To understand my experience in India, you have to go back 37 years. I’m of Indian decent and was rescued from certain death, adopted out of an orphanage when I was a baby. After living a privileged life (because if you get to grow up in the U.S. you are privileged), I decided it was time to go back to my roots and give back to those kids in the orphanage.
Here I was, some 30-something years since my last visit, headed back to Mumbai, with my adoptive father and my brother. I don't care how much you read about it or see it on TV, nothing can prepare you for the striking contrast of beauty and chaos that you'll experience. India is the second most populated country in the world with1.2 billion, compared to the U.S. with just 316 million. Quiet is hard to come by.
Our journey started in Mumbai, but our experience was a bit more rustic than expected. Rather than stay at a beautiful hotel like the Oberoi, we stayed at The Cricket Club of India. Like a Country Club, but much more basic in décor and amenities, these are patronized by India’s elite. As an outsider, it's a great study on the culture of the country.
A fun evening out in Mumbai can be found at Cafe Zoe. Not only are there decent small plates, late night it turns into a clubbier feel but still fun that groups can hang about and sip on good cocktails.
Want to experience street food without the "street" part? Seriously, DO NOT eat from a street vendor in India. Go to Tewari Brothers. These small chains can be found in several Mumbai locations. Samosas and a variety of other chaats and delicious desserts can be found here. This is authentic Indian food at its best.
But I wasn't there to wine and dine. I was there to help raise money for an orphanage under my foundation. We made the short journey to Bandra where our orphanage is located. Unlike the sad faces of street children, here the children are grinning from ear to ear happy to be sponsored for clothing, shelter and an education from the time they are taken in until they graduate college.
If you think traffic is bad in Atlanta, imagine it 10 times worse than rush hour, all the time. Unlike Atlanta, cars and mopeds weave in and around one another amidst the constant symphony of honking horns. In what seems like sheer chaos, somehow all seem to navigate this balancing act, especially the families of four (including babies) who get around on their tiny mopeds.
What would a visit to India be without a visit to the Taj Mahal? The beautiful jewel encrusted structure is certainly a sight to behold. Be careful traveling there. Somehow I ended up on a local train (certainly not meant for foreigners). The locals regarded me with looks of both disgust and intrigue at the same time, as I dared to bare my arms and was not sporting a sari (traditional Indian dress). As afternoon turned to evening, the possibility of reaching our hotel seemed to dwindle and fear of safety rose. A crowd of pushy taxi drivers surrounded us as we descended the train, not knowing who was legitimate or out to do us harm, I've never prayed so hard to make a journey to a hotel as much as I did on that journey. A three-star hotel, the Mumtaz was more like a two star, but it was heaven to me with a restaurant open late and a comfortable bed.
What a good night's sleep can do! Although a heavy pollution-induced haze covers Agra and is even worse in Delhi, it doesn’t diminish the wonderment of the Taj Mahal. The Swaminarayan Akshardham temple, located in Delhi is more beautiful and definitely worth a visit. It's intricate carvings and expansive space including pink stone (symbolizing devotion) and pure white marble (symbolizing peace) in the construction are gorgeous.
While in New Delhi, make sure to take a ride in a rickshaw as they navigate the narrow shops whizzing by cubby after cubby of businesses. Go where the tourists don't go: Karim's. It's a small no-frills restaurant located in the heart of old Delhi. More than 100 years old, it dates back to the Mughal Empire. Though there are more than a dozen locations, the original retains a certain charm you can't find elsewhere.
Though India is a country of gorgeous temples and verdant colors, you won't escape the poverty. As opposed to the U.S., the "hut people" or homeless are intermingled with the elite. With 40 percent of the country living in poverty, maybe it's not something that should be unseen on a visit to India.