India 2012: Trust, Chai, & The Taj

All India Permit

It’s been a few weeks now & I’m finally psychologically “home” as in “back from travels” (In addition to our trip to the genetic LOMP (Land Of My People), we had a quick trip to the historical LOMP: North Carolina). As is the case after all my big trips, I return with lots of thoughts and reflections from my adventures… I like writing them down especially for myself, but also in hopes that some of you will find them at least entertaining.

If you want to skip all my blather & just go look at the pics, check out My Top 25 pix &/or the Next Best 60 pix, but otherwise, what follows is a series of thoughts & comments from our trip:

(Feel free to just jump around to the parts that sound interesting, or read it all the way through… )

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I’ve now traveled to India 3 times as an adult (in addition to a handful of times as a child) & think that I’m starting to understand it a tiny bit. I’ve spent more time in India than any other foreign country by a long shot. It’s a hard but rewarding country.

I never quite get it when travelers tell me that they “loved India” or “hated India” – to me it is always so much more complicated. To both sets of people, my question is “were you really looking?”, because in the same 5 minutes I’d find something I loved juxtaposed with something I hated.

I guess maybe people mean “I loved traveling in India” or “I hated traveling in India.” I can completely understand both of those sentiments. For a Westerner, India is loud, intense, smelly, trashed, and above all else, chaotic. It is also rich, colorful, fascinating, simultaneously ancient & new, diverse, and rambunctiously alive. In the end, India is all of the above, and intensely so.

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2 of my favorite things this trip were surprising to me:

  1. The Taj Mahal:

    It seems absurd to say that the beauty of the Taj was a surprise, but it really was. I had been there before, when I was 13 or so. I went at noon with my Mom & brother. I don’t remember what I thought of it other than that it was blazing hot & we had to remove our shoes to walk across the burning white marble. This time, I went with Kimberly & I wondered how it would stack up to my memories & to Kimberly’s high expectations (it was literally a life long dream for her). Fortunately, my cousin Mandeep, who had visited it recently, told me “If you don’t see the Taj at sunrise, you haven’t seen it.” So, it was with a lot of curiosity and anticipation I turned into the entry arch at daybreak and caught my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal in 30 years.

    I came very nearly to tears.

    It was far more beautiful than I recalled & resonated so much more deeply. And yes, we watched it change as the sun rose through the morning, and the light really was best in the first few hours after dawn & dramatically so. I’m now convinced that Kimberly and I need to see it at what we’re told is an even more amazing time – the full moon.

    Taj Mahal & trees 1
  2. Mehrangarh Fort & Jodhpur:

    The focus of our trip was Rajasthan, often cited as the most beautiful part of northern India. We spent the majority of our trip there & it lived up to the hype. But the surprising thing was that of all the places in Rajasthan,  the city that no one mentioned was our favorite. To be sure, we really enjoyed the recommended cities, Udaipur & Jaisalmer, but Jodhpur was our favorite. We almost cut it, due to the vagaries of travel logistics, but decided to keep it in in the end & are very glad we did. If we hadn’t, we would have missed Mehrangarh (which means “Home of the Sun”.)

    Much like Europe’s “ABC” problem (another bloody cathedral), Rajasthan is known to have an “ABF” problem – but Mehrangarh Fort rising high above the center of the city and overlooking it was simply awe-inspiring. The fort was the most amazing of the ones we saw in Rajasthan and the tour & museums inside were first rate. The views from the top were stunning and additionally, the city itself was the most fun of our stops in Rajasthan. Jodhpur = Big Win.

    Mehrangarh Fort

    .ps Also note that Mehrangarh was the fort seen in “The Dark Knight Rises

    Here’s a video of a zipline ride I took at Mehrangarh;
  3. Bombay:

    The final big win of the trip was no surprise to me at all. Last time I was in India, I arrived in Bombay at the end of an up-and-down traipse through Southern India, lonely, travel-fatigued and desperate to be home. After just a few hours in Bombay I was excited, rejuvenated, and fascinated & moved things around so I could stay a few days longer. This trip, Kimberly & I hit the travel-fatigue wall just before we got to Bombay, but I knew that it would come through as the big finish, at least for me – I was hopeful it would be for Kimberly too.

    It did. We both loved it.

    There is just something enthralling about a world-class megacity* that energizes and stirs my curiosity. And Bombay, with its buzz, pace, and crazyness rewards the energetic & curious. On top of that, this time in Bombay, I had the benefit of dear friends (Apu! Shweta!) on the ground who made our 3 days there feel like an action packed week, and a super gracious host who let us stay in her lovely apartment (thanks Noopur! & Anjan). We went on a surprising & eye-opening slum tour with a relief organization, saw tons of amazing architecture (one of my favorite buildings in the world!), did a bike tour, and explored and ate the best food we had in India. I can’t wait to go back to Bombay!

    * I have been lucky enough to visit at least 5 world class megacities: NY, Paris, London, Shanghai & Hong Kong. Does Bombay count? I kinda think so – but it is a interesting question actually. What is a megacity in my mind? LA doesn’t seem to count – it doesn’t feel urban enough. Does Beijing – well maybe. Kimberly thinks that it has something to do with being cosmopolitan & international-facing & I think that is a big part. Also, I think it has something to do with being “A city that can arguably consider itself or feel like the center of the world” – not politically necessarily but more socio-culturally. Maybe Bombay doesn’t fit that, but it is so large and so vibrant it must be close.↩

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I think one of the hardest things about India is the breakdown of trust.

I have a cousin who lives in a development in the suburbs of New Delhi called “ATS Village.” “ATS” are the initials of the developers who built the development. At first, I thought that was a horrible way to name a development – “I wouldn’t want to live in say, MegaCorp Apartments – who would?” but then I realized why I would. In India, there are certainly laws and standards for construction on the books & officials whose job it is to enforce those laws & standards, but there is no trust in those laws because officials are often bribed & regardless there is precious little enforcement. Bribery, corruption, and an ineffective legal system are a huge problem in India* & thus if I can’t trust that the government & legal system guarantees the basic soundness of my home, I would probably begin looking for developers who have a good track record & a good reputation.

The more I thought about it, I realized that these trust issues were everywhere I looked in India.

Our Marble Inlay Elephant
Marble inlay work from Agra…

A similar note struck me in Agra, home of the Taj. We fell in love with the amazing marble inlay work that the area is known for & decided to buy some pieces to bring home with us. We ended up at a high end shop that our hotel-provided guide took us to. As we got closer to buying several pieces, we decided to sleep on it & come back. Our driver, upon learning our plans, became very concerned at the notion of us buying stuff at a store suggested by the guide. He was worried, quite reasonably, that we were getting swindled because the store might not be good quality, they might just be the store that paid the highest commission to the guide.

Suitably alarmed, I checked with our hotel & they assured me that the guide would only be taking us to shops they had checked out and approved of. But the driver asked: “But how can you trust the hotel?” He meant that surely they were just getting a cut too.

I realized then that this was the crux of it – how deep did it all go?  Who can you trust & why? 

Since I didn’t have the time to make a fully informed decision, I had to place my trust somewhere and build a chain of trust from there. I decided (somewhat arbitrarily) to trust the hotel & thus the guide (provided by the hotel) & thus the shop (suggested by the guide). In the end, this was a chain of trust, and it was the best I had.**

This made me realize the chains of trust that are such a huge part of our every day life. What a vast & rarely considered luxury! My toaster is UL rated, my house has been built to local, state & federal codes & standards, the food I eat has been vouched for by the FDA – and underneath it all is the bedrock of the American legal system. For all the glaring flaws, and righteous critiques, our system largely works and more importantly, can be & is trusted. For all our complaints about frivolous lawsuits, or ridiculous governmental red tape, we are really lucky to have it.

On a personal level though, this lack of ability to trust is corrosive to me. I spent a lot of time in India with a background hum of anger & guardedness. I’m capable of navigating a world where trust is hard to come by & most people must be viewed with skepticism, but I don’t like it & find it exhausting. More than anything else, that’s the hardest part of being in India for me. Perhaps that is my naivete speaking, perhaps I trust too easily in the US or in other developed nations – but I don’t think so. It makes sense why this happens in places like India and China – where people are struggling to survive and for any possible way to make life easier & they probably realize that we (Western tourists) will be just fine if we pay a little more than we should for things – I just wish it was explicit rather than hidden.

As an aside, one of the most fascinating 30 minutes of our trip was in Jodhpur when we met a young shop owner, Vicky (at Student Shop near the clocktower) who showed us a bunch of ways we could easily be cheated when buying textiles and how the referrals system worked. He could have easily been cheating us as well, but there was so much of his story that made sense and he so warmly and engagingly told us the ins and outs that we really really appreciated it all. He was great and really helped me feel like I understood what was going on.

* One of the best takes on corruption in India was what my friend Apu in Bombay said. He has lived in the US & a few other countries as well as India: “In the US bribery exists, but you usually have to pay someone to do something that’s wrong. In India, you often have to pay people to do what’s right – that is, to just do their jobs.”↩

** You might also ask, how could I trust the driver? The driver was arranged for us by my family in Delhi. And that also is part of why family is so important in India – often they are the biggest link in any chain of trust. It was a huge help for us to have folks in India who could set us in the right direction from the get go & in general just be super helpful. That made a lot of things so much easier! (Thanks again, Sumeet, Sandeep, Sunoo, Rinky, & Ravi Massi & Gurcharan Uncle!)↩

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With some reticence for the safety of my GI tract, I decided to drink chai from street vendors on this trip, something I’d never done before.


Every chai vendors chai was SOOOOOOOOO OMFG GOOD and sooooo different from every chai you have ever had in any restaurant* anywhere else! Restaurant chai in India tastes exactly like restaurant* chai in the US and is what it is. But street chai in India is SOOOOO much better and I can’t explain why other than to say it is brighter, spicier, richer flavored and just different. Every cup. Anywhere I got it. Every time.

*The one exception to this thought is Kasa restaurant in SF. Somehow, Anamika, the owner, has captured the magic – hers is really really very similar to Indian street chai. It is a little too sweet for my tastes (and I’m a sweet-tooth!), but I love it nonetheless. If you want a good approximation of what I’m taking about – go to Kasa.↩

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Having been to India and China (my China blog post is here) within about a year, the comparisons between these two rapidly rising giants are unavoidable and telling. And I have to admit, my conclusions are not what I expected.

Immediately after landing in India, we had a conversation with my cousin Sumeet, who has also traveled in China for work, and his perspective was that China seemed so far ahead and so much more organized and that it impressed upon him what could be done with an effective and less corrupt government & more focused efforts. I quickly responded with my sense that people in China were so much grimmer and it seemed like a much lass happy place & that surely that was worth more! That was my sense after I left China last year, and certainly as a believer in democracy, I want to believe that democratic India is somehow better off than totalitarian China.

But now I have to say I’m not so sure: the truth is much grayer than I expected. While I definitely saw more people in India who seemed to be outwardly happy and it is a much less grim country, I have to say that it also felt so much more chaotic and so much more lost. By “lost” I mean to it feels like it will take India a long time to shake off so many of it’s struggles like corruption, overpopulation, poverty and environmental degradation. For all it’s problems, China felt like it was on the move & making strides. Certainly, I don’t like a lot of what China does & find it morally abhorrent on a political level – but it is also clear that they have a plan for moving their people forward and are making it happen regardless of what anyone thinks.

To be sure, I’m making vast generalizations with very very limited data. I was travelling through different types of Indian cities than the ones I saw in China & we probably saw only tiny snapshots of each – maybe my impressions of India and China would be vastly different if I was in the South of each for example? Maybe Bangalore & Hyderbad stack up better & Hunan & Shenzen etc look worse? But all that being said, the fact remains that India just seems more backwards than China.

For a Western traveller, though, India is a much more hospitable than China. Practically speaking, the fact that there is so much more English spoken alone accounts for a lot, but also there is much better tourist infrastructure and a much greater sense of what travelers require.

But it’s not just practically, it’s also just true on an emotional level: India is just more rewarding a place to travel (in my super limited experience.) Once we got out of Beijing and Shanghai (& Xian), the emotional rewards of travelling in China were few and far between. It was largely increasingly grim in Dunhuang, Urumqi & Kashgar. But in India, the payoffs weren’t only in Delhi and Bombay. Rajasthan was far more chaotic than northwestern China & in some ways more depressing – but the payoffs (for me at least) were more frequent. Around any given corner was something bright, colorful, or crazy that made me glad to be there.

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I’ve posted before about traveling with technology & the upsides, but this was by far the most plugged-in developing nation trip I’ve ever done & it paid of in so many ways and made the trip soooo much more fun.


Last year, when we went to China, we didn’t use our iPhones much for fear of racking up roaming charges & bought cheap dumbphones for the trip. We used WiFi at Starbucks’ fairly frequently though. This trip however, we got our iPhones unlocked & got prepaid talk & data plans in India. This was SOOO much better, because we used the live connections to the Internet a lot in a lot of awesomely trip enhancing ways:

  • Google Maps when we (or our drivers!) got lost
  • Facebook was such a huge win for advice & general FB fun – often IN the moment.
  • Wikipedia access to access info about things we were seeing AS we were seeing them
  • Google translate help when I was struggling to speak Hindi!
  • Find My Friends to keep tabs on each other when we split up & to help us rendezvous!

iPhones and iPad

It never ceases to amaze me how useful iPads/iPhones are for travel. The two devices, along with and an external keyboard I brought, replaced: my point & shoot camera, my maps, my guidebooks, a currency converter, a compass, a laptop, an iPod, and a DVD player (for inflight entertainment).

And in addition to replacing things I would have brought, they also enable new things you can do that make travel better. For example, for this trip, I brought a great little iPad/iPhone Bluetooth speaker (Jabra Solemate) & suddenly we have a boombox with us. I love to have my music with me in hotel rooms – it’s critical to getting me going in the morning. I would have never considered bringing a boombox on a trip like this, but it is suddenly easy!


Facebook was such a BIG FUN part of our trip. It was really a bit like getting to bring all our friends with us to India. We posted things frequently & almost immediately as they happened & got tons of great advice, and got to hear what our friends thought of things. For us, it was fun, useful, and really trip-enhancing! And now that we are back, we’ve had a lot of people tell us how much fun they had following our adventures. I <3 Facebook.

Connectivity Hassles

It was really hard to find working WiFi in India – lots of places advertised it, but it often didn’t work well. We used it most often from hotel rooms. On the road, we were using mostly cellular data from our prepaid SIM cards. That worked pretty well for the most part – but getting a SIM card in the first place was a vast pain in the ass (again.) Next time, I really am going to try to buy a SIM for the destination country beforehand… I’ve read good things about companies like Telestial.

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As in all my travels, I try as hard as I can to get bikes whenever possible. It is simply the best way to see a place – especially cities. On a bike, you have all the immediacy of walking with the greater range, greater speed and yes, greater safety. There are always places where you feel like “Well I could walk down there to see where that road goes, but is ist safe? Will it be worth it? It will be a long way back!” On a bike, these questions tend to get easier because you can zoom places, hop off and on whenever you like, and zip through any areas that feel sketchy or where you are getting unwanted attention.

Here’s a quick video of a LESS busy area on one of our Delhi bike tours at dawn…

We managed to bike in Delhi, Bombay, and Udaipur & all of our adventures were highlights. In Delhi, we went on two great bike tours (with DelhiByCycle): we roamed the tiny and packed streets of Old Delhi, slowly navigating the chaos of people, rickshaws, scooters, cows, goats, and cars stopping at old temples, the Yamuna river, a nonprofit school, etc etc. In Udaipur we rented cycles and went for a long roam around the lakes, navigating by Google Maps when we had problems 🙂 and ended up an annual handicrafts festival. Finally, in Bombay, I took a quick bike tour (with Reality Tours) around the famous Colaba district & checked out Victoria Station, various old markets, temples, and a cow sanctuary :-).

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Lots of people have asked how Kimberly liked the trip. I’d say she loved it! I think there was lot she really enjoyed about India & a lot she didn’t. Having spent so much time in China she found herself constantly comparing and contrasting the two places. In India, she loved the wildlife and the colorfulness of it all, two qualities that are sorely lacking in China. But for her, India also felt much poorer and more chaotic, and dirtier than China. She also really really loved the Taj Mahal, as I said above… She expected the trip to be harder, but her travels in China had prepared her pretty well. Plus she had her excellent husband around :-).

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