How Study Abroad Changed My Life-10 Years Later

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A lot has changed in the last ten years; my physical location, my career, my age (ick), my friends, my hair color, but one thing has remained constant; my desire to travel.

It’s hard to imagine that ten years ago I was just a scared College student about to fly across the pond to a world of unknowns. For many who know me, you would agree that I am more the type of person to have a plan and a back-up plan, and then probably another back-up plan. But for whatever reason I didn’t when I left and it all worked out beautifully.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget how it felt arriving to campus majorly jet lagged and full of anxiety. I get almost choked up now thinking back to that day. I lugged my suitcases up the stairs ready to embark on what would become the journey of a lifetime.

Looking back over the four months I spent studying abroad in London, it isn’t necessarily the classes I remember so much of, it’s the people and the experiences.

At the time, I had no idea I would go through study abroad and come out a different person on the other side. I figured it would be fun, but I never expected it to shape who I became as an adult.

In the last ten years I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to more place than I ever thought possible. None of which would have ever happened had I not gotten on that plane to London and experienced the world outside my familiar walls.

I made friends that semester that I will have until I die. We can spend days, months, or years apart, but it never matters, because when we are together we pick up right where we left off.

To me London is one of the most magical places in the world. My heart is there and probably always will be in some ways. I learned so much about traveling, myself, life. One could argue I grew up there.

It’s funny to think about milestones in a way, because they are often insignificant. If I hadn’t continued to travel, then maybe I wouldn’t feel the same way I do now about my time studying abroad. It ignited a fire in my soul and that is something I will be eternally grateful for.

I’m literally about to fly to Peru with some great friends, one of whom I met during my time in London and I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate.

If you’ve ever thought about studying abroad, I cannot encourage it enough. Just take a leap of faith and go. You won’t regret it.

Happy Ten Years Richmond STABS!

Up, Up and Away

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All good things must come to an end. We arrive at the Delhi airport extremely early for our 10:35 PM flight. This airport is huge and also the most secure I’ve ever been in. They had guards at each door. To get in, you had to provide your ticket and passport and it could only be a certain number of hours before your flight. We got in before the ticket counter even opened. My friend had been able to check-in and par for the course; I had an “error” and couldn’t check in. Wonderful.

Checking in was interesting. It ended up taking four or five agents to figure out the issue so I could get my boarding passes. Luckily my luggage was checked all the way home. Winning.

Security was super secure. Ironic I know. We got through, only to learn we were supposed to have these tags on our hand luggage so they could stamp them. There are no signs telling you that, and there also aren’t bins of these tags just around. To make the experience even more special, my backpack was completely unpacked and everything was run through the scanner alone. It was pretty cool. Or whatever the opposite of cool is, yeah it was that.

My main goals were food, shopping and shower. Mind you at this point we had been up since 7AM, slathered in Deet and sunscreen, plus a layer of sweat and dirt. The last thing I wanted was to sit in my own filth for another 25+ hours going home.

Side note: the shopping in the Delhi airport is fantastic! We could have spent hours in those shops!

After our dinner and shopping it was shower time. We didn’t have any kind of lounge pass, but we ended up buying a pass to the Air India lounge. We got three or four hours of access, internet, food, drinks, and nice chairs. For some additional ruperts we got access to showers. All in all it cost about $20 –ish dollars each, Yeah cheap.

I’m not sure what I expected from an airport lounge shower, but I have to say it was one of the nicest showers I have ever been in. We each got our own room with a sink, toilet and shower. They provided anything you could need, which I also didn’t expect. The shower was so great that I washed everything twice. Seriously amazing.

Showered, fed, and happy-ish we had one final Kingfisher in the lounge and said our final farewell to India. It was sad, that is, until this happened.

Last Kingfisher


Be warned, Delhi airport rant about to start…

On our way to the gate, I got two bottles of water from the bookstore. I am all about staying hydrated when I fly and this was going to be 14+ hours in a steal tube up in the air. I needed water to survive. So I was a happy camper. Upon arrival to our gate, we realized there was another security checkpoint. Wait, I already went through all this. In my naive brain, I thought okay no problem, security again but since I got my water IN THE AIRPORT it will be fine. Wrong, I was so wrong. I had to throw BOTH of my brand new, un-opened half liter bottles of water away. To say I was livid would not be saying enough. I’m still pissed about that now almost a year later. I appreciate security yes, but at least warn us. Say that we can’t buy them. Or make us put them in a sealed bag or something. It was ridiculous not to be able to board a 14+hour flight with water. Absolutely ridiculous. Okay, rant end.

This was going to be the longest flight I had been on. My previous record was flying from Fiji to LA in 2007. Luckily I was exhausted and ready for sleep. As the amount of people getting on the plane slowed, I realized I had been given the greatest gift one could ever hope for sitting in coach on a 14+ hour flight. An entire row to myself. Me, just me! Ahhhhhh (angels singing). As a taller person, this was one hell of a win. It would also mean the flight wasn’t full, so there were not as many people up and down and it was just a quieter flight because of that. All good things.

Our plane coming home was an infamous 777. I hadn’t flown on one in years. And this quite possibly could have been one of the oldest planes I’ve been on in a long time. It was totally fine until my headrest actually broke. Eh, I guess I did have three seats so it was alright. But still, it broke! What the what?! The other odd thing was that our flight map didn’t work the entire journey. So we had no idea where we were as we were flying in pitch-black skies all night. Creepy. Overall I expected it to feel like I was flying FOREVER and be so ready to get out of a plane. It turns out I did not feel that way at all. The flight was super easy. So easy that it makes you think about how “close” other destinations are.

We landed in lovely Newark around 4:35 AM and got through customs with no issues to drop our bags and make it through security for our final flights home. Sadly we said goodbye as I headed toward my gate. Luckily I had pre-check because even at 5:45AM on a Monday, Newark was bumping.  Picture this, I’m in the pre-check line in my yoga pants (huge shutout to my first pair of Lululemons. I would totally make that decision again and again. They felt like wearing nothing even after 14 hours), hair in a bun, zero makeup on, henna everywhere and all of the other travelers were completely suited up. I fit right in. Not!

On my last flight I was asleep before they finished the safety demonstration. When I woke up, I wasn’t even sure we were in the air. We were. That flight was easy and getting through the airport to an Uber home was no big deal. The return journey was so easy that it restored my faith in flying. And confirmed my addiction.

I was home again. Though my soul felt like it was still a world away. I wondered when it would return? Until then, food, shower and laundry.

Something Old and Something New

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The dawn of our last day in Delhi was bittersweet. We were excited to explore, but super sad that at the end of the day we had to leave. Plus we were without our friends and it just wasn’t the same.

Our tour in the morning was a student led subway tour of Old Delhi. We had no idea what to expect, but were excited to see the city like a local.

As it turned out, our guide Arun, had studied in the US and spent a good amount of time in the states. His English was great and he made us feel at ease. Walking into the subway station you would not know you were in India. It was seriously so nice. The only “different” thing was the sign asking people not to spit. Its cool I won’t, promise.

Arun bought our “tickets” for us after explaining how the zone map worked. The map had all these areas with big numbers in them. He explained that the numbers represented how many ruperts (as we so lovingly called the Rupee) it cost to ride. So if you were in a 5 zone, it was 5 ruperts or $0.07 dollars. Yes that math is correct. Or at least it was when this was written! They also don’t have tickets. They use these silly little chip coins. I’ve only ever seen the chip coin one other place in my life and it happens to be in a parking garage where I live. They are literally the dumbest things ever. Arun told us that if we were there longer than a few days, that a metro card would make sense. For this it did not. But you better hold on to that little coin because I’m pretty sure they’d never let you out if you lost it.

Once we made our way to the platform, Arun told us that the first two or three cars in each subway train were for women only. We thought that was really cool. You also had to go through security getting into the station. Again, totally okay with that.

Ascending the staircase into Old Delhi was almost like we had traveled back in time. No, that’s actually exactly what it was like. I don’t know what I thought we would see, but it wasn’t this.

So picture a narrow street lined with light poles or power poles. In a normal city these poles would mainly be for lights and you wouldn’t see any wires or anything attached to them. In Old Delhi, there were wires EVERYWHERE. To the extent that I thought if someone accidentally pushed on one of those poles hard enough, the whole web would come crashing down completely blacking out that part of the city. Like am I the only one seeing this? How is this even working?! The fact that anything has power in Old Delhi is extremely impressive. I’m pretty sure my mouth was hanging wide open for at least the first five minutes we were there. Poor Arun, I have no idea what he was so passionately talking about.

We grabbed a rickshaw and the three of us climbed in. As we slowly made our way through the streets, we passed men getting haircuts, people arranging their produce to sell, shop owners setting up for the day, food being prepared, animals of all kinds, and people, lots of people. It was noisy, smelly, dirty and unbelievably fascinating. We couldn’t get enough.

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How is this working?!

Arun took us to three different temples that morning and each one was so totally different than the other. But one thing was the same. They were all playing super loud music and there were people everywhere. Some places you had to cover your hair, others you didn’t. It was a really cool experience.

We ended the morning with some lunch at a place that had a mixture of northern and southern Indian food and was very good.

That was the end of Old Delhi. Walking back to the subway I could have happily gotten lost in all of the streets and markets. By this time a few hours had passed and the number of people in the area had at least doubled. It was wall to wall. Old Delhi is seriously so captivating. And it’s a photographers dream. We will be back for you.

The last part of our day turned out to be a perfect ending to our trip. We went to Swaminarayan Akshardham, temple (I highly recommend clicking that link, especially since we couldn’t take pictures). So one interesting fact is that if you are Indian you can get into any of the heritage sites in the country for free. It’s really nice. And this one was actually free for us as well. Score!

Right, so this temple. First of all it’s HUGE. Second of all, you couldn’t bring anything in with you. No phone, camera, gum, jewelry, nothing. If you had those items with you, you had to check them. Not happening, I’ll just go with nothing. My friend carried our passports in a money belt and the last of the ruperts we had.

So as we were waiting in line to get in, it became very apparent that we were the ONLY white women around. Both of us realized at the same time that everyone was casually, or not so casually, staring at us. Thank goodness they couldn’t have cameras or we never would have made it. Finally after some more security we made it inside.

The temple itself was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. But since there are no photos of it, or of me there, you’re just going to have to believe me on this.

There was still a lot of day left (well we assumed, not having a phone or watch) so we decided to check out the attractions. Yes there were attractions. The first one was a series of rooms with animatronics telling the story of the temples founder. It felt very Disney. The other “ride” we did was on a boat. You got on and it starting playing “It’s a Small World,” no it didn’t, but it may as well have.

The oddest part was at the end of the ride there was a room full of propaganda to stop eating meat. Like cutouts of animals with speech bubbles saying “we have feelings too” and things of that nature. It was pretty crazy. Not exactly something you’d see in America.

I will say snacks and drinks were silly cheap which was nice because it was about a million degrees out. We also got the most attention of the entire trip this day. It was Sunday, but there were tons of school groups. One group was staring at us (like mouths open, whispering and pointing) so intently that I waived at them. That was all it took for the group to run over to talk to us. They were so sweet and innocent, that it was cute. Again so glad they didn’t have cameras or phones.

After wandering around a little more we deemed it time to leave and headed to the airport. That was one quiet car ride. We were sad.

On the Road Again

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Our last full day together started out with yet another infamous India road trip back to Delhi. I’m not one to stay awake in cars, but there was SO MUCH happening the whole time that I couldn’t fall asleep.

India has the craziest trucks on the road I’ve ever seen. They are kind of like dump trucks, only smaller and they are totally decked out in bright paint, tassels, writing, everything. It’s super cool. And when they honk their horns (just like everyone else does) it plays a fun little song.

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Crazy decorated India truck and of course cows


Traffic on this road trip was literally insane. They diverted the highway onto a dirt road for part of the way and it was like four lanes of traffic all squeezed into one. We were completely surrounded by huge trucks for a vast majority of the time. Our driver got an A++ that day for sure. And some extra Ruperts for his efforts!

Lunch this afternoon was comical. We got delayed by quite a bit getting into Delhi, so I told our bus driver to just find somewhere quick and simple for us to eat. This is a moment where I wish I had spoken the language. We ended up at just the opposite. Walking in the front door of the restaurant where we were dropped off, the servers were in suits boarderinf on tuxes; there were linens on the tables and families all around. We roll up slathered in deet and sunscreen, in clothes that desperately need to be washed, just looking for a sandwich. It was a great lunch actually and the staff did not care at all what we looked like, so it worked out, but it was not a simple place for a sandwich at all.

Because it took longer to get into Delhi than it should have, we ended up having to kind of run through our tour that afternoon.

We saw Qutb Minar and Humayun’s Tomb right at golden hour, which made everything pretty beautiful. Plus they used that red sandstone I enjoy so much. Unfortunately none of us thought our tour guide brought much to the table, but we had fun all the same. After a whirlwind day, we went to check-in to our hotel before our friends had to go to the airport to leave. Insert super sad face here.

What surprised me about driving through Delhi during the daylight was how much traffic there was, yet how organized the city was. It felt very European to me. Come to find out, it was developed by the British, so duh it’s organized. But I had no idea. You can find me living under a giant rock. The one thing that set it apart (okay not the one thing, one of the things) was the fact that you would be driving by the embassies and there would be monkeys ALL around, just running and having a grand ole time. Hey Mr. Monkey!

So our hotel for the night was really adorable. It was an old house that you have a room in, but it has a common room shared with other guests and then a rooftop “restaurant.” More like a kitchen on the roof, but hey a round of Kingfisher was like 600 ruperts or $9, yes $9. I miss you ruperts. I really miss you.

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Last Kingfishers


The only unfortunate thing was saying goodbye to our friends. It was awful. We absolutely did not want them to leave and they didn’t want to leave either. The four of us just got along so well it was perfect. Clearly if we had hated each other at this point we would have been like “okay, bye, see you later (or not).” But that was not the case.

It was an absolute fact that India had stolen our hearts.

Pretty in Pink

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Jaipur was the city I was most looking forward to on our trip to India. Well we were all really looking forward to it, so much so, that we added a day to our itinerary when we were planning. And the legend of the infamous textiles sucked us right in like a drug.

We arrived in Jaipur after a long day in our medium sized van, where we had a sing-along for a few hours that I am sure our driver LOVED (“I feel my heart BEATING, I feel my heart beneath my skin”). After checking in, we got to our rooms to drop our belongings before dinner. It was late-ish, and rather than try and figure out where to go, the hotel buffet had our names on it. Katie and I were led to the first room.

Instantly, when we opened the door I noticed two things. Man it’s hot in here, and hmm those are big…black…ants. You thought I was going to say spiders or snakes didn’t you? No, ants. But really giant ones. And not like 2 or 3. Like 20 or 30. So I called the front desk to ask them to come spray. Our hotel was a Haveli, which is a large house that has courtyards and is split into “hotel” rooms. Because of this and the fact that we were in India, of course there were going to be bugs. What I was not expecting, was to see ants literally crawling in through the phone jack in the wall. Not good. So the front desk sent someone up to address the issue. A nice gentleman came with a broom. No spray, a broom. And not a broom like we have at home, it was like wheat tied together. You hold it in one hand and “sweep” back and fourth. It was all I could do not to bust out laughing. He got all the ants out, but when I tried to show him/tell him about the phone jack situation, that’s where things got lost in translation. At this point I was hangry and just needed to eat. Ants after dinner.

Once dinner was finished and we quickly assessed that the ants had returned (shocking I know). I very politely went to the front desk and asked to be moved. After a couple of tense minutes they got us a new room. Yay ant free! It actually worked out well because we got moved closer to our friends. Woo, friends! Now (more) Beer.

This is when I discovered Kingfisher. At home you probably wouldn’t give it a second glance, but in India it tasted like all of our hopes and dreams. Plus a round of drinks was about $17 USD for large 650 ml beers. Thank you India. We had ours while sitting around the pool even though it was probably close to 10:30 pm. There were no pool hours. Odd, but okay.

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While we sat outside and talked about our trip, the coolest thing started to happen. Obviously there are a fair amount of bugs in India and they have lots of mosquitoes. Hello malaria. Well all of a sudden we started to see these black objects flying straight at the pool and sort of skimming the top as they went by. Almost at the same time we all realized it was bats skimming the mosquitoes off the top of the pool. There was a constant stream of them for a really long time and we all thought it was pretty neat.

Our first morning in Jaipur was when we met our guarding angel, Nidhi. She was our guide for the next two full days and by the end of our time together we didn’t want to say goodbye.

We started the day by visiting the Wind Palace. A really cool building from the front, but come to find out there’s not much inside to see. No need, the front is stunning. You’ve probably seen it before.

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After that we made our way to City Palace. This palace really surprised the hell out of all of us. It was awesome. On the way, we stopped at this huge astrological park that has these gigantic working sundials and there’s all this science involved with the angles of everything, it was so cool. And Nidhi having been a history teacher explained everything so well I was captivated.

Exploring the City Palace was a highlight for so many reasons. The architecture was really interesting, they had a dancing court with four unbelievably decorated doorways that symbolized the four seasons, there was a weapons room, and even a room with some painting demonstrations.

One demonstration we watched was a gentleman who paints elephants and such on really cool old paper. Or so he says. We saw him paint them but the validity of the “old paper” is definitely open for debate. Whatever he said worked, because we all purchased something from him. As we were finishing up our demonstration and making our purchases, my friend quietly comes over to me and says in a whisper “hey, I think that guy is Jason Isaacs.” I’m looking at her sideways “um, who is that?” Through gritted teeth she says, “he plays Luscious Malfoy in Harry Potter.” I’m instantly skeptical because yeah right. Why on earth would he be in India, much less at the City Palace in Jaipur? No way. Some quick Googling, and awkward staring later, I’m completely eating my words. It absolutely is him with his family at the City Palace in Jaipur watching the same demonstration we just sat through. HOLY SHIT ARE YOU KIDDING ME!? THAT DUDE PLAYED LUSCIOUS MALFOY IN HARRY POTTER!?!?!?! LITERLALLY MY FAVORITE THING EVER!!! I am sorry Jason that I didn’t know your name or recognize you. My bad, it will not happen again. After squealing like school children, we promptly exited the area before making complete buffoons out of ourselves. In hindsight we should have stayed to try and ask for a photo. But we absolutely were not going to interrupt him during the demonstration with his family. We learned after the fact that he was filming in India and was on a break, spending time with his family.

Leaving the City Palace on somewhat of a high from our encounter we left to find henna. Nidhi had asked us when we first met if there was anything we really wanted to do while we were in town and henna was what we all said. Because you have to be careful with henna ink, we didn’t want to go somewhere random. But naturally she had the hook up. Everyone got their hand done, and then we arranged for the artists to come to our hotel later that evening to do our feet. Wet henna walking around was not going to work.

Lunch time! We ate at an awesome restaurant, before going to the textile store to spend some Ruperts. Unfortunately, I have a somewhat horrifying story to share before I start talking about our textile experience.

One of our group members had seen these candy bars advertised all over called 5 Star. She had looked for them everywhere but oddly couldn’t find any. Nidhi, our angel, stopped on our way to lunch and bought us a bag of them. So after our lovely meal we decided to dig in.IMG_4421

We sat down in the car and noticed that my friend had gotten pooped on by a bird (most likely a pigeon). Eww. But I had wet ones so she wiped it off. Then I noticed I had some on my foot/toes. Eww. Again, wet one to the rescue. Now it was time for those 5 Stars. It was chocolate and caramel and kind of like a brownie, what’s not to like?! They had been in the car so they were a little melted as we ate them. I was enjoying mine and noticed I had some melted chocolate on my hand and licked it off. No sooner had I swallowed that I realized I had bird poop all down the front of my shirt, on my purse and on my…hand. Yeah, the hand I had just licked the “chocolate” off of. Yes, I ate bird shit. I absolutely ate bird shit. I thought it was odd-looking chocolate. Nope, it was pigeon shit. The good news was that I didn’t immediately throw up, or ever get sick for that matter, but the fact remains, I ate actual shit.

Right so, textiles. I have to say I’m sad I don’t sew. Sorry mom, I know you tried to teach me and I never cared. Well now I do. Maybe it’s not too late? This place was great. (Heritage Textiles). They were so helpful and not overly pushy at all. Everything was fixed price, which helped on that front. I decided to have a salwar (long shirt with two slits, one on each side. Can be short, long or ¾ sleeve) custom made with elephant fabric, and then bought some scarves, pillowcases and a new comforter. It was all super reasonably priced and we got to come back the next day to try everything on to make sure it fit. What’s cool is that Jaipur is known for its stamped fabric (block printing) and after having seen where it was made, I fell in love with all of the patterns.

The last thing on our agenda before dinner was more henna! Our henna artists were waiting for us at the hotel when we got back. It was cool and we definitely felt VIP. I’m pretty sure we got them some more business while we were there since everyone stopped to ask us about it. We had a blast!

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Dinner this night was at Bar Palladio, an Italian restaurant in one of the other nice hotels in Jaipur. I must admit I was disappointed in the food, but we had a super awesome night. The restaurant was decorated in really vibrant colors, awesome fixtures and the perfect blend of traditionally hand stamped local fabric.

Our last day in Jaipur started out at the Amer Fort. I’m going to be real with you. All of us were super disappointed with this Fort. Our recommendation would be to start there if you are going to Jaipur because the City Palace is so awesome that seeing the Amer Fort first would help you like it more. By no means was it bad, just definitely not a fan favorite. We enjoyed our jeep ride to the top, our stop at the textile museum and temple though!

Unfortunately we did not have time for the actual monkey temple, but we saw plenty of monkeys at the temple we stopped at near Amer Fort, so I’m calling that a win. Plus, there are mean monkeys in India and nice monkeys in India. And quite frankly monkeys that close to me actually is not my thing. The ones we did see were luckily the nice ones. Despite that, as we got out of our car, one of them looked right at us and shook his head “no.” I’m not kidding and I have witnesses.

On our way back into the city we stopped quickly at the Jal Mahal. They are actually making it into a hotel, which is really cool and just another excuse for us to go back. Darn.

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Jal Mahal

Before heading out for our safari that evening, we wanted to go to a few “street” shops. Nidhi lead the way and everyone got what they were looking for. She did a great job navigating us to shops that wouldn’t try and take advantage of us, but then she never got involved in the haggling. It was perfect. We adore her and cannot recommend her enough. Tear, we had to say goodbye.

So sad to say goodbye!

Now to get ready for the elephants!

Love, Love, Love. All you need is Love.

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Waking up in our beds of heaven at the ITC Mughal, it was TOUGH to actually remove our bodies from their embrace. We got ready, and headed to the van to go to the infamous Taj Mahal at sunrise. Picking up our guide on the way (an amazing guide and an even more amazing photographer), he helped us through the ticket process. There’s a separate line for men and women so we waited to get in. News flash, they do not open the gates of the Taj before sunrise. That was a bit disappointing to me, but hey it’s the Taj, what are you going to do?

As you go through the ticket entrance you remain separated (men and women) to go through security . Again, totally fine with that approach. And they go through EVERYTHING. So don’t try and sneak in banned items, not going to happen.

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Walking into the grounds at the Taj

We saw the most westerners at the Taj as well, which didn’t surprise me in the least. And a lot of us westerners were dressed in traditional attire. What is interesting to me, is that the locals wear what we would call dressy or nice clothes everywhere. So it was not uncommon to see women especially, in these beautiful outfits just walking around town or at the monuments we visited.

Walking through the “gate” to see the Taj for the first time is pretty special. The building is really breathtaking and really huge. It’s hard to get a perspective on the size until you see it. I would also encourage you to look up the history of the Taj Mahal because it’s really fascinating, but too much to share here. To understand the grandness of the building, what you really need to know is that it was a symbol of love. That’s it, just love. Pretty amazing if you ask me. It’s also not a mosque; it is a tomb with only two graves inside. There is a mosque on property though and they built another building exactly like it on the other side of the Taj maintain the symmetry. Pretty neat.

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We got super lucky in that the amount of scaffolding on the Taj Mahal was very minimal. They have been cleaning it over the past six months and we were fearful that it would be covered. It was not. Thanks Taj!

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I could go on forever about this building because as it turns out I kind of dig architecture and history. Go figure! Wish I had felt that way back when I was in school. But hey, I got there. And one of my friends on the trip has a master’s degree in Architectural History so I have a resource. Thanks Abby!

While we were walking around, a super sweet girl with her mom and aunts (maybe?) asked me for a photo. I said of course and she lit up like a Christmas tree. It was adorable. Having people ask you for photos is kind of strange, but she was so cute I had to say yes!

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After we finished, we went back to the hotel for breakfast and naps. We actually pushed our leave time back an hour (the hotel was that good) and enjoyed our time.

Agra, you were great. Seriously, so great.

Pink City, we are coming for you!

 

To the Taj!

Grounds at ITC Mughal
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As an addition to our itinerary, we wanted to take the train from Delhi to Agra, instead of driving. We arrived at the train station well before sunrise since our departure was at 6:30 AM (ish). Driving the streets of Delhi at 5 AM was the quietest I would see the city and it was rather peaceful all things considered.

That peace was shattered the second we pulled into the train station parking lot. All of the station porters wanted to help us to the train, and we were pretty well surrounded. We sent our luggage with the van (thankfully) the night before and just had backpacks with us. Bye Porters. Our driver pulled into a spot and made his way with us to the train platform.

There were people everywhere, lots of them asleep amidst the hustle and bustle of the station. Some stared at us a bit, but no one bothered us at all. There was security at the station, which I appreciated. Then we stood on the platform taking it all in. A truly impossible feat at the end of the day.

Once the train arrived, our driver helped us find our seats. Since there were four of us, we fully expected to be in a little carriage or compartment. At the very least, two and two together. Nope, not the case. The seating was three and two. I’ve been on a lot of trains and haven’t seen that before. I sat “alone” with the girls across the aisle. We were also very clearly in the middle of a family, which was rather interesting.

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In our area we were served a giant bottle of water (yes!) and a meal. We had our hotel prepare a takeaway breakfast and ate that instead. Good recommendation travel company, because the train breakfast did not look appealing. Eek.

About ten minutes away from the Agra station people started lining up to get off the train and they were pushy. The train would stop for five minutes. Not a lot of time. In those ten minutes chugging into Agra, we saw everything. There was so much happening that I wasn’t even sure it was real. I will spare you the details, but I think you can use your imagination on this one. And if you can’t, feel free to ask me anything you want to know. Just remember that you can’t un-know it.

The train lurched to a stop, and we hopped off greeted right away by our driver and a liaison from our tour company. Immediately I noticed the much worse air quality in Agra and the smell, an unfortunately common theme throughout our time in the country.

We drove straight to the hotel from the train station.

As the gate to our hotel opened, I had no idea what to expect on the other side. Heaven, it was actually heaven. If I could live in a hotel it would be the ITC Mughal in Agra, India. This place was incredible. Google it, now. Then stay there in Agra. You are welcome.

It was interesting because we did go through security before entering the hotel, but I’m good with security. Super good.

Our rooms were not ready when we arrived, and we didn’t have anything on our dossier until 3 PM, so it was shopping time! We looked up an area to go to and had our driver take us over. As we walked through the streets, nothing was really open yet (it was before 10 AM) and it didn’t seem like we were in the best area. After a few minutes we all decided this wasn’t where we wanted to be and called our driver.

We drove across town and found a little plaza with two stores. Our goal was to find an outfit for our Taj Mahal outing the next morning. The first store we went to was nice and it gave us a good idea of what our options were, but we really wanted to shop at Fab India. And shop we did. I’m pretty sure between us all, we tried on everything in that store. The level of customer service we received was amazing, and everyone bought more than they expected. Fab India, Agra, you rock. Seriously. Beaming from ear to ear, we made our way back to the hotel to check-in.

This is when things went from awesome to amazing. Agra was already killing it and then they kicked it up a notch. We were upgraded to two Junior Suites. Yes, a free upgrade because of a conference that was in town. Thank you super international medical conference, thank you. Our rooms were spectacular. And the hotel staff was amazing. We hit the pool for a little bit, then got ready for our tour.

The first tour we had in Agra was to the Red Fort. I had zero expectation of this fort and was completely blown away. Red sandstone is actually super gorgeous. And we were there around 3PM so we started to get some of the golden hour. It was stunning.

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After the fort, it was to the other side of the river to see the Taj at sunset. It cost something like 100 ruperts ($1.50) to access the “park” where you can view the Taj.

Because we were all so enamored by the Red Fort we didn’t have a ton of time to look at the Taj before they came by and kicked us out. But it was worth the time we did have. It’s seriously so cool.

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First sighting of the Taj!

Back to the hotel for dinner and bed. Another super early morning for the Taj coming up!

Frequently Asked Questions – Dubai

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After spending a week in Dubai, I learned a couple of things, so here are some FAQ’s about Dubai:

What was it like? – Take NYC, mix in Vegas and add Europe sprinkles on top. The city is huge, and very spread-out. It’s dusty (hello desert), but overall very clean. They have everything you could want there. Literally. I saw every major US chain, including ones that have gone out of business in a lot of places (UNO Pizzeria, Bennigans, Johnny Rockets, the list goes on and on…) but it feels sooooo Western. It’s something like 60% of the population are expatriates. It’s also hot, in case you forgot.

Was it what you expected? – Not in the slightest. It’s almost shocking how far you travel to get to Dubai, to have it feel like you are literally down the road. But it’s a pretty cool city since the buildings are larger than life. It all looks like the set of a movie.

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The Dubai Marina

What WAS different? – Obviously there was Arabic writing in addition to English on most everything. A lot of people do wear traditional clothing. Dishdash for the men – Long white usually cotton shirt. Think long sleeve white robe that goes to your ankles. They even have pockets! And an Abaya for the women – black long over-garment that usually covers everything. A lot of women wear head scarves and the men also wear a Keffiyehs (headscarf) held into place by two black ropes on the head. They LOVE their accessories-Purses, shoes, jewelry, makeup. And everyone hangs out in the mall. It’s so fascinating to observe.

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A sign for Wendy’s in Arabic

While they wear traditional clothing, people also wear normal western clothes as well. I wore tank tops and brought a scarf just in case,but felt comfortable. I choose not to wear shorts and stuck with more flowy pants or long skirts. It was hot, so I wore a pair of dry fit shorts underneath my “bottoms” and that was an awesome move! They do prefer you not to wear workout clothes around, so I didn’t wear leggings at all when we were there.  The most attention we got was when we walked through the mall dressed up after going out for drinks. But that was more because people were probably thinking why are you so fancy in the mall on Wednesday?

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Very typical “Dubai” outfits. Loose pants, and T-Shirts/Tank Tops                                              p.s. That Date juice was awesome

Other differences are obviously the money (it’s impossible) and the lack of alcohol. You can really only get it in hotels and it’s not cheap. About 50 AED or about $14 for a Foster’s. Not happening. We have had drinks, but mixed drinks, because then it at least feels better to spend that kind of dough.

It also seems like everyone’s day starts later. Like the mall is open from 10:00 AM – Midnight and then even later on the weekend.

Did you feel uncomfortable? – No I can’t say that I did. I mean I was more aware of my surroundings, but it’s like you would be in NYC or anywhere that you travel. There was one time where we ended up on the docks, in an area of all male workers. It was very obvious that we were out of place and that was somewhat tense, but nothing happened and we just decided to leave. No big deal.

Were the people nice? – Yes very. We only ran into a couple that weren’t, but hey that happens everywhere!

What was the food like? – This is an interesting question. The food is what you want it to be. Because there is anything you could ever want, you can choose your own food destiny. If you want to be American, you can be American, if you want to be Lebanese, be Lebanese, the choices are endless. We did struggle to find Middle Eastern food though, because they do have predominantly western choices.

Are the cars crazy? – Yes and no. The cabs are regular (nicer than most because they are newer), but there are crazy cars also. We saw some Lamborghini’s parked at the mall, many Bentley’s around town and of course some Rolls Royce’s. There are nice cars yes, but it’s not ALL of them. We rented the Rolls Yaris though, and that was cool. Hehe.

Could you communicate with the locals? – Absolutely. We did not struggled with language really at all. The most that got lost in translation could be easily figured out with a few follow-up questions. It was fine.

What was the weather really like? – Hot. And Humid. A tropical desert. This is a new one for me. I had no idea that was a thing. And it was still super hot when we were there (October). From our hotel we could see the mall, but you could’t walk because it was so hot. Then add in the humidity and we were sweaty messes. Sexy.

Do you notice the wealth? – Not at first. Then yes. We learned that if you are a true Emirati, the government provides a lot for you, so you take home and keep a lot more of what you make. The expatriates pay more taxes, so that’s how the economy is sustained. There are TONS of nice stores in the mall and also normal stores as well. People shop all the time and it was unusual to see a local without a shopping bag of some kind in their hand. There are lots of nice cars and it seems more normal to have a Bentley. It’s a very fascinating place. One funny thing was when I opened up Uber, there was an option for Uber Chopper…yeah no joke.

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Uber CHOPPER – I cannot even comprehend this…

What’s the deal with alcohol? – As I said before it’s hard to find. None of the restaurants in the mall that we found had alcohol. They all had cocktails, but I’m almost positive they were all virgin. You had to be in a hotel mostly to find it, and then it was super expensive. I spent the most I ever have on cocktails at the Burj Khalifa. Totally worth it though. I did monopolize on the hotel happy hour as well and that was much more reasonable. But they definitely “hide” the alcohol. In the end it saved us money, so fine by me!

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One of my Drinks at the Burj Khalifa – They have a bar on the 123rd floor. Go there.

Anything else you want to know, just ask!

Platinum Heritage

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Sadly this is the last post about our time in Dubai as adapted from a series of emails that was sent while traveling. I will have a FAQ Dubai post coming up shortly though so don’t worry, I’m not quite done!

When researching what to do in Dubai, it was obvious we had to go on some sort of safari. After lots of reading and searching ,we settled on booking with Platinum heritage.  They are a more expensive company for this type of excursion, but after participating, it is totally worth the extra Dirham!

We were picked up from our hotel, which makes everything so much easier. On our way to the safari, our driver stopped at the camel racing track. YES, camel racing. This is the number one sport in Dubai. The facility is huge. Oddly they only have two small grandstands for viewing. I asked why, and our guide said it was because no one watches. Ummm, what? No one watches your national sport? Nope, because gambling is illegal. Interesting to have a national sport no one watches, very interesting.

Upon arrival at our safari, we were greeted by two rows of vintage Land Rovers. They are the coolest cars ever! We were fitted with some head scarves (that we got to keep) and loaded into our bright yellow vehicle.
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The desert was beautiful. Very different from the Sahara from what we saw. There are quite a few trees, etc. which surprised me a little. Obviously we only saw a small portion, so it’s probably more desolate the further into the desert you get.

A highlight of the trip was the falcon demonstration. It was so cool to see these birds in their natural habitat and learn more about how the Bedouin’s utilized them back in the day. We all thought that part would be somewhat lame, and boy were we wrong. They also served us some sparking date juice and that was delicious.
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Back in the cars we headed to camp for dinner, entertainment, camel rides and henna. The sun was setting as we drove and it was simply gorgeous. I love a good sunset, and I really love a desert sunset. The colors are always spectacular.

We arrived at camp and they showed us to our table and where everything was. Our first stop was the camel! When I was in Africa we did a camel trek and rode one hump camels to our overnight campsite. This was not that. There were a few lines of three camels tethered together and they were two hump camels. Luckily there were three of us so we each got our own camel friend. The ride was quick and I am totally okay with that. Riding a camel makes you SUPER sore.

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Food time! They served awesome food including camel stew. I tried a little and honestly, it wasn’t bad. I also tried camel milk. Also, not bad. Would be good in coffee since it’s a bit thicker than regular milk.

Then we made our way to the henna lady. She was super nice and did a great job. I’m only mildly obsessed with henna. No that’s a lie, I’m totally obsessed.

After henna, they had some performances of traditional dancing and we enjoyed dessert with some hookah. I liked the hookah having done it a few times at home, but I was alone in the enjoyment of that portion of the night.

The moon was out and almost full, so it made everything more beautiful. What was cool was that we were not rushed. Everyone lets you hang out until you want to leave, it’s not a set end time and I really liked that. Another positive of this safari was that the number of people on this excursion was much less than the others we researched, and that enhanced our experience immensely.

We weren’t out late which was good because we had to switch hotels and head toward the airport for our morning flight to Delhi.

I would absolutely recommend the safari we participated in. Having done a three day overnight camel trek in the Sahara, I was skeptical that this would even come close. It absolutely did. Go on this safari when you visit Dubai you will not regret it.

Good night Dubai, you surprised the hell out of me and I will be back!

Living the Luxury Life

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Picking up where I left off. Here is the seventh part of my time in Dubai. Enjoy!

After four days staying downtown, we packed our bags for the beach and headed to the Sofitel Palm Jumeirah. Walking through the front doors it was clear we were not fancy enough for this place. Not even a little. The property was BEAUTIFUL!

This is where the wedding was that we traveled for. Well, I wasn’t invited, but I couldn’t pass up a reason to go to Dubai!

Friday early afternoon we went to the nearby “souks” for lunch and some shopping. I say “souks” because these were inside and the people weren’t super pushy at all. More like a mall. Which is kind of Dubai’s thing.

We returned to the hotel and enjoyed some time at the beach. The water was uber salty, which made floating a breeze! Sadly because of a stingray and jellyfish warning, we didn’t float for long.

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It was really cool to be at the beach with a city skyline in the background. Once the girls had to go do wedding stuff, I just hung out in the room because it was so nice.

Saturday we enjoyed time at the pool before the girls had to get ready for the wedding. Once they started that, I continued to hang out at the pool. I was able to actually watch the wedding from the beach, like a super creepy hotel guest, which was nice.

Later that evening I took myself on a nice date. I got some henna, and then hit up the beach bar for happy hour, since that was the only way I could afford alcohol at the Sofitel.

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I walked the property some, found dessert and then right when I was going to go up to bed, I decided to stop at the sports bar to see how much a beer was. Deeming that it would only cost me one platelet donation session, I ordered a Hoegaarden. Expecting a normal pint, I figured I’d have one and call it a night. What was put down before me was literally the largest Hoegaarden glass I’ve ever seen. I had to use two hands to make sure I didn’t drop it. Clearly it was worth the cost, so naturally I had two.

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Our time at the Sofitel was wonderful for the most part, but super awkward if you are there solo. The hotel is set-up for couples or families, so when you tell them you want a beach chair, they assume you want two. Or when you go to eat, they assume you are meeting someone. Nope, just me.

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A weekend at the beach was so relaxing, we definitely did not want to leave.

I could get used to this!