Inspirational India – an Insight from Lisa Orban
Travel memoirs by Lisa Orban of the Personal and Lifestyle Branding company Golden Notebook
Some of my most memorable and powerful travels have been a collection of fairly random and diverse experiences; collected moments in which I wasn’t in the “doing mode” but rather a more mindful “being mode”. As a psychologist and personal brander, I often talk about the concept of mindfulness. Living life fully, in the moment. Engaged, through all five senses. A colleague once told me that “if life is series of events (event after event after event…and then you die!), it would be nice to show up for some of those events.” Travel has given me an opportunity to “show up” and absorb the moment in a very enriching and powerful way.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt as present and alive as during my trips to India. India provokes the senses; captivating, teasing, and at times even offending, but invariably hooking me every time. I’ve found the best itineraries are the ones that provide a balance of luxury and authentic cultural encounters, which suits me to a “T”. In many ways, part of my personal brand is finding synergy in polar opposites (I love putting on my Taekwondo uniform for a sparing class as much as I love putting on a couture gown for a benefit gala).
A particularly memorable and powerful trip was my last trip to India. Our first stop was Ahmedabad, Gujarat, to visit my husband’s family for Christmas. It was my second visit there, and second stay at the House of MG, an “Urban Heritage Hotel” in the heart of the city. Staying in this restored 20th century colonial style mansion was quite a unique experience with a local feel (from the team of staff to furniture sourced from local artisians). My favourite part of this hotel is their traditional Guajarati restaurant, Agashiye, located on the beautiful rooftop terrace, where we had our family dinner.
A feast for the senses: colourful, fragrant Gujarati dishes at Agashiye, the House of MG.
Ahmedabad is a vibrant city, one of the fastest growing in India. It is a city of contrast, described as an “architectural mecca of sorts”, while staying firmly rooted in its heritage. Bustling street life, boisterous bazaars, and roads teaming with racing transport as well as roaming cattle exist against a backdrop of architectural splendor including monuments, temples and buildings by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn.
Arranging the right transport in advance is essential in India. A five-hour drive from Ahmedabad to Rajasthan (and we’re not talking smoothly paved western highways here) is not for the faint of heart (or stomach!), but spending a little extra on a reputable car company that offers comfortable cars and knowledgeable drivers can make a world of difference.
I also took the opportunity to get acquainted with my new DSRL camera along the way, capturing what may be the most colourful and diverse traffic in the world.
The Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan couldn’t be more of a contrast to the House of MG. Built in 1743 as a “pleasure resort” for the royal dynasty of Mewar, it is now advertised as “the most romantic hotel in the world”.
A shimmering gem in the middle of a lake, this palace is apparently one of the most recognized residences in the world, featured in many movies including the James Bond film Octopussy. From the moment we stepped on their private boat, we really did get (clichéd as it may sound) the royal treatment. The palace felt like a remote, glamourous oasis, floating luxury just a quick water taxi ride away from the bustling city streets.
Udaipur itself has become known as “the most romantic spot on the continent of India”, however a rapidly expanding tourist industry has started to erode this title. Even so, the city is undeniably breathtaking, offering glimmering palaces and monuments, tranquil boat rides on the lake, and colourful bazaars. Known for crafts such as paintings, marble and metal work, and terracotta sculptures, Udaipur is also a thriving art scene, where you can find unique traditional gold leafed paintings, many hand painted by local artists performing their craft on the street outside of their gallery.
Our next destination was another six-hour car ride away. Again, these drives offer a unique glimpse into the heart of India, and my camera once again proved to be an invaluable travel companion. As explained to us by our driver, many locals still consider it an honor to have their picture taken, particularly among some local castes, as photography is still seen as a luxury in poorer and rural parts of India.
Our next resort, the “Tree of Life”, was situated in the middle of rural Jaipur, Rajasthan, again a stark contrast to the opulent lake palace. A collection of villas in local architectural design and a luxury spa, this tucked away resort was all about wellness and movement (but not so for my poor husband, who was still recovering from food poisoning he picked up somewhere along the way). Sunrise yoga and meditation were on offer, as well as other restorative practices and spa packages. A socially responsible resort, the Tree of Life are also “committed to reducing negative impacts on the environment, and also in contributing to the local community in as many ways as possible.”
I ventured out one afternoon on a mountain bike to explore the countryside and rural villages. This may have been one of the most enriching travel experiences ever I’ve had. I of course attracted a lot of attention, even fully covered and my head draped in a scarf, but I never felt even remotely in danger.
My camera seemed to make me a welcome guest in the villages (an iPhone just wouldn’t have cut it), and many locals, children in particular, approached me with curiosity and excitement. It was the privilege of connecting with the locals that made this such a powerful experience.
A few days later, we were on the road again, this time to glam it up for New Year’s Eve at the Oberoi Amarvilas, set just 1.3 km from the Taj Mahal. You can’t go wrong here, as each room boasts uninterrupted views of the Taj Mahal, and walking onto your balcony for the first time it is truly a breathtaking experience (and sunset drinks on the balcony overlooking the Taj Mahal are de rigeur). Needless to say, being on the grounds of the Taj Mahal has its perks; for one, you have access to a private golf buggy which takes you right up to the monument.
The Oberoi’s New Year’s Eve party was just spectacular, and truly one of the most memorable dinners ever. Elegantly set tables lined the glistening pool while traditional local dancers performed a “fire show” against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal’s silhouette. We quickly befriended the staff (who are arguably some of the best on the planet), who later “let their hair down” with us while we danced our way into the new year.
An experience beyond my expectations
I’ve never found it so difficult to tear myself away from an experience. Luckily, the drive to the local airport the next day afforded one more intimate glimpse. Our driver made a pit stop to pay a mandatory tax for the New Year, during which we waited alongside of a colourful queue of local men waiting to do the same. The camera again allowed two very different cultures to connect, creating a memorable encounter during what might otherwise prove to be a mundane task.
I recently went sari shopping in East London with a few friends for an upcoming wedding in Gujarat. The pungent smell of incense, vibrant saris in the shop windows, and the bustling life along Green Street captivated me, and for a brief moment, I was back in India. I am counting the days until my return, and now I know my most essential travel item…my camera.