Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Travel to India - The Ultimate Elegant Journey . . .Oh my! The Oberoi Hotels

Jani, Kathryn, Paty & Katie at the Taj Mahal
As an voracious traveler, arm chair and otherwise, I have many beautiful memories of extraordinary trips – a romantic sunset camel ride in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan; a dreamy interlude in an idyllic inn in the small village of Sirince near Ephesus, Turkey; flying falcons and eagles in the desert of Ras Al Khaimah, UAE; a harrowing transatlantic crossing from Lisbon, Portugal to Miami, USA; and superbly simple Corvette road trips exploring Florida’s back roads.

But I have to say that now I have one that tops all of these. India!

This was not just any trip to India – this was the ultimate Elegant Journey (EJ).

My sister Paty Barr’s impending trip to visit Dubai gave rise to a plan to take advantage of her long journey from the USA and add a second destination.  We take no time at all to decide on exotic India. 

The mysterious history of Sultans, Maharajahs with their harems; the mystical aura of exotic temples and palaces; visions of us wrapped in stunningly beautiful, saris; elephants, tigers – oh my! And besides, both Paty and I missed the 1960’s “rite of passage” to backpack across India. 

Paty and I are joined on this 11-day odyssey by Realtor Kathryn Brandt from Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA and Blogger/Photographer Jani Diedam from Dubai and Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. Together we will travel through the Golden Route of India visiting Delhi, Udaipur, Jaipur, Ranthambore and Agra.

Chandi Chowk Bazaar, Delhi
On our adventure we are greeted by saluting elephants and showered with rose petals . . . survive a death defying rickshaw ride through Dehli’s Chandi Chowk bazaar . . .  pray at an Easter dawn service with the congregation of a small village church . . . hunt for tigers (photography only) . . . rest in the Maharana s private palace courtyard . . . learn an appreciation of the ancient art of Indian miniature painting . . . marvel at the beauty of India’s rural countryside . . . luxuriate our weary selves at the incomparable
Jani, Kathryn & Paty at Yoga Class
Oberoi Hotels complete with complimentary yoga at 7am every morning . . . be rendered speechless at the majesty of the Taj Mahal and shop . . . shop . . . shop.

We are treated like royalty. It is total paradise!

All of this was possible thanks to the flawless . . . and I mean flawless, preparations made by Vivek at Elegant Journeys.

First decision we make is which mode of travel to use . . . backpacking, is still a “rite of passage,” but we feel we are already “well pass” that stage. Local trains could be interesting and different.

“Madam, four unescorted American women traveling on a train through India is not a wise choice,” was the demur suggestion from Vivek.

There is the ever present tour package of 11 cities in 8 days traveling in a large bus with 50 of your newest and best friends. We hear too many disaster stories about these.

Elegant trains with beautiful accommodations. This looks interesting until we realize we would travel all night only to disembark with the other 300 train passengers to visit the same tourist site. Not what we are looking for. 

Zabardast! (Hindi for Eureka!) We have it!

Katie, our driver Manoj, Jani, Kathryn & Paty
Tour operator Elegant Journeys' suggestion that we travel across India in a private car with our own driver set just the right tone.

We never guessed what a brilliant decision this was going to be.  

Arriving in Dehli airport we are met by an army of service people from the Oberoi Hotel and Elegant Journeys that quickly escort us through customs, collect the overabundance of luggage some of us brought (not naming names here) and whisk us to our hotel in two private cars.

This is our first taste of the royal treatment that becomes the signature of our trip.

Observations of India . . . 

TRAFFIC! Crazy drivers! We are all going to die!  Whose suicidal idea was a road trip?

It took a few days to realize that no, Indian drivers are not the worse in the world, they are the best. It is true that no one follows the traffic lanes painted on the road, “they are just a suggestion,” which causes absolute mayhem on the roads, at intersections and toll booths.

“Now I understand the madness of Indian cab drivers in Dubai,” Jani astutely observes.  “They learned how to drive in India!”

There is the constant ear shattering horn blowing, which as Westerners, originally terrified us until we figured out that this is a politeness not an affront as attested by the many trucks with “Horn Please” painted on their rear bumpers.

Harry our EK guide in Delhi informs us, “To drive successfully in India you need three things: 1) a good horn 2) good brakes and 3) good luck.” We add number 4) a good driver. Our driver Manoj laughingly agrees!

We came to appreciate the benevolence of Indian drivers who never get mad at one another no matter how many times someone cuts in front of them and who gleefully come to the aid of other drivers with breakdowns or mishaps. Everyone jumps out of their trucks to help. This also means they have left their trucks blocking the roadway but heck, how can you complain when they are coming to the aid of a countryman in need. Coming from American where “Road Rage” is considered a contact sport, this was just an extraordinary cultural happening for us to witness.

Thanks to the expertise of Manoj, we not only survived but come to relish Indian drivers’ comical dance of bobbing and weaving in and out of traffic.
Second observation . . . the Oberoi Hotels are 8 star hotels!

View from our private pool at The Oberoi Usaivilas, Udiapur
The astonishing highlight of our tour is the Oberoi hotels. Never having heard of them before, I was astounded by their majesty and superior service.

I can’t tell you how many times one of us said, “I wish I had . . . “only to have the doorbell ring and the wish was granted!
Talk about customer service!

The Oberoi Hotels and Resorts are a chain started in 1934 by Rai Bahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi. Rising from a lowly billing clerk, Oberoi established a dynasty of impeccable hotels that today span India, Indonesia, Mauritius, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  In 2011, Travel and LeisureReaders’ Poll ranked The Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur as the leading hotel in Asia and #5 best in the world. The Oberoi in Jaipur is ranked #8 best hotel in the world.

The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur
If you ever have the opportunity, absolutely do not miss staying in one of these hotels. The properties, the grounds, the staff and food are absolutely 8 star!

Our only regret on the trip is that we did not allow an extra day in Udaipur, Jaipur, Rathamborne and Agra to enjoy the extraordinary pleasures of these properties.

The Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambore
In Udaipur the hotel is fashioned after the Maharana’s majestic palace with courtyards, fountains, reflection pools and gardens meandering throughout the property to create an ambiance “of regal splendor.”

In Jaipur and Ranthambore our accommodations are elegant tents with embroidered interior canopies, teak floors, private patios and spacious bathrooms. There is no roughing it here.

The Jaipur Oberoi is designed to create a regal setting in a fort palace while the Rathambore
Oberoi is nestled next to the Tiger Reserve amidst the natural raw beauty of the area.  The Agra hotel is so precisely positioned that the Taj Mahal sits directly in front of your balcony.

And did I mention?  Each comes with your own Butler. Someone please pinch me!

India has a wide variety of transportation modes and some are so stylish!

Vying for preeminence on the roadways are brightly decorated lorries (trucks) jockeying with vintage trucks, over burdened hand carts, and people sporting “head bundles.”

Carts are pulled by tractors or a zoo full of animals. Elephants, camels, water buffalo, bulls, cows, horses, donkeys, even dogs  - all being directed by their handler to pull, carry or push bundles of goods to their destination.

And, then there are the vehicles used to move people!

Scooters, most with at least 3 people on them, weave their way through traffic in what can only be described as a death wish;  bicycles bob and weave propelling rapidly pedaling passengers safely out of harm’s way; buses have people stuffed in every available opening, perched precariously on the roofs, on the rear fenders and out the windows; and overloaded auto-rickshaws bring a bright green and yellow flutter to the mayhem as they artfully maneuver their passengers through the narrowest openings between vehicles;

“I have seen an auto-rickshaw so crowded that one person pushed the gas, while another worked the brake pedal and yet another steered,” noted our Delhi guide Harry. You can’t truly appreciate the possibility of this happening until you have seen an overloaded auto-rickshaw up close and personal!

Buildings range from exquisite artful palaces to meager cow dung huts.

Humayun Tomb, Delhi
Red sandstone and white marble, local resources, are used to create the exquisite Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi built by Emperor Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame; the Jama Majid in Delhi, India’s largest mosque; the Amber Fort in Jaipur with its beautiful Ganesh Pol, a gateway inside the fort leading to the emperor’s private quarters.

Cow dung roof
Modest building made of red sandstone bricks are seen everywhere. Along the back roads we travel we see straw structures – not certain if they are for human habitation.

The most unusual building material is cow dung. We see cow dung patties everywhere in the small villages drying in the sun and also as finished buildings. Unfortunately, we are never able to see one of these up close and personal. Leaves a lot to the imagination, wouldn't you say?

The Lake Palace, Udiapur 
We all revel in the ancient beauty and craftsmanship of the elegant palaces we visit – in Udaipur the JagmandirIsland Palace sitting regally in the middle of Lake Pichola and the Maharana's City Palace with its beautiful mosaics tile work and the in Jaipur the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh City Palace with its blend of Rajput and Mughal architecture; and of course, in Agra, the incomparable Taj Mahal. After visiting all this opulence we all still wholeheartedly agree the Oberoi Hotels are every bit a luxurious and royal.

Animals roaming streets strewed with garbage.

Freely roaming animals block traffic and eat garbage in the streets. Sanitation is not be high on the government’s list.

We ask our tour guides, why the government doesn’t provide basic sanitation services like garbage removal and why aren’t the people doing more about it themselves. The answer was always the same, “In India, the responsibility of the individual is inside the house; the outside is the government’s responsibility. The politicians are so corrupt that nothing gets done.”

In spite of the garbage strewn all over the streets, we do see people actually bringing their garbage bags to dumpsters only to have it picked apart by water buffaloes, cows and goats that eagerly dive in. 

India is SO very affordable.

Our shopping excursions uncover better buys the further we travel from Delhi. The miniature paintings of Udaipur, the textiles and jewelry of Jaipur, the marble work and leather in Agra and carpets everywhere all capture a good piece of each of our wallets but what memories these treasures hold.

My favorite purchase is a 125 year old carpet from Uzbekistan. I do not usually make these kinds of purchases without Roger – but he wasn’t here!

I am delighted when the rug arrives in Dubai and Roger opens it and at first glance has the same reaction I had . . . a short intake of breath and a soft exclamation “This is gorgeous.” We will hang it in my office for now but it will occupy a very special place in our Florida home when we return to the USA.

India is a country of entrepreneurs.

Road-side Barber Shop

Everyone has a little enterprise which is located on each and every road we pass through.

Barbers, fruit and vegetable sellers, appliance stores, cell phone vendors  . . . you name it and someone in India can do it, provide it, outsource it and get it to you!

There is massive poverty in India.

Poverty in India hits you at every bend and turn. It is there despite some attempts by people we meet to discount it. The shanties and tent cities are there to be seen in every town, large and small.

Thin children wander the streets in rags.  Pitiful beggars work the street intersections – we are told that most work for the “mafia” who takes most of the beggaars “earnings.”

The small villages we pass through lack basic utilities.  It is very uncomfortable to watch this through the windows of our 11-seater air-conditioned van as we elegantly slide through the untidiness.

" My property taxes are more than the wages of a middles class family in India," Realtor Kathryn figures out.

Communal wells and baths are the norm. Passed many a person taking their morning toilette at the public water pump.

We asked all our tour guides, “What do these people think about us here riding along in luxury while they are living in such poverty. Do they resent us?”

“Quite the contrary,” was the answer. “The people of India are happy and accept their circumstances never desiring what their neighbor has. To them you are like rock stars. You bring excitement, you are tall, white and blonde and everyone is curious about everything American.”

This explains the plethora of people wanting to have their photos taken with us  and the excitement we saw in the small villages we passed through where people with broad smiles wildly waved and motioned to have their pictures taken. 

"One of the highlights of the trip for me was our visit to Manoj's family and the curious neighborhood kids who wanted their picture taken with us. There was such joy in their eyes and they became so very bewildered when I shook their hands. It was very beguiling," says Kathryn.

Our elegant journey through India is just that; an elegant experience that is a royal treasure.

Kathryn surmises the trip for us, " I wonder how I got so impatient, so miffed at modern conveniences. I vow to change. I am bringing back from India not only the nice carpets but also a greater appreciation of life. Next time someone takes fifteen minutes at the ATM, I promise to just relax and not get annoyed, or better yet offer to help.

I admire the thriftiness I see on the streets and fields, A branch is a gate, and why not. The well is used to water a cow and take a bath. Rocks are used instead of orange cones in case of a breakdown, fencing is made of mud, animal shelters of sticks and wire. This is the India I am taking back. When I am sitting in my most luxurious home stressing about serving overfed people the perfect meal, I will remember the simple life of the people I saw in India. It will be very hard listening to people complain about anything."

We wholeheartedly recommend India to everyone, especially if you use Elegant Journeys. Nothing like an outstanding tour company to insure your hard earned vacation is exceptional.

Stay tuned. More India blogs coming soon  . . . Udaipur, the most romantic city in India . . . . Jaipur, the “Pink City”  . . . and Ranthambore, former site of the Maharaja’s hunting grounds now the Ranthamborne Tiger Sanctuary . . . Agra home of one of the Seven Wonders of the World - the Taj Mahal.


Postscripts . . .

Photos . . . Jani and I took responsibility for taking the photos . . .  some are hers . . some are mine! What a team! 

Some Favorite photos . . . 


  1. Beautiful pictures Katie, but made me jealous:). I wish I was there with you. I have been to India many years back, I feel homesick now. In spite of the feeling helpless to assist the needy, I grow up appreciating the simplest aspects of life we enjoy and take for granted.

    Glad you all enjoyed it.

    Wafa Al Hamed

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  2. Again I'm transported by your stories! I haven't been to India but would love to go some time...for now I'll just see it through your very skilled prose. I look forward to the next chapter!
    Anne :)

  3. If we send you our photos and tell you about our trip, would you write our blog? You say everything so beautifully. We want to return! Elaine and Jon

  4. Your lovely article brought back so many wonderful memories of my two visits to India. The colors are exquisite, the crazy death-defying traffic and everything else you said. While my visits were of the "roughing it" style the most amazing part was seeing how people with far less than we Americans have, exude a genuine happiness and innocence that I haven't seen elsewhere. They are proud to be Indians. It was an especially amazing experience to be in a remote village where the children had not previously seen white people and the curious, respectful way they looked as they gathered around us, staring. I wanted to hug them all.

  5. The wife and I recently returned from Turkey where we had a wonderful time, and now we're considering a trip to India for next year. We've questioned whether or not we have the stamina for it, but your post has pushed me more in the direction of making this happen.

    1. India must absolutely be on your list. You can set the pace for what ever you want . . Roger always says I plan "forced marches" but it is only because I do not want to miss a thing. I have been told that a trip through south India is lovely too especially a house boat cruise. Elegant Journeys can arrange any trip you want in India. Go for it!

    2. Hi Katie,
      I came across your blog while looking for reviews of Elegant Journeys. I am communicating with Vivek now about planning a tour for us to Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. It looks like I found the right company!! Your adventures sound wonderful. Continue to enjoy your expat life and welcome back to the US when you get home. Roz and Albert, Atlanta

    3. So how did your trip workout? I have a number of friends who have use Elegant Journeys all with the same very satisfying experience.

  6. To each of you thank you for your comments. Yes, do not be afraid of going to India it is quite remarkable. A place not to be missed.

    And special to Alice . . . so nice to hear from my old friend and poet. I still treasure the poem you wrote for me.

    Elaine and Jon - I can be had for a price!

  7. Katie, I enjoyed reading about your wonderful trip to India! All of you really drank in the incredibly fascinating culture. It brought back so many memories of my trip to Chennai, and southern India a couple of years ago. Thank you for taking the time to share your adventure with us. I always enjoy reading your very creative writings. I love, and share your great appreciation of the many cultures in this world we are citizens of, and especially your love of adventure!
    Dianne Gile

  8. Hi Katie:

    It was really interesting to see my country through your eyes. You have a wonderful way of putting things across and appreciating cultures different from yours. The dung patties you mention are actually used as fuel.
    Do read my blog on my trip to Coorg, where we bathed elephants. Perhaps you can plan your next visit to South India?
    Look forward to reading the next installment of your India adventure.

    1. Please give me the site of your blog. I would love to read. Yes, South India is on my list - I hear it is beautiful.

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  10. How amazing this looks I have always wanted to go. I am just finding your blog and love it. I am an American living in Saudi :)

    1. Glad you enjoyed the blog. Living in Saudi! Now, that must be an adventure. Tell me more!

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    1. We did a weekend in Muscat at the Chedi. YOu can read it on my blog.

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  18. Hello. I am from India and it was really nice for me to read about the way you interpreted the things that we see around us everyday: the hot, crowded roads, the poverty..the animals. All of it. I am glad that you took time out to notice the "real" India and not just the India that rich people visit. If you hadn't taken the road trip, you wouldn't have had a chance to see India in quite this way!
    All the best. :)

    1. I totally agree. I really enjoyed the road trip more than anything else we did on the trip. India is a beautiful country one which I hope I can do a return trip to.

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