I have been lucky to swim with wild turtles in Zanzibar. I fed Rothschild’s giraffes in Kenya. I parasailed over the Indian Ocean in Mauritius. I swam with giant manta rays in Maldives. I hiked the ancient city of Petra. And I did all this while wearing my hijab.
I never look at wearing the hijab or dressing modestly as an obstacle. It’s such a natural and integral part of my life, like a limb – I need it, but it doesn’t define me. It is a way of life and an outlook. An attitude, rather then a piece of cloth. The hijab has never been there to define someone, to stop them from being “seen,” nor is it something to hide behind. I choose willingly and happily to live this way. I’m a confident woman and my hijab isn’t who I am. So the next time you see someone who covers – be proud of them. The hijab shouldn’t be a reason to discriminate, to criticise, to judge, or to feel sorry for someone. It’s empowering to be recognised for your inner self rather then the outer. It’s never stopped me from doing anything I want, traveling anywhere I want, and partaking in all activities. In fact, it empowers me.
I never choose a travel destination or activity based on whether I will be accepted as a hijabi woman, whether my way of dressing will draw stares, or if I will stand out at airports or tourist destinations. Sometimes, I tick all the boxes mentioned above. There are destinations where I am immediately accepted, where no one notices me, where I blend into the crowds. That is precisely what happened in India.
Originally published in the April 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia
After a two-hour flight to Delhi, three sweaty hours in a taxi, a 5am wakeup call, and a 20-minute drive, I finally arrive at the majestic Taj Mahal. At first glimpse, I know I would have journeyed much farther for the sheer joy of this experience. My expectations were high – but they were far exceeded.
That first sight of the Taj Mahal is a moment all travellers to Agra will remember forever. After checking in at Oberoi Amarvilas (from US $399 per night, Oberoihotels.com), I watch in awe as the sun sets behind this majestic wonder. The mausoleum turns a dusky pink as I listen to the muazzin’s call to prayer in the distance, local bhajan music playing on Oberoi’s terrace.
An early wakeup call the next day allows me my first up-close and more personal encounter with the Taj. The monument can see up to 40 000 visitors a day, so it’s best to time your trip to arrive just before sunrise, for a magical encounter in as much serenity as possible. As the sun illuminates the white marble monu-ment in a romantic, hazy light, it appears much larger in real life than expected.
It’s little wonder that the site is a photographer’s dream – and if you head straight to the red mosque on the left, you’ll get a framed view of the Taj with hardly any crowds. Keep an eye out for the mosque caretaker – he knows a thing or two about taking an Instagram-worthy picture. I spend a glorious hour enjoying the grounds with a guide, becoming engrossed in the yesteryear love story of Shah Jahan, who commissioned the Taj Mahal for Mumtaz Mahal as a symbol of undying love. The views are equally endless.
I take a 10-minute walk along the banks of the Yamuna River to catch a boat ride that will offer another spectacular perspective of the Taj. With only a stray cow keeping me company, I feel a bit nervous. My research told me I’m in for a treat, though, so I carry on. On arrival at the boat, I’m greeted by a group of priests, the sounds of religious bhajans, and polluted river banks; a startling sight after the tranquility of the Taj. Manoj, my boatman, helps me onto a rattling dinghy. The stunning reflections of the monument on the water capture my senses and my heart.
Following this unforgettable experience, I embark on a six-hour drive to Jaipur, with a stop at the Unesco-listed town of Fatehpur Sikri. If you arrive around noon, you’ll be greeted by the beautiful sounds of Qawwali music echoing against the burnt sienna walls of the fort. Unfortunately, my experience is marred by aggressive conmen pressuring me to donate to the poor at the shrine. There’s no need to succumb to them, though, and I continue on to Jaipur, the Pink City.
The way there offers a colorful scene of changing landscapes, with women dressed in bright saris, balancing clay pots on their heads while walking by thatched houses. This trend of intense colors continues as I check into the whimsical Suján Rajmahal Palace, a fairy tale palace owned by the current Maharaja of Jaipur (from US $436 per night, Sujanluxury.com). You can’t visit Jaipur and not stay in a palace! Suján is a treat for the eyes. Each of the 14 rooms are distinctively designed with its own wallpaper featuring mogul motifs and hints of pink and turquoise. It’s also a treat for the tummy, with long, lazy breakfasts on the manicured lawns featuring aloo paratha, dosas, and spicy potatoes.
Jaipur has a lot to offer a committed sightseer. First on the list is a visit to the City Palace, with its myriad colourful doors. It’s well worth paying a little extra to view the Blue Room and the Boudoir of the Maharaja. Watching the sunset at Nahargarh Fort is another must – just don’t stand on the wall to capture the best possible photo, or you could meet a patrolling policeman! Don’t miss out on the Hawa Mahal, a red and pink sandstone palace that’s best enjoyed while sipping a karak chai at Winds View Café. And finally, you can’t say you’ve been to Jaipur if you haven’t walked down the stepwell of Meena Panna Kund, an ancient water storage tank. It’s like being stuck in a Pac-Man set.
India left me fulfilled yet hungry to explore the region further. You would truly need a thousand lifetimes to explore India fully. It is an incredible land of beautiful people, history, culture, and food, where inspirational scenes and magical moments await. A destination that will reward a positive mind and attitude. I can’t wait to return.