The timeless Taj Mahal is every bit as beautiful as enthusiasts suggest. | PHOTO BY JENNIFER OLVERA FOR THE SUN-TIMES
IF YOU GO
Travel with Greaves India (800-318-7801; www.greavesindia.com), an expert in the region. Its U.S. office is in Highland Park, and it has a private jet in India that may be booked for domestic travel. Oberoi Hotels & Resorts are known for their painstaking attention to detail, gracious service and destination-worthy accommodations. The Oberoi, New Delhi, is in the city center. At the Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra, every room faces the Taj Mahal. The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur, is tucked into the Rajasthan countryside, with 32 verdant fountain-frocked acres. In Udaipur, the Oberoi Udaivilas overlooks Lake Pichola; a semi-private pool runs its perimeter. Meanwhile, the Oberoi, Mumbai, offers rooms overlooking the Arabian Sea. The land-only price is $4,476, based on double occupancy. Too rich for your blood? The company offers shorter, less spendy itineraries, too, like a four-day jaunt in Mumbai, beginning at $1,257.
Book a flight on Etihad Airways directly from Chicago to New Delhi, with a connection in Abu Dhabi. Return with a flight from Mumbai to Chicago with a connection in Abu Dhabi. While traveling in India, expect a mix of domestic flights and transport on less-than-ideal roads.
Updated: December 19, 2012 10:25AM
I sat in a mass of traffic, as the blare of horns closed in. Meanwhile, six family members sat sidesaddle on a motorcycle seat; they zoomed between rickshaws on the exhaust-filled bylanes of Chandni Chowk. As men transported huge sacks atop their heads, my eyes bounced from one electric-hued sari to the next. Above, a tangle of electrical wires hung from crumbling buildings. This was an intense introduction to the Indian subcontinent, and I was enthralled.
As my own rickshaw vied for position in the labyrinthine, ramshackle shop-filled corridors of Old Delhi, I settled into the chaos. I reveled in it, really. India has long topped my bucket list for good reason: it’s incomparable, a world away from anything I experienced before.
Although an intrepid traveler could navigate the dynamic, diverse landscape without a guide, it would be a challenge. That’s why I embarked on an organized — and far less intimidating — journey, staying at Oberoi properties along the way. When time allowed, I explored heady spice and food markets and eyed roadside stands, where daily life marched on.
During a span of nine in-country days, I experienced polar-opposite New and Old Delhi, the former marked by wide, British colonial boulevards, the latter a clatter of traffic and human bustle. In Agra, I saw the romantic Taj Mahal bathed in sunset’s glow.
Continuing to the pink-painted city of Jaipur, I ascended the Amber Fort by elephant. Cruising Lake Pichola, I absorbed the beauty of Udaipur by boat. I also witnessed the duality of Mumbai, still Bombay to those who inhabit its congested streets. From there, plied the Arabian Sea to Elephanta Island, the “place of caves.”
Often, I’ll admit it was hard to sleep at night. Chaotic and raucous, India is a whirl of activity. It’s sensory overload to the extreme.
A food lover at heart, I wanted to experience the country’s edible riches. On arrival, though, I was strongly warned against eating unpeeled vegetables and fruits and partaking in meals from vendors unknown.
You need to be brave to eat street food in India. There’s risk involved, what with the questionable cleanliness and rampant flies.
If you’re willing to tempt fate, there are endless procurements. Stacked cucumber planks await a shower of peppery seasoned salt. Chaiwallas and sugarcane juice peddlers are in plenty, the latter lacing liquid with lemon, ginger and mint. Mind you, pulpy sweet lime juice is hard to deny. Mild and non-acidic, it delivers refreshing, citrusy relief from hazy heat.
Nowhere is the street-side snack (“chaat”) culture more evident than in Mumbai. Look no further than the chaatwalas at Chowpatty Beach for proof. There and citywide, watch for stalls dispensing iconic vada pav, chile and coriander-laced potato balls dipped in gram-flour, fried and stuffed into plush buns.
Popular, too, are pani puri, hallow puri discs that are stuffed with potatoes, sprouts and tear-inducing, chile-flecked tamarind water. But do proceed with caution. Not only is there a penchant for gurgling after-effects, this snack is rarely made with purified water. In short, vegetarian, fresh-out-of-the-fryer foods are your best bet.
If you’re skittish about stomachaches, don’t lose hope. Restaurants — including those within the Oberoi chain — prep fabled, finger-friendly foods, from samosas to masala dosa, in perfectly safe fashion. Additionally, local-populated — but tourist-friendly — outposts dispense hygienic snacks. Keep your eyes peeled for Kailash Parbat (www.kailashparbatandheri.com) and Swati Snacks (www.swatisnacks.com) in Mumbai.
Needless to say, my journey went beyond snacks. The comprehensive itinerary took me to the breathtaking Taj Mahal at sunset and to haunting Fatehpur Sikri. In Jaipiur, I made naan during a cooking demonstration at Raj Mahal restaurant.
At jaw-droppingly beautiful the Oberoi Udaivilas, I cruised Lake Pichola, booked a massage in the stunning spa and paused for a float in the semi-private pool that encircled the palatial property. I also explored Mumbai on foot during a heritage walking tour, with a stop at the historic, catchall Crawford Market.
From there, I saw the dabbawallas of Mumbai in action. The city’s hot food delivery system takes an army, and it’s a boon for office workers. They deliver hundreds of thousands of stacked metal tiffin boxes, filled with hot, home-cooked dishes. It’s an efficient, accurate process and quite the sight to behold.
I was bleary-eyed by the time I boarded my flight home. India assaulted my senses at every turn. It challenged me and left me thinking. It also made me long for more. After all, I have yet to visit India’s famous tiger reserves.
Jennifer Olvera is a local free-lance writer.