India Trip: The Essentials

8 Things you’ll need in india

I wrote these tips while we were in the trenches (a.k.a. on the trip), so this advice is pure.  These are the things we couldn’t do without.  Note: this is specific to a family trip (I had my parents, an aunt, a MIL, a family friend, a sister and Brother-in-law).  If you want to backpack and rough it in your early 20s, I’ll write a different post about that (cause I did it in 2006 & 2007).

truck rickshaw1.  An Open Mind
  • Ya, it’s cheesy, but you won’t know what this means until you get there.  India is the ultimate juxtaposition of the extremes of humanity.  Wealth and poverty.  Beauty and trash.  Ancient and modern.  Fast and slow.  Frenetic and calm.  Lush and dry… I could go on and on.  So be ready to get dirty and be ready to get uncomfortable (just wait until I get to the story of our flat tire at midnight in the middle of nowhere), but also be ready to know that you’re in the middle of a perspective-changing, once-in-a-lifetime experience.  You’ll be out of your element – rejoice in it.
India Girls2.  The Usual
  • Follow all the general advice you see online: don’t drink anything but bottled water, don’t eat raw vegetables, bring lots of wet wipes and toilet paper, leave your jewelry…  Go to a travel clinic and get your malaria and diarrhea medication.  Mentally prepare for possibly using a hole in the ground as a toilet (learn how to squat!).

Coconut Breaking Area3.  A tour guide/driver you trust
  • We used Thomas Cook to book the first week of our tour.  I have to say that we really lucked out with the tour guide they booked.  The guide/driver should be experienced, especially if you have no native Indians in your group.  We had two hired people with us – an experienced driver who knew English, and an assistant, whose sole job it was to guard the van (and often us) at all times.  Later in the trip with a different driver and no assistant, we caught him out of sight of the van and the doors unlocked… when you’re in a foreign country, you can lose trust fast.  Peace of mind is priceless.

So, if you can, try to book our guide, Sanjay!

Sanjay Yadav – L.A.K. Tourist Taxi Service

+91-9891285735    sanjaytaxi@hotmail.com

DSCN0503

Based in New Delhi, Sanjay is originally from the Jaipur area  and very knowledgable of the city.  One particular thing we appreciated was that while we were brought to conventional “tourist trap” type stores, he would step inside first and ask them to tone it down.  The result was english-speaking store owners who treated us relatively fairly.  He would warn us where and when to buy things so that we weren’t ripped off (too much… you can’t change that they know you’re foreigners).  Also, he was extremely flexible – if we wanted to change the plan, he would know a different location or restaurant to fit the new plan.  For example, we had planned on a trip to Pushkar, but he knew that the weekend we were traveling was a significant religious festival.  If we had gone, the crowds would have been bordering on dangerous.  We adjusted accordingly.

 

4.  A MIL
  • ok… so this isn’t always possible.  But my amazing MIL was our life-saver.  She spoke up when she thought we were being treated unfairly (just wait until my story at Fatepur Sikri).  She haggled, grouping our purchases together and demanding a group discount.  When we ended the trip, noone could express the magnitude of their gratitude for her guidance and positive spirit.
  • But in more manageable terms – someone knowing even the most basic of Hindi will be an asset.
MIL Bargaining
MIL Bargaining
roadside vendor5.  A Working ATM card
  • Let your bank know you’re traveling!  You’ll be making many cash withdrawals.  And never get too low, there’s no guarantee any particular ATM will accept your card to withdraw money.  I however had no issue with stores.
6.  A Neck Pillow
  • No joke.  With jet lag, you’ll be sleeping in the tour van.  You’ll need the sleep and down time, so upgrade to the memory foam!
7. Antibacterial Gel
  • Besides the fact that the chance a bathroom will have soap is iffy, you’ll need to disinfect your hands often if you plan to eat like the locals do: with your hands.  Though you are given many passes as a tourist, there’s one custom I suggest you follow: Don’t eat with your left hand.  It’s an unspoken “truth” that you use your left hand to wipe, so only your right hand is appropriate for eating.

Elephant ride

8. A Bargaining Backbone
  • Bargaining/haggling is expected.  It will feel very uncomfortable at first, but practice makes perfect.  It is more important to know how much something is worth to you, than it is to know what it actually costs.  Even after haggling and threatening to walk away, you still may end up paying more than a local would pay.  Don’t beat yourself up – as long as you feel comfortable paying it, go for it. But also, don’t be afraid to say no.  They’ll be pushier than you can imagine and follow you around the store.  Don’t make eye contact with street vendors or children selling trinkets – they’ll become relentless if you even acknowledge them.  A good trick in a larger group is to bargain for the whole group at once.  See if you can get a discount for larger volume. If they’re not bringing the price down, grab something and ask for it to be thrown in for free.  It’s worked for me!

Tailor's

Got these down?  Great, let’s get started with where you’re going.  First stop, New Delhi…

Family Trip to India: The Itinerary

This past trip has me wondering if my life calling isn’t in media, but in travel tours.  You looking to travel to India? Let me know!  I’m about to start my own boutique agency from my couch.  Seriously… samosasandsunshine@gmail.com

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur
Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

India is a massive country the spans diverse terrains, cultures, religions, languages… I could go on and on.  So it’s daunting when you first try to plan a trip.  Where do you begin?

the-golden-triangleMost start with the Golden Triangle – the relatively close cities of New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur.  You get to see a major city, the Taj Mahal and a range of forts/palaces.  To expand on that there are a few extra cities/locations you can tack on that are in driving distance: Udaipur, Jodhpur, Ranthambore National Park, or Pushkar.  I’ve done this route three times… starting to feel really comfortable with it.

Part 2 for us, and a second trip for most, is South India – Mumbai, Goa, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kerala, etc.  This climate is much more tropical and the food distinct from the North (I love a good dosa!)  You’ll need a flight or very long train ride to connect a trip North with a trip around the South.

Tourist Selfie!
Tourist Selfie!

side note: don’t worry about being a “tourist”.  You are one; accept it.  You will experience India even if you visit the major sites.  India will get in your face no matter what… just throw in a few restaurants outside the hotel and get outside the tour van every once in a while to make sure.  If I get my act together and really start planning for people, I would include a few trips to “normal” locations – someone’s house, the mall, a hospital – just to be able to compare and get the full picture of Indian life.

Our India itinerary

The whole crew at the Taj Mahal
The whole crew at the Taj Mahal

North India

Red Fort Dehli

Day 1: Delhi

  • Red Fort
  • Old Fort
  • Humayan Tomb
  • Parliament
  • The Imperial

Taj MahalDay 2: Agra

200kms drive from Delhi to Agra; approx. 3 1/2 hrs

  • Agra Fort
  • Taj Mahal

Ranthambore National ParkDay 3: Travel Agra – Ranthambore

250kms drive from Agra to Ranthambore; approx. 5 1/2 hrs

  • Fateh Pur Sikri (A fort and shrine on the outskirts of Agra)

Tiger Hawa Mahal

Day 4: Ranthambore

  • Ranthambore Tiger Reserve

180kms drive from Ranthambore to Jaipur; approx. 4 1/2 hrs

Hawa MahalDay 5: Jaipur

  • City Palace
  • Amber Fort
  • Hawa Mahal
  • Jantar Mantar
  • Shopping!

Birla Temple JaipurDay 6: Jaipur

  • Shree Laxmi Narayan Birla Temple

335kms from from Jaipur to Jodhpur; approx. 6 hr

You could stop at Pushkar along the way, but an annual festival made it too crowded for us to stop.

india pottery villageDay 7: Jodhpur

  • Osian Village Tour

Day 8: Jodphur

  • Mehrangarh Fort
  • Umaid Bhawan Palace
  • Jaswhat Thada

SOUTH INDIA

South India Map

Day 9: Mumbai

1 hr flight from Jodhpur to Mumbai

  • There are many great things to see in this city, but we had to focus on our wedding reception that evening.

view from the road IndiaDay 10: Bengaluru

Flight from Mumbai to Bengaluru

Start drive to Mysore stopping at a few malls to wait out traffic

180 kms; approx. 5/6 hr drive due to speed bumps along route

Mysore Palace - Our Hotel!
Mysore Palace – Our Hotel!

Day 11: Mysore

  • Chamundeshwari Temple
  • Sri Nandi Temple
  • Mysore Winter Palace (A reasonably priced hotel!)
  • City Palace

Day 12: Hassan

120kms Mysore to Hassan; approx. 3 hours

  • Chennakesava Temple
  • Halebeedu Temple
Coffee Beans Drying
Coffee Beans Drying

Day 13: Chikmagalur

65mks Hassan to Chikmagalur (Serai Resort); approx 2 hrs

  • Coffee Resort & Spa
  • Coffee Plantation
  • Tea Plantation about 60 kms away

Day 14: Bangalore

248kms Chikmagalure to Bangalore; approx 6 hours

  • St. Thomas Cathedral (very intriguing for a Christian to see South Indian interpretation of religion)
  • Vidhana Soudha (Government Building)
  • There is much more, but we spent the time with family

Indian GirlThe drives may seem rough, but if you’re traveling with people you like and the kind of travelers who need a break every once in a while, the tour vans give you that break while keeping you on the move.  You won’t even find yourself napping that much… there’s just too much to see out the window.  (That’s why I recommend a van over a tourist bus… closer to the ground, less tinted windows, etc.) Indian traffic/driving is the 8th wonder of the world 😉

Indian Camel
One post for each city with hotel, restaurant, site information and pictures are on the way!

 

 

 

 

 

Bollywood Reviews: Chennai Express & Bajrangi Bhaijaan

Source: Chennai Speakers
Source: Chennai Speakers

Chennai mapBefore I even start the reviews, I want to draw people’s attention to the beautiful, resilient city of Chennai.  In November, the city experienced the worst flooding it’s seen in a century, killing 400 people, displacing 1,800,000 and causing up to $15 billion in damage.  Devastating doesn’t begin to describe it.  The city had been on our family itinerary, but the rain made us change course.  For me, my first visit is only delayed, not really cancelled; I can’t wait to visit on my next trip to India.  If you’d like to help, googling “Chennai Relief” or “Chennai Floods” will take you to many organizations helping provide relief.  Unfortunately, I’m not informed enough to send you to the one with the best track record.  The people of India have also risen to the challenge of helping, as seen even among children: check out this app designed by a 10 year old!  http://www.thebetterindia.com/40519/calamity-relief-app-to-help-chennai/

I wanted to get that out there because one of my reviews is Chennai Express, and I don’t like to hold back…

Bollywood Reviews

I love Om Shanti Om!
I love Om Shanti Om!

First things first – I was a film major in college.  I worked in Hollywood for 4 years, and I still work in media.  I love film themes and screenplay structure, and I can get pretty annoying analyzing it on the way out of the movie theater.  But I don’t think I’m TOO snobby.  I think film should be made for an audience… and so does Bollywood!  Bollywood is a love/hate thing for me – the overacting is difficult to swallow, plus the lack of subtlety makes me roll my eyes.  But those colors!  That music!  The dance moves!  In general, I love the Rom Coms more than Action or Drama because it’s they don’t take themselves so seriously. Also – reminder to readers, currently, I have to watch all these films with English subtitles, so there may occasionally be something lost in translation.  Anyway, let’s get to it.

The Topline Reviews:

BAJRANGI BHAIJANN – Slo Mo overload, but ya, I cried.

CHENNAI EXPRESS – Least redeemable romantic lead of the the year, but I love the South!

 

CHENNAI EXPRESS

Chennai-Express-New-PosterQuick Summary: Rahul is a 40 year old bachelor who is tasked with spreading his grandfather’s ashes in the Ganges in Tamil Nadu.  Instead, he wants to go on vacation with his friends in Goa to meet ladies (classy guy, right?).  In the process of tricking his grandmother, he helps a beautiful South Indian woman board the train – Meena – then four large, scary men.  Through some altered Hindi songs, she communicates that the four Tamil-speaking men are kidnappers.  She was trying to escape a forced marriage arranged by her father, a crime boss in Tamil Nadu.  Through a series of mishaps and failed escape attempts, they end up in her village where she claims Rahul is her fiance.  The rest of the movie continues with Rahul nagging Meena to help him escape the situation she put him in…  I’ll leave it at that.

 

Chennai Express 2Review:  You might know how this is going to go, because I didn’t hide my distain much in that review.  Rahul is the least likable romantic lead I have ever had the displeasure of watching.  He literally whines or cowers or nags 80% of his scenes.  SPOILER (but not really): She falls for him very quickly, when he’s acting like a good husband, not because of how he actually is good husband material.  Ugh.  He starts unlikable and stays that way until the very end when he decides to come back for the gorgeous, generous, sweet, spunky woman who’s madly in love with him for unknown reasons.  I seriously don’t know what the writers were thinking.  The fact that it’s SRK is the only reason you can stomach the character, and the creators shouldn’t rely on that!  And don’t get me started on the ridiculous hand-to-hand combat at the end.  I thought Hollywood’s fights were unrealistic.  They don’t even explain how Rahul 1) knows how to fight 2) can physically survive even one punch from the giant he’s fighting.  Maybe it’s the magic of love. gag.

Are there redeeming factors?  Sure.  I love the settings, clothing and music.  The bright infusion of South Indian culture is a real treat, and I can’t wait to watch more South India-based films because of it.  Deepika Padukone as Meena is delightful.  It’s not her fault that the writers were so bad at pacing her love storyline.

Also… why did he not just postpone the Goa trip?  Or shocker, go to Tamil Nadu after a week in Goa.  Simple solutions that prevent him, a 40 year old man, from lying to the grandmother who raised him.  Jeez.

Bajrangi BhaijaAn

bajrangi-bhaijaanQuick Summary: An adorable Pakistani girl is brought to the shrine of a Sufi saint in India to cure her inability to speak.  She is separated from her mother on their train ride back, and without the right papers, her mother isn’t able to go back and find her.  Lost in a city, she is found by a gentle-hearted devotee of Hanuman,a wrestling enthusiast named Pawan, aka Bajrangi.  He names her Munni. When his last resort to get her home turns out to be a very evil man, Bajrangi rescues her and commits to taking care of her.  While staying with his father’s friend, Bajrangi falls in love with his daughter Rasika (played by Kareena Kapoor).  She chooses Bajrangi over another suitor, and her father declares that Bajrangi must have a home and job in X months or he will not be able to marry her.  The main storyline of the film is sparked when the father kicks Munni out when it’s discovered she’s from Pakistan.  The loyal, optimistic Bajrangi swears to return Munni to her family even though he doesn’t have a passport or visa – a very dangerous proposition.  And so the adventure begins.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan 2Review: This film is as unsubtle as you can get about religious tolerance, and creates a fairly one dimensional character in the strong, honest, cheerful, dedicated Bajrangi.  But it’s all forgiven because Bajrangi is truly the hero everyone wants in their life.  Though not overly intelligent, he embodies all the goodness of humanity.  Playing surrogate older brother to innocent, young Munni, you just want to go give him a hug.  This feeling is what gets people of all kinds to help him in his quest.  The social media component that highlights his selflessness to spur his release from jail is actually quite realistic in today’s world.  A well-edited, heart-wrenching video can stir the masses, even if they only have a short attention span.  I appreciate that the love story remains 10% of the film, while the quest to return Munni takes up 90%.

My last complaint is the slo-mo.  We get it, you’re pulling at our heart string, but I prefer when it’s used as the cherry on top.  Used the right moment, it almost feels natural.  Repeat use makes it feel like a tool.

As I said in the topline review, my cynical heart couldn’t resist the swelling of the music and the slo mo of young Munni running towards her hero.  You knew it was coming… but you cry anyway.

 

If it’s Chennai Express vs. Bajrangi Bhaijaan, it’s Bajrangi all the way.

Product Reviews: Indian Food

Product #1: Giant’s Frozen Chana Masala

Price: Approx. $4

Giant's Chana Masala
Giant’s Chana Masala

Review: It is what it is.  A cheap, mild-tasting vegetarian dish, it can be an easy lunch to bring to work.  Make sure you microwave long enough to prevent it from being more watery than it has to be.  It’s not the amazing Indian food you may be used to, but homemade Indian food is time-consuming and restaurant-made food can get expensive.  Here’s a passable budget alternative.  Enjoy?

Props to Giant brand for tackling:  https://giantfood.com/news-and-media/gl-article-03-18-15/

 

Product #2: Bookbinder’s Spicy Sriracha Sauce

Price: Approx. $3

Bookbinder's Sriracha Sauce
Bookbinder’s Sriracha Sauce

Review: I know, it’s not Indian.  Sriracha sauce is originally from Thailand.  But my Husband is always looking for a way to spice up his food, and Sriracha is often the way to do it.  This creamy sauce is more like a spicy mayonnaise than a clear hot sauce.  I used it on a bun-less burger for my first test.  It certainly gave it a kick, but didn’t leave me running to the sink to stick my tongue under the faucet.  I’d say it’s a good condiment for a mixed spice-level household.

 

Product #3: Patak’s Butter Chicken simmer sauce

Price: $6 – $11 depending on where you buy

Patak's Butter Chicken Meal
Patak’s Butter Chicken Meal

Review:  Amazon.com gives it 2 stars for a reason.  I was disappointed for the price I paid (around $8).  Indian curries are rich and complex.  This butter chicken sauce was missing the butter, cream and complexity.  It was thin and heavy on the tomato paste, basically a tomato soup.  If I served this to my MIL, I’d be kicked out of the family.  The only possibility of redemption is if this sauce is not used as the only ingredient besides chicken and rice (as the jar suggests).  It would have to be the base for other vegetables, spices and herbs – as one reviewers suggests: “begs you to add more ingredients like onions, garlic, peppers,tomatoes, thyme, turmeric, paprika, cilantro, etc.”  But honestly, if I’m paying $8 for a sauce (and using the entire jar…) it should be the end all, be all.  Next time, I’ll be trying it from scratch.  Couldn’t be too much worse than this.

I followed the instructions to the tee, even “authentic results on the Mahatma Basmati rice”.  So here’s the pics:

Butter Chicken Directions

Rie Instructions

 

TV Review: MASTER OF NONE

MASTER OF NONEMaster of None

Where can you find it?  NETFLIX (10 episodes)

Created By: Aziz Ansari & Alan Yang

Prod Co: 3 Art Entertainment, Universal Television

Recommendation: WATCH IT!

 

Master of None is a scripted comedy in which Dev (played by Aziz Ansari) tries to make it as an actor in NYC.  Doesn’t sound too ground breaking right?  Critics, audiences and I disagree.  The genius of the series comes from Aziz’s portrayal of Dev, as well as the humor and themes that revolve around racism, sexism and the experience of a 1st generation American.

While sometimes the situations and dialogue are frustratingly on-the-nose (aka unsubtle & direct), it ultimately always ends up charming.  One episode that encapsulates that dynamic perfectly is Episode 2 “Parents.”  The episode clunkily jumps right into: “Gee, I don’t know much about or appreciate what my parents went through to get me where I am today.  I should spend more time with them.”  But it moves past being a sentimental PSA to feel raw and authentic because Aziz chose to cast his own parents Fatima and Shoukath Ansari as Dev’s aziz-ansari-parents-netflixparents.  It’s best to watch it to see what I mean.  As more and more people have watched the episode, Shoukath has gathered quite a following.  He stole the show from Aziz when they appeared on Colbert together.  And hearts melted when Aziz announced on Instagram that he burst into tears after his father said he appreciated being on the show because it helped him spend more time with his son.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to the show.  What I call stiff and on-the-nose, other reviewers call “candid” and “journalistic.”  It’s possible that my bar is a bit high because of my familiarity with these topics.  Whether it is fiction (like The Namesake) or non-fiction writing, blogs, movies or even my own observations among friends and family, the identity struggles and experiences of first generation Indians is something I’ve explored.  What Aziz is saying simply sounds too familiar to feel ground-breaking to me.  Note: I’m not saying I’ve experienced these things, but observed/read/watched quite a bit at this point.

Despite all of this, I watched all 10 episodes in a weekend and you should too.

masters_of_none2One thing that rang so true – it struck right to my core- was the relationship between Dev and Rachel, a Caucasian music promoter who Dev has a year-long relationship with (in the course of a few episodes).  I was so appreciative that there was no glaring scene of racism or a goofy scene where Rachel eats something too spicy – oh no!!!  The only difference besides their relationship and a non-multi-cultural relationship was a few subtle jokes.  Even the main twist familiar to most narratives about Immigrant/White relationships – the “You haven’t told my parents about me!” twist – wasn’t too over-dramatic.  It barely lasted an episode, and I was happy for it.  I was a “secret girlfriend” TWICE.  In one case, it ended before we told his parents.  The second time, the reveal turned out well.  (Honestly, I’ve found that parents’ universal desire to see their children married and producing grand-babies overrides a lot of cultural issues…)  Also, check out Ravi Patel’s Documentary Meet The Patels for another example of media tackling this topic.

MAster of None RachelTo top it off, the relationship dynamics spoke much more to our generation’s feelings about love and dating than intercultural dating.  When they have a stand-off in a later episode about how “sure” they feel about each other, and how “sure” you’re supposed to be to stay with them, I felt the writers had reached directly into my brain and put it on the screen.  I won’t spoil anything, but the last episode was literally cathartic as I related it to my own experiences.

All this led me to wonder how a first generation Indian American might feel about it.  So I asked a close friend (a bridesmaid in fact), who is also single, dating and in the entertainment industry, how she felt about the series… and there’s not much to report.  She stopped after the first episode, because she didn’t quite get the humor and didn’t know where the story was going.  She promises to watch a few more episodes and get back to me.  But the conversation did bring up an interesting point.  While it’s great that there are tv shows breaking tired Indian stereotypes, she thinks you can also go too far.  She said something similar to: “If they seem too white-washed, it’s just not real.  If you have Indian immigrant parents, then it’s in your DNA.  Sure, you don’t walk around wearing salwar suits, but you still do cultural things.”  Specifically, she pointed out The Mindy Project, which frustrated her and and some of her friends.  It’s not until Season 3 that you even know or see that she has Indian parents. She thinks Mindy’s character is just too whitewashed for her to buy it.  I have a feeling that if she watches a few more episodes of Master of None, she won’t have the same complaint.

Hmmm… all very interesting.  I’ve got a few more reviews on their way that aren’t so on-the-nose for the blog: Chennai Express & Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

If you have any suggestions for tv & movies email me at samosasandsunshine@gmail.com

Wedding Trial #2 Part 2: Two Weddings – One Weekend

Part 1 of this post describes how we got from engagement to deciding to have two weddings (one American and one Indian) over labor day weekend in central Massachusetts.  Now, let’s talk about the specific layout of the weekend.

Indian Wedding Lotuc

Division of labor:

Anyone who has gone through the process knows how hard planning a wedding is.  The fact that there is an entire profession of Wedding Planners is a sign that it can be hard for the average person to juggle their life while planning a massive, emotionally-impactful event.  So how do you do two?  We decided to leave the American Wedding planning to me and my family, and the Indian Wedding planning to my In-Laws.  It was his parents who had the vision of what they wanted for the Indian Wedding.  I was happy to go with the flow, show up and enjoy whatever they put together.  My Husband had the tricky position of helping both of us.  We did our best to assign him tasks and consult with him when we thought he’d like to have a say.  But it didn’t turn out to be a perfect system…

I had a dream that my Husband and I would work seamlessly together, creating a wedding that was a true blending of our taste.  But I was a bit naive.  Not only are we both stubborn and opinionated, but we both have extremely different tastes.  It took a few fights and mistakes before I just caved to his request to create the wedding of my dreams.  My fear was that he wouldn’t feel emotionally attached to the American Wedding if it was only my dream come to life, not his or ours.  And that fear came from a real place, but I just had to embrace that perhaps he didn’t have as many visions of his wedding as I did and that the napkin color didn’t affect him the way it affected me.  Eventually, it was his mother who told me the wedding was about the bride and to forget the groom.  Completely equal, custom-blended weddings seem to be a more modern concept.

South Indian BrideI still struggled, until I admitted to myself that my greatest fear was that the Indian Wedding might mean more to him in the long run than the American one. I wanted to share our most precious moment, not each having our own. I decided to accept that my fears may be well-founded, but that is the situation I chose.  If I wanted someone whose desires and traditions completely align with mine, I would have had to marry someone completely different.  I love my Husband and the excitement our differences bring.  So I sucked it up and took control of the American wedding.  In the end, the guests appreciated the two clear visions of two diverse people, rather than one perfectly in-sync event.

 

Choosing the Indian Venue:

I can’t speak for my In-Laws, but I believe this decision boiled down to two things.

  1. Size
  2. Will they let us use an outside Indian caterer?
Devens Common Center
Devens Common Center

Surprisingly few venues can handle more that 250 guests.  And there are even fewer that don’t require you to use their services or a short list of caterers for food.  After searching in vain in Worcester, MA, they narrowed it to the Devens Common Center, which is reasonably priced, familiar with Indian weddings and sandwiched by two hotels.

Lobby of Devens Common Center
Lobby of Devens Common Center

As a side note, Boston has many venues of the right size with experience in Indian Weddings.  While most do not allow outside caterers, there are a surprising number of hotels with complete Indian menus just for this purpose.  Warning – you’ll pay for it!

the Schedule:

 

SATURDAY EVENING- American Wedding

SUNDAY ALL DAY- Mehndi, Baraat & Sangeet

MONDAY MORNING – Hindu Ceremony

Bridal Bourquet

SATURDAY – The American Wedding

Saturday was already set for the American Wedding.  We’d let it play out like the average Christian wedding in 2015 – bride prep, ceremony, cocktail hour/photos and reception.  My photographer was a great help in nailing down the exact times.  The bridal party got our hair and make-up done at my childhood home, and we headed over to the venue a bit early for bridal party photos.  My Husband wanted the impact of seeing me for the first time as I walked down the aisle, so two photographers coordinated to prevent the groom and I from crossing paths.

September 05, 2015 - Heather & Sri - 021

The ceremony was beautiful.  As we left, we were surprised by an Acapella group from our Alma Mater, all set up by my incredible sister and brother-in-law.  After about 45 minutes of photos, we spent a brief time chatting with guests before being introduced.  A choreographed first dance, a blessing from my grandfather and the father/daughter dance all followed.  We danced like crazy until 10:30pm and left the mansion with a sparkler exit.  We tried to have an after party at the grill across from the hotels, but they closed promptly at 1am.  Noone was too disappointed; there were another 2 days to go!

 

SUNDAY – Mehndi, Baraat and Sangheet

A day of rest for the guests and the groom… and a day of sitting still for me.

10 am – Mehndi

Bridal MehndiThe bridal mehndi (fingertips to elbows and toes to a few inches above the ankles) started at 10am in a room above the hall.  I asked my friends to drop by to keep me company and feed me (no free hands!).  Guest mehndi started at about 2pm.  A small design on one hand only took a few minutes for each person.  I’ll be honest, I was at the end of my rope by 5pm.  The sugar/lemon mixture applied to the mehndi left me sticky and immobile.  Let’s not talk about how I went to the bathroom…

Guest Mehndi
Guest Mehndi

Meanwhile, the wedding guests had the freedom to do whatever they wished in the area.  About a month before the wedding, I sent out a travel guide I created to all the guests.  It included restaurants, attractions, wineries, golf courses, etc.  A few of my friend groups merged after meeting the night before and sent me some jealousy-inducing photos of them lounging and playing board games as I sat getting my mehndi done.

After scraping off my mehndi, I was plopped into a chair for hair and make-up and sent out to do couples pictures with my Husband around 5:30pm.

6pm – Baraat

Wikipedia Definition: Baraat (Hindi: बरात) (Urdu: برات‎) is a bridegroom’s wedding procession in North India and Pakistan. In North Indian communities, it is customary for the bridegroom to travel to the wedding venue (often the bride’s house) on a mare, accompanied by his family members.

Firstly, we did look into it, and it costs $7,500 a day to rent an elephant.  Luckily for my hubby, it was elephant or nothing… so he walked/danced to the venue.

The bride and grooms side separated at different hotel lobbies, so we could each parade to the venue. These parades are called the baarat.  In most movies, the groom comes to the wedding on a horse or elephant.  Tamil weddings don’t usually include them, and in the North, this happens before the ceremony.  But what the hell – my Husband had always wanted a baarat like the Bollywood movies, and the ceremony was too early the next day.  So before the sangheet it would have to be.

Dholi
Dholi

Wedding Tip: Get a live dholi!  A dholi is a drummer who will lead the parade.  Ours helped my side loosen up by teaching them the classic lightblub twist and coaching them in yelling “Hey!”  It made all the difference in helping my New England family feel comfortable in letting loose.

Bride’s side first.  (Rumor is we won the award for loudest parade!)

Then the Groom’s side.

The Bride’s parents and relatives meet the Groom at the door of the venue to give him their blessings.  I have to say the photos of my Dad and Husband hugging leave me misty-eyed.

 

Sangeet Stage Indian Wedding6:30pm – Sangeet

Sangeet – Another Northern tradition we borrowed for the fun of it is the Sangeet.  Once is was a kind of bachelorette for the bride’s side, now it is often just a large party for both sides to get to know each other better.  If there’s any American equivalent, it would be an American wedding reception.

The Bride’s Entrance involved my uncles holding a red canopy over me as my friends and family entered the hall to may favorite Bollywood songs and a little Taylor Swift.

The Groom’s Entrance would normally go next, but we both felt there was enough arriving and entering already.  So we scrapped it to get the appetizers out and the drinks flowing.

This may feel like an unusual start to the American Bride – dancing first – but I think it’s something all weddings should adopt.  Get the energy up immediately and get people comfortable with throwing their arms up, all before the first bite.

Intermingled among courses of food, family and friends perform for everyone.  From speeches to singing and dancing to riddles, the entertainment is varied.  I wish I had given my friends and family a bit more of a heads up.  I assumed they wouldn’t be comfortable with performing, but perhaps that was a mistake!  Sangeet DanceMy husband and I performed a choreographed dance to Chaiyya Chaiyya.  For many that night, the dance was more than a highlight, it was a sign that I had truly embraced their culture.  Even my own friends told me: “It all felt right.  You’ve been Indian inside all along.”

Towards 11pm, the DJ transitioned from fun dance night to wild party.  By 12pm, I was barely standing and dragged myself to bed. I think they wrapped up around 1am.

Hindu Wedding Flowers

MONDAY – Southern Hindu Ceremony

4am – My poor husband had to wake up at 4am to start a series of family specfic rituals that needed to be complete before the wedding ceremony could start.

6am – My wake up time.

Notice no breakfast… while the guests could eat their complimentary breakfast at the hotel.  My In-law’s religious practices called for fasting before the ceremony.

8:30 am – Religious Ceremonies – Kashi Yatra, Oonjal & Vara

I’ll go over these in another post, but they are shorter ceremonies that need to happen to start the main ceremony at the auspicious time chosen by the priest.

 

9am -11am – Main Ceremony

This includes: Kanyadanam, Mangalya Dharanam, Paani Grahanam, Saptha Padhi, Pradhaana Homam, and Treading the Grindstone.  The timing is based on the Hindu religious calendar.

Make sure to remind guests that you’re not expected to sit quietly through this ceremony!  Indians will be mingling, eating and chatting so the American guests should too!

Since this ceremony will be in sanskrit, I suggest either a written explanation of what is going on or have the DJ explain over a mic.  We did both.

11am – Greetings and Napka (Blessings)

You’re going to be tired, and you’re going to hungry, but you’ve got a few hundred people that traveled from afar to share this day with you and show their love.  You’ll take pitcures and accept gifts, but most importantly, you’ll perform Napka.  Napka (forgive me if this is a horrible translation) is when you bow before your elders, so that they can give you their blessings.  The bride stands to the groom’s right and bows to the ground as they throw rice on you.  Honestly, this was really fun for my family!

SriHeather_Ceremony-949

SriHeather_Ceremony-1054

 

 

 

 

 

12pm – South Indian Lunch Buffet

Self-explanatory.  I still get compliments on the food months later.

Laddu used in ceremony
Laddu sweets used in ceremony

By 2pm, my Husband and I were able to escape.  He crashed on the bed and slept for hours.  Not wanting it all to end, my close family and I headed off to Friendly’s to grab an ice cream.  As we sat enjoying our desserts, we all affirmed that we were ready to do it all again next weekend 🙂

Specifics on vendors, details on the Indian traditions and tidbits on what I learned will roll out in future posts.  The next batch will be about my first family trip to India.  Talk about out of your element!

Quick shout out to this helpful page (http://www.hinduwedding.info/faqs.html) which mostly reflects my experience. Remember North and South Indian ceremonies are different!

And don’t forget to shake it up!  Even though there are lots of traditions, stick to the ones that really matter to both your families.  As long as everyone has fun (and you actually get married), it’s a success!

First Family Trip to India

This week, I’m swapping one symbol of marriage for another as I head on a whirlwind trip to show my family the sights of Northern India and meet family in South India.  Worried about losing my ring while traveling, my thaali (தாலி) and a bindi will be the only indicators that I’m a married woman.  On the thaali, a gold necklace, one pendant represents my family, and one represents his.  The bindi, the small dot in between the eyes, has become a fun fashion statement, but was originally a sign that you were married.

To be completely honest, it’s not that I need it  to be known that I’m “taken.”  I’ve traveled to India twice by myself as a single woman in her early twenties without any issues.  My Husband doesn’t mind either.  He doesn’t have his wedding band yet. I jokingly remind him to keep the hordes single ladies at bay as best he can when he leaves the house.

Instead of wearing them for me or him, I’ll be wearing them to show respect to my new family.  It’s an important sign of compromise and openness to their culture.  Plus, I think it will make them feel that my Husband is in good hands.  It’s a beautiful piece of jewelry, so I’m not complaining!

Thaali and Wedding Ring

For more info on the thaali, here’s what wikipedia says under its other name – mangala sutra.

“A mangala sutra (from Sanskrit mangala, meaning “holy, auspicious”, and sutra, meaning “thread”) is a necklace that a Hindu groom ties around the bride’s neck in a ceremony called Mangalya Dharanam (Sanskrit for “adorning the pious thread”), which is the main ritual of Hindu marriage ceremony. The woman continues to wear the mangala sutra as a sign of her marital status.[1]

This practice is an integral part of a marriage ceremony as prescribed by Manusmriti, the traditional law governing Hindu marriage.”

Upcoming posts include the conclusion to One Wedding or Two? and the adventures of 9 family members in a van touring India.  Reviews of the restaurants and hotels will also be included incase any readers need some recommendations!

 

Wedding Trial #2: One Wedding or Two?

Great!  You’re engaged!  And your fiance is Indian.  Now it’s time to plan a multi-cultural wedding.

You’ve worked through so many cultural difference in your relationship, this one can’t be that different, right?  Maybe.  But more likely, this will be the most complicated and fraught merging of cultures so far.  Just to start, it involves the complexities of culture, religion, emotions, social pressure and In-Laws!  I’m going to walk you through our process (or more like my process, because as much as I love my Husband – we haven’t mind melded just yet.)

First thing first, I took some time and asked myself, “What do you want?”  A lot of people will ask you: “What has your dream been since you were a child?”  But I think this is more harmful than helpful.  There is no guarantee your image has stayed the same or that you even have one.  The question is: What will make you happy?  What will you not regret (regret doing or not doing)?

Second, what do your two families want and how much do you care?  It’s a fair question – you can disregard their opinion all together.  But when you’re in the moment, that may be harder than you think.  I know I would have regretted not at least asking my parents opinion on certain things.

Side Note: One factor in our decision was that my in-laws pleaded that we not move in together before we got married.  We already lived separately, but we were so ready to start the next phase of our lives and be together that this was a big concession.  However, it did mean our wedding planning would not linger.  We got engaged Jan 1.  And we wanted a wedding August – October of that year.  Good news – it can be done!

This is what we netted out with after some soul-searching:

I want: A modern American ceremony (loosely structured on Christian traditions) in central Massachusetts where several generations of both sides of my family have lived.

He wants: To go to Court tomorrow, move in together immediately and save a bunch of money

My family wants: Whatever I want as long as they’re there

His family wants: A traditional South Indian Hindu Ceremony with as many of their family members involved as possible – close to 300 invites

Everyone wants: A really fun party

Conclusion: Since my Husband respects and loves his parents dearly, he was inclined to do what it took to make them happy.  **Note: This decision was debated and fought over on at least one destroyed date night. We almost decided to not have the wedding and save the money.  But only minutes later, I caved.  Life is short.  What if one of us died young?  I wanted the memories.  I wanted my family to feel involved in creating our new family unit. As they say, “You can’t take it[money] with you!”  So, Court was out and at least one wedding was in…

But it was then that a running theme emerged from the discussion: equality.  If we had an American wedding and not an Indian wedding, it would be difficult socially and emotionally for his parents. So it was either court or two weddings.

Now, how do you make it work?  The easy answer might seem like – have two ceremonies and one reception in a day!  But this is easier said then done.  We had friends, a North Indian and Chinese couple, get married this way.  It worked because the North Indian ceremony is relatively short and the Chinese tea ceremony was even shorter.  However, the Tamil ceremony can run 2-4 hours.

Here’s how it broke down for us:

My Worry #1: Could we find a space that holds that many people that would also give me the ceremony I dreamed of?  I’m a fan of nature, historic buildings, gardens…  I would need a hotel ballroom to hold 300.

Answer:  I would do the American ceremony elsewhere and then end up at a ballroom for the reception.  No problem!

In-Law Worry #1: If I feel strongly about Massachusetts, can we get the Indian family there?

Answer: “It might be too difficult, so let’s do a completely separate Indian wedding.  Sunshine, be free and go plan your American Wedding.  We will plan separately, that way we won’t interfere with your dream.”  This was difficult for me as I wanted everyone to feel involved, but I was overwhelmed and trusted it was the right course.

In Law Worry #2:  If not Mass., Where?  And how much would it cost?

My husband’s parents live in D.C. – wouldn’t it be easier to orchestrate something there?  The prices would be higher than India, but fewer people would attend since price and visas would be an issue for international visitors.  Most of the extended family lives in India – wouldn’t it be better to have a full Hindu wedding in India? Their family would be closer, but amongst their peers, his parents would have to fully embrace the traditions, making it much larger and more expensive than holding it in America.

Flash to me on the venue hunt for the American wedding.  I was trying to balance atmosphere, price & convenience.  I was torn between the Colonial Inn and Chocksett Inn – the pros and cons were not the same but seemed to balance themselves out.  I would wake up at 3am unable to sleep and tortured by the choice.  My time was running out.  Each venue had only one Saturday or Friday date left that year, and it was going to go fast.

Colonial Hotel - Venue Option
Colonial Hotel – Venue Option
Chocksett Inn - Venue Option
Chocksett Inn – Venue Option

 

 

 

 

 

 

That is until my mom insisted that we check out The Harding Allen Estate in Barre, MA.  The historic mansion was built to be a replica of the Newport Mansion by an eccentric, wealthy New Yorker.  It had the exact “Jane Austen” feel I wanted, with immaculate gardens and a real historic flair.  Plus, the ballroom was built to look like an elegant tent, but with climate controlled. The owner was the caterer, making the packages extremely well-priced.  I made sure to read between the lines and found a few hidden charges/rules, but felt I could comply.  They could fit 225, way above the 180 that my Husband and I felt was the maximum we wanted to attend.  The one major con… it was 30 minutes from any hotels.  I felt guilty for giving on the convenience category, but promised myself that we would hire transportation.  There was one Saturday left – Labor Day weekend.  Crap… that means some people would be upset that they had to spend the vacation at the wedding.  My parents insisted that anyone I truly want to be there, would make the effort to come.  After a quick call to my Fiance, who wasn’t able to make this trip up North (we made a venue trip up 2 weeks prior), I wrote a check for the deposit on the spot.

Harding Allen Estate - Winner!
Harding Allen Estate – Winner!
Harding Allen Estate Ceremony Space
Harding Allen Estate Ceremony Space

 

 

 

 

 

 

My parents, sister and brother-in-law sat with me at an Au Bon Pain to digest what had just happened.  I was slowly letting myself accept that I committed and get excited.  I called my future MIL to tell her the good news.  But right after I told her, she replied, “Good.  We decided that we’re going to have the Indian wedding following right after the American wedding.  That way our closest relative traveling from India only have to travel once.  We’re heading up to MA to check out venues that can accommodate our number next weekend.”

Then I did something unexpected: I burst into tears.  I had just made a commitment on a venue catering solely to my dreams based on one set of information.  Now, I was being told my base information was incorrect, and there was a whole other set of variables.  I couldn’t handle the pressure or the guilt.  His entire family would be traveling from far and wide to the middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts and go to an American Wedding 30-50 minutes from their hotel and 2 hours from Logan airport.  Both sides of my family worked to calm me down.  They emphasized that at some point you have to make a decision and move forward and told me everything would be perfect.

And they were right.  Everything did turn out perfect, but it was a long road to get there.  Part Two of this post will include how we determined the location of the Indian Wedding and exactly how we would schedule two weddings in one three-day holiday weekend.

Thanks for reading!

Please email me at samosasandsunshine@gmail[dot]com if you have any questions about this post or want me to elaborate further.

 

 

Wedding Trial #1: The Guest List

Hand HoldExcuse me?  You want to invite who?  His dentist from 3rd grade?  His father’s  dry cleaner?  His 3rd cousin 5 times removed who he’s never met?

I’m not being dismissive to disrespect any of these wonderful people… I’m letting future MIL’s and FIL’s know what it sounds like to an American bride when she’s reviewing the Indian in-laws’ guest list.  For American brides and grooms, the guest list can be the greatest subject of contention.  Mostly, it involves many awkward conversations with people who want to go, but you have no room for.  Luckily, it’s generally understood as the norm and doesn’t hurt too many feelings.  In fact, it’s frowned upon to cause a (public) stink if you’re not invited.  But for Indians… it’s not so simple.  Before I get into why, let me breakdown an American couple’s mindset to make it as understandable as possible.

Why are American Brides & Grooms forgiven if they cut the guest list?  Why is it acceptable for American Brides & Grooms to stick to a number between 50 – 200 guests?*

  1.  The American Wedding is allowed to be “intimate.” This is the Bride and Groom’s day! You’re told that this is the most special day of your life, and you really only want the people you care about most to surround you.  You don’t want a near-stranger messing up your dream day!
  2. It’s EXPENSIVE!  Food, favors, transportation… the cost per guest adds up quickly.  You don’t want to be paying for any-ol’-person, who may or may not be in your life 5 years down the line.
  3. The venue has a limit.  For every bride that lies and says, “The venue doesn’t allow too many people, so we have to keep the guest list down,” there is a bride telling the truth.  The increasingly diverse and unique wedding venues on the market often have a cap at 100, 150, 200, 250, etc, simply because of space, number of bathrooms or the fire code. (They also have a minimum for specific nights, but that’s no help at the moment).

* There are many, many exceptions to this. For example, I know some religious communities have a very large ceremony and a smaller reception.  But this has been my experience and the internet wedding industry seems to support this.

I would like to note that I never thought I’d be writing this.  All of my adult life, I always said, “When I get married, the most important thing to me is people.  I will sacrifice other places in the budget to have everyone I love there.”  However, after the initial month of meeting with vendors, I understood what I was truly up against.  It helped that I didn’t get married until I was 29.  By that age, you realize you’re not as close with your freshman college roommates or you know that your first boss won’t keep in touch 5 years later.  I was able to reduce my list without more than a sleepless night or two.  Seeing how many actually accepted is drama for another post…

CoconutsIndian families follow one saying: the more, the merrier!  Or more accurately: the more, the more blessed!  Indian families feel very strongly that EVERYONE should be invited.  To not be invited is an insult.  Imagine a rural village in India.  When a wedding comes around, you invite the entire village!  It’s not uncommon even today to jump open the doors of the wedding hall and let anyone come in for a meal.  For my husband, parring down the list was heart-wrenching.  For my in-laws it was nearly impossible.  They were positive they would need a hall for at least 350 people.

From what I can tell, this perspective is based on at least three principles:

  1. The more guests, the more blessings!  There’s no cap!  And who doesn’t want good luck and blessings?
  2. The wedding is a merging of two families and two communities, not two people.  This is a day for the families.  The wedding is very much a platform for the parents, much like America many decades ago, I might add.
  3. What goes around comes around.  If everyone invites everyone, you will be repaid for your investment with many, many wedding parties in the future.

There are probably more philosophies behind this, but these are what I’ve devised so far.

So, how do you have an Indian wedding in America without going bankrupt?  Do you have the wedding in India? Is it even cheaper there?  How many relatives would have to travel?  Can they even get visas?

How do you have an American bride’s dream wedding in a small barn or chapel with 300+ guests?  How does an American bride still feel like it’s “her” day, when she sees a sea of unfamiliar faces?

The answers aren’t just about the numbers or even about culture.  They’re about feelings too. My next post will tackle the many combinations of weddings for an American/Indian couple. And I’ll let you know what we chose to do… including the regrets.

Everyone’s an Auntie!

Does it seem odd that your boyfriend/fiance/friend seems to have 2,5,11,20… an ever-expanding number of Aunts?  Either his parents should have had their own reality show (19 Kids And Counting Indian-style) or you’re missing something.

In Indian culture (and a few others), any woman about 20 years older than you is your “Auntie”.  This applies to neighbors, your parents’ friends, your friends’ parents, etc.  The same goes for “Uncle”.  But BEWARE – notice I said, around 20 years older… like every culture on the planet, no woman wants to be called “old”, so watch out for the neighbor who’s only 10 years older…  One rule of thumb I’ve heard: “If they have grey hair, they’re an Auntie or an Uncle.”  But tread lightly!

There’s a twist though: you never call your actual Aunt – “Auntie.”  There are a particular set of names just for your blood relatives.  As far as I know, all of the Indian subcultures put an emphasis on birth order.  Therefore, there are different names for older brother, than younger brother.  There are also specific names for uncles who are older than your father and for brothers who are younger.  I didn’t get started on learning the long list of titles until way too late, now I am about to go to India to meet them all.  And from the many “Do you know who I am?” challenges I got at the wedding, I have a feeling I will be put to the test.

Let’s learn together!  Feel free to email me at samosasandsunshine@gmail[dot]com with any corrections or variations you encounter!

**Note:  The title can be said solo or comes after the name (i.g. Sunshine Auntie, Matt Uncle, Geeta Auntie etc.)

TAMIL NAMES
Catch-all for Adult Woman – Auntie or Mami
Any older Adult Man – Uncle or Mama
Grandmother – Pati
Grandfather – Thatha
Mother – Amma
Father – Appa
Father’s older sisters – Peri Amma (means Big Amma)  
Father’s older sister’s husband- Athimber
Father’s older brothers – Peri Appa (means Big Appa)
Father’s older brother’s wife – Peri Amma  
Father’s younger brothers – Chitha Appa (means Little Appa)
Father’s younger brother’s wife – Chithi
Father’s younger sisters – Athai 
Father’s younger sister’s husband- Athimber 
Mom’s brothers – Mama
Mom’s brother’s wife – Mami or Peri Appa
Mom’s older sister – Mami or Peri Amma
Mom’s younger sister – Chithi
Mom’s younger sister’s husband – Chitappa
Older Brother/Older Male Cousins- Anna  (This is not Anna from Frozen.  This is a long A. Ahn-na)
Sister/Older Female Cousins – Akka
Younger Brother – ?  Call him by his first name
Husband’s Older Brother – Anna
Husband’s Older Brother’s Wife – Manni
Husband’s Younger Brother – Refer to him as Machiner, but address him by his name because he’s younger
Husband’s Younger Brother’s Wife – Refer to her as Machini, but address her by her name
Mother-in-Law – Mamiar  (But in my case, I’ll be calling her what my husband called her – Mumi)
Father-in-Law – Mamanar  (Same here – I’ll call him Papa because we want to feel closer)
Son-in-Law – Maple
Daughter-in-Law – ?
Brother-in-Law – Athimber
**Check out how female names end in “i” and male names end in “A” – that will throw you for a while.
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HINDI NAMES
You may hear these more often since Hindi is more well known.  For example, my husband uses mostly Tamil terminology, but still calls his father PAPA instead of APPA
Mother – Maa
Father – Papa
Daughter – Beti
Son – Beta
Older Sister – Didi
Older Brother – Bhai
Younger Brother – Bhaiyya
Husband’s Older Brother – Jetji
Husband’s Older Brother’s Wife – Jetanhi
Husband’s Younger Brother – Devar
Husband’s Younger Brother’s Wife – Devarani
Mother-in-Law – Saas
Father-in-Law – Sasur
Daughter-in-Law – Bahu
Son-in-Law – Damaad
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This is all good in theory, but I have a feeling it’s flexible in real life.  For example, my husband has heard his younger brother call him “Anna” a total of 0 times in his life.  Hopefully, I can update this post as I encounter each one of these people in person.
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Check back next week for the beginning of my Wedding-specific advice.  Post 1 will be One Wedding or Two? which will dive into the options on how to create the dream wedding experience that leave you and your husband… and your families satisfied.  I’ll go into our own very difficult decision and a post-mortem on how it turned out.
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Shortly after, we’ll get into – You’re Inviting Who?  A guide on what to expect when working out the guest list for your wedding(s).
As always, please email your own experiences to samosasandsunshine@gmail[dot]com to get in on the action.