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Trip Report A 6-week waking dream in North and South India.

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This was my second trip to India, and C's first. I'd already been to Tamil Nadu (and also Karnataka), but Kerala and Rajasthan were new to us both.

I won't spend much time describing the most common attractions we visited, as these are either well-known on this board or easily researched.

Traveling by car, train and boat in India feels like floating in a waking dream. Brief glimpses of unforgettable scenes at the side of the road, on riverbanks, while passing through towns and villages were like watching little 5-second plays. Glimpses of drama, comedy, even musical theatre, complete with singing and dancing. Which is the way we dream - a series of disconnected stories that often make no sense, but are nonetheless compelling. This is multiplied by the sheer "foreignness" of India for westerners. I sometimes took photos through the windows as we as we whisked by these moments, and sometimes that actually worked, but usually we were already past before I could have possibly raised my camera. So most of the striking images I saw reside in my memory, rather than digitally in a computer.

Of course the time we spent staying put and letting India slowly reveal itself was richly rewarding. But we also really enjoyed the time we spent while traveling from place to place.

Planning and some general impressions

Now clearly, six weeks of travel anywhere provides the gods of mayhem a lot of opportunities to rub our noses in the fact that we don't control what happens to us. And clearly India has a whole lot of gods. I hoped that careful planning would help ward off such ruination. But I packed my lucky travel socks, just in case.

All through the trip we took low dose generic Rifaximin once every morning. We bought it at a hospital pharmacy in Cochin for a tiny fraction of what it costs in the US. As a result, we both were able to eat whatever we wanted, which included lots of salads, raw fruit, vegetables and herbs, juice, and street food. We're not vegetarians, so we ate fish and chicken, but didn't eat any beef while in India. We did avoid any places where we had any reason to doubt the sanitation or food handling (including buffets where food sat around). And neither of us had any problems during the 6 weeks, so either we were lucky, or the Rifaximin worked.
I wrote more about this here:
http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/our-india-trip-6-weeks-of-raw-fruit-salads-vegetables-street-food.cfm

I tried to plan our itinerary around Indian weather patterns. That meant we needed to finish in the south by late January, before things turned scorchy, and then head north to Rajasthan at the end of the month, when temperatures should have warmed to pleasant ranges, and the fog dissipated. This plan worked perfectly in Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan, where we enjoyed temperatures in the high 70s to the low 80s, but was sometimes less successful in Kerala, where early January this year was hotter than the seasonal norms. Munnar was, of course the exception in Kerala, as being up in the hills provided temperatures that were cooler.

Our mode of transport from JFK to India was both indulgent and strategic. We wanted to arrive in India rested, so as to shorten the adjustment to the new time zone. But more importantly, C has disabilities that make flying in coach physically painful for her. And while business class would have sufficed, I decided to make the first leg both super comfortable for her and also celebratory by cashing in a pile of miles for an Etihad first class award. It turned out to be a great decision, as I was able to snag 2 of what Etihad has named "The Apartment". They were dazzling. We may never be able to do such a thing again, though!

Each apartment on the A380 is actually a room with several windows and a closable sliding door. They take up half the width of the sizable aircraft, with a single aisle down the middle. In addition to a wide reclining seat, each person also gets their own big leather couch which opens into a long flat bed. There is a closet with hangers and various drawers throughout the apartment, and large storage drawers for carry-on bags under the couch, configured much like a captain's bed. And there is a shower in one of the bathrooms, so you can bathe at 40,000 feet! I had actually planned to do that, but never got around to it.

One of the photos I took shows my POV of watching our takeoff on the big entertainment monitor, as seen from the tail-mounted camera, so that I could see both the plane and the surrounding area. This could be switched to a camera mounted in the belly of the plane, looking straight down at the ground. While this provided a beautiful view as we flew over the Nile reflecting golden sunlight at dawn, the view was far less inspiring whenever the plane was sitting on the ground!

Even if you don't care about planes, you should take a look at these photos I took of the interior. I'm certainly not an airplane geek or blogger, and have never before posted plane photos, but this was really quite an aircraft!

Photos of the Etihad apartments we flew in are here:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157663863772073

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    Thanks, Kathie, glad you'll be reading along!


    (more thoughts)

    Southern India at the latitude of Kerala and Tamil Nadu has developed in such a way that most of the foreign tourists are likely to be found on the coasts, with fewer in the interior. The west coast especially has been marketed enough toward tourism that cruise ships dock in Cochin (and to the north, Goa). Some areas of the coasts now display less of the "foreignness" and exoticism that draws many foreign visitors to India, although these areas are limited. There are far more hotels and restaurants of an international or fusion style there than in the interior. And the increasing rise of tourism by Indians within their own country has furthered this trend. This can be a positive on a trip to the south, as arriving at one coast can provide visitors a gentle emersion into India, and the other can be a place to relax at the end of a trip. Kind of like an "India sandwich", with the interior being the main ingredient. Although I'm not really sure what the coasts being the bread means in this analogy. But this is all relative, as we saw far fewer foreign tourists in all parts of southern India than in Rajasthan. And there are still plenty of fascinating, beautiful, unspoiled, and exotic locations on both coasts to make these rewarding areas to visit for those who have a limited interest in the India/International fusion style.

    We did research before we left and for the most part had good experiences with food in India. On the advice of several Indian people, we checked out zomato.com, as many of the reviews there are written by Indian residents, not tourists. While selective use of sites like Tripadvisor can be helpful for researching hotels, the restaurant reviews in many countries are a lot more… dubious. We're no strangers to Indian food, as there are a lot of Indian restaurants at home in New York City, but surprisingly, a large number of them are run by Pakistani owners! So it was interesting to compare the versions of dishes we knew from home with the ones in India. We only went to driver-recommended places when in remote locations where we didn't have a clue where to eat. These recommendations varied considerably in quality, and although they were some of the worst meals we had, we also had a couple of the best!

    Throughout both north and south India we found that a simple specific request in restaurants helped improve the food hugely for us. We like Indian food that has a lot of flavor, but that is not especially hot. For example, we like food containing things like ginger, coriander, etc., but not a lot of chili, which is where most of the heat comes from. We found that in most restaurants we could find someone who spoke enough English that we could communicate this preference successfully. And when we did this, the food was usually much better and less tourist-bland than when we didn't!

    C began to learn some Hindi prior to leaving, but found that not very useful throughout our trip. Although it is the language being taught in schools and proscribed by the government, in most of India people may know individual words, but seldom more. Although it is widely spoken in Delhi, as we traveled further throughout Rajasthan, we found the language changes rapidly. And in places like Tamil Nadu, the Tamil words may change even from village to village. Even our Indian drivers sometimes struggled with communicating outside of their home towns.

    In most cases, we found roads in the south infinitely better maintained than in the north, and provided a smoother ride. Even in poor rural areas. Because of their good condition, many also allowed for higher speeds, cutting travel time between more distant destinations. In contrast, if we had been told that some of the rural roads we took in the north were in reality not roads at all, but instead we were driving on dry rocky riverbeds, we would have believed it.

    The head-bobble. This has been commented on in this forum before, but I just wanted to mention a theory of its origin:

    “For well over 400 years, Indians were ruled by the British Empire and before that it was all monarchy. And people were afraid of saying no as an answer.”, Neither the British nor the monarchy liked to hear ‘no’ as an answer. They don’t care. It doesn’t matter if it’s feasible or not. They just want to hear ‘yes.’ So people were afraid and instead of saying a strong ‘no, ’ they would just nod their head this way and leave it up to the other person to judge whether it’s a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ and leave it there.”
    Of course, it also means many more things than just "no"
    https://youtu.be/eJ0SuD_ulVk

    (coming next, Cochin and the backwaters)

  • Report Abuse

    Wow, that looks like one comfortable flight! I will try not to think about it the next time I fly economy... (Have you read the recent report about walking through first class inducing rage in economy class passengers? Hope they don't walk past these!)

    Enjoying your TR.

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    I love your description of seeing a multitude of brief snapshots of local life as you drove through India. You have captured the fascination and privilege of travel perfectly.

    Very much looking forward to hearing more as I plan for my Northern Indian trip later this year.

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    Omg...that was some flight...and we thought our business class flight was wonderful - not anymore! What a great start to your trip report. I've been looking forward to following along on your adventure as you did mine. Can't wait to hear about your opinions. As you know, we loved Tamil Nadu.

  • Report Abuse

    thursdaysd,
    well, we may see you in economy, as we usually fly that way, too!

    I did see that article, and wondered about it. It seemed to me that most of the air rage stories I hear about originate from the airlines increasing trend of taking away more and more comfort from economy class while cramming people closer and closer. And here's an interesting reaction to that story:

    http://viewfromthewing.boardingarea.com/2016/05/03/does-first-class-breed-resentment-and-cause-air-rage/

    tripplanner001,
    Happy to have you along!

    loncall,
    Thanks! And you're right, it truly is a privilege to be able to travel to the all wonderful places we get posters on this forum have been lucky enough to visit.

    dgunbug,
    We love Tamil Nadu, too. I was so glad when you got there, as I had thought that would be the part you'd like the best!


    Kerala

    Our trip officially started when I received a text message from Etihad that our complimentary car to the airport was waiting for us outside our apartment building. This was a nice way to start our trip, and the drive to JFK had surprisingly light traffic. Soon we were ensconced in the spanking new Etihad JFK lounge, which was comfortable and attractive, and served very good food, although we only nibbled so as to save our appetite for the flight. When it was time to board, the process went quickly, as the A380 has separate jet bridges to both the upper and lower levels of the plane. Have to turn down the pre-flight champagne after having read about the dangers of mixing valium with even small amounts of alcohol. So I gazed at the bottles of champagne being offered with a tragic expression and attempted to endure this wretched existence I've been consigned to. I console myself with a mocktail of mango, lime and grenadine (as I write this, I notice that Spellcheck has changed mocktail to cocktail. Spellcheck wants to get me drunk).

    The charming on-board chef visited shortly after takeoff to consult on how we'd like our meals. We could order off the menu. Or have him put together something to our taste, which is what we did. When I told him I'd like the biryani, he suggested having it with rack of lamb, which was sensational. After dinner, the flight attendants made up our beds, which were spacious and yet surprisingly hard. I wonder why Etihad allowed such an oversight. Maybe it was intentional and they were just preparing us for those infamous beds of India! But every other aspect was wonderful. Although it was a very lengthy trip, traveling in such a manner meant that the time flew by, both literally and figuratively, and before we knew it, we were watching the evening lights of Cochin glitter below us during our approach.

    Photos of Cochin and the backwaters are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157666098286066

    All photo albums are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums

    They look better and show more if you make them large!

    We stayed in the Fort Kochi area, which I'd recommend, as that central location allowed for easy strolling to many sites and restaurants. The Old Harbour Hotel is a charming oasis located right across from the most famous group of Chinese fishing nets. Despite this, it's a quiet and relaxing place to come back to after a long day. Hidden behind its high walls is a large and lovely garden with water lily ponds and a pool. The hotel itself is a beautiful old colonial building, with interior decor to match. It is also quite popular, so reservations are required well in advance.

    Across the street and through a park, a promenade runs parallel to the shoreline where those Chinese fishing nets are located. Many Indian people come to stroll, get some sea air and a snack and watch the sunset. There is a playground where families come to frolic, and areas to sit where young couples steal a kiss. If you don't look like you are from India, the guys at the Chinese fishing nets will likely shout to get your attention as you walk by. They've discovered that they can get tourists to pay a hefty price to be allowed to lower and raise the nets. Nice when you can get someone to pay you for doing your work! My practice is that when people shout at me to come spend money for something I don't want, I pretend I didn't hear them and keep walking.

    Early the next morning we were picked up at our hotel by Peter Thomas from Salmon Tours. I'd heard very good things about him from a couple of people on Tripadvisor who'd toured with him. We'd emailed him before the trip to arrange for a traditional country boat trip into the backwaters around Cochin. The boat is quietly poled through narrow canals surrounded by beautiful lush foliage, pristine and teeming with birds. Included is a visit to a traditional village and a chance to cook and have lunch with a village family. We passed on the village, as we knew we'd be in many villages soon, and were more interested in the serene nature. It was a lovely trip, with no tourists at all to be seen. In fact, hardly any other people at all, which was fine with us, as we would be taking another small boat ride in the backwaters south of Cochin, and that would include more people and villages. Occasionally we'd pass small canoes carrying local people as we glided through the greenery. Peter was great, sensing when we just wanted to be quiet and listen to the gentle sounds of birds and the breeze rustling through the leaves and when we wanted to talk about the politics and culture of India, which was conducted mostly in the car! Peter is intelligent and interesting and speaks English well, and based on our great experience would recommend him for a tour in the Cochin area.

    http://salmontours.com/about_us.htm
    peter.backwater@gmail.com
    info@salmontours.com

    A highlight for us was Santa Cruz Cathedral, which we loved. It has a great mix of Portuguese and Indian cultures inside. We've never been to Goa, but I suppose there is a lot of that there. Thursdaysd, maybe you can comment on that, as I remember you spent time in Goa?

    As in many parts of India, we enjoyed wandering aimlessly on our own, through interesting traditional neighborhoods. Those parts of Cochin resemble more a continuous series of villages than a typical Indian city. The great thing about wandering in India is that there are usually tuk-tuks to bring you back to the hotel if you get lost.

    One of the best meals we had during our entire trip was a lunch at Fusion Bay in Fort Kochi. The word "fusion" in the name makes it sound like it might be silly-trendy, but instead it is a modest little place with modest little prices and exceptional Kerala seafood dishes. I could rhapsodize about the Corriander Fish Pollichathu, a fillet of nicely spiced fish smothered in fresh herbs and then baked in a banana leaf. So very flavorful, but not too hot. Also, Prawns Kerala. And everything else we tried was delicious, too.

    Also very pleasant and a very short walk from Old Harbour House is Kashi Art cafe (international food - casual). They even have Banana Cream Pie! We countered the heat with excellent iced coffee.

    Turns out that Cochin was a great place to cheaply (insanely cheaply) fill our Rifaximin prescription. Due to the many hospitals in the area, pharmacies there were good and plentiful.

    After careful consideration, we decided not to take any anti-malarials, but would be religious about using insect repellant. We're big fans of the unfortunately named Bug-X –– towelettes that come in little disposable packets which fit easily in a pocket. It is not noticeable on the skin and has almost no odor. It had worked in Laos where it repelled a lot of mosquitos. Luckily, there were none to be seen in India during our 6 weeks. Even in the backwaters. OK, actually there was one… exactly one!

    One negative was that Cochin was the only place in the south where we encountered sales pressure on the street from merchants. The walk down a narrow street to the Jewish synagogue has been turned into a cattle chute through which hapless tourists have to endure a barrage of salesmen coming from a line of tourist shops. We walked the gauntlet, eyes fixed above those shops to the second floors, which frankly had the more interesting architecture anyway.

    I was also surprised to see a number of young women (western tourists) walking around the busier sections of Cochin wearing shorts cut so high that most of their bottoms were exposed. I would have thought most visitors would be aware that modesty of dress is part of the culture of India.

    While planning the trip, I'd had a hard time figuring out where to stay and where to visit for our backwaters experience. I'd read that there is a less visited area north of Cochin, but was unable to find enough information before we left. And I kept hearing that boats leaving Alleppey now had to travel through overcrowded waterways, so we looked for other places. One area that intrigued me was around Monroe Island, which is south of Alleppey, and is supposed to be very unspoiled and beautiful. But we never made it there, as out trip was already getting ridiculously long! We also loved the idea of a home stay in the backwaters, but most that interested us didn't have air conditioning, which we both need. Also, I had visions of mosquitos, so in the end we chickened out and went the more splurgy route, and stayed at a beautiful character-rich hotel called Purity. It is a restored old mansion/estate on the shore of Lake Vembanad, and is relatively small and intimate, unlike all those huge resorts located on the lake. One nice thing was that we were able to have a Shikara boat pick us up early in the morning right at the hotel dock. The Shikara ride was a nice compliment to the country boat ride, as it crossed the big lake full of fishermen at sunrise, and then moved into narrow canals full of old village homes, where we saw village life from our boat. It had an engine, but it was mercifully quiet, and so narrow that we could easily go through the most narrow canals. The fact that it had a roof was welcome as the sun became quite strong, and the deck style recliners also ended up being welcome.

    We stayed at Purity for 2 nights, enjoying the local life around us and the lush tropical location, and then were ready for the driver I'd arrange to pick us up for the next leg of our trip into the hills of Munnar.

    (to be continued)

  • Report Abuse

    So glad you enjoyed Cochin and the backwaters more than we did. Your pictures are beautiful, but you missed the largest mall in Asia!!! Looking at your pictures and my own, which are also beautiful, I still say that much of the scenery on the backwaters was like south Florida. I guess I'm spoiled. I am really enjoying your report.

  • Report Abuse

    dgunbug,

    That mall sounded like a hoot! I think we drove by it on the way to Munnar from Lake Vembanad.

    I have to say I disagree with the South Florida comparison. I was born in Miami and spent my first 16 years there. I also still visit family there frequently. And I thought that while both places have palm trees and egrets, the comparison pretty-much ends there.

    The differences were so big that we wouldn't think them at all similar. The architecture of the homes, the people and their clothing, the boats, smells, and most of the wildlife sang "India" with a capital "I" to us.

    I will say that I did notice a few Florida-style towers while driving past one area of Cochin city, but this was not an area we'd ever had wanted to visit.

  • Report Abuse

    Kathie,
    One of the things we loved about much of southern India is how few tourists you see there, as compared to the Golden Triangle. So it looks so much more atmospheric. (Unless one runs into me there, in which case I'll spoil it for someone, by being a damn tourist in their photo.)

    A lot of sites are also blissfully uncrowded. Some of the great temples in Tamil Nadu, for example. So that the mood is so much calmer and more like being in another time.

  • Report Abuse

    I realized that I forgot to include our itinerary for the trip.

    South India:
    New York - Cochin
    Cochin - Lake Vembanad (backwaters)
    Lake Vembanad - Munnar
    Munnar - Madurai
    Madurai - Chettinad region
    Chettinad region - Tanjore
    Tanjore - Pondicherry
    Pondicherry - Jaipur (flight)

    Rajasthan (and Mumbai):
    Jaipur - Shekhawati region
    Shekhawati region - Bikaner
    Bikaner - Jaisalmer
    Jaisalmer - Jodhpur
    Jodhpur - Narlai
    Narlai - Bera
    Bera - Khempur
    Khempur - Begun
    Begun - Bhainsrorgarh
    Bhainsrorgarh - Bundi
    Bundi - Delwara
    Delwara - Udaipur
    Udaipur - Mumbai (flight)
    Mumbai - New York


    This may sound like a lot of driving (which it is) as well as a number of short stops.

    But we find being driven by car in India a lot easier than train, bus or flying. None of the schedule worries and rushing, no need to move bags around or pack carefully, and the freedom to stop where and when we wanted. And having done it before, I had some knowledge of what to expect, so to the best of my ability, I tried to place more comfortable and/or longer stops at regular intervals in our itinerary, which ended up helping a lot.

    And as C had never been to India, we made it a bit like a sampler platter, so that we can decide where we might want to return for a more relaxed trip with fewer destinations.

  • Report Abuse

    rje,
    I'm thoroughly enjoying your report and love your comparison of traveling in India to "floating in a waking dream". What a perfect and beautiful analogy! Love how you capture the flavor of the experience -- I'm happily along for this ride.

    As I'm now planning a trip for Tamil Nadu and Kerala for 2017, your report is much appreciated. And I look forward to reading about Rajasthan, a place that my husband and I fell in love with.

    Of course, it will only be a real dream for us to travel in the Apartment! But I so enjoyed looking at the photos. That will be us in economy, hopefully not becoming too wild with rage!

  • Report Abuse

    Appreciate the detail in your report, and your photos really bring India to life. I've been flirting with the idea of India for several years now and your report, as some of the others, inch me closer and closer to making the leap. Some day...

  • Report Abuse

    progol,
    Thank you, your kind interest is helping to motivate me to keep writing and posting photos. And if you guys love Rajasthan, I think you'll love southern India, too.


    tripplanner001,
    That leap took me years to make, too.

    But now I wonder why I waited so long!

  • Report Abuse

    Munnar

    Photos of Munnar are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157665972558042

    They show more if you make them large!

    I'd contacted the driver service from my last trip to south India, who I'd found through recommendations on IndiaMike.com. He had been terrific, and less expensive than booking through most agencies. But although we'd reserved him for this trip, a few days before we would meet up with him, we discovered he'd still be on a long tour when we arrived, so the owner offered to be our driver. I had met him at the end of my last trip, and thought he'd also be good.

    Unfortunately, when he showed up at our hotel with a shiny new Innova, as requested, he also had his son with him. He explained that his client had unexpectadly extended her trip, so he'd have to leave us and have his 20-something son drive us. We didn't have much of a choice at that point, but I was annoyed at the switch. Still, the son seemed nice, so we decided to proceed.

    He told us there was a strike that was closing some of the roads that would normally have been our route from the Purity Hotel to Munnar. The hotel manager felt confident that we could drive on smaller roads past the road closures and urged us to go that way, but our new driver lives in Madurai, and not being as familiar with this area, he insisted on taking the route that would make us go through Cochin and then up to Munnar. I would have insisted on taking the country route, but we found out there would be no signal to use Google maps if we got lost, so I reluctantly agreed to the longer and much less scenic route. I fumed a bit when we got behind numerous trucks that themselves fumed more than a bit. The traffic near Cochin steadily increased, and as it turned to stop-and-go traffic, I regretted not having insisted on the more scenic route. But of course we had no way of knowing if it would have been a terrible mistake, and this was the safer option. Anyway, as we climbed out of city traffic and into the increasingly cool hills, we relaxed and enjoyed the views and found that happily our young driver had really excellent driving skills.

    Where we would stay in the Munnar area was not an easy choice, as information about the best area for our purposes was not easy to find. There are a great many places to stay in Munnar, varying in price and quality. Many of them are largish places that seem out of scale to me for the landscapes they occupy. We were looking for smaller places to stay. The region considered to be the Munnar area is actually quite large, and while some areas are very beautiful, other areas are comparatively bland. This is less of an issue for the many Indians who visit Munnar largely as a relief from the heat in the plains, and so are likely to be pleased with locations that seem more ordinary to us, since just the presence of clean cool air, hills and trees is already a big plus for them. After a good deal of research (including liberal use of Google Earth), we decided to spend 2 nights in 2 different places along the way, partly to break up the trip, but mainly to place us in easy range of the tea plantations on our second day. Munnar town held little interest for us, being rather nondescript. We were more interested in seeing the beautiful plantations located past Munnar town (on the route to Madurai) and exploring the villages where the workers lived.

    The first night we stayed in Bracknell Forest, a modest relatively inexpensive place with a terrace in the trees. I got up early the next morning and had a delightful walk through the surrounding forest. The floor of the forest was thick with lovely green cardamom plants, giving off a heady scent. Later that morning we headed for our next hotel, and the landscapes became increasingly magnificent. The terraced sculptural quality of the tea plantations enthralled me. They somehow looked like giant Japanese moss and rock gardens. I had the driver stop repeatedly so we could get out whenever I spotted a likely village, temple, landscape, or location where tea pickers were working.

    Our next hotel was the Spice Tree, clinging to a steep hill in the Chinnakkanal area. Very comfortable and attractive, and conveniently close to a particularly beautiful area of tea plantations, and not too far from the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate where I'd hoped to go. Kolukkumalai looks to be a great area for landscape photography, but is located at the end of what is widely reported as an hour-plus arduous spine-rattling-y jeep ride. Photos of the unpaved road strewn with what were practically boulders looked daunting, and C's disability would prevent her from going, but I still considered it for myself, only dropping the idea when I found that my back wasn't feeling 100% during those few days. Still, the alternative tea gardens in the area were gorgeous, and the next morning I was able to visit several tea plantations, wandering happily through narrow paths between the tea plants in the crisp morning air under brilliant blue skies. Something about it felt magical. A waterfall, a small village and a local temple rounded out the day.

    (coming up next, Madurai.)

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    RJE, I just found your report and am thrilled!!!!!!! Thank you for the wonderful "pictures in words" - will open your "real" pix soon and comment, of course!! Keep going...this is bliss!!

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    Your photos from Munnar are definitely magical, rje! They're stunning!

    Thank you for posting this! I'm so enjoying reading and viewing the photos; I feel like I'm traveling along!

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    Madurai

    Photos of Madurai are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157665509823980

    They show more if you make them large!


    We had begun our descent from the Western Ghats (the mountain range separating Kerala from Tamil Nadu) when our driver pulled off the road. He pointed down the hill where our road could be seen continuing in an endless series of downward "S" turns and counted off the number of turns we'd be taking with a big grin. "27 hairpin turns", he cried. "Count them!" And with that, we were off. I could plainly see he was relishing the chance to drive them! As we careened around turns, we looked down the steep drop to the plain below. That plain was Tamil Nadu. The change to flat terrain is sudden and abrupt from the steep hills, and as we crossed that plain, we saw it was only broken by an occasional hill of bare rounded stone. We drove around and through large herds of goats sharing our road, and many villages. I told our driver that I knew we had no time to stop, as we had a long drive to Madurai, but that I wished we could. They looked so intriguing. He told me not to worry, and that there were many such villages near Madurai, and that we could go to some during the next few days.

    Madurai is such an ancient city, and yet today not well known in the west. But in ancient times it was very well-known:

    “In 22 B. C. Roman Emperor Tiberius wrote to the Roman Senate complaining that the rage for jewels and precious trinkets on the part of the Roman ladies was draining the empire of its wealth, viz., gold.” In 70 A. D. India drained Roman gold to the value of a million pounds a year. “The trade was highly profitable to Madurai but the balance of trade was so adverse to Rome that the Indian trade seriously affected the coinage of Rome.”

    On the last trip I'd spent several days in Madurai, arriving on the overnight Tuticorin Express Train from Mysore (which was a mini-adventure in itself), and had been smitten by the great temple, the Meenakshi Amman Temple. I wanted C to see it, as I was sure she'd love it, and I wanted a return visit for myself. And now we were getting close.

    Oddly, a few weeks earlier back in New York City, I'd had a vision examination conducted by an ophthalmologist of Indian descent whose first name is Meenakshi. I asked her if she was possibly named after the Goddess Meenakshi, and she smiled and said yes, and that none of her patients had ever known to ask her that. I commented on the coincidence, since Meenakshi is known as the "fish-eyed Goddess", which sounds strange, but was actually praise, as that meant that she had perfect eyes. What a name to give a little girl in New York who would grow up to be an eye doctor!

    Madurai is a bit dusty and chaotic, so we were staying on a wooded hill just outside it, just as I did during the last visit. The Gateway Hotel is owned by Taj Hotels, which in turn is owned by Tata, which appear to own everything in India. The hotel is full of wild peacocks that roam the grounds and sometimes the lobby. It seems that when the estate was turned into a hotel, a couple of tame peacocks were brought in to provide "atmosphere". But unexpectedly they were females who went into heat, and their cries attracted many wild randy males, so the population soon exploded!

    The hotel has lovely garden grounds with a very pleasant pool, but the service was bit of a comedy. Here's one example emblematic of the problems. They didn't have a safe in the rooms, but instead, ancient safety deposit boxes which the staff had to unlock for me each morning and night. They kept the keys all tangled in a jumble inside a cardboard box. So each time I'd need my box opened, there would be a long delay while they fished through the cardboard box looking for the right key. They even lost the key for some time one day. This wouldn't have been an issue for me in many hotels in India, where odd lapses are normal, but in a Taj hotel, this was peculiar. That, along with a number of similar events prompted me to have a word with the manager at checkout!

    It is a long story that I told elsewhere on this forum, but I had been given permission by the local police to photograph inside the Meenakshi temple. Anyone was allowed when I had last visited, but some misguided vision of what entails security had prompted government officials to ban photography in the temple except for cell phone cameras. The Madurai police say someone with a bomb in their camera might try and destroy the temple. But my contacts in Madurai had spoken to the police in advance of my coming and gained permission for me. However, just before we arrived, a bomb went off in another Indian city far away, and my permission evaporated.

    So when we arrived I went to the police station with my contacts from Madurai to plead my case. I politely pointed out even government airlines like Air India allow passengers to bring cameras on board, as do all the other airlines in the world, and that a jet aircraft 30,000 feet in the air is far more vulnerable than a temple made of stone. I volunteered to take my camera apart at the entrance to show there was nothing inside.

    But I was told over and over that it would be impossible to bring in my camera because of "security". Finally I gave up and went to the temple without my SLR camera, but I did take a lot of photos with my iPhone, as did many other visitors that day! Some of those photos can be seen if you follow the link at the start of this Madurai post. In addition, I added some photos I took during the last visit, as they could have been taken today, nothing inside has changed.

    It is a glorious temple, with many nighttime ceremonies and pujas, so it is well worth visiting again in the evening as well as during the day. Every night there is a closing ceremony where a representation of Shiva is carried in procession to his wife Parvati's bedroom where the two are joined and put to bed. This is accompanied by chanting priests, drummers and torchbearers!

    Luckily, most other great temples in Tamil Nadu have no similar ban on photography, so I was able to take a lot of photos inside them.

    The streets around the temple are fascinating in their own right. Markets, tailors, shops of all kinds abound, and they are as interesting at night as during the day. Maybe more so. There are no cars on some of those streets, so it makes for easier wandering.

    Another worthwhile but seldom visited site is the laundry ghats by the river. Also, there are some white rock quarries outside of Madurai that are supposed to be photogenic, with white oxen pulling old wood carts laden with the white stone up steep hills. I never made it there, but they sound interesting.

    And true to his word, our driver fulfilled my request and took us to some small villages about ½ hour outside Madurai. Wandering through them, a smile was enough to break the ice with the residents, who were quite welcoming and pleased to have me photograph them.

    One recommendation for a very good lunch or dinner in Madurai would be Sree Sabarees. Don't be put off that it is #1 in Tripadvisor! It is the real deal, and they have very good food including excellent Thalis. There are several locations in Madurai.

    (coming up next, the Chettinad region.)

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    Kathie,
    Munnar was lovely, and I'd like to go back.

    CaliNurse,
    Thanks, and welcome back. Hope your trip was wonderful!

    progol,
    Thank you so much!
    And you make a great virtual travel companion.

    tripplanner001,
    Sri Lanka is definitely on my list of places I'd like to visit.
    But the list is getting so long...!

    shelleyk,
    That's OK, I kept forgetting when I was coming home!

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    rje,
    Your description of the trip to Madurai is wonderful and hilarious, with as your driver careening down the mountain! Loved the story of your ophthalmologist named Meenakshi -- I'll bet that she was impressed that you knew the origin of her name!
    And the photos are just amazing! The shots of the goats -- what an experience that must've been! I also loved the intimacy of the shots of in the small town. And even if it was just the iPhone (or earlier shots), the photos in the temple are simply stellar. Thank you!

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    Wow, RJE--so much to wonder, see, and respond to!! Will comment bit by bit, so neither of us gets overwhelmed!

    First--thanks for link to Gary Leff's article about "plane rage." I agree with his analysis of that "study."

    Your Etihad apartment ...whoa!! Until now, my "ultimate" was BA First Class in its current incarnation. Having had luck at somehow (ok, confession:--lots of credit card offers!) accumulating 400,000 "One World Alliance" (visions of Darth Vader) miles, I've considered one way in the Etihad First Class. Alas...if only that didnt exhaust so many precious FF miles! Anyway, so glad that you and C got to enjoy and relish this probably once in a lifetime travel mode!!!! What a lovely gift to her!

    Re head bobble video---thank you for sharing. The vid, which automatically followed on my computer, is hilarious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SY1vJTZgHRI

    My explanation of the head bobble: an instinctive genetic response to India's bad, long, and/or winding roads, and crazy driving style. How to prepare yourself for carsickness-causing inner-ear fluid shifts? Prophylactically creating them yourself, in the form of the head bobble!

    Your thread title--yes!!!! Those moments and flashes of scenes in daily lives!! People ask why I keep returning--I reply that India is a place where, within first ten minutes on a local road away the airport, you see 100 things that make you grab for your camera, with your jaw dropping with wonder. A girl with a water pitcher on her head...a man giving himself a bucket bath...a mother feeding a baby...an old man squatting by the roadside bruise his teeth...a barber on a street corner. As Faith Pandian of the aptly named Indian Panorama once explained to me, when I wondered how to figure out the ongoing passion for India---it's the awe of seeing every facet of life, from birth to death, and all the in-between moments, right out on the street, unself-consciously on display, in the vivid colors and sounds and more of India. Nothing, even the daily activities of daily lives, seems mundane when I'm there!

    OK, back to your fantastic report!!!!

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    Rje - your report brings back so many wonderful memories and I feel like I am there with you. You have a wonderful way with words! We also stayed at the gateway hotel which was a beautiful property. How I wish we had spent more time in Tamil Nadu, exploring the amazing temples and small villages. Looking forward to more. Reading your report makes me want to return.

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    Really enjoying your report. The drive down to Tamil Nadu sounds amazing even if mildly scary. Meenakshi Amman Temple would be right up our alley, as are some of the other temples you're visiting.

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    CaliNurse: thank you for your insight into why you keep returning to India. I, myself have been trying to put into words for others why I find India such a spiritual place to visit and your insight :

    "you see 100 things that make you grab for your camera, with your jaw dropping with wonder...................it's the awe of seeing every facet of life, from birth to death, and all the in-between moments, right out on the street, unself-consciously on display, in the vivid colors and sounds and more of India. Nothing, even the daily activities of daily lives, seems mundane when I'm there!"

    Your words are exactly why I would return................India is REAL!


    RJE: thank you for sharing your travel experiences. I look forward each day to read about your experiences.........I like how you integrate your photos to back up your words....................

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    Calinurse - I completely agree with dragon88 - I love your description of WHY your passion for India! As someone who has been there only once but completely taken by it, I can say "I understand!" I'm now planning a second visit and can't wait!

    rje- your report is wonderful; the words and the photos just work together beautifully!

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    progol,
    It was pretty amusing photographing that big goat herd. Right before they engulfed our car, I'd gotten out and was lying on the road to get that angle as they approached me. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't got up before they reached me?
    And the incredulous looks on the herders faces was only matched by the look our driver gave me when I got back in the car.

    Calinurse,
    Thank you for your wonderful, poetic and profound comment about India!

    dgunbug,
    I agree! There is so much we left still left unseen in that area that I'd love to go back, too, and spend more time in each locale.

    tripplanner001,
    Lest the description of the drive down the mountain makes you nervous about taking it yourself, don't be concerned, while the road was very winding, it was the speed of the driver that made it so...memorable.

    dragon88,
    Well said!
    And thank you for reading.

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    the Chettinad region

    Photos of the Chettinad region are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157665509823980

    They show more if you make them large!

    The drive from Madurai to the Chettinad region is short, but the difference is dramatic. From a teeming city to a series of sleepy dusty little villages so chock-full of abandoned Chettiar mansions that it would take weeks to see them all. On our sampler trip we only have a day and a half.

    So mainly we concentrate on the village where we'll be staying, which as it turns out offers many treasures.

    The Chettinad region has some similarities to the Shekhawati region (Kathie has another thread going now regarding the Shekhawati region, and I remember Thursdaysd wrote an account of the area which she had explored). Both regions are known for having mansions covered in forms of art (and are themselves a form of art), and both are showing the ravages of time and neglect, but still maintaing a power and beauty. The mansions in both regions were constructed by merchants, traders and bankers who wanted to display a visible form of their fortunes made, and both had families that moved away when the conditions that made those fortunes possible ended. In the case of the Shekhawati region, it was the end of the spice route, in the Chettinad region, the end of the British Raj. They can both feel like ghost towns at times. Both have caretakers who will sometimes allow entry, usually for a small fee. And both are richly deserving of a visit.

    Before we get to the village where we'll be staying, we stop at a Chettiar mansion in another town which our driver thinks we'll want to see. He is right! "What is the name?", I ask him. "Very famous house", he answers. This is typical of the information we get from him. So far during the trip, his contribution to our understanding of India has been to periodically point at some large nondescript building and say "Very important factory", slowing down our car as we approach, in expectations that surely I'll want to take a picture of such a fine example of a huge brick rectangle. I keep disappointing him, though, not asking him to stop the car so that we can gaze at "very important factory" or the high wall he points to, behind which is apparently "very big school". Oddly, he notices, I never seem to want to take a picture of those walls. But we're inconsistent, as he knows we did want to go to the Meenakshi temple, the splendor of which he'd managed to reduce to "very big temple". I can tell he is trying to make sense of my inexplicable lack of enthusiasm for what he finds important, and my interest in what he finds mundane, turning to look when he hears the "click" of my camera, to see what in Shiva's name that crazy American does find interesting now.

    Luckily, I've done a lot of research before we left home, so I know where we want to go and what we'll be seeing. But in the cases where I failed to do enough research, often the only contribution I can hope for from our driver is "Very large wall". Still, as I keep telling C, he is an excellent driver!

    And he is right about one thing, the mansion he stopped at is undoubtably famous and pretty nifty. I find out after I get home and do some research that it is called Athangudi Palace, located unsurprisingly in Athangudi. It's covered with painted statues, some of which are humorous depictions of British soldiers. But we have bad timing, seconds after we park, a big tour bus pulls up, and a boisterous group of French tourists spill out. As the trip goes on, we will begin to notice that a large number of the tourists we see in less-visited regions in India turn out to be French. Are the French more intrepid travelers than other nationalities? We decide to return later, and after taking a few photos we continue on to our hotel, Chidambara Vilas (in the village of Kadiapatti). It is another of these old Chettiar merchant's mansions, beautifully restored from previous ruin and turned into a gorgeous and well-run hotel. Walking into the "lobby" is jaw-dropping. The wood in the interior was imported from Burma, sporting pillars made of polished teak, rosewood and granite, lights and mirrors from Belgium, chandeliers from Daman and Diu and tiles from Italy. It is an attraction unto itself, and we spend a good amount of time just walking through it and admiring the fine craftsmanship. There is an attractive pool on the second floor that sadly we never find time to enjoy.

    The restaurant is beautiful, too and the Chettiar food is very good. While we have lunch in the dining hall under towering ceilings, the chef comes out periodically to make sure all is well, and while talking to him, he mentions that he worked in a restaurant in America. "Where in America?", we enquire. "Edison, New Jersey" is his unexpected answer. But he came back to India, and Edison's loss is Kadiapatti's gain! Our's too.

    Walking through the quiet village streets outside the hotel is fascinating, as the village is chock-full of these old mansions, now decaying, but still architecturally opulent. It is a bit sad to see them in this state, but as the area has seen a resurgence in interest, more and more of them are being restored. And frankly, the patina of age on the non-restored ones is quite lovely.

    Dinner is again quite good, and we retire to our room early, lying on the bed and looking up at the unusual (to us) fan suspended from the ceiling over us. It is a contraption made of pieces of heavy richly-colored fabrics attached to a wooden frame which we can swing over us, like a trapeze, by pulling on a braided cord on the wall over the headboard. But so unfair that we should be required to pull this in order to keep cool. Where are the servants who should be doing such a task? Disgusted at this unforgivable oversight, we go to sleep.

    I wake early and let C sleep while I go out with my camera, walking through the village, observing morning activities like drawing water from the village well and filling colorful jugs, delivering hay, marching cows all the way to… somewhere. After breakfast, we drive to several more mansions (among them, the CVRM House and VVR House in Kandukathan). These are uninhabited save for a caretaker family who unlock the doors for us and let us in for a few rupees. These mansions are only partially restored, but fascinating, as they have the original kitchens from the 1800s, etc.

    At one of our stops, C's knees are catching up with her, so she waits in the car while I take some photos. I return about 5 minutes later to find the car surrounded by about 30 school children. Our driver has wandered off for some reason leaving C alone in the big white Innova. The children are just gazing in at C, some smiling, some giggling, some solemnly motionless, with big-eyes. She is a star! This keeps happening throughout the trip –– she is a source of curiosity and wonder. I know this sometimes happens to tourists, but somehow I fail to elicit such a response, which is just as well. That is, until I pull out my camera, at which point everyone either wants a photo of themselves, or their baby or their goat, or their pumpkin, which a man in Jodphur runs to retrieve, so that he can pose holding it high toward the heavens as he grins at me triumphantly!

    At the end of our last day it is evident that we should have scheduled at least one more day in the area, but at the time I planned the trip I wasn't even sure we should go. Maybe we will be able to return one day.

    (coming up next, Trichy and Tanjore.)

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    Envy you the hotel in Chettinad. Mine was fine, but yours sounds really special.I came across some special houses in Coorg, too.

    I think the French may be more intrepid. I have run into small groups of them in places well off the general American tourist's radar - southern Laos in 2002, far southwest China in 2004, Syria in 2009 - although there were a LOT of European tourists in Syria then. So few Americans I was questioned on the way back in Istanbul airport, where I had switched to my US passport.

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    Wow! The mansions look absolutely amazing. I love it that you are able to experience a different slice of India, although I am surprised that you ran into a tour group there.

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    How can a country seem so "raw" at first glance but is magnificent and wonderful at second glance? Your photos are splendid. How did you find this hotel..........the use of wood is amazing! Your experiences continue to reinforce the fact that India continues to be full of surprises at every turn for the mind, body and soul............Thank you....

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    Kathie,
    I'm so glad!

    thursdaysd,
    I think you're right about the French. I wonder if it is because they had so many colonies, like parts of Syria, Cambodia, Laos, and of course, parts of what is now Tamil Nadu - like Pondicherry and Karikal.so . Which I think explains why some less-visited places are very much on their tourist radar.

    Southern Laos in 2002 must have been a great experience.

    BTW, did you hear that American travelers who have been to Turkey, even for a just a change of plane, are now subject to being on a special list that calls for added screening every time they fly, and it can last for a long time? it is called SSSS. and it is printed on your airline ticket.
    http://thepointsguy.com/2015/08/my-new-tsa-travel-hell/


    CaliNurse,
    :)


    tripplanner001,
    Maybe my use of the phrase tour group gave a wrong impression. It was one of those tour groups that people sign up for to see a specific thing, like "the mansions of Chettinad". It wasn't one of those If-its-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium mass-market tours. But in a place where we saw so few tourists of any kind, it was unexpected to have them all walk in right before us. So we went elsewhere until we could see it undisturbed.

    dragon88,
    Thank you!
    I found the hotel while I was doing research on where to stay in Tanjore. I saw that a hotel there (that didn't seem so great) was owned by an Indian company called the Sangam group, which among their properties also had a fairly new hotel in Chettinad (that did sound great). So after some additional research, I booked it for us.

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    Thanks rje..... will add "Sangam Group" to my list of resources when looking for places to stay in India..............you all are great with all kinds of resources............so amazing.................. Can't wait to hear about the rest of your adventures to compare and also to see what I've missed..............will stay tuned..........

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    "BTW, did you hear that American travelers who have been to Turkey, even for a just a change of plane, are now subject to being on a special list"

    Yikes! I wish I had known that a month ago! I'm spending a couple of nights in Istanbul on my way to Uzbekistan this year. I wonder whether getting the Turkish visa in my UK passport instead of my US one would help? I was going to get the Uzbekistan visa in my US passport because it would be easier, but I can leave on a different passport than the one I entered with. Maybe they think you're headed for Syria if you go to Turkey...

  • Comment has been removed by Fodor's moderators

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    thursdaysd ,
    I just did a Google search of SSSS + Turkey, and saw there are a number of articles about this, so maybe you can find out more that way.

    SSSS stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection, and I think you're right that they want to look closer at people passing through Turkey who may have gone to Syria. Thing is, they are being so careful that they are designating SSSS for people who would seem highly unlikely to be a security risk.

    And once designated, it appears to stay with people for a very long time, becoming an issue every time they fly.

    If you can use a UK passport for Turkey, it might work. Or it might raise even more red flags if they have a way of knowing you've done this, as it might appear to them that you are using dual passports to evade scrutiny.

    I wish I had more information to offer, but maybe further research on your part may yield an answer. Good luck, and I hope this sin't going to affect you.

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    No worries rje.......I am just using your resources to research further.........following you intently as all is informative for future return to your part of India....

    Also, i had thought about travel to Turkey soon, but, thanks for the ssss warning

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    rje- I found your TR whilst browsing round fodors today, and I'm so glad that I did! it looks like just the sort of trip [perhaps just the southern part; i doubt that we could arrange 6 weeks away] that DH and I would like. Do you think that it would make a good introduction to India? We have been to Sri Lanka and loved it, and we're seriously considering going back perhaps next year, but the southern section looks like it's a terrific alternative.

    As I understand it, you started in the south in December, in order to avoid the hot[ter] weather - is that right? What temps did you encounter there, if you can remember?

    I love your photos, BTW - they are excellent - as are your descriptions of the places and people. you make it all sounds very enticing!

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    annhig,
    Thank you!

    We started our trip the first week in January, and Kerala was warmer than historical norms then, but still not really hot. Daytime highs in the mid-80s.
    Munnar, being high in the hills, had highs in the low 70s.
    And Tamil Nadu was in-between, and less humid than Kerala, with highs in the high 70s to the low 80s.

    December in the south is supposed to also have very nice temperatures, but is likely to have greater crowds, and hotels rooms will go fast, and may be more expensive then.

    Hard to say if southern India is the best place to start. Arguments in favor over the north might be fewer tourists, less sales pressure, friendlier people (perhaps because of less tourists!), better roads, and if this matters to you, a greener lusher landscape (with some exceptions). Some may disagree with these assessments, they are just ours. But the north has a greater number of big sites, although many of them are spread out over a distance.

    I'm not sure of the answer, but I'll be reporting on our experiences in the north, too, so stay tuned and maybe you'll come to a conclusion!

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    Thanks for the swift response, rje. I know about the great monuments of the north of course but like you could manage without the crowds. the climate of the south sounds fine - certainly no hotter than SL in September, which at times was very hot, except in the Tea Country.

    I'm looking forward to reading more, and seeing more of your great photos!

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    I am really enjoying your report rje and the associated photographs are absolutely fabulous.

    I visited some of these places around 30 years ago and whilst I am sure there are many changes since then some of the shots, in particular those which peep into small greeny/blue shopfronts in Madurai, are very evocative.

    I remember Cochin as quiet, almost totally without tourists. I vividly recall feeling that I was literally travelling back in time when walking through the Jewish quarter. I still have a silk painting I bought there on my bedroom mantelpiece. I am slightly sad to hear that this area is now full of tourists but at the same time glad that others are enjoying it as I did and that the local economy and people must be benefiting.

    I am so looking forward to your more Northern travels as am planning a trip there later this year. Please keep going !!

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    Tanjore

    Photos of Tanjore are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157666547924491

    They show more if you make them large!
    I've supplemented photos from this trip with a few from the last trip.

    On our way to Tanjore, we stopped in Trichy to re-visit the Ranganathaswamy Temple. The stars didn't line up for our visit this time the way they did on my previous trip. That trip had coincided with the visits of many pilgrims to the temple, making for a fascinating experience. Unsurprisingly, Trichy had been hot then, in early August, brutally hot, but the amazing sights must have distracted me from possible heatstroke. This trip had much milder temperatures, but the temple experience was less ideal. I noticed the tower art had been crudely painted, there was much noise and closures from repair/rennovation going on inside, the priests seemed cranky, yelling at people, and C still was having more mobility problems than usual. Not that it still wasn't great. Just not as great as the last time we'd been there. We weren't bummed, though –– I knew we had so many wonderful temples yet to come.

    And the sweet temple elephant who greeted visitors upon arrival with a blessing with his trunk was gone for vacation. And so was the one in Tanjore, as we would find out later. Turns out, every year the temple elephants in the south have a 48 day meet-up in the Theppakadu forest reserve (between Mysore and Ooty) where they frolic in natural settings and presumably catch up on important elephant gossip. This getaway is a recent development, and is run by the government. The elephants are fed a special diet and veterinarians give medical exams and treatment if they need it. During their absence, the mahouts get additional training as how to best care for the elephants. I've never known how to feel about temple elephants. I may be wrong about this, but the temple elephants I've seen appeared to have an OK life. Unlike many other working elephants, they had no riders to wear down their backs, no logging or other hard work to do, no tricks to perform, nothing to do but hang out with their adoring public. I never saw any of them mistreated by their mahouts as they sometimes are in "camps". But I've never seen their sleeping quarters nor their treatment when they are not at the temple, so I'm really not sure. Still, knowing they get mandated time off in the country made me smile.

    Our plan after Trichy was to check into our hotel in Tanjore and then head for the wonderful Brihadeeswarar temple. When considering where to stay in Tanjore, I initially had some qualms about the Ideal River View Resort. It is outside of the town of Tanjore, and I had wondered if it would be too far. It is not. The drive is maybe 15 minutes to the big temple when there was traffic, but the drive was always an attraction in itself, with horses crossing the street in town, wild peacocks on the river road, people bathing on the banks of the river, etc. The location is in fact wonderful. It's on an attractive river, with interesting things to see, like bullock teams pulling carts into the water and many lovely water birds.

    And I had heard reports that bus tour groups sometimes stayed en masse at the hotel, and that might get annoying. Well, it does get some tour groups, but the layout keeps them spread out. The pool is in a lush garden setting, surrounded by large mature trees, with many parrots and other birds. And amazingly, the pool was empty save for us for the entire 2 days we were there. A welcome place to cool off in between forays.

    They have a newly constructed wing, which I requested and got. The older part had more mature trees, so it was more attractive, but it was… older. And closer to more widely used areas. And of course the bathrooms are older. But I'm sure the it would have been fine.

    And the food was better than I would have expected. Actually pretty good, and sometimes very good, which was lucky, because even though the drive to Tanjore wasn't far, we wouldn't have wanted to make another roundtrip in the dark just for dinner.

    On the trip before, we had opted for the city center. Our experience there was not great! There are really not a lot of great options around Tanjore, and I think the Ideal River View was the best for us.

    After a late lunch, we headed for the Brihadeeswarar temple. As we enter town we see a line of horses crossing the street, halting traffic and none of the motorists seem the least bit fazed. In fact, no one even honks –– a rare moment in India!

    We arrive at sunset, as we want to visit at night. The temple is not painted colorfully like many in Tamil Nadu, but the artistry of the carving is better. The color of the stone is especially beautiful in late afternoon, when the sun turns it a glowing red. And there are far fewer people than at Madurai or Trichy. Virtually all of the people who are there are Indian, and are mostly dressed in their best temple-goin' outfits, which means many beautiful saris. I notice I am more often taking pictures of women in India, and realize that the eye-candy of the colorful saris is mostly why. Unlike the peacocks, the human males are sadly drab.

    A man asks me where we're from, and then invites us into the inner sanctum, which is forbidden at many Indian temples to non-Hindus. And no one even pressures me to make a donation, prompting me to leave an especially generous one to help upkeep this treasure.

    We stay for quite a while at the temple complex, watching as the nearly full moon rises over the massive temple, huge in the cloudless night sky. Illuminated by moonlight, the mood becomes even more mysterious and yet somehow serene. We wander through the outdoor areas, where ceremonies in smaller buildings create pools of warm flickering light, the melodic sounds of chanting wafting through the balmy night air. Families sit on grassy areas, the metallic threads of the women's saris sparkling in the moonlight. At the enormous nandi, priests waft pots of smoke during a ceremony, creating a foggy cloud, which makes the area seem even more romantic. Eventually we tear ourselves away, knowing we'll be back in the morning.

    As we head back to the hotel, we see a traveling carnival has set up at the outskirts of town, illuminated in gaudy colors, but we drive by. We are in India, so we already feel like we are in a carnival illuminated in gaudy colors!

    The next morning I return to the temple. C needs time off her feet, so she goes to the pool, where I will join her later. The daytime experience at the temple allows for more detailed admiration of the fine carvings, as well as shows put on by the parrots, squirrels and monkeys cavorting. Afterwards, a visit to a village finds much riverside activity. Mostly women, just a few men. A few people ask where I am from. They are surprised that I think they're interesting enough to want to photograph, but they seem pleased. A large group of women are at the river bank ghats, doing laundry and washing dishes, food, children, and themselves. I realize this is the same village I stumbled upon during my last trip. That had been on a festival day, with much fruit, flowers and festivities. This time there is still much activity, and as then, I am welcomed. This is important, because I wouldn't have photographed women bathing if they hadn't been fully OK with the idea. They were, of course still clothed. Some parents lift their suds-covered children out of the water, holding them out toward me in hopes of a photo. Smiles all around, and after leaving, a foray through town.

    That night we again have dinner outside by the river at our hotel. Again, the food was pretty good. I remember happily devouring delicious huge tandoori prawns. Yum! it is mild outside, and very pleasant, so we linger, listening to the gentle murmuring of the river.

    (coming up next, Darasuram.)

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    loncal,
    Thank you so much!
    Cochin 30 years ago must have been wonderful. I wish I could have seen it then.
    Parts of Cochin are still unvisited by tourists. We managed to find some wonderful areas by just wandering aimlessly. But obviously some parts of Cochin have seen a lot of tourist development over the years.

    On the other hand, once you get off the main roads, I bet a lot of Tamil Nadu still looks the same as it did 30 years ago...

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    Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram

    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157666794928486

    They show more if you make them large!


    A short time after leaving Tanjore, I noticed a commotion to my left, and grabbing my camera was able to get off a burst of shots as a large flock of egrets took off from a grassy field. In spite of shooting through the glass of the windshield and window, I was able to get some photos of them, which while not pin-sharp were still decent. As we drove through India, I'd keep my camera accessible, and managed to get some interesting shots in both the south and north this way.

    I was looking forward to this day, as we were headed to one of my favorite temples in India, the Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram. And I was happy to be able to share this treasure with C. While not as large as the temples we'd just been to, the artistry of the stone carving is superior and the almost complete lack of crowds lends it such an evocative atmosphere. Luckily, this gem is being well-taken care of, as it is a UNESCO World Heritage monument.

    We arrived late morning, and found the temple nearly deserted, like the last time. We climbed the few stone stairs and entered the coolness of the temple. At first there is substantial daylight coming in between the columns from the outside, but as we moved further inside, it became more and more dark and mysterious. A woman was on her knees cleaning an altar with a cloth and a priest smiled at us. As our eyes adjusted, we were rewarded by the many incredible carvings and sculptures. We stayed for a couple of hours, taking in the atmosphere both inside and out. A few people came in from time to time to worship, nearly all women, I noticed. As is often the case in Tamil Nadu, we were the only westerners there. It is a joy being in a living temple, with local people using the temple as it has been used for nearly a thousand years. Make sure you get to admire the lovely carved statues inside and the amazing carved pillars, as well as the stone carved chariot at the bottom of the stairs outside. And ask the priest if you can see the inner sanctum.

    Afterwards, we had lunch at the Paradise Resort, a convenient and pleasant stop near Kumbakonam. They have a garden, and ceiling fans on the covered wood porch where we chose to eat kept us cool. The food is good, although not great, but it is clean, quiet, and let's face it - one isn't exactly drowning in choices during that drive!

    After that, we continued the drive to Pondicherry, and stopped at Gangaikondacholapuram - another amazing temple that I'd also been to during my last trip. As with the ones at Tanjore and Darasuram, it has been designated as a Living Temple. We could only see the outside, because the hours the inside is open doesn't mesh well with seeing the temple at Darasuram, but the outside alone is well worth stopping to see. The carvings on the outside are spectacular, and the temple sits in a park-like setting, with large grassy areas around it. Again, there were just a few other people while we were there.

    And oh, the name Gangaikondacholapuram! Rolls off your tongue, doesn't it? It roughly translates to "The town of the chola who who defeated the kings of the Ganges", which is more properly named Ganga. At the time of its construction, the Chola king had amassed a huge empire, and this temple was built to commemorate the victories.

    There were so many other temples in the area, and maybe we'll be able to go back and see more, but now we needed to proceed to Pondicherry.

    (coming up next, Pondicherry.)

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    Your fantastic report is teaching me much that's brand-new, and providing me the joy of reminiscing, both about specific places (Cochin, The Backwaters) and experiences different-but-similar similar to yours. I can hardly wait to visit the regions you did in Tamil Nadu!!
    Indeed, living temples are wonderful, adding an additional dimension beyond what you have in the equally beautiful, but "merely" historical monuments including Taj Mahal, or temples in archaeolgical sites. (The best of these living temples, while not Hindu, is imho the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Walking with Sikh pilgrims from around the world, 'round the huge pool, your bare feet against the cold marble on a warm night..bliss which you'll have to add to your list, RJE!)
    Your driver--hmmmm. Sure fell short of the great and informative guy Dgunbug had on this trip. Oh well...good thing you were well prepared knowledge-wise, and bottom line is, as you told C--he got you safely around! No mean feat in India!!
    The wildlife you describe: pix of birds, taken from the car?? Amazing. The goats! Did I miss a shot of the horses?
    Thank you for taking the huge amount of time it must take to write this. as well as the time for organizing photos. And thanks for allowing me to go off on an India tangent

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    Your pictures are stunning and your report fantastic! So glad you enjoyed yourself so much. I love the way the Indian people are so welcoming and understand your fascination with taking pictures of the beautiful women in their colorful saris. It's hard not to get amazing pictures in India. The people and temples are a photographer's dream! Thanks for sharing.

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    Btw - glad you enjoyed the Riverview Hotel. We had considered it, but decided that we preferred to stay inside town - big mistake as you discovered on your first trip as the hotel's there are old and seedy.

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    CaliNurse,
    Thank you so much!
    And I am sure you'll find Tamil Nadu wonderful!
    The Golden Temple in Amritsar sounds amazing. That is one of the places I really had wanted to go on this trip, but we already had so many destinations that it had to be left for later.
    The photo of the horses was in the Tanjore album. Its not technically or aesthetically anything special, just a snapshot of the kind of odd moments we all experience on our trips to India!

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/25574140074/in/album-72157666547924491/

    As for the driver, overall he was fine, as mainly what we wanted was just to get where we were going in one piece! We book our own trips and rarely use guides, so we didn't feel we needed one in a driver either. Especially since some of them can impart inaccurate information. (Remember the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer is working as a tour bus guide and he just makes things up?) :)

    dgunbug,
    Thank you for your kind words.
    Last trip I wanted to be really close to the temple at Tanjore, so I also stayed in town (at the Hotel Parisutham). I learned my lesson, worst hotel of that trip!

    Can we get a link to your photos of India? I'd love to see them!

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    Pondicherry & the unusual Pratyangira Devi Temple

    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157667182390636

    They show more if you make them large!

    As we drove toward Pondicherry, the road entered a region crisscrossed by numerous rivers and waterways and some dams, making it a prime agricultural area, especially for rice. We saw a number of trucks piled to the heavens with sugar cane or bananas. And workers even used sections of the well-traveled road to spread out and dry hay, creating a slalom course!

    Pondicherry is in a different state from Tamil Nadu (although that may change, much to the consternation of many residents). When we reached the border, our driver suddenly burst into exclamations in Tamil that sounded like curse words and abruptly pulled to the side of the road. He then rolled down a window and several times called out to other drivers, appearing to be asking for information, again in Tamil. Each time, they appeared to be mocking him for some reason. Red-faced, our young driver rolled the windows back up and mumbled that he'd be back soon, leaving us parked on the dusty shoulder, while he ran down the road, dodging trucks. Turns out that he had forgotten to secure the necessary papers to allow him to drive commercially in Puducherry and had to get them right then or risk hefty fines.

    As we got closer to Pondicherry, the well-maintained road suddenly changed into the road from hell. It turned from smooth and paved into a terrible bone-jarring suspension-destroying mess of rocks and dirt, lasting for many kilometers. This was the result of the torrential rains and resulting flooding endured a couple of months before our trip by the people of the east coast. Traffic slowed to a crawl, and this added at least yet another extra hour to an already longish drive. So we were happy to see that the roads improved as we approached Pondicherry. And luckily it was the only flood-related problem we would see.

    I remarked to C that we had just driven across the entire width of India. Admittedly, India is much narrower toward the bottom, but it sounds impressive!

    We added to our journey with a ridiculous search for our hotel, as the driver had also neglected to learn the route, and wouldn't ask for directions. Throughout the trip he'd displayed an undeserved tendency to be cocksure about his navigation abilities, which we realized was a result of insecurity. And his navigation skills seemed to really evaporate in Pondicherry. On the other hand, and most importantly, he always handled the car superbly, reacting to all the inevitable "moments" of driving in India with really fine lightning-reflexes, always driving safely and smoothly. In fact, judged for just pure driving skill, he was one of the best I've ever seen.

    Obviously he did eventually find our hotel, the decidedly un-hidden Hotel de l'Orient, located in a great location in the "French Quarter", which is also known by the cringeworthy name of Whitetown. The area is unique in India, with the blend of French colonial and Indian architecture, along with some deco examples, too, and we really enjoyed just wandering the streets, admiring the colonial buildings. The buildings often have the beautiful patina that comes from age, and many of the streets are quiet. But this is changing, and may not last without some intervention, as developers threaten the very things that make Pondicherry special. It had changed markedly since my last visit.

    Not everyone likes Pondicherry. This is a place to slow down, as its charms reveal themselves slowly. The sites that are purely India are limited. And those who come expecting beautiful beaches will probably be disappointed, stay a couple of blocks inland, instead.

    And the French Quarter can't be appreciated from a car. It is necessary to walk or ride a bicycle to be able to see all the beauty of the quaint little streets and buildings, lush with shady trees, and colonial buildings often draped with bougainvillea or other flowers. We also took a ride on one of the colorful bicycle rickshaws. This let us see so much we would have missed otherwise, including the Muslim section, with many old deco influences. We were specific with the rickshaw driver as to what and where we wanted to go. As a bonus, it was cool and easy on the feet.

    Having said all that, I wouldn't consider Pondicherry to be a specific reason to visit India, but rather is a nice change of pace during a trip.

    Hotel de l'Orient is an old colonial building that had later been a school (it still has an old sign labeled "Instruction Publique") before it was converted by Neemrana to a boutique hotel (although it could use some work again). But it is beautiful and charming and not expensive, and has a restaurant shaded by big trees in the interior courtyard. I'd specifically requested that we stay again in the Kerikal room, which is probably the best in the hotel. That room is large, quiet, charming and has an enormous terrace where we'd have our breakfasts.

    We went to a fascinating temple that I'd also been to on my last trip. The link at the beginning of this post will take you to photos. A writer who lived in Tamil Nadu had told me about it. It is devoted to the fierce Goddess Kali. For want of a better description, I'll say that the architecture seems to this westerner a combination of Hindu temple, Manga cartoon, Disneyland, and a Pixar movie. I know that was politically incorrect, but it also happens to be true!

    Below is a description I had copied from a Hindu website:

    Prithiyankara Devi Kali Temple is a Hindu Temple situated in Moratandi, Pattanur, Near Thiruchitrambalam Koot Road about 8 km outside of Pondicherry. It is dedicated to the powerful goddess Sri Prithiyankara Devi. The height of the statue of the goddess is 72 feet. The deity has a lion head, with bulging eyes, a long necklace of skulls around her and her skin is a blue colour. In her right hand, she holds a trishul (Trident) and in her left hand, she holds a head.

    Under the statue is a hilariously inaccurate sign, describing it as "enchanting":

    It is off the tourist map, and hard to find, but hopefully your driver will know it. Ours didn't, and neither did anyone at our hotel. But they did a search and finally got directions. It is located down a dirt road off a main highway, maybe 20 minutes from our hotel. Both times I've been there, we were the only people not there to worship, which largely happens outside, involving open fires. This place is quite unusual and seldom visited by tourists. C was amazed! And I got a lot of photos on both trips. It is the luck of the draw as to how much activity there will be on any given day, but hang around, as the activity ebbs and flows.

    We took a break from Indian food, as we were less than half-way through this India trip. We liked Villa Shanti enough to go twice for dinner. Reservations are essential, and we went a bit early to beat the crowd. Very attractive contemporary look, but relaxed. My notes remind me that we enjoyed Ginger-pumpkin-sage soup, Spinach salad with apples and walnuts, Papaya salad, Prawn tikka, Tandoori Tiger Prawns, Creme caramel and Chocolate eclair. We enjoyed pain au chocolate and almond croissants as good as the ones we had in Paris at a very good bakery/patisserie called Baker Street. We had a very pleasant lunch at La Maison Rose, located in a lovely shady breezy outdoor courtyard garden. They serve good casual international cafe food. I remember liking the summer rolls with a sweet chili dipping sauce, shrimp ceviche, lime mousse with a guava compote. They have pretty good cappuccinos and cold coffees, too.

    Pondicherry would be our last stop in Southern India. After 3 nights, we were driven to the airport in Chennai for a flight to Jaipur, where we would continue our Indian adventure for a few more weeks, into the far reaches of Rajasthan and lastly, Mumbai.

    (to be continued)

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    me too - it all looks gorgeous. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

    2 questions if I may:

    how long was the southern India section?

    if you hadn't had an interest in temples, would the trip have been so worthwhile?

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    Annhig - the temple portion of Rje's trip is in the Tamil Nadu area which is very different from the Kerala portion which he did earlier on. We had seen many temples on our first trip to India, in Thailand, and Cambodia, but the temples in Tamil Nadu are unique and well worth going to that area for.

    Rje - did you miss the temples at Mamallapuram? Btw, I was surprised at what you said about the road conditions coming into Pondicherry, we found them to be excellent just a few months earlier. As for your driver, he likely did not know the local Pondicherry language which may have been why the other driver's were laughing at him and also why he was reluctant to ask for directions. Our driver explained that the languages change in each city state and he was fortunate enough to have the gift of languages, picking up regional languages very easily. After experiencing a driver who can easily converse with us as opposed to our prior driver who had good driving skills, but little English, I can say that it makes a tremendous difference. And perhaps at times our driver made up things like Kramer, but he sure was entertaining and fun to be with!

    We loved the temple outside of Pondicherry and have you to thank for directing us to it.

    I will try posting pictures from my India trip, but am in the process of making a family photo book as a gift for my dad, so it will take some time still. And we are still poring through our thousands of pictures to cull out the bad ones. What is the best way to share pics?

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    tripplanner001,
    It may take me a little while to get to the northern part of this TR, but you'll be a welcome companion!


    annhig ,
    We were spent 2 1/2 weeks in Southern India, before moving to the north.

    As for temples, it sounds like maybe you, or one of your family isn't a big temple fan, and you're wondering if they would enjoy the trip?
    I think one can still appreciate the temples of Southern India without an interest in their religious or cultural significance, or even their role in history. They are beautiful purely as architecture, and some are filled with gorgeous statues and wall-paintings. And of course the outsides sometimes are covered in exquisite carvings.

    And the Chettinad region is wonderful even if you don't visit temples there.

    And we enjoyed Kerala (including Munnar) without going to a single temple.

    Pondicherry also was enjoyable, but the unusual temple there was the cherry on the sundae for us there.

    But a large part of the attraction of Tamil Nadu is usually thought to be the temples. So if someone has a bad case of temple aversion, I don't know if Tamil Nadu is the best destination for them.

    It seems to me that driving clear across Tamil Nadu without stopping at a temple would not be the best of trips.

    On the other hand, if one of your party is temple-phobic, you could fly into Cochin airport and do Kerala (including the backwaters and Munnar), then drive to Madurai and stay in the Chettinad region to see the old mansions, and finally, fly out of Trichy International airport without ever stepping foot in a temple.



    dgunbug,
    Actually, those other drivers were laughing at our driver because to be blunt, they thought he was an idiot for forgetting such an obvious thing as getting the papers required to drive in Puducherry!

    The reason you didn't have road trouble on the road to Pondicherry where we did was that you visited Pondicherry in March - 2 months after we did, and 3 1/2 months after the end of the flood. By then it is reasonable to assume the government would have repaved such an economically vital stretch of road.

    That flood was a disaster for the people of Southern India - 500 people were killed and 1.8 million people were displaced. It was the worst flood in over 100 years, and estimates for damage range from between $200 billion USD to $1 trillion USD.

    And the these were the same people who suffered so when the tsunami hit the coast about 10 years earlier, wiping out entire towns.

    Photos - I haven't done a comparison of ways to share photos, but as you'll have noticed, I use Flickr for casual photography. An account is free, and it comes with 1000GB of free storage.

    Mamallapuram - not a fan. The quality of the carving & architecture looks crude to me. It pales in comparison with what you and I both saw in Tamil Nadu. My theory as to its popularity is proximity to Chennai, making it an easy stop coming or going from the airport, or as a quick trip from Chennai, combined with the fact that it is on the ocean, making it sound romantic.

    A photo book for you Dad sounds like a very thoughtful gift!

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    @dgunbug - thanks for your ideas. it sounds as if having a good driver is a very important part of the trip

    <<As for temples, it sounds like maybe you, or one of your family isn't a big temple fan, and you're wondering if they would enjoy the trip? >>

    @rje - I think that I can safely say that neither of us is that keen on temples, though if there is a particularly spectacular one, we'd be up for that. If I can provide an example, Kathie waxed lyrical about the temples in Sri Lanka, whereas for us, they really weren't terribly interesting.

    But it sounds as if it's only in Tamil Nadu that temples are a significant part of the trip and we would probably want to go there anyway, as my grandma was born in Chennai, [we think to Irish parents but she didn't have a birth certificate]. She worked as a midwife in a hospital in the city before she moved to Bombay and met my Grandad who was in the Indian police. So if I'm going to India, Chennai is probably going to be on my wish list.

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    I'm looking forward to reading about the north India part of your trip, especially because we haven't been drawn to that area. Our first India trip was to Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kolkata, and South India and its fabulous temples appeals to us. So I'll be interested to see if I start to feel more drawn to the Golden Triangle area after reading the next part of your report.

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    Annhig- the temples that rje and I went to are truly spectacular. My husband gets temples out and does not necessarily car for the religious aspects of the temples, but the architecture and carvings are amazing and worth the time to visit. These are very different from the temples of Angkor wat and others that kathie is a big fan of. Personally I can't get enough of these and other temples, more for their architecture than for the religious significance, but I don't think you will be sorry visiting Tamil Nadu. Unlike the, I loved the temples at Mamallapuram, more for their placement among the rocky terrain though, than the temples themselves.

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    Kathie - we found the Rajasthan are much different with even more sights and very interesting. IMO there is more actual sites to see there...fabulous forts, palaces and temples. You cannot go wrong. I can't recall if you've been to Varanasi, but it is one of the most fascinating places that we have visited. The inly drawback is that there is much more begging and poverty in that area, but even so, I hope you will consider visiting there.

    Rje - looking forward to hearing more.

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    thanks again, dgunbug. I can imagine being templed out, but if we got there, and decided it wasn't for us, we would always have the option to leave, wouldn't we?

    and the pictures are amazing - worth going for the photographic opportunities alone, by the looks of it.

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    Mysore, Bangalore, and rural Karnataka

    Since I've been writing about Southern India, and because some here have expressed interest in visiting the south, I thought I'd also mention our earlier trip to Karnataka and post some photos. As it turns out, I got some of my best India photographs ever on that trip, partially because I was spending more time shooting.

    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157668487696855

    They show more if you make them large!

    We were in Bangalore, Mysore and the countryside south of Mysore, including a trip to stay in Nagerhole National Park, where saw a lot of wildlife, including many wild elephants. One of them actually charged our jeep. Well, actually it was a mock-charge, but our guide didn't tell us that until it was over and the elephant had run into the woods. I did keep taking photos as the elephant ran bellowing right at us, which was… interesting…

    I'll write more about this a bit later.

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    Like others I am really looking forward to the Northern part of your trip. Your trip report is reminding me why I really love Fodors, so much interesting detail that you almost feel you are travelling alongside.

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    dgunbug, BostonWriter and loncall,
    Life and work are a bit hectic right now, but I'll get to the North India part of the trip soon. The entire Northern part won't all come at the same time, as I am still going through photos of the latter part of the trip, not to mention having to write it!

    a little more about our Karnataka trip

    The reason for the trip initially was business in Bangalore, but I had a few days of free time and spent it roaming through markets, residential neighborhoods, an entire street of banana wholesalers, and any promising backstreet I came across. I got lost many times, and each time just hopped on a tuk-tuk, which Spellcheck insists on changing repeatedly to "yuk-yuk".

    Since this trip was years ago, I won't go into specifics which may be dated, except to say that while Bangalore is off most tourists lists, it is still a fascinating city once you get out of the more modern areas. It vastly exceeded my expectations.

    From Bangalore we took the comfortable Shatabdi Express train to Mysore, which I think took about 2 hours. We didn't have a driver in Bangalore, as it was easy to get tuk-tuks, but decided to have one for our time in Mysore.

    The attractions of Mysore are well-known, but one of the highlights was outside of Mysore - a day trip to Somnathpur temple, also known as Keshava temple and Chennakesava temple. The outside is completely covered in exquisite carvings, and the inside is equally impressive. Virtually deserted during our visit, the artistry of the Hoysala carving is still among the best we've seen in all of India. Some of the hard-stone pillars were actually carved on lathes. The drive there through rural Karnataka is part of the attraction. I had the driver stop at several small villages, and had him wait in the car while I wandered through them.

    There are a number of other Hoysala temples in Karnataka and someday I hope to visit more of them.

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    rje....your last photos were stunning. You have a good eye and captured the spirit of where you were at. I felt I was there! Am enjoying your TR and looking forward to your Northern India TR when time permits............. Good reading.............. thank you.

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    Rajasthan

    As we move from the Southern India up into Rajasthan, here's the itinerary for this northern segment of the trip:
    Rajasthan (and Mumbai):
    Jaipur- Shekhawati region
    Shekhawati region-Bikaner
    Bikaner-Jaisalmer
    Jaisalmer-Jodhpur
    Jodhpur-Narlai
    Narlai-Bera
    Bera-Khempur
    Khempur-Begun
    Begun-Bhainsrorgarh
    Bhainsrorgarh-Bundi
    Bundi-Delwara
    Delwara-Udaipur
    Udaipur-Mumbai (flight)
    Mumbai-New York

    First, a call-out to julies and progol, whose informative trip reports for rural Rajasthan helped me decide to choose TGS to provide our car & driver in the north.

    Like them, I found Nikhil (the owner) to be very responsive to my many questions about logistics. I already knew where we wanted to go and which hotels we wanted to stay in, but the puzzle of what itinerary order would make the most sense was not something I could solve on my own. Google maps is almost never accurate for driving times or best routes in places like Rajasthan.

    In addition, I needed to plan the trip around C, whose disabilities limits her time walking and the number of stairs she can handle. My research on this aspect was going well, but there were gaps, and Nikhil was very helpful in filling those gaps. I had him communicate to our driver in advance that we'd need to be dropped off at the nearest possible entry points to sites, with as few steep hills as possible, etc.

    I had a number of more unusual questions, like where were the best places to see the huge expanses of red chills drying in the sun I'd seen in photos, or help identifying the location of pictures I'd send him that I found unidentified on the internet, or how to get onto a particular rooftop to take a desired photograph. Each time he was great about promptly getting back to me. His services were not the cheapest I'd found, but the recommendations coming from trusted people combined with his intelligent advice and quick responses made me feel it was worth paying a little more. I did find and book our hotels myself, but he can also do all that, as well as provide guides, etc. After our extensive trip, I'd recommend his services.

    progol wrote about their driver Raj with great affection, so I requested him for the trip, and Nikhil wrote back that he would be available for us. His easy-going temperament would be a good thing to have over weeks on the roads of Rajasthan!

    This trip was like a big Indian buffet. We could sample many areas and decide if we wanted to go back for seconds on a later trip. But we needed to pace ourselves, because if we tried all the appetizers, we might be too full for the entrees. One area where this applied was forts, of which Rajasthan has no shortage. So we felt no obligation to see them all.

    Even on a 6-week trip we needed to eliminate many cities and regions that had tempted us, like Varanasi, Gujarat, Goa, Kolkata, Dungarpur and Amritsar, which will all have to wait for a return trip. Even so, more places kept being added! And although we could have made the trip longer, I was already concerned about the blur factor. Luckily, that didn't happen at all!

    I'll be able to post Jaipur and photos a little later today.

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    thursdaysd,
    I enjoyed your writing about Southern India. I need to get to Belur and Halebid!

    dragon88,
    Thanks so much. And Northern India commences in just a little while!

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    @rje - thanks! Didn't get to the Hoysala temples on that trip - went there back in 2001, which isn't on Fodors.

    Hope it wasn't too hot in the north - have been reading about incredible temperatures in India right now.

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    thursdaysd,
    Yes, I've been reading about it, too, what is happening to the people in the north is very sad.

    We were much more fortunate, the temperature in late January to late February was extremely comfortable, with daytime temperatures in the mid-70s to low 80s and very low humidity.

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    Jaipur
    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157667888139470

    They show more if you make them large!


    Our Jet Airways flight from Chennai made a stop in Aminabad where an Indian man splendiferous in his flashy new-age-guru-garb and shoulder-length mane boarded with his entourage, and they all sat in the row directly in front of us. As we continued on to Jaipur, he was diligently attended to by his minions. En route we flew over numerous clusters of tall mystery-stacks, emitting streams of white smoke, which we'd also see later throughout Rajasthan and would find out were kilns firing clay pots. As we made our descent to Jaipur International Airport, the sun was low in the sky and glowing like a fireball through the murky Jaipur haze that would remain a constant during our stay.

    For our first 2 nights in Rajasthan I'd booked us at the Marriott. Usually I prefer smaller hotels with more character, and had almost booked us at a haveli. But since we'd have just finished a tiring drive and flight, and since we'd be staying in many more places with character during the following weeks, I opted for predictable comfort, and that worked out well.

    As we waited for our bags, we got our first taste of the tourist hustles of Rajasthan, which we saw more frequently than in the south. A man approached the baggage carousel with a cart, exclaiming that he must free us from the unbearable burden of our 2 wheeled suitcases. I told him that I didn't want his help and could easily handle those light spinner bags, but he ignored me and whisked them onto his cart. We're usually pretty good about extricating ourselves from this sort of thing, but in this case, I was tired, so I let him. But it became ridiculous when we were about 100 feet from where we'd meet our driver, and several more of his accomplices apperated through some ancient magic that I know not of, each prepared to sacrifice their health and life in assisting in the Herculean task of moving that lightly laden cart. I had not known such goodness could be found in the human heart. I told them we didn't need their help and that they should leave, but they continued pretending to help. So when we arrived at our car, I tipped just the original porter, ignoring the howls of protests of his fellow scammers.

    (BTW, I wasn't going to mention anymore Spellcheck travesties, but when I just typed "extricating ourselves" in the previous paragraph, Spellcheck changed it to "excreting ourselves". Spellcheck is very immature.)

    The Marriott is located near the airport, and originally we'd planned to just take a taxi, but Nikhil had kindly offered to have our driver pick us up for the very short drive. And sure enough, when we exited the baggage area, there was Raj, waiting for us with a smile. He was a soft-spoken man who we would find possessed a sardonic sense of humor, and we liked him immediately.

    We'd been traveling for many hours, so we decided to eat at the hotel and have Raj pick us up in the morning. The Marriott had pretty good food at their enormous over-the-top and slightly silly buffet. Accompanied by over-the-top and slightly silly service (which would continue during our stay). All along that seemingly endless line of buffet stations, young tourists took selfies in front of those massive beds of bounty. And after consuming probably too much of that bounty ourselves, we fell into a deep sleep in our massive bed.

    Of course like everyone else, we had to visit the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds). It was more beautiful in the morning light than I'd anticipated, and I felt compelled to climb to the top, leaving C in the car to calm Raj, who feared that my going alone might invite calamity to beset me at any moment. We also visited City Palace and the markets, and then had a lovely lunch in the garden of Narain Niwas Palace (a heritage hotel) at the recommendation of Nikhil. The food was very good and we had the garden to ourselves, our table planted on an expanse of soft grass under towering trees in which many brightly colored parrots cavorted. Afterwards, strolling the grounds redolent with the scent of many flowers was intoxicating. The next evening at dusk we would meet the charming and urbane Nikhil on the verandah of Narain Niwas for a pot of Masala chai. By this point in our trip, C had become obsessed with Masala chai. Nikhil brought along a cell phone for us to call Raj during the trip, as well as several throw pillows we'd requested for the long drives in the car.

    While planning the trip, I'd vacillated about going to Amer Fort (known in the west as Amber Fort). After I learned about the hard lives of the elephants who give tourists rides up the hill ramp, we opted not to ride them, even though they would have solved the problem of C not being able to walk up that hill. So we ended up deciding that we'd rather just go to other forts that we thought would be as rewarding, like the one we'd visit in Bikaner in a couple of days, the one we'd stay in at Jaisalmer and in some ways best of all, the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort in Jodphur.

    In Jaipur, we did visit Jaigarh Fort (located high above Amer Fort), which at sunset was bathed in red light, with fantastic views of the fort's outer walls topped with embrasures, undulating up and down hills below us into the distance, reminiscent of the Great Wall of China. The Langur monkeys there had a gentle temperament compared to the more aggressive Rhesus macaques we'd seen elsewhere. And looking down to Amer fort was very impressive.

    We liked Jaipur, but as anticipated didn't really love it when compared to the rest of our destinations in Rajasthan.

    (coming up next, the painted havelis of the Shekhawati region.)

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    Wow, you lucked out on your weather and you may have been lucky enough to catch an Indian wedding that time of year...one of my regrets to having missed. Your itinerary sounds great. After our last trip to India, I felt like we had seen enough, but as you know we were thrilled with many aspects of the trip and probably less than enamored by parts of the trip due to being sick a good part of the time. (Unrelated to India - just brought a bug from home and was generous enough to pass it on to my husband after I recovered). Like you, some of my biggest regrets was not getting to Amritsar and Calcutta. As i journey along with you, I am once more tempted to return to see some of what we missed. There's never enough time to see it all. This October we will see a new and very different part of Asia - Japan, but I am already dreaming about India.

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    I've been in a 24/7 work situation for the last several months. Just coming up for air and looking forward to reading both this and your Rifaximin thread. Took a glimpse of your photos and....wow!!

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    rje: your photos are amazing..........thank you for showing what I did not see at Hawa Mahal. As at the Amer Fort, I was so taken by the advance air cooling systems Hawa Mahal and the Forts in Rajasthan built centuries ago as well as how they were able to bring water up from below............ideas we still use today. the north is an architectural wonder..............can't wait to see and read more. You've captured what I remember...........and shown why the Country is such an amazing place to visit time and time again.........thank you.

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    dgunbug,
    From what local people told us and from historical averages, it seems our weather was pretty typical. We picked January and February for that specific reason. Cochin was only a bit hotter than the historical averages, and everywhere else in both the north and south were within normal ranges. Obviously that can change, and the last few months in India have been brutal. But sometime between mid-December to mid-February still has the best odds for pleasant temperatures in much of India. But it is startling to me how fast it heats up after mid-February.

    We actually did get to a huge wedding celebration in Bundi, but we were really tired, so we had to just observe a bit of the festivities and leave. That was OK though, because by then our reservoir of riches was getting close to being full!

    You had so many great experiences in India, but I know what you mean, there are always so many more that after a little while we're tempted to return!

    tripplanner001,
    The view from Jaigarh Fort was so good that we only left because it was getting dark! And amazingly, there were only a few people there at sunset.

    crosscheck,
    Hope your work loads lighten soon.
    And yes, the Rifaximin seemed to work perfectly for us, and we really put it to the test by eating freely. But of course anyone considering it should consult their doctor.

    dragon88,
    Thank you so much! And you're right, the north is an architectural wonder! But some of the temples in the south are engineering marvels, too. For example the huge stone sculpture at the top of the tall temple in Tanjore. Scientists are still arguing about how that was accomplished with so little technology available to the builders.

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    RJE!! More Rick's Riches!! ! Thank you!!! In addition to the great, evocative place descriptions and fantastic photos, your funny tidbits ( "titbits" as a menu in India had it) of a day in the life of a tourist--for example, your airport helper/helpers assist with luggage--are hilarious, and bring back great memories. (At least there was no fist-fight, which our arrival via train into Amritsar caused among dueling porters over which got to take ONE carry-on bag!) Ahhh India! Funny funny funny, brilliant, bigger than life, sadder than life, magnificent, endearing, irritating by turns. It's why when someone says their India trips went exactly, seamlessly, as planned, I'm highly skeptical. If it's true, something essentially of this country was missed.

    I too was less than enamored of Jaipur...although (unless it's in an upcoming episode) you missed my one unmissable place there--the Monkey Temple, GaltaJi, with fresh springs, partly carved into a mountain (ok, a big hill!) via a village about 5 miles from central Jaipur. Few tourists (none, the day I went)---lots of the eponymous greedy creatures.

    Re your one Marriott stay: Soooo wise to know the point in a trip when modern and predictable is exactly what is needed!!

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    BostonWriter,
    Good to read that your trip is now simplified and coming together. I'll soon be reporting on 2 places we stayed where you'll also be staying, RAAS and Rawla Narlai.

    CaliNurse,
    Like India, your writing is colorful, unexpected, and funny, and happily, neither frustrating nor irritating!

    I had GaltaJi on our list, but sadly ended up having to miss it. One of the draws for us would have been the spectacle of many pilgrims, but none of that was happening when we were there, so it became less of a priority, although I'm sure it would have been worthwhile anyway. But even though this was a longish trip, we still had to sacrifice many enticing destinations. That just gives us a reason to return!

    I feel about Jaipur like I feel about Sorrento. It is not that they are bad. It's just that they both just suffer in comparison with what is nearby.

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    Shekhawati region
    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/sets/72157668414629701
    They show more if you make them large!



    Getting out of Jaipur seemed to take forever. One reason may have been that that a lot of the city seen on that route looked grey and a bit depressing to me. I think seeing everything through a veil of air pollution was part of it, along with the lack of color compared with the preponderance of bright colors (both natural and manmade) in the more tropical Southern India we'd just left. And we were driving through a long expanse of a more "industrial" area.

    Also, I suddenly realized that in contrast with the south, there were far fewer women then men on the streets. This "sparseness of sari" also contributed to the lack of color! I remarked about this to C, who agreed with that observation. One of my first impressions of Rajasthan was that women just didn't seem as free to come and go outside the home here as they did in the south.

    I was to notice that sometimes even in villages women were more fearful and suspicious of me then they had been in the south. And less friendly, and less willing to be photographed. Not always the case, to be sure, but more commonly than I'd experienced in Tamil Nadu or Kerala or Karnataka.

    Shortly after, my observation was echoed by a passage I came across in Lonely Planet, describing how disheartening it can be for a visitor to India to see women covering their faces at their approach. But sadly, to do otherwise risks their family's honor from accusations of immorality.

    Luckily, there were many exceptions where this was not the case for me, and using the international symbol of the friendly smile I was often able to interact with women and take photographs. But sometimes I was not welcome, and I tried to be very sensitive to this matter.


    More about this from the Country Studies Series by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress :

    Veiling and the Seclusion of Women
    A particularly interesting aspect of Indian family life is purdah (from the Hindi parda , literally, curtain), or the veiling and seclusion of women. In much of northern and central India, particularly in rural areas, Hindu and Muslim women follow complex rules of veiling the body and avoidance of public appearance, especially in the presence of relatives linked by marriage and before strange men. Purdah practices are inextricably linked to patterns of authority and harmony within the family.


    Before we left home I'd decided I needed to hire a guide for the Shekhawati region. While I knew a number of specific havelis I wanted to see there, I wouldn't be able to give directions to our driver, nor know the best order to in which see them. So I'd emailed a guide who I'd read good things about named Shekhar, a young man with an excellent command of English.

    Luckily, while typing that email, I noticed that Spellcheck had changed "the many havelis of Shekhawati" to "the many hovels of Shekhawati".
    Spellcheck is really trying to provoke an international incident.

    Shekhar was an interesting, informative, reliable and accommodating guide, and I'd recommend him to anyone desiring a guide for the Shekhawati region. He lives in Mandawa.
    shekharsingh352@gmail.com

    Our hotel in the Shekhawati region was Vivaana, a tastefully renovated old haveli located in the middle of a small village called Churi Ajitgarh. Vivaana is quite beautiful, with an outside still showing the effects of time, but in a good way, and an interior whose walls had the trademark frescoes of the region.

    Some of the most amazing rooms are on the 2nd floor, and I might have gone for one of those, but I was trying to help C by limiting how many stairs she'd have to climb. And even though those rooms were only up one flight, the bathrooms for those high-ceilinged rooms were situated on a balcony up yet another flight of steep steps. As I write this I'm trying not to imagine the consequences of that for anyone with "stomach issues" while staying there! So I opted for a ground floor room, which may not have been as big or as frescoed, but was still beautiful, comfortable, and full of character and history, with heavy antique doors and (surprise!) explicitly erotic wall paintings in a small 2nd bedroom. And the plumbing and fixtures were new, as was the unusually comfortable (for India) bed. The entire hotel was full of antiques and interesting touches, and as in our Chettinad hotel, was an attraction itself. And as in that other hotel, we never found the time to indulge in the attractive pool.

    When we arrived at our hotel, our guide Shekhar was already waiting for us in the lobby. We checked in and after our bags were brought to our room we all drove the short distance to Mandawa, a dusty haveli town in a region full of dusty haveli towns. But Mandawa is the most developed, and since we only had one day, we decided to concentrate our haveli tour there. One day was barely enough time, and I would have liked to stay at least a couple of more days to have been able to take in more of the rural village life there. And there are so many havelis in the region that it would take quite a number of days to visit them all.

    Mandawa is located in the area that was formerly part of the Silk Road, where camel caravans had carried silk, spices and other goods. Like others in the area, it became a town of merchants trading with China and Middle Eastern countries. Those wealthy merchants built themselves many havelis. Interestingly, they ended up amassing much more wealth after the disappearance of the Silk Road, after having gone to cities like Calcutta, where they made huge amounts of money from opium, sugar and jute, and later building factories producing steel, sugar, cement, cars and polyester.

    To paint the Havelis, local artists would ferment dyes from cow urine, pulverized minerals and stone and apply layers of colors on wet lime plaster. After the dye and plaster were dry, a second layer of the painting would be applied, making the frescoes less vulnerable to sun and the wear of time.

    In some havelis, the frescoes have been recently "restored" by crudely repainting over them, diminishing them, in my opinion So I asked to concentrate on havelis with the original frescoes, which meant they would be faded and sometimes peeling. But to me this added to the romance and beauty. Because of this, we actually often preferred havelis less commonly recommended to tourists.

    And since all of the Shekhawati region is not on the primary tourist circuit, we had the havelis all to ourselves, with the exception of one, where once again! a big bus full of French tourists pulled up and filled the courtyard while we beat a hasty retreat.

    Our first stop was the Castle Mandawa hotel, converted from the old Fort by the Thakur of Mandawa. We parked in a huge sandy area inside the walls, and were accompanied by several men in bright uniforms while our guide showed us around. But although the former fort had its attractions, it soon became apparent this wasn't what we had traveled all this way to see. When I finally thought to ask where we were next headed, our guide enthusiastically replied "To tour the swimming pool, sir"! Aargh! I told him we'd rather spend our time in havelis, which is what we spent the remainder of the day doing.

    Among the havelis in Mandawa we liked best were the Gulab Rai Ladia haveli, the Sneh Ram Ladia haveli and the Mohan Lal Saraf haveli.
    The Gulab Rai Ladia haveli was notable for its decorative walls with pieces of mirror and glass in a floral motif.

    We left Shekhar in his hometown and on the drive through the countryside to our hotel I asked Raj to stop when I saw a cadre of camels nibbling on tree leaves. We'd already seen many camels in our short time in Rajasthan, usually pulling a cart, but this was my first opportunity to spend quality time with these peculiar beasts, and they displayed their great affection for me with their delicate and lyrical vocalizations of love.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtezAP-AbzY

    After we returned to the hotel, I went for a walk alone through the sandy streets of Churi Ajitgarh as the sun sank low in the sky. I was taking photographs, and when I spotted a woman in a bright sari walking with a bright yellow sack on her head, I started following her down narrow streets and around corners, trying to compose a shot with good background behind her. When she became aware of my presence she became a model, stopping a couple of times to pose for me. After getting as many shots as I felt I could reasonably hope for, I said shukriyaa (thank you), which she seemed to understand, and as she walked away I realized I was lost! While following her, I'd stupidly forgotten to keep looking for landmarks to guide my way back to our hotel. I didn't have a card for the hotel with me, either, which is always a good thing to have when traveling, as I could have shown it to local people to communicate where I was trying to go. Instead, I was left with only 2 words to try and communicate my desired destination. All I could say was "Vivaana" and haveli. This was met by puzzlement over and over. I think local people just didn't use the word "Vivaana" to describe the hotel. It probably had some old name of what the haveli had been before being turned into a hotel. So I wandered for over an hour. Yo may be asking "How do you manage to get lost in a village?", but it was a surprisingly large maze. Several times, local people heard me ask "Vivaana Haveli?" perhaps only focusing on "haveli" gestured to invite me into their own haveli homes, which was a treat. But it was starting to get dark, so I couldn't keep doing that! Finally, I asked a couple of young men, who luckily spoke some English and did know Vivaana and they pointed the way. Turns out, by then I was only a few blocks away, but didn't know it! And amusingly, I saw the same 2 guys later at dinner in Vivaana - they were local lads who worked for the hotel! I need to remember that my little tip about just jumping in a tuk-tuk when lost only works if the place you're lost in actually has any tuk-tuks!


    (coming up next, Bikaner, Gajner and the road to Jaisalmer)

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    Caligirl - I love your comment "more rick's riches! (Didn't know Rje's name).
    Rick - your report is so rich in describing your sights. I'm loving it. We did not make it to the mandara area, regrettably. I'm sorry you missed the monkey temple. I highly recommend a stop there for others, as well as a stop at the stepping wells if one journeys between Jaipur and Agra. We liked Jaipur very much. As we arrived at the crack of dawn, we took the opportunity to take a long walk on the Main Street which was very interesting as the vendors and people were just starting their day. Also, we had the best lassi there at a famous lassi shop on the streets. I would return just for the lassi!
    Looking forward to more of your report. We spent several days in jaisalmer and loved it.

    Oh...and about your observations about the number of women on the streets...you are absolutely correct. This was something that we noticed immediately and there were times that I felt uncomfortable walking around when there were all men. In fact, we limited our nighttime exertions greatly as it was even more noticeable then. After returning from our first trip, we were greatly alarmed by the reports of rapes.

    We found most women and children wanted us to take their picture, but many expected money in return. What I did not like was when people asked me to take their picture and then expected monetary reimbursement. I always showed the people my pictures of them and they seemed delighted to view them.

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    Dgun, RJE's first and lat names are on the photo links he sends. Lassi...yummy.. If ever returning, I'll ask you for the name of that place! And Jaipur's other attraction for me--and future ref for readers- is the main branch of the small Soma Shops chain--a wonderful block print fabric clothing place!! (There's also a branch in New Delhi, but alas, the Ft Cochin one is closed.

    But i digress..

    RJE, fascinating commentary, including the Library of Congress passage, about women's clothing. Perhaps the heavily Catholic religion in much of Kerala has contributed to a different standard? Still, that would not explain the difference in Hindu TN. Interesting food for thought.

    Haha comparing Jaipur to Sorrento (a town I quite liked!) as perfectly fine, but paling in comparison to other towns in the region. (In terms of encounters with shoulder to shoulder tourists screaming into their cell phones (my fellow Americans!) on crowded narrow roads, I'd more compare to Positano--nice place to visit for an afternoon, then get back to a "better" Amalfi Coast.

    Onward to your photos!!!!!

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    the amel vid--thanks! Before watching it, I wondered what you have that I lack, as you received "delicate vocalizations of love"--while my close encounter led to being spit on! Ha!! The camel at 00:56 sure sounded lovelorn!

    Re: typos, so none of us feels alone with spellcheck absurdities: check out damnyouautocorrect.com Haven't seen one about hovels yet!!

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    Appreciate your observations about women in the north versus the south and the contrast in colors, although the north seems vivid from your photographs. And, oh, I would love the tiger chair for my apartment.

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    CaliNurse ,
    You're right when you point out that Positano ain't what it used to be. I first went there in 1985 and even then it was already somewhat spoiled. I've been there several times since then, but haven't actually stayed there since 2004. When we saw it a couple of years ago, it made me a bit sad. Not that it isn't still beautiful, but so much of the original attraction has been lost. The last 2 times we stayed on the Amalfi Coast we stayed in Atrani and Nocelle.

    dgunbug,
    Excellent decision to go out super-early! Doing so lets you see a side of India most tourists don't see while they are sleeping in their rooms, you avoid crowds at some (but not all) attractions, get great light for photography, and you also avoid the heat that can come later in the day!

    tripplanner001,
    Color and India are inseparable for me, and admittedly Rajasthan has boatloads! But it also has air pollution in some places, and that can grey out some of the color. And I really noticed when we were in areas with mostly men and few woman how much the color levels went down! But as you pointed out, I still found lots subjects with color to photograph.

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    Oh, what a way to spend a cloudy cool Bay Area afternoon: India photos!!!
    They're all great, colorful, evocative...I'm back there with you, either remembering places seen, or in dreams of places to go!
    A few comments/questions:
    The "foggy" looking pix in Shekwhati regions--are those dust, or early morning smoke fire, or actual fog?
    The chubby slightly cross-eyed mother holding baby with arrow:Do you know if these are some of the numerous gods? Or just regular daily life (as if every baby gets an arrow!)?
    Love the signs!! Airtel! Vivienne! Town sign! Jars filled with mystery items, on store shelves! No STD signs? Those made for a puzzled double take, seeing them on first return trip in decades.
    Amazing views from Jaigarh Fort. Gotta add to "the list" if in Jaipur again, along with Dgunbug's Lassi Shop!
    Movie billboard--"India's First Porn-Com!" India--land of contrasts, indeed! The girl in short-shorts which, if seen onin reality on an Indian girl on the street, would cause a riot, and which are totally inappropriate on Western visitors, as you showed in earlier pix
    Jindel Arms Shop--A relative of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is anti gun-control laws? (-:

    Love the description of the you following the lady down the alleys as she posed for you. Sounds like a scene from a novel about Venice, or a French movie )9whihc, i'm not sure!) Re "Shukriya" as "Thank you."

    Granted, the following is anecdotal only, but perhaps useful for visitors. Depending the region of India, it might be better to use "Danyavad" (not sure of correct spelling--that's what it sounds like, sort of.) "Shukriya" is more used in the Punjab (both India and Pakistan sides)--at least I was told this (and mildly told OFF for using the "wrong" version several times). While both are understood, it seems "Danyavad" is more universally "accepted." Of course, there are many local languages and dialects in, for example, Tamil Nadu and Kerala ("thank you" as "Nandri" and "Nanni")--it all is pretty confusing, and no sooner do you think you've got it right, then you're off to another area! One of our drivers amazed us by speaking seven different languages on a trip into parts of Kerala, TN, and Karnataka!

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    p.s. Re cow urine dyes...Cow urine is used in some fantastic soaps in India. No kidding. If any of you sees it, buy it. You'd never know from the fragnrace what it contains!

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    I remain absolutely riveted. Thank you for all the time it must take to pull all these wonderful pictures and text together.

    Your report and the comments of others is making all the preparations for my own trip so much more exciting. I have added Jaigarh fort to our Jaipur plans and cannot wait until you get to Jodhpur where I have just booked.

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    I remain absolutely riveted. Thank you for all the time it must take to pull all these wonderful pictures and text together.

    Your report and the comments of others is making all the preparations for my own trip so much more exciting. I have added Jaigarh fort to our Jaipur plans and cannot wait until you get to Jodhpur where I have just booked.

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    LOL Dgunbug. THe driver that trip a fantastic young man from Madurai named CM Suresh. He drove Innovas for Indianpanorama, but later became an "independent contractor." I go again, I will ask if IP can book him. I know...amazing, isn't it? Not just the speaking but being able to read the signs in different languages. When we met him, his goal was to get enough money to pay his sister's dowry, as his father had died. I heard that all of Indianpanorama's drivers chipped in so that he was able to give his sister a beautiful wedding.

    If you 've had a a great driver, which you did...you know HOW much that can add to a trip. I will never, ever forget how much we learned, how safe and protected we felt, with our drivers. Suresh and Pradeep Rana, the driver on the next trip (to Himachal Pradesh) wouldn't even let us use the loo in an unknown place until they'd checked on it, although they usually knew from yrs of experience the cleanest places for a pit stop!

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    CaliNurse,
    I'm so glad you're enjoying the photos and that they're bringing back great memories of your own amazing India experiences.

    Those foggy photos are just that - incredibly thick morning fog, not dust or pollution. It really cooled things off! Only happened one morning, though.

    I don't know the meaning of the "slightly cross-eyed mother holding baby with arrow", but I'm looking into it and will let you know if I get results. I thought the odd proportions of the baby were similar to how babies were portrayed in the west prior to the Renaissance - like miniature adults. I think he is also holding a container of Milk Duds...

    Yup, those signs in India can be really something. And that suggestive movie poster is part of a set of movies. I took more snapshots out the window as we passed them which I thought were amusing, so I'll be posting them.


    loncall,
    One good thing about doing this TR is that it is motivating me to go faster through the huge pile of photos I took! And happy to hear you find all this useful and interesting - that's also a great motivator for me to keep going!

    After a brief stay near Bikaner, which I will post very soon, I'll be writing about our stay in Jaisalmer, and then on to Jodphur.

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    Bikaner, Gajner and the road to Jaisalmer
    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157668581900221
    They show more if you make them large!


    I read an item in the news that caught my eye:
    On January 26 we took IndiGo flight 6E-237 from Chennai to Jaipur.
    On February 27 the pilots on IndiGo flight 6E-237 from Chennai to Jaipur tried to land on a road next to the Jaipur airport instead of the runway, until an automatic warning system alerted them to their mistake! They've since been suspended.
    The exact same flight on the same airline that we took, one month later, almost to the day.
    Odd.

    http://www.news18.com/news/india/indigo-pilots-mistook-road-for-jaipur-airport-runway-grounded-1246747.html


    Anyway, back to the trip report:

    In the morning we woke to find we were immersed in thick pearly fog.
    Pea soup.
    I went out early shooting, but there was only so much I could do in such low visibility, although the fog imparted a moodiness that was beautiful.

    The first couple of hours of the drive to Bikaner was slow. India's challenging roads become that much more "interesting" when one's driver has to abruptly swerve to avoid a camel suddenly popping out of the thick fog as it ambled down the road. That road soon became a rocky washboard. We drove bounced and rattled through a number of villages, and in-between were stretches of arid ochre landscapes interrupted by the dark ghostly silhouettes of Khejri trees in the fog , skeletal from having had most of their branches and leaves loped off by villagers for firewood.

    Gradually the fog burned off and the road improved, and the number of kilometers to Bikaner on the road markers got smaller and smaller. I hadn't done any real research as to where to eat lunch, but knew there was supposed to be an "adequate" place close to the fort, so when our driver suggested that same place, we just said OK. I was unusually tired, and the bland lunch didn't increase my energy. We crossed the road to the red stone Bikaner Fort. One of its unique claims is that it has never been sacked, so as a result it is remarkably intact. Hmmm, sounds like an advertising slogan:
    Never been sacked, remarkably intact!"

    The fort had great beauty, but my fatigue prevented me from doing it justice, and afterwards we skipped the famous Jain temple and what I'd anticipated as a memorable walk through the backstreets of the old quarter and instead just headed for our hotel in the village of Gajner, past Bikaner on the road to Jaisalmer.

    Our hotel, the Gajner Palace is smack in the middle of a leafy oasis situated at the edge of the Thar desert, and had originally been built as the hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Bikaner and visiting British dignitaries during the days of the Raj. Spread over 6000 acres and situated by a lake, it attracts many birds and much wildlife. The barren drive down the sandy dirt road off the highway didn't look promising, but suddenly we were under the trees and ahead was a palace-like building. The red sandstone hotel seemed a mix of India and Victorian, and again we found our hotel was an attraction in itself (sense a theme emerging here?).

    Walking through the interior courtyard of the hotel on the way to see our room, I heard C gasp and look up, and there on branch above us were 2 of the sweetest little owls, sleepily cuddling. Little fuzzy adult owls, each about the size of a cantaloupe. The manager told us they had become long-term residents of the hotel. They were becoming a celebrity couple! Being nocturnal they would try to sleep, but were continually woken by the commotion of the many carousing parrots dive-bombing around them, and the owls when woken would look daggers at the offending parrot, their bright yellow eyes flashing. I have an amusing sequence of photos photos of the owls being annoyed by the parrots in the new album.

    Again I requested a room on the ground floor to save C's knees for stairs at places yet to come. Our room looking out on the lake was lovely, and a change of pace due to the Victorian-style interiors. If we'd had more time/energy, we could have taken a safari to see desert wildlife or gone out on the lake on one of their small boats. As it was, just being there with all that greenery by the lake was very refreshing after the last few days of arid landscapes. Although the food wasn't the best, overall we thought it was a great place to stay between Jaipur and Jaisalmer.

    We only stayed one night, and the next morning we were on the long road to Jaisalmer. I'd contemplated stopping on the way at Kolayat to see the ghats, but by the time I remembered to ask about it, we were already 30 minutes past the turn, and the 6 hour drive ahead of us dissuaded me from asking to turn around. We did make the stop at about the mid-way point to see the Demoiselle Cranes who come to in Khichan. It is an easy stop well worth making, just a few minutes off the main road. When we arrived there was just one person there, a man who to whom we gave a donation for the care of the crane sanctuary. Every year during their migration, about 20,000 cranes visit the small village. They started coming because some kind village residents were feeding grain to local pigeons, but word got out along the animal grapevine, first to other pigeons, squirrels and peacocks, and then to a few cranes who chanced upon the village. Word of beak prompted more and more cranes to arrive.

    As we were sitting down on a bench overlooking the throngs of cranes, a local dog came bounding across the sand toward them, prompting the cranes to take flight from the shore of a lake, giving me a chance to get some crane-in-flight shots. Surprised the dog didn't ask for a tip. We stayed longer that I would have guessed, just two humans enjoying the sight of an astounding number of blue cranes on the reddish sand. But Jaisalmer was calling, and the sudden arrival of a big tour bus and it's subsequent unloading was sufficient motivation to get us back on the road.

    (coming up next, Jaisalmer)

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    Agree with Annihig..........GREAT photos, especially of the the birds...both sitting and in flight. The India airline reputation make me a bit nervous. Was told by my cousin who lived in Mumbai to take Jet Air if possible as the training of the pilots on the other airlines in India is not as thorough. Plus, there are a lot more accidents that occur with the other airlines in India. So, I held my breath when we could only take Air India from Jodhpur to New Delhi. It was 4 hours late (as predicted by reputation) and was an older airplane............. So your short verse on Indigo was not surprising..................

    Looking forward to more reading.........thanks again for taking the time to post....

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    I also loved your bird pictures as well as the fog. Enjoyed seeing the typical art work on the vehicle you photographed. How did you like the northern Indian food compared to the southern cooking?

    Calinurse - our driver also told us that he had to pay for his sister's wedding. On top of that, her husband had recently died and he was supporting her as well as his wife and sick baby who needed an operation for a cleft palate. My husband and I were a bit suspect that all this information may have been a ploy to elicit a larger tip - we were uncertain as to the validity of the info, but it had no bearing on the generous tip that we paid him for his great service and information, which we would have given gladly anyway.

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    Rje, LOL the box of milk duds. So THAT's what the miniature Hindi writing says!! Btw, who's the gorgeous woman, dressed in black, in the hotel bathroom?

    Dgun, maybe we're a naive, but I doubt your driver invented the story, and I would have taken him at face value. I didnt think then that our driver invented his story, and got the confirmation yrs later hearing about the dowry-chip in. That driver's father had been killed in a bus accident.
    In a brief visit to Rwanda, the young woman hotel housekeeper told me of being an orphan since childhood-- both her parents had been killed twenty yrs earlier.(She didnt go into details, but knowing the history of the conflict in Rwanda, she didnt have to.) Or the guide at the fascinating Bigodi Swamp in Uganda who told me his grandparents had raised him after both his parents had died of AIDS, which is what inspired him to start a small orphanage for children in a similar tragic situation. In India and other third world countries, there is daily tragedy and difficulty, that people accept as just pat of life (role of religion, among other factors?) that we, in our very comfortable lives here, don't encounter as continually, and learn about from movies, distant news story, etc.

    Like you, I don't tip based on those stories, but on the level of service. Sounds like our driver was a gem and deserved every bit of your generosity!

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    Rje - re: the airlines - pretty scary. I'm of two minds - try avoiding flying in areas where the air safety record is subpar or take your risks and enjoy life. When your time is up, it's meant to be. We chose to take trains a lot, especially if the air safety is an issue. Unfortunately, my husband is more the worry wort than I am and he refuses to fly now in Indonesia and Myanmar due to pilot and aircraft safety records.

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    I'm more nervous about taking trains than flying In India, although i've taken a bunch of short an long haul trains and loved the experience---mice and all!! Check out the list of India's rail accidents over the years.(Do NOT show Mr. Dgunbug!) The horrific opening scenes in "The Namesake" (film) were not fiction.
    I'm with your husband , when flight records justify worry. And I will never fly into Mangalore--altough it is quite convenient for a trip down the coast to northern Kerala--as it is said to be the most dangerous landing approach airport in the world.
    One of the post-erd on the USA/Hawaii forum did sky-dived out of a plane on Kauai. Very shortly after--a week or less?-- the same company's plane crashed--five died, including her pilot and instructor. As if my job doesn't remind me of it every day, you just never know...

    Back to RJE...awaiting Jaiselmer!!!!

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    Many many thank yous, shukriyas, and danyavads,RJE, as your wonderful writing continues. Love your report's interspersed humorous reflections. Great fort slogan. The "word of beak" process amongst the feathered friends reads like a description of how tourism has ruined some once-peaceful areas of the world! The joy of safari: parrots, which we Americans see in cages, out in the open!!

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    I didn't stop the TR, but we were away for the long weekend. Almost done with the Jaisalmer segment, will post either tomorrow or the next day.

    annhig,
    Thanks! And if you like owls, wait 'til you see the photo from Narlai of a huge owl at dusk!

    dragon88,
    Much appreciated! I was surprised how many different birds we saw in India. I'll be posting some from Jaisalmer, too.

    dgunbug,
    How did you like the northern Indian food compared to the southern cooking?

    I guess I liked the food differently by region more than by north VS south. Some of our favorite food were Kerala dishes and the Mangalorean cuisine we had in Mumbai. But looked at purely as north/south, I probably like more dishes from the north.

    Which regions are your favorites?

    CaliNurse,
    You're right about Indian train safety, and yet the odds are still greatly against being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so I guess I'll still take them! As I wrote on another thread, they're a mini-adventure! And a great way to meet people.

    Parrots! I loved watching their antics, and they are beautiful, but if I had to live with (and hear!) so many all-year long, I might change my mind!

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    Rje - we preferred the food in the north, especially the spinach paneer which was much different in the south. It was fun trying different dishes...always a joy when traveling.

    Looking forward to your next edition.

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    dgunbug,
    Mmmm, love spinach paneer! It is usually called saag paneer here in NYC, but we learned on this trip that saag doesn't specifically mean spinach in India! It refers to any leafy green vegetable.

    crosscheck,
    Yes we did stay at Devi Garh. Right before Udaipur and then Mumbai.

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    Jaisalmer
    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157669046669675
    They show more if you make them large!



    Google maps said the drive to Jaisalmer would take 4 hours. Bad Google, you lie! As Nikhil had warned us, it took over 6 hours, and the relatively good road was frequently interrupted by inexplicable short stretches where it had been torn up, requiring slowing to less than 10 mph to navigate the rocks and sand. Why would the India Road Department not just work on one single stretch and then finish it, rather than do it in such a ridiculously piecemeal fashion, making for the maximum frustration?

    We were driving somewhere along the edge of the Thar desert when Raj exclaimed "Look", pointing ahead to some dots far up by the road. It was a group of adolescent Nilgai, the largest Asian antelope. I grabbed for my camera, and as we got closer, they bounded casually across the road in single-file. I got off a quick burst of shots through the windshield before they disappeared into some scrubby brush. Not bad for through-the windshield photos while driving at about 60 mph! Had we gone on an actual game safari we would have likely seen them, but it was a treat to just have them unexpectedly appear on our drive. (photos in album)

    Since we'd left Jaipur, we would sometimes pass green fields full of small yellow flowers. The sight of fresh green color amid the arid landscapes was a refreshing contrast, and Raj told us they were mustard plants. It seems like anywhere people had a little spare land they'd plant mustard. The plants provide a double crop, yielding both the seeds and and the mustard greens.

    As we approached Jaisalmer we passed several big military bases built after one of the wars with Pakistan. Jaisalmer is very close to Pakistan and a couple of weeks before there had been an over-the-border raid by terrorists upon an Indian Air Force base in Punjab, so tensions were high, as it was feared another might happen. It seemed likely the reason was to try and ruin recent thaws between India and Pakistan, as Modi had just visited the Prime Minister of Pakistan. I thought about how close we were to Pakistan, and how an attack on a tourist hotel might make sense strategically to certain elements there. Then I stopped thinking about it!

    The drive to Jaisalmer being so long makes it even more frustrating that there is a new Jaisalmer airport that never even opened, and is now being described as a ghost airport. Turns out there is not enough demand to keep it profitable, as Jaisalmer tourism pretty much shuts down for the summer due to oven-like temperatures. So they spent all that money, but the airlines weren't interested. And the government had second thoughts about having an airport so close to Pakistan, as it was decided to be vulnerable to shoulder-fired missiles. Sadly there are many other such airports in India, like the ones at Pondicherry and Mysore, which also closed quickly due to lack of profitability.
    Here's an article with some photos of the Jaisalmer ghost airport:
    http://www.businessinsider.com/take-a-look-inside-indias-brand-new-ghost-airport-2015-8
    And a more general look at the many ghost airports in India:
    http://in.reuters.com/article/india-airport-idINKCN0QN2BV20150819

    We were originally going to stay 3 nights in Jaisalmer inside the Fort walls at a tiny hotel called Killa Bhawan. But I was unsure about how tired we'd be after the long drive to Jaisalmer, and then when we arrived having to load our luggage (and selves) into a tuk-tuk, as cars can't fit the narrow road/ramp through the gate into the fort. It just seemed safer to opt for reliable comfort outside the fort for the first night, so we stayed at the 1st Gate, a hotel with a mix of modern and old Jaisalmer style.

    Our room was a mix of modern and old too, and everything worked well. Unfortunately a family in a neighboring house would have a party later that night, and the unholy mix of disco, techno and thrash music at high decibels made our comfortable bed a cruel joke.
    But before that, we dined on the hotel roof with the dramatic floodlit fort looming right over us, blissfully unaware of what the night would serve us later. The owner of the hotel is a very nice Italian woman named Federica​, and she's somehow created a place that manages to serve a half-decent wood-fired pizza in this desert town so close to Pakistan. Maybe not the pizza of Naples, but a nice change of pace.

    And since we were outside the fort, the next morning we first went to admire some of the deservedly famous havelis of Jaisalmer. Our third haveli stop was Patwaon Ki Haveli, probably the most famous, and it is actually a group of havelis, all together on a narrow street. Raj, our driver got us almost there when a policeman stopped us. We were still a few blocks away, and C was having trouble walking that day, so I asked Raj if he could explain the situation to him. He spoke to the policeman at length in Hindi, and suddenly the officer got into our car.
    He will drive with us Raj said.
    When we arrived at the closest possible point, we stopped and Raj said Give him money.
    How much?' I asked.
    100 Rupees he replied. So I did.

    Those sandstone havelis are gorgeous and are indeed carved as delicately and intricately as lace. We encountered a bit of low-key hustling from street touts outside, but they were my favorite kind of tout - easily discouraged. Just a "Nahi" accompanied by a lack of eye contact was enough to make them slink off.

    I was curious about what the rear of the havelis looked like, so I walked around to the street facing the back and discovered that it was another world back there. It was the start of a residential neighborhood with no tourists, and I wandered down those narrow streets for a while, looking at less opulent but still beautifully carved havelis that were being lived in, and enjoying the local street life. Since they get far less tourists on these streets, the people were curious and friendly.

    After I met up with C back at the haveli, we got the police escort out again (apparently that 100 Rupees got us a round-trip) and then went to switch to our hotel inside the fort, Killa Bhawan, perched high on the battlements of the fort, with amazing views looking over at the nearby Palace and down at the town spread out below us.

    We loved the multiple terraces where we could eat, photograph and just be. The view is similar to what the visitors to the palace have for a short time. But we had it at many different times of day, allowing us to admire the ever-changing light on the palace and town far below. As the sun set, it's fading light emblazoned the honey-colored sandstone buildings with a red glow. A young girl was setting up her tightrope act below us, similar to what we'd seen on the beach at Pondicherry years before. And a handsome raptor with beautiful markings would often soar close by us, sometimes at eye-level. He was pursuing scores of pigeons who would begin swirling in the sky when they spotted his approach. Luckily for us, we never saw him actually catch any of them (No pigeons were harmed in the making of these photos!). Local people called them "hawks", but if anyone who sees my pictures knows it's specific name, please let me know. And being high over the town buffered us from the more unwelcome sounds while allowing a soft melange of distant melodies to waft up to us.

    The guys who worked at the hotel were so friendly and helpful, and offered to bring us menus and food from the local restaurants so we had incredibly romantic dinners under the big desert moon on our terrace. There was also a room right outside our room that no one used but us, with beautiful rugs and artwork and a couch, and on one chilly early morning we had our breakfast of fruit and goat cheese omelets brought there.

    I discovered that they were mostly from Nepal, and would work in Jaisalmer for part of the year, sending money home. I asked the guy I spoke to most frequently if his family back in Nepal were all right after the earthquakes. He told me they were, but their house had been damaged. I would have tipped him well anyway, just for the great friendly service, but how could I not make it substantially better after hearing that? I think his name is Manu.

    The hotel was a multi-level maze of several connected former houses, but with only a few guest rooms. Being located on a residential street inside the fort meant that we got to see a lot of local daily life. It was charming to see a girl from the house next door come out to feed chapati to a sweet big-eyed honey-brown cow who appeared at her front door every afternoon (photo in album). Manish, the friendly hotel manager told me that it was about karma. People would often give cows the first and last batch of chapati they made, and the cows know what houses will give them chapati, and make the rounds each day! We were to see the same cow/chapati scenario in several other towns.

    The family in the house on the other side of our room were hosting wedding celebrations of their son, and while we didn't go to that wedding, we were still enjoying their music, the comings and goings of guests in beautiful clothing, and the lights that they draped on their house. One night they even lowered strings of lights down the walls outside our room, enveloping us in a glowing rainbow! One night of that was enough, though! We'd later have a small taste of a huge wedding in Bundi, complete with numerous elephants.

    I asked Manish for directions to the group of Jain temples inside the fort, and it turned out they were only a 5-minute walk away. His good advice was to arrive by 8am, before the first tourists. We walked along quiet stone streets which glistened as women washed them, empty of tourists… except for us. And the Jain temple was also empty save for the priest who greeted us. The silence inside the temple greatly enhanced the mood. Without the sounds of tourists, it was broken only by the gentle tinkling of small bells above us moving in the breeze. Incredible stone carvings, with similarities to the Jain temple at Ranakpur, but smaller and more intimate. A lovely experience. As we were leaving, the first groups of the day arrived.

    We kept seeing mysterious round sandstone boulders sitting in rows all over tops of the fort walls. Turns out, they're there to be thrown down on invaders in case of attack. Ouch.

    We're so glad we made the effort to go to Jaisalmer. We kept vacillating about whether we should go all that way. We had no interest in some of the most common reasons for going, like taking a camel caravan - especially since C hates the desert! But the architecture alone made the drive worth it for us, and we came to really like the town. There are certainly tourist shops, but somehow we found them easier to look past than in some other places we've traveled to where they spoiled the whole ambiance. And there are many parts where you won't see any at all. Yes, Jaisalmer must have been even more amazing 50 years ago, but then so would, say, Hanoi have been, before motorcycles mostly replaced bicycles, and we still like it there, too. But Jaisalmer is far, and it takes some time to immerse yourself, so I think it needs at least 3 nights.

    Afterwards we learned that tourists staying in the fort can put a strain on the delicate infrastructure of the old fort, but since we were already sensitive about not using a lot of water, I'd like to think that we didn't leave much of a footprint.

    (coming up next, Jodphur)

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    As ever, thank you for the superb photos [the undersides of the eagles are as good as any I've ever seen] and for the detail in your writing - I really feel that I'm there with you.

    And another place I'd never thought of visiting suddenly seems like a must.

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    Annig- my husband told me a thousand times that he would never go to India but thanks to beautifully written trip reports like this along with the amazing photography, I convinced him otherwise. India has been our most memorable travel destination and it called us back after only three years for our second trip.

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    June, I sympathize with your husband. Even though there is so much about India that appeals, and reports and photographs like these draw me closer, I haven't taken the leap of faith yet.

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    thanks for that encouragement, dgunbug. One problem is that we liked Sri Lanka so much, and having limited time and money I'm not sure that we want to take the risk of going to India and liking it less.

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    We considered Sri Lanka as a trip several times, but chose to return to India as Sri Lanka is considered the "India light". For us, the appeal of India is less about the beautiful hill country, beaches and resorts, but rather the amazing temples, people and culture. There is an incredible amount of things to see and do in India and I strongly recommend a trip there.

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    We considered Sri Lanka as a trip several times, but chose to return to India as Sri Lanka is considered the "India light".>>

    I've heard that before but not having been to India, can't really comment. I do know that there are plenty of temples in SL, wonderful people and a very interesting culture, or rather cultures. And the food is outstanding.

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    rje- I'm finally catching up with your wonderful trip report; I'm now up to May 21, so I've got a ways to go! I'm so glad that it worked out well with Nikhil and TGS - I thought it would - and am especially pleased to hear that you had Raj as your driver. After 2+ weeks with him, I teared up when I had to say goodbye. He is such a sweet-spirited man (with a good sense of humor!), so it's good to know that you felt similarly about him.

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    Thanks RJE for always linking in your report to relevant articles--e.g. those about the ghost airports and the irrational decision to build them, a result of "local political greed." What a surprise!! And the comment more pigeons than people"...perfect segue into your fantastic bird photos! One could be captioned "Airbus A 380 chases Douglas DC3s." ALL the photos, and inserting text, are wonderful!! Jaisalmer's on my future "flight path." Wow--that hotel!!!!
    Looking forward to Jodhpur, (the town's charms are mentioned on another thread here) and anywhere else you care to take us all.

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    annhig,
    I can't compare Sri Lanka to India, as I've never been.
    thursdaysd is a very knowledgable traveler, and maybe she'll weigh in on this. I suspect that SL has similarities to Southern India, both being Tamil, but of course the north is very different from both.

    dgunbug,
    I agree, some of the wonderful trip reports on Fodors have helped and inspired me, too!

    tripplanner001,
    We thought the architecture in India was spectacular, and that alone would have been reason enough to go.

    progol,
    Raj is great! And it took us a little while, but we discovered that he has a very wry sense of humor!

    CaliNurse,
    Thanks so much for all the encouragement to keep going on this TR, which has become far bigger than I'd originally imagined! And I think you'd really like Jaisalmer.

    And the weather has been so amazing here in NYC that I've been a bit slow getting the Jodphur segment done, but I should be posting it tomorrow.

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    Hooray for the imminent arrival of the Jodhpur section ! Unlike New York the weather here in London has been quite abysmal for the time of year, cold and wet, and so I definitely need the next bit of your trip report to cheer me up !

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    Rick, it's interesting that the architecture is a major draw to India for many. When I think of an architectural draw, my mind gravitates to Iran, but I guess there are many similarities between to two, at least in northern India.

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    tripplanner001,
    I haven't managed to get to Iran yet, but I agree, the photos I've seen of the architecture is spectacular!

    There are reasons for the similarity, as after the Mughal invasions, a fusion architecture was created in the north which is certainly a mix of Persian and Indian styles, with a few others thrown in for good measure.

    I would also offer a vote for the excellence of the architecture in the south, particularly the Chola and Hoysala temple architecture. And in a very different way, the Chettiar architecture is quite interesting.

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    @rje and @annhig: the late, lamented dogster called SL "India lite", and I concur. If you click on my name you'll get my SL TR, which starts by commenting on how much quieter SL was than India - I thought at first that I had gone deaf. It is also much cleaner. However, I think the sights in India are infinitely better. I found the ruins in SL too ruinous.

    I would agree to some extent with an ex-manager from the south of India who said that the south was "nicer" than the north. It is cleaner, but both have great food, amazing buildings and some stunning scenery (although in the north that means the mountains, not the plains). The roads in the south, at least in Karnataka are worse, and the rail system is not as extensive or as fast in the south. If you have some doubts about your ability to deal with the cacophany, dirt, beggars and chaos of India, you are better off starting in the south, probably with Kerala.

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    thursdaysd,
    Thanks for the informed comparison. And I agree with your thoughts that South India may be an easier and gentler first-time entry into India.The only point I'd differ on is the comparison of the roads in the north and the south. I found the major roads in Tamil Nadu were quite good and usually better than the major roads we took in Rajasthan. And the minor roads in Tamil Nadu were certainly better! Perhaps there has been recent work that has upgraded these roads.

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    I agree with Rje about the roads in the south - much better than the north. IMO though, with the exception of the Tamil Nadu area, the north was more interesting to us. For someone looking for a relaxing vacation, the Kerala area may be more appealing.

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    Well, the roads in Tamil Nadu weren't too bad, but believe me, the roads in central Karnataka were abysmal. They were so bad the locals were boycotting local elections, although it wasn't clear to me how that would help. In particular, the roads around Bijapur, Badami and Hospet, although one of them was in the process of being rebuilt (which was why it wasn't much more than one lane wide) and may be better now.

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    Jodhpur
    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157668851687741
    They show more if you make them large!



    Jodhpur turned out to be our favorite city in Rajasthan. It is colorful, romantic and exotic. It regularly hands out gifts to the photographer. And it even had our favorite fort in India!

    It has a big enough population to produce many fascinating human scenes, but not so huge as to have some of the problems of larger Indian cities, like rampant pollution. And it has urban energy, but manages to still retain charm. Kind of an Indian Goldilocks experience for us.

    And while there are tourists present, it didn't feel as obvious as in other parts of the golden triangle, like Jaipur or Delhi. Local people seemed more relaxed and we encountered less tourist hustle.

    I should probably mention that our hotel was in the old section, and we spent almost all our time in the old sections, so I don't know if we would have felt the same way if we'd stayed in another part.

    I'd planned to stop during the drive from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur in an area where large expanses of red peppers can be found drying in the sun. I'd seen this in photos during pre-trip research. But while in Jaisalmer I discovered that my research had failed to reveal one fatal flaw in my plan --- red peppers weren't currently in season!

    The road to Jodhpur has some interesting scenery, especially around the mid-point, where I periodically noticed jeeps bearing tourists turning off the road for "safari" type trips into the Thar Desert. This was where we'd asked our driver to stop so we could have lunch at Manvar Desert Camp & Resort. We didn't stay in a tent or room there, so I can't report on it other than to say that the lunch was fairly good, and that the shady garden where we ate under many trees felt refreshing and attractive after hours looking at some pretty barren landscapes. We found it a good place to break up the drive at about the half-way point.

    Later I asked Raj to stop when I spotted about 20 women digging sand in the desert and carrying it in containers on their heads. I was struck by the contrast of that kind of heavy work and the delicate and colorful clothing they wore. They looked dressed more for a festival than for shovels and pickaxes, but that is probably just my cultural ignorance. My visit amused them, and suddenly multiple babies were produced seemingly out of thin air, with requests that I take their photos, and as I complied and showed them the results there was much laughter. We also stopped in a couple of interesting small towns on the way just take in small-town life in the desert.

    It was after this point that the drive became very unpleasant, as there were some very long stretches of road construction where we had to share our lane with oncoming vehicles. The road was no longer paved, and at times was jaw-rattlingly bumpy. So traffic slowed to a crawl, and was sometimes stop and go, making a long drive much longer. When it is finished, it will of course be very nice, but as of February it looked like it would take a very long time to complete. So if anyone is planning to drive between Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, you might want to check on the status.

    Finally we rolled into Jodhpur and through the high walls surrounding our hotel, RAAS Haveli. For 300 years it was the home of a wealthy family before being converted into a hotel. The 18th century heritage buildings of red sandstone retain their old rugged charm, but the rooms are modern and quite comfortable, and Mehrangarh Fort looms over the hotel. At night the view of the lit fort is magnificent.
    RAAS is in a quiet location (for an Indian city) close to the Sardar clock tower markets, so within a few minutes of walking you can be in Navchokiya (the old section).

    I had read a number of reviews for the hotel commenting on noise from calls to prayer coming from a nearby mosque. Location within this hotel greatly affects how noisy it is, as the rooms closest to the fort are also closest to the mosque! Learning of this in advance, I'd emailed the hotel and requested one of the rooms facing the fort, but located in the middle of the hotel, so that our view from the large windows and balcony would be over the garden and pool, with old Jodhpur beyond, and the fort above. We were so happy the hotel was able to accommodate this request, as the city noise was very low there and the views were incredible.

    The entrance to the interior gardens containing the pool and restaurant is very impressive. You walk up a ramp through a very thick sandstone wall (a short tunnel, really) with the fort framed through the opening at the end, which is especially dramatic at night when it is lit. The garden is very soothing after a day out in the craziness, with many birds (including a beautiful Kingfisher who liked to sit in a tree by our balcony), those striped Indian squirrels that look to us like chipmunks, and the occasional frog. And we made good use of the very pleasant pool.

    When I first went outside the hotel for a walk, I had a nice surprise when I stumbled upon a stepwell right around the corner from the entrance. It was the first of several we'd visit on the trip, and they are indeed Escher-like with their dizzying series of steps.

    I spent a lot of time walking through the narrow lanes of the labyrinth that is Navchokiya (one of the old sections of Jodhpur). Some of those lanes gradually go uphill toward the fort, but in a meandering way, with surprises around every corner. This is prime "blue house" territory, (although none of the other colors of the rainbow were exactly shyly hiding). The scenes of Indian life to be seen while randomly strolling was richly rewarding. And as a bonus, it was hard to get lost, because the landmark of Mehrangarh fort was constantly popping into view above.

    And speaking of "blue houses, you know all those photos illustrating articles in which the writer calls Jodhpur "The Blue City"? Many of those photos are fake! While Jodhpur does have a number of blue buildings (especially in the old sections), they're nowhere near as numerous as they are in those photos. People seem compelled to alter them so as to create more blue buildings than are really there. Even Wikipedia has a photo obviously doctored to increase both the intensity of the blue and the quantity of blue houses.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jodhpur#/media/File:Jodhpur-blog-view-from-top.jpg

    This is especially obvious from the vantage high above the city at the Mehrangarh fort. But perhaps I am quibbling, as there actually are a great many blue houses, and they're lovely to see while walking through neighborhoods like Navchokiya. And if you look at my Jodhpur photos, you'll notice I took a number of shots with them as background.

    I'm struck by how many stories there are as to why they are blue. One theory is that they stay cool in the fierce summer heat. Another is that they signify ownership by Brahmin families. Another is that to avoid the problem of termites people added copper sulphate to the whitewash, chasing out the termites and also turning their homes blue. Others protest this is untrue, saying the blue color is "natural", coming from indigo dye. And some say they are blue because Rao Jodha, the founder of Jodhpur, loved blue! Get 3 different guides and you'll hear 3 different stories!

    After returning to the hotel from one long walk, a clerk glances up at me and then exclaims "Sir!". He then bounds over to me and plucks a large white feather that had somehow become planted in my hair! I have no idea how long I'd been inadvertently sporting such a decoration, or what local people who saw me must have thought. At least the clerk didn't call it macaroni.

    As I wrote before, we just loved Mehrangarh fort. Are you familiar with that great Rudyard Kipling quote in which he described the fort as “the creation of angels, fairies and giants.”? We got up early to find out if that was indeed factual, and arrived shortly before it opened. I knew from research for C that there is an elevator, making the high location possible for her, and it whisked us up to the top. We admired the stunning views for a while before I went on reconnaisonce up some further stairs to make sure it was worth the climb for C. I came back emphatic that it was, and happily when she got to the top, she agreed! For this is the location of the elaborately decorated royal palace rooms - the Takhat Vilas (Maharaja Takhat Singh's Chamber), Moti Mahal (The Pearl Palace), Sheesh Mahal (The Hall Of Mirrors), and the Phool Mahal (Flower Palace). How many ways can you say "Wow!"?

    Also on the upper levels is a collection of beautiful royal elephant howdahs, palanquins and cradles which we greatly enjoyed seeing.

    Before we descended, we stood on the high parapet and noted that we could see our hotel far below. I took a photo and blew it up in the monitor so that I could show C that we could actually see our room and balcony. And on the horizon, looking iconically Indian was the Umaid Bhawan Palace. It was a long way down and luckily we were allowed to take the elevator both ways because of C's disability.

    As we left it was so sad to see the hand prints of the Sati women engraved into the fort walls. Isn't that just like India --- one minute it exhilarates you and the next makes you want to cry? And sometimes simultaneously?

    We then drove to the Jaswant Thada, which was pleasant with its gardens and fountains. I had planned to take a photo of it with Mehrangarh fort in the distance, but found the walk to a suitable vantage increasingly challenging, as I had to climb over a stone wall surrounding the property and then scamper up and over many large boulders. But not even a four-foot snake skin shed on one of those boulders dissuaded me, and it wasn't until I realized a canyon lay between me and my destination under what was becoming a hot noon-day sun that I turned back to where join C, who had sensibly preferred lounging in the cool shade by the fountains.

    We had dinner that night at RAAS, which was a combination of exquisite location and lackluster food. The romantic fire pits brought to our table kept the chill night air at bay, while the discretely floodlit gardens around us and the flickering candles on our table didn't interfere with the spectacle of Mehrangarh fort so beautifully floodlit above us. All this made the night magical even though the food was forgettable. We've found that in India, the more expensive the hotel, the more boring the food. But we made the choice to go with nice but not exciting food in return for the romance and astonishing beauty of that location. And while there are other magical locations in Jodphur for dinner, it was nice to sometimes relax in our hotel after days spent walking! Anyway, we had plenty of other delicious meals on this trip to make up for any flavor deficiency we might have suffered!

    One day I was walking on a narrow lane heading up a hill when a young boy appeared and warned me that "You don't want to go this way - there are Muslims living there." Now it happens that I had already been up that way a day before, and had found the people quite welcoming, so I wasn't concerned. But it was a sad reminder of the animosity between Hindus and Muslims in India. This is relatively recent after having lived together peacefully for millennia. And also a reminder of the way India being arbitrarily ripped in 2 during Partition has for many decades kept the nations of India and Pakistan at each other's throats.

    Another day while walking near the clock tower we saw a little joint selling samosas and other goodies called Shahi Samosa. We got a few to eat by the pool, and they were quite nice. They had some raisins inside, which gave it a faint sweet-sour taste along with all the spicy goodness and crunchy cashews, too. Writing this makes me want one right now. So I guess we'll have to return to Jodhpur.

    (coming up next, leopards! And life in the village of Narlai)

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    thanks rje for bringing back the good memories I had in Jodhpur. We, as well stayed at the RAAS and agree with you on the "unremarkable food". But, the morning prayer and especially the evening prayer was a bit nerving since both times they were during our meals. The evening one lasted over one hour and was told there was a wedding that caused the long loud ongoing"call". Instead of chocolates for our bed turndown at night, a fine pair of ear plugs were left on the pillow instead.......so we were forewarned. all in all, a VERY nice stay and a great walk in the old town.........your pics were great!

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    Once again, your beautifully written description and pictures depicts jodhpur beautifully. Thanks for your efforts in putting this trip report together. We too loved jodhpur's palace and also the town itself and market center. Thanks again. This report has brought back great memories.

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    "But it was a sad reminder of the animosity between Hindus and Muslims in India. This is relatively recent after having lived together peacefully for millennia"

    Hardly. Islam has only been around for one millennium and a bit. Plus, Muslims arrived in India as invaders and conquerors. See: Mughal Empire. Although the current situation is indeed tragic.

    "India being arbitrarily ripped in 2 during Partition"

    While the border might certainly be considered arbitrary, the division was at the insistence of the leader of the All-India Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

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    thursdaysd,
    Congratulations, you got me on my typo of "millennia" in place of "millennium".

    But if you're going to be a stickler, then you need to be more accurate yourself.

    First, your description of Muslim invaders is not how it was perceived at the time by the people who were actually being invaded.

    The original Sanskrit documents from the eleventh century describe them not by religion, because religion wasn't their identity. Instead, they were described by ethnicity --- as Turks.

    And it certainly was a violent invasion, as was typical of medieval times. But as time went by, the two cultures intermingled until they become a hybridization, sharing language, values and culture. People in India then didn't define themselves primarily from their religious identity.

    So yes, they did live peacefully together for a very long time. In fact, they did so from around 1300 to the 1940s, when things started to get ugly. Less than millennia, but a very long time.

    Some historians blame the British for compartmentalizing Indians by religion and thus starting a trend in which Indians began accepting this division.

    "the division was at the insistence of the leader of the All-India Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah"

    That is too simplistic.

    Clearly Jinnah was no saint, but neither were Gandhi and Nehru. For many years Jinnah worked as a unifier, and for this was hailed as “the Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity”. He actually opposed the concept of a separate homeland for Muslims. Even when he began to suggest the idea, he told colleagues it was just as "a bargaining chip".

    But things spun out of control for a great many complex reasons, and Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah grew to despise each other. The peace that had existed between Hindus and Muslims was shattered by horrible violence. After WW2, some journalists and British soldiers who had seen the Nazi concentration camps described what was happening in the cities of India as being as bad or worse. There were widespread religious massacres. Public torture. Genocide.

    The British were financially strapped, and needed to exit India fast. Jinnah was now calling for a separate Muslim state. Nehru saw this as the best way to get rid of a difficult political rival, and also embraced the idea. That Partition was implemented so quickly and sloppily by the British surely added to the even more horrendous violence that followed.

    It is so sad to me that if only Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah could have acted more like adults and not been so consumed by distain, partition and all the associated horror could have quite possibly been avoided.

    And now, of course, we're all stuck with a semi-failed state in Pakistan, and all that comes with that.

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    And now that I have that off my chest ;) :

    annhig,
    Thank you, I really appreciate that!

    tripplanner001,
    I find I'm becoming a bit of a booster for travel to India, and perhaps you will go someday!

    dragon88,
    Yes, celebrations and weddings in India can necessitate the liberal use of earplugs when trying to sleep at night!

    dgunbug,
    Thank you for the encouragement to continue!

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    In other words, the Hindu-Muslim situation is, and has been, a great deal more complex than "they got on well right up until yesterday", which was essentially what you wrote.

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    thursdaysd,
    I disagree with your assessment.

    If you'd care to start a new thread on this subject, I'll be happy to discuss it further there. But I don't want to further bog down my trip report with politics.

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    Yankee Doodle Rick! Haha--it took me awhile to figure out the feather reference!!

    Thank you for your excellent summary of that tragic, complex period in (relatively) recent history, whose effects evidently linger in some areas. Reminds me of even more recent tribal conflict in Africa--which some likewise explain partially as a result of colonialization (another long discussion).

    Should you ever visit Shimla, don't miss the Viceregal Lodge in the hills near town, where you see the rooms in which the Partition agreement was figuratively hammered out. Or if in Kolkata, the old Indian Coffee House in the University District (still going strong!) was the site of plots hatched for independence from Britain.

    Re: north vs south roads... it's hard to generalize, especially about anything India, but in my experience, fwiw, there's nothing in the southern part of the country to equal the dusty filthy polluted misery caused by torn-up road and building construction, in the areas both to the immediate south and north of Delhi on my last trip to that area (Oct 2013). Two yrs ago, I was in the South only, and all roads were fine, including in some fairly remote areas. However, I did not see the central areas of Karnataka to which Thursdaysd refers.
    My main fear of Indian roads is carsickness, and for that, the winding roads in the Wayanad district can't be beat. I've yet to see Munnar's though!!! Without Progol's recommendation of scopolamine, I wouldn't even attempt those!

    Comments on your Jodhpur photos are forthcoming. I want to savor them first!

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    rje thanks once more for your photos and the Jodhpur section of your trip report. I loved the many different shades of blue that you captured and the contrast that the women's saris made against this backdrop.

    It was good to hear that Raas is a good place to stay as I have recently booked three nights there for my late September trip. I was pleased to see that it was as central as it had appeared to be on its website and possible to wander around the streets of the old town. It sounds like we will definitely need to venture out on the food front! What was your best food experience in Northern India ?

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    CaliNurse,
    "Yankee Doodle"
    I had thought the use of the word "macaroni" to be a nonsense lyric. But then I found out about this:
    http://mentalfloss.com/article/65651/why-did-yankee-doodle-call-feather-macaroni

    I don't know when we'll get to the Himalayas and Kolkata, but they both are on our list. (sigh, oh that list...)

    "in Kolkata, the old Indian Coffee House"
    I love the Indian Coffee Houses. Mostly for atmosphere! Although they vary, some are nondescript. I was sad to hear that a great-looking one in Bangalore that I photographed on several occasions closed and re-opened as a new more modern version. Humbug.

    "north vs south roads"
    Our experience on primary, secondary and country roads in Karnataka was that they were still better than the ones in the north even though some were unpaved. It just seemed like even unpaved they were less rock-strewn and bone-rattling than the unpaved roads in the north.

    "scopolamine"
    Let me second Progol's recommendation. I try not to use drugs when not necessary, but the scopolamine patch has saved me on many diving trips, as I suffer from seasickness on bobbing boats. I did experience mild side-effects of thirstiness, but no big deal.


    loncall,
    Thank you!
    And yes, we thought RAAS was in a great location. Don't let me scare you too much about the food there! It wasn't bad, just not great. Especially considering the price. And the setting for dinner really is stunning!

    The best food experiences we had in Northern India? I haven't written about them yet, but they were at the small heritage properties where we stayed in Begun, Bhainsrorgarth and also several restaurants in Mumbai. I'll include them in those segments, coming fairly soon!


    tripplanner001,
    2018 :)

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    rje,
    I may be repeating myself ad nauseum, but your photos and report are just amazing. Love, love, love the photos of Jodhpur -- and am slightly envious, as we never got to spend much time wandering around the city itself, so missed the local feeling of the town. You capture the "color" - both literally and figuratively - beautifully.

    I'm sorry to say that we are postponing our planned visit to S. India due to family health problems... but I can't wait to go and then I'll be able to contribute my comparison between north and south!

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    progol,
    There are some things that people don't mind hearing repeated, no matter how many times! Thank you!

    And I'm so sorry. Later, when you do go, I'm sure you will have an amazing time, and if I can help with any information, please feel free to ask.

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    Rje...thanks for the link to the macaroni explanation.So the "Grand Tour" was similar to today's "GapYear" journey. See the world before settling down to your home-based duty! Never thought of the connection before.

    Wonderful blue photos, of the publicly acceptable kind!!

    In addition to the fort and town building photos, lol the goat in camouflage! And the young woman in dark pink pants with her lovely face turned at just the right angle!

    Is that construction behind the fence at your hotel? If so, do you now what's being built on this prime real estate location?

    Exhilaration and tears indeed. In India, it's as if all of life is compressed into a scale model diorama, then magnified into brilliant fireworks!

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    CaliNurse,

    Sorry about that!

    I assume you're referring to the area to the right, over a brick wall?

    The true answer is that wasn't construction, just a rather artless fence, beyond which are some homes.

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    Narlai, Ranakpur Jain Temple, Bera and wild leopards.
    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157669046669675
    They show more if you make them large!


    While India is no Africa as a wildlife destination, there are some areas with good viewing opportunities, and they were a nice bonus for our trip. Knowing national parks in India can be problematic, we decided to skip Ranthambore and other such heavily touristed locations in favor of the Aravalli Hills region. The fairly good possibility of seeing wild leopards there was too appealing to pass up. As was the chance to see wildlife at our own pace, without crowds of tourists, and no rules about what time we had to leave the area, etc. The Aravalli Hills mountain range is one of the world's oldest, dating back to an enormous collision with the mainland Eurasian Plate in the Precambrian era. And today there is a relatively sizable leopard population living there in a sort of truce with local people.

    Our first stop in this area was 2 nights at Rawla Narlai, conveniently located between Jodhpur and Udaipur. The easy 2-hour drive was on good roads, which is not surprising given that location. We'd been tempted by rooms in the original buildings, but decided it would be more sensible at this point in our trip to opt for the newer building, which had an elevator for C. This turned out to be a great choice for us because it provided a needed break for C's legs but the building and our room still had a lot of charm. Our room included a Jharoka (a kind of enclosed balcony) with a view looking out over the gardens and pool, with a big rocky hill dominating the landscape beyond. Also visible on that dome-like hill was a temple nestled in the boulders. A stream of brilliantly garbed worshipers climbing the many steps up to it made a striking contrast against the pale rock.

    That afternoon we just relaxed and then wandered around enjoying seeing small village life. This wasn't just human, as it included wildlife within the village. We watched the humorous antics of visiting Langur monkeys, so much less aggressive than Macaques. A momma Langur arrived at a village woman's doorstep, baby clinging to her underside, and was rewarded with chapati while the villager's dubious neighbor watched. We even saw a hyperactive mongoose making mad dashes through the village. Back at the hotel, we had dinner outside amidst fire pits (the inside restaurant didn't seem nearly as enticing). The food was good, not great, although subsequent meals were greatly enhanced after our request to use more spices!

    The next day we went on a private safari. I had some trepidation about how well my camera would perform. During the entire time leading up to our departure for India, I'd been having an ongoing debate inside my head ---- should I bring better quality (heavier) lenses and camera, or just bring a relatively light-weight "prosumer" camera? I already knew I'd have a casual attitude toward photography on this trip for a number of reasons. So in the end I opted to only bring a lesser quality and lighter weight camera, so as not to have to lug weighty stuff all over India (particularly on 2 internal flights). After all, in most cases, a good camera is not important to take good pictures. This in spite of a common belief that the camera choice is all-important. Reminds me of an old exchange: "I love your novel. You're such a good writer. You must have a really good pen!"

    The only place I worried I might regret this choice was at this part of the trip, when we went to look for leopards. But I also know the well-established scientific fact that the way to guarantee no rain will fall is to bring an umbrella. So I'd be really irritated if I lugged heavy gear all through our trip but then saw no leopards, which was, of course, a possibility.

    You already know where this is going. We did see leopards, and wonderful sightings at that. But under challenging conditions for my poor little camera that I'd brought. This is where the better camera and lens would have helped a lot. So when you look at the photos, please lower your expectations of quality!

    OK, so here is the part where I write about our first "safari" of this trip. Experienced travelers here on the Fodors forum who have been to Africa are now allowed to begin smirking at my excitement over what to them will seem like so little!

    It was 4 of us in the jeep - C & I and a driver/guide and a dedicated guide. We left in the early afternoon, and after leaving the last vestiges of villages we drove down narrow and surprisingly smooth dirt roads, passing fields of mustard and wheat, and soon arrived at a lake where there were a great variety of birds. We saw Indian Rollers, Kingfishers, Eagles, Cranes, Herons and many others. But the sun was already getting low, so after an appreciation of the aviary abundance, we headed for the site most likely to attract leopards.

    As we came around a turn, the driver abruptly stopped, and pointed to our right. There partly hidden in a nearby bush was the biggest owl I'd ever seen. It was an Indian eagle-owl, also called the rock eagle-owl or Bengal eagle-owl. Suddenly, with a loud thrashing of leaves it burst out of the bush and flew a short distance to a rocky hill. There, it sat in repose, staring at us, backlit by the low sun, and oddly, sitting amongst a great many other birds. I asked the driver to turn off the engine, so as to minimize camera shake from vibrations, as we were staying in the jeep. I took a number of shots of the impressive bird, and when I had enough, the owl seemed to know it and took off into the setting sun.

    We proceeded on, occasionally passing a tiny rural home. The driver knew everybody and would offer them greetings. At many of the homes, women were sitting outside by fires, stirring dinner pots or making chapati. Then we left even that narrow dirt track, and proceeded to drive up and down great sculpted granite hills past fantastically-shaped boulders, while the guide peered through binoculars, searching for traces of leopard. The landscape was beautiful, made more so by the golden light of the last vestiges of sun. We stopped on top of a particularly large smooth granite hill, and got out of the jeep. The sky soon began to darken, and after a while it was becoming obvious there would be no leopard today. So we returned to the hotel, knowing we had several more opportunities, if we wanted them, and feeling appreciative for all that we did get to see so far.

    There was an early morning safari the next day, and we were offered the option to go only if a tracker had located a leopard. We agreed to this option, and went to dinner. At about 9am the next morning a young man ran up to where we were amusing ourselves watching parrots. "Sir!", he breathlessly exclaimed. "Leopard!" I ran to grab my camera and we tore off in a waiting jeep. Minutes later we drove up onto an expanse of granite hill where another jeep from our hotel was parked. And sure enough, up above us was a magnificent female leopard. Far enough away and in deep enough shadows that I instantly cursed my sensible self who had opted for the lighter camera! But we were given high-quality binoculars that provided a much better view than my camera could, and sat entranced with the first wild leopard we'd ever seen. She was gorgeous! She was sleepy and almost ready for bed, and after a while she gave a huge stretch and then disappeared into a cave. I know that in Africa this would be a common sight, but as a bonus on a trip to India, it was thrilling, and more leopards were still to come at our next location.

    Later Raj picked us up, and we proceeded on the 1-hour drive to Ranakpur Jain temple. The temple didn't open until noon, so we stopped at a modest country temple nearby, noticing a large group of local people climb out of the back of a dump truck where they'd been standing in their best temple clothes during the drive. Ranakpur is well-known, so I'll just remark that it is exquisitely carved and well-worth a visit. We arrived as it opened, so it wasn't too crowded yet. But there were still enough visitors to diminish the atmosphere of other less-touristed temples we'd visited. Unavoidable, I suppose, as it is an easy day trip from both Udaipur and Jodphur.

    Then we proceeded to our hotel, Castle Bera. Thank-you to Julies for the recommendation from her trip reports on the Asia Forum. It was quite an experience. The Thakur owner (a feudal title) is nicknamed Winku, and he accompanied us on our afternoon jeep safari. The rugged landscapes were again dramatic, but we were beginning to give up hope of seeing a leopard when the guide pointed up to the top of a rocky hill. "There!", he exclaimed. "Ummm, where?", I asked, seeing nothing even remotely leopard-y. "Right there, to the left of that rock, by the bush", pointing toward dozens of rocks and bushes. I continued in my state of non-leopardosity. C then exclaimed with delight that she'd found it, but your pathetic narrator still saw nothing spotted but the granite rocks.

    The guide then patiently gave me a step-by-step explanation of how to find it, counting off for me how many rocks from a particular landmark I should look for and then how many bushes up from that I should look. And finally even I could see the tiny head and ears silhouetted at the top of the hill. Perhaps the title of this section should have been "Leopards are hard to spot". But of course, as soon as I finally found her, she promptly disappeared. Luckily, she soon began slinking down a long granite slope! And then her adorable cub bounded into view! Followed by a second cub. I was alternating taking pictures (which at the time I really couldn't see in the low light) and using binoculars whose optics allowed me to see them quite clearly. Then momma began playing with her cubs, and they all scampered about. At one point the momma caught a cub's tail in her powerful jaws, making the running cub fall flat on its chubby belly! You can see some shots of this and the prior leopard at Narlai in my newest album, but again, apologies for the lack of sharpness.

    After we returned to Castle Bera, we had a dinner around a big table with Winku and the 2 other guests. We had disappointed him by not wanting drinks, but he still enjoyed showing off his elaborate bar, of which he was quite proud. Elaborate bars seem to be a theme among Indian former royalty. Winku told us about the many royal families he was related to, but took pains to stress how far down the ladder he was. We then discovered he was also related to two of the royal owners of properties we'd soon be staying at, and asked us to convey his regards.

    We reserved an early morning safari, and after the alarm woke us we staggered down the stairs to the courtyard at the agreed pickup time of 5:30am. It was still pitch black and quite chilly. As we arrived, right on time, we were dismayed to see our reserved jeep leaving, driving away from us, and passing through the gate and into the darkness. I watched with wide eyes as its headlights disappeared. But surely it must return at any moment? So we stood alone in the dark silence, tired and cold. Time passed, but no jeep. I couldn't believe it, as we'd been assured just hours ago that our safari was all confirmed. Finally, after a brief considering whether we should call at such an early hour, I pulled out our cell phone and called the hotel above us. I could hear the phone inside ring. And ring. And ring. No answer. I tried again a few minutes later on Winku's personal cell, no longer reluctant to make this early morning call, as it was his responsibility to straighten this out. Many rings later the sleepy Thakur answered, and said he'd call us right back. He did, and said the jeep would return at once. He told us that he'd been told we'd cancelled the safari, which of course we hadn't done. So when the jeep returned we climbed in for a chilly drive without the windshield up, welcoming a brief stop at a small shed where tiny clay cups of steaming tea were brought to us. We then proceeded back to those leopard hills, but no luck. The rising sun revealed beautiful landscapes, and I still enjoyed taking photos of people and birds. And although no leopards were found that morning, we were thrilled by the combined wildlife we'd seen during the last 3 days.

    (coming up next, we stay at the hotel that was filmed for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel! And then an amazing heritage stay in Begun)

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    Rick, as one of those who've been on safari in Africa and had the fortune of viewing a few leopards, I would say that your leopard sightings are comparable. And to do it without crowds, even more rare. Were you able to get close to them? Are there rules on being on- or off-road?

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    tripplanner001,
    So far I haven't been so lucky as to get to Africa. So your comparison is interesting information.

    We weren't close. Without binoculars they were just dots. But with the binoculars we were given, they seemed very close! And also the binoculars enhanced the amount of light, so we could see them clearly, even when they walked into heavy shadows. They were so much fun to watch!

    Since this was just undeveloped countryside, and not a park, there were no restrictions regarding where we could go, except the capabilities of the jeep. But the jeep was able to drive us up some very steep boulders! We had to have faith in the driver's skills and just hold on tight! For those who might be concerned about the jeeps damaging the landscape, we drove on rocks, so that no plants or sandy hills were affected.

    And for those who might be concerned about this access to the leopards, the fact that there are so few people visiting this area, combined with the respect shown by the guides and drivers toward the leopards meant that they aren't being disturbed.

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    Rick, your description is equally as interesting as I haven't been to India. We saw leopards both in South Africa and in Botswana during our first trip to Africa this April. In Botswana, we saw a leopard once and it was from a distance as we were on national park land and were not permitted to go off-road. At Sabi Sand (a private reserve) in South Africa, we went off-road and thus saw these beautiful creatures closer, including one very near encounter, although our driver was mindful of where we could drive and where we couldn't given the fragility of the ground with the current droughts. We saw one at a time on each occasion, three times out of seven game drives in SA and one out of six in Botswana, so it was a similar roll of a dice.

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    And for those who might be concerned about this access to the leopards, the fact that there are so few people visiting this area, combined with the respect shown by the guides and drivers toward the leopards meant that they aren't being disturbed.>>

    that's good to know, Rick. We were horrified by the behaviour of the LR drivers in Sri Lanka, who were prepared to chase around the parks like Yala in the hope of spotting a leopard or other rare sighting. We were greeted with disbelief when we said that we didn't want to do that but to look at birds and other more common [to them] animals, and we had to say it several times before our guide and driver took on board what we meant. I don't blame the drivers of course but their customers who are only interested in what is rare - and likely to get rarer.

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    Oh darn...why tease myself by opening your photo album when there's not enough time to read the accompanying words? Wonderful, wonderful photos , (no surprise by now) which remind me how much more there is to see of India!! Love the one of the sleeping dogs. "Mad dogs and Englishmen..." eh? And the leopard stalking prey , in the shot with the plants dow the slope. And that's just for starters. Thank you, rje!! You've given me something to look forward to reading tonight after work!!

    For other readers: the originally posted photo album for this segment (Narlai, etc) says "Jaiselmer." Keep going to get to the correct one.

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    The image of you and C dragging yourselves out into the dark early morning, only to see the safari jeep heading away from you...you gotta laugh, but only in retrospect!
    Thanks or the quote about novel and pen. So true of photography ...especially with marvelous easy-to-use on-line editing tools available to tech-challenged folks like yours truly. I use only small lightweight cameras, can 't stand the feel of a scratch strap pressing heavily on my neck! Would you mind revealing which camera you took on this trip?
    Wait 'til you get to Africa! Some of those lenses are scary!!!

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    annhig,
    That's a shame that those guides in Sri Lanka valued birds and other wildlife less than you do. Luckily, you knew better! But the guides should have been the ones saying that leopards aren't the only wonderful things to see!

    CaliNurse,
    The camera body I took was a Nikon D5500. Not a pro camera by any means! But it was adequate for what I needed.

    The lens I usually left on it was a very old Nikon 18-200mm. Not terribly sharp, and not good in low light. But so convenient not to have to keep changing lenses, or carry others around all day.

    I did bring 2 other lens which I used only occasionally. A wider 10-24mm Nikon lens. And a better 70-200mm lens that I could mount a teleconverter which brought it up to a 320mm lens, but also significantly reduced the quality. In photography, everything is a compromise!

    I didn't bring a good long telephoto sufficient for small wildlife at a distance or those leopards. For one thing, I don't own one! I thought about renting one, but it would have been very expensive for such a long trip. And also they're very heavy and would have been used only a couple of times over the 6 weeks.

    And I also used my camera phone for some of the shots.

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    annhig,
    That's a shame that those guides in Sri Lanka valued birds and other wildlife less than you do. Luckily, you knew better! But the guides should have been the ones saying that leopards aren't the only wonderful things to see!>>

    rje - we had already been pretty horrified at the behaviour of the drivers and guides at the national park further north where the elephants are so we were pre-warned and knew we didn't want anything like that again. But even if you hadn't had that experience, there was plenty in the little museum about dead leopard cubs etc to make any visitor aware of the situation, even if common sense didn't.

    I have to say that I blame the tourists - if they said stop, the guides would do so. It's only because people are so determined to see leopards/tigers/etc. with scant or no regard for the welfare of the animals that this behaviour continues. It's natural that they respond to their customers - and hope to get a big tip if they "succeed".

    it's wonderful that you were able to have such a great experience without disturbing the animals.

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    "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" from the movie (actually the Ravla Khempur Hotel) and Begun.

    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157667684951983
    They show more if you make them large!


    While planning the trip I tried to minimize long car trips for C, so I searched for a place to stay overnight between Bera and Bhainsrorgarth to break up the drive. Not finding a lot of options myself, I asked Nikhil from TGS if he had any suggestions. He wrote back that the Ravla Khempur Hotel was roughly at the half-way point, and that it was the hotel used for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. That was an amusing idea to us, so I went ahead and emailed them, booking just a night.

    As we began our drive there, I asked Raj if he knew where it was. He replied "I know every hotel in Rajasthan"! And by her end of our trip, I would come to believe him!

    When we arrived, we found the lobby still dressed with "temporary" architectural elements that had been added by the art director of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movie for atmosphere. They were only built of flimsy materials, so who knows how long they'll actually last! There were also leftover props in many other parts of the hotel. Our check-in was appropriately chaotic, true to the spirit of the movie. As time went on it began to appear as if the management and staff were trying to actually emulate the movie! We were shown to our rooms and warned that hot water was only turned on for a few hours, but that we could make a special request at the desk for other times. Inquiries about the hotel were met with charming enthusiasm but a surprising lack of knowledge. Our room was close to the usually vacant front desk, so that while we were unpacking a British women heard us talking and began banging on our door, insisting that we come out at once and check her in, as she thought we must be the staff! I turned on the ceiling fan, but hurriedly turned it off when it launched a shower of dust from above. Perhaps the low point was discovering our toilet didn't really flush.

    Dinner was extremely odd. I later joked to C that perhaps the explanation was that this was all some kind of participational theatre where the waiters were actually actors, deliberately creating a peculiar experience that involved the audience, or in this case the guests. Kind of like how the actors in Tony 'n Tina's Wedding stay in character even when they're not on stage, interacting with the audience.

    As we walked to the satellite dining pavilion we had to pass through an excavation next to the restaurant. From our seat in the open-air building we had a great view of the yawning pit which we were told would someday be a swimming pool. The restaurant was also next to a row of stables with beautiful thoroughbred horses. One of the horses who was walking alone outside his stable amused us with his tendency to peer curiously through the windows at us as we ate! We discovered that the hotel owners were also horse breeders. And as a result, the restaurant had a completely equestrian-themed decor! Even down to the cutlery, which were heavy objects whose handles sported largish horse-heads!

    We laughed when we saw that a small television at the far end of the pavilion was playing a DVD of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on a loop for the entertainment of the guests. Our waiter invited us to view it. We demurred, saying we'd already seen it. Every other member of the staff would in turn invite us to view it. The manager who arrived the next day invited us to view it. We should have had a card printed out: "Thanks, but already seen it".

    The service was an interesting mix of earnest effort contrasted with an amazing lack of awareness. For example, as we sat at the table, the placemats were repeatedly fussed with by several different staff members until they were aligned with mathematical accuracy parallel with the edge of the table, yet they were stained from old food spills. The horse-cutlery was equally carefully placed, after which each waiter would stare at them and then return to adjust them again, over and over until satisfied they were in what they thought was the perfect position. Unfortunately, they had been holding them by the eating end! And some had old food bits still on them and some were bent to the point of being unusable. From our seats I could see part-way into the kitchen, and I glanced in, which turned out to be a mistake, as I saw our waiter placing all our dishes full of food on the floor! And then he would bring them to us, carrying them with his fingers in the bowls, sometimes even touching the food! And while the many flies that we had to constantly shoo from our food may not have been the fault of management, they certainly didn't add to the sanitation or the ambiance.

    We really wouldn't have eaten there if we had any other options, but this was the only place in an isolated village in the countryside. So being very hungry, we went ahead and ate, which is hard to do with crossed fingers and gritted teeth! This was to be Rifaximin's greatest challenge, and I am very happy to report that the little pills came through for us like a champion, as neither of us suffered any ill effects.

    The next morning the manager appeared. He apologized for his absence the day before, having been traveling, and asked how we were enjoying things. Oh boy. I felt bad having to tell him, but thought it was for the good of the hotel that they know. I told him the staff were all very nice, very polite, and very attentive. But that a few things were going to ruin the whole experience for guests, and as tactfully as I could told him what his staff needed to learn. I'm afraid all they'd been taught was pomp and flourishes. I tried to include as many positive things and compliments as I could and I do think there will be improvements made. After all, in spite of the fictional movie, this is a hotel owned by a larger company.

    Moving on after breakfast, we arrived in Begun and proceeded through tall gates into the 600 year old Fort Begu where we were greeted like we were royalty. But the actual royalty was instead the person who was greeting us, who was a Prince named Ajay. He was in charge of the fort/hotel while his father was away traveling. We were happy to find we'd been given the room I'd requested, the Chitrashali suite). I'd gone so far as to send them a photo by email to identify which room we wanted, as it looked amazing (and it was!). However, it was up one more flight than had been indicated. And the rough stone steps leading to that extra floor were very steep, so I later asked that we should have our breakfasts brought up to a patio I saw outside our room.

    We then sat with Ajay in a drawing room decorated with old swords, framed maps and portraits of the royal family of Begu going back many generations. Ajay regaled us with some fascinating history and when asked what we did he was very excited to discover that C is an actress in the theatre. "My dream is to be a theatre actor" he exclaimed theatrically, clapping his hands in excitement! So they bonded over their mutual love. And we learned life is "complicated" for an Indian Prince from a conservative royal family who wants to pursue a career acting in theatrical comedies.

    Our light-flooded room was reminiscent of royal rooms you've seen if you've been to palaces in India. A bit of Sheesh Mahal and stained glass, but with an updated bathroom. Quite the romantic fantasy room! It was huge, with columns separating it from a sitting area with lovely views. After settling in we went down one flight to the royal dining room where the manager named Mac greeted us and our lunch was brought in. Mac (who worked in many capacities at the property) served our food while wearing white gloves, which was a bit to much for us. The lunch was delicious - some of the best food we would have in our entire trip. I wish I could remember the specific dishes, but I do remember there was one fantastic chicken dish and several amazing vegetable dishes, none of which we were familiar with. So much flavor! And of course accompanied by the ubiquitous chapati, which we never tire of.

    While C rested, I took a walk out the gates to see the town of Begun. An interesting and friendly little town, with a lively market and I saw a traveling circus had set up on the outskirts.

    After returning to Fort Begu, we were invited to see the family Summer Palace, or rather the ruins of the palace, located on a small nearby lake. There was a very nice Australian couple who were the only other guests and they accompanied us (Robert and Peter, if by some wild chance you read this, please contact us as we lost your contact info!).

    First we were driven to a nearby local temple and then to a step well and then to the family Cenotaphs, so evocative in the late day sun. We heard more fascinating family history and then drove off again into the countryside, passing through a crude gate fashioned out of branches and through a tiny village, followed by a big locked iron gate, and finally we could see the Summer Palace peeking through the trees. Walking a short distance by the lake, we went down a few old stone stairs and onto a narrow stone causeway which led out to the old palace.

    The main palace is several stories high and sits out in the lake. Also out in the lake are 3 small separate concubine houses (for the king's convenience), all clustered together on the causeway, with the house of the favorite concubine being the closest to the palace. Each night the chosen concubine would walk the causeway past the queen's room. We never heard how the queen felt about this arrangement. Beyond the palace is a temple, also built out over the lake.

    The palace has 2 towers. At the top of one was a room where C and I were supposed to have had drinks and snacks. But in consideration of C, we had a table placed on the stone causeway, which I think was actually a preferable location, as the view of the palace and lake was unimpeded and gorgeous as the sun set over the water, washing the palace in a rosy glow. Mac brought us our drinks and snacks and then retreated to let us enjoy the remarkable setting in privacy. The only sound was an occasional bird call and our murmurs of delight. The lake was so smooth and still as to be like a mirror. Such a romantic, exotic and atmospheric experience, and one we'll always remember.

    When the last vestiges of sunset had faded, we drove back to Fort Begu. We were invited to have drinks in the garden with Ajay and the other couple, and the conversation was fascinating. Ajay had a number of wonderful historical stories, some of which were hilarious. Dinner was served under the stars in another part of the garden, lit by candles and fire pits, and again, the food was scrumptious. After lingering for some time after, we made our way back to our room to discover a large metal bowl on the floor filled with red roses floating in water, in the center of which was a large floating candle giving off a beautiful light. So romantic! We felt it was safe to let it burn when we went to bed, since it was surrounded by water and stone, so off to sleep we drifted with the faint rosy glow of the last of the candle on our happy faces. Our very special night light!

    So as to spare C more trips on the steep stone stairs, I asked that we have breakfast brought to a terrace outside our room, and we enjoyed the views and again some very good food. I had only booked one night, so sadly we had to leave soon, and Ajay recommended before we left that we visit an abandoned part of the fort. It was part of the old Prince's palace, and while it is now in ruins, the former splendor can still be seen in the architecture and the faded wall paintings, as well as the room of mirrors and stained glass.

    Then we walked to the inner driveway where Raj waited with our car. Saying a reluctant goodbye, we drove out of the gates, thinking that we'd like to return someday. But before we left town, I asked Raj to stop in a small residential area I'd spotted the day before, and walked through, taking photos. Then we drove out of Begun, heading further east into the open countryside.

    (coming up next, another heritage stay at Bhainsrorgarh Fort)

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    Omg - I love your descriptions of the hilarious food experience in the "Marigold hotel". So typically Indian...you've gotta love it. These are the experiences you look back upon so fondly. Your heritage stays sounded wonderful. Looking forward to continuing on with you while you describe your adventures.

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    Ewwww.. Should i be in the neighborhood, I'll avoid a stop at the Marigold Hotel! Dust from the fan, clueless food preparation, nonfunctional toilets. I'm hardly squeamish (as if you could be for long in India!) but that sort of experience is hard to laugh about as it happens. I hope you gave feedback to Nikhil so he'll know not to recommend it as a stop...at least, without strong warnings of lowered expectations, or until they get their act (double meaning!) together.
    Your second accommodations sounds much better! What romantic settings by the lake and in the boudoir! (Your wife,at this point, might have said, "All is forgiven!") I think those forts with areas of semi-decay have more charm than the totally remodeled upscale hotel palace/forts. ( I stayed at one relatively clean but decaying place with wall-mounted swords, stuffed animal trophies, afternoon tea with the maharani, etc--half a century or more of backwards time -travel.)
    LOVE your photo of the stepwell with girl in red dress. You could juxtapose it with your photo, much lower down in your gallery, of another woman in red (possibly in the concubine building ?) painted on the wall.

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    Finally starting to catch up, and I have to laugh -- here it is July 4th, and I just read that lovely piece about Yankee Doodle Dandy that you provided the link to:


    <<I had thought the use of the word "macaroni" to be a nonsense lyric. But then I found out about this:

    http://mentalfloss.com/article/65651/why-did-yankee-doodle-call-feather-macaroni >>

    Fascinating background history!

    Happy 4th, rje! I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your report, at last.

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    Again, great pictures. Aren't those stepping wells wonderful!
    On our last trip to India we brought along protein bars for times like you experienced. You are brave souls.

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    Rje -- I don't know where to begin in my continued awe of your report and photos! It's fascinating seeing images of places I've actually been, and appreciating your vision. I so love the photos of Jodhpur and, as I said earlier, regret not spending more time in the town itself.

    I understand the frustration of not having the "right" equipment for the job -- but oh, my, you do wonders with the camera equipment you do have! We've long since given up anything beyond a simple point-and-shoot, but there are times when the "shot" gets sacrificed. Sometimes I have to remind myself, though, to ENJOY a place by simply experiencing it, not for the photo that will result.

    So love the story of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel! It makes a great story -- do you think they alight have cameras up and film everyone who stays there? Your description of your experiences there would make great film clips added to part 3 of the movie! Could you just see the "real life" clips interspersed with the fictional movie?

    So many wonderful images! Like CaliNurse, I love the step well picture with the young woman in red. Really wonderful shot! I loved your scenic shots -- the reddish hue of the hills is amazing! And I loved the leopard shots -- I haven't (yet) gotten to Africa, so I can also appreciate the excitement of seeing the leopards in the wild.

    I don't want to go off-topic here, but I did want to say thank you and to annhig for your kind words about our need to postpone the planned trip for South India. Who knows, by the time we go, perhaps I'll be able to,add some more time.

    And thank you to CaliNurse for welcoming me back from Sicily! It's been a while now, but to answe dgunbug's first question, yes, I did write a trip report and there are photos, too. And to dgunbug's second question, no I'm not a pro- golfer! Never played in my life!

    Anyway, back to rje's wonderful report...

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    I'm catching up again... travel in India is always colorful. And if you are going to experience it, one has to bend some of one's travel rules. That was a good test of the Rifaximin - glad it came through for you!

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    annhig,
    "both the sublime and the ridiculous"
    That's a very nice way to put it! And so concise!

    dgunbug,
    We do look look back upon it fondly, but in a "shaking our heads" kind of way! Even as it happened we tried to have a sense of humor about it, which is so important while traveling, isn't it?
    Still, I don't want to turn people off to the "Marigold". If management makes the promised changes, it could be a good and inexpensive option for that area of Rajasthan.

    CaliNurse,
    I so agree about a bit of decay being left in an old place adding atmosphere. Some places are so renovated as to render them sterile. And I'm glad you like the step well shot, it is one of my favorites. That wall painting you mention of the woman with the red dress was in the ruins of the Prince's palace, located on the property (we never went into those concubine houses). But the really spectacular wall paintings were in Bundi, which I'll be able to show soon.

    thursdaysd,
    Staying a vegetarian there might have been a good idea! Although I continue to be surprised about what foods are less safe. I recently discovered that the belief that it is the mayonnaise in potato salad that gives so many people food poisoning when left in the heat is wrong, as the potato is just as likely to be the culprit. Same with the pasta in pasta salad.

    progol,
    You're so right about the experience being the most important part of travel. Not spending a trip seeing a culture through a viewfinder. And even worse, I just read about a man dying at Machu Picchu trying to get "the perfect photo", but instead falling to his death.

    Kathie,
    I can never be completely sure if it was the Rifaximin or just good luck. But since both C and I usually succumb to stomach problems on trips in Asia and Latin America without it, and since we ate so many "danger foods" for the entire 6 weeks, I am inclined to credit those pills for the lack of problems. Also, these were the Indian generic product, which was incredibly inexpensive. But I wouldn't have faith in the generic pills manufactured in a number of other Asian countries.

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    Can't help but both laugh and sigh at your experience while at the "marigold". Perhaps the experience was intentional as they wanted guests to have a real life experience as in the movie of pensioners with limited income who come to live in India..........Whatever the intended purpose, from the outside looking in, I felt your "pain". You have a gift with words~ thank you.

    The photos, again, are outstanding........you did not want to share photos of the inside of Marigold? just curious..........

    Your journal is truly experiential!

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    dragon88,

    Thanks so much!

    The reason why I didn't post photos of the inside of the Ravla Khempur Hotel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is because I didn't bother to take any!

    There were a few places I didn't take any photos of, either because we didn't have a lot of time, or energy, or because the rooms just didn't seem noteworthy. In the case of Ravla Khempur it was all of these reasons. Also, I didn't take pictures to show the negatives that I wrote about because they weren't things I was trying to document.

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    Thanks for your reply, RJE.......Yes, I get the feeling you were trying to emphasize the positive and not the negatives of India (which is a good thing!). It is so easy to be negative, but you do a great job keeping your readers focused on your journey and your experiences (good and not so good). I was more curious if the Marigold hotel was in reality what was shown in the movie.........but "curiosity kills the cat".......so I won't go there (ha ha).


    Looking forward to more of your experiences............

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    dragon88,
    I'm honestly not trying to write about only the positive aspects of the trip. There just weren't a lot of bad experiences to report. I don't know how much of that is because knowing India I planned the hell out of this trip and how much was good luck. But things went so smoothly. Not that there weren't some bad experiences (and since this TR is chronological, I'll be posting those soon!).

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    Bhainsrorgarh Fort

    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/albums/72157669572266240
    They show more if you make them large!



    When we told Ajay we were heading to Bhainsrorgarh Fort he asked me to send his regards to the family there, as they were his relatives. This happened a number of times on the trip, as this is one very big family!

    As we left we had some trepidation about what lay ahead, because Ajay had shaken his head and warned that the road to Bhainsrorgarh was really terrible. One of the staff overheard this and started laughing ruefully, agreeing about the abysmal state of that road. Now, we'd already been on some really dreadful roads in Rajasthan, so if they considered our next road worse than those, we were in for a tough time. Mainly for C, as bumpy roads are painful for her. Since Bikaner, I'd been asking Raj to take the smoothest route possible, even if it would take longer. But this time we had no practical options. And for a couple of hours the road was indeed so rough one might reasonably surmise that Raj had lost his mind and left the road to drive us across some rocky lunar landscape. It was merely uncomfortable for me, but I felt so bad for C who was in pain. We drove through more fertile countryside than we'd seen thus far in Rajasthan, with fields where large white poppies were being grown, and passed through numerous tiny villages which helped distract us with the many interesting sights, stopping a few times to photograph.

    Mercifully, the road finally smoothed out (for India!) and we began a long winding climb up a series of hills and through a forest populated by numerous troops of rhesus macaque monkeys who stared at us as we passed.

    We turned onto a divided highway, and after a while watched with shock as a truck barreled straight toward us, driving on the wrong side! As Raj veered to avoid him, he snorted "India", so it appears he held the driving style of some of his fellow countrymen in less than high regard!

    And then we spotted the Chambal River, and soon after began following a narrow street through town. It was so narrow we weren't sure if Raj would be able to navigate it in the big Innova, but soon we were at the tall stone gates of Bhainsrorgarh Fort.

    The Fort/hotel sits at the edge of a slate escarpment 200 feet above the Chambal River. It has been owned by the same family since 1741 and has been inhabited since the 2nd century BC. It has been described as "gently crumbling", which we found to be a good thing. The grounds have gardens colored with the orange-reds and pinks of bougainvillea and the small number of rooms keeps it intimate. Some rooms offer fantastic views from balconies hanging over the river and the landscape beyond.

    I had corresponded about which room would have good view but not too many stairs, and had settled on a corner room up one flight. But we discovered we preferred the room next door, and as this was vacant, we quickly switched. The room had a huge breezy balcony with spectacular views. It also had a table on that balcony where we would have our breakfasts and dinners by candlelight. As at Fort Begu, the food was truly excellent and varied.

    We woke up very early the next morning, as we had during much of the trip. The sunrise over the river through pearlescent fog was gorgeous, and a very good breakfast on our terrace followed.

    At this point in the trip we'd been traveling for a while and were feeling a little peaked, so we spent a lot of time relaxing in the gardens and balcony. We were offered a ride on a boat on the river, which we considered, but even that didn't end up luring us away from the charms and beauty of the fort. I did take several long walks exploring the winding narrow lanes of the town which lay outside the gates, and I liked it very much. The people were among the friendliest I'd encountered in India, which may be partially explained by how few tourists they'd had to endure!

    I'm afraid all this quiet enjoyment isn't gong to make for the most scintillating trip report segment for you, but for us it was a wonderful stay. On our second day after having left Fort Begu, Robert and Peter showed up and it turned out they'd be staying here, too. They were the only other guests we saw there, just as at Fort Begu. Our style of travel is similar, so I guess it wasn't surprising that we'd end up in a couple of the same places.

    One noteworthy occurrence started when I heard distant singing and chanting which kept getting louder, as if it was getting closer. Going to investigate, I found that a large group of women were entering the fort for part of a multi-day wedding celebration. Wearing saris of every hue, they made quite the colorful sight. I watched as they walked into a room where they sat on the floor, and was invited to photograph them there, which of course I did! As the wedding procession left the fort, I climbed on an embarkment and photographed them from above. Then I decided to take another walk in the village, and hearing sounds which wouldn't be out of character in a Hong Kong martial arts movie, I turned toward them to find a large group of teenage girls practicing just that outside a local school. Here again I was invited in to watch and take photos, but the strong sunlight wasn't conducive to good shots, so I probably won't post any of those. That sight, which I'd seen repeated several times during our trip made me think that perhaps some young women are finally beginning to be taught to be strong and proud in modern India, even in such small rural villages as this.

    (coming up next, Bundi and its extraordinary treasure of old wall paintings )

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    BTW, when I used the phrase "knowing India" a couple of posts back, I realized it might sound like I was claiming to possess some great knowledge of India. But I was really just trying to say that I know how quickly things can go bad during a trip to India, so I "planned the hell out of this trip" to try and avoid as many disasters as was humanly possible!

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    rje....Also, because "C's" first time to India and her mobility issue, I am sure drove you to do detailed planning as well. You are able to make lemonade out of what may have been lemons......You have a good outlook and that helps. Your sensitivity to nature and others come through in your photos and words....... no need to explain further............

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    Bundi and its treasure trove of gorgeous old wall paintings

    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/sets/72157670700053575
    They show more if you make them large!


    Exquisite. Astonishing. Superb. You could wear out your thesaurus trying to describe them. The paintings in the Chitrashala in Bundi are to my eye one of the most incredible collections in India. They brought me such joy but also resulted in frustration and even anger. But I am getting ahead of myself.

    We had left Bhainsrorgarh for Bundi after breakfast, happily knowing that the roads would now be smoother. After crossing the bridge over the crocodile-inhabited Chambal River, we soon passed through a small town where I saw a man, woman, and child in bright clothing sitting in front of a yellow wall, and asking Raj to stop, I burst out of the car and walked quickly down the road to photograph the scene. As soon as I finished, a man on a brightly decorated horse came galloping by, followed by a child on a similarly decorated horse. As I watched, an enormous cloud of flying gnats descended upon me from above. Immediately I began waving my arms about to get them off my face, making some men sitting on a wall watching burst into laughter at the plight of the silly tourist. But seconds later, they too were engulfed in the gnat swarm, and that certainly made their laughter stop! Ah, karma! I hightailed it it back to the car, emerging from the gnat-cloud mere feet away, where Raj and C stared at me curiously from inside the car while I did a little dance as I brushed myself and shook, trying to dislodge the many gnats crawling on me. It seemed to do the trick, as after an inspection by C I was determined to be in a state of gnat-lessness.

    A short time later, at Raj's suggestion, we stopped at a small lovely complex of 5 temples, which some nameless Indian bureaucrat has given the unimaginative name "5 Temples". They are not important with a capital "I", but make for a pleasant stop. You reach them after strolling a path through some thick trees where Langur monkeys watch you skeptically from above. You clearly have no food, so what good are you, anyway? Stupid human.

    We were the only non-simians there, and while admiring some carvings I noticed with amusement that a monkey was sitting with a bright red flag in such a way as to look as if he were holding it! The red flag held heroically on top of a small stone structure made it look like the monkeys had just been victorious taking a bastion, and were now lifting their flag high in celebration. ¡Viva la Revolución! I think that monkey must have been a guerrilla. I did manage to get a photo of that moment if you want to see it…

    I was looking forward to getting to Bundi, and we had a guide waiting for us. For some time I've wanted to see the famous old wall paintings of Bundi, located in a section of the Bundi palace called the Chitrashala. The palace and the fort are built into a steep hill right above Bundi, and the way up to the entrance is a very steep stone ramp with switchbacks. I really wanted to visit with C, but knew she would be unable to handle that steep climb, so I looked for ways to get her up there. I had written numerous emails, but everyone I contacted told me that cars, tuk tuk, carts, or palanquins are not allowed up the ramp. Not even wheelchairs are allowed, they said! I persevered and found a guide who had connections with the royal family, who still own the property, and he said he'd see what he could do. A couple of months went by, and then he wrote that he'd had success, and that the family would allow us to rent a jeep for the short drive, since a normal car wouldn't be able to make the steep bumpy climb safely. The secretary to the royal family would personally oversee this. He also apologized that when we arrived he'd be in Agra, attending to a sick relative, but that a very good guide would be his replacement if we were agreeable. He also told us that there would be a big multi-day Indian wedding during our stay and that we should make sure our rooms were secure, as the town would be filling up with wedding guests!

    When we arrived at our hotel, the replacement guide was waiting for us, and he told us he had some bad news. Due to the huge wedding, the royal families' secretary was far too busy to care about his promise of the jeep. I was very upset, as this was the only way C would be able to go. I immediately called the original guide, who was very surprised by this news, and told me he would try and take care of it from Agra, and that the jeep was already rented and waiting for us. But time went by, and the hotel owners warned us the secretary was unlikely to become involved this day. And our original guide was having no success dealing with a situation from far away. Meanwhile, precious time was ticking away. I talked to C, who said I should go without her. I didn't want to do that, but was comforted by her telling me that this meant more to me than to her, and I promised to take many photos to show her, which I did. I wouldn't have gone if I hadn't believed her, but to this day I still wish she could have come with me.

    We left right away, the guide leading the way and since our hotel was at the base of the hill right under the fort), it was only a few minutes before we were at start of the steep ramp. Have you noticed how many times I've used the word 'steep'? It was steep! I purchased some water before commencing the walk/climb, for which I'd be soon be very glad! The sprightly guide was in his 70s, but he zoomed right up the ramp, and not wanting to look the wimp, this 60ish tourist sped up to keep pace. After all, I'd been bike riding a lot before the trip for fitness training! But soon I realized I had to stop, and pretended to take a photo as I tried to hide my huffing and puffing! Then I realized I was being foolish, and just stopped whenever I needed to. And then we made a turn and the Hathi Pol (Elephant Gate) into the palace loomed above me!

    The inside of the palace is not to me as amazing as the exterior. It has some great elements, but overall the interior architecture is not the star attraction - the paintings are. But I still enjoyed seeing it. After entering the gates, we crossed a courtyard, followed by stairs to the Ratan Daulat (Hall of Public Audience), with a view down over the courtyard and a carved white marble throne. There were many carved elephants at the top of pillars as we went up more stairs. It is at this point that your tired and disoriented narrator lost track of how many stairs and passages we went through. Especially after we began to take short-cuts through meandering dark tunnels!

    On a higher floor we came to a garden which was surprisingly green and well-maintained for such a run-down palace, and which provided some beautiful views over the town of Bundi, with its many blue houses a-la-Jodhpur. The first couple of floors of wall paintings were in rooms that shockingly had been left open to the elements, and the result was exactly what you'd expect. What a crime to let such fine works of art fade and even disintegrate. Many had even been stolen off the walls, leaving obvious empty painted frames. But the beauty of the remaining paintings was still evident, and if only these had been seen, it would still have been impressive. But the best was yet to come.

    Climbing gingerly up a "secret" staircase in pitch darkness, the guide thumped loudly on a locked wooden trap door above him at the top of the stairs, and yelled something in Hindi. A muffled voice from above replied, and after what seemed like a long time (but I'm sure was really less than a minute) the door was unlocked by unseen hands and swung up on its hinges. We climbed out blinking into the Chitrashala - the main reason I had come to Bundi.

    It was overwhelming and intoxicating. So many fantastic paintings, dating back to the 1700s, the rooms being built starting in 1607. So complex and fascinating.There are scenes of Krishna, and Shiva, and Ganesh. Scenes of fantasy, scenes of history and scenes of everyday life. Krishna stealing the clothes of the Gopi girls as they swam nude in the river. (As an aside, writing this made me remember that the river the girls were swimming in is called Yamuna. And I had to smile, as we'd stayed in a villa in Bali where we had our own private pool, and the villa was named Yamuna. The Balinese owner must have a sense of humor!

    Other paintings showed a scene of Krishna lifting a huge wooded hill with one finger as a shield to protect villagers from an angry king. And a woman warning a carrier pigeon that the message it would be carrying is very important, so don't get eaten by a hawk! And a man riding a swimming horse across a lake to visit his love who is gazing down at his approach from a high tower, a-la-Rapunzel.

    Blues and greens and turquoise were the main colors used, with some gold accents added. The sublime delicacy of the brushwork is evident in the close-up photographs I took. There are many charming little details in the backgrounds, too, so each painting deserves a careful look. I posted a lot of photographs of the paintings in the Bundi album (link provided at the start of this section).

    Another stunningly beautiful room of art in Bundi Palace is the Badal Mahal (Cloud Palace). I read a wonderful description by a contemporary painter about her reaction to seeing the painted ceiling. She thought: this is Rajasthan’s Sistine Chapel! It is also described by others as having Chinese style elements. But somehow it makes me think of Marc Chagal!

    Finally I tore myself away reluctantly and said we should return to the hotel, as C was waiting in our room there. The guide was relieved to hear those words, as I discovered he needed to go change clothes so as to attend the wedding! So we bounded down the ramp, and at one point I almost bounded into the sky and down onto the ground, discovering that the worn old stones could be rather slippery!

    We had already checked in at our hotel earlier. The Haveli Braj Bhushanjee is one of the oldest (some say the oldest) hotels in Bundi. Run by brothers, it is perfectly located in the oldest section, directly beneath the fort/palace, and has excellent views of the lit fort at night. While waiting to see if we'd be able to use the jeep after all, we had talked to one of the brothers about all the intrigue and fighting over the palace, and how it was resulting in neglect, causing it to fall into terrible disrepair. With such treasures, I hope some happy conclusion can come to this situation soon.

    Our room was comfortable and clean and everything worked well. Not a destination hotel, but perfectly fine, and the owners and staff are all very friendly and knowledgable about Bundi. I couldn't rest long, though, as I'd asked Raj to pick us up. So off we went, to step wells, Rudyard Kipling's summer residence, and Nawal Sagar (the lake). And everywhere we went, we kept running into elements of that wedding! Elephants decked out in Rajasthani finery. A line of dancing girls in costumes hurrying down a street to a performance. Musicians carrying instruments.

    It was getting dark and we were getting hungry. We decided to break a long streak of Indian food with an Italian dinner from a well-regarded place called Morgan's. It is on the 4th floor, up many very steep and high stairs, so I ordered take-out and brought it back to C in the hotel. When in Bundi, be sure to sample the authentic local Indian dishes. We enjoyed exotic delicacies called pizza and Parmigiana di Melanzane! For desert we had a silly concoction called "Hello To The Queen", which turned out to be vanilla ice cream, fried bananas with crumble, fresh sliced sugared strawberries, and chocolate sauce. Absurd, but a nice change from the same 3 Indian desserts that most places serve.

    While I was ordering, the nice waiter asked me if I wanted him to put Bosco on the food. I thought it was for the desert, and although not usually a fan of the stuff, I almost said "OK, put some on the ice cream". That would have been a mistake. For instead of "Bosco", he was actually saying "Tabasco"! I'm imagining the look on C's face during her first bite of that dessert if I'd said 'yes'.

    After dinner we gazed up at the palace, glowing red in the lights at night. Earlier, in the section of this trip report about Jodhpur, I'd written about what Rudyard Kipling had said about the palace there.
    Well his quote about the palace in Bundi is even more startling:

    'the Palace of Bundi, even in broad daylight, is such a palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams - the work of goblins rather than of men.'

    It does have a slightly spooky beauty, clinging precariously on a cliff right over our hotel. Appropriately enough, at sunset bats fly out of the open windows in summer!

    After thinking about Bundi, and the paintings of the Chitrashala in particular, I've been comparing the situation there to that of Oplontis in Southern Italy. Both are under-visited. Many people don't even know about either one, so they go to other more publicized sites. In Italy, all the tourists go to Pompeii, even though most of the art there was moved to Naples long ago. Less people go to Herculaneum, even though it is better preserved and arguably a better experience than Pompeii. And almost no one goes to the incredible ancient villa of Oplontis, even though it is so close to the other two sites. The Bundi palace is also seldom visited, compared to other sites in India, even though it is one of the best for art lovers. As a result, at both Oplontis and the Bundi palace you can have it all to yourself much of the time (However, Oplontis is not neglected, receiving tender loving care from the Italian government).

    I had originally planned on 2 nights in Bundi. And that would have been nice, as the town has many wonderful quiet streets, and I'd have enjoyed walking them. In fact, there is an excellent chance that we'll return to Bundi. But as I finished planning the trip I thought C would want a bit of luxury at this point. So I'd cancelled the 2nd night in Bundi and splurged for a night at Devigarh, which would put us close to our next destination after that, Udaipur. So in the morning Raj picked us up, and off we went.

    (coming up next, Devigarh)

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    tripplanner001,
    Bundi is wonderful for any art lover. I wrote such a loooong post about it in case it might be helpful, as there isn't a widespread awareness about it.

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    Devigarh

    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/sets/72157670765386856
    They show more if you make them large!


    In the morning, after our breakfast, 2 cows came to our hotel, looking for theirs. They did this every morning. One of the hotel owners gave some chapati to C so she could feed them. Both cows stuck their heads through the front door and C enjoyed hand-feeding them. Very sweet cows!

    Then we hopped in our car to leave town, but a few blocks later we were stopped by much insistent waving of arms. At that moment the road had just been closed, as more elephants were coming through. Another celebration for that wedding! So we had to back up and drive through town to find another exit route. I could tell Raj was irked at having to maneuver the big Innova through the narrow labyrinth streets of Bundi, but we were actually enjoying one more chance to see the old town.

    I needed to go to an ATM, and as was frequently the case in India, it took more than one stop to find one that actually worked. But it is not just me:
    A third of India's ATMs are broken - CNN report
    http://money.cnn.com/2016/05/25/news/india-bank-atm-broken/

    We pondered stopping at Chittorgarh, but it was just one thing too many for us, so for this trip we settled for looking up at it from the road as we drove by. We did stop for lunch at a place that won the award for Worst food of our trip. Was it satirical intent that made the owners call it "Pratap Palace"? Picture the worst quality buffet you've ever seen and then reduce that quality by half. They even had Chow Mein! When we returned to the car, I said to Raj "That was… something". He replied "It is no palace!". No ill effects, though. Score another great victory for Rifaximin.
    Some of the recent Tripadvisor reviews are amusing:
    https://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g303888-d1486432-Reviews-Hotel_Pratap_Palace-Chittaurgarh_Rajasthan.html

    One more place to avoid might be the Exotica Marriage Garden. I snapped a photo of the sign as we drove by, because the name made us giggle, and just now Googled it out of curiosity. The actual Marriage Garden is just a sad patch of bare grass. Marriages make many people tear up with happiness, but this place might make them cry for other reasons. They do seem very proud of their parking lot, of which they provide a photo on their website.
    http://resortexotika.in/marriage_garden.php

    The road we were on to Devigarh was also the road to Udaipur. And as we got close to the turn for Udaipur, the traffic slowed to a crawl and then stopped completely. It was like Los Angeles at rush hour. Finally we reached our turnoff and the small wooded road we took was a pleasant change. Then a guardhouse appeared, and then through the gates to Devigarh.

    Shortly after I'd booked it, I noticed that it had just been sold to the company who owned RAAS in Jodhpur, so I asked in Jodphur if they could help us get "a nice room" and they not only did, but had us already checked in when we arrived, so that we didn't even have to produce our passports.

    Devigarh is well known, so I'll just say that it is very comfortable, very clean, and very pretty. Not the place to really get to know India, but a nice place to relax and recharge.

    Cyrilla had coined a word earlier in our trip to describe women of a certain style who we'd seen all over India - Lululemon-ites.
    I ran into one here, in a lovely quiet garden, shattering the peace as she complained loudly into her phone (set to speaker) about her yoga instructor.

    It took 2 separate elevators to get up to our modern room, which had lovely views of the Aravalli Hills and the greener landscape we'd entered as we drove south. Since this was just a rest stop for us, we did just that, exploring the hotel and then enjoying poolside lunch, a shower with great water pressure, and a pretty dinner setting, later followed by good sleep on an excellent mattress! No peas under this one! The food was OK, but nothing memorable, except for an entire entrée of very mushy-textured shrimp, which was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Thanks again, Rifaximin!

    At dawn I went out on a terrace to watch the sunrise beautifully rim-light the Aravalli Hills and looked up to see a flock of huge pterodactyls fly right over me. OK, not really, but if you look at my photo, you'll know what I mean!

    While booking I'd noticed that the next few days after our stay showed zero availability. Every room in the hotel was taken. The only reason I could think of was because of Valentine's Day being in a couple of days, as some countries do pick up holidays and traditions from others. But no, turns out it was another wedding! The family had booked the entire hotel for the wedding. I can only guess how expensive that must have been.

    After breakfast we saw a great deal of activity preparing for that wedding. Apparently, all the greenhouses in India had been emptied of flowers to decorate the events here. The seas were now devoid of caviar. The Mylar market had been cornered for the event. Wedding planners marched hither and yon, barking orders into cell phones. And a small army of workers were putting up a wall of huge speakers, and a DJ station was being assembled near the pool, which made me so happy we wouldn't be staying for this Hootenanny. We'd come here for a spot of peace and quiet, and having got it, made it out just in time.

    But before we left we wanted to enjoy lunch by the pool in peace. So I asked one of the wedding planners if she could possibly have her workers who were noisily hammering a stage next to where we were eating to wait just a half hour, so we could finish. She graciously agreed and had them work elsewhere until we finished eating. And then we skedaddled!

    When we checked out, I told them to have someone check how they were defrosting the shrimp, and they reasonably removed that charge for the bad entrée from our bill.

    While planning the trip I'd thought we'd release Raj when we arrived at Devigarh, and then take a taxi from Devigarh to Udaipur. But Nikhil from TGS suggested that we find out the taxi cost and let him know, as he would have Raj drive us for less. I did, and then Nikhil offered to provide the transfer at no charge, which was very nice of him and much appreciated. I hope Raj didn't mind sleeping one more night away from home, though! So after lunch, he picked us up, and we made it out the gate just in time to avoid an armada of trucks arriving with more wedding supplies.


    (coming up next, Udaipur)

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    Rick - I did as suggested and looked at the reviews of the Pratap Hotel - you certainly can't suggest that TA is fixing the reviews for that place, can you? Well worth avoiding by the looks of it.

    What was it with you and weddings? perhaps there is a special season for them and you were there at the wrong time. Still you got some great pics one way or another.

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    Hi rje, We used Devigarh as our chill out stop when we first arrived to get over the long trip from the west coast (click on my name to check out my trip report, including my epic plug for Rifaxamin before they lowered the price).

    Loved Devigarh, partly because we were upgraded to an insane 7-room suite and partly because got to know the people in Delwara, the adjoining town (ended up donating a new floor to the school...for $200). We were lucky that the lululemonites were absent, probably because we were traveling during the monsoon shoulder season - our fellow guests were Indians or fascinating European/Asian expats.

    The whole place for a wedding takes over the top to a new level. Was it a celeb? Do you have photos of the prep?

    annhig,
    Nice to see you here. Cuba prep proceeding nicely.

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    Rje - just back to reading along after a few days absence. Even with your down time, which was surely needed after so much traveling, your report in no way disappoints us and your breathtaking pictures of the Bhainsrorgarh fort and its surroundings makes me regret not having gotten there. Such a shame that your wife could not see the spectacular artwork in Bundi, especially since you had gone to such efforts to arrange things ahead of time. Each time I look at your pictures and read your report, I tell my husband that we will have to return to India one day. I wished that we had been in the Rajasthan area during wedding season and am enjoying seeing your pictures of the colorfully adorned elephants. I look forward to following along further on your journey. Such a delight!

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    annhig,
    Guess I should have warned people not to read those Tripadvisor reports right before dinner!

    There are seasons when weddings are more common, as well as days of the month when they are considered more auspicious. We actually do like being around Indian weddings at times, but sometimes they can just get in the way!

    Here's something startling - gold traders actually make money from betting on price increases for gold in India during preparations for the wedding season!


    crosscheck,
    Just been reading the first part of your very entertaining trip report. I'll post on it when I've finished reading it. But I don't want to run through it quickly because I'm really enjoying your sense of humor.

    Perhaps we both could get jobs as spokepeople for Rifaxamin. I usually try to avoid drugs and go natural, but it really worked perfectly for us. It is still very expensive here in NYC - $17.50 per pill! At that price it would have cost us $1800.00 for the trip, and our insurance wouldn't pay a penny! Instead, we bought enough pills for the entire trip for $18.00 in Kochi. That's 18 cents per pill! So I bought more at 19 cents a pill in Mumbai to save for our next Asian trip.

    I think Devigarh would be perfect as the place to ease into India. Beautiful and relaxed. And if I thought our room was nice, I can only imagine what your room looked like! Sounds like the off-season made a lot of things nicer, including the price! And your fellow guests sound more interesting than ours! We could see a bit of Delwara from our room, and if we'd stayed longer I would have liked to explore it. I didn't ask whose wedding it was and didn't take photos. To be honest, by the morning, we were already thinking ahead to Udaipur.

    dgunbug,
    Welcome back! And thank you! I do worry that you might not find enough to keep you occupied at Bhainsrorgarh fort, for as beautiful as it was, there wasn't a whole lot to do nearby. It seems more like a chill-out place. There is the boat ride on the river with potential crocodile sightings, the very sweet and untouristed local village, and a couple of small temples. I suppose Chittorgarh fort would be doable as a day trip from there, too. We weren't looking to do a lot at this point, so it was perfect for us. But I know you like to see a lot of things at each location.

    If we had a little more time and energy, we'd have attended one of the weddings. You'll think we're crazy, but we actually turned down an invitation to attend part of the big wedding in Bundi. Just a bit more than we could handle at that moment. But like you, India really got under our skin, and I already think of going back, so perhaps I can arrange for us to attend part of a wedding during our next trip!

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    Two more thoughts:

    I just noticed that Devigarh is now the RAAS Devigarh - That is an awesome chain, but sounds like a different vibe than when we were there in 2012.

    And, our original plan was to spend time in Bundi, but we had to cut it out before we added Varanasi and a road trip to Orchha. Now I feel as if I must go back.

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    rje - I'm SO glad that you got to Bundi -- it is fabulous, isn't it? Your photos are bringing back such wonderful and vivid memories of our visit -- hard to believe it's been over 3 years. I'm sorry to hear that after all that effort, C was unable to go with you - no wonder you got so mad.

    Bundi was such a standout - the colors of the paintings, the interior decorations - just amazing. And without crowds!! No tourist buses, no nothing!

    I'm amazed by the number of wedding processions that you saw -- we saw a handful, but no where near as many, and no painted elephants! I think they knew you were coming and brought them out just for you!

    This ride continues to be thrilling -- and I'm loving every word and photo of your report!

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    Rje - you know me well...had to laugh at your comment about being worried I would not find enough to do. We don't care to chill out on vacation, but we do like to walk through lovely villages filled with colorful and welcoming people. Think on our own trip we just spent too many days in the mountain region of Kerala which required too much driving and a redundancy in scenery. That along with being sick and disappointed in the backwaters of Kerala put a bit of a damper on our time there...but Tamil Nadu and now your trip report makes me yearn to return to India.

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    sartoric,
    I have a feeling you will go back!

    crosscheck,
    RAAS is offering some discounts for guests who book at their properties in both Jodhpur and Delwara.

    progol,
    Yes, Bundi was indeed fabulous! All that you wrote about it in your trip report was true!

    dgunbug,
    Well I would characterize the village as lovely and filled with colorful and welcoming people.

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    Udaipur

    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/sets/72157668192834183
    They show more if you make them large!


    Raj drove us as close as possible to our hotel, the Jagat Niwas Palace, and we said our farewells. He was a safe driver and a good companion. And throughout the trip, everything Nikhil had promised was delivered, so we'd recommend TGS highly.

    The Jagat Niwas is a big old haveli converted to a hotel, with a perfect location. It kinda rambles eccentrically around a central courtyard, and offers many different kinds of rooms, many of them with low prices. To give you an idea, our Pichola Suite was by far the most expensive type of room there, at $116 US per night, including all taxes and fees.

    Since it is very popular, I'd written many months before to reserve one on the ground floor, to help C. Those type of rooms have a large jharokha sticking out over the lake, which we found very pleasant. We enjoyed having breakfasts and some dinners sitting on the padded floor of that enclosed balcony, light streaming in from several tall windows, with diaphanous curtains wafting in the breeze. The entire floor of the jharokha was a kind of mattress, with an Indian print cloth cover and many comfy cushions. The bay windows gave us a wonderful view of the lake, which we loved seeing in all its moods. So many sights right outside our window. Fishermen throwing their nets from small boats to the left of us, women washing clothes at the Gangaur Ghats to the right of us, and cormorants plunging into the deep blue water under our window, diving for their own meals of small silvery fish. And oddly, we were the sight once when some tourists snapped photos of us sitting in that jharokha as they passed in their private tour boat!

    Since Lake Pichola would figure so prominently in our visit, I checked Indian newspaper websites several times during the months before our trip for news about the monsoon. I wanted to make sure it was a healthy rain that year, so that we would arrive to see a lovely lake, and not smelly mud flats!

    Speaking of the monsoon, I should mention and recommend a book called 'Chasing the Monsoon' by Alexander Frater.
    The author grew up in the New Hebrides where his missionary father told him about one of the rainiest spots on Earth, Cherrapunji, India, which during the monsoon season can get as much as 75 feet of rain. Years later, after a series of events, the author decides to follow the monsoon through India, and the results are humorous and unexpected.

    We went up on the roof to enjoy the sunset, which was right in front of us, across the lake. The view is sensational up there, with City Palace to the left and Lake Palace right out in front of us. As the sun sank low, a troop of langur Monkeys appeared on some rooftops near us, and with several babies, put on quite a show, leaping from rooftop to rooftop and humorously cavorting. Much more entertaining to us than to local residents, though.
    http://www.vice.com/read/monkeys-are-taking-over-india

    I wake the next morning and know today is Valentine's Day. So while C is taking a shower, I sneak out to the front desk and arrange for a special dinner to be served in our room. I also bring back some candles for mood! That night the moon may not have been full, but it was still big enough to bathe the lake and the two of us in its silvery glow. The candles provided the counterpoint of a warm glow, and dinner was very romantic, sitting in our cozy jharokha.

    We enjoyed Udaipur, and the lake was prettier than expected. When C needed a break from walking, she could relax with that wonderful view at our hotel while I roamed the ghats and little residential streets. One walk took me to a section of the lake where I could see a good view toward the palace, and I discovered that the hotel there contained the well-known restaurant Ambrai. I made a mental note to have us return there for dinner.

    I am grateful that we never found out what exactly the many signs we saw in Udaipur advertising "Octopussy Shows" were promising.

    I'd thought that with all the availability of western food in Udaipur, that by this late into the trip we'd be craving such dishes, but for the most part we were still happy eating almost all Indian dishes. One exception, though, were snacks of apple crumble pie from the German bakery a couple of blocks from our hotel! Walking back to our room with a couple of slices, I heard someone yell my name. Not expecting that to be for me, I kept walking, but heard "Rick" shouted out a second time. So I turned, and who do I see but Robert and Peter, yet again! Small world! We stand talking on the narrow street as tuk-tuks whiz by, missing us by inches, so I suggest that C would like to say hello, and we all go to chat at our hotel. The guys have just come from Dungarpur, where I'd been seriously thinking of going as a day trip from Udaipur. I was very interested in seeing the Juna Mahal. But Udaipur kept us so content that we stayed.

    I had some trepidation about visiting City Palace, with its many stairs, but we decided to give it a shot. I asked a guide outside if the elevator I'd heard about actually existed, and due to C's disability he was able to make special arrangements for us to use it, which made the whole thing doable. We were so delighted that we procured his services as a guide, and we ended up being so glad we'd come. Some really striking ornamentation! Perhaps the loveliest part is the Mor Chowk or Peacock square, covered in elaborate relief mosaics. They glisten in the sun, being made of thousands of pieces of colored glass of green, blue gold and silver.

    That elevator, by the way was built for the Maharana of Udaipur, who had become paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 20. He ruled his state of Mewar as a reformer for the next 20 years, and his title grew to be Major-General H.H. Maharajadhiraja Maharana Shri Sir Bhopal Singh Bahadur, Maharana of Udaipur!

    That night we had our dinner at Ambrai. We arrived at sunset, and in spite of having made our reservation just 15 minutes before, we were lucky enough to snag a table at lakeside, facing the palace. Now there is a saying about restaurants that the better the view (or the bigger the pepper mill), the worse the food, so by that measure the food should have been inedible. But it was actually pretty good. Still, the restaurant was more about view and ambiance. I was amused to notice we could see our hotel room from our table by the water's edge! Afterwards, a particularly madcap tuk-tuk ride across the narrow bridge and back to our hotel through dark crowded streets left me amazed that no calamity had resulted! Even for India, that had been excessive.

    We settled the bill that night, as we were going to get up hideously early for our flight to Mumbai. I listened to the sound of waves gently lapping outside our window, sure I wouldn't fall asleep for hours, and the next thing I knew our wakeup alarm was going off in the predawn darkness.

    (coming up next, Mumbai)

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    I'm glad you enjoyed Udiapur as much as we did. We also stayed at the Jagat Niwas Palace which we thought was lovely. The food at the rooftop restaurant was delicious, we thought even better than Ambria. Looking forward to your thoughts on Mumbai.

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    rje: so far Rick, your in-depth research and planning for this trip has lived up to the title of your TR..........Photos, as always are expressive of what you have experienced and felt to do with C.........just like a story book and a "romance novel". NICE! Looking forward to the last leg of your journey before heading home to reality......Thank you...........

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    Hmm...I'm going to have to get Mr. Crosscheck to read this - I want my special Valentines dinner, preferably in Udaipur!

    Ambrai could be the most popular tourist restaurant in India - I don't know anyone who has been to India who hasn't been there. For that reason, I thought it would be too gringoized, but I agree that the food was fine, though didn't live up to the ambience.

    And Udaipur wins the popularity contest for everyone's favorite Indian city...probably not just because of the lake and the palace, but because it's walkable and has a tad more western-style infrastructure than the others.

    Why didn't we read Chasing the Monsoon on our trip?

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    thursdaysd,
    Were you saying you didn't get to Udaipur? Or Bundi?
    Anyway, Jaisalmer was great too, so I can't fault your choice!

    tripplanner001.
    The lake does make for a nice ambiance. Especially as a change after the rest of parched Rajasthan! And very romantic, particularly with the all the sparkling reflections at night.

    annhig,
    Thanks, I will , but sadly our trip is nearly over!

    dgunbug ,
    Glad you enjoyed Niwas Palace too. And yes, the food at their rooftop restaurant was surprisingly good based on that formula about view quality VS food quality!

    dragon88 ,
    Regarding planning, sometimes I look at Youtube videos as a way to get a better sense of a place before deciding if I want to go there. Looking at photos can be misleading because they might be altered to make a location look better than it really is. Sometimes they're even cropped to leave the viewer unaware that right next to that beautiful hotel is something like a garbage dump!
    But luckily, most people don't have the resources to alter video. Also, most people make poor quality videos, so that I know it will probably look better than what I'm seeing!

    crosscheck,
    I think you're right, Udaipur was probably the most "tourist-friendly" city we saw in Rajasthan (Just ask Roger Moore!)
    Regarding the monsoons, I was stuck by how much many Indian people love that season, but understandable considering the temperatures that immediately precede it, coupled with the economic importance of the water.

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    Thanks for your most welcomed tip Rick on using Youtube videos for further research and verification. You are right about altered photos as there has been more than several occasions I've been surprised at the difference between the photos and the actual place...............("Buyer Beware"!).

    Your Udaipur photos and written experience was enticing. We skipped Udaipur in January due to time constraints. Chose to go to Nagaur instead and got as far as Jodhpur. Also, the talk of James Bond, etc was always the reason others said to go, but we thought the commercialism was not what we wanted. But, your photos show a different side. Next visit............

    Looking forward to reading about the end of your "waking dream journey".....................

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    rje,
    I continue to enjoy your trip report and photos and am transported back to my visit to Udaipur in 2013 (was it really so long ago?!). We also loved Udaipur and we, too, stayed in Jagat Niwas in a lovely room overlooking the lake but not, alas, the elegant Pichola suite that you so gloriously depicted in your photographs. The shots of sunset that you took are breathtakingly beautiful -- and remind me of my own visit; I have very fond memories of watching the sunset from the window seat of our room.

    We ate at the hotel and on your view/food ratio, I'd say it is very good to excellent. We both felt that the food for tourists were generally toned down a lot, and this was the case for the restaurant as well. But the view is outstanding.

    We had a guide on one of the days, Uma, that was a bit of a character. He told us more about his life (fascinating!) than about the sites, but his stories were wonderful. And he also took us to a restaurant that served only a vegetarian thali, and most of the people there were local businessmen. The food was great and the experience was very local - it was one of our favorite meals!

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    dragon88,
    This may sound obvious to some, but Google Earth can also be a helpful resource when information is desired about the relative location of destinations and the geography. In addition, the ground level panoramas can provide useful information. (Again, like if there is that garbage dump located next to a hotel!).

    But a big caveat is the driving times that Google Maps offers are pretty useless in a place with roads like India!

    progol,
    I'd forgotten that you wrote about staying at Jagat Niwas! I agree, it is a great place to stay in Udaipur! And I think any room there would be good, because as nice as having those lake views we enjoyed, one can get inexpensive rates for a non-lake view room and still enjoy the same fantastic views from 2 levels of public access areas, both also having their restaurant.

    Your thali experience with the locals sounds like a lot of fun. I really do enjoy a good thali! The place we ate at in Madurai sounds like a similar kind of place.

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    Mumbai

    Photos are here:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/129067489@N04/sets/72157668336787984
    They show more if you make them large!



    We found that when the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai really needs to apologize to a guest, they give you a bouquet of roses. Well, I'm sorry to report that we were given quite a few roses! More on that a little later, but first, it was time to leave Udaipur…

    ♫ "It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place except you and me." ♩♪

    Yes, long before our wake-up alarm went off, I actually woke up at that ungodly hour, my inner alarm clock going off seriously early. And yes, when I saw the time, that song did pop into my head. We didn't actually need to wake up until the slightly less ungodly hour of 4:15am. So I looked out the window at the lake 'til then, letting C sleep.

    We'd booked a taxi from the little travel agent office right outside Jagat Niwas, and the driver picked us up punctually at 5am to take us to the airport. Driving through the streets of Udaipur in the dark chilly morning I was surprised that the city streets were so deserted. Only occasionally would we see figures coming out of the thin morning mist, like ghosts. This drive really did seem like a waking dream, made more so by the fuzziness of my sleep-deprived brain!

    At the Udaipur airport, one of the guys at security decided to go shopping in my carry-on bag and confiscated a small lock from my carry-on bag that I'd previously carried with no problem on flights in India (as well as all over the world). <sigh>. This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened. In Panama, a security guy tried to take my toothbrush! Sometimes I think these guys see passenger's bags as their own self-serve shopping center. "Security risk" he declared when I asked him why he was taking my lock. Hope he's enjoying it…

    Many of the short flights in India are on prop planes, but being cautious, I'd searched for and found one of the few jets flying our Udaipur-Mumbai route. After the short Jet Airways flight landed, the sun began to rise, and we went off to find our driver to the Taj hotel in Mumbai. To make things easier for C I'd decided to spend a little more and get a Taj hotel driver to meet us at the airport. Not my style of traveling in the past, but I have to admit it was very nice, if a little over-the-top. Thet actually sent three Taj representatives to meet and greet us at the airport! They took our bags and showed us to our car, calling ahead presumably to alert the hotel to shine the gold fittings, because the famous RJE and C were on their way! The driver was wearing white gloves. As I said, a little over-the-top! But it was nice not to have to deal with the airport so early in the morning, and the driver was really excellent at smoothing out the stops and starts as he drove. And as per the cliché, you could have eaten off the floor of that car.

    Upon arriving at the Taj Mahal Palace and going through some serious hotel security, a representative greeted us in the lobby with the good (and surprising) news that out request for a very early check-in had been fulfilled, so we followed gratefully as he showed us up to our room.

    The Taj Mahal Palace has two separate buildings - the original historic Victorian building (the Palace Wing) as well as a newer more modern tower. Having had a fondness for the original building (in spite of never actually having visited) I splurged for an ocean view room in the that original building, which has a fun Victorian/Indian exterior and interior architecture. I justified the expense as thinking this would make a memorable last stop for our trip. I'd reserved for 3 nights, but at the time I booked, the hotel only had our class of room available for 2 nights, so we arrived thinking we'd have to move rooms on our last night. But surprisingly, the rep now was telling us that there would be no need to move after all! Another nice surprise. He asked if we would like a tray of complimentary tea sent up, and smiled when C asked if masala chai was possible. "Of course", he said, and it materialized a few minutes later, along with a plate of little cookies. Breakfast!

    The room was very comfortable, with a view of the ocean over the popular promenade and the iconic Gateway of India. In the water were many moored boats as well as countless seagulls.

    We went down to their outdoor restaurant, located in a covered columned arcade next to the swimming pool. We sat in oversized herringbone weave wicker chairs in this civilized and relaxing oasis, surrounded by many tropical plants and flowers, while right over the walls was the teeming chaos of Mumbai! The food and coffee, however were both disappointing and expensive. We had expected expensive, but not bad. After lunch we went for a walk outside the hotel in the Colaba area, and then headed for the pool, as we were tired from our very early start.

    For dinner, we decided to give the Taj food another chance at their Middle Eastern restaurant, Souk. I thought that Middle Eastern food was close enough to Indian food to give us a shot at being served a good dinner. Things started badly with a big music festival going on right below us at the Gateway of India, and the amplified bass was so loud that it thumped loudly against the windows of the restaurant making them shudder . And since we were seeking a relaxing dinner, we shuddered too! Then constant bright flashes of light began shooting in the window from their light show, making us feeling like we were being ambushed by paparazzi with flashbulbs.

    Trying to ignore the cacophony, I ordered a lamb tajine and C ordered a prawn tajine, along with appetizers. As usual in India, I asked for the food to be spicy, but not hot, and explained what I meant by this. The appetizers were fine, as expected, because after all, how difficult is it to make things like humous? Then the 2 tajines were brought to our table in traditional clay tajine pots, although I was pretty sure they had not been prepared traditionally, which would have meant burying them in the ground with hot coals for the entire day! But that's OK, I don't bury my tajines in New York City, either, and they still turn out very good, if I do say so myself!

    Our waiter opened the clay pots with a theatrical flourish and served us. And after that buildup, the tajines were almost tasteless. The texture was fine, as was the appearance of the food. But sadly, they had almost no flavor. I felt reluctant to have to mention this, as who wants unpleasantness when dining out? But we were being charged a lot for this poor meal, so when the waiter asked how it was, I was tactfully honest and told him, and asked if the chef could do anything at this point to increase the flavor. He left and came back with the chef. Now I am cringing, but the chef seemed genuine in his desire to improve the dish, so I thought maybe he felt constrained by management telling him to dumb it down for tourist palettes. So we discussed what might make it better, and I mentioned the spices I use when cooking my own Moroccan tajine - things like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, garlic, anise, etc.. I was really trying to be nice, and not sound like a jerk, and tried to be respectful to the chef.

    Then the waiter takes our food away, and the chef announces that he will make new tajines for us from scratch. I ask if that will be too much trouble, as I hate to put him through all that. But he smiles and says it will be his pleasure. Very impressive.

    So that makes it all the worse when the new dishes arrive still with little flavor, but instead with what we'd asked not to have - much more mouth-burning heat. It was as if all he did was just add hot chiles to what he had already made.

    So now we don't know what to do. And I see the chef is walking toward us with a big smile to get our reaction. I cringe but feel it is better to be honest. He is a professional, and these are prices that should bring quality. So I gingerly remind the chef and waiter that we'd asked that he not use hot chiles. But now our chile-heavy meals have too much heat for us to eat. And they still have almost no flavor. He now seems disinterested, and rather abruptly says "OK" and walks off. Maybe he is angry. I don't know how we could have handled the situation better, so if anyone has any thoughts, do let me know. We only have a few bites and tell the waiter we can't eat it because it is now too hot, and ask for the bill. The bill arrives and we are charged for the full amount. We leave the flashing lights and thumping bass and return to our room to find flashing lights and thumping bass there, too. <sigh>. It ends a bit after 10pm, which is a relief, so we are able to enjoy a comfortable night's sleep in the very fine bed.

    In the morning we are told we can't be admitted yet to the breakfast buffet, as it is too crowded, and the hostess asks us to stand outside and wait for about 15 minutes. I ask if there is chair where C can sit while we wait, as she is disabled. C is standing right in front of the hostess, leaning on a cane, so I'd have hoped she would have seen that and understood on her own, but maybe she is frazzled. There is no chair available, so we ask them to call us in our room when they have an table for us. As soon as we enter our room, the phone rings and we are called back down. When we arrive, a senior representative apologizes.

    When we get back to our room and shower, we find the drain is clogged, so that we are standing in non-draining water, so I call to have it fixed while we are out. Also, since I'm already calling, I mention a couple of other small items, like a burned out light bulb and a closet door that keeps popping open, so that the automatic light inside shines all night in our eyes. A supervisor calls back to offer his sincere apology.

    The breakfast is pretty good, and has a great deal of variety, as is often the case in these kinds of hotel restaurants.

    On the way back to our room I notice many framed photos of famous people who have stayed in the hotel over the years. Some of them are autographed. I am touched to see one of John Lennon with Yoko, standing barefoot on the hotel carpet, and take a photo of that photo.

    We decide to use one of the hotel cars instead of a cab for a little architectural tour, as it costs only a little more, and will be more comfortable. I show a list of buildings I've written down that I hope to see and are told it will be easy. So we drive around to see many of the famous old buildings, as well as an art deco area I'd found out about during research, as C is a big fan of the style. We hop in and out of the car whenever we want, while the driver waits for us. It is all fun and easy, and we even have the driver stop at a pharmacy for us to get a refill of Rifaximin to keep for our next Asian trip.

    We ask our driver to drop us at a restaurant called Britannia & Company in the Fort area. The owner is a charming Persian man named Rashid Kohinoor who comes around to each table to greet every customer, even though he is over 90 years old! The restaurant has been in his family since they opened it in1923 and his son is now the chef. We look at the menu, but are here specifically for a Parsi dish called berry pulav. It is so flavorful! Yum!

    The place is a hoot. There are many signs indicating the House Rules, but in contradiction it is a relaxed and friendly place. Mr. Kohinoor takes our order and then asks "What country are you from, England?". When we tell him the US, he holds up a "Ready For Hillary" bumper sticker! He then tells me that he is a big fan of Hillary, and shows us a letter he received from a man who worked in the US State Department. The man had an opportunity to tell then Secretary Clinton about Mr. Kohinoor, and she was delighted and asked that he be sent her warmest greetings and her photo. I ask if I can take Mr. Kohinoor's photo and he poses. I also take photos of the letter and the restaurant, as I am smitten with the quirky place.

    Here's a story about him and Britannia that I just found.
    http://travel.cnn.com/mumbai/eat/britannias-flying-food-489758/

    When we return to our hotel, a hotel employee wearing a uniform is standing on our floor outside the elevator and holds the door for us as we come out. Unnecessary, but seemingly thoughtful. Then he gestures toward C's cane, and then toward his mouth and makes a few sounds, indicating that he too is handicapped and cannot speak. Then he points to C's handbag, and holds out his hand for us to give him money. This is really odd, and I call the desk to ask if he really works here or is he a beggar who has gotten past security into the hotel. We are assured he does work for the hotel and receive an apology.

    For dinner we go to a place I've been hearing about for years, called Trishna. Very well-known and well-reviewed Indian seafood, and close to the hotel, which is a plus, what with the traffic in Mumbai. We order their enormous crabs, and our waiter ties appropriately humongous bibs around our necks. The crabs come in a butter and garlic sauce, and eating them is a hugely messy affair. The waiter returns several times to replace our napkins and even the utensils, as they all become soaked in butter and garlic! They even bring several changes of fresh finger bowls! Not an especially Indian choice of dishes, but great fun and very good!

    Shortly after we sit down, a middle-aged French couple arrives and sits in a booth to our left. The husband or boyfriend or sugar-daddy proceeds to obsessively photo-document every single second of their meal. Throughout their dinner, neither displays any joy or smiles at all. It is apparently to them a deadly serious business. He photographs the napkins being placed, the water being poured, the waiter bringing the menus. He asks in French for one of the live crabs to be brought to their table, and when the poor behemoth arrives, squirming with claws opening and closing, he tells his wife or girlfriend or mistress to stand and hold the giant crab, which she does, posing mirthlessly for more photos. They even manage to take photos while eating, their hands coated in melted butter (as presumably is his camera). I hope they enjoyed their dinner, as they never smiled and hardly even talked. Just chewed and took photos!

    We cab it back to the hotel and return to our room to find big copper pots sitting on the floor, filled with roses. There is a note from housekeeping explaining these are for foot soaks, and that there are also bath salts, and that we should call to have hot water brought to fill them. We really have no interest, so I call and thank housekeeping, but ask that they come get the pots. The woman sounds amazed and disappointed that we are not interested. Then she apologizes profusely. I assure her there is no need to apologize, and thank her again for the thoughtful offer.

    The next morning at breakfast, C asks if there are any more of the little ceramic pots of baked yogurt she'd enjoyed the morning before, and a very nice young woman comes to our table to apologize that they have run out. C tells her how good they were and the woman offers us the recipe, to make it at home. I tell her that C was so disappointed that they'd run out that she has been weeping, and the woman understanding that I am kidding smiles and replies sweetly to her "Can I get you a tissue?"

    As we are leaving the restaurant, the hostess apologizes again for yesterday morning, and presents C with more roses.

    We swim at the pool and then we have lunch at a restaurant just a few minute walk away from the hotel called Indigo. It has very good international-style food, is beautiful, and is both considerably less expensive than the Taj restaurants and much, much better.

    Later, I leave C comfortably ensconced on a lounge chair by the pool. My destination is the famous Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station (also known as Victoria Terminus). During our self-created architectural tour I'd photographed the outside, but now I want to photograph the inside of the station.

    Unfortunately the inside doesn't quite match the beauty of the outside anymore, having lost many of its original details. Also, the skylights that I'd imagined would let beams of light stream down had been painted over or were so covered in dirt to be almost opaque. So it is a dark place. But it is still very interesting, and I walked around photographing it. I had to restrain myself from yielding to the urge to just jump on one of the trains sitting with doors open and seeing where it would take me. Probably only to jail, as I had no ticket! I noticed the pictures of a woman's face painted on the women-only cars, which unfortunately still seem to be needed in India. It was getting to be rush hour, and I didn't want to leave C waiting any longer, so I headed back to the hotel.

    As I approach our room, I see a man and woman standing by our door, both wearing suits. As I get closer, the woman smiles and introduces herself as the Executive in charge of housekeeping. She apologizes for the man who had begged for money by the elevator the day before. She explains that he is in a special apprentice program, and that he had been talked to so that he'll never do that again. Then she hands me another bouquet of roses! I thank her for taking care of the matter. And for the roses!

    C looked up with surprise as I entered the room with the roses. A lessor man might have given her the roses and taken the credit, but I have the strength of ten men because my heart is pure, so I told her the truth. Besides, this newest chapter in the Rose Saga was too good a story not to tell her!

    But I hoped we wouldn't get any more apologies, as our room was beginning to look like a florist shop. I had to keep asking for more vases as the bouquets accumulated!

    We went to dinner at another Indian seafood restaurant I've been wanting to try for years. Equally famous as Trishna, Mahesh Lunch Home has been around forever, and is also fairly close to our hotel (I think there is more than one location). We stare at the menu, lost with all the choices, and after asking questions of the friendly waiter, decide on sharing several dishes. We get the fillet of Pomfret (a kind of fish) prepared as Pomfret Gassi. Not an appealing name, but the fish prepared in a coconut red sauce is absolutely scrumptious! We also have equally delicious prawns (huge) in a curry leaf sauce (different than a curry sauce), a dish of assorted vegetables, cooling vegetable raita, and of course paratha. This is one of the best dinners we have had in India! And quite inexpensive for the quality of the dishes, and for Mumbai. We leave two very happy people!

    Near the hotel we see large silver horse carts sitting waiting to give people rides. They are covered with flashing lights! Now I know I never saw these carts before, and it turns out they had to leave temporarily during the height of that music festival, which is finally just ending now. On our last night! Luckily, the music was only loud on our first night, when a giant wall of speakers aimed at our hotel was playing Indian hip-hop. Since then the program had been Indian classical and folk music, which didn't rattle our windows!

    The day before we were to leave, I stopped by the reception desk and asked for as late a check out as was possible, as we didn't want to arrive at the airport before 6pm for our 9:20pm flight to Abu Dhabi. The woman at reception said she was terribly sorry, but our room had other guests coming, so we'd have to leave at 12 noon, the normal check out time. I said that we didn't need to stay in our room, and if there was some other room that we could use for even a little while longer that I'd be very appreciative. She looked at her computer and told me sadly that every room in the hotel was booked. I said "Really, every room?". She said "Yes, every room ".

    I'm not normally a suspicious person. but something about her manner made me believe she was lying. Again, this is not like me, but I went online and found many rooms available for tomorrow at the hotel! Just to be sure, I called the international number for Taj and asked if any rooms were available for tomorrow. "Yes sir, we have a number of room categories available. May I help you select one now?"

    So now I am really annoyed. Why did she lie to me? So I told C I was considering talking to the manager and asked her if she thought it was advisable. She told me she wouldn't have the nerve to do that, but I said I wanted to, so off I went to the lobby.

    I went to an area away from the reception desk and asked to speak to a manager. Within moments a man introduced himself as a manager and asked me how he could help. I asked if we could sit down somewhere and talk for a minute. He replied very seriously that we could sit in some nearby chairs in the lobby.

    I told him what happened with my request for a late check out and that I was very surprised to have an employee of such a fine hotel actually… well… lie to me. I then told him there had been a number of other disappointing events during our stay, and mentioned some of them briefly, also saying that in most cases management had apologized. But I told him we were leaving in the morning and that I didn't want our last memory of the hotel to be such a bad one. He asked me to give him a minute, and went to the desk to check a computer. When he soon returned, he said that of course we could have our late check out. "In our same room?", I asked. "Of course.", he answered. "With wifi?" "Yes, no problem." But he clearly didn't want to mention the subject of my being lied to again, so I thanked him and went up to our room to tell C.

    The next day we took it easy, and swam in the pool. After our swim we decided to give the restaurant in the colonnade one more chance. We ordered 2 dishes that should have been easy for the kitchen. For C a simple mixed green salad with grilled chicken breast and for me the ubiquitous and easy to make chicken tikka. Her so-called mixed salad was just a partly wilted chunk of iceberg lettuce with some soggy tasteless chicken slices sitting naked and unloved on top. My chicken tikka was made with similarly poorly cooked chicken, the only flavor coming from what I could have sworn was Kraft BBQ sauce! What a shame the expensive food is so bad, because the setting is so pleasant.

    Back in our room we heard Indian drums and music coming from the street, and being curious, I went down to find…you guessed it… yet another Indian wedding celebration! So much fun! This one was headed for inside the Taj, so it was necessary for me to join the festively dressed wedding crowd to get back inside!

    Before we left for the airport, a big hawk landed on the window sill of our room. What a sight! Perhaps he arrived on behalf of all the other wonderful birds we'd seen and photographed in India and had come to wish us a safe flight home. And if anyone would know a bit about flying, he would.

    At the designated time, our complimentary car from Etihad picked us up in the lobby. So off we went to the Mumbai airport, where we headed for the new premium lounge. It has a lovely wall of live ferns and good food, so we had a light dinner. Our first of two Etihad flights was in business class to Abu Dhabi. After landing we snacked again in their extremely nice lounge, staying as long as possible before leaving to go through US customs … still in Abu Dhabi! The customs agent said "Welcome home", and we then went to the small post-customs lounge, located, in theory, in the United States.

    Our second flight, from Abu Dhabi to New York City left at 3:25am. Business class on the Etihad A380 is located on the top floor of the aircraft, and oddly we found it to be almost as comfortable as the Apartment we'd taken to India. It may have lacked some of the wow factor and the incredible amount of personal space, but the food and entertainment were just as good, and the lie-flat seat (as a bed) was actually more comfortable. I snacked and then went right to sleep. Woke up about 5 hours later and had dinner for breakfast! Watched the beautiful sunrise, with an odd crisscross of illuminated contrails from other jets as we neared JFK. Another complimentary Etihad car was waiting for us at the airport. Love that perk! And even though it was 9am, there was no NYC traffic on the ride home, as I'd booked our return flight to arrive on Saturday morning, to avoid the weekday rush hour. As we zipped along, I noticed how smooth these American roads were! Then we got home, and brushed our teeth, using tap water. Welcome home, indeed!

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    Sounds like a really good visit to Mumbai, aside from the hotel. I got some really badly prepared food at the Taj Gateway in Mangalore, and actually got sick off the food at the Taj Gateway in Coonoor. I would have thought the flagship Taj hotels would do better, but seems not.

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    I can't believe we are at the end of your trip -- I'm heartbroken that it's over! What an amazing trip, which was both wonderful to read and to see.

    The "apology roses" from the Taj Mahal Palace are a hoot -- I can only imagine your room, overflowing with vases of roses, and spilling out everywhere -- one wonders if they are actually trying to improve or just figure a couple of bouquets on a daily basis will make a not so good situation okay. But some of the situations you describe really are disheartening for a place that wants to cater to their guests -- lying about the room availability? Really? I'm glad you followed through on that and spoke with the manager; that's no way to treat a guest.

    "Welcome back", though I know it's been months now, and thank you for sharing your fabulous trip with us. I've enjoyed reading about places I've been to (so glad you loved Bundi!) and can't wait to get to some of the places in S. India, hopefully sooner than later, but it's at the top of the list.

    I may even just have to go back and re-read this, so I don't have serious withdrawals!

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    When we tell him the US, he holds up a "Ready For Hillary" bumper sticker! He then tells me that he is a big fan of Hillary, and shows us a letter he received from a man who worked in the US State Department. The man had an opportunity to tell then Secretary Clinton about Mr. Kohinoor, and she was delighted and asked that he be sent her warmest greetings and her photo>>

    do you think he has so thing similar for those who say they support Trump?

    thank you for telling us about your less than stellar experiences at the Taj - I can't believe [though of course I do] that they were so stupid as to lie to you about something that could be so easily checked on the internet. what a shame that their standards of service are so hit and miss.

    I too have loved being on the journey with you - thank you for all the wonderful photos and descriptions of your experiences. I will undoubtedly be back to read it all again if I ever manage to organise a trip to India as I would so like to do.

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    I too am saddened that this journey has ended and thank you for your beautifully worded report and evocative pictures that have inspired me to return to India some day. Sorry to hear of your disappointing experience at the Taj and the poor food. Our stay at the Taj President, not far away, was lovely for about 1/3 the price, although the staff there were unhelpful for tourists. The restaurants though, were excellent.

    So...where will your next journey take you? We are completing our India book, preparing for Japan and planning our second trip to China. Can't wait to follow along in the future.

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    THANK YOU RICK, for a great reading journey. I appreciate your effort to report back to all of us all your experiences. You have provided many useful insights and tips. I am glad your are "obsessed" with your planning. It will help me make better plans when I return........... Happy N.Y. summer..............

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    thursdaysd,
    Yes, we really like Mumbai.
    So between your bad food experiences at the Taj in Mangalore and the Taj in Coonoor, and our bad food experiences at the Taj in Madurai and the Taj in Mumbai, maybe one can stay at the hotels, but eat elsewhere!

    progol,
    Our experiences at two Taj properties were similar - wild swings between great service and embarrassingly bad service. I'd still stay at a Taj again, but with expectations reduced. And as for the food, well...

    And I'm so glad you enjoyed reading this! Or even that you finished it, as it was so long, and there were so many photos!

    annhig,
    Mr. Kohinoor only knew that we were from America, and couldn't know our political preferences, so when he pulled out his Hillary paraphernalia, I have no doubt that it was genuine!

    I do hope you get to India, as it is a wonderful country, but do plan carefully, as it is a place that rewards the planner!

    dgunbug,
    Sounds like we had an inverse experience from yours at the Taj in Colaba - stellar service for the most part (well, until periodically it wasn't!). But you were lucky that you liked the food, because we had bad food at both the Taj hotels we stayed at during this trip.

    After the last few trips, our next trips are deliberately involving less flights and shorter flights! So we're off to California and the Vancouver/Canadian Rockies soon, and then a few months later to a gorgeous and unspoiled section of Jamaica that we've been visiting for many years.

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    Hi dragon88!
    You surprised me by posting while I was writing my responses above! And thanks for all the kind words! If you find anything useful in the TR, I'm very glad! Happy summer to you!

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    Rick - Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies are spectacular. If you are going to Victoria during the summer time, try making it to Bouchard Gardens on a Saturday. Get there early enough to see the gardens late in the day and then at night with the wonderful light display. Afterward, stay for one of the best Disneylike firework display which are only on Saturday evenings. (At least years ago when we were there). It's a great world out there. So many wonderful things to see. Enjoy

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    Well rje, your inspiring photos and dialogue reminded me of the overwhelming assault to every sense that is India. I've spent a few weeks strategically raising the issue of holiday destination with "he who must be considered".
    Result ! I'm now early planning for a return to India in January 2017.

    No doubt your report will be a very useful resource. When I start a planning thread your input (like so many others on this forum) will be much appreciated !

    Thanks again :)

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    Glad to hear you're a man of pure heart, rje!!

    Having jumped ahead and read your last entries without first reading all previous ones, my dark side is revealed! (Reference: "When Harry Met Sally." If you know not whereof I speak, I'll quote the line in a future reply!)

    So many many funny, true, "only in India" stories! Like others here, I'll miss sharing your and C's journey. Thank you so much for taking what must have been an enormous amount of time with wonderfully descriptive narrative, commentary, and sorting photos, to give us all a fascinating insight into the waking dream.

    Yes! How good and easy it feels to again brush your teeth using tap water...or even drinking it without need for Rifampin! A belated welcome home to a NYC whose current temps, I hear, rival those of India's.

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    Great detailed report, the southern section very useful if and when we decide to go again.

    The Taj and Mumbai report brought back a lot of memories, especially the crows, we ate outside in the colonnade for breakfast and one would always sit on my chair, even posed for photos!

    We also went to Trishna, great food but full of business men as it was lunch time.

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    <<A belated welcome home to a NYC whose current temps, I hear, rival those of India's.>>

    LOL, CaliNurse! I shouldn't be laughing.... at a high of 97 degrees AND humid, I think these temps are higher than I felt when we visited.

    rje - I'm looking forward to your next trip report -- we loved Vancouver and would love to go to the Canadian Rockies. A TR (should you choose to do one!) and photos will be one more adventure to follow. I hope that the planning for the upcoming trip gets you through these dog days of summer, too!

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    dgunbug,
    Thanks for the suggestions!
    "So many wonderful things to see".
    So true. So many it makes choosing which to see hard (but fun!).

    sartoric,
    That's exciting! And January should be a great time to visit India. Keep in mind that the north will probably still have some fog, which can delay flights, and even trains, and it might be pretty cool in places. If you are going to the south as well as the north, I'd go to the south first, and then move north.

    CaliNurse,
    This line!
    "When I buy a new book, I read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends."

    And many thanks for coming along on this trip! And while it was a lot of writing, it almost wrote itself, as I remembered all that had happened. The photos took longer to go through and edit! I just saw that I've posted over 1600 new photos for this India trip alone! Yikes!

    Cyansiam,
    Interesting you experienced crows at the Taj during your trip. Since then they've installed a network of fine meshed lines hung high over the outdoor gardens, colonnade restaurant area and pool area to keep out birds. And only one got in while we were there, which was humorously chased by an outmaneuvered employee for some time.

    Outside we saw many sea gulls, pigeons and hawks, but not a single crow. Maybe all the crows thought the food at the Taj was as bad as we did, and were boycotting it!

    However, Kerala was crow central!

    progol,
    It is indeed very hot in New York City this week! I want a nickel for every time I hear or read the phrase "heat dome".

    But we got off easy compared to the midwest and the south! And I've been noticing how lucky we've been until this week, with milder temperatures than the rest of the country. Hope that trend returns soon!

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    Thank you, Rick, for a wonderful journey. You've helped provided me some additional glimpses of the complexity that is India. I truly enjoyed following along with you.

    And how about them crabs. We love crabs and had the largest and most delicious ones in Sri Lanka.

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    crosscheck,
    I really appreciate that, thank you so much!

    juliajane,
    To help answer, I need to know what airline are your frequent flyer miles from?

    tripplanner001,
    I'm so glad you enjoyed this.

    I wonder if we both had the same kind of crabs. Sri Lanka and Mumbai are both in the Indian Ocean, but they are located along the opposite coasts of India. So they might be the same, but species can change in surprisingly small distances. Either way, yes, they are good!

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    i have points through my visa (chase sphirre preferred and JP Morgan visa) that can be exchanged/transfered to many airlines including Etihad, Emirates, Singapore and others.

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    juliajane,
    Transferring miles to "buy" them directly from Etihad Guest will make the award tickets a fair amount more "expensive" than it was for me, as I got them through OneWorld. But it may still be worthwhile to you. And Etihad business on the A380 is great!

    The process is pretty self-explanatory. You'll need to find availability that works for you on the Etihad Guest page after clicking "Book redemption flights". The seats will need to be described as "Guest Business".

    Then you'll need to transfer the award miles from your Visa account to Etihad. You should check how long the transfer takes before doing it, because if the seats are snapped up before the transfer goes through, you probably won't be able to transfer them back (I don't know for sure, as I use Mastercard, not Visa).

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    juliajane,
    One more thing.
    Etihad flights from NY are currently an extremely hard award to get. But Etihad is going to add another A380 flight next year, doubling the amount of seats available. You should look into that when planning your trip dates if you want to fly Etihad from NY.

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    juliajane,

    And another strategy idea:

    If you have trouble getting Etihad tickets leaving from NYC, you could also leave from Washington, D.C. or Chicago.

    They also have flights from Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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    rje, When you were at Vivaana did you take all of your meals in the hotel. What was the price range of the menu? Booking for October and a bit concerned about the isolation and the "captive tourist" feeling. Thanks, spidermom

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    Hi spidermom,

    We were only at Vivaana for one night, passing through as we headed northwest from Jaipur. The night we were there was a buffet, which we had outside. It was very pleasant, with table seating on a grassy area, and fire pits burning. I don't remember the exact price, but I think it was around $10US each. The food was good, but not amazing. It was fresh and hot, so we didn't have qualms about it being a buffet. I think they do have à la carte most nights, but you might want to check with the hotel.

    As for your concern about feeling captive, there is nowhere else I know of to eat in the small village of Churi Ajitgarh. But Mandawa is a short drive away, assuming you have a car & driver (and you should for this part of Rajasthan). My memory is that the drive is about 15-20 minutes each way, and there are more places to eat there, including the large Mandawa Castle hotel. We didn't eat there, so I can't give you an opinion.

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    Hi rje, We have booked the Vivaana for two nights and will spend the full day touring with the guide you used. He is available on the day we need. We do have a car and driver so can search out food as needed although it sounds like the Vivaana food is more than adequate. I have also enjoyed your restaurant reviews of Mumbai. We will be in the same area although not at the Taj so they will be close to our hotel. Thanks for your advice.

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    jmgorga,

    Two nights at Vivaana sounds just right. If stairs are no problem, some of the rooms on the 2nd floor are pretty remarkable. But we still loved our room on the 1st floor, even if it did have fewer frescoes.

    And I think you'll be happy with Shekhar. He is interesting, informative, and reliable.

    And since I know you're unsure about Indian food, when in Mumbai you'll have the option of a lot of western and International cuisine. We love Indian food, but over 6 weeks we enjoyed some other options sometimes, too. Have a great trip!

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    Hello rje:

    I know I am late to the party, but I just read this trip report from top to tail until late last night. How wonderful, and the photos are stunning. Thank you so much!

    I was planning a trip to India for Nov/Dec 2016, but sickness in family caused me to cease my planning. I am now starting to plan again for Nov/Dec 2017. Your report is very helpful, as most of the places I want to visit in Southern India are covered in your trip report.

    Best regards .. Ger

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