[November 4, 2011] A somewhat impromptu girls’ trip was at hand in the Fall of 2011… so me, my mom Diane, and older sister Ashley would venture to the Big Apple for some quality girl time, (and some visits with my brother, Zach). The guarantees: a lot of shopping, a lot of cocktails, a lot of laughs.
Our flight was fun-filled… compliments of several mini bottles of lemon and black cherry vodka that Diane stealthily snuck on the plane. Before we knew it we had arrived in New York City and were greeted by Zach who brought us to one of his favorite local spots for cheap and authentic Indian cuisine. The place was adorable – we haggled for free appetizers while sitting below thousands of red festive lights… you even had to duck to walk below the starry ceiling. The food was of honorable mention… from the veggie paneer all the way to the tandoori chicken and buttery naan. WOW. It seemed my taste buds had transported me all the way back to India.
We washed down the spicy goodness with cheap beers bought at the convenience shop across the street, and capped the night with a few too many light beers brewed at one of my favorite NYC past-times… McSorley’s Old Ale House, [established in 1854]. One bar later and we were agreeably exhausted from the exciting day. Back to the room, we faced an imminent struggle to remove Diane’s tall boots from her swollen feet. That we did, and turned in for some much-needed shuteye.
The crisp morning brought a stroll, (lattes in hand), down the financial district, and then onto SoHo. With nowhere to be, we were thrilled with our “no agenda” day, and turned to window shopping in the lower west side. SoHo is a wonderful, somewhat underrated gem of Manhattan. The adorable shops, quiet side streets, and fashion-forward shopping bring the place to life. We spent all day wondering modestly through the shops, mostly looking, and buying a couple things here or there… To rest our sorry soles, we had Bloody Mary breaks at Gatsby’s pub, and a search for the “world’s best” chocolate cake shop, which turned out to be rather disappointing.
We later fancied up in our pint-sized hotel room for the night ahead… and met Zach downtown at the delicious Gradisca, a favorite of my parents’ for dining in NYC. We sipped the best martinis, pureed with fresh passion fruit, and dined on small plates and meats. Next stop was the trendy Bubble Lounge – an exclusive champagne bar serving delicious handmade cocktails and expensive bubbly. We sat on the swanky couches watching young socialites and rich entrepreneurs, pretending to fit in. A few cocktails later, I was anything but fitting in with my self-made dance party.
The last morning us girls enjoyed coffee outside a small café before visiting Zach’s new apartment and checking out his slightly above average, college-style digs. A long wait was in store at a local Brooklyn diner, after which we bid adieu to Zach and continued our “girls take over Manhattan” film reel. We jumped on the subway headed back across the bridge into Manhattan, where we played the ultimate tourists in visiting Radio City, Rockefeller Center, and Times Square. I played photographer and we scarfed down street hot dogs which were admittedly less than fulfilling. Chicago hotdogs prevail… no contest.
Our last few hours were spent sheltered from the rain in over-priced stores, and finally, the woman’s dream that is Bergdorf Goodman. We explored each floor and laughed at the ridiculous price tags, finally gawking at the gorgeous Christian Louboutin shoe art, which left us wanting. Diane refused, despite our best sister efforts, to purchase the $700 pair of Valentino patent pumps, so off we went to catch our flight… no shopping bags in tow. Nonetheless, it was a trip that was short but oh so sweet. No one telling us where to be or what to do, the city was ours so we did nothing but enjoy. In our books, it was a success. After all, girls just want to have fun…
It has been 5 month since I posted – woops! Back at it now…
[June 15, 2011] I arrived at the modern Jaipur airport with ample time to relax in the rare air conditioning and board my flight south to Hyderabad… only to realize the flight had been cancelled and there was only one left for the next 24 hours that I had to book and run to in less than a half hour! Needless to say I did the booking change at two counters, got my refund, and frantically ran to the gate just in time.
Upon arrival in Hyderabad – my last stop on this whirlwind India tour – I was comforted to see the familiar faces of my co-worker Rao, his wife Sunita, and adorable daughter Tanvi greeting me with smiles at the airport. I was happy to have left the dusty rural roads of Rajasthan… For the next three days I would be spoiled in getting a homestay with this great family in their sizeable home, topped off with mouth-watering home-cooked meals three times a day by the house chef, and personally-guided tours of the city. After living out of a backpack in questionable hostels and completely solo the last two weeks this was a breath of fresh air.
I noticed almost immediately that Hyderabad was a much larger city with a lot more first world influence and advantages than where I had visited previous. Brand named stores, shiny shopping malls, and nice cars were passed as Rao drove me from the airport to his beautiful home in the city, where I was pleasantly greeted with a huge bedroom to myself housing a king bed with down blankets. The home was modern and clean, with marble floors and high ceilings, a large kitchen and pretty garden outside. Sunita gave me a welcome flower handpicked from her garden that smelled like jasmine and ginger.
After settling in we fought rush hour traffic to make a supermarket stop. The kids (youngest daughter Tanvi and two older sons) started school that week and needed supplies and food. It was interesting to wonder the supermarket and laugh at the small portions and unique brands I had never seen. At home that night we enjoyed a delicious meal of chicken, naan, rice, vegetable paneer, and yogurt (to relieve the intense spiciness for my American taste buds). It was shocking to sit amongst an upper class Indian family in the comfort of their spacious and expensive home, eating with nothing but their bare hands. It was a custom I would have to get used to over the next few days… Fork, please! By 9pm I was beat – so I turned in early to my king-sized bed and didn’t need to count any sheep to fall asleep.
Suddenly it is morning and I am woken early by an anxious little Tanvi, hoping to get some play time in with me before she left for school at 7am. I kindly took a rain check and slept another hour. Sorry, dear. My nose later woke me up to the scent of a delicious and warm homemade breakfast I could not resist. An unusual crepe-like dish dipped in several spicy sauces and yogurt was a surprisingly delicious combination, along with fresh leche juice and mangos. Fully rested from yesterday’s events, I was ready for Sunita’s fun-filled day!
First, Rao drove me to the area where our company offices are – SenecaGlobal – in the High Tech City of Hyderabad. Familiar software, tech, and brand names decorated modern office buildings in the ever-growing expanse of High Tech City – a hub of international technology. The “city” had all been developed within the past five years! Safe to say Hyderabad was catching on quickly to the opportunities in technology and software development… I took a tour of the SenecaGlobal offices, met the partners, and was embarrassingly introduced to the one hundred+ employees watching my every move with curious eyes.
After High Tech Park I met up with Sunita to go on a shopping trip to some of her favorite stores. While most of the conservative Indian garb was not my style, I settled on a colorful frock and jewelry ensemble for an upcoming wedding. Next we visited Tanvi’s elementary school, one of the few private, uniformed all-girl schools with a good reputation. A highlight of the school visit was walking through the cafeteria at lunchtime to greet Tanvi, where all of the girls [grades 1 – 8] stared at me with confused and shocked eyes. Several of the braver girls even greeted me for a hug and asked where I was from, only to run full-speed back to their table of friends and report the news, giggling with excitement. While this school was not much different than those we have in the States, I had to consciously remind myself that these privileged tots in their fancy uniforms were not the norm.
After impressing Sunita with the amount of food I consumed at our next homemade lunch, it was time to play dress up! Tanvi got home from school just in time to join us in draping ourselves in the finest formal wear and silk Indian saris that Sunita had. I chose a beautiful aqua green sari with hand-embroidered elephant stitching with small beads and mirrors adorning the edges. Sunita tediously draped the yards of fabric (it laid accros the entire bedroom!) around my body in perfect symmetry to create the dress it became, tucking and pinning every which way. After accessorizing with earrings and a jewel placed in the center of my forehead… I had transformed into an Indian princess! I loved the look – and had a lot of fun doing a “photo shoot” with Sunita and Tanvi in the garden.
Sad to put normal clothes back on, Rao and my new girlfriends took me to our next destination: Golconda Fort _ the historic castle towering over the city of Hyderabad. We spent the entire evening touring the old stone walls and corridors with a guide, and were impressed by the innovative architecture, hidden engineering feats, and great history of the place. We listened to great stories as we climbed the 350+ stairs to the top and were rewarded with all-encompassing views of the city below! When the sun dropped, we watched an hour-long video/light show of the fort and ate ice cream. Another scrumptious dinner at home and one tired Tanvi later, we were off to bed early.
…My last day in India had arrived! I got an early start at 5:30am to walk the local park and trail with Sunita and Rao. The quiet oasis of trees and flowers was a nice change from the loud city – and the national bird of India, the peacock, was everywhere! I chased them for pictures but failed miserably. After a quick breakfast I changed into my last piece of clean clothing and set off for the “Old City” district of Hyderabad with Sunita and her adorable friend Latha. Latha was a boisterous and modern woman who I liked immediately, and the three of us had a blast as we shopped around the Charminar [monument/mosque built in 1591] haggling for good prices on bangles and memorabilia. Being probably the busiest street I saw in all of India, we left when we could no longer stand the dozens of vendors and scam artists constantly approaching – this place had character to say the least!
Next, we girls dined on a well-deserved all-you-can-eat buffet lunch at a fancy hotel, where I made it my personal goal to try every dish and desert. It is safe to say I gained back any of the weight I had lost in India while in Hyderabad alone. After leaving Latha and getting Tanvi from school, the family and I toured the rest of the city before settling in for dinner at a famed restaurant claiming the best Biryani in town… and it was! We topped off the delectable meal with tiny ice cream scoops frozen into hand-made clay pots which we kept as souvenirs. On the way home I felt the drops of my first Indian rain, and we snapped photos of the massive Buddha statue in the center of a lake which changed colors with a lightshow at night. We were going to visit a temple but it was closed due to the full moon – but I was not disappointed as I knew I had some serious packing to do before my early flight and 27-hour travel day that awaited me tomorrow.
India was a trip that will stick with me forever. It has already been 3 years since my return, and I still think of it often, and fondly. The unique experiences, wonderful people, and crazy sights I saw along the way truly opened my eyes to a world unknown, and incalculably different from my own. It further justified my love of independent travel and allowed me to be myself and fully immerse in the country. It made me realize there is truthfully a whole world out there to explore… a world I plan to see.