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.  Continue reading

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!

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?

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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!

India 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-Élysées.

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.  Continue reading

India Day 2: Jama Masjid, the Red Fort & a Hair-Raising Rickshaw Ride Through Chandni Chowk

If you missed my post about Day 1 in India, you can catch up here.

View from my room – you can’t imagine the ruckus these cars made with their horns!

Normally I’m not the kind of gal to be up at 6:30 AM, but that was when my internal clock decided to wake me up this morning. Good thing, too, because the famous Delhi honking symphony was just starting and it would’ve been tough to fall asleep with all of that going on. While my mum went for a swim, my dad and I decided to scope out the hotel’s breakfast buffet, which had everything from vegetable curry to croissants to mini quiches. The freshly-made puris and dosas were so addictive! But it was surprising to see so many guests fill their plates with fresh fruit, which the three of us had been told to avoid in India.

Our half-day tour of Old Delhi started at 9:30 AM (kudos to my dad for finding a reputable Indian travel agency and organizing a personalized tour for us). We stepped outside and were hit with an intense wave of heat – it was 36C today, which is at least 10 degrees hotter than what we’re used to in Toronto. Our guide, Vikas, and driver, Rajesh, explained that we would start our day at Jama Masjid, one of the largest and most revered mosques in the country. On the way there, we passed by Chandni Chowk, a busy outdoor market filled with clothing stores, fruit stalls, firecracker shops, and vendors selling one-of-a-kind accessories. Vikas said we’d be taking a rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk’s tiny, crowded alleyways after the Masjid tour, so naturally my first reaction was to shout, “Those things are death traps!” while running in the opposite direction. Just kidding, but I did repeatedly ask Vikas about the safety of the rickshaws and he repeatedly assured me that nothing bad would happen.

At the Masjid, we removed our shoes and I donned a patterned wrap dress (see the picture below) to cover my leggings. A few Indian children near us held out their hands for money, which was kind of heartbreaking to see, but they went away when we simply smiled at them and continued on our way. Vikas gave us some history (the structure is roughly 375 years old!) and then we walked around the stunning site, taking pictures and enjoying the calm atmosphere. A number of men were praying inside, but they didn’t seem to mind that all of us tourists were snapping photos.

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India Day 1: Flight to Delhi & First Impressions

Wow! What a day. It’s 1:15 AM on Wednesday here in Delhi, but my parents and I are still on Toronto time so we’re somewhere between wide awake and ready to pass out. (If you’ve ever experienced jet lag, you’ll know what I mean!)

It took 14 hours to get from Toronto to Delhi, but that was truly one of the most comfortable flights I’ve ever had. We flew direct with Air Canada in Premium Economy, which means more legroom, better meals, wider seats and a much cozier cabin than regular economy. There were only 3 rows (21 seats), which meant we were able to sleep in a very quiet, dimly lit cabin with minimal disruptions from people walking up and down the aisles. I definitely recommend Premium for a great experience on long-haul flights. The food was surprisingly good (the butter chicken, rice pudding and samosas were a real treat) and there was hardly any turbulence – well done, Air Canada!

As first-time travellers to India, we were a little wary of what would greet us at the airport. Would we be walking into a country filled with crazy throngs of people (including pickpockets) and a horrible stench? Well, I’m happy to report that New Delhi, while quite smoggy, has none of the unbearable smells, piles of garbage and mobs of people that we were warned about. However, we’ll see how Old Delhi measures up later today when we embark on a half-day tour of the city. I’ll try to post daily updates, so please stay tuned! 🙂

My Ultimate Travel Bucket List!

In my opinion, there are few things more exciting than exploring a new place. Everything is totally new, from the people you meet and the sights you see to the foods you eat. Of course, not all travel experiences are worth repeating, but hopefully we can learn from any unpleasant situations we may encounter in other countries. Your experiences while travelling are totally your own and you’ll never forget what you saw, heard or did that made a certain place so special. Here’s the bottom line: if you get an opportunity to travel, take it! Thanks to my parents, I’ve been able to travel to 23 countries in my 23 years. Whether it’s a cruise around the Galápagos Islands, a sunrise hike up to Machu Picchu or dinner on a Dhow in Zanzibar, those two are always up for an adventure and I’m so lucky to have accompanied them on some of their jaunts around the world. We’re hoping to visit Dubai and India this summer, which should be a real treat – as you can see below, those are two of the places on my current travel bucket list.

Here are another 23 places I’d absolutely love to visit, in no particular order. Feel free to comment on which ones you’ve been to and which ones you think I should include! Continue reading

Food for Thought

There’s something to be said about the power of the human mind. At the risk of sounding like a pompous old geezer, I truly believe the brain is a wondrous tool that can be used to cultivate our curiosities and explore exciting avenues. For example, I like to take a few minutes out of each day to consider something new and thought-provoking. Lately I’ve been thinking about what my name will be attached to in future years. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider the following. We automatically associate the Dalai Lama with Buddhism, Sidney Crosby with hockey, and JK Rowling with Harry Potter. Each of these individuals has something so uniquely them that if I reversed the situation and asked which famous person you would associate with these three topics, you would probably come up with the same people. I don’t necessarily want to reach the same degree of celebrity, but you can’t blame me for wondering. I could brand myself as an up-and-coming fashion designer, follow through with the dream of becoming a renowned travel writer, or blossom into a powerful sports agent. I could dedicate my time to charity work, find wild success as a juggler, or put all my effort into becoming the best daughter my parents could ask for. The possibilities are endless!

Let’s put the spotlight on you now. I’d like to ask you to perform a mental exercise with me. Take thirty seconds to reflect on your life and your accomplishments. Consider your school life, your job, your hobbies, and your family. Think about one overarching topic people would associate you with. Got it? Good. Now ask yourself this question: “Am I happy with being thought of as this type of person?” If the answer is yes, congratulations – you’re way ahead of the curve. If the answer is no, this is where my point comes into play: if you’re not satisfied with the light in which you’re portrayed, change it. There’s no time like the present (or so I’ve heard).

Wasn’t that fun? Just thought I’d throw in a bit of motivational advice. Hope you learned something about yourself from it.

As I lie in bed at 12:30am typing this post and snacking on a brownie from Starbucks (hey, we all have to indulge sometimes), it occurs to me that I’m not the coolest 20-year-old. While most of my roommates and classmates are out drinking and engaging in general debauchery, I’m doing what I do best: sitting in my bedroom, writing, with Maroon 5 playing in the background and a tall glass of water on my nightstand. I have a lot on my mind tonight, dear reader, but mostly I’m thinking about you. I wonder where in the world you are. Are you curled up on your couch after a long day at work, reading this on your laptop or smartphone and wondering if perhaps my brownie is laced with somethin’ special? (FYI, Mom, it isn’t.) Did you sleepily stumble across this page while nursing your morning cup of joe, only to realize it’s too early to try and make sense of my nonsensical ramblings? Or maybe you’re a friend or family member who I’ve harassed time and time again to glance over my blog. Whatever the case may be, I’d like to sincerely thank you for stopping by. It means a lot. At the very least, I hope I’ve given you a few minutes of pleasurable reading. If not…well, that’s what the comments section is for. Please be honest – I can take it!

Until next time.