Layin’ Back in La Jolla

Helloooo, San Diegooooo!!! In late March, Kaveri, Ivory, and I took a peaceful vacation to the shores of La Jolla, which is a seaside village in San Diego, California. La Jolla is known for its rugged coastline, the Pacific Ocean views, and cheerful sea lions. San Diego is one of my favorite cities, and I was thrilled to come back again after eight years. The temperature in late March was in the high 60’s/low 70’s. If you go more inland like to the downtown part of San Diego, the weather is much warmer (wear layers!). At this time, California lifted the COVID-19 mask mandate, so wearing masks in indoor facilities are optional.

Flights from Chicago to San Diego are very pricey. Ivory and I ended up booking a flight through American Airlines; the flight back to Chicago was a red eye, landing in O’Hare International Airport at 5am. It was my first time flying American, but it wasn’t a bad experience. The only drawback was that there was not much space underneath the seat to store my carry-on suitcase.

We stayed at the Grande Colonial, which is a boutique hotel right in the heart of La Jolla. Our stay was pleasant overall; the hotel was accommodating and they provided a step stool for me to use in the room. One tip I’d like to give is that when you enter your accommodation requests in the online reservation, be sure to follow up with the hotel front desk directly to ensure that your requests will be met. The reservations department is not necessarily equipped to handle special requests, they only pass them along to the appropriate people. The Grande Colonial was within close proximity to many restaurants, shops, and the beaches, so we mostly walked everywhere. Even though the hotel is accessible, La Jolla is very hilly, so getting around may be difficult with the sloped streets and sidewalks.

Trip Highlights and Must-Sees
It was really nice just walking along the trails by the coast, seeing sea lions on the La Jolla Shores, and the many cliffs of Bird Rock (a neighborhood in La Jolla).

Bobboi – We hit this fabulous gelato shop at least three times on our trip. I had the unforgettable hazelnut dark chocolate gelato. A popular spot in La Jolla!

Open Aire Farmer’s Market – The farmer’s market is held every Sunday morning in La Jolla. We had a great time checking out the local goods here. Try the fresh roasted almonds if you go!

Sunset Cruise in Mission Bay – On one night, we went on a boat ride around Mission Bay to watch the sunset. Note that this boat company does NOT have wheelchair accessible boats, but if you call the number on the website, they can direct you to a boat tour that will accommodate.

The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch – About thirty minutes north of La Jolla are fifty colorful acres of giant ranunculus flowers. The flower fields were in full bloom when we visited; this was one of the most memorable parts of the trip for me. They have wagon rides and other family-friendly activities as well.

Japanese Friendship Garden – This serene garden is located in Balboa Park, which is home to many museums, cultural centers, and the San Diego Zoo. The park is located in the downtown area of San Diego, so we took an Uber to get there from La Jolla.

Restaurants: Oscar’s Mexican Seafood (tacos), The Cottage (brunch), Richard Walker’s Pancake House (you have to try their baked apple pancake!!!), Bistro Pazzo (Italian cuisine – I had the yummy lobster risotto) and Sugar & Scribe Bakery (brunch)

Galveston Gallivanting

Happy 2022! My first trip of the year was to Galveston, Texas for Kaveri and Stefano’s bachelor(ette) party and to celebrate their upcoming marriage. Ivory, Karen, and I helped plan the festivities that took place during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. It was also a pleasant respite from the bitter Chicago winter.

Galveston is a beach town and its own barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico right off the Texas coast. It’s about an hour away from the Houston Hobby airport. There are many beaches in Galveston, and they are not very clean due to the silt washing up the shoreline and the waters are polluted. But there are plenty of fun attractions to check out, and I share some of them below.

Kaveri asked all of the guests to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before traveling. She also gave us each an at-home test for after we get back home. There were ten of us that came down for the long weekend, and we all stayed in a beach house together. So it was important to take all the precautions while still having a great time. The state of Texas does not require a mask in any indoor/outdoor setting, but our group wore masks whenever we were not in the beach house. I strongly recommend that anyone who travels be fully vaccinated and boosted.

The house we stayed in overlooked Sunny Beach. Galveston Island gets a lot of flooding, so most of the beach houses are built on stilts to be high up from the water. On one of the days, there were very high winds, and you could feel the house moving back and forth from inside. A few beach houses are wheelchair accessible and have elevators, but they are a lot more expensive to stay in. The main streets have curb cuts, but the sidewalks are a several inches off the road to protect from flooding and they are inlaid with brick. Some corners had curb cuts missing as well.

Bachelor(ette) Event Highlights

Food: Brunch at Yaga’s Cafe, Ice Cream and Chocolate at La King’s Confectionary, Smoked Chicken Tacos at The Pit Room (BBQ), Drinks at The Rum Shack, and Pupusas (a thick griddled flatbread from Central America) at a food truck in Houston

Yaga’s and La King’s are one of many eateries located on The Strand, which is the historic district of Galveston. I want to also point out that though the food at the Rum Shack was good, the restaurant manager was ignorant. He brought over a child’s booster seat when Kaveri asked for a stool so I can get onto the high top chair, and he made racially profiling comments to our group.

Manicures and Pedicures at Joy Nails – Stefano and his friend joined us as well!

Murder Mystery Party: Kaveri and Stephano booked through Murder Mystery Co. I got an award for the best costume (I dressed up as Maleficent!) and Ivory’s character was the murderer in the end.

Ghost Tour – On the last evening of the trip, our group went on a haunted tour of Galveston. Be prepared to do a lot of walking as there are multiple stops along the tour. We learned a lot about the island’s history and even though I don’t believe in ghosts, I couldn’t help but feel a little creeped out when looking at some of the old buildings.

It was a successful bachelor(ette) weekend, and both Kaveri and Stefano were very happy with how everything turned out. Congratulations and lots of love to the wonderful couple!

Rockin’ on the Rockies

In late October 2021, my friends Lucy, Randall, Kaveri, Stefano, Ivory, Karen, and I went on another mountain cabin trip. This time, we relaxed and rejuvenated in the majestic Rocky Mountains, located in the state of Colorado. All of us were fully vaccinated, and that enabled us to enjoy a more fulfilling vacation.

Ivory and I flew via Southwest airlines into the Denver International Airport (one of the biggest and busiest airports in the US), and we met up with Kaveri and Stefano. The four of us rented a four wheel drive SUV to aid in our 2.5 hour excursion into the mountains and to the cabin we rented in Grand Lake, CO. Thank you to Stefano for driving us up the mountains safely and back!

After leaving the airport, we stopped for lunch at the ToCabe Restaurant, which is a Native American eatery in downtown Denver. I had this delicious grilled chicken stuffed taco that was fried and topped with fresh veggies, salsa and chipotle sauce. You can see a picture of it in my slideshow below. There are about 7,000 people from the indigenous community that currently live in Denver today, a little over one percent of the total city’s population. Coming back from the mountains, we got donuts from Parlor Doughnuts. This place is known for their layered croissant-style donuts. Yummy!

We booked our cabin through the Vrbo website. If you look at the cabin photos on the site, you’ll see the microwave is up on a higher shelf. I contacted the cabin owners prior to booking and they said the microwave could be moved to the counter so I can access it. The owners also provided a step stool for me to use when we were there. To ensure a safe and smooth stay at any facility, don’t be afraid to be as specific as possible about what you need . One of the highlights of this cabin was that we had our own private access to Shadow Mountain Lake. Since it’s in the mountains, the stairs leading down to the lake are long and narrow. We also were able to use the canoes and kayaks the cabin owner provided. During our stay, we bought groceries and cooked all the meals in the cabin. There weren’t a lot of eating out options nearby and many of them closed early in the day.

If you ever decide to take a trip to the Rocky Mountains, be sure to give yourself a couple of days to get acclimated to the high altitudes. My friends and I went on a hiking trail the first day and some of us had a hard time adjusting to the mountain elevation (heart palpitations, headaches, heavy breathing and sinus pressure). The trails we went on were 1-2 miles above sea level so it’s important to listen to your body and pace yourself. I also recommend wearing layers in the fall and bringing good walking shoes/boots. On our last mountain trip to the Smokies, Karen let me use one of her hiking sticks. I bought the same exact pair following that, but it didn’t end up fitting in my carry-on bag. If you plan to bring hiking sticks, see if you can put them in a checked bag or check them in as a separate item. Southwest Airlines allows you to check two bags for free. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea if the national park had hiking sticks for people to rent on the trails.

Before going on hiking trails, do your research ahead of time to determine how accessible the trails would be for you. The Rocky Mountains National Park labels certain trails as ADA-compliant, which means that it meets the design requirements set by the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, and are accessible for people with disabilities. However, that was not the case for the two trails that we went on which were designated as “ADA-compliant” (Adams Falls and Lake Irene trails). My rule of thumb is that if a wheelchair user can’t navigate the entire trail smoothly and safely, then it is not accessible. The trails were flat in some parts, but rocky and sloped in others. The Lake Irene trail was also icy and I had to hold on to Kaveri’s arm most of the way. Adams Fall trail took us to a really nice waterfall, but there are drop offs that no one who is afraid of heights should go near. Though I was able to hike these trails, it doesn’t mean everyone else can. If the national park can’t redesign the hiking trails, then they need to be completely honest on how accessible the trails really are. That way, people with dwarfism and other disabilities know what trails to avoid, and we can plan our trip without getting disappointed and running into any issues that can be potentially be putting someone’s life at risk. A helpful website/app you can check out is AllTrails, which provides real reviews and photos of various hiking trails by regular people. It can give you a better idea of what the trails really look like, what other people experienced and exactly how accessible it may be.

Post-Quarantine Travel May-June 2021

NYC/Long Island

Bryant Park, right in the middle of Manhattan

As of May 1st this year, I became fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus and felt comfortable enough to fly on a plane again. My first trip post-quarantine (note that we are still in the middle of a pandemic) was to New York! All five of us sisters came together in mid-May to celebrate my sister Savannah’s birthday in Long Island.

Despite the fact that I got the vaccine and that travel restrictions loosened, I wore two masks while navigating the airport and on the flight. Southwest Airlines allowed use of the middle seat again, and I didn’t want to take any chances. The mask mandate is still in place at the airport but no one follows social distancing guidelines in the check – in lines or at the boarding gate.

I booked a black car service from LaGuardia Airport to my sister Kristine’s apartment in Manhattan. The price to take an Uber in New York City has skyrocketed during the pandemic because there are less drivers and the demand is low. My sister said that it can cost anywhere from $60-$100 depending on the time of day. The car service worked pretty well. I didn’t have to wait, the ride was smooth, and I paid a little less than what the current price of an Uber would be. I spent the first part of the day relaxing in Manhattan while my sisters worked. Kristine’s apartment is a block away from Times Square and there was a lot of noise and construction as the city was opening up from the pandemic. Savannah and I walked to Bryant Park and we all enjoyed lunch from Hudson Bagels. Did you know that the original style of bagels in the USA started in New York? After Kristine came back from work, we drove through the intense NYC traffic and got to Long Island by nightfall. Savannah brought a step stool for me to use in the Airbnb. The area we stayed in is called Bay Shore, which is a short distance from the coast.

Highlights of the trip included going to the beach in Robert Moses State Park (we went in the late morning and it was chilly!), dinner at Takumi Hibachi, and wine tasting at Loughlin’s Vineyard. When we first got to the winery, the host said I didn’t need to show an ID because I was a “child”. My sisters and I all chimed in together saying that I was an adult and the host stood there surprised watching me as I took out my driver’s license to show her that I was of drinking age. Like with many encounters, I did not let it bother me by shrugging it off and moving on. Later, the host came by our table and gave us a free bottle of wine as an apology for her ignorance.

The weekend went by quickly, but going to Long Island with the sisters was a much needed getaway after a whole year of quarantine.

Tampa Part 2: Alice Weds Nick

In early June, I got to travel back to Tampa, FL and witness my best friend, Alice, marry the love of her life! My friends Ivory and Kaveri came with and were my plus ones for the wedding; I was also looking forward to get some good vacationing in.

Florida in my opinion, is one of the states that didn’t take the COVID-19 pandemic as seriously as other parts of the country did. I was a little nervous about flying there as they didn’t have a mask mandate but it helped being fully vaccinated. Plus, Alice and Nick kept the pandemic in mind and limited the number of guests for their big day.

The wedding mass took place at the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Jesuit High School, which is the school that Alice teaches at. I was in awe of how gorgeous the chapel was. The ceremony followed Catholic rituals and the hymns were sung in a-cappella by the boys choir. One of Alice’s former students played the organ. It was such a lovely ceremony, and Alice looked absolutely stunning in her wedding dress.

The reception took place at the West Shore Grand Tampa, which is the hotel that we stayed at on our trip. The hotel advertises itself as a luxury property since it’s a “Tribute Portfolio” hotel under the Marriott chain, but it wasn’t as upscale as I expected. It was a nice hotel no doubt and definitely better than a Holiday Inn or Hilton Garden but no different from say a Hyatt property. Alice booked a block of rooms at a discount rate for the wedding guests. When I made the hotel reservation a few months prior, I wasn’t sure if I could get the lower rate because I was staying for five nights. Alice could only get the discount for two nights, and I couldn’t use it for more than that. However, the hotel actually ended up giving me a long-term stay discount so it worked out and was less expensive than the regular rate and the wedding discount combined. I was also impressed by the process in requesting a step stool for the hotel room. The hotel reservations department transferred me to a lady named Mary, who is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) liaison and works in the corporate reservation office. She took down my request and communicated it directly to the hotel guest services manager who said they will provide the stool. It is imperative for all hotels to have an ADA liaison to ensure that people with disabilities get their needs met.

When I checked in at the West Shore Grand, the step stool wasn’t in my room yet. The staff’s reasoning was that due to COVID-19 regulations, they didn’t know what room I was staying in and that they needed extra time for the room to be cleaned and reset after the previous guests checked out. They ended up bringing a step stool a while later. The beds were also surprisingly higher than usual. Even an average sized person would have to climb up to get on the bed. Thankfully, they ended up lowering one of the beds for me, but they should not be that high in the first place.

Here is a list of all the activities we did and restaurants we visited outside of the wedding:

  1. Pre-wedding Festivities with Alice: Nails done at Summit Salon Nails Academy and dinner at Armature Works
  2. Kaveri, Ivory and I checked out the Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg
  3. Breakfast at the Maple Street Biscuit Company (Carrollwood location), Another Broken Egg Cafe in Clearwater, Waffle House, and Brunchies
  4. Dinner at Yah Mon, a popular Caribbean restaurant in Tampa
  5. Ice Cream at Revolution Ice Cream Co. – I can’t stop thinking about how yummy the “Euro Trash” flavor was, which is Nutella ice cream with biscoff cookie crumbles
  6. On the last day – Kaveri, Ivory, and I hung out at Clearwater Beach and went on a beautiful sunset cruise. The cruise was through Tropics Boat Tours and it was a fitting end to the Florida vacation. Be sure to carry a lot of sunscreen when visiting!

On Top of Ol’ Smoky

I’m back! How has everyone been doing? I hope you all are staying healthy and safe. It’s been a difficult seven months since the quarantine period started as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and my friends Kaveri, Ivory and I were getting a little stir crazy and ready for a change of scenery. So for the second weekend of October, we decided to get away to the Great Smoky mountains together!

We all followed CDC guidelines and wore a mask every time we were out in public. I also made sure to handle surfaces in public restrooms with Clorox wipes. You can never be too careful! In addition, Tennessee recently lifted their restrictions on COVID and it’s one of the states that is on the quarantine list for Chicago. I live in Chicago so that means if I travel to one of the states on the quarantine list, I should to self-isolate for two weeks after my return to Illinois incase I get exposed to the virus.

The time it takes to get to the Smoky Mountains from Chicago is roughly 9 hours by car. Ivory and I drove together and met Kaveri and her boyfriend, Stefano, at our cabin. The route took us all the way down Indiana, Kentucky, and eastern Tennessee. We marveled at the fall landscapes as we drove through the mountains; the road trip went by faster than expected and we stopped only a few times for gas, bathroom and food breaks. There were plenty of Waffle Houses along the way, and we made sure to get our fill of their famous waffles and hash-browns.

Stefano, Kaveri, Ivory, and I stayed in a beautiful mountain cabin called On Eagle’s Wings in Gatlinburg, TN. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are the two main destinations for a vacation in the Smoky Mountains. The roads leading up to the cabin were very narrow and wound up and down, but Ivory handled it like a champion. It was also nice of Stefano to drive when we explored the area. The cabin was very spacious and clean – there were 2 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms with a Jacuzzi, a fully equipped kitchen, dining room, living room with a fireplace (two of the nights we built a fire and had s’mores!), and the downstairs had a movie room and a lounge with a pool table! The best feature of the cabin was the wraparound porch where you can walk out and take in the gorgeously colorful views of the majestic and serene Smoky Mountains. I could never get used to it!

Since a lot of the cabins are built in the mountains, many of them are not ADA-compliant. If you have a scooter/wheelchair or need an accessible cabin, your best bet is to rent one at the foot of the mountains. But if you are comfortable driving up the mountains, you may also be able to find an accessible cabin on a higher level. Here is the the website we used to book the cabin. I myself was fine with the cabin elevation; only accommodations I needed were a couple of step stools to access the kitchen area and bathroom sink. Kaveri was able to speak to the on-site manager who agreed to provide stools before we arrived.

To avoid contact and exposure to the coronavirus as much as possible, we cooked our meals at home. The grocery stores we went to for food were very busy; it was nerve-wracking to see some people without masks on even though it’s required to wear one in the stores. We shopped at Kroger in Pigeon Forge and Food City, which was a little closer to the cabin. The dishes we made over the weekend were delightful! We heartily devoured masala frittata, Dutch baby, scrambled eggs, and potatoes for breakfast, pizza, enchiladas and lasagna for dinner. For dessert, we checked out a couple of popular ice cream places: Mad Dog Creamery and Donuts and The Old Mill Creamery. All while wearing masks and social distancing, of course! Kaveri and Ivory’s friends, Karen and Bob, joined us for dinner couple nights and we played a creatively-designed fun game called Wingspan.

My favorite part of the trip was hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail we went on is called the Laurel Falls Trail. It was marked as one of the most popular and easier trails, being 2.6 miles roundtrip and a total elevation gain of 314 feet. I can generally walk long distances, but to help with the trek, Karen gave me an adjustable hiking stick to use. It really came in handy and I was able to climb up the mountain easier than expected. We also made sure to take plenty of breaks and absorb the breathtaking sights.

When we reached the end of the trail to capture the rushing 80 feet high Laurel Falls, there was a young boy around 6 years old who wouldn’t stop staring and pointing at me despite my attempts in asking him to stop. His parents were watching and didn’t say anything. Kaveri stepped in and requested the parents to have their child stop pointing, but their response was that he’s just a small child. It doesn’t matter how young or old children are, it is never too early to educate them about differences and that pointing is rude and disrespectful. No one likes to be pointed at and if your child is curious, they can ask me a question or you can ask me on their behalf. Next time a situation like this happens again, I will make sure to address the parents directly. They should use this as an opportunity for their child to understand that we all come in various shapes and sizes.

We were hoping to catch a mountain sunrise and sunset during the weekend but it was cloudy and rained for the most of the time. Nevertheless, the trip to the Great Smoky Mountains was very relaxing and memorable. I hope to come back and bring my family here one day!

Californian Hospitality

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My first trip of 2020 was to Newport Beach, California! This is my third time visiting the Golden State, and I was thrilled to go back again. I recently got a new job at a national membership association for nurses, and within the first few months of working there, they sent me on my first business expedition. My boss, Larry, and I staffed a regional state leadership workshop. It was a pleasure getting experience in meeting planning and working directly with the hotel staff on putting the workshop together.

Newport Beach is a coastal beach town in between Los Angeles and San Diego. Disneyland Anaheim is a short 30 minute drive away. The airport I flew into was the John Wayne Orange County Airport (SNA). Temperatures were in the high 60’s and the sun was shining so it felt warmer.

The hotel where we stayed at and where the meeting was held was the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach. I strongly recommend anyone who is looking for a weekend beach getaway to come here. The resort was beautiful and not over the top lavish which I liked. What is important for me to note was that the hotel staff was outstanding! They went above and beyond to take care of us and see that our event was a success. They even anticipated what we would need ahead of time. For example, they offered to assist me with getting meals in the buffet line without me having to ask someone. When I first got to the hotel, I had requested an early check in to my hotel room. It wasn’t ready right away, so for having me wait, they gave me two vouchers for free drinks at their bar! In addition, Larry and I each received a $50 gift certificate to use at their lounge or onsite restaurant. Having connections with the hotel staff came in handy when requesting room accommodations. They provided two step stools with no issues – I had one to use for getting on the bed and another to reach the bathroom sink.

Most of the meals were eaten at the hotel during the workshop, but I did get to squeeze in some good seafood! On the first night, Larry and I had dinner at Bluewater Grill. It was chilly outside, but the restaurant provided blankets for anyone who needed to keep warm. That was a lovely touch!

The leadership workshop went very well. Our attendees gave a lot of positive feedback. One of the things they mostly enjoyed was the hotel food – the menus I chose were a hit! I made sure the menus had a variety of options and accommodated for people with dietary restrictions. After the workshop ended, Larry and I had the evening to ourselves. We drove down the Pacific Coast Highway (State Route 1) and marveled at the Californian landscape. Then we enjoyed dinner and waterfront views at the Rusty Pelican. Overall a super fun trip!

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is best if everyone follows the guidelines set by CDC and avoid all non-essential travel. Since California was one of the first states to contract the virus, I am not ruling out the possibility that I could be carrying it without showing symptoms. With that being said, I will be ceasing my traveling temporarily so I don’t increase the risk of getting sick and getting others sick. I hope all of you are staying healthy and safe!

Reunion with the Motherland

In mid-October, after 28 years, I was fortunate to come back to India, the motherland and my birthplace. My mom and sister Savannah came on this journey with me. It was Savannah’s first time visiting India as well. Moreover, India is where my mom was born and grew up. The trip lasted 2 weeks; it went by really fast and our time was jam-packed. Rather than going through the ins and outs of each day, I provide a summary of each city we visit, discuss the culture and accessibility of the country, and also include travel pointers for India. India was definitely the trip of the year and one of the best trips I took in my lifetime. 

Trip Highlights

Hyderabad

The main reason we went to India this year was to see another sister of mine, Jennifer. She is studying abroad in India for the semester and has been here since July. The city she was residing in is Hyderabad, the capital and largest city of the recently formed state, Telangana. My mom also spent time in Hyderabad when living in India, so she was very familiar with the city. The main language that is spoken in Hyderabad is Telugu, which is the language my family speaks. This is where we we were for the majority of the trip.

Hyderabad is a bustling historic city of 10 million people, home to the Telugu movie industry (Tollywood) and famous for its high tech industry. A nickname of Hyderabad is “City of Nizams”, because the city was formed by the Nizam ruler Qutb Shahi Ruler Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah in 1591. Nizam is the title given to the rulers of Hyderabad and they ruled the capital for 200 years until India gained independence from the British in 1947. While we were in Hyderabad, we took a bus tour and visited famous landmarks during the Nizam rule, such as the Charminar, Golconda Fort, and Chowmahalla Palace.

One of the memorable times in Hyderabad was getting to know Jennifer’s host family. We celebrated Diwali with them, which is the festival of lights and biggest holiday in India. During Diwali, we visited an arts and crafts village called Shilparamam. They had many different vendors selling local items and had representations of various villages in India. We did some shopping here, which is quite an endeavor in India. You get to learn how to haggle with shopkeepers and it’s so tempting to want to buy everything you lay your eyes on.

Aurangabad

The first weekend of India was spent in Aurangabad, a city in the western state of Maharashtra. Just 40 minutes outside the city lies the magnificent Ellora Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Dating back between the 6th and 10th centuries, these are a series of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain caves. We were able to walk inside the caves and marvel at the intricate carvings, sculptures, and view the rooms that were utilized in ancient times. The biggest attraction of the cave is the Kailasha temple, which is a giant temple that is carved out of a single rock and dedicated to the Lord Shiva, Hindu God of destruction. This was on my mom’s bucket list to visit, and she was really thrilled to see this in person. The temple had so many carvings of Hindu Gods and Goddesses and various panels detailing Indian history and Hindu mythology. Truly a sight to see!

Though I loved the Ellora Caves, I was not a fan of Aurangabad. The traffic and congestion was very overwhelming, and there was so much trash lying around.

Tirupati

My favorite part of the trip was Tirupati, my birthplace and my mom’s hometown. A temple town surrounded by the glorious Tirumala Hills, Tirupati holds a special place in my heart. Not only because I was born here but also I really felt God’s presence and got to connect with myself spiritually during my time here. We got to see my mom’s childhood home and visit many temples in and around Tirupati such as the Sri Kalahasti Temple, Kapila Teertham, Japali Hanuman Temple, Kodanda Rama Temple, and Padmavathi Devi Temple.

The most powerful temple of all and in fact one of the most visited and richest temples in the world is the Venkateshwara Swami Temple situated at the top of the Tirumala Hills. Thousands of pilgrims visit the temple each day for a glimpse of Lord Venkateshwara. The act of seeing God is called “Darshan”. Venkateshwara Swami is a representation of the Hindu God Lord Vishnu, the protector of the universe. We believe when people visit Tirumala, they are actually visiting Lord Vishnu’s abode. Because it’s so busy here, the temple board and staff have enacted strict policies to maintain the smooth running of the temple. The lines are so crowded and people push and shove each other. Devotees can’t stand in front of God for more than a literal second because the lines have to keep moving so they can get as much people in the temple per day. They organized it to instead of one big line, it’s divided into multiple different lines where people can go at different times of the day. To get to the temple, there are different routes you can take. Two routes you can take by foot and one by driving. My mom and Savannah decided to walk up to the temple. Because the route is very long at least 3000 steps and very vigorous to climb, my mom’s friend came with me and together we drove up the hills.

The original plan for Darshan was for me to get into a special assistance line for senior citizens and people with disabilities. However, I was not eligible because I was not an Indian citizen and because I can walk, they deemed me as able to manage the regular lines. There is a line for non-residential Indians/passport holders but it is still very packed. My mom’s friend has a brother who works at the temple so once my mom and sister came up the hills, he kept us safe and helped us bypass the lines. The temple was adorned in gold and the spiritual energy was so strong. Once we got inside, the brother lifted me up for a glimpse of Venkateshwara Swami. After that, something that never happened in the history of the temple took place for me. I was already stunned by the experience of seeing God but I also got to pray to him longer because we were pulled out of line and were able to see him on the side for 5 minutes! All while the regular lines were still going through quickly. That was an incredible experience and I feel very blessed for it.

Getting Around India & Travel Roadblocks

When coming to India, I anticipated a big culture shock but what surprised me was that because I already feel very deep in the cultural roots and heritage, it was easy for me to be right at home. One thing about India I will not get over though is the crazy traffic! It is very noisy and there is no such thing as obeying road signs or staying in your own lane. Everyone is driving bumper to bumper and every space is filled up by an auto rickshaw or a scooter. I’m telling you, if you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere. People even casually walk through the traffic and cars won’t stop until they’re so close to hitting them. The chaos really gave us the ride of our lives. Hyderabad has ubers, which we relied on to get to our various destinations. We paid each driver in cash; be prepared to have an uber driver cancel on you if the destination is too far for them or even too close. In Tirupati, my mom’s cousin arranged a cab for us to use the entire time we where there.

Since we were travelling to different cities within India, it felt like most of our time was spent waiting at an airport or on a place. India was 10.5 hours ahead of us and it was easier to adjust to the time change while there. On the other hand, the jet lag hit us harder going back to Chicago. It took me 3 days to get over it. You can’t expect a long trip to be smooth 100% of the time; we definitely had our fair share of obstacles along the way.

Air India

The airlines that we took to India and back was Air India. The flight goes straight to India with a stop in Delhi where we change planes to get to Hyderabad. It is the cheapest way to travel to India, but the poorest and slowest customer service I’ve witnessed. We were supposed to leave at 12pm Chicago time on October 16. But the flight was delayed a whole 12 hours later and we didn’t depart until midnight, and didn’t reach Hyderabad until the following morning on October 18. And because we lost some time, we only had a day to get settled in and rest before our 1am flight to Pune the next morning on. The Air India flight was a whopping 15 hours with no stop in between. I had trouble sleeping on the uncomfortable seats and the meals were tasteless. When we were heading home to Chicago, the flight was delayed a couple hours and we were not notified of the change until we got to the airport. Next time we go to India, we will book ahead of time and on a different airline with a layover such as Lufthansa Airlines. No more Air India for me!

TruJet and IndiGo

The only airline that offered direct flights from Hyderabad to Aurangabad was TruJet. This Indian domestic airline also gave us a negative experience. Our flight to Aurangabad was cancelled for no reason so we needed to figure out another way to reach there the same day. We ended up taking a 1am flight to Pune, Maharashtra and booked a bumpy 4 hour cab ride from Pune to Aurangabad. I am still waiting on the refund for the cancelled flight. And in getting back to Hyderabad the next day, the flight was delayed four hours. It never ends! The recommended domestic airline in India to go with is IndiGo. There was one time where we almost missed our flight back to Hyderabad from Tirupati. One of the flight agents was able to help us get through check in and we got there just in time as boarding started.

Accessibility in India

Except for the airports and city malls, India is unfortunately not an accessible and disability friendly country. Unlike the US, there are no established regulations that mandate public places be accessible. A lot of temples and famous historical sites are very old and have not been updated to accommodate people with disabilities. So while most places have stairs, sometimes they could be uneven and hard to climb because of the wide distance between each step. I am able to walk long distances and climb stairs but there were points where I needed extra time to get from one place to another. It was exhausting on the day we did the bus tour in Hyderabad because of all the walking and hiking we did. Getting onto the bus was tricky as well because the first step was too high for me to climb. We brought a portable stool with us for me to use in the airbnbs, and it was beneficial to have my family with me whenever I needed assistance getting around. A couple of the airbnbs had an elevator to get to a higher floor, but it was not big enough for wheelchair/scooter to fit in. There would even be a step up to the bathroom or the main entrance. The roads are not smooth at all and there are no sidewalks; you really have to be alert and careful while finding your way. So if anyone is planning to visit India, I strongly advise not to travel alone and that proper steps are taken for you to ensure that your travel is safe and smooth.

Trip Preparations and Tips

  1. In order to get to India, you will need your passport and a tourist visa. I include the link here to apply for the visa online.
  2. As mentioned above, book your flight tickets ahead of time, at least 3-6 months in advance to get the best prices.
  3. If you’re not staying with family or friends, I recommend booking an accessible airbnb. We stayed at airbnbs in all 3 cities and had a positive experience with each of them.
  4. Be prepared to wait in line for a very long time while getting through airport immigration. It took us 2 hours to get through immigration in Delhi.
  5. Do NOT drink the tap water in India. Ask for bottled water or filtered water wherever you go.
  6. Depending the part of India you’re visiting and how long you’re staying, you may need to get certain vaccinations before you leave. My family and I did not get any vaccinations because our trip was short and we were going to the urban areas.
  7. Besides the regular toiletries, here are some items you don’t want to forget to pack for India: travel power plug adapter, bug spray, light breezy clothing, international plan/sim card for phone, sunscreen, toilet paper/ flushable wet wipes
  8. Don’t overpack and leave plenty of space for souvenirs!
  9. The exchange rate is much less if you exchange dollars to rupees at the airport in India versus the US.
  10. Comfortable walking shoes are a must!
  11. Familiarize yourself with common phrases in Hindi and the regional language so you can get what you need and to where you need to go.
  12. As stated above, light breezy cotton clothing is the way to go in the hot weather. In October, the weather is high 80’s during the day and 70’s at night. There are lots of places in India where people dress conservatively so I don’t recommend wearing shorts. Jeans are common in India, and if you have doubts you can always buy clothing there.

Fun Facts about India

  • A dollar goes a long way in India. 1 US Dollar is 70 Indian rupees.
  • One observation I had in India is that the people have a very laid back attitude. They don’t seem to be under any pressure or hurry to get somewhere; it’s very easy going unlike the society in the United States.
  • Rice and tea is a staple for India. The food can be really spicy and the levels vary depending on what part of India you’re in and who is making the food.
    • Biryani is very popular rice dish in Hyderabad
    • Common breakfast items: Idly, Dosa, Puri, Upma
    • For dinner/Lunch: Rice, Chapati with variety vegetable curries, Dal/Sambar
    • Almost every meal is accompanied by yogurt to help cool the spicy food down
  • Since India is the 2nd most populous country in the world, be prepared for congestion and LOTS of crowds.
  • I did have to deal with lots of people staring. I don’t like to generalize, but Indians tend to stare at everyone who is deemed to be “different.” They can even tell if you’re foreign and not from India. Sometimes it got to the point where I couldn’t ignore it. So I would respond by either greeting them with my hands folded and saying “Namaste” or “Namaskar”, and short phrases like “Kya Chal Raha Hai”, which means “What’s up/what’s going on” in Hindi.
  • India has a vast history and is a diversely rich country. Every region and village has their own story to tell. And with its diversity comes a variety of wildlife. You will spot monkeys near temples and lizards crawling up walls.
  • Cows are sacred in India; there are plenty of them wandering the streets and people leave them alone.
  • Shoes are not allowed inside the temple or on temple grounds. There are designated places to leave them outside.
  • Only recently is India is working to better take care of the environment. The sewage and drainage system is not as advanced and so we did experience bad odors from time to time.
  • Because the demand of electricity is higher than the supply in India, sometimes there would be power cuts during the day. Hot water is also a commodity; the airbnbs had hot water geysers where you would have to turn the hot water on and wait for some time for it to be ready.

It’s been a month since we went back to India, and I’m still reflecting on the trip and the wonderful experience we had. The next time I visit, I would like to stay for at least 3 weeks to a month. We just scratched the surface of India on this trip, and there is SO much more to cover.

If you have questions or are looking for additional tips, please leave a comment below or contact me directly. Thanks for reading!

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Chillin’ in Cbus

In September, I spent the last weekend reconnecting with my dear friend Lucy and her husband Randall in Ohio’s state capital and largest city. They bought a beautiful house and moved to Columbus right after they got married last year (check out my blog post on their destination wedding in Cancun!). Lucy works at White Castle Corporate, which is headquartered in Columbus. A lot of other stores such as Express, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Big Lots are based here.

My trip started out a bit rocky. I originally was supposed to fly into Columbus on Friday evening. At first, the flight was delayed 45 minutes because of the stormy weather in Chicago. When we all boarded the plane, the pilot informed us that we weren’t going to leave until the runaway was open. The storm was right above the airport, and all planes were grounded for the time being. A few moments later, lightning struck nearby which caused the plane to lose power. It came back on fairly quickly, but now the situation was to assess if lightning did indeed hit the plane. We then disembarked the plane and was told that it would be another hour for maintenance to come and see if there was any damage. With the storms progressively getting worse through the night, our flight ended up being cancelled. Luckily, I was able to get onto a flight the next morning and flew into Columbus around 11am. What helped was that Columbus is only an hour plane ride so we still had a full day for many activities.

When I arrived, Lucy picked me up, and we stopped for breakfast at Bob Evans. We then went to her home and spent some time with Randall and their cats, Millie and Rocco. They live in a northeast suburb called Westerville; it is within the city limits of Columbus. Lucy provided a step stool that I used to access the bathroom area and sink. In the late afternoon, Lucy and I explored the Easton Town Center, which is a popular shopping complex in the city. We walked around the different shops while sipping our teas from the Koko Tea Salon and Bakery. The sun was shining and the air was humid. After Easton, Lucy and I went back to pick up Randall and the three of us drove through the next door suburb called New Albany, which is known for their million dollar homes. We were amazed to see how big these houses were especially those with 4-5 car garages. Following that, Randall and Lucy took me to the Hoover Dam (not to be confused with the one in Las Vegas). The couple was dog-sitting this weekend so we decided to bring her along for the fun. It was quite enjoyable walking along the dam and seeing the sun set in the background. Our evening was topped off with a hearty home-cooked Indian dinner and a thriller movie, The Curse of La Llorona.

Sunday morning started off with brunch at the Milestone 229 restaurant. I anticipated a long wait considering it was downtown but surprisingly, unlike brunches in Chicago, they seated us right away at a table outside. After our meal, we took pictures along the Scioto River and marveled at the Columbus skyline. On our way back to Westerville, we drove through the city a bit and even went by the Ohio State University Campus. OSU is a big ten school and their rivalry with University of Michigan is very well known. My flight back to Chicago departed at 4:30, but a relaxing weekend wouldn’t be complete without chai and biscuits.

Lucy and Randall were very gracious hosts. I felt right at home with them and definitely plan to come back hopefully in the near future!

The “Maine” Event

 

In celebration of Kaveri’s birthday, Kaveri, Ivory, Lucy, and I journeyed to Maine in late June for some much needed R&R. We have been looking forward to this trip for many months!

While we were ready for a real vacation, the trip started off a bit rocky. Mine and Ivory’s  flight was delayed from 6:45pm to 9:15pm so we did not fly into Portland, Maine until after midnight. We then picked up the rental car and finally reached our bed&breakfast in Kennebunkport at 1:30am. Kaveri was already there and Lucy’s flight was the next morning. One thing I noticed when driving to the inn was that the streets were narrow and not properly lit at all. Be alert!

Our residence for the weekend was the Inn at English Meadows. We had our own private bungalow behind the main inn and were served a gourmet 3 course breakfast each morning. My favorite course was the cinnamon pecan pancakes. In the afternoon, we were treated to delicious homemade cookies and lemonade. Our host, Elizabeth, was very friendly and hospitable. She provided the step-stools I needed with no issue. We really had a lovely stay, and I strongly recommend this place to anyone who is looking for a relaxing getaway to Maine. It is also conveniently located; a lot of the popular restaurants/attractions in Kennebunkport is either just a 10 minute walk or 3-5 min car ride over.

We started Friday off with breakfast at the inn and picking up Lucy from the airport. Most of our day was spent in the Portland area.  For the later part of the morning, we caught up on each other’s lives at Tandem Coffee. Then we strolled to the Eastern Promenade which is a waterfront trail complete with views of the ocean and boats on the harbor. The weather was cloudy and in the low 60s. Kaveri especially enjoyed sitting right on the dock and touching the Atlantic Ocean. It was a peaceful time. Lunch was at the Great Lost Bear in Portland; I had a Thai grilled chicken wrap with decadent sweet chili peanut sauce. Following our meal, we explored another side of the Eastern Promenade. Then, we quenched our thirst at a soda and cocktail bar called Vena’s Fizz House. I had the cucumber reviver fizz, which consisted of cucumber, pineapple, mint, agave, lemon, bitters. As refreshing as it sounds, I could taste more pineapple and not as much cucumber as I hoped. The rest of the afternoon and early evening was spent souvenir shopping and walking around the downtown Portland area. Our day ended back in Kennebunkport with dinner at Alisson’s Restaurant. You can’t go to Maine without having their famous lobster of course; my meal was a lobster bisque lobster roll. The lobster bisque was drizzled on top of lobster chunks in a grilled roll – tasty!

On Saturday, the sun was shining and summer was in the air. It was a great day to go whale watching! We bought our tickets through First Chance Whale Watch. The boat tour was 4.5  hours long and most of the time involved travelling to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and back. But the blue waters were so calm; I felt such serenity being on top of them. And yes, we saw humpback whales, and in fact a whole bunch!! Some were breaching at the surface where you can see their blowholes. I loved when they would do their deep sea dives. To get a better view of the whales, I had to stand on the bench, but I held on to my friends for support.  It was such a breathtaking sight and an unforgettable experience. The relaxation continued with soothing massages, facials, and foot treatments at the Cottage Breeze Day Spa and Boutique. After the massages, we stopped for coffee at Mornings in Paris and ice cream at Rococo. In terms of accessibility, there are curb cuts for wheelchair users, but brick paths are not conducive for smooth travel. There are also no Ubers or Lyfts in the area, so it was beneficial for us to have rented a car. After recharging at the inn, we drove up to Cape Elizabeth to visit the Two Lights Lighthouse. We came at the perfect time for the sun was setting; the sky was painted with beautiful shades of pink, purple, red, orange, and yellow. The views of the water on the cliff with the lighthouse in the distance was magical.  Dinner was at the Duffy’s Tavern and Grill back in Kennebunkport; I delighted in fried haddock tacos.

After breakfast on Sunday, Ivory and I headed to the airport for our 1pm flight back to Chicago. But first, we dropped by Holy Donut for some handmade potato-based donuts. What a satisfying end to a wonderful trip to Maine! I definitely want to go back again, and I hope you have a chance to visit the “Vacationland” as well!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in Beantown

 

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During the first weekend of April, I travelled to Boston, MA again to visit my sister, Savannah. She is a grad student at Harvard University, and I was excited to bond with her and see the prestigious Ivy League campus for the first time. This was the fifth time I have been to Boston, and I must say it was the best Boston trip yet! When I went previously, I couldn’t see a lot of this diverse city because I was either here for business or other obligations. Savannah and I covered pretty much all of Boston in one weekend and she even got some time to study.

I flew into Boston Logan International Airport around noon on Friday. From there I took the Silver Line shuttle bus to South Station and transferred to the Red Line, which took me to the Shawmut stop that’s just a few blocks from Savannah’s house. Savannah lives in Dorchester, which is one of the Boston city neighborhoods. In Chicago, we refer to the subway as the “L”. Boston’s subway is known as the “T”. Though it was simple to get to Dorchester from the airport, I couldn’t help but notice over the weekend how different the public transportation system was from Chicago’s. For instance, the T in Boston was slower and came late so you have to give yourself extra time to get one from destination to another. It is also not as accessible as it is in Chicago. The Green line converts to a train and streetcar but it has steps you have to walk up to get to the seats. I was able to navigate the Boston transportation system without much issue but it may not be easy for others.

Savannah first showed me the Harvard  University campus in Longwood/Boston, which is where the medical school and the Chan School of Public Health is. The main campus is in Cambridge. We then went to dinner at the Laughing Monk Cafe, which is a popular Thai restaurant nearby. My entree was the crispy sweet and spicy basil chicken. Tasty! Following dinner, we headed over to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston’s Seaport District. The museum was right by the water and they had a “First Friday” event where you can sip cocktails, dance, do art, and visit the various galleries. I especially enjoyed looking at their new exhibit, “Huma Bhabha: They Live”. Huma Bhaba is a Pakistani American artist who is known for her sculptors. To end the Friday night, Savannah and I met a couple of her friends in Kendall Square for drinks at the Smoke Shop BBQ.

Saturday morning started with a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and scrambled eggs at home. Then we jumped on the red line and green line for the hour trek to Cambridge! Before that, we stopped and strolled along the Charles river for a while. Savannah then took me to the main Harvard campus and showed me Harvard Square, a plaza right outside the campus in the center of Cambridge and has various shops and restaurants. We popped in for sweets at Milk Bar, which is a bakery known for their cookies and “crack” pie. Savannah had to study for a few hours so I explored more of the campus and Harvard Square myself while making sure to soak in the sunshine and perfect spring weather. The last hour was spent reading in the Harvard bookstore. Our Saturday evening was topped off with pasta at Al Dente in the North End. I delighted in lobster ravioli while Savannah savored her gnocchi. Boston’s North End is famous for their Italian restaurants. Seafood in Boston also is a can’t miss, especially their lobster rolls!

My flight left on Sunday afternoon, but Savannah and I had plenty of time to check out Boston’s Back Bay area and enjoy brunch at the Friendly Toast. The wait can be easily up to 1.5 hours so we put our name in the no-wait app. That way when we arrived, we only had to wait 10 minutes for our table. Make sure to request floor seating so they don’t place you at high top tables. This restaurant is vegetarian friendly (no pun intended!) and offers a unique menu. After brunch, we walked through the Financial district, the Boston Commons, and relaxed in the Boston Public Garden before I had to go to the airport. I never get tired of coming to Beantown. It’s one of my favorite cities, and I look forward to coming back again real soon for Savannah’s Master Graduation!