Logistically speaking, my 13-day India/UAE/Egypt trip was executed nearly flawlessly. This was a remarkable accomplishment considering it was inclusive of 6 hotels, 5 flights, 3 continents, 2 full-day tours, 2 visas and 1 photography workshop. It took a lot of planning, but it also helped that there were no airline delays/cancellations, no visa issues, no clerical errors, no illnesses, no electronic mishaps and that the weather even cooperated.
After a very comfortable 7.5-hour flight from London, on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I touched down at 10:30pm in New Delhi. By the time I bypassed passport control, exchanged a bit of currency and was requested/located my Uber, it was well after midnight. Within 30 mins (and for a mere £4.07), I was dropped at my hotel, Le Meridian Gurgaon, which was slightly outside of the city proper, but was perfect for my purposes. I was fast asleep the moment my head hit the pillow, despite the 5.5 hour time difference.
Driver India Private Tours collected me from my hotel, at 6am the next morning, for my full-day tour to Agra. The thick fog had visibility at basically zero. Since there was nothing to look at apart from a wall of haze and my internal clock was all jumbled up, I used the 4-hour car ride to catch up on some sleep.
Once in Agra, my driver and I were greeted by the local tour guide and didn't waste any time heading to the Taj Mahal. Since it was Christmas Eve, there were very few Westerners visiting, but quite a few Indian tourists. *Fun fact for you – Taj Mahal entry tickets for locals cost 40 Rupees. For foreigners, the price was 25x that, or ₹1,000 (which is still only about £12). Pictured below, to the left of the cow, was where the entry tickets were purchased. :-)
The main entrance (known as the Royal Gate) is a multi-story, perfectly symmetrical building made of red sandstone, with Arabic calligraphy from the Quran and inlaid semi-precious stones.
From inside this gateway, I got my first glimpse of the beautiful Taj.
The Taj Mahal was every bit as magical as I expected and was truly deserving of its New Seven Wonders of the World and UNESCO World Heritage designations! This mausoleum was built by emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. With the help of 20,000 workers, it took 22 years (1631-1653) to construct. The photos below show the intricate carvings and gemstone inlays within the white marble.
We then drove about 2.5km to Agra Fort, which was more of a walled city than an actual fort. It was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638. It is also another of India’s 27 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
We had a quick lunch, which was not worth any more than a mention, and then hit the road. On the way back to Delhi, the fog had lifted so I was able to witness the chaos known as driving in India. The roads were shared amongst cars, trucks, busses, motorbikes (with up to 4 passengers, all without helmets), tuk tuks, carts, cows and even pedestrians. To Westerners, like me, it was absolute mayhem; to the locals it was everyday life. Lanes do not exist and honking was incessant. At intersections, vehicles stopped within single digit inches of each other, in all directions. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos/videos that do it justice, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
On Christmas Day, I flew from Delhi down south to Kerala to meet up with my photography workshop group. I had to show my passport and proof of booked flight before even being granted entry into the airport. I then had to present my boarding pass and ID at least eight more times before takeoff. The security lines were separated by gender, which I had never witnessed before.
The next eight days were dedicated to a street photography course in Kerala – between Kollam and Cochin. It was gruelling at times and had me out of my comfort zone to start. Street photography was very different to the landscape and travel photography that I typically shoot. Aspects of it were hard, but it definitely opened my mind to seeing photography in a different form. Overall, it was very rewarding and I learned a lot. Below is a slideshow, featuring some of my work from the week:
New Year’s Eve was spent in Fort Cochin (or Kochi), Kerala. On Kochi Beach, at midnight, fireworks light up the sky and a 37-foot ‘Pappanji’ was set on fire, marking the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017. There were nearly 100,000 people in attendance. I’d wager that about 96% were men and less than 1% were drunk. There was loud music and lots of dancing. It was very festive, but also very different to my New Year’s Eve celebrations over the past few decades.
Cochin Carnival is hosted the last week of December every year and culminates with a New Year’s Day parade through Fort Kochi. There were so many spectators at the parade that I couldn’t walk alongside it. I thought to myself, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them!’ So, into the parade I went! Security nor the entertainers seemed to mind my presence. Below are some pictures I snapped from my short time as a parade performer.
January 1st was not only my first time marching in a parade, but also my last full day in India. Spending time in India was an eye-opening experience. In my time there, I witnessed large disparities in almost all aspects of Indian life - economics, gender equality, education, service and particularly cleanliness. The ground was their trashcan. Below was one of the beaches I visited. Fancy a swim anyone?
India was captivating, inviting, dazzling, polluted, stifling and repulsive all at the same time. Everything that surrounded me caused sensory overload - crowds, noises, colors and odors. Smells everywhere were overpowering – whether from spices, tea, incense, onions, chilis, fish, laundry or sewage. My eyes were constantly watering and I was sneezing uncontrollably.
There were times when I found India to be difficult, but just when I thought I’d reached my threshold of patience, an adorable child would smile at me or hold my hand and my heart would melt. The people of India, no matter how little they had nor how hard their life was, were warm, hospitable and curious. They seemed to have a keen interest in white faces, asked a lot of questions, loved to have an excuse to practice their English, shook your hand and sincerely wished you well, wanted to take selfies with me and were quick to offer a head wobble after I took their picture.
One other thing worth mentioning about India, because it was so fresh during my time there, was the currency crisis. On November 8th 2016, the Prime Minister declared that, effective almost immediately, all ₹500 and ₹1,000 banknotes would become invalid. This was done in an attempt to stop counterfeiting, to crack down on ‘black money’ and to reduce corruption. This policy was great in theory, but it was lacking in implementation. A severe cash shortage occurred as a result of too few replacement notes being printed. For foreigners, this meant that only $80 could be exchanged at the airport, upon arrival into the country. The exchange rate was poor and most of the exchange was provided in the new ₹2k notes, which establishments refused to accept. Banks and ATM’s had long queues and limited hours. It could take hours to retrieve money and there were daily caps of around ₹2k (£24). So, when Booking.CON advertised that a hotel accepted credit cards as a form a payment, but you learned otherwise upon arrival, it was a real problem.
From Kochi, I flew to Dubai, where there most certainly was not a cash crisis. It’s amazing how economically and culturally different two places that are only a 4-hour plane ride apart can be. It had been 9 years since I last set foot in Dubai and although I only had about 12 hours to explore, it was quite obvious that a lot had changed in that time. The city was a lot more built up, there was more glitz, more glamor, fancier cars and bigger malls.
I enjoyed some sunshine at my hotel pool before meeting up with a friend to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa (the tallest structure in the world). Some have called the tower a modern-day wonder or even designated it as an 'Eighth Wonder of the World'. It's 2.6 times higher than the Eiffel Tower and is so tall that, if you time it properly, you can watch the sunset on the ground, take the lift up to the top and then watch the sunset for a second time in the same evening.
It was a foggy evening when I visited, so the views from the 148th floor weren’t as epic as I had hoped, but the sight of the Burj, from the outside, was eerie and very cool - almost Gotham City-like.
After the 'At the Top' experience and the '50 years of James Bond' exhibition, we had dinner in the Souk Al Bahar area, in downtown Dubai. This area did not exist the last time I visited Dubai. After dinner, it was back to my hotel for about an hour and half before heading to the airport at 2am, for my 4:35am flight to Egypt.
I touched down in Cairo at 6:35am, for long layover number two (11-hours this time). For security reasons, most airlines refuse to check bags through when a layover lasts more than 6 hours, but I got lucky and Egypt Air was kind enough to check my luggage all the way through to London. Cairo does not have lockers in their airport so this was a huge win!
I had originally booked a group Pyramids/Sphinx/Museum/Citadel/Mosque tour (for $85) through Egypt Air’s tour agency, Karnak. I sent an email to confirm a few days before, but never received a response. Since I did not notice anyone holding up a sign for me when I got to the gate, where they claimed they’d meet me, I proceeded through to customs and passport control.
Although visas are available upon arrival in Egypt, for Americans, I had obtained mine in advance, making passport control a breeze. There were so few tourists in Cairo that I’d probably have gotten through quite easily either way though.
As I was exiting the airport, I was approached by a tour company offering private excursions. Since I had limited time and really wanted to see the Pyramids/Sphinx/Museum of Antiquities whilst there, I took advantage of this offer, for $120. Although a pricier option, it was a private tour and I didn’t really have an abundance of other options.
By 8am, I was in a car, being driven to the Giza Pyramids. Despite popular belief, the Pyramids are not in the middle of nowhere. They are only about 40km (25 miles) from the airport. If you get lucky with the traffic, it could take as little as 30 minutes to get there. But who am I kidding? Rush ‘hour’ in Cairo is a bit of a joke as traffic spans most of the day.
In addition to being congested, Cairo is dusty, dirty and run down. Everyone is trying to sell you something/extort money from you. They pretend to be nice at first but then ultimately end up trying to swindle you and then getting angry if you refuse payment. I found it incredibly off-putting and annoying.
The Pyramids however, did not disappoint. They are mysterious and truly a wonder of the ancient world! Not only were the pyramids themselves much bigger than I expected, each stone used to construct them was enormous. How on earth did they build these things so long ago? The experience was made better by the fact that there were only about 50 other people with me at the Giza complex. Although the lack of tourism was terrible for Egypt, selfishly, I enjoyed that I could take photographs without millions of strangers in them.
The Great Pyramid of Giza (AKA Pyramid of Khufu) is the oldest and largest of the three. You can enter it for an additional fee, but I was dissuaded from doing so by my guide. He told me that there wasn’t much to see, I was not allowed to take photos inside and that you have to nearly crawl at certain points. It was the only time in my 11 hours in Cairo where a local convinced me NOT to spend money.
After visiting all three pyramids and getting swindled by Mohamed for the photo above, on his camel, Daisy, we moved along to peep at the Sphinx.
Then it was off to the Museum to view the extensive collections of ancient Egyptian antiquities and to learn everything I could ever want to know about King Tutankhamun. A lot of the artefacts lacked descriptions, but my guide was super helpful where signage was absent. Not shockingly, it cost extra to take photographs at the museum and/or to enter the mummy room.
By this time, it was about 2pm. I was told it would take about an hour to get back to the airport and that I needed to be back by 3:35pm for my 5:35pm flight. I was exhausted, hungry and all the relics were starting to look the same, so I asked to be driven back to the airport a bit early so I could grab some grub before the final leg of my flight home.
When I arrived back in London, the chill of the cold weather served as a very real reminder that my wonderful, hectic, exhausting but gratifying trip had come to a conclusion.
Below, are some helpful tips for each country that I visited, in case you are thinking about a visit.
Tips for India:
If you’re checking a bag, I suggest that you have it wrapped in plastic film at your home airport. It’ll get filthy when it arrives in India otherwise.
The online eVisa is super easy, if you are eligible. It took about 15 hours for mine to be processed and approval to be granted. When you arrive in India, separate queues exist for eVisas. Make sure you get in the right line.
Bring US Dollars. They are accepted in some hotels and offer the best exchange rate. I was only allowed to exchange $80 at the airport, though that may change soon.
Bring print out versions of all flights – international and/or domestic – that are originating in India. In order to enter India airports, you must show your passport and proof of a flight.
Bring your own sheets if you plan to stay anywhere other than a 5* hotel.
If you plan to stay in shared hostels or take any overnight trains, bring a cable/padlock so people can’t pinch your bags.
In your first aid kit, pack rehydrating salts, sterilizing tablets, Pepto Bismal, probiotics and Imodium. Better to be safe than sorry. Also bring bug spray/cream with Deet if you plan to be in any area with mosquitos.
Bring tissue packets with you in case you find yourself in need of a public restroom. Toilet paper was rarely provided. It's also good for nose blowing if you find yourself sneezing as much as I was.
Do not, under any circumstances, drink the water. Bottled water only. Brush your teeth with it. Don’t open your mouth in the shower. Don’t eat anything raw that might have been irrigated with the water (veggies, fruit, etc).
Tips for Dubai, UAE:
Book tickets in advance if you want to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa. They sell out.
Uber is prevalent there. Almost all Ubers are Lexuses.
Tips for Cairo, Egypt:
If you only have a long layover like I did, try to check your bag all the way through to your next destination. They do not have lockers in the Cairo airport.
Bring USD’s; they are accepted nearly everywhere. There was no need for me to exchange them to Egyptian Pounds.