Last summer, several of my friends signed up to visit northern India with the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce (MBCC) Nov. 6-16. Dubbed “Incredible India: The Golden Triangle Tour,” the all-inclusive journey featured stops in Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.
In August, I bit the bullet and signed up, despite the fact that I’m not the best traveler (I’m a worrier, can’t sleep on airplanes and agonize over packing).
During an October pre-trip meeting, delegates were asked why we opted to take this trip.
“India has always been on my bucket list,” was the most common answer.
India was NOT on my bucket list, however, the dates were convenient, the price seemed reasonable and I needed to “get out of my box.”
The last few years have been challenging for me: divorce, moving, becoming an empty nester and the unexpected death of a loved one. I needed to spread my wings. Incredible India, here I come.
I dusted off my passport and applied for an Indian visa. I was inoculated (Typhoid and Hepatitis A), got meds for potential stomach disorders and sunscreen with DEET (to ward off malaria). I stocked up on travel-size toilet paper and antibacterial wipes, left my computer and my dog behind and was off.
Leading our delegation of 40: Jerry Libbin, MBCC President/CEO; Kamal Brahma of New Delhi-based C’More Travel & Tours; and India native and Miami Beach resident Calvin Kohli, MBCC/Board of Governors.
We flew from MIA to Newark to Delhi, where we were greeted by the minister of Delhi, bearing gifts including fragrant leis, bracelets and scarves.
Our exotic, yet chaotic, adventure had begun. Some of the many highlights:
▪ In Old/New Delhi, we saw the Red Fort, Lotus Temple, Raj Ghat (final resting place of Mahatma Gandhi), Humayun’s Tomb and had “High Tea” at the Imperial Hotel.
▪ A 6.5 hour bus ride took us to Jaipur, aka the “Pink City,” where we visited City Palace, took elephant rides to the Amber Fort and Palace and dressed up in Indian outfits for a Diwali (Nov. 11 - Festival of Lights) celebration at the Rambagh Palace.
▪ In Agra, (a 4.5 hour drive) the pinnacle of the bucket list: the Taj Mahal. We toured the famous palace tombs at sunset, barefoot, with thousands of others; and returned the following morning at sunrise to view the magnificent structure — in peace —from the nearby Mehtab Bagh gardens. We visited the Tomb of I'timād-ud-Daulah (“Baby Taj”), Agra Fort and Sheroes’ Hangout, a café run by female acid attack fighters (www.sheroeshangout.com).
▪ Our return to Delhi — which included a three-hour traffic jam — featured a visit to the 24 karat gold Sikh temple, the “Bangla Sahib,” a kitchen which feeds thousands daily free of charge, India Gate and Judah Hyam Synagogue. We donated food and clothing for the needy at the Rain Besera shelter.
Besides the massive population, vibrant colors and wide-spread pollution, what struck me most about India was the vast disparity between wealth and poverty.
In the three cities, we stayed at beautiful, top-rated hotels in fairly posh areas: Shargri-La in New Delhi; The Fairmont in Jaipur and Mughal Sheraton in Agra (lovely once our rooms were upgraded the second night).
Throughout our travels, however, we passed slums (even a block away from the Taj Mahal), beggars, trash everywhere, people sleeping on the streets, stray dogs and other animals, including camels, monkeys, pigs, goats, chickens, elephants and, of course, cows.
Revered in India, cows are welcome everywhere, including highways. Cows, combined with rickshaws, cars, bicycles, buses, trucks, constant honking and a complete disregard for lanes made the roads beyond perilous.
Other random observations:
▪ For the most part, I enjoyed the food. I brushed my teeth with tap water and had no problems.
▪ On the road, bathrooms often consisted of a hole in the ground (for women); Indian men seemed to relieve themselves near walls most anywhere.
▪ At many tourist sites, Indians clamored to take photographs with us (assuming we were famous American actors or rock stars).
▪ Indian street vendors are fierce. They’re in your face and hound you like crazy. Our group liked to shop, doing our best to negotiate using rupees (approximately 65 per dollar) like monopoly money. Top purchases: bangle bracelets and jewelry, elephants (a symbol of good luck), tablecloths and linens; clothing (pashminas, saris, etc.) and bags.
In retrospect, many of us wished we had bought more. Prices were extremely reasonable and it wasn’t worth haggling over what amounted to just a few dollars.
Along the way, our delegates celebrated two birthdays and a wedding anniversary. We got to know each other as we learned about India — its culture, people and history.
The terrorist attacks in Paris caused heightened security at the Delhi airport for our flight(s) home. The return trip was tough for me — 20 hours without sleep, fighting a bad cold. I needed two full days of sleep to catch up.
All in all, the trip was incredible. I stepped way outside my box and have wonderful memories and mementos to show for it.
My friends are already talking about the next trip, which is to South Africa.
Beach Buzz appears every other Sunday, and focuses on people and businesses throughout the Beaches, Aventura and Miami. To reach Debra K. Leibowitz, call 305-531-7887 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or become a fan of her Beach Buzz page on Facebook.