An American Christmas

So if you have been following our blog or the insta gallery, you know we are in Big Apple. There is plenty to see and do and lots of our friends and families here as well. When we had a chance of spending Christmas with Shruti’s family in New Jersey, we just could not say No! Although our wish to experience White Christmas went down the El Nino drain, we had the family trump card with us.

Christmas Eve

We were walking around Manhattan and googled events happening on Christmas eve. Turns out, there was a carols session taking place in Washington Park. We finished up with what we were doing and headed to the park.

We got there about 45 mins early only to realise we got there late. Most of the park benches were already taken.  We strolled around and snapped photos of the big Christmas tree by the park arch and massive colour patterns. It did look really pretty at dusk time. Btw, fun fact, Christmas trees in America are the real trees, the actual pine trees, not the plastic ones we pick up from a store back home.

Christmas Colour Patterns, Washington Park, New York

After waiting for about 20 mins or so, the choir lined up and started singing the carols. We didn’t know this earlier, but this session was a ‘sing-along’, so the member of public were singing alongside the choir. Though at times the public missed the high pitch notes, it was all in Christmas spirit and laughed off.

Washington Park, New York

I very quickly realised that Shruti knew some of the carols and I suppose that came from here schooling in a Christian school. While she was singing bits and humming most of the time, I stood there smiling and taking in the first-time-experience. Next Christmas in Sydney, I will definitely be googling for it.

Washington Park, New York

The Busy Bull

The travel from Brooklyn to New Jersey is more than an hour so we decided to knock off a tourist spot along the way, the Charging Bull!

Based on a report in 2014, over 50 million tourists visit New York every year. Unfortunately for us, a large number of those visiting during Christmas had the same idea as us. When we got there, we were almost shocked to see the massive crowd.

Charging Bull, New York CtyAs it is considered lucky to touch the bull’s head, there was a massive queue for it. We quickly realised that if we were to queue up, we would be standing around for 30 odd mins easy. So we decided to head to the backside of the bull. Turns out, we weren’t the only ones thinking of it too. There was a queue to take pictures with the bull’s bum and that wasn’t short either.

Charging Bull, New York Cty

We quickly gave up and tried taking shots from whichever angle we could. Any part of the bull was acceptable by us.

Charging Bull, New York Cty

The Ride to Jersey

New Jersey is adjacent to New York City but is separated by Hudson River. There is a train link between the two called the PATH train. Shruti’s cousin told us to get off at Exchange Place and he would pick us up from there. Turns out it is a great spot to admire the NYC skyline and the river.

PATH, New York City

New Jersey is home to many Indian immigrants and this was proved by an ad for ‘Comedy nights with Kapil‘, a highly successful Hindi comedy show, in the PATH train. Almost felt like India!

American Suburbia

Shruti’s cousin, Nikhil bhaiyya picked us up Exchange Place in Jersey City. We drove through small towns of New Jersey which serve as the suburbs of NYC. Along the way, we saw the port of New Jersey. However, the best thing for me was seeing all the trees completely bare in winter. We don’t see that back home.

New York Skyline

The suburb are home to huge houses, lots of trees and lots of cars. The distances make public transport less frequent and making cars an absolute necessity. On the way back, we saw American McMansions, huge houses built on big blocks of land. While we thought Australia has huge houses, American houses out do those easily. It is the land of big food and big houses!

The Christmas Lights

We reached Edison, suburb in New Jersey named after Thomas Edison, as the sun was going down and we realised the houses were all decorated for Christmas. Living in Brooklyn and moving around in Manhattan didn’t really give us the full blown Christmas feel. Soon Nikhil bhaiyya realised that we were enjoying the lights so he decided to take a detour and show us more. Like back home, here Americans try and outdo one others. Some houses had the lights over including the the trees in the front yard.

We soon drove up to one particular house which was lit from roof to ground, leaving so spot unlit. I suppose that put all the neighbors in a weak spot as there was no other house lit up on that street! Talk about wiping out the competition.

Note: sorry we couldn’t take any photos as we were driving along and it was raining.

Meeting the Extended Family

Nikhil bhaiyya’s house was full of people Shruti and I had never met. Apart from his wife and twin girls Gauri and Shefali, there was his brother-in-law and cousin sister’s family. His brother-in-law, his wife and two daughters had driven over for Christmas from Washington DC while the cousin sister, her husband and two kids had driven from Pennsylvania.

Apart from being wowed by meeting so many people, I was impressed by them following the American culture so religiously (pun intended). They drove across states every Christmas and Thanksgiving to see one another.

Christmas Gathering

The American Life

Bhaiyya and his relatives are all immigrants to America. They migrated here over 20 years ago for better opportunities for themselves and their kids. We had long conversation about America, its governance, states, weather, its culture and the life in this country.

Contrasting it to Australia, it couldn’t be more different. We have 6 states and 2 territories with little difference between some of them. USA has 50 states and most of them are vastly different to each other. The relatives were from 3 adjacent states next to each other but from their conversation they appeared to be vastly different.

While Jersey was close to New York, it’s culture was remarkably different. Similarly, Virginia sat on the edge of Washington DC and Southern America making it a political melting pot. Pennsylvania was between the two but was still different and even had Amish communities which are against the use of technology for religious reasons.

The weather was another major difference. While Australia is mostly hot, it had mild temperature and lack of major destructive forces except fire. America though can be very cold and has several different types of natural disasters. While we whinge about a rainy day, America gets snow storms where everything shuts down. They told us stories of snow storms and frostbite which certainly scared us for Alaska.

Another interesting aspect of America is the politics. The contest in Democratic and Republican convention is heating up. Though almost everyone at the Christmas dinner were Democrat supporters, they had all been hit by the costs of Obama Care. On the other hand, almost everyone agreed that Trump was a douchebag. Guys we’re all the same after all!

Indian American Ambitions

There were a few kids and teens at Bhaiyya’s house as well as Siddhant, ‘a grown up kid’, who was in 3rd year at university. The conversations with them and their parents revealed the high aims in education and in life. Moreover, the teens were already thinking of university, sometimes 3-4 years before entry.

There seemed to be a culture of following each other to the pursuit of the American dream with importance placed on family, background and knowledge. Perhaps this is how it had been for Jewish, Irish, Chinese and Italian immigrant families. Not long to go till we rockstars, judges, academics and politicians with the Indian background.


We were having so much fun enjoying the food and conversing with the family that we ended up staying the night in Edison. The next day, we said our goodbyes to everyone. A few hugs, feet touches and waves later, we were out and back on the way to NYC.

The Spirit of Christmas

It was unexpected but we ended up spending the “real” Christmas with family. Having lived with my parents and not have many relatives in Australia, I couldn’t “go home” for Christmas. It was a similar case with Shruti. Surprisingly, a Christmas on the road ended up taking us “home for Christmas”. While we had never met the family before, a “home” afterall is a warm place, with great food, good vibes and amazing conversations. And that’s the spirit of Christmas!

Spirit of Christmas

Peru visa for Indians

Based on our change of plan #2, we decided to visit South America before Europe. So that means, applying visa for South American countries. Having said that, we lost lot of our time trying to renew Shruti’s passport.

We read about the visa application processes for various countries and their leniency when a non-resident applies for visa from another country. That means, as an Indian, Shruti has to apply for Peru visa from Colombia though She’s not a resident there. There are lots of people who have tried and shared their experiences. After doing initial research, we gauged that Peru is one of the toughest countries to grant visas overseas.

So we decided to get Peru visa in India before flying out. And here we share our experience, applying Peru visa for Indians. Hopefully it is helpful.


Peru embassy in New Delhi is located at D2/5, Vasant Vihar. There is no public transport close to the embassy. The closest metro stations are Hauz Khas and Chattarpur. It costs around Rs100 to get there. Once at the end of Vasant marg or on Paschimi Marg, there are signs for embassy of Peru. Its not a big building and is a bungalow next to a park.

Documents needed

The visa form and the documents needed are standard for any visa

  • Photo graphs
  • 2x Filled application form
  • Valid Indian passports for one year
  • Photocopy of front and back passport pages
  • Proof of financial capability
  • Itinerary for Peru
  • Hotel and flight reservations

However, please note that we were able to provide bus tickets from Cruz del Sur and into another South American country as proof of ‘flight’ reservations. Our plan was to travel overland and Peru embassy accepted these.

In addition, Shruti also has a USA B1 visa which helped with the application. We had called up several times to check for details and the embassy was readily available to answer questions.

Processing time

We were told that the application would be processed in 5 working days.


We received no calls in 6 days. Upon calling them, they told us that the application was neither rejected nor approved. Their ‘new’ system could not accept our arrival date being more than 90 days though we had everything else in order.


We had given all the right paper work and everything was in order. However, our arrival date in Peru which was based on the bus ticket was longer than 90 days. It was a grave mistake on our part.

What now?

As stated in the change of plans, We will fly to Colombia and then cross into Ecuador. At both places, we will apply for Peru visa in various consulates. If received then great otherwise Machu Pichu will have to wait til when Shruti gets an Australian passport.

USA Visa for Indian Citizen

While we were in Colombo, we looked into the process for USA Visa application. As I am am Indian Citizen, it was necessary for her to get the USA Visa. Turns out, everything was very straight forward. We looked through US Travel Docs site and followed the steps.

After filling out the online application, we had to make our way to a bank branch to pay the fee. We waited till we got to India for the payment step. Once the fee was paid, we received a receipt number.

We tried to book an appointment soon after but the receipt number wasn’t accepted. We guessed the system had to be updated. We tried again at night and bang, we got to the schedule appointment screen.

As we were scheduled to leave Delhi and travel around India, selecting collection port was an issue. US Embassy allows applicants to submit their application in one city and collect their passport in another. Upon thinking through our options, estimating the process time and discussing with my mother, we decided to pick up the passport from Mumbai.

Step 5 and step 6, both require appointments and although the system allows applicant to schedule appointment for step 6, interview stage, first, the date has to be after step 5, collection of finger prints, is done. This took us a while to figure this out!

We headed to Nehru Place to submit my finger prints and photo. The process took 40 mins, apart from the waiting around for appointment. Usually this step is really quick but make sure you are carrying all your documents, especially your bank statements. Only then your application will be processed. This step is carried out by an outsourced company and not handled directly by USA Embassy.

On the day of the interview, we headed to the Embassy. I queued up while Manish and mum-in-law spent time driving around Delhi. Luckily Rohit, Manish’s friend, had offered to drive us to the embassy. They came back every half hour to check on me as I couldn’t carry my mobile phone inside the building.

Once inside, I felt the US Visa anticipation atmosphere. It was almost like everyone there was preparing for a job interview they really want! The interviewer decides if the applicant will receive the visa or not. The range of interviewers was diverse as well, from an older man to younger female including an Indian origin American. It was also quite a surprise to see Americans speak in fluent Hindi and Punjabi.

I had almost done a walk-in interview, i.e., without any preparation, and was started to get worried. When it came to my turn, I was interviewed by the Indian American. Upon reciting our story, the interviewer double checked a few details. I suppose, mentioning we live in Sydney and Manish is an Australian Citizen, cleared most of his doubts. He clarified why was I applying the visa from India and upon learning that we are backpacking, he quickly dropped the visa in a tray and said that an email with be sent about the collection. It took me a couple of seconds to digest what had happened and I eventually walked out smiling.

Manish and the crew drove back to the embassy and picked me up after 2 hours. At least I had good news for them. Upon hearing my initial concern about the interview and me not being prepared, Rohit said that it appears US Visa is granted to those who don’t need it. So true I must say!

In 3 days we received an email saying my passport was ready for collection. Luckily my mum was in Mumbai and we couriered her a couple of papers, including an authorisation letter. The passport pickup was not an issue at all.

I suppose the entire process for scheduling appointments and receiving USA Visa for Indian Citizen took about 10 days. So now if I get visas to other countries or not, we can at least travel to US and other countries that allow Indians to visit based on the US Visa validity. Hurray!

Bye bye Australia

We were at the airport yesterday to drop mum off and we decided to leave our bags in the Smartecarte lockers at the carpark. It costed us $14 but we didn’t have to worry about making our way to the airport in the morning. Take note, these guys also have outlets at the airport, but the self lockers are cheaper. We jumped on the train and had a pretty relaxed train ride to airport. Overall, economical and stress free.

Dropping off our bags was quick – very quick! We didn’t even get a chance to take a pic! We also changed some cash.

Tip: post immigration there is only Travelex Currency Exchange around. They charge a flat fee of $12 and the rates they offer are sort of reasonable.

Anyway, we are now grabbing a quick small bite before our boarding to Hong Kong.

PS – the international airport is under renovation so the food options are really limited at the moment.

Manage Travel Money

We were slowly starting to save money for our travel plans. The next obvious step was to come up with a plan for spending it as well.

manage travel money

Our confirmed itinerary (post coming soon) included 17 different currencies  across Hong Kong, Nepal, India, Europe (Scandinavian countries, UK & Ireland, EU region, Turkey), possibly Dubai, South America (Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia) and finally US. We definitely needed a plan to manage travel money.

We researched travel cards that hold multiple currencies such as Qantas Cash Card, Aus Post Prepaid Card, Travelex Card and others from various financial institutes. After reviewing the charges and transaction fee involved (which btw is $0), we decided to go with Qantas Card Card for Hong Kong, Europe (all regions), Dubai ad US. While we are spending with this card, we will also be accumulating points as we go! In theory, it is a win win situation. We started watching the exchange rates and when the time was right, we loaded the card with our travel funds.

For Nepal and India we will be relying on my ICICI Bank Debit Card. We have transferred the allocated funds to my bank account to avoid any recurring transfer fee.

The South American region is a tough one. After loads of research we decided to rely on cash with large amount withdrawals using our Citibank Debit Card. As most of our transaction with be involved around accommodation, transport and meals we assume that card transcations can be tough to be fulfilled, thus the decision of using cash.

We will also be carrying our Citibank Credit Card as a backup / emergency option. Using the credit card will incur large fee so we will aim to keep the usage to minimum.

Do watch for our posts from the road as we document our learnings along the journey.