How a River Boat Changed My Mind About Cruises

My two experiences on cruises were enough to have me docked on dry land forever: at 9, we braved the Big Red Boat’s Disney cruise, where I was too old for the kiddie activities and too obnoxious to hang with my parents near the pool; seven years later, I became the babysitter to all of my younger cousins while everyone else spent the night at the disco.

My dad had been looking into river cruises since I’d announced I was moving back to Europe, gathering information on routes and rivers, sharing tips on saving money for a cruise and mapping out a time when all four of us would have overlapping vacation time. I kicked and screamed digitally, instead convincing them to do Ireland, Northern Spain and even Morocco.

how a

An itinerary for the so-called Danube Waltz popped up in my inbox two years ago, announcing that my parents would be meeting me in Munich for eight days of river cruising past castles, vineyards and quaint villages stuck in time along Europe’s most fabled river. I lost out and continued digitally screaming and kicking as the countdown to our trip ticked from months into weeks.

I was skeptical, having become more jaded about travel and packaged tours, and cruises had seemed like a cop out for people who couldn’t be bothered planning their own vacation. But I hadn’t seen my family in a year and was eager to visit Vienna again and experience Budapest in the wintertime. 

Viking Magni Ship

A few months later, I picked my parents up at Franz Joseph Strauβ and set off for Passau, the City on Three Rivers. It was Christmas Eve and we’d missed the markets, several shops and bars were still open so we could stretch our legs before setting off.

A Luxury Experience at a 2-1 Deal

The company runs amazing deals, offering two-for-one cabin rates and airfares. Sure, it’s pricey when you add it all up, but the devil was in the details. A state-of-the-art longboat, comfortable and stylish cabins (even our double in steerage!) and a fleet of friendly staff sets the company apart.

viking state rooms

Oh, and they spend THREE TIMES the money on food per passenger than the average ocean liner! Between free local beers and wines, incredible bar snacks (and a barkeep who just handed us an entire bag of them when he saw us on approach) and regional dishes on every mealtime menu, we practically rolled down the gangway each morning at port.

Customer service was also willing to discount my airfare from Spain and still honor the two-for-one discount – a gold star in my book.

Breaking the Cruise Rules

Two of my biggest issues with cruises are the schedules and the forced sense of community that entertainment directors try to create. Choosing a river cruise meant far less people aboard and more interaction between my family and the staff.

Each afternoon before dinner, we had a briefing on the next day’s city and entertainment of some sort, but that was it. Dinner tables were not assigned and there were no required meetings – instead, a schedule, optional activities and language guide was left on our beds by housekeeping each morning. My sister and I spent plenty of time catching up in our state room over local beers and a barrage of movies available on our TV when at see, or my dad and I sat on the upper deck, bundled up, to watch the castles perched atop cliffs float by.

Cruising on the Danube

Melk Abbey

I’d long thought that these sorts of cruises, which feature older people in their publicity, were for the AARP crowd, but we had about a dozen of us between 18 and 30. No disco, casino or gift shop aboard – these spaces were filled with elegant viewing decks, a library full of books in several languages and larger rooms for passengers.

History, not just Beaches and Booze

My travel style has evolved greatly over the past few years – I went from ticking places off a never-ending list to focusing on more local and meaningful travel – and immersion is important to me. I spend my euros on visiting cities and not beaches, which is one of the reasons that cruising has never appealed to me much.

Being Christmastime in Europe, we packed long underwear and thermal shirts rather than sunscreen, so we were already on the right track.

alleyways in Vienna Austria

munich christmas market gluhwein

Vienna at nightfall

The cruise company’s curated activities included making gingerbread in Passau, visiting home stays outside Bratislava and wine tasting near Dürnstein. We’d take advantage of morning tours with guides over walkie talkies and then meander until we found a place for lunch and a beer. Afternoons once we’d lifted the anchor meant food demonstrations, lectures on composers and local lore, or even optional tours of monuments. 

Local Guides and no Required Activities

The company uses local guides – we had a university lecturer guide us past Rococco buildings in Passau, a grade school teacher and life-long resident of Bratislava recount stories of a Communist upbringing and our cruise director himself gave us tips for his favorites cafés and food markets in Budapest. Even with just a few hours in the cities we visited, we skipped over the glossy tourist spots and went straight to the heart of a city.

christmas market in Salzburg Austria

Plus, we were given 100% freedom to take the tours or not, and those we did take were done via Whisperbox. No annoying umbrellas, recited monologues or enormous groups – and in each port-of-call, we found ourselves with different families. We skipped Vienna’s bus tour to see the Spanish Horse Riding School and have lunch with my cousin and passed on a guided tour of Salzburg’s city center in favor of the merry Christmas market adjacent the cathedral.

Family in Budapest

Our trip through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary (uh, and then my jaunt in Romania) felt like a perfectly planned vacation that we didn’t have to actually plan ourselves that still left room for us to make the trip our own. The pace, comfort and customer service was unbeatable.

While in Chicago this summer, I flipped through the 2016 promotional brochure, which announced open seas trips to Scandanavia. Maybe it’s time to start considering cruising vacations.

Have you ever done a river cruise? What were your impressions, and where did you go?

Kotor Revisited, and How to Deal with a Travel Slump

Kotor was moody and fickle. Storm clouds – dark and heavy – threatened to ruin our hike, but midway up the mountain, the temperature had surged five degrees, leaving me sweaty for a picture proclaiming I’d reached my 30th country.

MEXICO

But, joder, she was worth the wait.

I’ve always traveled with a heightened sense of awareness – most notably, with my five senses. I can nearly savor the fried grasshoppers in Beijing or hear the call to prayer in Marrakesh (maybe those are just the annoying church bells at my local parish). In Kotor, though, I felt nearly numb to anything else but sight.

Emerald water and beet red roofs contrasted the ominous grey mountains that wrapped around the bay and the slate houses. Small boats bobbed as the waters lulled and lapped against the port. The mountains seemed hung from the sky.

picturesque Montenegro

Our road trip around Europe’s newest country had very loose rules. From our base in Herceg-Novi, we spent a few days doing our normal travel thing:  wake up, drive the car around until something pretty caught our eye, gorge on cevapi sandwiches and local beers (and the addictive JOST! snacks). 

The weather turned from bad to worse as we descended on Montenegro via Dubrovnik, including a hail storm and power outage once we reacher Herceg-Novi on empty stomachs. Each day, we’d simply drive out of town on the main road, keeping the Bay of Kotor on the right hand side of the vehicle and tick towns off the map: Perast, Tivat, Budva.

Fog over Kotor Montenegro

The undisputed jewel of the Montenegran Adriatic is Kotor. An unblemished Old Town, traces of Venetian, Ottoman and Napoleanic prowess and a varied population make it a popular destination and UNESCO World Heritage city.

2013 was a red-letter one for me as a professional and as a traveler, but only now, two years after our trip, do I feel like I found Kotor to stir up some weird feelings in me.

Historic Center of Kotor

Arriving in the early morning, we were told to take the stairs out of town that led to the old fortifications and a smattering of old Via Crucis and roadside temples. The 1350 steps were steep and the humidity hung heavy over our heads. Layer by layer, I took off my scarf and blazer as we climbed closer towards the castle and the gradually lightening sky.

Always privy to climb to the highest point of any given city to see it from above, Kotor didn’t disappoint. I probably blinked a few times. Like Dubrovnik, the views were storybook, like something I’d seen on social media and had dreamed up. 

The Bay of Kotor and mountains

The rain held off enough, but the dark clouds of the morning seemed to have cleared up in the sky, but were beginning to cloud my thoughts. I took my obligatory picture at the top, under a red flag emblazoned with a black eagle. Thirty countries, jaw-dropping views…and I was rather blasé about it.

Back in town, we tucked into a cheap local beer and greasy pizza slices before wandering the small but stunning well preserved old town. I can’t recall many details from the afternoon, save the pristine city streets juxtaposed with the jagged rock face of the surrounding mountains, the cats leaping onto café chairs, the domes of the Orthodox churches. My sight prevailed, but I failed to catalogue sounds or smells or even a local taste.

Nothing exciting, nothing unordinary, nothing particularly great or not great describes my day in Kotor, and even the way I’m beginning to feel about travel.

Historic Kotor, Croatia

Kotor marked a beginning and an end, in a way. Since I was 20, I’d longed to travel to world and learn a language or two. I told myself 25 by 25 would suffice, and pulling into an abandoned bus terminal in Prague at the break of dawn before my 25th birthday meant I’d have to rethink my goal.

Afterwards came Romania, Turkey, Andorra, and Montenegro (and then Slovakia and India), and I surpassed that goal before turning 28. A beginning to more mature travel and an end to constant moving.

Boats on the Bay of Kotor

I’ll be 30 in less than two months, with a mortgage and a new husband to boot. Travel hasn’t lost its sheen completely, but my preferred web sites are decidedly devoid of budget airline sites. I still get delight out of pinning places and reading blog posts about travel gear and news apps and far-flung destinations, but I’ve strangely not had much urge to travel.

A close friend asked me recently about my upcoming travel plans and I realized I hadn’t been on a plane sine January, and that was to Barcelona. That my airline miles on AA had expired from disuse. That my rolling suitcase had collected dust. I’m not packing up my passport, but then again, I’m not 100% certain as to its whereabouts.

St Tryphon Cathedral Montenegro

Since money again became a concern after the house (those things cost a lot of money to maintain – who knew?), my trips have been limited to weekends and any place I can reach by car. That’s meant a bachelorette party in Málaga, a solo hike on the Caminito del Rey, scattered weekends in Madrid or San Nicolás. For someone ready to comerse el mundo, it’s a weird – albeit welcome – feeling.

Back in Kotor, we bought and wrote postcards, sipped free beers as we checked our emails and caught up on Facebook, occasionally popping into a shop or craning our necks for a photo. But, as a destination, it garnered a mere, ‘meh.’

Shutters in the center of Kotor

I didn’t have any profound or life-shattering epiphanies upon reaching my 30th country before turning 30, just as I didn’t find enlightenment in India (just a stomach virus and a love for tuk tuks) nor did I figure out the meaning of life on the Camino de Santiago. For the woman who vowed to never feel tied down, I found that I needed a limit, a destination that failed to wow me, a place that made me choose how to spend my money. Kotor was undeniably beautiful, but lacked spark. 

I have no big trips on the horizon, and even our post-wedding road trip to New Orleans is an afterthought for me. Walking back over the Triana bridge on a balmy late spring night, I felt tears fill my eyes as the sun was setting. The gentle buzz of traffic, the smell of churro grease, the cobblestones under my feet.

As it turns out, my senses feel most alert in the very place I live, so I think I’ll be sticking around here for a while.

Have you ever experienced a travel slump? How did you overcome it?

My Top Tips To Stay on a Budget While Traveling

It’s officially summer when I’ve had my first granizada, a lemon slushie synonymous with the sweltering season. Summer means freedom from work, from alarm clocks and from all of those ‘adult’ things for two blissful months. And, if I’m lucky and have applied for unemployment, a trip!

Saving Money in Europe

Many ask me for tips on staying on budget when traveling around Spain and further afield, which I’ve rounded up into seven quick travel tips:

Timing is Important

Even if you are visiting a swanky destination, you can stay on a budget if you time it right. You should visit your preferred destination after high season times if you want to save while you travel. Prices skyrocket in Spain in July and especially August, so if you can, travel outside of these periods, particularly if you’re headed to the coast.

Plan your meals

If you know that the restaurant around the corner is expensive and the food served isn’t really good, you should look for options and save money. For this, it is important to do some research and find some economical restaurants that taste great, too! Search blogs, Trip Advisor and newspapers for the skinny on where to chow down (or, check out my section on Food in Seville).

wine on the table in spain

Another alternative is to cook while on vacation. Spain is truly Europe’s fruit basket, and shopping locally and spending an evening in cooking with a glass of wine could mean more money for an experience or day trip.      

Rentals

It is important to be specific with car rentals and look for car rental coverage. Take advantage of insurance and credit cards that have car rental coverage. Here in Europe, the size of the car even matters. Choose the smallest car possible because it will help you save money when refilling gas, and note that automatic cars are generally pricier.

If you are traveling around with kids, you might think of bringing the car cheap and adding it to your luggage. However, it is advisable to ask the car rental company about their rental prices for the same and compare them. Choose an alternative that is cheaper. Remember, if you are adding it to your luggage, you might have to bear the charges for extra luggage.

Transportation

Rail, metros, and subway are often the best alternative because it is quite cheap, especially if you are traveling to Europe. However, it is better to choose a slower mode of transport if flying is too short. This gives you an advantage of sleeping while traveling, too.

Learning in India - Riding the Train

Even while moving around, it is better to avoid taxis and use public transport instead. For travel between cities, consider Bla Bla Car, a car sharing program in Western Europe that will automatically calculate your fuel charge.  

Currency

Watch out for the exchange rate and keep checking it regularly. Avoid exchanging dollars from such exchange centers, and instead exchange money at home to have cash at hand, or take from an ATM. Most big banks will have a partner in Europe from which you can withdraw at no charge. If they don’t, take larger amounts to cut down on silly charges.

The dollar is quite strong against the euro, so now really is the time to travel to Europe!

Mark the tourist spots

If you know where and when are you planning to travel, you will spend less time wandering around. This will help you save time and money on touristic sites, transportation and maybe even a pair of walking shoes!

bring a map on a trip

Always make the local tourism office you first stop for free maps and discount codes. Many museums in Spain have free days or afternoons that you can take advantage of, thus significantly reducing your spending.

Plan in advance

Air tickets and hotel bookings should be done in advance when possible. There are a number of sites that offer exclusive packages that can help you get the best prices on your bookings. Expedia is one of the best options available for you, and you can even use discount coupons for Expedia.

Note: If you are booking your tickets in advance, check your airline’s site regularly for updates or set up a price tracker.

madrid street signs

Budget travel is possible in Europe, even in the peak summer months. Your main ammunition is research, planning, and price comparison! Spend those American dollars here in Spain, please!

If you wish to contribute with a tip or two, please post them in the comments!

Take the Grilled Cheese and Run: How a Desperate Family Committed a Christmas Crime

It was on my fifth Christmas abroad that my father decided to make us accessories to a crime.

Since moving to Spain, my family had made the effort to follow me around the globe. We’ve spent Christmas with the monkeys on the Rock of Gibraltar, making gingerbread in Germany and visiting the cliffside Monserrat Monastery near Barcelona. In seven years in Europe, I’ve spent just one Christmas in my native Chicago.

But in Killarney, desperation meant my father had to pillage a hotel cafeteria for the sake of his hungry daughters.

How a Family Stole in Ireland

I come from an Irish family (red-headed, freckled and deathly pale are my hallmarks). A family that marches in local Saint Parick’s Day parades. Still has ties to the homeland in Country Mayo. One whose prized heirloom fiddle cries with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” at every wedding. In fact, my surname is synonymous with Irish sport. The Emerald Isle has always been my father’s greatest travel dream, so he booked round-trip tickets to Ireland for Christmas without asking anyone’s permission.

But this vacation was doomed from the beginning – satellite photos showed the entire UK covered in snow. This meant a seven-hour ground delay for me in which my mom texted me, “R U hungry? I bought u a bagel” followed 20 minutes later with “Srry ate ur bagel.” I arrived famished and grumpy, and having not seen my family for a year, they were less than thrilled at my reception.

Dingle Peninsula

And there was more: the frost meant the pipes were frozen solid, leaving us without running water to shower or brush our teeth. Roads were shut down on the Ring of Kerry and thus rerouted us more than once, and sites that claimed to be open during the holidays didn’t bother to post that the snow had them shut down. My sister even came down with the flu and missed seeing Cork and exploring Amsterdam on my family’s layover.

But our lowest moment came on Christmas Day, where we had to stoop as far as breaking the law to save the holidays.

cliffs of moher

Christmas Eve dawned bright but cold in Galway on a bustling shopping day. We awed at the Cliffs of Moher before heading to Limerick for the night. After we shared a hearty Christmas meal, my dad and I went to the bar for a drink. My vision suddenly became cloudy and my head began to pound.

Apart from inheriting a love of beer from my Irish father, I also got his tendency to get sinus infections while traveling. I called it an early night and hoped to be over it the next morning (I also, luckily, got my mother’s iron immune system).

Having plowed through Angela’s Ashes on the long flight delay, I was eager to walk around Limerick that morning before setting off for the Dingle Peninsula. It was just as desolate and depressing as Frank McCourt describes – the morning still was interrupted by an occasional car passing by, or the honk of a goose. Squat, dilapidated houses lined the “historic” quarter.

Limerick Ireland

My dad chucked his map in a nearby bin, and we chucked the city.

Climbing into the car, I warned my family that we’d have trouble finding a place to eat on Christmas Day. Dad came to the rescue with a gas station English breakfast – soggy hash browns, pale grey sausages and a pack of cookies for good measure.

The ride around the damp Dingle Peninsula that morning was torture: every pothole sent a jolt of pain through my head and any time we stopped, I’d have to be coaxed out of the car. I grew hungry and restless to just stop somewhere and have something warm to drink, but storefronts were dark and the nearest gas station was back in Limerick. 

Galway Ireland

If I was grumpy and starving, my sister was far beyond that point. We passed the majority of the day in absolute silence.

Driving into Killarney, Mom spotted a sign for McDonald’s. “Don!” she squealed, “TURN AROUND! McDonalds will surely be open!”

After another strike, my dad pulled into a hotel nearby. We kept the car running to stay warm, but it took him 20 minutes to return.

He handed us each a Styrofoam plate with a steaming grilled cheese and french fries. “I told them we were guests at the hotel and that I’d check in once we ate, and they allowed me into the kitchen to make sandwiches,” he snickered as he put the car into first and sped off.

Guinness in Ireland

As I ate a tasteless grilled cheese and some cold french fries once we had safely escaped the scene of the crime. I smiled at my father, who was rifling through his suitcase for some more sinus congestion pills. 

Even at the most desperate of moments (and the most disastrous of family vacations), I knew my father would do anything for us, particularly if it included a good story and a plate of food.

Have you ever done anything desperate on your travels?

Packing for a Trip to Spain: What to Bring and What to Leave at Home

The moment I’d announced I’d bought a house in Spain, the requests for the proverbial ‘roof-over-my-head’ while traveling through came pouring in.

Come on! It’s not like I lived in a box under the Triana bridge for seven years!

I hosted my first international visitor not six weeks after moving house, and even as a heavy traveler who works for a travel planning company, the frantic whatsapps came in about last -minute packing (never mind the time difference between us!).

packing light

As someone who can pack for a week in Eastern Europe in the same pack as an overnight trip to Granada in the middle of a cold spell, I find getting together a suitcase for a Spain trip to be a bit of a challenge. I think back to my move to Spain in 2007: I loaded my bag with extra American goodies in lieu of a winter jacket and – surprise! – it gets chilly in Southern Spain. And then there was the 7 kilo pack job for the Camino de Santiago, a feat I’m still proud of!

It you’re packing for a short trip to Spain, consider how you’re traveling (trains with virtually no baggage weight limits? Budget airline with strict rules about dimensions?) as well as where and when. Then, think about where you’ll be staying, as Spain offers a dozen different types of accommodation options.  

What to Pack for Spain

But no matter what, consider taking out that extra pair of sandals to make room for these essentials:

Tissue Packets

I am still puzzled as to why ladies bathrooms in Spain see no need to stock up on toilet paper. Throw a couple of extras in your purse for when the need arises (most likely in the airport or train station upon arrival).

Sun Protection

I once proclaimed to be thankful for sunglasses because, man, is it bright in Spain! And as someone with fair skin, I even put on sun cream to hang my laundry out to dry on the terrace, and once tried using tears to convince an Italian airport security agent to let me through with “prescription” sunblock. No matter what, sun care should trump a party dress or box of candy while you’re on the road, be it an extra hat, SPF lip balm and make up, or bottles of SPF 45 (plus, sunscreen is crazy expensive in Spain!).

A Light Jacket or Sweater

Don’t let the hot sun fool you – Spain has a Mediterranean climate, which means winters can be damp and chilly. A light sweater or jacket is an absolute must for any time of year, and canvas or nylon are good choices for durability. Cotton cardigans work nicely in warmer months and can be dressed up or down.

A voltage converter

While most electronics nowadays come with adapors, older models may burn out if you bring them on your trip. The reason is simple: American voltage works at 110 volts, and European at 220. This means that your appliance will work twice as hard, so invest in a quality converter (or, hey!, you can toss the fried straightener and lighten your load!). Remember that European plugs have two round prongs.

Extra copies of your passport and travel plans

passport U.S.

Any traveler swears by this – you should have at least one extra copy of your passport picture page and your travel plans in case of theft or destruction, and these things should be kept in a separate place than the actual documents. While you’re at it, send scans to yourself and a trusted friend back home just in case. It’s also wise to write down nearby consulates in case you do need replacements.

Small packets of laundry detergent

Laundromats are hard to come by in Spain, and they’re often expensive. If you can manage it, wash your clothes in the sink and hang them to dry using small packets of powdered detergent. They’ll not only pass through airport security, but also won’t weigh you down. Plus, they’re easy to replace at perfumerias.

Your credit card and some extra euros on hand

The Euro is falling, so maximize your tourist dollars by using your credit card (but call your bank before leaving home!). You can get extra points if you have a rewards card or earn towards goodies. Coming with 20-40 will also cut down on ATM or currency exchange fees when you need to hail a cab upon arrival, so pre-order from your bank at home for better rates.

Leave it at home:

Uncomfortable shoes (especially high heels)

Streets in Spain are often uneven and you’ll do a lot of walking, so bring sturdy, comfortable shoes. Even after seven years here, I can barely walk in Chucks without tripping, so save space (and face) by skipping the heels.

Your favorite outfit

Thankfully, all of my lost bags have been returned to me, but I’m usually careful to pack half of my favorite outfits in one bag, and the other half in the other. So what if you’re wearing the same outfit in pictures by wearing neutrals? You’re not Kim Kardashian, so the only person who probably cares is you.

cat on dubrovnik city walls

Instead, pack one bright or bold piece. I packed for a week in Dubrovnik and Montenegro in one carry on, and having a bright pink blazer served to dress up jeans and a T-shirt and helped me stand out in photos while traveling in two beautiful destinations (um, and so did that black eye…).

Expensive jewelry

Petty theft is an unfortunate reality in Spain, so you can leave expensive accessories at home. If you can’t bear it, consider taking out insurance just in case, and know how to fill out a police report just in case.

A simple, lightweight scarf will do the trick, and you won’t be bummed if you leave it in a hostel or quirky café.

The true test: Can you cart around your suitcase and personal items without the help of others? Imagine, if you will, doing it up stairs and down cobblestone roads. If you can’t do it, it’s time to repack!

Packing 101

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Need some packing inspiration? My friend and Seville expat Karen McCann is a suitcase superhero – she did months of rail travel in Eastern Europe with just one carry-on! – has just written a fun and quick read of an ebook on her packing trips, honed after years of traipsing around the world and visiting 50 countries. Pack Light is all you need to read to prepare for your trip (or at least the monumental task of deciding what to take).

When she sent me a copy, I could almost imagine every compartment in her rolling suitcase – which measures 21 x 13 x 7.5! – and I found myself laughing just as I did when reading Enjoy Living Abroad, a chronicle of expat life in Seville and one of her three published books. It’s easily digested and practical, and because it’s digital, it won’t take up space or weight. A woman who heeds her own advice!

PackLightCoverArt  low res

Karen is giving away two of her ebooks to Sunshine and Siestas readers. All you have to do it leave a comment about your biggest packing faux pas, or leave a word of advice for other travelers. Contest ends on February 28th, upon which winner will be notified via email with a download link.

If you’re looking for packing tips for long-term travel to Spain or a stint abroad, pick up a copy of COMO Consulting’s eBook “Moving to Spain” for individual packing lists and suggestions.

Yes, Boss! : On Learning to Drive a Tuk Tuk in India

“Ok Boss, you take over now.” Mukul grinned widely as he took his hands off of the glorified bike handlebars that constitute the steering wheel, ignition and gas pedal of a tuk tuk, and motioned for me to take over. We were in the middle of rush hour traffic in Agra, India (which is, for the record, every waking hour of the day in my observation). My eyes most have grown wide in the rearview mirror because he took over again just as soon as I’d shaken my head no.

A tuk tuk is a ubiquitous symbol in many Asian and African countries, used to transport passengers most commonly. It’s like a motorized tricycle with a rudimentary automobile body resting on top. We had been warned: keep your hands and feet inside, and don’t take any babies offered to you on street corners.

Tuk Tuks in India

From the first time we took one in Delhi – from our hostel in M Block to the Lotus temple – I was hooked. In fact, we’d skip bicycle-pulled rickshaws and even elephants to get around India, always amazed at how fast the little things zipped, and how easily they’d maneuver through traffic.

Tuk tuk drivers have to have their driver’s license, but you’d never know. On more than one occasion, I was nervous the thing would tip over (or I’d fall out) when a driver would take turns to fast, or that the whole “Oh, everyone honks their horn, even though it’s illegal” excuse was enough reason to garner a fine. It was thrilling but oftentimes scary. 


In Delhi, we preferred taking the women’s only train car on the underground, but gritty Agra merited a tuk tuk. Mukul was employed by the homestay we’d be staying at and offered to be at our service the whole day – for 6€. The ride from the station took ten minutes, as the road ere clogged with commuters in trucks, cars, motorcycles and tuk tuks, along with the odd cow or goat. I was impressed with how the tuk tuk’s three wheels could navigate roundabouts with no clear traffic signs or lanes.

“You see, to drive is so fun!” Mukul said. I would take his word for it. 

After dropping our bags and adding our names to an ancient guest book that registered travelers from all over the world, Mukul took us to the Taj Mahal. Built along the Yamuna River as a mausoleum to Shah Jahan’s third wife, the whole reason we’d come north was to see the building said to make the sun and moon shed cheers. He dropped up near the bazaars to the south of the complex and told us he’d wait there for two hours.

Visiting the Taj Mahal Agra

The Taj was stunning, just as I imagined it would be.

And that made Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was imprisoned until his death, facing the mausoleum, all the more meh.

Deciding to skip the Baby Taj that afternoon for a nap (old habits die-hard, even while traveling), Mukul was waiting for us outside the homestay, napping himself with his feet sticking out of the tuk tuk. “Hop in boss! You drive?” he asked, stepping out of the vehicle.

Tuk Tuk Drivers

We again declined and had him take us to the Mehtab Bagh, manicured lawns facing the northern facade of the Taj. We admired the temple from afar as the sun begin to wane. It was one of those moments where the world seemed to stop and I found myself nearly short of air – it’s that magical, and I felt at the same time 8 and 80 with wonder. I made an announcement:

“I’m going to ask if I can drive Mukul’s tuk tuk.” Hayley gave me the same bewildered look that I had given our driver that morning.

Mukul was having a chai tea at the stand across the street from where he’d left us, chatting with other drivers and holding the cup with just three fingers. He immediately sat up, gulp his tea down and unleashed the grin when I told him I’d like to take him up on his offer. 

How a tuk tuk works

There wasn’t much of a learning curve: you switched on the engine, then rolled the handbar throttle to get the thing going. We tuk-tukked down the road back towards the Red Fort, Mukul sitting at my side to steady the handlebars. The cylinders seemed to be in the steering mechanism – I could feel all of the energy pulsating through my hands.

I felt like I was speeding, risking an accident (or insurance claim), like I could maybe take on the traffic on the ring road. 

Tuk Tuk Driving

Then another vehicle passed and I told Mukul I was finished, just before we found the Muti Mahal neighborhood buzzing in the wake of the elections, which took place that very day. Marigold garlands had been strung in doorways, and people were drinking fizzy water while sitting on plastic chairs. We sped past them, honking.

“Ok, Boss! Next time you come to India, you drive to the city!” he offered, but Agra was sadly a disappointment overall.

Riding in tuk tuks in India

We took one more tuk tuk ride with Mukul, from the home stay to the train station, stopping for a milky chai tea at a roadside hut. Ali would be waiting for us on the other side of  a sleeper train with a decked out tuk tuk, stories from his guru and the same large grin it seemed every Indian we encountered had.

When I think about India, I can almost feel the two-stroke engine under my butt and the potholes, just the same as I taste a warm butter naan or smell the sandalwood. 

The Colors of India - Tuk Tuks

On our last day in India, trying to spend our rupees as we suffered through a humid day in Mumbai, a street vendor on Elefanta Island was peddling small, plastic tuk tuks. We bargained him from 100 rupees each to 100 for both – about 1.30€. The toy barely fit in my bag, already replete from clothing purchases, tea and spices. It’s now sitting near my desk as a reminder of road trips, of awakened senses and that lonely road near the Mehtab Bagh.

Would you ever drive a car in a country like India?

Want more of this eye-opening country? Check out Learning by Watching | The Colors of India | The Hawa Mahal

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