Visiting India: my 3-week trip in 39 photos

betty ming liu Travel 22 Comments

Well hello again, finally! At last, I’m posting about India…

During my time in the world’s second largest country, I ate, played and shopped. I also learned to cook south Indian specialties and made friends. For an unexpected bonus, the vacation helped me re-think my parents’ immigrant experience — with unexpected tenderness.

This once-in-a-lifetime journey jelled when my daughter and I crashed the summer vacation that our neighbors were planning for themselves. They live  in a pretty house down the block. Dad, who is originally from India, and Mom, who is a self-described white girl from Long Island, are parents to two gorgeous bi-racial kids – a 15-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy — on a trip back “home” to visit Indian Dad’s parents and siblings. My 15-year-old multiracial daughter and Chinese me were thrilled when they said we could tag along.

We were mostly with Indian Dad’s people in the conservative south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. How traditional? Well, his relatives are vegetarian Hindus who have prayer alters in their homes. The women only wear saris (or sometimes tunic-and-pants selwar sets) and cook three meals a day from scratch. Then their men folk sit down to eat first while these college-educated wives serve them. American Mom, the girls and I did our best to adapt. But trust me, we did it through gritted teeth.

Of course, we didn’t fit in on any level. Everywhere we went, people stared at us with friendly curiosity. When they asked, Indian Dad would explain in his native Tamil who each of us was, which foreign-looking woman was his wife, how I was a neighbor. Half-way through the trip, American Mom had enough of the jabbering and told her husband: “You should just tell everyone that you’re traveling with your two wives and three children. It would be much simpler.” And probably much more believable!

Our itinerary began with a stay at the Chennai apartment of Indian Dad’s sister and brother-in-law. From this dusty industrial hub that is the IT capitol of the world, we drove deep into the mountains to hang with Indian Dad’s parents and grandma in the village. We tooled around some regional sights before heading back to his sister’s place for a last visit. I adored being with this family because they were so welcoming. Once the aunties realized that I’m into food and didn’t mind the 90-plus-degree heat of their kitchens, they took pains to coordinate their meals so that I was constantly sampling new dishes.

While everyone spoke at least a bit of English, real conversation was difficult. But our hearts were open. So the women bonded by cooking. We noted our cultural differences and similarities in the way we chopped veggies and used spices. Once we got our groove on, it was like we were dancing in the kitchen.

Despite their rigid routines, they were eager to sample my improvised Chinese cuisine. (Thumbs up for me, phew!). The auntie and uncle we stayed with were even intrigued by the boxes of quinoa I’d brought for back-up. Yes, everyone there ate my quinoa salads! They were very interested because their food is too carb-heavy and diabetes has become a national problem.

Since my daughter and I are such a tiny just-the-two-of-us unit, we thoroughly enjoyed our close-up view of sprawling, transcontinental Indian family drama. The usual tensions over birth order, money, etc. were especially entertaining since we weren’t personally involved.

Something that American Mom said to me still echoes in my head: just because your family is constantly around and in your business doesn’t mean you have real intimacy with them. How possible is it, actually, to truly connect with your family?

Even though my father is long dead and our relationship was difficult, being around Indian Dad and his stern, patriarchal papa was healing for me. Sure, they’re Indian and I’m not.

But some immigrant experiences are universal. Like that moment when our brood of American-born kids grew irritable after one-too-many visit to yet another family friends’ house. Watching these teens fidget while the adults blabbed away in Tamil — a language our young’uns couldn’t speak or understand  — reminded me of my own mind-numbing childhood summer vacations to Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.

My personal breakthrough in India came on a steamy morning when Indian Dad was excited about taking the kids to see (yet another) Hindu temple. To their credit, they endured it. He was trying so hard to make them happy! Suddenly, I thought of my father hauling my sister and I on those  boring tours of Buddhist temples and jade knickknack factories. Maybe he wasn’t trying to torture us after all. Maybe he wasn’t intent on force-feeding us Chinese culture. Maybe he actually thought we’d have fun.

Luckily, Indian Dad was insightful enough to realize that kids will smile if given a chance to shop and buy whatever they want. Most of the jewelry the girls bought cost 50 cents or at most, a buck or two. We all snapped up tops, pants, shawls and shoes for a few dollars apiece. A few splurge items cost $15 to 20. And don’t get me started on Indian fabrics — stunning stuff. There was a $150 hand-embroidered shawl I couldn’t resist.

Before we left south India, Indian Dad’s silent, scary father personally gifted my daughter and I with thick woven cotton blankets. The presents were handed to us while he flashed us a rare, charming smile that changed my opinion of him completely. I guess, on some level, I’d misunderstood him. Maybe he didn’t talk because, like me, he felt socially awkward too.

So in the last minutes before we departed for the airport, I impulsively gushed my thanks in English and kissed him on the cheek. Even though he recoiled from my inappropriate physical contact, he said one word to me: “Happy!” Imagine — what if there wasn’t a language barrier between us? What kind of conversations would we have had? What if  my own dad and I simply misunderstood each other?

Leaving south India, there was one last adventure. American Mom and Indian Dad were booked for a separate flight back home, leaving me in charge of the kids. I insisted on carting them north to Mumbai — formerly known as Bombay — where we spent 36 dazzling hours.

Once again, we were embraced by friends because one of my former students hooked me up through her family connections. A driver met us at the airport and a local businessman was on hand to offer sight-seeing advice and restaurant recommendations. We stayed one night at the super-glam Taj Mahal Palace, which has just been fully renovated following the 2008 terrorist attack. Being in Mumbai was so eye-opening that I want to write a separate post about it.

As for what this three-week adventure cost: roughly $5,500 total, for both my daughter and I:

  • $2,460 for various airfares
  • $500 for ground transportation both in the U.S. and in India
  • $700 for various hotel costs (this includes 2 rooms for one night at the Taj Mahal @ $250 per room)
  • $1,840 for meals, shopping (includes nearly $400 to eat two meals at the Taj)

Ouch. That’s a substantial chunk of change for me. But our friends saved us a small fortune by taking care of us. Besides, there’s no way to put a price on life experience. Now that my daughter and I know how to eat with our hands, we move a little differently in our own kitchen. With all our sparkly new baubles, we returned bangled, spangled and wrapped in lovely Indian fabrics. We’ve seen how some Indians succeed and others struggle to survive. We returned from India completely passionate about traveling more.

Here are some of the sights and scenes from our trip: 

Comments 22

  1. Post

    hey, if you made it all the way down to the end of the post, then you are a TRUE FRIEND. thanks for letting me go on and on about my trip. i still feel like i haven’t even begun to describe what happened.

    btw, while i’m not saying you should do chinese herbals, here are the dosages for huang lien that were suggested by my chinese medicine man:

    — as a preventative, take one tablet twice a day, between meals.
    — for diarrhea, 3 tabs every 4 hours for at least 5 days.
    — for malaria, 4 tabs every 3 hours for at least 5 days.

  2. Wow, Betty. This trip looks like it was amazing! I’m headed to Bangladesh to visit my boyfriend’s family in December. I’m going to India too, but still have to map out my trip. I have no idea what to expect!

  3. What a fantastic post, Betty, it was well worth the wait. And I love your photos (as always) you’ve really put us there with you in an incredible place. And a fantastic layout, too. Thanks so much for posting this.

  4. Loved to hear about your exotic trip. You make everything seem so easy and free flowing. Even a trip to India which probably seems surreal to most people. Are you a photo jornalist? Your pictures are fabulous! I’m going to show them to my husband. He’s a magnificent photographer and I think he’s going to love them.

  5. Post

    hey megan, before going to india, i brainstormed with at least a dozen people who were either Indian or visited there multiple times. guess what — every person told me something different about where to go, what to expect, what to bring. india’s a big, complicated country. all i know is that if you’re going with your bf, it’s gonna be really interesting!

    ivan, joel and monica — always appreciate your feedback. especially since it took me forever to pull together this post. hard to edit down so many emotions. and aw monica, i’m no photojournalist. but these days, we all have to know how to use a camera. my canon powershot really improved my skills. if you search for it by name on my blog, you’ll find a post about it. :-)

  6. I loved seeing and reading about your journey to India. I was there in 1999, and Mumbai was called Bombay then. India must have changed tremendously in that time. This was part of my 6 mo. journey around the world by myself. When I got home, I had no desire to travel for quite a while. I hope you get to do more traveling.

  7. Hi! Betty, I have read your blog the other day but too busy & tired to leave my feedback especially after the primary election job & Mother Nature hit NYC.

    My FIRST India trip was different itineraries and shorter than one week.
    So some of your adventures are very interesting and new to me.

    Glad you enjoy it! ^^

  8. Wow Betty what a great trip you had. I always wanted to do a trip to India, I definitely will someday. I am curious about that curry dish picture. It looks delicious. Do you have the recipe?

    1. Post

      farah, that was one of my favorite dishes. basically a potato and chick pea stew. i think there were some tomatoes in it too. the potato was a great thickener. and the chick peas were pressure cooked to make them really soft. no, i don’t have an actual written recipe! and neither does the auntie who made it. she and her mom tried to give me an intuitive sense for cooking in their style. when we said goodbye, this auntie gave me a custom mix of her favorite spice powder. i have a hunch if i throw that into some stewed veggies, i’ll come pretty close to replicating the dish. short of that, i think buying a blended curry mix in a local indian store will have to do!

  9. Post

    june, mumbai has even changed from just a few months ago! from the airport, we took a brand-new bridge into the city. that’s just one example. btw, i don’t know how you went around the world for six months. three weeks is more than enough for me. i don’t want to go anywhere for a while either!

    and shirley, i’ve gotten the impression that most people don’t travel this extensively through south india. the sights are very different from north india. what a vast country!

  10. Betty —
    What a fabulous post! I was sorry to see it end, really. I liked the way you told your travel story; so many are simply a catalog of sites, but yours was quite insightful, using it as a point of reference to understand your own family’s immigrant experience.
    This trip is a wonderful experience for you and your daughter, and you were so fortunate to get such an insider’s view.
    And the photos, don’t get me started on how you photographed all the important stuff in the kitchen. Were all the women reluctant to be photographed, and is that why you showed them all from the back?

    1. Post

      Thank you, Susan! Actually, the women don’t know I’m blogging. How do I explain blogging when they barely use the Internet??! I didn’t show them because I promised Indian Dad (their brother/son) that I would protect everyone’s privacy. That’s also why I didn’t show you the whole house in the village. That house is unbelievable, very distinctive — which is why I couldn’t give you more. I wish I could’ve shown you the women. They were so sweet and wonderful. One of them started calling me “sister.” The main auntie and I really hit it off too. And their mother was a doll. At one point, she, American Mom and I were sitting in the kitchen, the three of us just staring at each other and shaking our heads. We so regretted the language barrier. But I’m still glad for what we had.

  11. Betty,

    India is a place I have been fantasizing about going to along with Beijing.
    Your description and photos were great, I could almost taste the Masala.

    I love how you’re able to blog well and consistently. It inspires me to get off my high horse and be better at blogging. For whatever reason, it’s like Im fighting a goat, I just dont want to do it sometimes.

    I guess that’s another conversation.



  12. Hi Betty — finally getting around to reading your blog about your India trip. Just loved it. I’ve always loved travelling to places off the beaten track; I used to work for AFS International/Intercultural Programs, and travelled to many parts of the world… Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and many other destinations. I miss it, but got the full flavor (in more ways than one!) after reading your blog. Thanks for all your insights!

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