Namaste! We left off last week from central India on an over-the-top tiger safari. While we were there, the unthinkable happened at our next destination: India’s 9/11. Because of the terrorist attacks, Natalie and I ended up staying at the safari lodge an extra day to mull things over. Our hotel in Mumbai was in complete ruins. Can you believe we had a reservation at the Taj Mahal Palace? Fortunately, everyone around us was very accommodating and left it up to us to decide if we should go on to Mumbai and continue with our around- the-world-trip or go back home the way we’d come – via Europe. Well, we weren’t going to put our tails between our legs and let the terrorists win so we continued on — even against our family’s and friends’ wishes.
CO 3407 & AUSTRALIAN WILDFIRES
Before we get started, I just want to say my heart and prayers go out to all those involved in the Continental flight 3407 crash near Buffalo airport and the victims of the Australian wildfires. What an absolute and horrifying shame. The Australian Red Cross has set up the 2009 Victorian Bushfire Fund to assist individuals and communities affected by devastating bushfires. Here’s the link to donate.
L.A. TIMES TRAVEL & ADVENTURE SHOW
This past weekend, I was at the Los Angeles Convention Center to speak at the L.A. Times Travel & Adventure Show. It’s always a great place to find all kinds of travel inspiration, advice and deals. I spoke on two panels: 10 Hot Tips for Getting Travel Deals Online and 10 Best Destinations for Traveling on a Budget. The first session had standing room only and the second was close to it. Overall, the show was a complete success and you would never have guessed we were in the middle of a deep recession, after seeing the line to enter the show. In fact, there are early estimates that there was a 25% spike in attendance over last year. One of the best parts about speaking at the L.A. Times Travel Show is I get to hang out with travel legends includingRick Steves, Samantha Brown and Arthur Frommer himself. He made my day when he said he really gets a kick out of my stories on Frommers.com.
I had a lot to be thankful for this past Thanksgiving when I was in India and was scheduled to check into Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace just 36 hours after the attacks. It was a narrow escape. I first learned about the attacks when I woke up in the middle of the night to use the loo and checked my Blackberry, which I’d kept bedside. The CNN Breaking News email alert made my heart pound. Following it were emails from concerned friends and family members who weren’t sure of my exact location. Many of them knew I was going to be staying at the Taj and my Facebook and Twitter pages stated that I was in India.
I was so touched by everyone’s concern, I practically broke down and cried. I had no idea so many people actually cared about me and it’s a special feeling to feel loved. Cell service was patchy out in the jungle and I couldn’t get a strong enough signal to make calls or email to confirm my safety or get more updates. I was about to run out the door to the main house where the TV and computer access were but as I mentioned last week, guests are not allowed to walk from their secluded rooms without a staff member; a safety precaution against the possibility of a tiger, leopard, cobra or whatever else, lurking outside. I felt terrible waking the staff in the middle of the night. And so I lay awake in bed. And waited.
News spread quickly and everyone shared the same feelings: fear and outrage. The staff from the lodge, the folks at Jet Airways, their public relations company Geoffrey Weill, India Safaris and andBEYOND were so hospitable, accommodating and supportive, it was unbelievable. They left it up to us to decide if we wanted to go on to Mumbai and continue with our around-the-world-trip or go back to the United States the way we’d come — via Europe.
TO GO OR NOT TO GO
Natalie and I spent an extra night at the lodge to mull things over. We were torn because we wanted to continue on but our friends and family begged us to come home. We both agreed that going back would only let the cowardly, bastard terrorists win, so we kept to our schedule. At the time, we thought it was unfortunate that there wasn’t a connecting flight that would get us in to Mumbai and allow us to just hop on the Jet Airways flight to Shanghai (PVG) and not leave the airport. We also thought it was a shame that Jet Airways didn’t have a flight to PVG, leaving from Delhi or another major city. Therefore, it was only fitting, that due to conflicting flight schedules, we were forced to go into Mumbai, spend the night and make a (somewhat unintentional) statement.
We made the harrowing two-hour drive back to Nagpur so we could catch an evening flight to Mumbai. More than one airline services the Nagpur-Mumbai route but none of them do it very early in morning. We were booked on Kingfisher Airways, which is named after both a brightly colored bird and beer. The airline is owned by a wealthy Indian man and his airline averages over 400 daily flight departures with an extensive domestic network, in addition to flights to Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.
NAGPUR TO MUMBAI
Checking in for the flight was quick and we were the only westerners on the clean, packed A320 plane. Who would have thought that this flight to Mumbai would be full? Not me. Flight time was a short one hour and nine minutes but the flight attendants, who were all young and attractive, did more in that time than some flight attendants on U.S. airlines do on a flight three times longer. Before takeoff, the flight attendants came around with mini bottles of lemon water (lemonade) and in first class, I heard they even go around cleaning everyone’s eyeglasses. On a short flight like this in the U.S., you would be lucky to get a drink. On this flight, passengers got three, plus a boxed hot meal, which contained a mini bottle of water, chicken curry or two fried samosas and a chocolate pudding that reminded me of the kind I’d get from Kentucky Fried Chicken when I was a kid.
In Mumbai, the plane parked at a remote spot so everyone had to walk down the plane stairs and board a bus. There’s typically no sense of order in India, which takes some getting used to. The Indians don’t wait for the row in front to get out … it’s just a free for all, so I was forced to step into the aisle and cut people off. The temperature was much warmer than in central India, which was a welcome change, but it looked like business as usual, with the exception of visibly heightened security.
In 1996, Mumbai officially changed the anglicized version of its name (Bombay) back to its original Marathi pronunciation: Mumba (name of a goddess) + ai (mother in the Marathi language). Only about half the citizens refer to it as Mumbai – most prefer Bombay (including me). The city sits on the west coast of India and it’s India’s financial and entertainment capital — so many movies are made here, it’s called Bollywood. With approximately 14 million people, it’s the second most populous city in the world. It also has the third largest Muslim population in the world. India is a land of extremes and Mumbai is no different. Some of the richest people in the world live right next to some of the poorest. Space is at such a premium here that in certain neighborhoods, buying a parking spot for a car could cost more than the car itself.
TIME: India is on one time zone but the time difference from New York is 12.5 hours. Not many places tack on the extra 30 minutes so that’s a little weird.
AIRPORT TO HOTEL
Our bags came out quickly when we arrived at the airport. We’d booked a room at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai and as arranged, adriver was waiting for us outside arrivals with a placard. The hotel was only 10 to 15 minutes away from the airport and there wasn’t much traffic. The photojournalist in me really wanted to go see the Taj Palace but that was 14 miles from the hotel and could have taken over an hour and a half in traffic. Additionally, the whole area was blocked off so that just wasn’t going to happen. Security was so tight that there was a checkpoint just to get onto the street of the hotel. Then there was another car-and person-check to get into the Hyatt’s driveway followed by a metal detector, upon entering the lobby. All this security was definitely comforting and eased much of Natalie’s anxiety. In fact, once inside, we felt like we were in Fort Knox and slept like babies.
GRAND HYATT MUMBAI
While we were in the car, I asked the driver if the hotel was full. He looked at me like I was on crack and said no. Most visitors had fled the city. The six-floor hotel has 547 rooms and suites and that’s not including the 147 apartments for extended-stay guests. The hotel is huge and almost a destination in itself. The 12 acres of property have landscaped gardens, water fountains, an outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, a jogging track and even a beach volleyball court. Inside, there are five award-winning restaurants (Indian, Italian, Chinese), a bar, a gourmet store and a fitness center and spa.
Our room was spacious, with high ceilings and lots of natural light so it had a bright and airy feeling to it. The rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows (you can have a courtyard or city view) and the minimalist, modern decor is totally Zen. Crisp, white linens, golden Jaisalmer stone (an Indian sandstone) and light sycamore wood paneling add to the room’s beauty and comfort. The bed and pillows were amazing and the marble bathroom had a separate shower and tub with four homemade soaps (rose, sandalwood, lavender basil and aloe vera). They were so nice I pocketed them all. There was an old school TV and a working desk with high speed Internet.
ITALIAN FOOD IN INDIA
The General Manager of the hotel was a friend of a friend so he joined Natalie and me for a late dinner at Celini. I wanted Indian food for dinner on our last night there but without naming names, a certain someone said she didn’t. I never thought you could get good Italian food in India but boy was I wrong. The Italian chef makes pizzas the way you want and they were delicious. For breakfast, Natalie went to the Grand Club Lounge, which was just a short walk from our room down a staircase. There wasn’t any hot food but they had all kinds of fresh fruit, juices, pastries and newspaper headlines screaming the devastating news.Grand Hyatt Mumbai, Off Western Express Highway, Santacruz (East), Mumbai, India.
BACK TO THE AIRPORT
Fifteen hours later, Natalie and I were on our way back to the Mumbai airport where they had similar checkpoints and police and military with huge machine guns, all on guard. I really didn’t want to leave India (what an incredible country) but I needed to continue on with the trip as planned. On the short drive back, we saw a bit of everyday life in Mumbai. Tuk-tuks cruising the streets at breakneck speeds, locals buying groceries from street vendors and poverty like you’ve never seen except in India. The most difficult times were when our car was stopped at a streetlight. Beggars of all ages would come knocking on the windows, imploring for your help. Your heart sinks and you just want to give them the shirt off your back. But we’d been warned that it’s illegal to give money to street beggars so sometimes, as hard as it is, you just have to try and turn your head. (Instead of giving money, I would buy food for the children as an alternative.) At one point, Natalie began to cry for the beseeching beggars. I tried to be sly and take a photo with the camera that was on my lap but a beautiful little girl saw me from the other window and excitedly asked me to take her picture, too. I picked the camera up and just began clicking away as the driver sped away, leaving the little girl behind but the memory of her smile forever imprinted on my mind.
I know we didn’t get to see much of Mumbai but here’s a two-minute video of our 16 hours there. Also, here’s a video of theTaj Mahal Palace before the terrorist attacks, which a friend of mine made. I can’t wait to go back and would go tonight if the opportunity arose.
Next week: China, baby!
- Australian Red Cross
- L.A. Times Travel & Adventure Show
- Taj Mahal Palace
- Baghvan Lodge
- Geoffrey Weill
- India Safaris
- Kingfisher Airways
- World Time
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- Wiki Mumbai
- Grand Hyatt Mumbai
- Mumbai Weather
- Joelle Leder Photography
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