Exploring the incredible color, cuisine, culture of India


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JUSTINE GRIFFIN • Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer
, Tampa Bay Times


As I slid my shoes off and handed the man a five-rupee note before entering the Jama Masjid mosque, I could feel the heat from the red stone against my heels. I could also feel the intense stares of the Delhi locals. I don't know which made me sweat more.

As a tall, blond-haired white woman dressed in Western clothes, I couldn't have stood out more at this ornate and historic place of worship for Muslims in the heart of Old Delhi. My husband and I were still jet lagged from our 4 a.m. arrival in New Delhi, India's capital, a city with a population of more than 11 million. But we were too excited about our honeymoon adventure to waste any time.

My husband, Alex, is half Indian. His father is from Chennai, a coastal city in south India. While Alex had visited India many times while growing up, he was still itching to see more as an adult. So we booked a 15-day trip.

Alex's mother, also a blond-haired white woman, warned me about the stares. I remember shrugging it off. India was bound to be a trip of a lifetime. But now that I was here, I couldn't shake this creeping, uncomfortable feeling as eyes followed me.

Thin women dressed in colorful sarees, some with babies tucked under their arms, washed their hands, feet and faces at a central pool out in front of the mosque. Their eyes seared into mine when we passed by.

A young boy followed me through the mosque. His friends would jab him in the ribs and laugh every time our eyes locked. Just before we made it to the exit, he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to his smartphone. He wanted to take a selfie with me.

There was never a point in our remarkable trip to India that I felt unsafe. Nearly everyone we met, be it in a shop, at a restaurant or on a dirt street in a rural village, was kind and friendly. People were drawn to Alex -- one man wanted to shake his hand and thank him for returning to India to explore his heritage.

I got used to the stares.

• • •

We began our trip in Delhi. It's an enormous metro area, and at the end of April, the heat was stifling. It's a dry heat, more like Las Vegas than Florida, and the 100-plus degree weather definitely took some getting used to. So did the traffic. Buses, construction vehicles, tiny sedans and motorcycle-rigged rickshaws share the roads with donkey-pulled carts, horses, stray dogs and free roaming cows. There's a lot of horn honking. But not the kind that ends in road rage like you see in the States. In Hindu culture, animals are treated with deference, especially cows. So one cow crossing the road can cause a traffic backup miles long.

The city is full of ancient architecture, unbelievably ornate tombs of former emperors and their loved ones that offer a glimpse back in time. Humayun's Tomb and the India Gate were among the many monuments we toured. We also visited Mahatma Gandhi's last home in Delhi, the site of his assassination.

We booked our trip through a guided tour company, and I'm so glad we did. While it was fun to zip around the city in a speedy rickshaw on the way to a Hindu temple, the trains and bus systems are flooded with people, all day every day, and it can be tough to navigate. Our tour company took care of the nitty-gritty details, like transportation and hotel reservations, and gave us enough free time to eat new kinds of food, visit temples and wander the colorful, tumultuous bazaars on our own.

• • •

Even at 7 a.m. the weather is hot and dry in Agra. We arrived at the famous Taj Mahal just as the locals were headed to morning prayer. Per our guide's suggestion, we woke up early to beat the crowds that swarm the ivory-white marble mausoleum and its immaculate grounds on the south bank of the Yamuna river.

It is jaw-dropping -- and almost doesn't look real.

We strapped fabric booties over our shoes, needed to preserve the ancient marble, and explored the elaborate tomb. We listened to the tragic love story behind the monument: Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal to honor his most beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. I even took a photo on the bench Princess Diana made famous when she had her picture taken there in 1992.

Also in Agra, Alex and I smoked hookah in a beautiful garden while we watched a colorful, romantic Indian wedding. And I can't forget the melt-in-your-mouth chicken korma dish, which will go down as one of the best meals I've ever had.

After a few days, we headed north to Ranthambore. It was like a scene out of The Jungle Book. We stayed in a boutique lodgelike hotel at the base of Ranthambore National Park, a vast wildlife reserve near the town of Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan, known for Bengal tigers.

We hiked up the side of a ridge to be blessed in a Hindu temple that sits along the ruins of an ancient mountaintop fort. Leopards scale the same walls, and tigers make these crumbling British hunting lodges their dens. We went on two safaris, where we rode in topless jeeps and saw amazing wild animals, from colorful birds to monkeys to native deer and crocodiles.

Toward the end of the day, we got lucky and stumbled upon a Bengal tiger named Noor and her three cubs. We watched for hours as Noor and her family lazed around a riverbank. It was incredible to be so close. Noor's playful cubs would climb all over her in the shade of a large tree. Occasionally the cubs would pause from their banter to stare at the flickering of our cameras. They'd part their jaws and hiss at us through two rows of long, sharp teeth.

• • •

Our trip ended in Jaipur, known as the pink city for its creamy-colored buildings in the old part of town. We rode an elephant to the base of the famous Amber (pronounced Amer) fort, where we watched snake charmers with cobras and explored the ancient rooms of this historic monument.

At night, Alex and I would drink Kingfishers (India's most popular beer brand) and watch national cricket games from rooftop decks. You could hear fans cheer from all over the city when the games were on.

India is such a different place, but in the most kind and colorful way. I had seen pictures and videos and eaten plenty of Indian food before we set off on our honeymoon. But nothing could prepare me for the beautiful landscape, the colors, the people and the chaos that are India.

Contact Justine Griffin at or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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