Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
Do it in ONE day only. Get in and get out.

That’s the advice I was repeatedly given about visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. People said Agra was a dirty, dusty, crowded city that didn’t warrant a visit of more than a few hours. Being a bit of a rebel, however, I was unconvinced. Instead, I booked three nights at the DoubleTree by Hilton and hopped aboard a local bus in Delhi, determined to discover the best things to see and do in Agra.

In a nod to conformity, I decided to visit the Taj Mahal on my first day in Agra. A huge percentage of tourists visit this wonder of the world on day tours from Delhi. By 10 a.m., caravans of tour buses are vomiting thousands of visitors onto the grounds. Hoping to avoid the crowds and the midday heat, I planned to arrive before dawn. I scoured the list of do’s and don’ts on the official Taj Mahal website, especially noting items that were prohibited on the site. As per instructions, I removed my phone charger, headphones, anything that could be construed as a book, and extra camera batteries from my messenger bag.

The Taj Mahal, cloaked in smoke and haze

The Taj Mahal, cloaked in smoke and haze

The next morning, a moto-rickshaw dropped me at the east gate at 5:45 a.m. I bought my ticket for 1,000 Rupees (about $15 USD), picked up my bottle of water and booties to cover my shoes, and walked a quarter mile to join the women’s queue. By the time stepped up to the security checkpoint 45-minutes later, the sun had risen and I was sweating profusely. I stepped through the non-functioning metal detector and opened my bag for a search. Seconds later the security guard held up my small portable flashlight and shook his head. I was promptly ushered back outside. Fortunately, a kind-hearted shop owner offered to keep it for me. I dashed inside once again and managed to talk my way to the head of the line rather than waiting another hour. Read More

Dawn boat trip down the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

Click on title to view photo in large format. A sunrise boat trip down the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, is the very best way to experience some of the 90-plus ghats (stairways) that descend to its banks. Assi Ghat, the southernmost of the ghats, is a popular place to hire one of the small wooden boats that make the journey each morning. From here, boatmen row downstream to Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ghat. As the dull grey of pre-dawn begins to lift, boatmen turn around and head back past ancient Mughal palaces and brightly painted steps leading down to the water’s edge. Wherever the largest crowds have gathered, Read More

Worshipers at the ghats of Varanasi, India. They flock to the shores of the Holy Ganges River each morning at dawn to bathe in and drink from its waters.

Click on title to view photo in large format. For two whole days I walked along the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. Trash littered the shores and sewage flowed into it from outfall pipes. At the cremation ghats, priests picked hip and chest bones and casually tossed them into the river. Yet every morning at dawn, worshipers flocked to the ghats of Varanasi to bathe in the muddy brown waters of the Ganges. Many immersed entirely, dunking one, two, three times. Some even scooped up vases full of the water and drank it down. Read More

My love for Indian food is second only to my love for Thai food, so when I was invited to visit Delhi, India, sampling traditional north Indian dishes was at the top of my must-do list. As luck would have it, I didn’t have far to go. The Gupta family, who own Prakash Kutir B&B, my home away from home in Delhi, have roots that go back more than 120 years in South Delhi. Not only do they celebrate all the festivals in traditional Delhiite manner, they still prepare traditional north Indian dishes that can’t be found in restaurants.

The indoctrination began during my first breakfast with one of Savita’s specialties, Kulia chat. I dug into the juicy red tomato slices, sweet banana slices, and baby chickpeas as she explained that the recipe had been handed down through generations of Guptas, but that few people make it any more. Apparently, tiny chickpeas are out of fashion these days. With my mouth full, all I could do is shake my head in astonishment. They have no idea what they are missing.

This traditional South Delhi dish of Kulia Chat with tomatoes baby chickpeas and sliced bananas is rarely prepared these days, but the tradition is being kept alive at Prakash Kutir Homestay

This traditional South Delhi dish of Kulia Chat with tomatoes, baby chickpeas, and sliced bananas is rarely prepared these days, but the tradition is being kept alive at Prakash Kutir Homestay

Another day Savita prepared a lunch of paratha (fried flatbread), slow cooked ladyfingers (okra), saag paneer (cottage cheese chunks in a spinach puree), sweet dal dessert with curd sauce and chat spices, and a fresh garden salad. The Indian philosophy that “Guest is God” was in full force at Prakash Kutir. Every time I turned around, someone was putting food in front of me. I ate everything in sight, telling myself it would have been rude to refuse. The truth was that it was all too delicious to resist, especially the sweets that appeared with regularity. Read More

 

Besan Ladoo is a popular sweet in northern India. It made from chickpea flour, sugar and ghee. The flour is browned in the ghee. When cooled, it is mixed with sugar and rolled into small balls. The men who make the balls by hand in this shop in Old Delhi are so adept that each ball is almost exactly the same weight. The sweet is most in demand during festivals, religious holidays, and special family events. However, Besan Ladoo is available at confectioners year-round in India.

Dawn boat ride in Varanasi, India, takes me past Chet Singh Ghat and the historic Chet Singh Fort

Click on title to view photo in large format. Along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, more than 90 stairways (ghats) lead down to the river. Walking the entire length of the ghats is highly recommended, but the extraordinary architecture along the river bank is best appreciated from a boat. Chet Singh Ghat is a perfect example. On foot, I looked up at Chet Singh Fort, towering high above me at the top of the stairs. It’s rich red sandstone facade glowed in the late afternoon sun. But I didn’t appreciate its immensity, or notice the filigreed Mughal domes that crowned its rectangular base, until I climbed into a boat a few days later. From the water, Chet Singh Fort was magnificent. I had to know more. Read More