Hiya Posse Peeps! Grab a cuppa, this one is long. Jin and I were fortunate enough to go to India in August to celebrate my last long term partner’s 50th birthday, Varun. It was Jin’s first visit to the sub continent. Varun and I used to live with Rose who currently resides in Singapore. We picked her up on the way and Varun had no idea she was coming. Because it was such a big birthday we decided to be in India for 10 nights but up to a week before the actual date so as not to overshadow whatever the family and friends were organising. That was perfect for us, we got all of Varun’s time and attention.
The Saturday after we left they’d organised all the family, his high school and university friends and his local mates to have a huge surprise party for him. PHEW! The three of us were very happy we had quiet celebrations.
My advice when travelling anywhere new is to have a local beer and a local yoghurt in each new area you go to. It is a perfect way to prepare your stomach. It doesn’t give you immunity to drink the water or eat washed salad but it will give you a buffer. Bananas, mandarines and mangoes are life savers. I also travel with a Tupperware container of mixed nuts in case I’m starving and there’s nothing safe at hand. Always make sure you buy bottled mineral water and that the seal is unbroken (about US15 cents for a litre). If you can carry salt, a couple of limes and a knife with you too you can make a Gatorade style drink to keep you hydrated and the salts running through your system after sweating.
Here are a few memories
India 2023 with Jin & Portia
We all arrived on the same plane. Rose sat front and we sat way back. The Singapore-Delhi flight was so empty Jin and I had three window seats each. Very cool. Very excited about India 2023.
That night we all four stayed in Aerocity so we could refresh, feed, have a good nights sleep and then be off bright and early. It was Jin’s decision and a very wise one. One night just the four of us in a very international and modern area near the airport.
Alwar is a large area/suburb/state within the desert state of Rajasthan. Varun’s family have had hotels there for decades. When I met him they had the only proper hotel in the area, right near the train station, Aravali Hotel. I think it had a 3* rating back then. It was built over a decade, adding floors when they could afford it and I think it now has five stories. Rooms are spacious, clean and comfortable …. and gently falling apart. So nice to be back. Varun’s cook is amazing, the food was pure Rajasthani but moderated for Jin so he wouldn’t go into shock. We ate like kings. This was by far the best food of the trip.
You can find it cheaper online but the Aravali Hotel website has rooms for less than US$30/night including taxes. Ask for Varun and tell him Portia sent you, he’ll upgrade your room and give you a welcome bottle of Kingfisher beer in their bar area. It’s the only beer in the world I like to drink, perfect replenisher after the heat of the day. If you don’t drink, he’ll swap it out for a chai, ask for ginger milk chai and add your own sugar to taste, otherwise it’s VERY sweet. It will blow your mind. We drank gallons.
We took Jin and Rose to some of the many attractions Alwar has to offer.
For our first adventure Siliserh Lake and the 17th century palace turned budget hotel. It has a beautiful view of the seasonal lake and sits high above. There are now some chain hotels being built around the lake too but the palace has the best view by far. They have a very simple, super cheap restaurant.
Neemrana Kesroli Hill Fort Palace
For Varun’s 50th birthday celebrations Rose took us up to the 14th century built Kesroli Hill Fort Palace for dinner, a Neemrana property. Since my last visit 5 years ago they have been very busy and now the place looks like a heritage 5 star hotel but still keeping all the old architecture and style. We had a buffet dinner in the restaurant with a few other groups of celebrators and some hotel guests. Food and service were very good.
I had a look at prices and a regular room starts at around US$100/night. Unbelievable value to stay in a modernised 700 year old fort palace.
Sorry for the general lack of photos but we were too busy catching up. The second two are from the Neemrana site.
SHOPPING! Hope Circus is the devotional roundabout in the centre of the Alwar shopping district. Every visit I buy a few saris and have them transformed into jackets that I wear for drag. Country prices are cheaper and I like to give the shopkeepers in Varun’s area work. This time I bought five saris ranging in price from US$5-30 and had them made into jackets (all exactly the same) for US$4 each, overnight. Yes, I doubled the money in tips to the workers.
It was really good to show Jin a small town market. Varun knows so many of the stallholders and they greet him (and some me because they remember) so warmly.
I’ve been pencilling with Deepak since my last visit 5 years ago. He was working in a sari shop but now is in the wholesalers warehouse. He took us there and we had an excellent time picking saris, catching up, laughing and having a good time. They even gave me an extra discount!!
Alwar City Palace
A lovely, crumbling, rambling palace that has become government offices. They do have an Alwar Museum but they close around 4pm so get there before 3pm. Some of the marble work is unbelievably gorgeous and the ghat is enormous.
Alwar things we didn’t get to. Sadly time was short and we missed Sariska Tiger Reserve. We also didn’t do any of the local Dhabas (local roadside restaurant). I was very focused on making sure Jin didn’t get sick. India 2023 was a test to see if he wanted to see more of the sub continent.
DRIVER: Varun organised a driver and car in Alwar to take us for the rest of our journey. It worked out at about US$50/day for car, petrol and driver over 7 days. Jin also made sure the driver had a bed every night in a local hostel dormitory at about US$4-10/night and gave him US$6/day extra for food and parking. We also had him eat lunch with us each day. Lalit is his name and he was extremely grateful to be treated like an equal. English was bearably poor but we got along fine and when we needed to Jin had a translation app on his phone.
Jaipur is the capital city of Rajasthan. Commonly known as the Pink City because in the city centre the buildings are all painted a pinky orange. Jaipur is known for its enamel and silver work, bone and shell inlay and handicrafts. There are a couple of city palaces turned museums that you can look through, a lake palace that you can photograph but not visit and the beautiful Hawa Mahal – Palace of Winds.
This area is also the visitors shopping district. Just so you know, most stall products are repeated again and again. The stallholders will drop the price every step you take and the next guy will start where the last stopped. Be polite but firm and happily walk away. Remember the lowest price they gave and come back an hour later or tomorrow, if you still want it. We tend to pay a bit more if we like the stallholder, some of them are really sweet and charming. Honestly, what matter if you pay $3 more? You’ll never miss it and that will feed their family.
Jaipur Amber Fort
High on the hill above Jaipur is the Amber Fort. Visitors can only access one part of the sprawling complex but it’s more than enough to whet your appetite. Maharaja and Maharani’s chambers, a religious space, parade ground, hot water heaters and indoor bathing rooms. While you’re there you can ride camels and elephants. The money changer is the best value we found in all our travels and the local art and crafts are cheaper than we found in the streets. I was most aggrieved when looking for same in the sh0ps and stalls.
The Hall of Mirrors is spectacular. Built to reflect the lights of candles in the darkness, even a cigarette lighter or phone light will give you the impression in the middle of the day. What a wonder it must have been in the 1500s.
We grabbed a guide well before we got there. Fixed price, excellent English, good stories.
Samode Haveli, Jaipur
Built over 2000 years ago as a palace for the rulers of Samode. The family still owns and lives onsite and turned their home into a luxury hotel. I cannot stress how beautiful and lavishly appointed this hotel is. We didn’t stay here but we did have dinner. Room prices start at around US$160/night for two with breakfast. The bar area, gardens, restaurant and pool areas are all we saw but they were gorgeous.
Agra, Uttar Pradesh
I think the lead up, heat, humidity and travel all hit Jin at once in Agra. Suddenly he was tired. We got to our hotel and he just needed a nap. So we quickly rearranged our itinerary, grabbed a hotel bar snack and decided seeing the Taj Mahal was enough of an adventure for one day. Two hours sleep did both of us the world of good.
Taj Mahal, Agra
Our driver got in touch with his preferred guide for the Taj Mahal. Ali was so full of information, knew all the shortcuts (and the guards) so we got through the red tape and rigamarole in record time. Since my last visit things have changed dramatically. There are buses, metal detectors, you enter through the side gate. They have it moving like clockwork and it’s amazing how many people they can host. During December they get over a million visitors per day!
As always, I got a little weepy at my first sight of the Taj Mahal. All through our visit Jin kept getting goose bumps. Normally he takes everything in his stride but the Taj blew his mind completely. Even though I’ve seen it a few times, NOTHING can prepare you for its enormity. It’s the only man made thing I’ve ever seen that exceeds expectations on every visit.
Fatehpur Sikri is the home and monument of the first Mughal to have a victory in India. It is so interesting and has all the hallmarks of Mughal rule and architecture. Because of its historical importance as the original Indian capital of the Mughal Empire and its outstanding architecture, Fatehpur Sikri became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. It lies about 35km from Agra and you’ll need an area specific guide. Being this far away from the centre of the action meant we had the place almost to ourselves. Much more comfortable than the Agra Fort, which is bustling with busloads of tourists night and day.
There is also a magnificent mosque built to honour the Sheik that predicted the birth of his son. You can see the basis that led to the Taj Mahal and all the magnificent marble work, even more intricate than the Taj.
Black Taj Site, Agra
Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal to honour his favourite wife Mumtez Mahal planned on building a black onyx version to be his own tomb. It was to be directly across the river. The foundations are still there to be seen. The expenditure would have bankrupted the kingdom and there would have been no money to feed the army, servants and upkeep their properties so his son jailed him in Agra Fort. There he lived out the rest of his days till he died and was laid to rest next to his beloved Mumtez Mahal in the Taj. The area is cordoned off now but you can still see the foundations and look across the normally free flowing river to the Taj.
Here is Ali, our excellent Agra guide.
Jin found us a very central hotel near Connaught Place called The Connaught. On arrival we discovered it is a part of the Taj Hotel group but a slightly less palatial version. It was gorgeous. We spent quite a bit of time in the pool. Breakfast was included and was good. Our room was really lovely and comfortable. Also of interest, my favourite onyx bone inlay table and the tile work throughout the hotel had my eyes popping. We spent most of our time in and around Connaught Place. The Lutyens designed white colonnaded double circle of shops, restaurants, businesses and street sellers.
Varun came and joined us for our first Delhi day. It was Indian Independence Day. A holiday. Connaught place was happily bedlam. We wandered over to the local temple area in the evening, which was also serving food. Went and gave obeisance and thanks, poured water over the Shiva linga and had my tikka done. It’s very easy to be grateful when you’re on holidays, have enough to eat and a home to go back to.
That’s Lalit, our driver from Alwar to Delhi. We were so lucky to have him.
Loads of eating, and sight seeing. Honestly, by this point it’s all rolling into one extra long day in my mind. I had a jewellery buying expedition planned to Karol Bagh but the prices had gone through the roof. No buying there. While we were visiting the great Jama Masjid mosque next to the Delhi Fort there is bazaar next to it. We found EXACTLY what I was looking for. Indian Wedding Jewellery. It’s spectacularly OTT and perfect for drag. Also, no other Queen in Sydney wears it. The price was so right I went crazy. YAY!
We saw India Gate, the Secretariat building, Hamayan’s tomb, the National Museum (with an excellent guide who took us just to the Indian sections, as we asked), and wandered around Old Delhi. In a city as historic and beautiful as Delhi there is too much to see even in a lifetime. We even went to the Baha’i Lotus Temple.
Met my first Hijra. She was sweet and we had only a single red light to chat.
Then it was time to go. India was fabulous. We got one last sunset through the dust.
Do you think India could be a destination?
My last visit to India in 2017.