Chasing Silverback Gorilla’s: Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest

The drive was long and winding.  The countryside is quite beautiful, with lots of farmland and untouched forest.  There is an essence of simplicity that is hard to avoid noticing, it’s almost enviable.  From my conversations with the locals, there is nothing outside of their village, nothing outside of their territory, nothing outside of Uganda, for that matter that gives them a care in the world.  It makes me feel at ease. 

The land, the markets, the roads are all clean, with little to no trash.  The amount of unfinished or in-progress construction is staggering.  It is the lack of completeness that gives the country a 3rd world feel, for them, time is of no concern, so a simple 3 room house may go uncompleted for years. 

While driving through a slow area, we passed an extremely comical sight.  There were 3 cars pulled over to the side, and all of the passengers in the car were stuffing leaves everywhere!  Into the grill, through the windows, into the trunk and the top luggage carrier…everywhere!  I had to ask! 

Steve laughed and then smiled.  He said they were football supporters; going to game that was being played.  Huh? Where does turning your car into a bush, yes bush, qualify as being a sports enthusiast?  Well, I’ll tell you how.  On game days, everybody is looking to get a ride from someone, a friend, family or taxi, so much so that there just aren’t, so instead of getting extra drivers, they just pile more people into the cars. 

By having your van stuffed with leaves, shows the police that they are football fans, so they won’t get pulled over!  Brilliant Idea if you ask me, now if we only implemented this in the US and Europe.

I had not done any research on Uganda and learned that the British colonized them.  All of the outlets were British and the car and roads were all left-hand driving.  I didn’t ask but I assumed that the British colonized for mining of some sort.  Uganda has had its independence for 55 years.  In 1979, the Ugandan president expelled the colonized workers, many of them were Indians sent there to build the railroad, which had long since been completed.  My driver was explaining that there were 2 BA flights a day taking the expelled Indians to the United Kingdom and there was still not enough capacity to get them out of the country.   Their call for independence can clearly be seen today though, as there is absolutely no diversity as we know it today.

The main road has small villages about every 5-10 miles.  You can see people walking between the village, often carrying some large load of sticks, coal, or jugs of unknown content, oftentimes on their heads.  Motorbikes, also known as boda boda, would always have multiple people on them.  Most of the traffic, if any, was trucks carrying cattle, or soft drink trucks.  There were the occasional local buses carrying people from the city to their homes, and taxes vans, just like the one I spent 2 long days in, except I had the van to myself.  The situation reminded me very much of India, a sad truth about the lives of locals versus tourists. 

The tourist stops points are obvious but I didn’t mind them.  The food was good, generally, a large variety of traditional African food, mixed with some random western foods.  The storekeepers weren’t overly aggressive trying to sell you something, and they kind of wrapped them into touristy-type attractions, the main one being the Equator line.  I can officially say that I have stood in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time! 

On the journey back I learned that all of the cars that are available for Uganda are from the Japanese.  Fun fact, the latest available car model that is available for them is 2004.  Yes, you read that right, 2004 is the newest cars they can get, meaning they are already over a decade old.  These “newer” versions are also considered quite a luxury, as most of the car models on the roads today are from the mid to late 90’s.  It’s less apparent when you’re driving in the countryside because the exhaust and the burn of the diesel fuel are pretty thick and heavy when you get in towards the city.  My driver aptly noted that the government spends so much on conservation and the environment in different policy spending, but the cars made available dispense an immeasurable amount of pollution into the environment, there is clearly an oversight in how they are practicing sustainability.  

I learned a lot in the short period of time and it has left me wanting to learn more.  I look forward to getting to visit again.

Day 4: The Gorillas!

Despite the fact that Steven and the other guides were saying 100% guarantee, we’ll see gorillas, I was still super nervous about it!  It never occurred to me that one day of trekking wouldn’t be enough.  At the Rushaga Gorilla Environmental Lodge, I was greeted by two locals, Diana and Jane, with hot towels and some fresh fruit juice.  I walked into the reception/dining area to wait for instructions on where my room would be.  Through the windows, I could see an incredible view overlooking the Impenetrable Forest.  It was just before sunset and there was a massive storm cloud rolling in.  Instinct kicked in, photo-op!

I stepped out onto the balcony and noticed there were other guests.  I snapped a couple of  photos quickly and turned to the guest, and excitedly said “this rainstorm is gonna be incredible to watch!”   It wasn’t long after I said that when the lightning started to light up the sky, and then the rain started to pour.  I ask Diane for beer and formally introduced her to the other guest, Bryce. 

Bryce was also traveling alone.  He’s a kiwi currently working at a resort on Seychelles.  He was great fun chatting with, he has worked in hotels for the past decade or so and like myself has found himself relocating from country to country about every two years, the last of which was Oman.  He’d been to 133 countries and today was his first day (of 2) with the gorillas, and I could tell that he was super stoked about it!  Hell, I was just as stoked for him seeing them because I knew that tomorrow was my day! 

We chatted most of the evening but we both decided we needed to shower before dinner.  We asked the servers to seat us together because for no good reason they sit everyone at separate (massive) tables, so it was Bryce and his driver Apollo at one table, me and Steven at another, and a German couple, Prisca and Simon, at another.  This made no sense, so we consolidated. 

Dinner was absolutely delicious, the pumpkin puree soup was delicious and the chicken dish I got was, soooo good!  I cleaned my plate and then some and I didn’t feel bad about it because I knew the morning would be the trek of a lifetime.  After dinner, the group of us all chatted about Uganda and were asking the drivers about their take on conservation and tourism and I’m sure a couple of other obvious topics.  Hearing them speak about their country, political issues, and how to best preserve the wildlife was fascinating, and so full of passion.   It was very refreshing to hear how fervently they cared about protecting the gorillas and the forest.

The alarm went off at 5 am.  Ugh!  5:30 breakfast, leave before 6…..Why do all of the best things require waking up super early!   I had laid out my outfit and packed my bag the night before so I was ready to go.  Breakfast was meh, all I could think about was getting to sleep on the car ride to the Ranger office, short in comparison but still an hour and a half drive.  I tried to sleep as best I could but the “roads”  that wind around these mountains are dirt and rubble.  It was hard to keep from getting thrown around a bit. 

Steven hurried me into the ranger’s office briefing room.  The room was full of eager people waiting to catch their first or possibly a second glimpse of the silverback gorillas in their natural habitat.  The briefing was quick but informative.  If you need to go to the bathroom, let your porter know, they will form a shield as you pop a squat in the wilderness.  If you have to go number 2, the porter would dig a hole for you, aim well, and cover your hole.  Socks over trousers unless you have specific trekking guards.  Don’t look the male gorilla in the eyes.  Don’t use flash photography and don’t use mosquito spray once you’ve left the ranger’s hut. 

They walked us through the cost of the porter $15 per porter, plus as big a tip as you’d like, and believe me, they earn their tip!  Their rescue option, or as they refer to it, the African helicopter, cost an average of $300, based on where the rescue takes place and how big you are.  The African helicopter is about 20 porters plus a stretcher basket, who, god only knows, come sprinting down the mountain, and I do mean sprint, and carry you back up.  It took these guys a quarter of the time to sprint down AND carry the person back up.  OUT OF CONTROL!

Anyways, let the trek begin.  Now hopefully you’ve seen some of my photos of the landscape we were trekking, but if not here are a few fun facts.  We started at about 2600m and at our lowest descended to about 1000m.  The forest is called impenetrable because it wasn’t until the white man brought chain saws that they were able to create any type of path.  Today there is only one of these paths left (and we weren’t using it.  We started the downhill climb weaving through the small but steep footpaths used by the local farmers.  If you wanted to take in the scenery you needed to stop, because walking without looking was not an option.  Between rocks, random trickling streams of water that created mud and slipperiness, the narrowness, and the sudden drops from one step to another is was definitely best to watch your footing.    

The only way were we able to find the gorillas was through trekking rangers.  They leave an hour or two before us and stay out an hour or two after the group leaves to keep some kind of bearing on where they will be the next day.  We had made it about halfway down the mountain before our lead Ranger wanted us to stop and rest while we waited to hear from the guides where the gorillas might be. 

I’m not sure if it’s a game for them, but it sure felt like they were keeping us in suspense on purpose.  I had it so ingrained in my mind that I would see one, I wasn’t sure how, or if I would cope with not seeing one!  100% Steven said man would I kill him or someone if our group was the first in 5 years to not see them.  A bit of patience paid off.  We started our trek again, continuing along the farm’s path, moving slowly, slowly, further, and further away from the ranger’s station.

We paused about every 15 minutes to check in with the trekking rangers.  They had said they thought the gorillas were moving towards the community lands, which would have been GREAT for us because they would be right out in the open and less trekking.  But then word hit, the gorillas were spotted!  And that meant that no matter where it took us, we were getting down the mountain and into the forest to get to see them by any means necessary. 

The lead ranger quickly halts the direction we were going in, shuffles past us to change direction, then all of a sudden there was no more path.  We were now barrelling down the steep slopes of shoulder height weeds, reeds, and marshy land, going as fast as possible making a few zigs and zags on our way down so we didn’t tumble head over heels.  My garden gloves were officially on!  Easily 30 minutes of steep downhill trek and in what appeared to be a completely different world, we had reached the bottom of the valley.  The crops that we had just plowed down were now nowhere in sight and we were in a canopy of the jungle.  Humid, dense air coupled with plants and insects all around us, we were all starting to question our judgment, “what have we gotten ourselves into!”

We paused for a quick minute to catch our breath, have a sip of water, then continued to plow through the jungle brush, deep and deeper into the forest.  I was towards the back of the single-file line that was being hacked through the vines, trees, and brush, so the path was someone clear by the time I was passing through it.  This meant that I benefited from the people who were falling ahead of me.  I got to take extra caution when I was stepping down the slippery ledges. 

I don’t recall how much time passed before we all of a sudden came to a halt!  A guy with a machete pointed ahead, and there was the first gorilla sighting of the day!  Cameras came out at the speed of light.  I was kicking myself for not testing my new lens out sooner because it took me about 30 shots before I got a clear one of the females sitting next to the tree, but in hindsight, it was just giving me some practice for the silverback male. 

The silverback was all I could have ever imagined!  The brown eyes were super intense.  You are not meant to look him in the eyes, but the enormity of him makes it nearly impossible to not gaze back into his brown eyes.  Looking into his eyes left a feeling of paralysis.  Once he locked eyes, you truly couldn’t look away.  I tried to capture that emotion through my photos but the feeling of being in the presence of super an incredible, massive and powerful animal in close proximity, with no barrier is hard to translate into words. 

Finally managing to break eye contact, I was snapping away pictures.  I had gotten so lost in the male’s presence I had almost forgotten about the 10+ other female gorillas and babies that were lingering in the jungle brush close by.  There would be a rustle of leaves and a gorilla would appear to the side of the group, then another rustle and there were two more behind us, and another in front of us.  It was hard to count how many we had actually seen at the point but the number didn’t matter, the sight of them peacefully eating and lounging around was just incredible. 

You are meant to spend an hour watching the gorillas before you head back to the base, however after about 20 minutes or so the male started to get aggravated with the group.  There was a flare of the eye and staunch change in posture that caused most cameras clicking to cease immediately.   The rangers were visibly tense.  If I hadn’t been already drenched in sweat, I would definitely be sweating now!  The tense moment seemed to last a lifetime, but as the gorilla turned its head away from us, there was an instant sense of relief. 

Most tours, once they find the gorillas, do nothing but get to watch them eat but our male had something different in mind.  He stood up to pee into the river and made a call to the females in the group, they were on the move.  Once the male called out the females reacted immediately and one by one, they slowly started to cross the river.  Most of us in the group thought that this meant that our hour was going to be cut short, oh how wrong were they! 

Our troop of rangers and porters stepped into action and before we knew it, they were being carried, literally, across a river with quite a bit of white water, and a 5 ft waterfall awaiting anyone who may fall!  Fortunately, that didn’t happen to anyone, but these porters sure do work for their money.  Most of these porters are relatively short and skinny, and here they are carrying across a wide arrange of people!  The videos I took show it all, haha.  (they also had to carry us back.) 

Once we were across the river, this is where the real trek started to begin.  No carve path except the broken branches that the gorillas have left behind.  It was beyond a scramble to get through the brush, with porters pushing and pulling people up!  Once I managed to scramble up the wall of mud, the trees and branches got thicker and the terrain got steeper.  I am surprised I didn’t get any blisters from having my feet jammed into all sides of my shoes. 

Many of the trees have thorns covering the entirety of the trunk.  My hands would have been torn to shreds if I hadn’t brought gardening gloves.  Up and up and up.  The sweat was pouring off of me.  I was horribly out of breath as we continued to climb the mountain and gain more altitude.  I felt myself nearing the point of passing out, when I heard it!  The gorilla was roaring again and the trees in the near distance began to rustle aggressively.    We found the gorillas again!

Our up hill climb once across the river!

A sigh of relief hit me, knowing that the gorillas were at least in close proximity.  The trekking up wouldn’t be for too much longer!  When I finally arrived at the spot of the tree rustle, I looked around, and there were no gorillas insight.  A look of disappointment and exhaustion must have been on my face, because when I managed to pry myself from up from a hunched position, the tracking ranger looked at me, and point up with his machete!  There was a female gorilla seat directly above me! Yikes!  No need to be disappointed when you have a gorilla perched aboved you! Talk about up close and personal.

Several trees down the mountain the male gorilla was sitting perched on a branch as if he were a bird, breaking the branches of the tree as if they were toothpicks and eating his way through the treetops of Uganda.  I strategically removed myself from underneath the female gorilla and gazed up in awe at everything we were witnessing.

Time seemed to stand still as we continued to click away with our cameras.  At one point the male gorilla climbed down the tree and started upwards towards us again, but he clearly had food on his mind, because he scaled back up a closer tree and continue munching on the tree foliage.   The females were sitting in all different trees, and a couple were on the ground.  As the male gorilla moved, the baby gorilla started to climb the same tree, presumably to be closer to dad, but the male had a one-track mind and that was food.

The excitement with the gorillas was starting to wrap up when the thunder started to sound throughout the valley.  The rain had managed to hold off this far but the thunder and darkening sky was the trigger that ended our session.  The river we crossed to chase after the gorillas must be re-crossed to get back, and if it rained the river would flood, preventing us from re-crossing.  The ranger did not want to linger for any longer as the sky continued to darken because the only option if the river flooded would be a 5 miles trek to get around the river, and then we’d still have to climb up the steep slopes that we had taken down to get back to our drivers, so we all willingly obliged.  

No one liked the sound of that option, so as quickly as possible we slid and stumbled our way down the steep mountainside.  After a quick and relatively plain meal on the other side of the river, we all slowly started our long, winding, and treacherous trek up the mountain to get back to base.   Two people from our group needed to be rescued and a third from another group needed to be rescued by the “African helicopter”, haha.   I can’t recall if I’ve already mentioned this, but this is no real helicopter. Once word reaches the team of a “rescue” a crew of 6-8+ men came running down the mountainside with a stretcher in tow to help carry you back up the mountain. This costs $300 on average depending on how far away from base you are and how heavy you are. 

The Rescue Squad was literally running down the mountain to collect several people from the bottom of the steep slope.

The poor locals today had their work cut out for them.  The largest girl in our group, probably weighing about 250 lbs, outweighing all of these local guys needed to be the rescued.  I wouldn’t want to be carrying that load. Hopefully, she left a large tip for them.

I barely stopped during the trek up and kept my pace very slow and steady.  I managed to make it up to the top ahead of the rest of the group.  I didn’t waste any time taking my shoes off, man my feet were sore.  I knew my whole body was going to be sore from this trek but keeping my mind on the gorillas kept my focus away from the pain.  No sooner than reaching the top, the sky opened up and the rain began to pour rain! 

The African Helicopter

I received by Gorilla certificate and changed into some much-needed dry clothes!  Thank god Steven told me to bring some, else it would have been an uncomfortable 1.5-hour drive.   The drive back was long, painfully long.  The rainfall on these dirt and rock roads turned into mudslides, slippery road surfaces, and a terrifying journey back to the hotel!  One van ahead of us hit a bump the wrong way and broke its suspension belt.   The couple in the van were lucky enough that were behind them because we were the last van to leave the base, which would have meant if we didn’t stop they would have all been stranded on the mountain for who knows how long.  We gave them a ride back to their respective hotels.

Steven said that one of the couples who did the trek today had their car break down and they had to walk 2 miles uphill with all of their luggage to get to their hotel, nothing like a pre-mountain trek before the day of gorillas.  After dropping off the couple at their hotel my bladder was about to explode!  Winding through the mountaintops, I couldn’t wait any longer.  I asked Steven how much further but no matter what the answer would have been, the bumpy roads meant that unless we arrived already, this can’t wait.  He pulled his car over, I hopped out and with basically no coverage, except for the car, I let loose. 

That was when, what appeared to be all of the local children in the neighborhood, started to come around the bend of the corner.  This was just my luck.  Talk about giving the locals far more than they bargained for; I was midstream and couldn’t stop now.  As the kids ran closer, of course recognition of what I was doing set in and the laughter and pointing began.  I think it’s pretty safe to say that this was the first time they had seen a mendzoogu (foreigner), especially a female popping a squat in the middle of the road.  I tried to make sure that my private bits were covered from seeing, which resulted in me peeing all over my pants.  Beyond the point of embarrassment at this point, I just smiled back at the kids and laughed with them. 

All I could say was “when you gotta go, you gotta go!”  Let’s just say I chose not to take the pants with me on the next leg of my trip.   Allison’s #adulting in Uganda.  You can’t make this stuff up.  

Back at the Lodge a river of mist runs through the Impenetrable Forest

Uganda, A Woman’s Gay Night Out in Entebbe.

Uganda’s Entebbe, the capital city, has surprised me.  Traveling on my own and up for an adventure, I spend a wild night out of the town, clubbing with a local tour guide. What I discovered was a hidden subculture, that breaks from tradition and gives African nightlife a whole new dimension.

Entebbe, the capital sits surrounded by Lake Victoria.  The largest freshwater lake in Africa, and 2nd largest in the world.  I am not sure what the largest is.  The locals break the country into three regions, North, East, and West, and what should be south, lies the lake which shares borders with Tanzania, Rwanda, and Kenya.   There are 45 different tribes within Uganda, which has spawned 27 different languages, not dialects, languages, regonda being the primary language.  Despite being so close to the equator, the temperature is cool, with a light mist in the air.  The air smells of fresh rain.

Not many people traveling to Entebbe.

The airport is small.  There were 2 other planes outside of the I was on that were on the tarmac and they were much smaller than the plane I arrived in.  My bag came out immediately and there was a slight pang of anxiety that broke through my feeling of sleep, I hadn’t pre-arranged a taxi, and even worse planning on my part, I didn’t even read about it ahead of time. 

After a long flight, I was very tired upon arrival.

There was no taxi line that I could see, but there was a slew of drivers who were waiting for people who arrived.  So I did what most people would probably be afraid to do, ask someone for help, and bygone, it worked.   I got a quick ride to the inn or bungalow that I was staying at for the day and was all set. 

I did not exchange any USD into shillings because I was only there for the day/night, and was then off on my gorilla tour, however, if I had stayed longer I would have exchanged currency, local currency was the only thing accepted as I would find out later. 

Word of caution as well, the employment in Uganda is very low and most of the men who drive taxis will say they are a jack of all trades and will of course try and offer you a tour of the city, etc, etc.  Be cautious.  They will of course be friendly but best to air on the side of caution.

I was a bit disappointed that my first meal in Uganda was KFC, but I literally had no choice because I did not exchange any money and needed a place that accepted credit cards.  Absolutely starving from missing breakfast, a very nice gentleman named Robert took me to ear by the mall for a quick eat.  He was waiting to take another guy to the airport later in the evening.  I learned that he has 4 children ranging from age 16 to 10, and he is also taking care of his sister’s children, who were recently orphaned.  I did not ask how they died. 

Upon returning to the hostel I was staying in, I met an older American man who was staying there as well.  I came to learn that he works for a missionary program called CID.  Christian, something something.  It is run by an American, Dr. Ron, who spends his time in Western Uganda helping to build the local communities.  He is responsible for the opening of several orphanages as well as a pharmacy and a family service center, providing counseling to families in need.  He’s been 8 times over the past 10 years, staying for about 6 weeks per stay.  Every time he visits he brings seeds for a variety of different crops.  He brings eyeglasses of various different strengths.  He also loads his suitcases with clothes. 

His work has sparked my interest, and he has provided me some details on his websites.  He is a pastor and he definitely leverages his faith the connect with the locals which I think is extremely admirable.  I myself am not religious, but it has started to make me think a little more about the bigger picture.  Religion plays a major role in the local’s lives and putting two and two together, it makes sense, the locals look to religion because there are church(es) provide so much back to the communities.

Later that day around 8 pm, I asked the innkeeper if she could help arrange to get someone to take me for dinner.  Honestly, I was expecting another KFC meal and was will to accept that I wouldn’t get to see much of Entebbe, but boy was I wrong.

I stepped outside the Inn door, and low and behold…a motorcycle, which I came to learn in the local language, a boda boda!   There was a definite smile on my face as I swung my leg over the seat and settled in for the ride.  The guy who was driving me was Sam.  He’s a neighbor of the Botanical Inn and happily volunteered to take me to dinner.  He was a quiet guy who grew up in western Uganda.  He moved to Entebbe for work, and not surprisingly he works in tourism as a driver.  He is 32 and hasn’t started a family yet. 

I was asking him what he usually does with his friends and where he goes out.  The responses we quite vague but I probably wouldn’t have known where he was talking about anyways.  After dinner, he asked if I wanted to go back to the Inn or show me around.   Of course, I chose the latter, who would turn down a motorcycle ride around the city as my first experience in Uganda, certainly not me, haha. 

I was, without question, the only white person out in the evening, that wasn’t in the newly built mall.  He took me up past the gardens, and showed me where the president lives, then, in what felt like off-roading, we started to navigate the narrow dirt roads of the city, where the majority of people were out and about, congregated in or near the local markets. 

This was truly an experience getting to see African nightlife.  The streets are all flooded in fluorescent lights coming from the discotech and everyone is huddled together swaying to the music and drinking beer.  There are food stalls on the side of the road cooking up BBQ roast chicken! The smell is incredible and I wanted ever so badly to taste, but the little travel person in the back of my head told me, “8 hour drive tomorrow and little access to a toilet…”  ha, so unfortunately I passed. 

We biked around for a good 40 minutes, driving by nearly every “club” in Entebbe.   He pointed out places that he liked to go, several times asking if I wanted to go in.  The shadiest looking one, of course, called Knight Rider was almost too funny to pass up but decided against it.  It was only at the very end, that we passed a club and Sam pulled over and asked if I wanted to go in. 

Now I had the other travel voice in the back of my head telling me, “Let’s do this, bet not too many foreigners go out in Entebbe to the local clubs,” and I was most certainly right.  The women were few if any, certainly no white women, and the music bass was loud enough to shake the building.    The downstairs area had a pool table and bar with what I can only presume was a dance floor in the back, that was relatively empty. 

We didn’t stay downstairs we went upstairs where there were tables set up and the England vs Spain football game was on.  It reminded me a bit of England for a split second, just a bit.  We sat on some chairs, Sam ordered himself a coke and just because I wanted to say “I went to a club in Uganda,” I ordered a beer. 

The culture in the city is quite interesting, you don’t see many women out and about which made me definitely the oddball out, but I didn’t let that bother me.   For the most part, I just got some curious stares, probably wondering why is this girl here. 

I asked him out of curiosity why there were no women out.  He said “oh there are many women that come out,” but in a very timid manner. He then preceeded to say that he didn’t like women.  His tone was almost as if he was afraid of them, which could have been true.  He mentioned this several after that, but I wasn’t going to pry, I just wanted to enjoy the evening.  And enjoy I did, but as the night wore on, I slowly began to realize the meaning behind Sam’s earlier comment about women and how it pertained to the venue we were currently in.

Sam was constantly talking about how people in Uganda just like to dance, and oh boy was he right.  There were several groups of people dancing wildly all night long.  One very interesting fact to note was that it became quite clear that all of the men here apart from maybe 1 or 2 were flamingly gay, which made for great entertainment.  The colorful style and the overt touching and feeling were a dead giveaway.   Through the night Sam and I sat chatting, swaying to the music. 

These guys’ dancing in front of us were hysterical, from pop-lock-and-drop-it to the shimmy shakes and twerks, to what looked like a Kevin Bacon and John Travolta Footloose battle, I couldn’t help but thoroughly enjoy myself!  It wasn’t a late night because I had an early wake-up, but it definitely wasn’t what I expected to experience on my first day in Entebbe!

I did wonder if this was a gay club at several points during the evening, then quickly started wondering about the cultural norms.   On a safari, I took last year my friends and myself were under the impression that it was culturally unacceptable to be gay in most African countries. But here in the heart of the Entebbe nightlife was a mascarade of gay pride.  From my experience last night, I’m left with nothing but curiosity and fascination!  Maybe google will tell me more about the cultural norms, or perhaps I’ll ask a local. 

Day 2.  The Drive to Bwindi

And ask the local I did.  My driver today is Steve, from Western Uganda as well.  I wasn’t sure what to expect if I would have other people in the car, but it’s just me and we’ve got an 8-hour drive together.  About halfway through the journey, I thought what the hell, let’s ask the question about being gay, so I did.  It is illegal to be gay in Uganda, but my driver said “what individuals do in private is their thing.”  He did seem to suggest that there were clubs in Entebbe that were known for it to be more open, and hysterically he mentioned Knight Rider.  Hahaha, so the mystery is solved.

Oddly enough, he also went on to tell me that some drivers won’t take tourists as they know they are openly gay.  I guess it’s no different in India, except last night there was definitely openness…and all the power to them!

Entebbe was a short-lived trip, but full of unexpected surprises. Not many tourists would have ventured out alone, with a stranger, on a motorcycle, at night, to explore an African city, but I’m glad I took the road less traveled. I discovered a side to Entebbe that most foreigners will never experience, and most locals will never speak about.

How to Haggle When Traveling: 7 Steps to Successful Haggling

On more than one occasion I have been asked by my friends while traveling to help them haggle. To simply define, haggling means, “an act of negotiating or arguing over the terms of a purchase, agreement, or contractan instance of bargaining.

Local Market in Bangkok, Thailand

At local markets around the world, haggling is a commonplace practice, yet there are so many people who feel uncomfortable engaging in the practice and will settle with paying much higher prices simply to avoid having to haggle.

Shilin Market in Taipei, Taiwan.

I will admit that haggling does require some practice and can be considered an art form by some, but if you approach it with a laid back attitude, a smile on your face, and the desire to buy some cool knick-knacks at great prices, then you have got nothing to lose.

Shoe stall at Bangkok Market.

I have haggled for small things such as scarves and jewelry to save a buck or two, to large things such as oriental rugs and 4 poster beds and saved thousands of dollars. Never underestimate the power of haggling.

7 Steps to a Successful Haggle

1. Never seem too interested in what you’re haggling for. The more interested you appear, the less of a deal you’re likely to get. If the vendor knows you want it, they’ll be less willing to discount it, so you keep a poker face on as you walk around stalls. Causally pick things up, look at them, then set them back down and move on. Come back later, never linger. It never hurts to ask a question about the item, like its age, origin, etc. but avoid price, until you come back (if you come back).
2. Know the exchange rate! They generally barter in their local currency, not USD. Be prepared to negotiate in their currency and know the worth of your converting currency. In some cases, USD and/or EUR will be accepted currencies of exchange but this will depend on the country and the vendor.
3. Offer only 20-25% of what they initially offer and work up from there. I know this may sound extremely low, but the lower you start, the lower the counter price of the original value is likely to be. The seller’s response to a low base price can also give you a true sense of the appropriate value of what you’re looking to buy.
4. Know your highest price. This may require you to have done some research beforehand. For instance, when I went oriental rug shopping, I did a fair bit of research and went to several shops before I hit the local markets. I wanted to ensure I was educated enough about the cost of silk vs non-silk, vs the number of thread count, etc. before being bombarded by salesmen once I expressed interest in the rugs.
5. Don’t be afraid to walk away...they will most likely chase after you anyways. No seriously, be prepared for them to chase after you in attempts to make a deal. (especially if you follow step 6)
6. Try to go towards opening or closing time, you’ll find the better bargains as they try to make their first or last sales of the day. In many cultures, there is good luck associated with the first and last sale of the day and they will give deeper discounts.

7. If at all possible, have a local with you when haggling for big-ticket items. During my time in India, when I was looking at antiques or furniture, I would have my driver come with me to help translate and set the tone with the seller. Often having a local with you can make them more willing to give you a discount as well.

Check out my Jakarta, Surabaya Market, blog post where I put all of these skills to use to find some cool decor for my flat.

Jakarta Surabaya Market: A Shopping Trip to Remember

The weekend after Lil’s birthday was preceded by the much-anticipated trip to Jakarta for the Jazz festival.  Although there isn’t much to do in Jakarta, aside from shopping, Lillian and I did the right thing by taking Friday off to “explore” the sites.  We quickly learned during our research of Jakarta that there weren’t many touristy things to see or do in Jakarta.  Jakarta is the capital city, on the Indonesian island of Java, and there aren’t too many unique characteristics to the city, except the two Gama Tower (a high-rise building, which we had no desire to see).  It’s third-world, yes, the traffic is horrible, double-yes, and unless you’re going there with a sole purpose, a trip to Indonesia would best be spent going to one of their tropical resort-esk islands.

While trying to find places to go we pondered going to Sea World, but they don’t have Shamu, or penguins, or whales, so we nixed that right off the bat.  Then upon the suggestion of a friend living in Jakarta, we decided that going to a local market would best suit our needs.

We jet-set off to Jakarta early Friday morning, and after thinking we might die on the plane ride, we landed safely at the airport, bought our visa’s on arrival, and went to the money exchange.  It was pretty awesome to get ~100 SGD cash and receive 1mm buck-a-roos.  LOL.  I truly felt like a millionaire, haha, well, for at least an hour, at which point we were paying for our 120k taxi ride from the airport to the hotel.  I guess if you’re a millionaire you spend bucks like a millionaire.

We stayed at the Sheraton Media Towers and I was pleasantly surprised at how nice it was.  We were even more pleasantly surprised when we received a hotel room upgrade because Lil’s mom let us book our room using sure SPG hotel points.   We received a free complimentary welcome drink, which we realized later to be the greatest perk, of a free happy hour from 5-7 with food and drink on the executive floor.  Lucky brats, that’s what we were; we basically ate and drank for free the entire weekend!

But that’s beside the point, Friday during the day was by far one of the highlights of the trip because we ventured to the Surabaya Local market.  I guess it’s best to start out with how we decided to choose this market to visit this market of all the street markets in Jakarta.  We chose to go to the market because Bill Clinton visited the market when he came to Jakarta…did I mention that was in 1994, hahaha.  Nearly 20 years later Lillian and I found ourselves in a cab on our way to the market, and we also found our way to an unforgettable experience.

It is known in Jakarta that getting in a cab, no matter how short the distance can result in an hour-long cab ride.  It was pouring when we got in the cab, so we didn’t mind being out of the rain, and we hoped the rain would subside by the time we made it to the market (it is an outdoor market).  The cab ride itself though ended up being an experience in and of itself.  We pulled out of the hotel to find ourselves promptly in traffic, with a super sappy love song from the 90’s playing.  There were two “great” songs we listened to when all of a sudden it happened…Whitney Houston’s “I will always love” came on.

I turned to Lillian and said “this must be the sappiest loves of the 90’s radio station…I love it!”  From there it turned into a slow progression of back seat karaoke, with both Lil and I singing random lyrics and chords on and off and that’s when things just escalated to the next level…the cab driver started singing.  Keep in mind he didn’t understand a word of English, but was singing Whitney like it was his native tongue.  During one of his many stops due to traffic, he wiped a tear away from his eye, then proceeded to do the window washer knuckle eye rub to imitate crying, ensuring that we saw him.  It was quite possibly one of the most hysterical things I’ve ever witnessed and did I mention he had a handlebar mustache. 🙂  It was 3 minutes of pure entertainment, but that wasn’t the end of it…

After the Whitney song was over Lil and I looked at each other wondering in anticipation what song would be next.  It took us all of 20 seconds to recognize the tune, the lyrics, and the singer…Diana Ross, “If we hold on together.”  It took us slightly longer to remember where we knew the song from but after a couple of stanzas of karaoke, it took me no time to remember…The Land Before Time.  I will admit I know this because I had watched the movie not too long before the trip, yes I own it, judge all you’d like. 🙂

It was after this song that we realized that it was not the radio we were listening to, but a CD that the driver was playing, and after those two songs he made sure that every song we listened to was just as great as the last.  Like I said earlier though cab rides can take quite a while so after our 90’s karaoke love song montage ended the cabby totally switched it up, to pop club techno remixes!  It was awesome!

About a 2 miles and an hour later we finally made it to market.  We probably could have walked there faster but who would have given up that once in a life time cab experience.  The roads may have been flooded but the rain was reduced to a drizzle and Lillian and I were revived by the cabby’s music (so much so I almost offered to buy the CD’s, I regret not getting it looking back on it).  We were ready to shop.  As an old colleague of mine once said “I put my haggle hat on!”

  The Surabaya is one long street with vendor after vendor on one side of the street.  The things you can find at these markets range from antique cameras and typewriters, cheap/tarnished costume jewelry, pottery, lamps chandeliers, coins, metal kettles, steel irons, pottery of all nationalities, pottery encrusted in barnacles, and just plain old junk.

We walked in and out of nearly every stalls checking out all of the different kinds of babbles and junk they had to offer.  I started the haggling off early because in a market like this if you see something you want, you will most likely not see it again, so you best make an offer.

Tricks of the trade –
1. Never seem too interested in what you’re haggling for
2. Know the exchange rate! They generally barter in IDR not USD (round down to make it divisible by10 and try to haggle in IDR)
3. Offer only 20-25% of what they initially offer and work up from there
4. Know your highest price
5. Don’t be afraid to walk away…they will most likely chase after you
6. Try to go towards closing time, you’ll find the better bargains as they try to make their last sales of the day.

I managed to do a little bit, ok well a lot of all of this!  We took our time par-oozing through all of these shops looking for things I wanted and trying to be realistic of things I’d be able to take back to Singapore (size-wise that is).  Trust me there was a lot that I wanted to get, but you have to be smart about what you bring back.  For me, everything I bought back had to be contained to a carry on, but for those who are willing to check luggage, make sure the price you’re paying is factored into the baggage costs, you don’t want that to negate your haggling skills.

Surabaya IS the most well-known market in Jakarta, thanks to Bill Clinton’s visit in ’94 and Barack Obama’s old home being located around the corner makes it all the more desirable for tourists to come and visit.  Yeah, I might have forgotten to mention that Obama “grew up” in Jakarta…in this neighborhood.  That being, said unless you’re a good haggler and know the value of things, you WILL overpay.  So be strong in your bargaining skills.

As we made our way back to the beginning of the strip (easier to catch a cab and Lillian wanted to attempt at haggling), we found ourselves being pursued more and more by vendors trying to sell any item we might have looked at initially, which made haggling even harder (because they knew you were interested, see haggle trick #1).  For some reason, all of the items that Lillian wanted seemed to be ridiculously overpriced, even after immense haggling.  For instance, there was this really cool lock, a turtle-shaped with an old skeleton key used to open it, and they wanted 500k IDR, that ~55 USD for a “bike lock and key” aka NOT WORTH IT!   What helped us, in the end, was being there at the end of the market day.

Trust me, we did not let anyone take advantage of us.  It was unfortunate for Lillian because she hadn’t purchased anything yet, but end of day was upon us and we were leaving, then all of a sudden, we were bombarded by the shop keepers bringing us pot after pot of blue china porcelain covered in barnacles (we had shown interest).   Some of the pottery you couldn’t even see the blue but the novelty was buying sunken treasure recovered from the depths…aka they put some pottery in the sea and wait a year for the elements of the sea to provide an antiquate, historical look/value to the item.   There was a beautiful swan with this “sea integrity” that she wanted but the price was wayyyyyy to high.

They started at 1.3mm, and we countered at 75k, because we’d been in the store earlier and noticed that they’d quoted larger vases for less initially.   At first, they wouldn’t budge for anything less than 300k,  so we walked away.  We were halfway down the street when the vendors came running after us, looking for any price that would make them money.  On top of that, every other store around starting bring out the “under the sea” vases to try and sell to me primarily because I had several bags of goods and I was helping out Lillian with haggling.  In the long run, my bartering skills got Lillian the swan for 220k IDR, ~15% of what they were asking for it,  while I resisted buying anything in the last bombardment of merchants.  I did manage to buy myself a bunch of items near and dear to heart (listed below):

2 Pearl bracelets
1 Red Ring
2 Wood Painted ducks
1 antique iron
1 antique Arabic lamp

Even if you have no intention to buy anything at these markets, they are worth visiting just to experience some of the street selling culture of Jakarta and to see the vast amount of “stuff” that people will buy.  Lillian and I sure had a great time learning this all for ourselves.

Emergency Ex-Pat Holiday Survival Guide: My First Holiday Season Abroad

I moved to Singapore at the end of September, knowing absolutely no one.  I met some incredible people in a short span of time, but no matter how many people you meet, being away from family for the first time over the holiday season proved to be much harder than expected. 

3 Survival Strategies to Making it Through the Holiday on Year 1:

After all of my experience living abroad and dealing with the holiday season, these would be my top survival tips:

  1. Planning ahead is the best advice I can give to anyone moving before the December holidays.  This may sound obvious, but people start planning their holiday break almost 6 months in advance sometimes, so you can never start asking people questions too soon, even if you are new to town. Know where you’re friends plan on going, whether it be traveling home, going on holiday, or staying local.  This can make or break your holiday season!  If you can’t go home, see if you can join your friends on holiday, or plan a holiday with your friends. 
  2. Check with your embassy to see if they have any holiday parties.  Not only is this a great way to meet other Ex-pats, but they put on great holiday events.
  3. Never spend the “actual” holiday alone. Often you’ll find when living abroad that there will be plenty of celebration, just not on the actual holiday. This can make the actual day feel a bit strange. Do whatever you can to avoid this, especially on year one.  Find that friend of a friend to hang out with because, even if you have a skype date with your family, once that phone call ends, you will feel miserable. You want to make sure you have plans to meet up with someone to keep your spirits up.  Even if you’re aren’t celebrating the Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or New Years, on the day its meant to be celebrated, sometimes it’s nice to have company just to get you through the day. 

My First Thanksgiving in Singapore

Thanksgiving was easier to manage because it isn’t a major global holiday.  It’s generally celebrated on the weekend with friends because Thursday is not a holiday.  And as it is before December, when all the major holiday parties and travel occur, friends are likely to still be in town.

Thanksgiving seems to have come and passed very quickly and for some odd reason, it doesn’t feel like it’s the Holiday season.  It might be because the temperature hasn’t dropped below 80 degrees since I’ve arrived in Singapore, or it may be because this is my first Thanksgiving not surrounded by family, but regardless of the obvious differences between this holiday season and the last, I have still been making the most of this amazing city and of course still having a Thanksgiving dinner.

Get in my Belly!

The Saturday before Thanksgiving I went over to Jenny and Jessica’s condo for the first Turkey Day feast.  This Thanksgiving went from a Turkey feast to a Brazilian dance party.  Below is Jenny and myself and two girls whose names I can remember, they were just visiting.

Pedro Negro, the bar that we went to on Arab street, happened to be hosting their annual festival, of what I don’t know, but it sure was a lot of fun.  They had dancers parading down the street and loud Brazilian music!!  

All of the Dancers were wearing large feather head dresses, haha

 Chris, Jessica and myself, having fun as usual 🙂 This was definitely like any typical “night before Thanksgiving” shenanigans, except in a tropical climate.  Can’t complain.  Celebrating your first Thanksgiving before the holiday can really throw your brain for a loop.

That night flew by of course and one might wonder how I managed to be productive the next day but somehow, I managed to roll out of bed and go to a play…A Shakespeare play, lol, who would have thought.  It’s amazing the things one will do to see Kevin Spacey.  He was performing in the Shakespeare production of King Richard the 3rd.

For not knowing any of the plot or understanding and of the Shakespearean language, I very much enjoyed myself.  Kevin Spacey is quite an amazing actor, and I must say I’m very excited to see him reenact my former job in the new movie Margin Call.  ha-ha

The Show was at the Esplanade, a beautiful bubble-shaped building right on the water.  The architecture is the most unique and progressive that I’ve ever seen.  This is just one of the many unique-looking buildings in Singapore, but what makes this building more impressive is everything that you can find in it.  It is not just a “theater by the bay” it’s a giant mall and a major transit center.  

While my mom was here, we actually went to go see an authentic Indonesian dance during a dance festival.  We had tried to see a Thai dance later that week but we ended up seeing the “Beyond the Dance” a detailed explanation and breakdown of the dance, not exactly the most riveting event, but a cultural event that you can’t see many other places in the world. 

As to be expected my actual Thanksgiving was spent working.  But the unusually hot weather made it feel more like the first day of summer instead of the beginning of the Holiday season.  Despite being thousands of miles from home I managed to drag myself out of bed at 5 in the morning and say a Happy Thanksgiving to all the family.  I also went out for by far the most unique Thanksgiving dinner ever.  A delicious, all-you-can-eat mussel and fries dinner at a restaurant called BrusselSpouts.

Jessica introduced all of us to this amazing restaurant and it gave us American’s a great home away from home as a Non-Traditional but overly filling Thanksgiving meal.

And there was nothing left…

Clearly I don’t know metric beer sizes yet.  Just like me,  I ordered the larger of the beers…I wasn’t expecting a JUG! Literally!  I had to hold it with two hands.  I guess that’s a way to make you drink slower (I had to drink it like it’s a sippy cup).  

While I may not have been with Family and my besties* for Thanksgiving, I definitely spent it with friends 🙂 

….But the Festivities didn’t end there!

The Saturday after Thanksgiving there was another Thanksgiving feast hosted by a bunch of GS locals.  Below is the grill master.  

But the turkey was being cooked down in one of the apartments.  We were at the corporate housing building, ultimately hotels with kitchens.  

Below is Me, Jessica and Preeti

The food and the company were both amazing.  We had a very large bird, with cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed potatoes, Brussel sprouts, steamed carrots.  Plus there was bruschetta as an appetizer and a delicious sundried tomato spread, just in case people hungry :-P.

The Party was on the condo’s room top desk with the pool and overlooked Orchard road.  Once the food was nearly completely eaten, we used the tables serving the food, for none other than flip cup and beirut.  Who would have thought that, similar to being at home over the holidays, a good old fashion game of flip cup would ensue.  It made the night!

After the feast, we all went to a club called Mink.  Techno dancing and strobe lights, that’s really all I have to say.  It was not my scene, to say the least, but I had a good time despite spraining my ankle…leave it to me.  This is why I never wear high heels out at nightclubs. 

After I got home I realized that I don’t think I’ve ever had so many Thanksgiving dinners in my life.  It made me so grateful to all of the people I’ve met and have known for such a short time, and so thankful that they welcomed me into Singapore in every way possible!   

My First Christmas In Singapore

I can’t say Christmas was as easy as Thanksgiving was, nor was it as easy being away from home.  Not getting to celebrate my favorite holiday with my family was tough, and the fact that the majority of all of my new Singapore friends were either home (back in the US) or traveling outside of Singapore didn’t make it any easier.  

However, I tried not to let loneliness get the best of me. I made the best of a difficult situation, on Christmas Eve and day I spent a large amount of time Skyping with family as they feasted on amazing food without me.

As I sat alone messaging friends “Merry Christmas” on Christmas Day, my friend Jenny caught word that I was spending Christmas alone.  She knew that Chris was in town with having Christmas with his family and friends, and even though I had only met Chris a couple times, he reached out to me, told me “no one should be spending Christmas alone” and basically forced me over to his family’s Christmas feast.  I could not have been more grateful.

Chris’s sister hosted the dinner and she had her family there, Alex and Elena, accompanied by some of Alex’s friends.  Elena is actually a senior at a private High school in CT, talk about a small world. Despite being Lyndsey’s age she did not know her.  

We started with a table full of delicious appetizers, prosciutto-wrapped on a breadstick, cheese and crackers, chips and dip, yum, but this was completely overshadowed by the main feast, traditional Korean Christmas style.

The amount of food was overwhelming.  We had a huge ham roast and a huge turkey, with all of the Fixin’s one could ask for.  There was cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet potato crumble (amazingly delicious), corn, mashed potatoes, salad, and possibly a few others.

I didn’t have any plans for Christmas, in fact I really thought that I would just be sitting home watching Holiday Inn followed by Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation, then maybe some Rudolph and Care Bear Nutcracker Christmas ( 🙂 ) but I’m really glad Chris reached out, and I was never expecting to get invited to such a feast.

Of course, the dinner was amazing but talking with everyone made the night that much better.   We all had some very engaging discussions from topics ranging to my upcoming trip to India, to the global financial situation to book recommendations.  

It ended up being a very late night, in a very good way.   I’ve been meeting so many amazing people in Singapore, all of whom have done so much in life and have experienced so much that it’s giving me more and more ideas of things to do, places to visit, things to learn.  

It’s been 3 months since I’ve moved around the world from my friend and family and home.  It’s been 3 months of “NEW,” new working, new friends, new ways of keeping in touch with my stateside friends and family, new holidays traditions, new me.

   I’m trying to think of a good quote to summarize my experience in my first 3 months in Singapore, but using someone else’s words isn’t appropriate, so I might as well go with MY quote/thought/philosophy.

“Life isn’t short!  Life provides you with certain opportunities to make it feel short, but in reality, these opportunities expand your life infinitesimally, you just need to take advantage of them” 

I often found myself thinking that life was too short to travel everywhere I’d like to visit, to work with people I’d never imagine possible, to meet people who’ve experienced the world in ways I’d never imagine.

Now I find myself in an experience where I know my life will never be too short because every opportunity that is presented to me, I embrace and I will see where it will lead me.  

Mumbai’s Top 11 Tourist Attractions

Mumbai has a wide variety of tourist attractions that are touted as being a “must-see” but having lived in India and traveled to Mumbai many times, I found that there were really only a few things really worth going to see and I have listed them down below. I have chosen the below primarily for their historical, religious, and cultural significance, and please note they are in no particular order.

  1. Ghandi Museum: The museum is actually his old house. There is a large collection of his books and his weaving machine.  
Ghandi’s old desk

2. Botanical Gardens and the Queen’s Necklace (AKA Marine Drive): From Ghandi’s Museum we went to the Botanical Gardens.  It was really more like a park than a Garden, but they do have a random boot, yes boot that is quite a popular tourist attraction.  The gardens are actually located on the highest elevation of the city, and there is a pretty decent view of the city and what is known as the “Queen’s Necklace.”  The Queen’s Necklace is ultimately the bay on which downtown Mumbai encompasses.

At night is all lit up and looks like a pearl necklace.
A bit smoggy out, but you can still see the ring of pearls around Marine Drive.

3. Dhoby Ghat. After walking around the gardens for about 20 minutes we headed to the famous Dhoby Ghaut laundry service in India.  You can’t really walk down in the facility, but from the picture below you can see that the men wash the clothes in the morning and hang the laundry anywhere possible to dry.  This laundry service is used by all kinds of local businesses, including hotels…I was seriously hoping that the hotel I was staying in did not employ this service because the chemicals the humans are subjected to during the cleaning cannot be healthy, but who knows.

4. Chhatrapati Shivaji (Victoria Station): We then moved down the colonial area of Mumbai, which I found to be the “prettiest” area of the city.  You could really see the British influence in this area of the city.  Below is Queen Victoria’s Train station. This is India’s most beautiful railway station known as a masterpiece of Gothic architecture with stained-glass windows, towering spires, domed arches and and pillars with animal images carved into them.

This is also where the city hall and the court justice building can be found.

5. Gateway of India: And of course, the tour guide also took me to see arguably the most notable tourist attraction in India, the Gateway of India.  The gateway overlooks a harbor where you can get a carriage ride along the waterfront (pictured below).  The carriage ride wasn’t something that was a part of the tour but I figured I take a picture anyway.  Haha. 

6. The Taj Hotel: Just steps away from the Gateway of India, is the famous Taj hotel. This is a famous stop for tourists to grab a drink a the bar or go for their famous afternoon tea.

The Taj Hotel
Photo by @

7. Dhavari Slums: check out my in-depth post on the Dhavari slums

8. The Elephanta Caves: Elephanta Caves are situated on Elephanta Island about 7 kms from Mumbai’s mainland shore. The caves can be reached by an approx. 1-hour boat ride from Gateway of India. The experience takes about 2-3 hours.

photo by @Jayan
Photo by @GaneshKavhar
photo by @SeQulist

9. Colaba Causeway: is known for street shopping for both locals and tourists. A great place to grab a bite to eat as well as pick up some souvenirs for friends and family back home.

Photo by @Magellano81

10. Global Vipassana Pagoda: The pagoda is to serve as a monument of peace and harmony. The center of the Global Vipassana Pagoda contains the world’s largest stone dome built without any supporting pillars. The aim of the pagoda complex is, among others, to express gratitude to Gautama Buddha for dispensing what followers believe is universal teaching for the eradication of suffering, to educate the public about the life and teaching of the Buddha, and to provide a place for the practice of meditation. 10-day vipassana meditation courses are held free of charge at the meditation center that is part of the Global Vipassana Pagoda complex.

Photo credit of Trip advisor

11. Shree Siddhivinayak Temple: Located in Mumbai’s central area, Prabhadevi, this temple is the most revered Lord Ganesh temple not only of Maharashtra but also of India.

Photo by @yatind
Photo by @ anupamps

Longest Indian Vacation Ever

And there is more to write about India.  I left off after my slum tour of Dharavi but there were still several days remaining in my trip that definitely warranted some blog space.  Wednesday and Thursday were meant to be the “vacation” after the wedding, mainly for Dhara, but for myself and her best friend Archu as well.  We were booked in a 5-star hotel, out in the “suburbs” of Mumbai and I could not have been more excited to be leaving Kemp’s Corner. After a week of basically no sleep, I was excited about a much-needed upgrade!

It’s no surprise that when I think of the suburbs, I picture large homes, green lawns, golf courses, boats, and beaches.  From my previous blogs, I’m guessing you can tell that the suburbs of Mumbai are not like those in the US or at least F.C.C.  The suburbs are essentially an extension of the city, however as we did make it further from the city center, there was definitely less population density, and there was more greenery than anticipate; we even went through a road toll, consisting of trees as the toll dividers, and I’m sure they weren’t government officials collecting toll money (oh it makes me smile in amusement).   Sadly despite being in a less central location the trash disposal was still in lawns/fields, woods, and roads; no better than in the city.  (see field above).

Regardless of trash, we were very excited to be heading to the Imperial Palace, a 5-star hotel.  This would be the site of yet another unbelievable Indian experience.

The hotel looked amazing upon arrival, with beautiful Italian statues at the entrance, and a facade that only Hollywood would appreciate, but looks can be deceiving.  It actually looks like a palace on a hill…unfortunately it was all a facade. (AVOID AT ALL COSTS)

Oh lord, the gaudiness is almost indescribable.  This was evident as soon as we enter the lobby.  The hotel appeared amazing upon arrival, with statues, gold-leafed and tray ceilings with the Vatican”-esk” murals plastered on the ceiling, but the glitz from the hotel lobby was about the only “nice” features

While we waited for our 2nd room to be readied, we did enjoy a delicious lunch, however apparently the hotel was completely out of alcohol.  When we were given our room we were told we’d have a lake view, ha, but the view was literally a stone wall.  

The room was literally SOILED from the last guests despite arriving late mid-afternoon, so we promptly requested a new clean room with a “better view.” The beds were unmade, there was all over the ground, the carpet was wet from lord knows what. There was mold/mildew growing on the tile floor in the bathroom from all of the air condensations, the bedrooms were absolutely appalling. The pool had broken glass scattered around, both in the pool and around the pool, and all of the chairs had wholes broken through them, and when I asked for a lawn chair there said they didn’t have any…no lawn chairs by a pool.  It was only after calling the head manager were they able to find a lawn chair, that I promptly broke when sitting on it.  Oh well, my relaxing by the pool was cut short but the flies hover in all directions.

At this point, it became quite obvious the hotel absolutely sucked.  To add insult to injury (literally from almost stepping on glass), they tried to charge us an obscene amount of money for them to hire a cab to take us to dinner.  As a result, they offered us a ride to the local market, where fortunately Dhara and Archu managed to barter our way onto a public bus.  Indian public transportation…hold your breath…that was quite an experience.

But we did have an amazing dinner in town.  We went to a delicious Asian restaurant that had amazing drinks. haha

We needed this drink after being told at lunch our hotel was “out of alcohol”. Yeah, a 5-star hotel with no drink!! WTF doesn’t describe the feelings.

The ride home from town however made the evening unbelievably more entertaining.  We took a rickshaw back and we were pleasantly surprised to find that our ride home managed to make it up the long uphill slope to our hotel.  All I could think during our ride home was ” I think I can, I think I can.”  lol.

And now our hotel…it really reminded me of The Shining.  I was just glad that I didn’t see two girls at the end of the hall looking at me or I might have truly freaked out.

 Holes in the ceiling… classy 5-star abode.

The winning moment was when I saw…not a dead, but a dying cockroach in our hall.  That’s right it was twitching, definitely not dead… AWESOME! 

 I think it was between the dead cockroach and the horrible breakfast service that lead to us DEMANDING we be reimbursed and send to an actual 5-star hotel.  

A brief reenactment of our breakfast…We place our orders… I order an omelet with mushrooms and tomatoes and cheese.   40 mins later I get my order, but it might as well have been frozen.  So I ask for them to bring it back heated, which really only entails putting it in the microwave…but instead, they bring me back an omelet with onions and mushrooms.  Where I promptly asked, why are there onions??!!.  And the response was “well we ran out of cheese so we used onions instead.”  HAHA This was my breaking point.  Where I promptly DEMANDED for the manager and my friends were in the exact same position as me.

No Cheese, let’s use onions; awesome decision! Oh, man… I was so unbelievably happy that we relocated to the Orchid hotel in the city center because I can’t honestly ever imagine any hotel/human making the decision that cheese looks or tastes like onions and should ever be used as a substitution for one another.  I’m still angrily laughing about it! SERIOUSLY!  Oh boy!

It was awesome that we were scanned upon leaving as well.  HA

First Impressions: A relaxing Vacation in India? (Part2)

With the wedding festivities over I had 5 whole days ahead of me to take in the sights (and sounds of India) and one would have hoped that with the wedding behind us that relaxation was in store, but alas, I found myself constantly on the go; making the remainder of my trip one which I will never forget, with experiences that rival no other.  While I hoped to sleep in on Monday I was once again awoken by the crowing of a rooster and the sounds of cars honking.  It would have been nice to sleep in but getting the day started early had its advantages.  Dhara and I managed to get to travel around the city a bit and finally try some Indian food that wasn’t homemade.  Rightfully so, Dhara did not want me trying any outside food until after the wedding because there was no guarantee how my stomach would handle such food.

I’m happy to say that my stomach faired just well and I was able to eat some absolutely amazing food right off the bat.  Dhara and Vidhi were dying for me to try what is known as a Frankie, essentially a wrap with your choice of meat or vegetable.   I got a mutton (goat) and chicken tikka Frankie and they were absolutely amazing!  Spicy of course, but delicious.  Above and to the left is the destination where we got our Frankies (pictured below).  Oh, and did I mention we also tried Paneer, the freshest of fresh “cottage cheese” with a salt-like flavoring topping.  I use quotes around cottage cheese because it’s not the consistency American’s would associate with the cheese, it is actually just like a cheddar cheese cube (except exceptionally better tasting).

The food stop was a preemptive energizer for my first official sightseeing tour of Mumbai, the Slum tour, and a quick personal tour by Dhara to show me the largest Catholic church in Mumbai which was close to the Slum tour meeting place.  While I am not a religious person, I am one who appreciates the history surrounding such religious institutions and was interested to see a Christian facility in a Hindu (and one might also say Muslim) dominated society.
St. Michael’s was not like an old church you would see in Europe with grand stained glass windows and elaborate pews, but it was quite impressive and unique seeing a simple Cross ordaining the outside of a quite prominent building in India.

The church was large but not lavish, it was interesting seeing the eclectic people who were congregated there on a Monday early afternoon.  Dhara was explaining to me about the masses of people who attend services here and I found it truly astonishing that Christianity does have quite a prominence in India.  When one looks at the religious percentage dispersed throughout the country it would seem quite small, but for a country whose population is in the billions and whose largest city, Mumbai, contains ~27mm (most likely greater if you consider the “suburbs”), a small % is still a large number of people.  The visit broke my previous belief of Christianity being non-existent in India, and it actually demonstrated a true sense of religious acceptance that, quite honestly, I don’t think you’d find in many other places of the world.

After my visit to St. Michael’s, we made our way to the central train station where my tour group was meeting.   Although it was a short walk, 5-10 mins it was hard not to take in the poverty surrounding me, and the…dirtiness as well.

Whether one would consider India a third-world country is an objective discussion that I can’t opine on, but I have traveled and spend a good amount of time in Peru which is definitely a third-world country.  The purposes of my travels in Peru were to study and observe eco-tourism within the country, knowing the lack of infrastructure results in the inability to dispose of waste.  I will not disguise my disgust for the amount of trash plaguing the streets of Mumbai, but I was even more shocked when after eating my food from earlier and having the garbage in hand, when asked where the nearest garbage can was, I was told by both a local and a westerner that “there are no (public) trash cans in India, just throw it in the street.”  Having part of my educational degree earned through studies and practices of avoiding the continuance of ecological pollution (aka littering on the streets), I was compelled to put the trash in my purse and wait until I found I trash can regardless if this proved to be a fruitless attempt.  The garbage sat in my purse until I returned back to the hotel to dispose of it, but it is painfully disheartening to know that even though I, one non-constant, in a population of a billion constant, who tried to contribute to the reduction of street trash, will not show even the slightest blip in trying to reduce street waste because even the garbage disposed of “properly” is transported to a giant landfill on the outskirts of the largest slum in India…and Asia (in the absolute middle of the city), which is also home to the river tributary that feeds the waste into the Arabian Sea.

There is only so much one person can do which is why I implore anyone who travels to India to do so with an Eco-Friendly attitude and look to take tours/trips that will help benefit the environment in any way possible (NGO/Eco-Friendly), because just being one less person contributing to the damaging footprint being cast upon India waste management can and will make an impact regardless of size.

While garbage is a common theme in Mumbai, so is poverty.  On the short walk to the train station from the church we visited, Dhara and I were bombarded by young children approaching us asking for ANYTHING and doing anything to get our attention.  Dhara had prepared me for this, and me being white, I was prepared, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s any easier to witness.  The picture below is of young children playing in a traffic intersection (a pseudo playground one might describe it as).  If you look in the background you can see the staircase leading over the train tracks leading to slums.  The picture above is the street right next to this traffic intersection with basket makers who make the streets their home.  Nearly every street in Mumbai seems to have a large homeless population who have claimed the street sidewalks as their home.

We were meeting the tour guide at the train station and if you look at the train in the distance you can see that the trains have no doors and the trains become so packed people just hang out of the train.  This is a normal occurrence for daily commuters, and my friend was telling me that even then slightest delay in the trains will cause the volume on the trains to reached unmanageable proportions

Our Meeting Place

Her cousin referred me to an NGO group known as Reality Tours and they provided a 2-3 hr walking tour around the slums.   We were not allowed to take pictures during this tour to avoid an invasion of privacy for the locals but the company provided us with pictures they had taken previously.

The slums in India are unlike anything you could imagine.  Having been to the slum in Lima Peru, and having read about the slums in Rio De Janeiro, the slums in India were quite different.  Generally one would associate the slums with black market activity, drug cartels, and violence.  The Dhavari slums in India are quite opposite.  There is a true sense of community and there is virtually no violence or crime.  The slums actually have two distinct purposes, one being residential and one being industrial.  There is a compilation of industries within the slums that generate a recorded 500mm dollar annually (and this is most likely understated given the lack of regulations within the slums).   The work conditions are horrible and the type of work range from melting down plastics and cleaning used metal drums, to leather manufactures, pottery makers, and suitcase distributors.

It is quite ironic actually that these work environments are not environmentally friendly and have no standards for labor conditions, yet the majority of the work and goods that are being produced are all centered around “recycling.”

The picture of the boy above is actually in the residential area of the slums.  This hall may appear narrow but trust me when I say that the passways can become much more narrow, with much less light, and have wires hanging down low from the ceiling.  I know this because our tour guide really did take us through the inner areas of the slums.  We were walking through even narrower passages ways and avoiding wires and holes in the ground.  The living conditions are quite appalling, the typical “house” is basically a room, maybe 5m x 5m, and this space is their sleeping, living, and, dining quarters, with the average number of occupants per household being 5-6 people.  This is something hard to believe or even imagine coming from Fairfield County.  The houses do all have electricity though, and most actually have cable; I guess there are some luxuries people still can’t live without.  They have running water 3 hours a day and may choose to have it at night or in the morning.  All of the wires we were walking under and pipes were stepping over is what brings their supply of the modern amenities we take for granted.  It would be very easy for pipes to crack and wires to fall, as there is little to no government maintenance in the slums.  The only real government involvement in the slums is ensuring that people are paying for their electricity and water (yes they still have to pay utility bills).

Dhavari is Asia’s largest slum and in the absolute middle of Mumbai.  The poverty is unimaginable and the living conditions dirty and disgusting, yet the majority of the people living there choose to do so on their own accord.  The government has proposed on several occasions demolishing the slums and building high rises for the people living there, but when it comes to the vote, the citizens choose to remain living in the slums for reasons only they will know.

My Big Fat First Indian Wedding

I had no time to let the shock of India sink in. On Friday, after setting my stuff in the hotel, Dhara and I went straight to go get our nails done.  This definitely helped me relax after the initial shock of India.  After nails, I went to Dhara apartment for the Mehendi tradition, also known as the henna ceremony.  It’s traditional in Indian weddings for the bride to have her full arms and her feet painted in Henna.  Friends and family will generally have only their hands palms and their hands done.

The Henna starts out quite dark and is thick, and you aren’t supposed to move your hands for at least 2 hours until the henna dries/sets in, it was not easy not moving my hands for that long.  The longer you keep the henna ink intact, the darker the ink be.  This information was not told to me until the following day, until after I had washed off the Henna upon returning home.  You can see from the photos that my henna was significantly lighter than it was meant to be.

My hands should have turned out like Dhara’s below, however due to a miscommunication, opps, I washed the henna off my hands when I should have just just removed the henna by scraping my hands.  so my hands turned out much lighter then they should have been.  Did you realize that the henna actually tingles/burns when it is drying on your skin.
Opps, washed it off WAY too early!
What the Bride’s henna looked like. A much better result!

The Sangeet

The next day was filled with more wedding prepartions and lots of amazing food.  Her family made sure I enjoyed all of their home cooking, and trust me I did, but they wouldn’t believe me when I told them I was full, they just keep filling my plate (and truth be told it was so good I ate it until almost commatose).  I had some of the most amazing food I’d ever had while I was being hosted by her family. There were always two batches of food, one veg, one jain. I will give my friend tremendous credit, because she was so worried about me getting sick, all of my meals pre-wedding meals were home cooked and never once did I get sick. Although I almost got sick from over eating at one point! One take away from this trip will be for me to eat in more moderation and never over eat before you need to fit into a tight fitting dress.

Saturday night is what they call the Sangeet, which is known as the music festival.  Both the friends of the bride and the friends of the groom perform choreographed dances, something I’ve never witnessed before.  It was like a wedding reception before the wedding, definitely a good time.  Getting there on the other hand was quite an interesting experience.  Driving in Bombay is absolutely terrifying and I thought we were going to die several times during the trip to the Grapevine (where there was a roof top reception was, with delicious food and drinks of course).  

On the ride over we almost got into several car accidents, one incident in particular stands out.  While driving on the crazily congested roads, a car nearly backed into our cab.  Dhara promptly found me sitting nearly on top of her in the small cab. There were 4 others squashed into the cab and  they were quite enjoying my total fear of driving in this city.    I promptly needed a glass of wine when we got to the venue.  

I guess it’s also important to note that cars/cabs in India do not have side or rear view windows, so they use their horns to let any driver, biker or pedistrian they are coming up behind you to pass.  Need I say more.  But driving aside the night’s festivities were so much more interesting.

Vidhi was looking gorgeous as usual, and I was able to finally meet Dhara’s fiance (even though that was by nearly jumping on him and Dhara in the cab).  The event is usually just for family and close friends but fortunately being a guest from far away I was able to manage an invite.

During most of the evening I was chatting with several members of Dhara’s family, and they made sure that I tried every time of Indian food imaginable.  I must say I did enjoy the food more then I ever would have thought.  All of it was absolutely amazing, and even though it was all vegetarian you really couldn’t tell.  I really do love spicy food, but it turns out too much can be bad for your immune system but that we’ll address later. 🙂

I spent a great deal of time by myself during the night, but after the dancing I finally joined Dhara, the bride to be, her future husband and friends who did nothing but try to make me feel welcome.  Below are some pictures right before the performances began.  It was a lot of fun watching them on stage dancing to traditional indian music with your best friends, similar to how we might have dance to Britney Spears in our living rooms together..

Most of the actual pictures I have are movies.  Hopefully the movie links work  but knowing my luck with technology they won’t.  I couldn’t even believe that the guys all got up there and danced.  They all had so much fun, I wish I could have been more apart of the action.  The guys dancing was absolutely hysterical.  I have to give them props because I don’t think any American guy would ever do anything of the sort, being a groomsman. As the night wrapped up everyone left in extremely high spirits and ready for the Sunday excitment.

My First Indian Wedding

I’ve been to many weddings back in the states, but it is safe to say that Indian weddings are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  As you read in my prior posts, there are many different traditions that ensue before the actual wedding day and I was only a part of a few of them.  Weeks before the wedding there are cocktail parties and receptions to celebrate the upcoming nuptials, and having arrived just days before the wedding it was exciting to see everything culminate before the big day.  

Sunday, the day of the wedding started out as a normal day for any bride to be with everyone frantically making sure everything was ready for the departure.

Vidhi had to leave the house before 12:30 because based on Indian traditions there are “auspicious” times that need to be observed in order to ensure the success of the marriage.  From 11-12:20, everyone was running around, making it quite a frantic morning. The phrase running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off comes to mind, to be honest.  There were tears and prayers, then more tears, and with the camera crew filming the family event, my job was to try and keep Vidhi and Dhara as calm as possible with all of the madness surrounding them; not an easy task.  By the time her departure arrived, she was whisked away in a car beautifully decorated with flowers, at which time, I then was able to begin getting ready for the day’s event.

After straightening my hair and applying my make up, and once again over eating way to much delicious Punjab food, I was able to rest for a an hour or so until it was time for me to be dressed in my hot pink Sari.  It was my first time wearing a sari and it was definitely a different experience.  To be honest, I was very uncomfortable.  Sari’s are draped and tucked into places that made me feel like, at any moment, it could come loose and leave me exposed.  Fortunately, Dhara’s aunt made sure to use a large number of safety pins to give me some slight assurance that the Sari would remain intact throughout the evening.

We left for the banquet hall around 2 arriving at about 2:30 and there was drama from the minute I arrived.   The banquet hall was beautifully decorated, but all that got lost, in almost the immediate drama going one when we arrived. The drama being the makeup artist and hair stylist had still not arrived!!  She was over an hour and half late and the clock was ticking closer and closer to the start of the ceremony.  It wasn’t until 3:30 when they arrived leaving all the women of the family in a frantic rush to get Vidhi ready in time.

Before the ceremony actually begins (with the groom that is) there is a pre-ceremony that must be performed at an “auspicious” time which, shall I say was almost missed because of the late start of the make up artist.  We actually had to rush her out unfinished in order to uphold the tradition.

I’m not sure exactly what this pre-ceremony actually entails but the family all gathers around in the hall and there was some type of burning/fire ceremony that made the hall quite smoky actually.  I did make an effort to learn what the meaning of all these different ceremonies were but everyone was very preoccupied trying to get back on schedule that there wasn’t much time for anyone to explain them to me, so I found myself just going with the flow most of the afternoon.  It also didn’t help that the everything was performed in Hindi, so even if I had an idea of what was going on I wouldn’t have been able to understand a word that was said.

After this part of the ceremony the fun really began, with the arrival of the groom.  Unlike anything I’ve seen before, the groom along with all of his friends and family come down the street with a band announcing the long anticipated arrival of the groom.  There is dancing in the street and the money being waved at all of the band members to encourage them to play the music louder and louder.  Everyone from the brides side of the family then congregates at the entry of the banquet hall and wait expectantly for the groom to make his debut.

It took about 40 minutes for the parade of friends and family to make it the 200 yards to the actual entrance hall.  Part of me believes that it took so long because Jai (the groom) was trying to buy more time for Vidhi and Dhara to finish getting ready.

There were several times I was pulled into the dancing extravaganza.  I wish I had a cocktail or two to enhance my dancing, but I was so nervous about my Sari falling off that my dancing was subpar at best. 🙂

Once inside, Vidhi had to jump and struggle to place a wreath of flowers around Jai’s neck, while his friends made it nearly impossible as they kept hoisting him higher and moving him around from side to side.  It was a miracle that he didn’t fall down either.  This was when the actual ceremony began and it was the most unique ceremony I’ve ever experienced.

The ceremony starts immediately after the groom is returned to the floor.  He proceeded to the “altar” for lack of a better word while friends and family hurry in to get their seats.  Vidhi, myself, and 3 others shuffled quickly back to the brides changing room for mere moments where we prepared for the entrance of the bride.  Being a bridesmaid it was my responsibility to hold a cloth of some sort over the bride.  Unfortunately I do not know the name of this, but it is quite an important aspect of the bride’s entrance.

As the bride enters the wedding hall, a cloth is held in front of the groom so that he cannot see her. During the bride’s entry auspicious music is played (usually nada-svaram).  After cloth is dropped and the groom can see the bride the ceremony begins and I promptly became lost in everything that was going on. 

Unlike American weddings where the guests all sit and watch the ceremony, the guests at the wedding are up moving around barely even paying attention to what is going on during the ceremony.  Most people are actually battling over the food being served in the back of the hall.  

The ceremony can take hours which is why, I’m assuming, people were paying little if no attention to the bride and groom center stage.  There are 7 stages to the wedding, but apparently this wedding was only performed with 4 stages.  Below will be a link to a Hindu wedding site for those interested to learning more about the ceremony.  Given that it was all in Hindu I didn’t have a clue what was going on during the entirety of the ceremony, and my translator, Dhara was apart of the wedding, I saw her less than I saw the bride.

It was about half way through the ceremony where I found the friends of the groom, and I was so unbelieveably thankful for that. I only knew Dhara and Vidhi and they were center stage for this event as was the rest of her family, so I was basically on my own for the entirety of this wedding. I was less concerned about being the only white person amongst a sea of Indians, than I was not being able to speak to the languange. Trying to communicate proved to be much harder than. expected as I was trying to politely make conversation. It wasn’t until I stepped out for a smoke, that I found, quite literally, all of my contemportaries in the car park, music playing quietly and the boot open (trunk).

I might not have mentioned this before but I only found out this was a dry wedding once I was at the reception. If I knew where I was and wasn’t dressed in a really nice sari I probably would have roamed the streets for a package shop, but I was out of my element. Thank my lucky stars I had bought a pack prior to leaving for the wedding else I would have never have found where all of the, dare I say, “kids” were hanging out.

They were the smart ones, who had, what I refer to as the Car Bar, a fully stock car with all necessary types of beverages, outside of the wedding hall.  There was no alcohol at the reception (unbeknowst to me) so I came as quite a relief that while there was no drinking inside the wedding, but there was some outside of it. I was extremely grateful to all of them for taking me under their wing and keeping me company during such an overwhelming event.

The girls were great and made me feel right at home.  They even got me up on stage during part of the ceremony, throwing flowers at the bride and groom and they even pulled me into a dance routine that served as an introduction for the newly weds at the reception.

 The receptions started about 40 minutes after the ceremony was over and consisted of food, food and more food, and some occassional mingling.  I was the only white person at the wedding and didn’t know anyone except the members of the family and they were busy to say the least.  The reception for the family consists of receiving the guests and taking picture after picture after picture with everyone invited to the wedding.  Hopefully Dhara will be sending some of the professional pictures taken during the evening but below are some I managed to snap when I was able to briefly steal Dhara away from the family.

Sisterly love (Vidhi (L) and Dhara (R) pictured below)!  The family wasn’t able to eat and enjoy the food until around 11/midnight once the majority of the guest had left.  It was there they were able to enjoy the amazing food and share in another traditional Indian tradition by feeding one another small portions of what ever they were being served.

Vidhi and Jai’s wedding cake.

Vidhi and Jai

An example of the Bride and Groom feeding one another a taste of the treats

 It isn’t just family that feeds one another but friends make sure they are part of the action and feed both the bride and groom.  I even par-took in this tradition.

It was a long day and even a longer night.  Indian weddings are like a marathon day and I don’t know how the family managed to survive.  There were some 700+ people there and they had to say hi to all of them, and by Indian standards this is apparently SMALL!  It was definitely an experience I will never forget, and when/if I ever get married I will be relieved knowing that there won’t be half as many people and the ceremony will be much less complex and intricate.

The Newlyweds sharing a traditional indian snack during their wedding dinner.
The cake smash doesn’t always happen between bride and groom! Jai’s friend playfully fed, then smashed the cake in face during part of the long await reception dinner.

Below are some links with more information about the traditional customs that occur during a Hindu wedding ceremony.

First Impressions Can Be Hard to Forget: Mumbai, India (Part 1)

Moving to India was hard pill for me to swallow for many reasons; but the primary reason was because of my first trip there.  After moving to Singapore, most people were shocked to learn that my first major trip outside of Singapore was to Mumbai, India for 10 days, to meet up with a friend from the states, whose sister was getting married.  When I first decided to travel to India to meet my friend Dhara for her sister’s wedding, I had no idea what to expect and what I was in for.  India is like no other country I’ve been to, and I would say that I have been lucky enough to travel to quite a few places.  

I stayed at the Kemps Corner hotel, a hop skip and jump away from Dhara’s apartment.  The hotel was booked (not by me) for convenience of location, definitely not for comfort.  Each morning I was woken by a rooster and the drone of cars incessantly honking.  To call it a relaxing vacation would be far from the truth.  I was on the go from the moment I touched down in India, and could tell right away that India was going an experience unlike any other.

Toot Toot, Beep Beep. Honk Honk….All Night!

We quickly checked into the hotel, small room, but it was perfect for what it was needed for, although the bed was frightfully uncomfortable.  It was like sleeping on a piece of wood with a slight pillow-top covering it.  I did not sleep well most nights due to the traffic noises and the uncomfortable bed, but fortunately, I wasn’t in the hotel room that long during the days.  Below is the rooftop patio where our complimentary breakfast was served (pictured below).  It doesn’t look like much but the breakfast was simple and quite good, and the view actually very nice.  It felt like the only place within the city where you could actually see greenery.

Kemp’s Corner Roof Top Terrace

But don’t be fooled by the greenery, the honking still persisted right below the canopy, ruining any type of possible tranquility.  At the end of my trip, I did check to see how many stars the hotel was rated and I was surprised to learn it was a three-star hotel.  If there was one thing this trip taught me, it was that if I were ever in India again, I would never be booking a 3-star hotel in India again.   

I found India to be quite polluted.  From the moment I stepped off the plane, there was a haze of smog that covered the city.  To get into the city from the airport, into the “suburbs”, you crossed what is called the ceiling of India over the Arabian Sea.  The architecture of the bridge would have been beautiful and so would the cityscape, if you could only see it through all of the smog. You could barely see the Sea beyond the bridge let alone any of the features of the bridge.  To be frank, it was not the best first impression of India. But more to come about the actual country later, the first part of my trip was pure wedding mayhem and necessary for its own post

Photo by
Dhobi Ghat