Our group assembled in the Ocean bar at 9:30 to begin our independent overland adventure to India and more specifically, New Delhi, Agra and the Taj Mahal. There are 7 other people joining us for a total of 9 travelers. Our general itinerary is here:
- March 22: Fly to New Delhi on Sri Lanka Airlines – Transfer to Hilton Garden Inn in Saket area of Delhi
- March 23: Leave Delhi at 9AM and drive to Agra arriving around 1pm. Visit Agra Fort, Early Dinner, Shopping – then view Taj Mahal for Full Moon viewing at 11:30 PM – Hotel: Doubletree Hotel
- March 24: View Taj Mahal at sunrise, breakfast at Hotel, Baby Taj and other Agra sites – Return to Delhi, evening free, Hotel: Le Meridien New Delhi
- March 25: All Day New Delhi City tour of various sites
- March 26: Fly to Dubai on Emirates – Hotel: Hyatt Regency Dubai
- March 27: Rejoin Ship on Dubai day 1
I made all the flight arrangements and hotel reservations myself but hired a local tour company to arrange for transportation to and from Agra along with local guides in Agra and New Delhi. I used a fabulous tour company in India – called Lets Go India Tours!
I had arranged thru a UK company, Holiday Taxi, for a van to take us to the airport in Colombo. Back in December when I booked the transfer I knew we would be at the Queen Elizabeth Pier which is also listed as having a cruise terminal (It turns out Colombo doesn’t really have a cruise terminal). Holiday Taxi is a middle man in the UK and while I prefer to deal with local companies directly I was unable to find one on the internet and using a middleman was the only option I could discover. The fare was only $40 and I figured that I would be able to find a local taxi in a big city like Colombo if the driver was a no show. I didn’t realize when I made the booking that access to the cruise terminal was restricted.
With a pickup from the ship scheduled for 10AM and I went down to the pier at 9:30 to see if the driver was already waiting. No one was there and after about 15 minutes I gave the local office a call. They transferred me to the driver who tells me he is waiting at the Main Gate, ½ mile away. We had no interest is walking that far with our bags so I went to the taxi dispatcher on the pier and told him I wanted to get a cab for 6 people to go to the main gate. Once he found out I am going to the airport, they immediately want to match whatever prearranged fare I have and take me there directly. Had I not already paid for the guy waiting for me at the main gate I would have taken him up on it. The dispatcher quoted me a price of $10 for a ½ mile trip and I counter with $5 and he accepts. He then calls for a van which arrives in a few minutes, but I have to reconfirm the price with the actual driver and also argue with him again that I don’t want him to take me to the airport, simply the main gate and that $5.00 is already probably 3 times to real fare for such a distance. He finally agrees, we all board the van and off we go.
Once at the main gate we discover there are a dozen Tuk Tuks, a few taxis and a couple of vans already waiting. None of the vans have my name on the front nor the name of the local company running the vans. We drive a little further down the street and see a few more vans, but none of them have my name or the name of the company. The driver pulls over and asks if I have the van drivers number so he could call him and find out where the other driver is waiting. I show him a piece of paper with the number, but he then informs me that his phone is suddenly broken and I would have to call with my phone. He was probably hoping I would give up and hire him to take us to the airport. I call the driver, put it on speaker, and the two drivers converse quickly in the local language and he lets me know that my hired van will be pulling right up in a few minutes. We all pile out of the first van and start to transfer to the new van when my driver insists on another $5. Normally in these situations, I would refuse, pitch a fit and walk off, but we were in a hurry to get going and all of our bags were still on his van. So eager to get going and avoid arguing any further, I handed him a $10 bill and silently wished him bad luck. It’s transactions like this that make you want to avoid certain cities and Colombo is now firmly on my Do Not Return List.
We are now in the new van and spent the next 20 minutes inching thru crowded streets filled with Tuks Tuks and pedestrians. Finally we break out of the jammed roads and onto an open interstate type highway where we flowed at the speed limit all the way to the airport. Total travel time turned out to be 38 minutes. We are dropped off at the airport on the curb by the Departures Sign
The airport is not very big and not very busy which was a pleasant surprise. Before you can even get inside the terminal you have to present your ID and evidence that you have a reservation. You are also required to walk thru a metal detector while your bags are passed around the metal detector. Strange. It seems to miss the point if you can hand off your purse or backpack and have it pass unscreened while you walk thru the metal detector. But as you learn with airport security anywhere, don’t think or ask questions, simply do what they ask and move on.
Once inside the terminal, we wandered thru an area lined with souvenir shops and into another building, this one with the actual airline ticket counters, but first we have to go thru another metal detector however this time they also send our bags thru an x-ray machine.
While waiting to check in with our group we learned that the Amsterdam Front Desk gave the other travelers the departure cards that we had filled out prior to our entry into Sri Lanka. I had specifically asked the Front Desk when I picked up my passport if I needed the departure cards since I noticed it was missing. The Front Desk person assured me that I wouldn’t need a departure card since we are leaving from the airport. I looked at my passport and saw the arrival stamp so I knew I had documentation of my entry into Sri Lanka in case I had to prove a valid entry on a certain date. It turned out that we didn’t need the departure cards and our other travelers were given theirs unnecessarily, but with the way certain immigration rules can sometimes change on a whim, it never hurts to have extra documentation.
Once we got to the front of the check in line we handed the Sri Lanka Airlines agent our passports which she checked for our Indian Visa. All Good. She then wanted to see evidence of a ticket leaving India – we showed her our confirmation page of our flight to Dubai – still good. Then she wanted to see the credit card that I used to buy the ticket – not good – as that card was comprised and I was issued a new one after I bought the ticket with different numbers. Had I known what the old number was, they would have been happy, but since I didn’t have easy access to that information, I told them what happened and waited. I figured if push came to shove I could have called AMEX and they could have told me, or I could have looked on my laptop where I had a picture of my old credit card, but I had time to wait to see what would happen. She went off to talk to two different supervisors and I ended up talking to someone on the phone who wanted to know the credit card billing address. Once they were able to match the billing address to the address on the ticket, they were happy and we completed our check in after 20 minutes of waiting .
We were now off to immigration where I was worried for a bit that they would demand the departure card, but they didn’t and without saying a word they stamped our passport and we were on our way to the terminal area where the gates are located. We had 2 hours to kill so we went upstairs and looked for some seats. All the seats were taken, except those in the Burger King. We all bought something to eat and camped out at a couple of tables for the next 90 minutes.
With one hour to departure we head down to the gate and waited in line for 15 minutes to go thru USA style security – belt and shoes off, laptop on the tray etc. They didn’t care about bottles of water so we were able to keep the ones we bought outside of security.
They started boarding on time, but instead of walking down a jet way we boarded a bus and headed out to our plane and boarded via an air stair to the rear door.
Preflight and taxi were on time and the safety announcements were both in English and Sinhalese. The Captain spoke only in English when he updated us on the flights status. The one pleasant surprise was when the flight attendants started passing out menus for our complimentary lunch service complete with complimentary beer and wine. We had a choice of a vegetarian curry dish or a chicken curry dish – both were served hot in the small trays you used to get back when USA carriers served hot meals in coach.
The remainder of the flight was uneventful and we landed exactly on time. The Indira Gandhi International Airport is very modern, at least the international terminal where we arrived.
There were some very interesting hand sculptures, called Mudras, attached to the wall above the immigration kiosks. Mudras are expressive hand gestures that are part of Indian Classical Dance and Yoga. Here is a description of the nine different Mudras on display in the immigration area. LINK
We had obtained the paper visa and immigration was a snap. Others in our group got the new Indian E-Visa and they had to go to a separate line, but their process was speedy as well with no issues. If you arrive by ship, you cannot use the e-visa as seaports aren’t set up with the right equipment. I got the Indian Visa myself, it was easy, took about 2 weeks and cost less than $150.
The owner of the our Indian tour company texted me that he would be waiting for us outside gate 6. He was easy to find and once our group was assembled he summoned our vehicle and driver which would be the same for all 4 days. There would be 9 of us in a 13 passenger van so we would have a little room stretch out.
We spent a few minutes confirming the details of our trip and then we were off to our Hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn in Saket, an area of New Delhi.
Saket was only 10 miles away, but it took us 70 minutes to get there. The traffic in Jakarta was like a small town on a Sunday afternoon compared to New Delhi. People here drove as if there were no traffic rules. Drive where and when you want and try not to hit anybody. Lanes meant nothing. Traffic signals meant nothing. Driving on the correct side of the road was generally followed but still optional. We would drive like mad for maybe ½ miles at 35 miles an hour, weaving around traffic, horn blaring, motorcycles scattering, bigger trucks and busses using their size to command the right of way.
If you were not an aggressive driver, you may as well walk. They drive on the left side and once we needed to make a right turn across 3 lanes of traffic going the other direction. A jersey wall was the only thing stopping graphic from swarming onto our side of the road. When we reached a break in the jersey barrier, people in the US would put on their blinker and wait for a gap. Not here. Our driver simply started his turn, horn blaring, intimidating oncoming traffic to stop which opened up a gap for use to cross the 3 lanes of traffic. One difference was that every driver was PAYING ATTENTION because they knew that any second a car could easily turn right in front, cut you off or any number of other road rage originating incidents if something similar happened in the USA.
Our driver, Satish, said you needed three things to drive in India. Good horn, Good Brakes and Good Luck….
We learned that all of the popular higher end hotels are mini fortresses. Their entrances were guarded by imposing gates, every vehicle is stopped and sentries use mirrors to inspect the underside of vehicles for explosives. Our hotel had a metal detector and x ray machine right on the sidewalk. It was a little weird to see so much security for every hotel.
Unlike Australia and other countries, Indians working in the tourist trade have a robust expectation of gratuities. We only had roller bags and I think the bell hop may have tackled me to prevent me from taking our own bag to our room. We finally relented and ended up tipping him 100 rupees.
Our hotel was next to two high end malls, with every conceivable USA branding restaurant available – from Krispy Kreme to McDonald’s, Starbucks to Victoria Secret. We were tired and it was late so we made an easy choice and went to the Hard Rock Café.
As expected the Hard Rock café was familiar and very similar to every other Hard Rock Café around the world. This one was on the smaller side of the others, but it had the familiar menu and beverage selections. While we were in the restaurant the only thing on the TVs spread thought out the restaurant was a cricket game between New Zealand and Pakistan. Over the next 90 minutes I spent more time watching cricket then I had previously in my entire life.
It was now a little after 10 pm. With the malls open until 11 pm, we set off to find the Starbucks in the next mall to see if they sold the mugs with the city name. We walked through the mall, found the passage to the second mall, went through a security check and found the Starbucks. But they didn’t carry the mugs we were looking for. We retraced our steps, back through security into our original mall and finally back to our hotel, which was connected to the mall, and back up to our room.This entry was posted in Uncategorized