I DREAMT ABOUT INDIA. And the next day I woke up there — amidst the saffrons, the maharajas, and the sacred cows. At first, it was but an elusive dream. Possibly on top of this year’s personal bucket list. And yet I mustered the courage to embark on a solo journey to a destination no one dared to go with me.
They were scared, as I was scared, only because it is a destination unknown. But the only difference between us is the intensity of valour we carried. As I flew to my destination, I took a pill to Delhi filled with a dosage of curiosity and a dash of openness in search of meaning — and of course, a great holiday.
DAY 1 (September 08, 2016), Delhi — I woke up from my red-eye Singapore Airlines flight in languid Delhi, a morning setting I wasn’t really expecting. After all, Delhi in my mind was supposed to be hustling and bustling anytime of the day. As the sun was rising at around 6:30 a.m., my private shuttle picked me up from the airport to drive me to my hotel while passing by the barely awakened city.
“Welcome to India,” exclaimed Monu Pandey, my warm and affable travel concierge who I later fondly called by his nickname, Rajat. “Here’s your mobile internet dongle,” he added. It seems like my concierge was sensitive enough to pick up the basic needs of his Instagram-hogging millennial guest.
I immediately messaged my family and friends that I’ve reached India — which was reciprocated by an onslaught of questions and some prudent advice: so how does India look like? Is it really safe there? Don’t drink tap water! Be careful with your belongings!
Upon arriving at the Maidens Hotel (7, Sham Nath Marg, Civil Lines, New Delhi), Rajat requested for my early check-in from the front desk to give me sufficient time to freshen up and to feed my then grumbling tummy with a hearty Indian breakfast. (Always a personal joy to take shower after a flight!)
*Checking-in story on Maidens Hotel – to be published separately soon.*
After an hour of freshening up, I was picked up from the hotel by Rajat, Mr. Singh (our driver), and the other Mr. Singh (my local tour guide for the day). While Rajat acted as my personal concierge who took care of my daily itinerary and individual requests, “Mr. Singh – the tour guide,” became more of my local insider who knew the ins and outs of the town.
We then headed to Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest Muslim mosques in Old Delhi. This was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the same person who was responsible for the construction of the world-famous Taj Mahal.
“Built in 1640s, the Jama Masjid is made from red sandstone and white marble…” Mr. Singh continued his engaging monologues. I was eagerly making mental notes on these gazillion historical facts, as if there was an exam afterwards.
While walking around the mosque in the hot afternoon sun, I was approached by a teenager, and later, by two of his girl friends to have selfies taken with me. I later knew that they fancy taking selfies with random tourists to brag the photos to their other friends.
Around a kilometer away from the mosque, we traveled by foot to scurry the busy and grungy streets of Chandni Chowk. Despite being almost hit by rickshaws and men carrying sacks of spices, everything was a euphoric experience nonetheless. I haven’t felt more alive than this — I am at the heart of pulsating Delhi!
As if I wasn’t courageous enough, I took a bite on a paan that was offered and prepared by a barefooted hawker vendor sitting in little corner of the street. On a betel leaf, he smeared a generous amount of brown paste and drizzled some nuts inside before wrapping the leaf and passing his little creation to me. Unabashedly, I chewed it like it was some sort of candy, only to find out that I’ve actually tasted a similar concoction before. Closer to home, the betel mixture the vendor offered me is almost the same leafy nganga in the Philippines that my grandmother chews in addiction everyday when she was still alive. Didn’t know it had Indian origins!
From the rows of shops selling lord Ganesha and other religious figurines, to a striking array of bridal accessories, festival costumes, home decors, golds & silvers sold everywhere, Chandi Chowk was undeniably a maze of elaborate markets tangled in the daily lives and culture of the residents in Delhi.
Delighting my sense of smell was the nearby spice market of Khari Baoli — I was sneezing from the strong, beguiling scents of cinnamon, onions, chili peppers, and jasmine flowers. We then climbed one of the old buildings only to discover the charm of Old Delhi’s city view up on the rooftop:
After a stretch of long walks, we then decided to take a short pit stop at the TIME Magazine-acclaimed Karim’s (Kalan Mehal, Chandni Chowk) for a plateful of mouthwatering roti, tandooris, and kebabs. This humble Mughal-inspired, non-vegetarian eatery hidden in the middle of the foodie streets of Chandni Chowk wasn’t a letdown at all (est. SG$10 for 2 pax).
“Eat with your hands — this is how we do it here,” Mr. Singh encouraged with a smile. As they say: if you are in Rome, do what the Romans do, and so I ate with my bare hands and it turned out to be a (handful and) tasty meal.
Later in the afternoon, we visited one of the Sikh’s house of worship, the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. Sikhism is the fourth largest religion in India with many of its followers located in the region of Punjab. Following their beliefs and principles, they grow their hairs very long and wear turbans as a profession of their love to god.
Unknown to many, the Sikhs hold 24/7 free kitchens in their centers for people of all castes, races, and religions. Thousands of people flock their free kitchens everyday — especially the poor and the homeless — where they get served freshly baked rotis and bowls of lentil soups. I was amazed by their deep generosity and selfless philosophy. Served in clean plates and in large portions, the rationed food looked really pleasantly good.
We toured the center’s back kitchen area where dozens of volunteers happily prepare the daily dishes:
Our last stop for the day was the Raisana Hill, the seat of government in India where you’ll see the Rashtraprati Bhavan, the official residence of India’s President, and the Secretariat Building which houses the Prime Minister. Clean, wide and nicely paved roads welcome you to this part of New Delhi which is a true testament of the rich modernization happening in the country.
For an obsessive-compulsive traveler like me, detailed itineraries and maps are my bible whenever I visit a new destination. It’s almost second-nature to me to plan ahead for my trips — by creating a dozen pages of daily schedules; developing comprehensive street maps and public transport points; and drafting a list of must-see, must-do, must-eat, and a myriad of other must-tries.
But why did I dare take a solo adventure — without itineraries and not having properly research about the place at all — to a distant, foreign country such as India?
For some people, they call it “bravery.” Yes, I traveled solo. But technically, I also didn’t. I was actually traveling with a concierge. The concept may sound foreign to some travelers my age, especially for people who are used to backpacking and traveling free-and-easy. Being escorted by a professional local travel companion makes all the difference.
I wandered in India with Ravishing India Holidays, a luxury tour operator headquartered in Singapore which specializes in travel concierge services in this rich, beautiful South Asian region. With a personal concierge who will help craft your itinerary even before you arrive and who will customize it depending on your mood and requirements while you are on journey, everything became easier and more fun than I expected it to be.
Check out the Travel Video Diary of my trip to India: “A Letter from Agra” (What Does it Mean to Travel Solo?):