Monday, February 13, 2012

Final Day and Flight Home

Walk along Marine Drive

Swing in our Suite at the Taj

Eggplant with Tomatoes

Crab and Veg Rice Pulao

Chocolate Covered Kulfi

Bon Voyage Cake

The final day in Mumbai was hot. We decided to a walk along Marine Drive. Cathy has a bad back, but can walk on level ground with little problem. We took a VERY long walk on this hot day. We love looking at the sea, the buildings and the couples strolling along the seashore. Many Bollywood movies have been shot along this path.

We found one last store, new to us, to shop at! The Taj gave us a very late checkout (6pm) and we decided to eat dinner at the hotel before heading for our flight home. Once again we ate at Masala Kraft the hotels premier Indian Restaurant. We ordered a wonderful meal including dessert and then they surprised us with a Bon Voyage Cake. Nice Touch!

A word about the Taj Palace Heritage rooms. We had stayed there before the terrorists took over the hotel and destroyed much of the Heritage Wing. The service and quality in every respect at this hotel (and the Hyderabad Falaknuma Palace) are exceptional. Cathy summed it up when she said “I don’t want to leave, lets just move in and stay till our money runs out!”.

We checked in at the Mumbai Airport about 9:30 for our 11:20 flight. We checked all of our bags through to LA and boarded our Thai Airway flight to Bangkok. The food and the plane were not great, however the flight was short and we slept through a lot of it arriving early in the morning in Bangkok. We then transferred to another Thai Airway flight to Shanghi. This plane was new and very nice. Thai Airlines redeemed itself.

Arriving in Shanghi China we were at an enormous airport. We looked for the transfer desk to make sure we had proper tickets for the final flight to LA on United Airlines. We found the transfer desk and it was closed. The police told us we would have to leave the secure area and pass through customs and then re-enter the airport. We were sure we were given wrong information, but didn’t want to argue with Chinese Police. We headed for customs and while standing in line started talking to another person. He said we had to claim our luggage and start anew like we had just arrived at the airport. We said that was impossible, and showed him the receipts for our luggage showing the bags tagged to LAX.

We checked with some other officials and they said yes, we need to pick up our luggage. We waited for our luggage at the carousel but never saw it. We then gave up, left the secure area and went to the ticket counter. It was not manned. We finally found a person who brusquely told we had to claim our luggage, we explained it was checked through to LA and showed the receipts saying LAX. She said, no matter, go get your luggage. We were outside security and had no tickets to allow us back into look for our luggage. They said just say you forgot your luggage. We decided to try again, and we schlepped back through the big airport, and surprisingly they did let us back in. Just as we arrived at the lost luggage desk, an employee arrived pushing a cart with our 3 pieces of luggage on it. We were happy to see our luggage, but can’t understand why we never saw it on the carousel. We felt it was a close call, if the passenger hadn’t mentioned to us about claiming our luggage we never would have checked, just assuming it was on its way to LA with us. We have never experienced this problem at any other airport.

With our luggage we trouped back to the ticket counter, which was still vacant. We decided to hold a sit in and wait for someone to show up. Eventually they did, and we were issued proper tickets so we could enter the secure area. We then checked out the stores and restaurants. All were of very poor quality. We went to the lounge where they had bad wine and worse food. We were tired and sticky. We then wondered if they had showers. We asked and they did have very nice clean showers and we freshened up and we felt good again.

We boarded our new 777 for the flight back to LA. It was a new plane, and we had seats that faced the tail, so we flew backward to LA. The food and drink was good, we had dinner took strong sleeping pills and reclined back in our lie flat beds. We immediately fell asleep and slept for almost the entire flight waking up about 45 minutes before we arrived. A very nice flight and fitting in end to our trip.

A note on Shanghi airport: drab, lousy shops and restaurants, disorganized. Most of the people police and airport spoke excellent English and were helpful as we tried to navigate the confusion. They could take some lessons, however, from the Hong Kong Airport.

The trip was wonderful!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Day in Mumbai

Ravi Shankar's Sitar at the Taj

Very Young girl, tight rope walking

Street Food

Sunset over Arabian Sea from Roof of Intercontinental Hotel

Crab Cakes

Hyderabad Fish

Garlic Shrimp

Garlic Naan

Yesterday was our last full day in Mumbai before completing our trip around the world. Tomorrow we are off to LA via Bangkok then Shanghai. At the Taj, we miss the Club Room, on the 5th floor. After the fire caused by the terrorists, they rebuilt it on the 1st floor. We told the manager of the poolside restaurant about it, and he said he would show us something that would make up for it. Today he took us to the reconfigured room that is now an ultra luxury 3 floor suite. It is called the Ravi Shankar Suite for a reason. They have on display, one of Ravi’s performing Sitars. This rare instrument was a real treat to see. The suite is unbelievable, I always joke with Courtney that our room has a Jacuzzi in it. This one actually does. I don’t know who could afford to stay in it, but I am sure it gets it guests.

The Taj is owned by Ratan Tata. Tata owns many industries besides the Taj Hotels, Automobiles (Including Tata Cars, Jaguar and LandRover), telecommunications, etc. He is a multi-billionaire. As we were going through security, entering the Taj, he walked out. I immediately recognized him. He was dressed in a casual shirt. I expected to see him surrounded by armed bodyguards and walk to a bullet proof limousine. Instead, he walked through the crowd opened the back door of a Honda, helped someone get in, that walked around to the drivers seat, and drove himself away.

I mentioned to our manager friend about seeing Tata, and he said, he comes to the Taj often, that is a very simple man in taste, he doesn’t try to impress anyone. Several other people said the same thing. He is definitely the anti-trump or anti-Ambani.

We shopped a bit at some new stores (at least to us), then returned to our hotel suite. We planned to join a walking tour of the Deco Style buildings in Mumbai (being a new city by Indian standards, there are many Deco buildings here). We taxied over to the famous Eros Theater to begin the special tour. There was a large crowd their, and it was clear the event wasn’t well planned. We decided to skip it and returned instead to the hotel to get ready for our final penultimate dinner in Mumbai (we will have a final one tomorrow night with our Bollywood Actress friend, Kashmera Shah, before going to the airport).

First we taxied to the Intercontinental Hotel, for roof top drinks overlooking Marine Drive and the Arabian Sea. It was a warm night and it was wonderful having the beautiful view, especially for the sunset. After a couple of martinis for me, it was off to dinner. We love the seafood at Trishna, and the previous night we had a great dinner. Our waiter (an old timer at the restaurant, who really made us feel welcome) was exceptional. We told him we would return again tonight, would he arrange a special dinner for us. He was happy to comply and we had an even better meal than the previous night. Crab Cakes, Garlic Shrimp, Hyderabad Fish, Naan, Kulfi for dessert. We were curious about Hyderabad fish, we didn’t particularly remember fish when we were in Hyderabad. Turns out Hyderabad fish, is the way the fish is prepared, not where it came from!

A brief word about travel directions in India. No one knows where anything is! Drivers don’t consult maps and don’t have GPS. In Japan, every cab has GPS and the taxi drivers use it to find addresses. In London, taxi drivers have to pass a special test called “The Knowledge” proving they know the streets. In Hyderabad, Mumbai and almost everywhere we travelled directions were given like: “Go past the Temple turn right at the \ stand where they serve the extra spicy chilies, turn left where you see three goats and a cow.” Our drivers would go in the general direction then roll down their window and yell to the driver of the tuk-tuk, motorbike, or pedestrian – Brother (bhai) where is x. The person would sort of waive his hand in a general direction and give some directions, and we would be off again. We experienced it repeatedly. Our driver isn’t bothered by not knowing and who ever he asks is happy to assist. The system works!

Friday, February 10, 2012


Haj Ali Dargah Mosque in the Arabian Sea, Mumbai, on our drive to Taj Palace

Mukesh Abani House towers over the city

Patient Intake at Sahar Village Slum near airport

Outdoor Free Clinic

Cathy Discussing Clinic with Dr. Seema Peterson, Director of Americares

Doctor seeing Patients

Free Medicine

Truck dispenses Medicine

Measuring Height of Child
Trishna, Chili, Ginger, Garlic Fry
Gigantic Shrimp

Giant Replica of Crow at Kala Ghoda

We left our Palace in Hyderabad, and flew to Mumbai, arriving at Sunset.  As we drove to our new Palace, The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, we saw a beautiful sunset over the Arabian Sea. After checking into the Taj, were upgraded to a truly magnificent suite. We had stayed in the Palace Wing previously, leaving 10 days before the Terrorists took over the building, which has been fully restored.

Mumbai is unseasonably cold, and all the Mumbaikers complain they are freezing. To us it is like LA weather and perfect! Hot during the day, cooler at night.

Security at the Taj is tighter, like at all major hotels. All hand carried purses, and packages are x-rayed before you can enter the hotel and you must pass through a metal detector. Of course the terrorists didn’t come in the front door, but scaled the wall in the back of the hotel.

In the morning we went to the Sahar Village Slum near the Airport to meet with Americares. We are involved with The Los Angeles – Mumbai Sister Cities, which raises money in LA and sends it to Mumbai to support Americares efforts in Mumbai. Americares is rated the top NGO in India. In the slum we visited, the people are desperately poor and can’t afford doctors or medicine.  The Americares  mobile van schedules bi-weekly visits to the slum.  Everything is free: examination, medicines, etc. It was an amazing experience going from the over the top luxury of staying at the Taj to be in the slums. If you are interested in a worthwhile charity, this is one worth supporting.

On the way back to the Taj our driver drove us by Mukesh Abani’s new skyscraper house. Mukesh is the richest man in India. The house costs somewhere between 1 and 2 Billion Dollars! The whole building is his house, 6 people live there with over 200 servants, 2 private helipads, etc.

Returning to the Taj, we walked around the Coloba district where the Taj is located, checking out some stores and the street life. Drinks by the pool were followed by a massage and then a visit to our favorite Mumbai restaurant: Trishna. It is a fabulous, but unpretentious fish restaurant. We love it there. We then walked late at night to the outdoor art festival: Kala Ghoda. It was a perfect end to a great day.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dinner by Moonlight

Mittu likes the iPad, I think

Grand Stairway in the Palace

Dinner ready for 101 (100 dinners plus the Nizam)

We didn't Eat Here

Nizam's Thrown

Jewel Safes at Palace

Part of the Palace Complex

Nizam's Yellow Rolls-Royce with 350 miles on it!

Do you want your Burqa in Black or in Black?  

Private Dinner overlooking the City

Full Moon Shines down on us!

We then had the best surprise of our trip. Lakuma surprised us with a visit with her husband, Giridhar, and 12 year old son, Mittu, who is an adorable kid. We gave them an iPad as a gift and the son immediately started playing with it. It was amazing, it was entirely intuitive for him.

The three of them are like family to us, and we all toured the city together (driving through the congested streets at a very slow pace). We had a private tour of the Falaknuma Palace. The Nizam of Hyderbad didn’t build this palace but aquired it when its owner when bankrupt. I guess that is why the Nizam was long considered the richest man in the world. He loved Jewelry. He owned a huge diamond that he used as a paperweight.   After he died,  his son found it stashed in a shoe. The diamond is valued at over $ 100 million dollars. The palace has all of the original furniture which has been painstakingly restored. 

The great dinning hall has the longest table in the world and is still used. It seats 100 guests and the Nizam for a total of 101. There is no food passing here. Each guests has a butler and everyone is served at the exact same time. The Nizam has a gong by his chair, and when he bangs it the 101 butlers serve the 101 guests simultaneously.

Notice I am saying all of this in the present tense not the past tense. The Nizam of Hyderabad still exists, he is enormously wealthy, still owns this Palace (and much more). The Prince of Hyderabad was eating breakfast at the next table to us this morning.

After the tour we all went to another Palace he owns called the Chowmahallah Palace.  My favorite object in the entire palace  was the Nizam’s 1912 Yellow Rolls-Royce. It only has 350 miles on it! It is in perfect condition.

From the palace we walked the crowded streets, dodging traffic to the Charminar. The name is from the Hindi or Urdu Char = 4, Minar= Towers. It is the iconic symbolic heart of old Hyderabad. The congestion around it is frightening. I climbed to the top going up the narrow winding stairs, hoping I would make it without slipping.    Upon reaching the top of the tower I was rewarded by an amazing view of the city.  

After dropping off Ferris and  Courtney at the airport, we returned to our Palace and  had drinks on the patio as the sun set over the city. Once again the Qawwali singers sang their praises to Allah, an uplifting experience.

We were disappointed that we could not spend our last evening at a the hotel  dining on the patio because it had been previously booked by a large group.  Remembering that there was a small garden overlooking the city near our room, we called room service and asked to dine in the garden. They immediately sent over a butler to make the arrangements. This is the type of challenge the Taj lives for!  The butler procured a lamp for our table and we discussed potential menus.  In no time at all, we were seated in the garden, which was bathed in the light of the full moon,  and served dinner by our own private butler.  

Click here to hear the Qawwali Singing


The Fort of Golkonda

The Dungeon

Hindu Temple

Bathing Rooms for the Royal Bodies before Muslim Burial

The Tombs of the Shahs

Fabulous Mushroom Dolsa

Puffed Bread 

In all of India, the most sustained bad traffic we have experienced has been in Hyderabad. I can’t understand how anyone drives here.  Although driving in India is hazardous because of all the cars, buses, motorcycles, people, cows crisscrossing in front of your vehicle,  Hyderabad is the most challenging place to drive.  Our fabulous driver, Ramesh, says these are the worse drivers in India, they don’t follow any rules. The expression people use here is: If you learn to drive in Hyderabad you can drive anywhere in the world.

We had breakfast on the terrace overlooking the city. They must have a fabulous baker at the hotel, for the croissants were fabulous. We had the sweetest fresh pineapple juice I have ever tasted. Ever have a shrimp omelet? Yum!

We drove to Golkonda Fort high on a hill overlooking the city. This fort was started in the 1500’s and subsequently enlarged over the centuries. Courtney and I climbed to the top taking pictures of the fort, city, and Hindu Temples.

We next visited the tombs of the Qutb Shahi Kings. Seems like all the Muslim rules were obsessed by building impressive tombs as a monument to themselves.  This complex had multiple giant Tombs, all architecturally  different, each the final resting place of these Shahs. As soon as they became Shah, they must have started building these buildings. Sort of like the Pharaohs and their pyramids.

We then went to a very late lunch at about 4pm at a local restaurant. It turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip. We ate with our hands, Dolsas with Mushrooms, a giant puffed bread, a kind of Indian Pizza, many different things that I had never eaten before, it was great. We visited some jewelry stores and returned to the palace.

Because we had eaten lunch so late, we weren’t hungry. I worked with Lukuma on teaching her the iPad we have given her, while Cathy, Courtney and Ferris had drinks on the gorgeous deck overlooking the city while listening to wonderful Qawwali singing.