Dubai Day 2: Gold Medals for Canada and A Midnight Cricket Match

Today was a great day, mostly because I slept past 7 AM for the first time since we left Toronto, but also because I got to witness Canadian soccer teams taking home gold medals! As I mentioned yesterday, we’re here in Dubai for the Jubilee Games, a global sports competition organized by our Ismaili Muslim community. For me, soccer has been the most thrilling game to watch – I shouted and screamed so often during today’s games that my throat feels like it’s been burned.

During the day, I took it easy and just relaxed at the hotel. I had some time to kill because the men’s soccer final was taking place at 9 PM inside Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC). It was Canada VS Tajikistan – we knew it was going to be a very close match because both teams were equally strong and, I think, equally motivated to get the win. Tajikistan started off strong with a 1-0 lead for the first half, but in the end, the Canadians nabbed the gold medal with a 2-1 victory! 

The Canadian men’s team celebrating their win!

My mum and I also caught the second half of the Canadian women’s soccer final, where our team won 3-1. The U.K. won bronze and Pakistan won silver; on the men’s side, Tajikistan was awarded silver and Pakistan got the bronze. 

Right after the awards ceremony, my parents and I and some of my mum’s Council colleagues decided to check out the cricket game final (Canada VS Pakistan), which started at 11 PM at an outdoor field thirty minutes away. There was a coach leaving DWTC at midnight, and when we arrived, it was clear Pakistan was winning. The crowd’s loud cheers in Urdu and the hundreds of Pakistani flags made me feel a little out of place, but it was great to see so many united Ismailis supporting their home team. They also made a point of tossing out some, “Go, Canada!” cheers, which we appreciated given that the score was heavily in Pakistan’s favour. 

The outdoor game had a nice atmosphere. Congrats to Pakistan…

We left before the end and got back to the hotel at 3 AM. I’m heading to bed now – can’t wait for the Jubilee Games Closing Ceremonies tomorrow! 

Dubai Day 1: The Jubilee Games, Ismaili Centre Dubai and Great Indian Food

Welcome back to my travels, everyone! Thanks for sticking with me this far. Today’s post will be a short one as it’s 1:34 AM here in Dubai and sleep beckons. 

Today was the perfect first day in Dubai. Technically we started our week-long trip yesterday after flying in from Jaipur, but we were so tired that we couldn’t do much more than check out the hotel, grab dinner and go to bed. Today, we were able to have breakfast amongst family and friends from Toronto, watch an awesome soccer game, attend jamatkhana at the beautiful local mosque and go out for dinner with some friends.  

What soccer game, you ask? Let me explain. We and ~11,000 others are in Dubai for the Jubilee Games, an international sporting competition organized by the Ismaili Muslim community. Since my parents and I belong to this community, we decided to come and support Canada’s Ismaili athletes! The Games actually finish this week, but we’ll be able to catch the semi-final and final matches as well as the closing ceremonies. Yesterday we watched our men’s soccer team beat the USA 3-2, and today it started off as a tie game between us and Tajikistan and then our team ended up winning 6-5. Tomorrow (Thursday) is the final, which all of us Canadians are very excited about! Our male soccer players are the defending champions from the first-ever Jubilee Games back in 2008, so here’s hoping they’ll bring home the gold again tomorrow. (You can learn more about the Games here.) 

Such a thrilling game!

After screaming ourselves hoarse after the win, we got ready for jamatkhana (mosque) and headed there in a cab. (So far, Dubai seems like a very sleek and developed city – its streets are lined with fancy stores and flashy skyscrapers.) The Ismaili Centre Dubai, where jamatkhana is, is a beautiful space that my parents and I will hopefully take a tour of tomorrow. We met several Toronto friends there and decided we would all go out for dinner afterwards. One of our friends suggested we go to an Indian restaurant called Jaffer Bhai, and I’m so glad we listened to him – everything was great, from tandoori chicken and vegetables to mutton biryani and butter chicken. There were 11 of us, and even though we ordered about seven or eight dishes, we couldn’t finish it all. 

Jaffer Bhai’s may not look like much, but its food is delicious!

That’s it for today. I’m off to bed – goodnight!

India Day 7: Elephant Rides, Amber Fort & Shopping in Jaipur

Whew! Today was another full day of fun in India. Monday was our only day in Jaipur and we wanted to explore as much of the colourful city as possible. We started off with a tour of Amber Fort, an ancient maharaja palace built on a mountain. There was an option to reach it by riding on elephant back…and we took it! 

Can you spot the elephants?

I wasn’t aware we’d be riding elephants until the day before it happened, which was good because it allowed me less time to feel nervous about it. Meaning I was pulling my hair out as we drove up to the elephant station and saw the animals we’d be getting on: 

We were way up there. What a ride!

I’ve taken an elephant ride once before, around age 5, but was probably too excited to be scared. This time, I couldn’t help but wonder: what if the elephant collapses while heading up this steep cliff in 30 degrees?! Thankfully, other tourists around us looked just as nervous as I did. We met our Jaipur guide, Vijay, who explained that he would meet us at the top and take us on a tour of the Fort. My mum and I climbed onto a padded cart atop one of the elephants and, before we knew what was happening, we were off. You may not know this (I didn’t), but large animals tip and veer as they walk, making for a very bumpy ride. Let’s just say I was glad I’d taken Gravol before the ride! It would start to feel fun for a few minutes and then the animal would tip to one side, forcing us to lurch forward with each step. (I had a death grip on the side handle of the cart at all times to help steady myself.) Meanwhile, my mum was loving it! Behind us, my dad was having a ball – he had bought a colourful Rajasthani maharaja hat and looked like a king as he rode his elephant. 

The elephant driver seemed to enjoy getting the animal to speed up to a gallop because of the terrified squeals I was emitting, but overall it was a fun experience and definitely out of my comfort zone. And it beat the heck out of climbing up the mountain! 

Amber Fort, built in 1592, was stunning. As Vijay explained, the maharajas led very good lives and enjoyed opulence. Their grand halls, palaces, gardens and private chambers were fascinating to look at and nicely tied together the examples of Mughal architecture, ancient marble and sandstone carvings, and Islamic gardens that we’d seen recently. 

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to live in a place like this?

After the Fort, we stopped for a photo op of the Jal Mahal, a palace built in the middle of a beautiful, man-made lake. 

Vijay then took us to an emporium that had silk and cotton scarves, tablecloths and pashminas along with material for men and women’s clothing. My parents each got an Indian outfit made (it would be dropped off at our hotel later), then we went to a jewellery store and my dad bought me a beautiful sapphire ring. It’s my birthstone and he knows I’ve wanted one for a long time! 

Tomorrow (Tuesday) we leave for Dubai. India has been absolutely phenomenal and I’m sad to leave it behind. Stay tuned for Day 1 in Dubai! 

India Day 6: Drive to Jaipur, Fatehpur Sikri & a Hectic Ride on an Indian Bus

After yesterday’s magical trip to the Taj Mahal, I don’t think anything can beat the morning we had. (Though there’s an elephant ride scheduled for tomorrow, so stay tuned for that!) The visit to the Taj totally exceeded my expectations and has definitely been the highlight of our vacation thus far. Today we left Agra for Jaipur, a vibrant city rich with history and culture.  

We left the Courtyard Marriott in Agra at 9:30 AM and drove straight to Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient city that Mughal Emperor Akbar built and once ruled in. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was constructed in the late 1500s and consists of beautiful mosques, halls and palaces. Akbar built palaces within the city for each of his three wives, and we could see details in each palace that referred to the wives’ hobbies and religious beliefs. Fatehpur Sikri remains, to this day, one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture in India.

Stunning 16th-century architecture and designs!

But I forgot the most important part: in order to get to Fatehpur Sikri, we rode on a cramped, run-down local bus up a hill in 34 degrees Celsius and a humidity factor of 89%! (It was honestly as bad as it sounds.) Now, keep in mind that my parents and I try not to be snobs when we’re travelling. Despite staying at nice hotels and taking precautions to ensure our safety, we mingle with locals whenever possible and find it fun to live like them for a day. The problem with today’s mingling was that it was a sweaty, smelly mess that left me desperate for a refreshing shower. 

Upon arrival at Fatehpur, we were a little disappointed to learn that we couldn’t take our car up to the ruins and would instead have to take the local bus, a small, ancient-looking vehicle that carried 25-30 people. My mum and I were a bit hesitant to get on when we saw that we were the only foreigners, but there was no other option. We squeezed into some tiny seats and received a mix of glares and curious looks from almost everyone on the bus. I started to feel like a goldfish – for some reason, people stared at us as if we were their entertainment. Maybe they were trying to figure out if we were Indian and, if we were, why we were dressed so differently than them. 

Everyone on the bus was dripping with sweat and wiping their faces with their clothes. Sweaty toddlers sitting on their parents’ laps had hair plastered to their foreheads and we saw more than one person with a totally soaked shirt…the humidity was truly overwhelming and I missed a fair bit of what the local guide was saying due to feeling very lightheaded. An hour later, one bus pulled up in front of a crowd of 60 people and there was immediate shoving and shouting as people scrambled to get a seat. We’re talking actual shoving – many of the people already climbing on to the bus were grabbed at until they had to give up and let others take their place. I was trying to stand still but ended up getting pushed and yelled at anyway. I think Fatehpur would’ve had more meaning for me if we had had a more pleasant method of transportation, but hey, at least we can say we took an authentic Indian bus ride and survived.

We arrived at Le Meridien hotel in Jaipur in the evening and didn’t get to see much of the city (although we did see elephants!), so tomorrow will be a full day of sightseeing. Can’t wait!

Elephant crossing!

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India Day 5: Getting Up Close and Personal With the Taj Mahal

Welcome back, everyone! As you may know from my previous post, today was a big day: my parents and I visited the glorious Taj Mahal! 

We started our day at 5:20 AM because we wanted to beat the crowds and the heat. At 6:30, we met our new guide, Masood, who told us which items would be prohibited inside the Taj. Our driver, Rajesh, dropped us at the street entrance of the site around 6:45 AM and we could already feel the humidity. Families of grey monkeys hung out on pink pillars lining the dirt roads we walked up, their babies chasing each other and eating bananas. 

Monkeys!

Our excitement mounted as we walked up to an archway of a building that gave us a glimpse of the Taj. I think my heart skipped a beat (that sounds dramatic, but you’ll understand if you’ve been there) when we finally feasted our eyes on this view:

Everyone stopped in their tracks to look!

But I soon realized that this view was nothing compared to what awaited us. I stepped under the archway and suddenly had this breathtaking and picture-perfect vista of the Taj Mahal: 

Takes your breath away, doesn’t it?

It is, without a doubt, the most majestic structure I’ve ever seen. The pictures do not do it justice. The story behind it is very unique: in 1631 AD, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan was so overcome with love and grief when his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, passed away that he commissioned an immense marble tomb to be built in her memory. It took over 20 years and 20,000 workers to finally complete it. The tomb’s perfect symmetry and surrounding gardens have led the Taj Mahal to be considered the single greatest achievement in Islamic architecture, as well as one of the most prominent symbols of eternal love in the world. 

I couldn’t take my eyes off of the Taj’s marble dome and intricate inlay work, which apparently got its colours from various precious stones. We were able to go inside the mausoleum and visit a replica of Mumtaz’s tomb (her actual resting place is underneath the Taj, alongside Shah Jahan’s). Photos weren’t allowed inside, but I took some of the outside walls:

Such intricate work…

Imagine the tiresome work that must have gone into deciding what kind of patterns to create, how to create them and which order they should be in. Mumtaz was clearly adored by Shan Jahan! My mum and I touched the cold marble and remarked that it was in remarkably good shape for being 387 years old. There was such a sense of serenity and peacefulness that came over me as we walked by the replica tomb and came to grips with the fact that both people were buried beneath us. It helped that we were there just after 7 AM – as predicted, the heat wasn’t unbearable yet and the crowds weren’t overwhelming. The three of us lingered inside the Taj, craning our necks to look up at the patterns and calligraphy that covered the ceilings. We could hear foreigners around us expressing their awe and didn’t hesitate to join them. I actually walked backwards as we left so I wouldn’t miss a last viewing of one of the Seven Wonders of the World! 

We spent an amazing hour and a half at the Taj Mahal and then went back to the hotel to freshen up and eat. After breakfast, Rajesh and Masood picked us up. We took a quick drive down Agra’s busy roads, dodging cows, goats and rickshaws, and then they dropped us off at a marble emporium. We sat down for a short demonstration of how the intricate marble patterns and colours are created; the local craftsmen there use the same sculpting and carving techniques that were used to build the Taj Mahal. Given that one set of coffee-table coasters took the craftsmen almost seven months to create, it now makes sense as to why the Taj took over 20 years to build. 

Next up was Agra Fort, a former imperial residence once held by Mughal dynasties. Construction began by Emperor Akbar in the 1500s and modifications were made by his grandson, Shah Jahan. Following that, we drove to Akbar’s grave and toured its stunning gardens, which were filled with deer, monkeys and peacocks. Finally, we visited Mehtab Bagh, a lush park where Shah Jahan wanted to build something called the “Black Taj Mahal” and was later exiled because of his intention to put his life’s worth of savings into this one project. This park is also perfect for a different, but equally beautiful, view of the Taj:

After that, it was back to the hotel for dinner and packing for the drive to Jaipur tomorrow. I know that planning a trip to India is no easy feat, but I think the Taj Mahal is worth seeing at least once in each of our lifetimes. There’s nothing else like it! 

India Day 4: Drive to Agra & First Glimpse of the Taj Mahal

I already miss Delhi’s thrilling and chaotic streets, rickshaws speeding alongside us! Note the lush greenery lining the road.

This morning, I woke up feeling really disappointed that we were leaving Delhi. It had been an awesome couple of days exploring the city (check out my recap of our final day in Delhi here) and I hadn’t expected to like it so much. However, on today’s schedule was the drive to Agra, which put us one step closer to visiting the Taj Mahal. I didn’t need much convincing to pack up and leave! 

Our time with Vikas, our tour guide in Delhi, was over, but thankfully we still had the same driver. Obviously we don’t know Rajesh well, but it’s been comforting to encounter the same person each time we get into the car; exploring a developing country is clearly much simpler when one has a reliable guide and driver and doesn’t have to worry about personal safety and taxi fares. 

After breakfast and a hassle-free check-out from the Shangri-La’s Eros Hotel in Delhi, Rajesh picked us up and we headed for Agra. I loved seeing Delhi streets on a weekday morning, where passengers in automated rickshaws furiously typed or talked on their iPhones and children in uniforms made their way to school. We passed the Supreme Court of India, where busy-looking men and women rushed down the street in black barrister gowns, arms loaded with papers and books. We shouldn’t have been so surprised to see an equal number of female barristers, but I think something like that is a rare sight in developing countries. Later, we took a bridge over Yamuna River, which had a lot of garbage floating in its murky water but looked like it was once beautiful. From a distance, we saw the majestic Swaminarayan Akshardham, one of the largest Hindu temples today  (see below), as well as the stunning Lotus Temple.

The third-largest Hindu temple in the world! What a splendid site.


We also noticed miles and miles of rice paddies surrounded by straw huts, neither of which I had seen before. About two hours into the drive, we came upon a roadblock where a large electrical wire had fallen onto the highway. It took workers about fifteen minutes to move it off the road safely, and while Rajesh used the time to stretch his legs, many of the other drivers stayed in their cars to continuously honk their horns. Definitely expect constant and aggressive honking if you’re ever in India!

After four hours, we had arrived at our destination: the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Agra. (We glimpsed the Taj Mahal from the main road, and we all fell silent for a moment as we realized exactly what we were looking at. The Taj has such a commanding presence, even from a few kilometres away.)  The hotel’s modern decor was a stark constrast from the city streets, which resembles the “dirty and smelly” part of India that people and guidebooks had warned us about. Cows and goats were everywhere (even on the roads), people in torn clothes rode in carts filled with household materials for them to re-sell, and skinny children sat on the ground with younger children in their laps, wild looks on their faces. Meanwhile, the hotel looks like this:

Beautiful lobby with intricate wall hangings and designs.


It felt wrong walking into such splendour after driving through what felt like slums, a feeling I’m sure many foreigners experience when they stay in Agra. We realized after seeing the city that there isn’t much shopping or eating to be done outside of the hotels, but tomorrow (Saturday) we’ll visit the Taj Mahal at 6:30 AM followed by certain historical sites nearby. Stay tuned for an account of our day!

๏ปฟIndia Day 3: Lotus Temple, Humayun’s Tomb & a Luxurious Ayurvedic Scalp Massage

I can’t believe it’s our third day in India already. We leave Delhi first thing Friday morning for a weekend in Agra. I’ll miss this loud, chaotic city! 

If you’ve read my post from yesterday (find it here), you’ll understand why I was a little  nervous about what our tour guide, Vikas, had planned for us today. Luckily, there were no elephant rides or riding backwards on motorcycles (which I imagine would be as thrilling yet uncomfortable as yesterday’s rickshaw adventure)! On today’s itinerary was a historical tour of New Delhi, concluding with free time at a large mall nearby. Our first stop was a photo op at India Gate, a 1931 war memorial for Indian soldiers who lost their lives during World War I. The arched gate and long stretch of road in front of it took me back to Paris for a few minutes – it’s strikingly similar to the l’Arc de Triomphe and, in some ways, the Champs-ร‰lysรฉes.

Vikas gave us some history about the city’s politics and army, then we made a quick U-turn and parked on the same street in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan, or Presidential Residence. It’s a palatial estate where – you guessed it – the President of India resides. The country has a President and a Prime Minister, but apparently the Pres. has a lot more power and influence. 

India Gate could be the little sister of Paris’ l’Arc de Triomphe…

We got a close-up look at the red sandstone of the buildings (such as army offices) surrounding the Presidential Residence. The construction for these structures began in 1911 and finished in 1931 – imagine taking 20 years to complete a set of buildings! It was mainly because the workers back then would have had very few tools to work with; they did almost everything by hand. 

India’s Presidential Residence.

After dodging cars and rickshaws in order to take pictures from the perfect angles, we took a leisurely drive down roads lined with palm trees and beautiful pink and white flowers. Vikas mentioned that behind the greenery were palaces built for maharajas, some of whom currently live there with their families. He described maharajas as people with Western educations who were once able to manipulate the government in the days when they ruled (“maharaja” is Sanskrit for “great ruler”). From what I understood, nowadays the maharajas are still regarded as elite and educated members of society but don’t have much influence on the government. 

Next, we made our way to Humayan’s Tomb, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Humayan was a 16th-century Mughal Emperor who died after consuming too much opium and falling off a second-floor balcony. (A good reminder to not do drugs!)  It was commissioned by Humayan’s son, Akbar, in 1570, but the former emperor isn’t the only person buried there – over 150 Mughal family members have underground cells and graves there. The tomb is surrounded by a lush garden, a fact that is culturally significant as this site was apparently the first garden-tomb combination in India. We climbed a steep staircase to the second floor of the tomb, where we found amazing views of the lush gardens surrounding the various mausoleums and monuments. 

Humayan’s Tomb. Such a stunning feat of architecture

Hot and a little dehydrated, we headed for the Lotus Temple, a Baha’i Faith house of worship. (On the way there, the traffic slowed on a main road and men came up to the sides of our car, offering homemade crafts and plates of cut-up coconut for sale. They didn’t pose any threat, but just for my own peace of mind I inquired as to whether or not the car doors were locked. Vikas laughed and said, “Yes, they are locked. You know, the men can sell to you, they can disturb you, they can even dance in front of you – but they will never harm you!” That was good to hear, especially given recent rumours that some parts of Delhi have become unsafe for women.) Completed very recently in 1986, the temple was built in the shape of a lotus flower and resembles the Sydney Opera House. 

The Lotus Temple is a must-see!

Vikas wasn’t able to give us much information about the Baha’i religion as we were quickly ushered inside to sit within the Temple (shoes off and no cameras allowed) and either pray or look around. It would have been nice to hear more about this mysterious faith, but I was happy to just sit back and marvel at how calm and serene the atmosphere made me feel. Outside the Temple, my parents and Vikas stopped for fresh coconuts at a busy roadside stand. While the few sips I had were perfectly sweet and refreshing, I didn’t want to risk getting sick from a dirty knife or hand. Better safe than sorry, right?

Our final stop of the day was the mall in the south end of New Delhi. You’re probably thinking that the last place anyone should want to go to in India is a shopping mall, and I would have to agree with you on that. However, my parents were looking for specific British items that they can’t find in Canada, so they did have a good reason to go. Satek Mall was a mix of local and global stores including H&M and Marks and Spencer, but what really stood out was an ayurvedic facial and massage parlour called Inatur. The masseur and masseuse gave my dad and I truly wonderful express massages that included a personalized scalp oil massage, deep-tissue neck and shoulder massages and a reflexology foot treatment. The application of lavender oil on my scalp made for a heavenly 20-minute head massage, and the reflexology and deep-tissue treatments were a little uncomfortable but very effective. The masseuse worked out the knots in my neck and shoulder and greatly reduced my foot and heel pain, not to mention the tension in my head and neck. I highly recommend getting an ayurvedic treatment to help relax your mind and reduce chronic pain.:)

Tomorrow, I’ll let you know our first impressions of Agra. See you then!