Category Archives: travel in India

India Vlog 2005: Arriving in Delhi

The voices are myself and Kishore, our driver from Uday Travel.

We arrived after midnight at Indira Gandhi International Airport, and proceeded down the hall to a marble staircase, with a man-sized bronze statue of Ganesh at the top brightly polished and freshly garlanded, welcoming us to India, then down the stairs to the immigration line. I noted fancy new immigration counters, and the same old grim-faced immigration officials.

“What’s that smell?” asked Ross. As soon as we had stepped off the plane, I had noted, happily, the familiar smell of India, but I had to think a moment about exactly what it was comprised of. “Burning charcoal for cooking fires. Jet fuel, since we’re at the airport. And Dettol, a disinfectant used for cleaning.”

Standing there in the line, we sprayed ourselves with mosquito repellent. “It’s not likely that we’d get malaria,” I said, “especially since we’re taking the anti-malaria pills. But we’ll take every precaution. In the monsoon season, there are more mosquitoes around. The bad thing about malaria is that, once you’ve got it, you never get rid of it.”

A chubby American in line ahead of us turned and asked in alarm, “Really?” He had flown in from Portland on business. This was his second trip to India, and apparently no one had told him much of anything. I explained that he could get his hotel to send someone to a pharmacy for the anti-malarial medications, and that keeping covered up and sprayed against mosquitoes should see him safe.

After this guy and yesterday’s Italian couple, I wondered how many people come to India completely unprepared. No wonder some end up having horrible experiences and hating it!

NB: Italy’s public health system provides medical advice for travellers. I was familiar with the very efficient and expert office in Milan (via Senato), from all my previous trips and vaccinations. In Lecco, we had to make an appointment a month in advance, then were lectured by a nurse, reading from a booklet, who knew a great deal less about tropical medicine than I did, and became agitated when I interrupted her flow to ask specific questions. But she did have all the information we needed; when I mentioned recent reports of meningitis in Delhi, she took out a binder full of bulletins from the World Health Organization, and was able to give me the latest info (which was: situation under control).

As it turned out , Ross had already had almost every vaccination she needed. Like all Italian kids, she had been vaccinated against Hepatitis B in middle school, and she’d had tetanus shots for horseback riding. So the only shot she needed was Hepatitis A, and we both took an oral vaccine against typhoid. The nurse also prescribed two kinds of malaria prophylaxis, which we faithfully took throughout the trip and for the required four weeks after our return).

We got through immigration (with my usual huge sigh of relief), waited a bit for our luggage, gave our forms to the customs man, and were free to go. As always, there was man waiting to meet us, holding up a sign with “Mrs. Straughan” on it. Delhi is not safe for women at night, and there have been “incidents” (robbery, rape, and murder) even with the supposedly reliable pre-paid taxis that you book at the airport counter as you exit. So I pre-arrange to be met at every stop in or out of Delhi, by my trusted travel agency, Uday Travel.

This sometimes feels like wimping out – after all, I’ve travelled a lot in India, alone and on a very low budget! But I’m not that poor anymore, and I can afford to spare myself some hassles, especially when it’s my daughter’s first trip, and I don’t want either of us to get overtired, stressed, and ill.

The agent and driver took us to the Connaught Hotel, near Connaught Place in central Delhi, helped get us checked in, and took the rest of my payment for all the arrangements (hotels, trains, and cars) that I had made with Uday Travel via email months before. We went up to our room and collapsed.

Note to self: Next time, I’ll pay more to stay in a better hotel. Every time I’ve stayed at the Connaught, over 10 years of travel, there is some kind of construction going on, and people coming and going noisily all night. And the beds are uncomfortable. Back in November I stayed at the Park, also near Connaught, which was a lot nicer, and cost a lot more ($120 vs. $70 – hotels in Delhi are not cheap).

It was around 3 am when we finally got to sleep, but I woke up early, as usual, and eventually persuaded Ross to get up. We had the included hotel breakfast – a choice of western fare (with dubious-looking sausages), or south Indian idlis: steamed rice flour cakes, tasteless on their own, but eaten with sambar, a thin, spicy vegetable soup, and a rich coconut chutney. And Indian-style coffee, which is… drinkable.

The car and driver I’d hired for the day were waiting for us outside the hotel. First stop was a tiny shop – about two meters wide by four deep – providing all kinds of telephone services: private phone booths from which to make local, long distance, or international calls, and cellphone plans and top-ups. I bought a local SIM card for Ross’ cellphone (Rs. 500 – about $10), and Rs. 700 of talk time – of which you actually get to use about Rs. 500. They take off a ridiculous amount in service fees for each chunk of talk time you buy. The fees would probably be proportionally less if you bought in larger chunks, but not many shops can handle larger transactions.

So we were back in touch with the world, or at least with Italy and Ross’ boyfriend. Enrico was in the US with a home phone that he was rarely near, and no cellphone.

We were also now in easy touch with my friends and classmates all over India. I called Sara in Ahmedabad to find out how her family had come through the floods in Mumbai. One of her sisters had had to walk til 4 am in neck-deep water to find her son at school. Stories eventually came in from others: Yuti’s husband Sumeet slept two nights in his office, and Yuti’s car, waiting for her in the garage back home, was completely immersed in water. Deepu and Shilpin were trying to get back to Mumbai from Mussoorie via Delhi, and, after hours waiting for any flight at all to depart, spent more hours circling Mumbai while air traffic cleared after the airport finally reopened.

But they all counted their blessings. Mumbai had been hit with 94 cm of rain in 24 hours, a record even for India. About 1200 people died in the water or in mudslides. As usual, the poor suffered most, as their fragile “hutments” were swept away or crushed by falling hillsides. Communications went out, and Mumbai, the financial capital of India, ground to a halt.

photo by Ross

Delhi, in the meantime, was hot and dry. Ross and I went briefly to the National Museum, which had some very interesting collections, not all of them well-lighted, and few offering much explanation. She soon tired of that, and wanted to go shopping.

Connaught Place, though annoying with people trying to sell you things or take you places, has plenty of shops. I hadn’t been able to find my comfy walking sandals in our voluminous suitcase, so we first went to an upscale shoestore, where I got a nice pair for Rs. 1700. At the hole-in-the-wall shop next door, Ross bought a pair of red-beaded slippers – a purchase she’d been looking forward to – for Rs. 650.

We stopped in a Levi’s store; at Rs. 2700 per pair, I could afford jeans in Delhi far more easily than in Lecco, but Ross couldn’t find a style that she’d wear back in Europe. Levi’s may be an American company, but its jeans are localized: fashion-conscious teens in Delhi do not wear the same jeans as their peers in New York or Milan. My hopes of reducing the back-to-school wardrobe budget were dashed. (I subsequently learned that there’s a shop in Connaught Place called Wow! Jeans which will MAKE your jeans, in any style and material you like – including leather – to order, fast, and cheap.)

The afternoon we spent resting in the cool of our hotel room. In the evening, we went to the sound and light show at the Red Fort.


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India Vlog 2005: July 26, Departure from Milan

We were among the first people in line for our flight from Milan Linate airport to Frankfurt (Lufthansa, connecting on to Delhi). As we checked in, a young Italian couple arrived at the counter beside us. I had previously noticed the woman, wearing a clingy, spaghetti-strapped top, and thought in passing, “I hope she’s not going to India dressed like that.”

She was. They were… or not. No foreigner can enter India without a visa, and it’s part of the check-in agent’s job to ensure that all passengers have the papers they need for their final destination. The agent looked through their passports, then asked if they had visas. “What visas?” they asked. A long discussion ensued. The travel agent who sold them the tickets had not mentioned the need for a visa. None of their friends who had previously travelled to India had mentioned it. The airline agent had to be wrong!

They were finally more or less convinced that they needed a visa, but still suffered under the illusion that they would be able to get one and still make that 10:30 am flight. The airline agent thought they had to go to Rome for a visa. At that point I intervened and explained that they could get visas at the Indian consulate in Milan, and, if they applied this morning, they could pick up the visas in the evening. I confirmed that they did need visas, and showed them ours.

Ross and I felt sorry for them. What a crushing disappointment, to be all ready to depart on your big trip, and find out you can’t go. As we walked towards security, Ross said, “I wonder if they know they need shots?”

The flights were uneventful – about the best anyone can hope for in this day and age. Why is it that flights from Italy always park at the furthest possible gate in any other European airport? Without fail, when I fly from Italy to anywhere, I end up walking miles just to reach the terminal, or even having to take a bus from tarmac to terminal. Gah! Ross summed it up: “I guess they think Italians like buses.”

The departure wing where we had to wait for the flight to Delhi is one of the most boring airport areas I’ve ever been in. Other parts of Frankfurt airport seem reasonably well-equipped. This one had only a couple of sausage stands (when many of the people on flights to India are probably vegetarian!) and beer bars and some uninteresting shops, and there was a shortage of seats for all the people waiting – I have yet to take a flight to India that isn’t absolutely full.

Travel Vlog: Shopping in Delhi

My trip to India was short – too short. I arrived in Delhi at 12:30 am on Thursday, October 28th, crashed at a hotel for a few hours with my classmate Fiona, then at 6:55 am we hopped on the train to Dehra Dun (where we met lots of other Woodstockers). From Dehra Dun we took a taxi to Mussoorie, arriving at our final destination around 3 pm. After that it was non-stop, very intense reunion until Monday morning, when the bulk of our class left again in buses. Anne (escaped from Afghanistan) and I had a leisurely day around the school and took the train back down Monday evening, arriving in Delhi at 11 pm, where we joined Marilyn in a room at the Park Hotel, just off Connaught Place (very central).

As planned, we spent Tuesday and Wednesday shopping. I have a new house to decorate, remember, and India is the perfect place to buy wonderful fabrics at ridiculously low prices. I also had a specific assignment fromRossella, who wanted to decorate her room in bright pinks.

We went first to Fabindia, a name familiar to me from school days, when my roommate Lauri used to get curtains, cushion covers, etc. there to decorate our dorm room. I did not know until recently that the company was founded by an American, and its only branch outside of India (so far) is in Rome. Fabindia deals in hand-loomed and hand-decorated fabrics, mostly cotton and using natural dyes, with lots of detailed handwork such as embroidery and appliqué.

My classmates, knowing what I’d be up to in Delhi, had given me a gift certificate for Fabindia: 2000 rupees, = $45. This may not sound like much, but it went a long way: I got a new cotton bedspread for our master bedroom, in shades of pale blue and green to go with the peacock batik hanging over our bed; placemats-and napkins, oven mitts, apron, etc., all in yellow to go with our new yellow kitchen; a tablecloth for a gift; some cushion covers; and I don’t remember what else.

I had arranged with Uday Tour to have a car with driver for both days in Delhi, at US $35 per day. Yes, it’s possible, and probably cheaper, to grab taxis as you go, but it would have added considerably to the hassle factor. With your own car, you can leave your shopping in the trunk (or boot – Indians use the British term) as you go from place to place, rather than carrying it around. And you don’t have to haggle with taxi drivers at every stop. Even with your own A/C (air-conditioned) car, just getting around Delhi is tiring. With the new metro and constant road-building, traffic has improved, but is still bad enough, and distances are large, or at least seem that way. It’s stressful riding, partly because most drivers seem to lean on the horn all the time. I caught one of ours beeping when there was no comprehensible reason to do so – he was making a turn from a clear lane into a clear lane, and I couldn’t see anybody in his way. I think it was just force of habit. The blare fades into the subconscious after a while, but I still found it tiring.

When we had finished about two hours of looking at all the four or five Fabindia stores in Greater Kailash I N Block (this is a Delhi street address), with a rest stop for some very decent coffee and a glance into the other stores in the block, we piled our purchases in the boot and headed for our next destination: Dilli Haat (photo at top of page), a sort of idealized fake village/market with booths selling crafts and food from all over India, and occasional live performances.

The quality here is not so great, and you have to bargain to get justifiable prices. I ended up buying only a couple of things whose quality I did approve of, but I won’t give details here since they are Christmas presents for some readers of this newsletter! We did have a nice lunch of dosas – I was greedy and ate two, for about 50 cents each.

After that we were tired and went back to our hotel. Marilyn and I walked across the street to Jantr Mantr. This was more difficult than it sounds: we had to cross a big road in fast-moving traffic. Delhi is not well supplied with crosswalks or pedestrian crossing signals, so you often have no choice but to take your life in your hands and dash across, like everyone else does. Remember that they drive on the left; in a tired moment I made this elementary mistake, and almost got hit by a bus. Delhi doesn’t have those helpful “Look Left” and “Look Right” instructions painted on the sidewalk like they do in London.

I had not been to Jantr Mantr in about 25 years, and was sad to find it degraded, much of the marble eaten away by pollution and defaced by graffiti. It’s a protected park, but cheap for Indians to enter – Rs. (rupees) 5, or 10 cents, as opposed to the Rs. 100 that foreigners pay. Because it’s cheap and central and has lots of secluded niches, it’s a sort of lovers’ lane for young Delhi-ites. Which would be fine if they didn’t feel the need to declare their love by defacing the monuments.

In spite of the decay, Jantr Mantr is still a wonderful place to take pictures, especially in the soft evening light with the birds circling and swirling as they chose their perches for the night.

From there we walked to Jan Path, the kingdom of kitsch – very tiny shops selling all sorts of wonderful cheap junk. The sidewalks and plazas are crowded with human traffic, much of it trying to sell you something. That, plus the near-total darkness after sunset around 5:30 pm., made strolling around in Delhi more intense than I recalled or was prepared for. We made a quick trip to the handmade paper store on Jan Path (more presents), found Marilyn the burfi (a milky Indian sweet) she had been craving, and went back to the hotel.

We had let the car go for the day, and none of us felt like hassling with much of anything, so we elected to eat at the Park Hotel’s own Fire restaurant, offering “Indian specialties with a twist.” And so they were. I had a non-veg tandoori sampler, Anne had mutton (actually, goat) biryani, Marilyn had tandoori chicken with coriander. Everything was elegantly served and very tasty. The multi-layered glass partition separating the Fire restaurant from the Agni bar next door is etched with flame shapes, so the constantly-changing lighting from below creates a pleasing effect of multicolored flames leaping.

Marilyn left at 11 pm for her 2 am flight (most intercontinental flights out of India depart after midnight). Anne and I slept the sleep of the justly shopped-out.

The next morning we met our classmate Yuti in the hotel lobby at 10 am for the next bout of shopping. My classmates had also given me a beautiful silver bracelet, which I wanted to get adjusted as it was just big enough to slide off my hand. We walked to a nearby jewelry store in Jan Path, but they were not interested in the work. We then walked a couple of blocks on Connaught Place, but everything was still closed. Anne and Yuti remembered that the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, at the other end of Jan Path, would be open, so we walked there, accosted by touts all the way. Yuti says that Mumbai does not have these annoying guys trying to sell you things everywhere; next trip, I’ll do my shopping in Mumbai.

Cottage Industries, a government-run emporium, was drab and uninteresting 25 years ago, but has improved over time (and in the face of competition). It’s a huge, confusing building of about six stories plus mezzanine levels, offering handicrafts from all over India divided among categories (cushion covers, clothing, curtains, etc.). In each section, you select your purchases and receive a bill. This is convenient, because you don’t have to carry stuff all over the store, but also dangerous, because you don’t know how much you’re spending as you collect your sheaf of bills here and there. In the end you pay for everything at once at a central counter, and pick up all your bagged purchases at another counter.

I went crazy in there. For about $300 total, I got cushion covers galore, a hand-embroidered silk panel that I’m using to cover the open closet in my studio (the most expensive thing I bought that day, it cost Rs. 3850 – $85), cloth to make a curtain for the other open closet (in the den), bangles, bindis, various stuff for Christmas presents, and I forget what all else.

Hauz Khas

Hauz Khas

When that orgy of shopping was done, we called our car from the hotel nearby, loaded in everything, and took off for Hauz Khas, a shopping area built next to a beautiful Mughal ruin. Here we had an excellent lunch, includingbhindi (okra), which never tastes as good outside of India, and eggplant. We shopped around the area (scores of small shops, including some interesting Indian clothing designers), and I managed to find some more pink stuff for Ross, including a bright magenta rattan roll-up mat with a gold border.

To my great delight, we also found someone to fix my bracelet. He worked outside a jewelry store, but had gone for lunch when we were first directed to him, leaving several bulky items of gold jewelry on his unattended stand. Yuti said, “That can’t possibly be real gold, otherwise he wouldn’t have left it like that.” Turned out it was; when Yuti asked him about it, he explained that someone in the store was watching the whole time, so there was no danger of a thief walking off with the gold.

He shortened my bracelet, and also set the stone in my engagement ring. I had lost the original sapphire a few years ago, bought an emerald ($100) to replace it on my previous trip to India in 2002, but had not got around to finding someone in Milan to set the stone – the one place I had asked refused, saying the stone was too big for the setting.

This guy was happy to do both jobs, though he did have to stretch the prongs on the ring to fit the emerald, which is taller than the sapphire was. For extra security, he superglued it on the back. [later – Unfortunately, it didn’t hold – the stone fell out and got lost within a month.] Both jobs together took about half an hour, and cost the princely sum of Rs. 100 ($2). He might have charged more if I hadn’t been accompanied by Yuti – maybe a grand total of Rs. 200. Both processes were interesting to watch:

shot Nov 3, 2004, 2:29 mins

We were still lacking one critical item: organdy material for curtains for Ross’ room. This sheer, colorful material is widely available in Italy, imported from India at obscenely high prices. Surely I could find it cheaper in India? We asked advice of one of the shop owners in Hauz Khas, and were directed to Jagdish Store, in Lajpat Nagar – fortunately, more or less on our way back to the hotel. It took some time to find the store, find the cloth I wanted, and actually pay for it and receive it, and we were all already tired, but Anne and Yuti were magnificently patient about it, and I got some gorgeous magenta organdy material criss-crossed in gold, which will look very nice on Ross’ windows. Can’t remember right now what I paid for it, but it was a lot cheaper than it would have been in Italy.

And that did us in on the shopping. We went back to our hotel and collapsed for a while, brooding over election results, until it was time to join Yuti and her husband for dinner at a nearby pub restaurant. I packed my suitcases, and was dismayed to find that I still had room left in them – I could have bought more! I was tempted to go back for cushions to fill all the cushion covers I’d bought – in Italy, naked cushions will cost far more than the magnificent covers did in India. But I was just too tired, so my suitcases remained flabby, and I am short on Christmas presents. Damn. Next time I need to remember that I need at least three days for shopping.

Traditional and Modern Entertainment in Delhi

shot Nov 2, 2004, 0:34 mins, 2.6 MB

Traditional dancers from I’m not sure what region of India, filmed at Dilli Haat. I have no idea why the guy in the background decided to get in on the act; the dancers seemed pretty puzzled about it, too.

shot Nov 3, 2004, 0:28 mins, 1.3 MB

The next night, we had drinks and dinner (and more drinks) at DV8, a pub restaurant in Connaught Place. The DJ very obligingly played all the really old music we requested (scribbled on napkins with fountain pen), and the bartender performed flaming tricks for the camera.

Woodstock 150th: Back to Delhi

shot Nov 2, 2004

Most of the group left Mussoorie Monday morning in Sanjay’s buses. Anne and I took the Shatabdi back to Delhi that evening (about half the seats were occupied by Woodstockers), joining Marilyn at the Park Hotel where the three of us shared a room. Tuesday we shopped all over Delhi, visitedJantr Mantr, and Marilyn flew out Tuesday night after an excellent dinner at the Park’s restaurant. Anne and I were joined by Yuti on Wednesday for still more shopping, then had dinner, drinks, and music with Yuti, her husband Sumit, and Pinder (who had meanwhile been in Chandigarh, shopping for furnishings for his new home in Nairobi).

shot Nov 2, 2004, 1:15 mins, 3.9 MB

We wrote song requests out on napkins and gave them to the DJ, who was probably wondering who these old fogeys were.

Anne and I shared a car to the airport at midnight and kept each other company (thankfully – Delhi airport is awfully boring) until our flights left around 3 am.


We’re all agreed that we want to see each other again, often, and soon – and preferably more of us. The open question for the moment is when and where to do that. Sanjay has suggested a regular appointment each year in Mussoorie, around the first week in November. Which is certainly fun, but not convenient for everybody, especially those who have kids in US or European schools.

One possibility would be to piggyback on the WOSA-North American reunion next June 23-26, in Silver Bay, New York. And some of us are looking into other suggested reunion spots, such as Italy and Iceland.