried and believe me, it’s not easy.

So, I am half Japanese by heritage and we will be going to Japan but via Vietnam first. I have heard only wonderful things about the beauty of Vietnam, but honestly I am a little torn. We had planned to go to Thailand instead but there was a little political situation there that made it difficult, so Vietnam it was. But … we are American. And there is a history ….

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After many, many hours of travel (11+ hours from LA to Tokyo + 7+ hours to Hanoi + layovers, etc), we arrived in Hanoi – at about 10 pm local time. We are exhausted and spent, thinking we just want to get to our hotel. However, we are amazed by what we see through the dark of our present environment. I must say that we are totally unprepared for the third world nature of the landscape. It is not totally unlike what I experienced in India. Tons of construction and mess. Makeshift buildings. Corrugated metal shacks. Lots of trash. My 16 year-old son is shocked. I am thrilled by this unexpected benefit of him seeing how truly different much of the world lives outside of the West.

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Morning #1: breakfast. Amongst other choices, this is what they serve. I am in heaven and I am never leaving here. A different version of the ubiquitous dish of pho everyday or other soup/noodle/rice/comfort food dish that I will never tire of.

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Though very sleep deprived, Hanoi is a bustling city that begs to be embraced. I wish I could communicate the sounds to you of the traffic, motorbikes, vendors … you can’t experience this city or any without it. And walking across the street is an adventure. Motorbikes flying at you while you calmly navigate the crossing. The first time – terrifying. After that, sport!

On our second day in Hanoi, we hired a guide and driver to tour the city. We have done this now in a number of locations: we get to help plan the itinerary and see what we want to see, we get a valuable education from our guide and we get to ask lots of questions. In Hanoi, our guide Vu took us to an important pilgrimage site for the Vietnamese: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.

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You can see the scale of this monument by the line of people in the cue. It is immense and impressive. Ho Chi Minh, or “Uncle” as he is referred to, is revered here in the North as the visionary of a unified Vietnam. Although we did not go into the Mausoleum due to time constraints, his body is on display inside – a practice that is somewhat common for Communist Leaders. Interestingly, this is not what Ho Chi Minh wanted. He instead requested that his body be cremated and his ashes split into thirds to be sprinkled in the North, in Central Vietnam and in the South. An expert team in embalming was flown in from Russia with two transport planes full of special equipment and chemicals and the embalming process took one year. We did visit Ho Chi Minh’s house on the grounds which has been preserved as it was during the leader’s life.

Some additional highlights in Hanoi were the Temple of Literature, a Confucian institute of higher education from the 11th century and the Museum of Ethnology, specializing in the 53 distinct ethnic groups that make up the Vietnamese population. The Hoa Lo Prison is known for being the home to POW Senator John McCain during the war, however part of it has been destroyed to allow for modern developments. The Army Museum is also interesting though without a guide, somewhat difficult to grasp as there are few English captions for the exhibits and it’s not clear how accurate the portrayal is.

Traveling in June is the beginning of monsoon season. We got a great taste of this from the restaurant at the top of our hotel in the Old Quarter. Without warning, loud bursts of thunder coupled with great bolts of lightening lit up the sky for minutes and then came a deluge of water like we’ve never seen. It was an amazing site and experience. As this went on for about an hour, our neighborhood became flooded and sandbags started appearing to keep water out of 1st floor storefronts. And then almost as suddenly, the water disappeared!

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There is much more I could say about Hanoi. The people and their friendliness. The colors. The aromas. The commotion. The noise! One dish that sums up the experience are the spring rolls, served both fresh and fried. They are the universally loved  Northern Vietnamese dish, a comfort food that we ate everyday.

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I would and hope to definitely return to Vietnam someday. Not only to visit the many places that we didn’t have time to explore like Sapa, Hue, Saigon, Nha Trang and the Mekong Delta, but also the places like Hanoi that we did visit but could have spent more time. It is a fascinating culture with a rich and complex history and a people who, despite all that they have been through, embrace you to share their heritage.

Mumbai, India

 

When Lauren and I were planning our trip to India, Mumbai was a question mark.  We weren’t sure we had enough time to include Mumbai into our trip or that there was much to see.  We are so glad we ended up including it into our itinerary because Mumbai was fantastic.  We had not arranged ahead of time to have a guide or driver in Mumbai, thinking we could wing it on our own for a couple of days.  After spending 10 days in India and seeing how difficult it was to get around in traffic and how uncomfortable it was as single women to travel around the cities, we called our tour company in Rajasthan and asked if they could provide a guide and driver for a couple of days to take us to the main sites.  We stayed at the historic Taj Mahal Hotel which overlooks the Gateway to India.  The very hotel that was attacked and set on fire by terrorists in 2008 but has since been restored to its original grandeur.

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We arrived at the hotel in the morning and met our guide who was female (which Lauren and I were happy about because we knew she would know where the good shopping was) for our first excursion before lunch.  Our first stop was Elephanta Caves which required a 1 hour ferry ride across the bay to get to.  Everyone we talked to when planning our trip said this was a must see site in India.  Elephanta Caves is a network of rock cut stone sculptures dedicated to the God Shiva.

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It took the rest of the day to visit the caves and take the ferry back to Mumbai Harbor and to our hotel.  We got a recommendation from our guide for a good restaurant for dinner and she said it would be an easy walk from our hotel.  So with her handwritten directions in hand, we set out on foot to find the restaurant.  The fact that we were walking around the city was significant because until Mumbai, Lauren and I did not feel very comfortable walking around the cities and towns we were visiting.  We found the restaurant and had a fantastic meal and walked back to our hotel in the dark.  Along the way, we encountered an Art Festival and were really entertained by the music and exhibits especially a maze that we could walk through made out of plastic water bottles.

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The next morning after breakfast, our guide picked us up for a city tour.  Our first stop was the Victoria Railway Station which was like watching a movie in fast forward.  So many people all moving in a hurried pace coming and going.

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We then visited Ghandi’s home which is now a Museum.  Other sites we visited was the Dobi Ghat – an extensive outdoor laundry system built during the war and we were fortunate to see the Tiffin men delivering lunches throughout the city.  Afterwards our guide took us to some great shopping places for clothes and jewelry.

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Mumbai is a very cosmopolitan city and a lot more modern than Delhi or the Rajasthani cities.  Lauren and I wished we had a little more time in Mumbai, a couple of more days would have been perfect.

Jodhpur and Udaipur

Jodhpur is the second largest city in Rajasthan and is known as “The Blue City” due to the blue painted houses around the Mehrangarh Fort. This Fort which sits atop a massive hill overlooking the city is the largest Fort in all of Rajasthan. Inside is the Maharajah’s Palace, several temples and a garden. The tile inside the palace was intricate and detailed, something we saw versions of all over Rajasthan but never tired of.

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Jaswant Thada, the Royal Crematorium in Jodhpur was made from white marble.

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En route from Jodhpur to Udaipur, we visited with the locals!

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A site worthy of a stop between Jodhpur and Udaipur is Ranakpur, home to one of the most famous Jain Temples in all of Rajasthan. It is constructed of white marble and has more than 1440 exquisitely carved columns in the interior, no two of which are alike.

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 Our last stop in Rajasthan was the city of Udaipur, known as “the Venice of the East.” It is also known for “The Lake Palace” on  Pichola Lake which has been converted to a luxury hotel.

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Udaipur was easy to explore. We started with a boat tour on the lake which took us to the Lake Palace. It is not uncommon to see local people using the lake for their main water source to wash their clothes in and bathe in.

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Then we explored the museums and gardens of the City Palace and the streets surrounding it with their many shops and restaurants. At the end of our stay in Udaipur, we reluctantly said goodbye to our able and trusty driver Balram, who had been with us continually from the time we first landed in Delhi. We were sad to say goodbye (and perhaps a little nervous!) but the distances we were traveling onward were too vast to go by car.

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Jaipur, India

After a fantastic day at the Taj Mahal, Lauren and I left Agra the next morning with our driver Balram for the four hour drive to Jaipur, the Pink City and our first stop in the Rajasthani region of India.  Along the way, our driver asked if we were interested in visiting an ancient Baori or water stepwell that was off the tourist grid.  We said sure and were blown away at the magnificent Chand Baori aqueduct. Chanda-Baori

We could climb down in it which was 19.5 meters deep and walk through its intricately carved corridors.

After we got back in the car, we drove through a local village and saw a wedding procession taking place and a group of people in colorful clothing shouting and clapping.  Our driver encouraged us to get out and see what was going on and in the middle of a human circle were the bride and groom engaged in a frenetic dance while the onlookers were singing and playing music.  Evidently weddings are big deals all over India no matter what your socio economic level is.Wedding

Our driver then took us to meet a carpet weaver whom we watched hand weave his beautiful dhurrie rugs.Carpet-WeaverWe spent 2 nights in Jaipur in a Heritage Hotel called Alsisar Haveli which was a former home of a Maharajah.  There are so many wonderful sights to see in Jaipur.  The first day we visited the Hawa Mahal or Palace of the Winds which is built of red and pink sandstone.

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At our hotel in the evening we were entertained as the royalty were with dancing and puppet shows.  The next day we visited Amber Fort which is known to be the oldest surviving palace in India.  In order to get to the entrance of the fort, we had to ride beautifully decorated elephants up the long stone pathway.

Amber-FortWe encountered snake charmers and exquisite architecture during our visit of Amber Fort.Snake-CharmersAfter a couple of days visiting the tourist sites, we ended our stay in Jaipur with a cooking class we had arranged on the internet at the home of Chef Lokesh Mathur.  We cooked a traditional Rajasthani meal and also learned how to cook with cow dung, a very plentiful fuel source all over India.  It is not as gross as it sounds as the dung is dried and mixed with hay and doesn’t smell at all.

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Taj Mahal

After spending a few days in Delhi, Lauren and I had arranged to take the train from Delhi to Agra where we were going to spend one night and visit the Taj Mahal the next morning.   We actually bought our train tickets on the Internet.  We selected our seats and ordered our breakfast all at the same time.  While the ticket procurement was a breeze, getting to the train station and to the right train was a challenge and could not have been accomplished without our handler that the tour company provided.  First of all we left our hotel for the train while it was still dark.  Once we arrived, chaos ensued.  There were many people standing outside and once we got inside the station we had to step over bodies either sleeping on the floor or God forbid something else.  We were led through the crowds of people by our handler and through the security guards where we had to show our Passports and train tickets.  Once we got onto the train platform, there was no way we would have found the right train.  Even our handler had a hard time figuring out what train we should get on.

 

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But he got us on the right train and to the right seats and after a 3 hour trip, we arrived in Agra.

Lauren and I had saved the majority of our train breakfast which was quite ample and gave it to some hungry looking children in the station.  We were met at the station by our driver and we went to our hotel to freshen up before our guide Raj met us to take us around for the afternoon to see the Agra Fort.  Raj met us early the next morning at our hotel to take us to the Taj Mahal.  Lauren and I were so excited because seeing the Taj Mahal was a dream for both of us.  We rounded a corner and saw the structure framed in the entrance doorway.

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When the mausoleum came into full view, it was breathtaking to see the sunlight reflected off of the gleaming white marble.  One if the things we noticed was how dressed up everyone was.  We were told by our guide that Indians dressed in their finest clothing to visit the Taj Mahal because it was considered a once in a lifetime spiritual experience for them.  Exactly how Lauren and I felt that day.

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Delhi, India

When Raelene and I travelled to India together for three weeks, our first stop was in the capital city of Delhi in northwest India.

Our travel plans included hiring a driver for the first half of the trip and a guide in each city we visited. We were able to do this over the internet with a reputable tour company that was recommended by our hotel.

Not being ones to waste much time, we spent our first full day in Delhi with our guide, Poonam, visiting the most important sites. Our first stop was Qutub Tower, previously a Hindu Temple which was changed into a Muslim Shrine. The columns in the temple were beautifully carved.

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 It did not take long before we saw an elephant walking down the street!

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After visiting Humayun’s (the second Mughal King) Tomb, we stopped at the Presidential Palace of Sonia Ghandi. Monkeys were running around everywhere.

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We drove by the India Gate, a memorial to 90,000 Indian and British soldiers in WW1.

We started the next day at the Mahatma Ghandi Memorial. This was Ghandi’s place of residence and last prayer before he was executed by a radical Hindu on January 30, 1948.

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One of the highlights of our entire trip was the bicycle rickshaw ride through Old Dehli. The sights, the smells and the sounds were indescribable. It felt like an assault on all of your senses!

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This was a great place to start off our trip in India, with such a diverse array of things to see, people to watch, foods to try, culture to absorb. With a population of 22 million people, there was never a dull moment in our experience of Delhi.

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