I Finally Saw The Taj Mahal!

We were finally in Agra…the city where the Taj Mahal is located and the ultimate reason for my trip to India! The morning started off incredibly foggy so our tour guide decided we would go to the Agra Fort first and hope that the fog would clear in the afternoon.

There are monkeys all over the fort and they are not shy. I swear this monkey family sat and posed for all of the tourists hoping for a little treat. They got nothing from me except a smile and a clap and a thank you for allowing me to take their family portrait. You’re welcome monkeys!

Okay, so I will admit that I fed this guy in order to get him to pose for the picture. The first two were not very cooperative and climbed all over my body instead of eating nicely out of my hand. They are just so cute that I cannot handle it and I had to hold one!

I promise the pictures of the fort are coming but I love capturing the animals and the people I meet. The tours have quite a few people on them and as human nature would have it, there are only a few I got to know. One was Scott (pictured above) and his uncles. They turned out to be fantastic people and I spent quite a bit of time with them!

Inside the fort was full of beautiful marble. As in more marble than I think I have ever seen outside of the statue section of the Louvre! You can see the amazing marble archway that connects one room to another (and also my travel companions).
Kalindra and I had fun taking pictures in archways all over the place and this was like a changing of the guards or maharanis as I was joking. We each got our turn in the archway and graciously passed the torch to one another.

The Agra Fort is a vast fort which was the home of the Mughal Emperors and their many courtiers during Agra’s era as capital. Enjoying an important position on a bend of the Yamuna River, Emperor Akbar the Great initiated construction, building a vast sandstone fort. However, it was his grandson Shah Jahan, the creator of the Taj Mahal, who added to it and embellished it using the finest marble, intricate carvings and inlaid precious stones. This architectural largesse was not entirely appreciated by his son, Aurangzabad, who thought Shah Jahan was wasting the Empire’s fortune, thus deposing his father and keeping him under house arrest in a tower within the fort – his one consolation, a view of the Taj Mahal, home to his beloved late wife.

It was time for the ultimate of ulitmates…the Taj Mahal. This has been on my list of must see places for a while for reasons I was unclear about but felt the need to see it. This is considered one of the new seven wonders of the world and is now number 5 of 7 for me that I have seen! I still need Mexico and Jordan to complete the list to see Petra and Chichen Itza.

I will just let the pictures speak for themselves!

22,000 men and more than 1,000 elephants spent 22 years constructing this monument. It is the only monument that has two people buried in it because Mughal ruler Shah Jahan wanted to be buried with his wife after he died. This is an eternal symbol of love and inspiration with intricate mosaics, precious designs and perfect architectural symmetry as if they were poetry created by hand from prized marble. No pictures are allowed inside the mausoleum.

The Taj Mahal seems to float above the banks of the Yamuna River, and blends Persian, Indian and Islamic elements in perfect symmetry.

This was such a magical day and I was incredibly happy. We had quite a bit of free time to walk around and explore and at one point I just sat and stared at the magical building!

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A Drive From Delhi to Agra

Jetlag is no joke! I woke up bright and early with energy to go to the gym and rocked a workout (I am not a morning person) before a 4-5 hour bus ride to Agra. The thing about these tours that I find pretty great is that you get to see so much in such a short amount of time which is truly an advantage of having the transportation and route already set for you.

First stop was to Humayun’s Tomb. It seems that most of the stops on this tour are tombs since the elaborate architecture is what I find so fascinating and apparently many other people.

An elaborate complex of tombs from the 16th century, set within beautiful gardens as the final resting place for Humayun, the second Mughal Emperor, and his family. Humayun’s garden tomb — India’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site — influenced the designers of the much more famous Taj Mahal.

The little blue things that you see around our necks are our listening devices. Basically, the tour guide could be almost anywhere on the site and speak about the history and we could roam around freely and take pictures and still listen. It may have looked a bit silly but it made the tour much more enjoyable.

I fell in love with these squirrels which at first I thought were chipmunks. You will see more of these coming as the trip continues.

As usual, it was back on the bus and on our way to another destination. Next up was a stop to visit Itmad-ud-Daulah, also known as the Baby Taj. Emperor Jahangir’s queen, Nurjahan, built this exquisite marble tomb in memory of her father, Mirza Ghias Beg from 1622-1628 A.D. The tomb’s elaborate carved white marble with inlaid semi-precious stones reflects major influences from the Persian Empire. Both historians and Agra locals believe this marvelously intricate stone inlay, called Pietra-Dura, also inspired the design of the famous Taj Mahal.

These kids were at the site and would call you over to take a picture and after you take the picture they would ask for money. Our tour guide said that we should not promote a society of begging and try not to hand out the money or offer it for things. To be fair, because of the financial crisis, I didn’t have money anyway!


The entire day, even with all the driving, was incredibly magical. It ended with our arrival to the Courtyard Marriott in Agra where there was a woman selling bangles and offering to do some Henna for about $2! I ended up getting this hand done and the next night my hand and a foot. There is a tradition to have this done the day before a wedding ceremony. My friend’s sister was getting married in Mumbai and so I felt like my henna was justified as more as just something that I find completely awesome.

We went to the bar in the hotel and the bartender had FANTASTIC english although he spoke so fast that sometimes it was hard to understand what he was saying. I learned about Old Monk rum and McDowells rum as well as the most crazy game called kabaddi. Think Red Rover meets Rugby meets capture the flag. I would suggest that you You Tube some of the matches and check out this sport. There is a 13.5 hour time difference from California to India and the jetlag was catching up and it was the perfect way to end the day!

A Quick Trip to India starting in New Delhi

I am not usually the type to go on tours since I like to take my time places and experience things on my own. But when a 12 day tour to India comes up for about $1000, you take the trip!

I have traveled with Worldspree before when I went to China and had an idea of what I was getting into, or so I thought. We received our flights about a week prior to departure and saw that we left on December 4th and arrived into India December 6th…you read that right, two days of traveling. We started our adventure Air China and we were off!!!! LAX-PEK (12hr 50min) and PEK-DEL (7hr 30min).

After landing and clearing customs and waiting for luggage for about 2 hours for 34 people, we made it to the Westin Gurgaon for a nap and breakfast and ready to start what was already day 3!

The day started with a drive taking us from one end of Delhi to the other. I cannot even begin to describe how many cars, scooters, cows, rikshaws and other things were on the road. What should have been a 5-6 lane freeway looked like it was 15-20 lanes.


All the trucks have writing on the back of them which in one way or another say honk, or merge or something indicating how you should use your horn. I am not sure what anything else says. The horn is a way of communicating move or I’m coming around the corner or get out of the way and used A LOT on the streets. To read a little more about Indian driving laws click here.

The first stop for us was at the Gandhi Smriti which is the site where Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life and where he took his last steps and final breath. To be honest, I did not really know the entire story of Gandhi including his assassination. There is a type of serenity and peacefulness about this place that is very hard to explain. The energy is quiet and you can feel the warmth that was left by Gandhi.

As we were walking around the complex there was this beautiful World Peace Gong. It seemed like no one else was around and we had this complex to ourselves. Once again, absolute peacefulness.

Next up, we went to a mosque called Jama Masjid. Anyone is allowed into the Mosque and you must remove your shoes and if you are not covered enough, they provided gowns. Cameras were not allowed inside unless you paid a fee which I totally respected. This was the first day we were in India and the ATM at the airport was out of money due to the financial crisis and we were not prepared for how difficult it would be to get money…anywhere!

Next stop, a rikshaw ride through the old city. Only two people can go in together (two of us Americans that is) and since I was traveling with her friend and her mom, I partnered up with someone else in the group who ended up having a great new friend.

I wanted to stop at nearly every store that we drove by full of saris and jewelry and wedding dresses and just beautiful things. However, we were just there for a ride to get an experience of how a lot of the locals, including school children, travel around the city.

I was hoping to capture the craziness of the ride but I didn’t seem to film long enough. However, this is an idea of how bumpy the ride was and the entire time I was hoping to just not drop my phone.

 


As we were driving we passed many markets and with all of the traffic we were stuck in, I was able to capture a little snapshot of what life is like for the daily shopping.


The very last stop after an entirely too long of a day, was a stop at India Gate. By this point, we were totally exhausted and I don’t think we fully appreciated this area. This is a war memorial to 82,000 soldiers and is now a “gate” into New Delhi. Many people come here to pay their respect and visit this place.

What you see in these pictures is a combination of smog and fog. New Delhi has a SERIOUS air pollution problem. I was happy to only be here for a day in regards to air quality.

Overall, my first ACTUAL day in India was absolutely fantastic and a great way to get into seeing a little bit of what this country was about.

Port Tasting in Porto

Growing up in the wine country I have learned a lot about a lot of different wine but never have I learned about port. I decided to sign up for a proper port tour and see what it was all about!

The first stop was to a place called Ramos Pinto. It started with a museum tour and was followed by a tour of the caves and of course the actual port tasting.

Much like champagne has to be from the champagne region, port must be from the Douro valley or it is not considered port. The bottle also must say Made in Portugal or it is not a port. So, next time you are buying a port in the store, check for these two things and you will know you are receiving an authentic port and not just a dessert wine.

There are over 120 varietals of grapes grown in this region which gives port many options for amazing flavors! When the fermentation process starts, port is just wine. The difference is that on day 2 or 3, brandy is added to the wine and this stops the fermentation process and fortifies the wine to create a 19-22% proof port.

There are three main categories of port: Tawny, white and ruby. All ports are aged in barrels are aged in oak but some can be aged in stainless steel for a different flavor.

Tawny is aged in 228 liter barrels for 4-30 years. You are able to buy these in ages of 10, 20, 30 and 40. This means the average age of the grape in the bottle is whatever age is stated on the bottle.

White and ruby ports are aged in huge 30,000 liter barrels for 3-7 years. If they are aged in stainless steel they are only aged for 9 months.

We were able to taste a tawny and white that were both aged an average of 7 years meaning the tawny was very young and the white was very mature. They were DELICIOUS!

The second stop was to Quevedo for another cave tour and some more tasting. Another delicious tawny was tried here.

Portugal produces 50% of the cork in the world. Obviously cork is used for wine corks but it is also used for making purses, wallets, hats, shoes and even used by NASA! Cork is water proof and an incredibly durable material. I decided to spoil myself and buy a cork purse as a reminder of Porto and Portugal.

The last place we went to was called Porto Cruz. Here we tried a white, rosé , tawny and vintage port! A vintage port means only grapes from that year were used and the port is aged inside the bottle. By the time I tried that one I was feeling pretty good!

All of the port tasting was actually across the river from Porto in a town called Gaia. I decided to give a little cheers to Porto as the sun was setting.

My partner in crime in all of this was still my friend from Lisbon. We had a mini photoshoot with our sunnies and enjoyed the rest of the day!

A very long day tour of Salta

I love exploring places on my own and I try to avoid group tours. But the area surrounding Salta is huge and has a ton to see and renting a car was just not something I wanted to do. I booked a day tour through a company called Argentina4u. The description of the tour does a better job of describing what we saw than I would. The full day Salinas Grandes tour begins in Salta heading towards the pre-Inca site of the Tastil Ruins and then on to the small town of San Antonio de los Cobres, an incredibly beautiful high altitude Andean village, introducing you to the charming characteristics of the North of Argentina. You will continue on this full day Salinas Grandes tour along the scenic Route 40, crossing one of the driest areas in the whole of Argentina, eventually arriving in the Province of Jujuy and close to your Jujuy tour destination of Salinas Grandes. The Salinas Grandes tour then continues by travelling down the Lipán Cliff to Purmamarca, one of the typical towns of the Humahuaca Canyon (Quebrada de Humahuaca) with its unique Seven Colours Hill and beautifully quaint houses. The main reason for the tour was to see the salt flats at Salinas Grandes. The salt is huge rock salt and covers water and then land. It was a pretty cool place!

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IMG_3440 Mom decided to take some time to enjoy the view and play on the train tracks and of course we had to take a family selfie and capture the gorgeous mountains.
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The tour was about 13  hours because we covered over 500 kilometers of crazy terrain. At one point we were on a “road” that was just dirt and rock. Honestly, I have no idea how the van made it or how my parents put up with it. This is a tour meant for a traveler on a budget and not those on a nice vacation. There are options to hire private drivers that make for a smoother and more informative tour.

A Roman holiday

When in Rome do as the Romans do. This means go to dinner at 10:00pm and go to sleep around 2:00am. This part of my trip is also a bit different as I am volunteering at a hostel in exchange for breakfast, lunch, dinner, room and laundry for 6 weeks.

I have taken the last few days to get acclimated to “working’ and today I finally went out and explored for a bit. The sites did not disappoint.

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The best part was some gelato from the #3 ranked place on Trip Advisor. I will absolutely be exploring a ton on my days off and really getting to know Rome and digging into all the history. Who knows? Maybe I will even learn some Italian!