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Trip Report Bruce and Marija go to India

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Our trip was from 26 January to 20 February 2008. We visited Delhi (Imperial Hotel), Varanasi (Taj Ganges), Khajuraho (Taj Chandela), Bandhavgarh (Mahua Kothi), Agra (Oberoi Amarvilas), Jaipur (Taj Rambagh Palace), Jodhpur, (Taj Hari Mahal) Jaisalmer (Fort Rajwada), Udaipur (Oberoi Udaivilas) and Aurangabad (Taj Residency).

I had read so many trip reports and books that I felt prepared for what we would encounter when we landed in Delhi: the smell of smoke, the onrush of porters, traffic beyond description. And indeed when we disembarked the anticipated smoky aroma surrounded us. We made our way to baggage pickup on the remote chance that the one almost empty piece of luggage that we checked on British Airways from Chicago would have found its way to Delhi. (We took carryons which contained everything we needed. The empty suitcase was for treasures we might pick up along the way.) When our suitcase didn’t appear on the baggage carousel I remembered that business class luggage might be elsewhere and indeed our suitcase was resting comfortably in a separate pile.

We loaded the luggage on a trolley since the promised onslaught of porters didn’t appear. Were they all sleeping at 2 AM on a Monday morning?! Our travel agent, yatrik.com (thanks Boston Harbor for a great recommendation!) told us to turn left when we exit the airport to meet our transport to the hotel. Most airports in India now seem to severely restrict entry into the airport so all guides were found outside airport gates. It was a great relief to see our names on a placard. Despite careful checking there’s always the fear that we were victims of a well orchestrated travel hoax…

Now we were ready for the Delhi traffic. But disappointingly there was none. In a mere 20 minutes we were seated in the grand lobby of the Imperial Hotel, having been decorated with garlands. At 3:00 in the morning not only are the roads empty so is the hotel lobby. Our guide assured us he had checked with the hotel prior to our arrival and all was well. He took our passports and went to execute the formalities. When he returned he turned over all of the trip documents, hotel and service vouchers, e-tickets, as well as small gifts from the travel company. Although we were not at our most alert at this hour of the morning after several long flights, we were willing to accept that the documents were in order so we could finally fall into bed. All that remained was for us to be shown to our room.

We waited for the keys. And then we waited some more. Finally I pried myself from the couch to see what the matter was. It did not look good. The guide was standing at the front desk speaking into a phone while a hotel man stared at him. Then they both came to explain the unfortunate situation: there was no room. Supposedly French president Sarkozy’s accomplices had failed to leave the hotel as scheduled after his Republic Day visit (without his then girlfriend now wife). We had been given the well documented Imperial Hotel shaft. Instead of screaming we started to laugh since several days earlier, when reading the New York Times story of the visit, we had predicted that Sarkozy’s visit would swallow our hotel room. The night manager embarked on his well practiced apology and plan. They would send us to another five star hotel, pick us up in the morning, upgrade us to a suite for the remaining two nights and give us dinner at the Spice Route. We were at their mercy since even pitching a fit in the completely empty lobby would serve no purpose. A fit without an audience loses its impact…

Off we went to the nearby Park Hotel with assurances that the Imperial would pick us up as soon as we called in the morning. The Park Hotel lobby did not impress. Neither did our room. Bruce slept for a couple of hours, I lay awake wondering whether this was the beginning of a disastrous trip. At 7 we called the Imperial and their driver quickly whisked us to the Imperial where we were taken to a lovely suite with windows facing the garden. After a shower we had a great breakfast, wandered the hotel, walked down to the Cottage Emporium and then relaxed until our Delhi guide arrived.

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    So did I on my first visit. Got a ground floor room overlooking the "contractor's lounge" where the workmen smoked, gossiped loudly and watered the flowers (in an organic method...) After 5 minutes, we asked for another and it took nearly two hours to get led to the new one. Luckily, we went to the lunch buffet for most of the two hours, rather than waiting in the room as instructed.

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    We met our guide in the now crowded Imperial lobby which had not only tour groups assembling but also tables set up for displaying and selling handicrafts. Despite the large number of people milling about, our tour guides always seemed to recognize us. (We were told that they pass client descriptions from one to another to aid in identification.) We’re both tall and Bruce has a beard so that was probably enough to set us apart. Prior to arriving in India we didn’t know that we would have the same driver for many parts of the trip. Since we were usually flying between cities, I assumed we would be using different local drivers and guides at each of the destinations. In fact our driver was with us in Delhi and then picked us up from the train station in Agra, drove us to Jaipur, met us at the airport in Jodhpur and then stayed with us in Udaipur. He didn’t do the Varanasi/Khajuraho/Bandhavgarh and Jaisalmer segments.

    Although we had seen some real Delhi traffic when we walked across to Cottage Industries and the nearby Citibank, we were unprepared for the sensory onslaught that awaited us when we set out in the car: pure pandemonium, with cows, beggars, elephants, rickshaws and dogs thrown in. This is the Delhi we’ve been waiting to experience. I am stunned trying to decide whether I should attempt photos or video. Bruce just stares unbelieving. (What leaves us really mystified is the repeated claims we hear that there really is a “system” to all that’s going on!) At some point we reach the huge old mosque, Jama Masjid. I have no idea how look it took since tracking time was a waste of energy that could be spent watching some unbelievable event on the road. We climbed the stairs and wanted to enter the courtyard but it was off limits since prayers were being said. The guide said we would return.

    At the foot of the stairs the guide hired a cycle-rickshaw to take us on a ride through the heart of Old Delhi--Chandni Chowk. Bruce and I were seated in one rickshaw, the guide in another. This was truly a ride of a lifetime. I wonder if we’ll ever experience such a throng of people, merchandise, equipment and sounds and smells again. Unfortunately our rickshaw traveled as fast as conditions allowed and we didn’t have a chance to actually get out . We had to be satisfied with a drive through. Perhaps it was just as well since it’s possible we would have never emerged from the great jumble. Contrary to one’s initial impression, the great jumble of Old Delhi is by no means a slum. It’s a thriving market, where middle-class Indians from the greater Delhi area come to shop for the merchandise (a huge variety of things, from bridal saris and other clothing to bulk paper products and food) that is offered in the tiny stores on the incredibly congested streets of Old Delhi. Our guide assured us that those tiny stores were quite valuable real estate. Certainly we saw prosperous-looking Indians in some of the other rickshaws around us, apparently on shopping trips.

    The guide didn’t offer a return to the mosque but instead set off to Gandhi’s cremation site, which was closed in preparation for some anniversary celebration. We then made a quick stop at India Gate, and then the guide decided that we had had enough for the day. Our guide appeared very knowledgeable but not very interested in showing us around. He informed us that he is usually the guide for large groups of French tourists. (I interpreted that to mean that he’s used to tips from large groups and the two of us aren‘t really worth his time and effort.) I asked if we could stop at Fab India so I could pick up some clothes for the trip. He said it was too far away and we would stop the next day. I even showed him the address for the location near Connaught Place but he dismissed it as an inferior branch. So after a couple of hours we were back at the hotel determined to keep busy and not fall asleep.

    Bruce is a historian of astronomy so Sawai Jai Singh II’s Jantar Mantar observatories from the 17th century were high on his list of sights to see. We decided to set out on foot to the one in Delhi which was located quite close to the hotel. Despite the siren calls of rickshaw drivers, merchants and assorted touts we found our way and spent the afternoon photographing and examining the incredible instruments. It was early evening when we successfully returned to the Imperial.

    Our dinner reservations were at the Indian restaurant, Daniel’s, at the Imperial. We were saving our free Spice Route dinner for when we’re more acclimated to the new surroundings and hopefully at our most hungry. We ordered two thalis, one veg and one non-veg. Although we managed to eat them, that was WAY too much food. From then on we shared a single thali if we wanted one, sometimes augmenting it with an extra dish. It was at this first dinner that we had to come to terms with the fact that even barely-drinkable Indian wine is very expensive. Production is limited and the taxes outrageous. But we just couldn’t break our wine habit and continued throughout the trip to support the Indian wine growers.
    Digression on Indian wines: “Sula rouge,” a cabernet-shiraz blend, starts out like a modest but drinkable red, but by the end of the meal it gets pretty bad. Grover’s Shiraz starts a little better but fades just as quickly. The sparkling Sula, called “Sula Brut,” is OK, as is “Madame de Pompadour,” billed as Indian champagne. These two resemble Italian prosecco but cost way, way more. We tried to think of the prices as a tourist tax.

    Besides lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and preventing Alzheimers, the wine helped us fall quickly asleep.

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    enjoying your tale...i would have sacked that guide quite quickly...i hope you reported him to your agency...he should also have know about the closing and the prayer times...

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    Sorry about the guide, but you seem to have done fine on your own. India is a fantastic experience isn't it?

    I never tried wine in India - in Asia I drink beer, even though at home it disagrees with me! I can enjoy Kingfisher in India, but not here. I wonder if the formula is different?

    Looking forward to more.

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    After a great buffet breakfast at the Imperial (we even drank the juice), we set off for the continuation of our Delhi tour. We decided to be more assertive today about what we wanted to do. Although we were going to see the forts in Agra, Jaipur and Jodhpur, Bruce wanted to see the Red Fort in Delhi and the astrolabes in the Mumtaz Mahal Museum in the fort. That was our first stop. I have to admit I wasn’t at all sure that I‘d be particularly interested in all of the forts that we were going to see on this trip. I mistakenly thought they would be old fortifications like those we’ve seen in Europe. Fortunately I was wrong again. The forts are so much more--they were the center of activity for large numbers of people. Although there are defensive components, the forts contain incredibly beautiful rooms where rulers held public audiences, private audiences, and galas, where they sequestered concubines, prayed, and engaged in all sorts of other regal activities. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to spend a large part of the trip feigning interest in cannon remnants!

    Security is tight at all of the public buildings in India and we were patted down and our bags searched wherever we went. Since we got to the Red Fort early the lines were short and the fort not crowded. Our guide gave excellent explanations of what we were seeing: not too much and not too little. We agreed that we were better off having an unenthusiastic competent guide than a jolly good fellow who didn’t know what he was talking about. When we left the fort the security lines stretched quite a way.

    Since we didn’t get to go inside the Jama Masjid mosque yesterday we asked to return. Prayers were not in progress so we wandered the lovely courtyard and admired the views of the Red Fort. Our travel agent had given us several sets of “temple shoes.” You wear these over your socks when you have to remove shoes for entry into religious sites. I wore them a couple of times and then decided they were more trouble than they were worth since they wouldn’t stay of my feet. Bruce diligently used them whenever he could find them in his many-pocketed safari trousers.

    The next stop was Humayun’s tomb, the first garden tomb in India, the resting place for 16th century Mughal Emperor Humayun as well as many other relatives and associates. It’s said to have been one of the inspirations for the Taj Mahal. The peacefulness and splendor of this monument was a welcome contrast from the streets of Delhi. Afterwards the guide did take us to FabIndia where I bought a couple of short kurtas (cotton blouses) and pants. I wore the blouses throughout the trip, although I didn’t wear the brightly patterned pants since they seemed out of place once we left Delhi. For lunch we went to a Sheraton where we met one of the owners of yatrik.com. He indicated that their primary focus is arranging trips for clients of tour companies in South America and to a lesser extent the USA. That explained why I couldn’t find much information about them online and why the references they supplied were South American tour operators. They did an excellent job for us. Everything was flawless. They gave us a prepaid cell phone which we could use to contact them if necessary. They also called every 3 or 4 days to make sure we were happy. And we were.

    After a rather bland buffet we headed off for the Nehru Planetarium, another destination selected by Bruce. It was quite a ways from the Sheraton which gave us a great excuse for staying on the Delhi roads. (Even after four weeks in India I haven’t lost my fascination with Indian roads. Riding on Indian roads was one of the most interesting parts of the trip for me.) Unless you work in a planetarium you can skip the Nehru Planetarium. It’s probably the case that even if you do work in a planetarium you can give it a pass. There are elementary displays of the solar system, the capsule that took up the first Indian astronaut (complete with a mannequin of the astronaut), photos of the first Indian astronaut in NASA. Outside stands an early Indo-Soviet rocket booster.

    Once we returned to the hotel Bruce grew concerned that he didn’t have enough warm clothes for our tiger viewing excursion. He wanted a sweatshirt to go under the many layers of fleece he had packed. (Delhi was experiencing a very unusual cold wave which added to his angst.) So we set off for Connaught Place in search of warm weather gear. There were numerous stands with sweaters but he didn’t want a sweater, he wanted a sweatshirt. We pushed our way through the throngs and found ourselves in front of a Benetton. Alleluiah! Although I was disappointed that I couldn’t hone my bargaining skills, it was a relief to enter a more or less orderly store and just buy a sweatshirt. We contentedly weaved our way back to the hotel and spaced out before setting out for dinner at the Spice Route.

    Since our dinner was “on the house” we did seek out some of the more expensive dishes, one of which was a delicious lobster preparation. The couple seated next to us was from Denmark. They had lived in Delhi for quite a few years while working on some health related programs for the Danish government and were back for one of many subsequent visits. We enjoyed their stories about their days in Delhi but remained unbelieving as they assured us that traffic progressed following well understood rules. When discussing beggars, the woman recommended that we only give to old women because if they were begging they had real need. To minimize crowds forming, she said to give rupees to the last woman lined up in front of a temple. When convenient that’s what we did.

    As we were finishing dinner we were joined by the sales manager of the Imperial. We had asked our travel agent whether we would have to pay for the night when we didn’t stay at the Imperial and he said he would discuss it with the hotel and let us know. The sales manager came to tell us that they would not comp us the night we were booted out. I had read that it was customary for a hotel to pay for the substitute lodgings and not charge for the night spent elsewhere, especially when it wasn’t a comparable hotel. We discussed this much too long with the sales manager not changing his position. There came a point when further discussion was pointless so we just gave it up. Life’s too short to get worked up about such details.

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    i would followup with a letter to the hotel general manager....you should have been given something more than a dinner at spice route...

    how was the dinner....we found our dinner there to only be so so...

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    I am enjoying your report. Our reservation at the Imperial was also not honored due to the unscheduled presence of some government official. We also stayed at the Park one night before being upgraded to a suite and being comped at the Spice Route. We did not ask nor were we given a refund for the first night.

    Sounds like you were able to "train" your guide.

    I think the biggest problem with any wines, Indian or otherwise is that they don't pair well with Indian food. I stick to beer - Kingfisher is very acceptable.

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    We were dropped off early for our Jet Air flight to Varanasi (aka Benares, aka Kashi). Only passengers are allowed in the departure terminal so we had to fend for ourselves. The first problem was the large sign indicating that each passenger is allowed only one piece of carry-on. I had a purse and a computer while Bruce had a camera bag and a small bag of “essentials.” The first thought was to cram the extra bags into the luggage but the large number of people swirling around made opening and rearranging luggage an unappealing prospect. Before I could ponder the matter further our bags were being hoisted on a screening device by a porter. The procedure in all of the Indian airports we were in was the same: have the checked baggage screened before proceeding to the check-in counter; turn in the checked baggage and get a boarding card at the carrier’s check in counter; affix special tags to all carry-ons and then have those screened as you undergo a body check; have the special tag and your boarding pass stamped to indicate that you’ve passed inspection. Make sure the carry-on tag is stamped and doesn’t fall off since it is repeatedly checked. (The one carry-on rule was not enforced anywhere we went, though the signs were everywhere.)

    Although we’ve never had problems with it before in Africa or Europe, our box with all the charging devices and power cables, which was in checked luggage, aroused suspicions in all of the Indian airports and necessitated opening the luggage for closer inspection. At one point I had packed our computer into checked luggage and was told to remove it and carry it on. The airport in Jaisalmer, until recently a purely military site, was incredibly thorough in examination of all carry-ons: batteries were confiscated and every single item in carry-on was scoured and discussed at great length. “These are food, granola bars, you eat them,” we explained.

    Since we had a long wait in the Delhi airport we had opportunity to visit the bathrooms. I was amazed at the good condition of the ladies restroom. I gladly turned over my 10 rupees to the attendant. The flight was uneventful and efficient; they even served a meal, which we cautiously declined, and in an hour we landed in Varanasi where we were dutifully met by a driver and greeter.

    The road to our hotel, the Taj Ganges, was everything a rural Indian road should be: total chaos. I really didn’t want to stay at the Taj Ganges, I wanted to stay right on the Ganges but I was afraid. I read the reviews of the hotels on the Ganges and there was always something that concerned me: bugs everywhere, bad foods, smells… The Taj Ganges was the cowards’ choice but it was safe, although far from the riverfront action. Our assigned room was OK; brief power blackouts were frequent, but the food in the main dining room was quite good.

    Mark Twain wrote, "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” That’s many times better than anything I can come up with. It’s not a place you describe, it’s a place you experience. Since one of the Jantar Mantar observatories is in Varanasi that was our first stop. The walk to the observatory was intense: dense crowds of people on the “street” and most of them wanted something from us. We were too timid to even attempt photography though there so many superb photos in waiting. (That was a problem we had everywhere. So many great photo ops but no convenient way to stop and take them. India is indeed the land of a million missed shots. )

    The observatory, which is above the main ghat, has certainly seen better days. We weren’t even allowed to visit it alone since it’s inhabited by fierce monkeys. A stick wielding custodian accompanied us. Bruce took the requisite photos. I was terrified that the monkeys would attack and we would get some obscure disease and have to be hospitalized indefinitely in some remote hospital. Fortunately we escaped unharmed.

    Next up was a boat ride on the Ganges. Since it was very cold I neglected to take the insect repellant from our stash in the hotel room. Bad move. Mosquitoes on the Ganges are always on duty, unaffected by temperature. The boat trip was amazing, especially near the ghats where cremations were taking place. We had been advised not to take photographs when our boat was even with the “burning ghats,” so we didn’t. We could identify the oldest sons with shaved heads and white clothing, lighting the funeral pyres. We floated peacefully, ensuring that the malaria transmitting mossies had a good shot at us.

    The finale for our first night was the “good night Ganges” ceremony, the Aarti. We had elevated ringside seats overlooking the very elaborate ritual. It’s something you want to see once, probably not more. Five or so priests conduct a ritual that involves a lot of chanting, incense and fire. Several times our guide suggested that we may have had enough but we weren’t willing to leave and saw it to its end. It was a long walk back to the car, since the main road is closed to traffic in the evening but, as all walks we took in India, it was jam packed with action.

    We had an excellent dinner at the hotel. All of the Taj hotels we stayed at had really good Indian food and it was an added bonus that the menus were not the same for all of the hotels but they incorporated regional specialties. There was entertainment taking place as well but we were much too focused on the fine food to pay much attention.

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    Marija-I am enjoying your report. Having just returned from India, I am reliving part of the trip through your commentary. I had the same trouble as you regarding taking photographs. The streets are so crowded that it is impossible to see the good shot let alone stop and take it. We resorted to hiring rickshaws in most of the crowded places, and took our photos during the ride. They are sometimes not totally clear, but in many instances they are. And anyway, it is a remebrance I would not have had otherwise, because there was no better way to get that shot. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening ceremony at the Ganges. We rickshawed back to the main road instead of walking. I am glad we went to the Ganges the night we arrived in Varanasi because the next morning during our sunrise boat ride it was so foggy we could hardly see any thing.

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    Hi Marija, I too am really enjoying your report!

    I'm especially interest in your comments, and those of Shelley, regarding photography. Was it mainly the problem of being jostled in the crowded streets and being in a moving vehicle? Or was there a fear of having your camera equipment grabbed, and/or people not wanting their pictures taken?

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    Our problem with taking photos was that we were so often in moving vehicles. When we were on foot we were hesitant to take photos of people without permission. Many people asked for 10 rupees for a photo-op. That's obviously not a problem but the next thing you know you have a large number of people wanting to get in on the action. We were never concerned about having equipment taken. We do have a LOT of photos of temples and forts!

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    My problem with taking photos had more to do with being jostled. The streets in the cities are unbelieveably crowded at times, so much so that it is impossible to get a street scene from the midst of the crowds. Hence, the need for a rickshaw to be above the crowds. We never felt that we were in jeopardy of having our camera equipment grabbed.

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    Our second day in Varanasi started with the usual sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. Again we floated down the river gawking at bathers, worshippers, cremators, flower purveyors and clothes washers, among others, while the guide rattled on about the miraculous purity of the obviously filthy river. Our guide suggested we buy a floating cup with a marigold and candle and release it in the water so, ever compliant, we did, relieved that we didn’t accidentally immerse ourselves while trying to set it free. I was well prepared with insect repellant but I didn’t need it. Looks like the bugs were still hung over from last night’s excesses.
    After we got off the boat we successfully dodged a cobra charmer and carefully followed our guide through the ridiculously narrow excrement-decorated streets. We visited a few odd temples, including the Mother India temple which Bruce was enamored with. He really liked the large centerpiece relief map of India. The trip back to the hotel for breakfast was quick. Early morning traffic was a breeze compared to last night.

    We reconvened a couple of hours later for the trip to Sarnath and Deer Park. The road took us through “new” Varanasi which was a tad more reputable looking than “old” Varanasi. The guide insisted on driving us through the sprawling grounds of Benares University. (I don’t think the time spent there was enough to write off the trip as a business expense.) The ride was fascinating, hampered only by the incessant lecturing by the guide. We never did figure out how to say “Can’t we just look out the window in peace, please?!” The lecture continued at Sarnath where we were told much more about the intricacies of Buddhism than we ever wanted to know. Sarnath is a peaceful oasis and a good site for Buddha’s first sermon after enlightenment. We walked around the ruins and Deer Park, admiring the spotted deer and enjoying watching pilgrims, including many Japanese and Koreans expressing their religious fervor. The last stop was the Sarnath archaeological museum which houses the Ashokan pillar, four back to back lions, that is the national symbol of India.

    Our guide wanted to take us to a silk making demonstration and shop. I told him in advance I would not buy anything and I didn’t, although the shop had nice silk items. A guide substantially increases the cost but we found it very difficult to ditch guides. You can’t just say, stay outside while we go in. In the afternoon we ventured out on our own to the street in front of the hotel and looked at several silk shops but didn’t buy anything. We also went a short carriage ride around the grounds of the Taj. A wedding was taking place that evening and the preparations and decorations were remarkable. We were hoping to observe the wedding festivities since our room faced the tented pavilion and we had binoculars that we brought for our safari portion. We kept looking but never saw more than people milling around. By morning they had left.

    For the evening’s entertainment we were offered either a visit to a musician’s house or a visit to an astrologer. Bruce’s professional interests include medieval (European) astrology so he wanted to see what Indian astrology involved. We made sure to bring the exact time of his birth (in different time zones) and the latitude and longitude of his birthplace. We made it very clear to the arranger that Bruce wanted to have an astrological chart drawn, not a palm reading. The designated astrologer made house calls so he came to the hotel instead of us visiting him. Bruce tried to explain what he wanted to the astrologer with little success. This guy wanted to read his palm. Bruce finally consented to a palm reading after the astrologer promised to deliver a chart in the morning. And he did, a computer generated printout that had incorrect information about the critical birth time and location. Bruce and the astrologer spent quite some time discussing the 30 or so pages of output. This was an exercise Bruce repeated in Jaipur and attempted in Jodphur (the royal astrologer still hasn’t e-mailed the results!).

    Next: Khajuraho.

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    Fascinating stuff guys
    .. I'll be in India tomorrow.

    By the way, next time you come across an Indian/Sri Lankan/Nepali wedding, go down and hover at the doorway 'just having a look...'

    I've been invited in on several occasions, fed and much feted - apparently as honoured representative of The Rest Of The World. So gracious - and a lotta fun.

    The trick, of course, is to be extremely respectful [of course] interested in the proceedings [easy] - and not to overstay your welcome.

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    Whenever we travel we enjoy reading the local newspapers (the ones that are in English). Indian papers didn’t disappoint. Besides the scandals with Dr. Kidney who was removing kidneys unbeknownst to patients and selling them, there were quite a few stories questioning the safety of the United States as a destination for Indian students, even before the shootings at Northern Illinois University. To balance this there were stories describing one of the new national goals: getting people to assist accident victims instead of letting them die on the streets…. Evidently this is a problem on Indian streets.

    Our Jet Airways flight to Khajuraho was uneventful. Once again the flight attendants passed out “satisfaction surveys” five minutes into the flight. India has enthusiastically adopted Total Quality Management, and Indian companies have received many of the very prestigious Deming awards. If TQM can be taken to extremes, India has done so. Everywhere we went we were handed LONG questionnaires asking us to evaluate everything and everyone. If we had filled out all of the forms we probably would have spent 10% of our time in India performing evaluations. (This is only a slight exaggeration.) Even Bruce who is genetically compelled to fill out forms started turning them over to me so I could either discard them or do the bare minimum. I’m all for evaluation but when they ask you to rate the guide or driver who is looking over your shoulder that doesn’t result in useful information. When I thanked someone for a shoeshine at an Oberoi they immediately went over to the desk and pulled out a hotel evaluation form and asked that I note on the form that the shoe shine was good!

    Khajuraho was a pleasant change from the congestion of Delhi and Varanasi. The “erotic temples” are the main attraction. (The Oberoi chain is going to build a hotel on the outskirts of Khajuraho, and CC Africa/Taj hotels is opening a joint venture safari lodge at nearby Panna National Park, so it may become a more popular destination.) We stayed at the Taj Chandela, a large modern hotel with spacious rooms and good food. We had allocated an afternoon to the temples since we were leaving the next morning by car for a safari at Bandhavgarh National Park.

    These were the first elaborate temples that we had seen and we were duly impressed by the beautiful carvings, erotic or not. Our guide had a slick presentation with well rehearsed jokes geared for busloads of tourists. I found him amusing while Bruce was less impressed. We started with the Western group of temples and then proceeded to the less elaborate Eastern group, declining an offer to visit to a woodcarving store enroute. (We did buy a copy of the Kama Sutra from an old woman far removed from the hordes of people selling tourist goods.)

    In the evening we went to the light and sound show at the Western temples. The script was hokey but we enjoyed the opportunity to focus on the history and construction of these remarkable thousand-year-old temples. The setting--chairs in the middle of a field with astonishingly beautiful temples sprouting from the ground on all sides--really was extraordinary. After a thali dinner at the hotel we went to bed early since we had a five o’clock wake-up for the long car journey to Bandhavgarh.

    Here’s a link to the safari portion of our trip:

    http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=4&tid=35110964

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    We were in India in Feb. and thought Khajaraho and its temples were one of the highlights of our trip. We also enjoyed Orcha which like Khajaraho was a great and needed change from the big cities. If anyone can fit these 2 places into your India itinerary, I think you would not be disappointed. As far as the surveys go, we were not offered any, but had we been given one on our India Air flights, I would have rated them an F on every level (cleanliness, food, age of planes, service). Avoid Air India at all costs. It was by far the worst airline we have ever flown on.

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    We found Kingfisher and Jet Airways were bothgreat -- especially Kingfisher. No delays, excellent service and the airport, modern comfortable, clean planes. The biggest surprise of all was that the Indian food served on even the shortest 1 hour flights was delicious, if you can believe that. Handing out those feedback forms apparently has an effect...and shows how much they care about pleasing the customers. It seems to be working!

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    Marjia and Bruce,

    I bet you didn't think someone from the Africa board was following this portion, but I have been and it's wonderful. This is probably not a trip that I can make for several years (still have Rwanda/Uganda to tackle and v. little time off--and even less $), but it's definitely something I want to do sooner rather than later.

    I appreciate all the detail! Asante sana!

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    Marija, don't be misled by the perfunctory questionnaires and surveys. Almost always they mean nothing in India. Now, you were fortunate to sample a product - Jet Airways - that is at the top of its game by any standards. Same with Kingfisher Airlines, or the Oberoi hotels. But to draw any larger conclusions about service levels (abysmal!) or the quest for excellence (none!) in India would be an error.


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    Agtoau,

    I have to disagree with you about service in India, at least for tourists. We thought service was amazing. People we encountered were warm, friendly, gracious, and simply couldn't do enough to make our trip one of the best we've had. In our opinion, India is right up there with Thailand for great service with a smile.

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    CFW, this is the problem with being a tourist and drawing conclusions about a place & people. What you see is a snapshot, not the whole movie. Several places are great to visit and spend a few days in, but hellish if you were to actually live there long-term. India, being what it is, is even more complex than your typical third-world country, for there are many Indias even for Indians. But this much can be said for all Indian cities and towns: they have become unpleasant, noisy outdoor toilets, with no civic niceties to recommend them. We might like to believe in human goodness everywhere and all that, but reality cannot be wished away.

    Finally - I can show you as many Indians who are not warm, who are unfriendly and ungracious as the ones you met.

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    agotau-From my brief, recent visit to India, this is exactly the impression I got of India as a country-pockets of 5 star hotels with very good service and beautiful palaces and monuments, both for tourist consumption, and the rest of the country with its massive poverty and very little infrastructure (roads, water, sewers)for the people who live there full time . The Indian people we came in contact with were very warm and welcoming. But again, these were people who for the most part are fairly comfortable and not living in abject poverty and also cater to the tourist industry.

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    "I can show you as many Indians who are not warm, who are unfriendly and ungracious as the ones you met."
    Agtoau, That is true about any place.

    Yes, we were tourists, and we stayed in nice places, but we've been tourists in other more developed countries (including the US), and stayed in nice places that didn't have such consistently excellent service. Also, though we were tourists we saw more than just the monuments and 5* hotels, including the impoverished village where one of our guides had grown up and had family. We also visited an SOS chidren's village for abandoned and orphaned children. India certainly has its problems, both economic and social, and more than its share of poverty and squalor, but I can only tell you that the people we came in contact with were warm and welcoming. Glad we didn't meet the others who are not -- for that I can stay home and go to work every day!


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    We returned to the Taj Chandela for an overnight before setting out for Agra by way of Orchha. Since we had eaten a big lunch at the safari lodge, we decided on a light dinner at the bar. In the booth next to us a safari clad woman speaking New York English held court. I speculated that it might be fodor’s Dreaming of India Bonita and I was astonished when she introduced herself as Bonita to someone joining her gathering.

    The next morning, after the standard Taj Indian breakfast, we set off for the train to Agra, stopping to visit Orchha. Before we left home I was quite concerned that we would have two six hour drives on successive days. From what I read, Indian roads were going to be a nightmare. We loved them. When we arrived at Orchha we were deposited at the Orchha Resort where we had a lunch voucher. (We only had two lunch vouchers, one at Orchha and one at Ranakpur. I think tour operators include these to make sure you eat at “safe” places when on the road.) Our initial impression of the dining room was not favorable. The room was pretty empty and featured a buffet which we didn’t want to eat. (As part of our stay-well strategy we only ate buffets at breakfast when there was no alternative.) The vegetarian items on the lunch menu were not particularly appealing and we ended up selecting vegetable kabobs and a potato dish. We were very surprised when they turned out to be excellent. The vegetable kabobs were more like cooked vegetable patties with wonderful seasonings. Based on the success of this dish we tried ordering vegetable kabobs at other places but they just weren’t as good. (The British ladies at an adjacent table ordered spaghetti again since they had enjoyed it for dinner the night before…)

    Fortified we set out in search of the guide who was to show us Orchha, a destination that was added to our itinerary by the travel agent because it was a convenient stop on the way to Agra. What a great addition! Besides the cenotaphs which are viewed only in profile, there’s an atmospheric fort with interesting structures. The fort was fairly deserted and it was most enjoyable to wander through it, imaging what life must have been life in its glory days. We walked through a bustling local market on our way out, even though that was the long way to the waiting car. No doubt it’s good for the local economy to walk the tourists through the village, though we didn’t do our share of contributing to this village’s economy.

    From Orcha we set off to Jhansi where we were to catch an express train to Agra. The first stop was somewhere in Jhansi where we exchanged our Orchha tour guide for a train embarkation specialist. Since the train was said to be a half hour late we drove to the train station and just sat out in the car in front of it, trying to ignore the constant tapping of beggars on the windows. We’ve passed through many train stations in our days but this one was like no other. We discussed whether we could manage it on our own and had to admit that it appeared daunting and we were relieved that all we had to do was sit in the car, follow the leader and then pass out tips. No way could we carry our suitcases on our heads up several flights of stairs like the porter did…

    The train ride was pleasant and uneventful and we did get to experience that well documented Indian stare, though we were certainly well behaved and undeserving of such attention. Once we pulled into Agra we were met at the train door by the train greeters and taken to our car, where we reunited with the driver we had in Delhi . He took us to the Oberoi Amarvilas, where it was much too dark to see the Taj Mahal. We had to trust that we could see it from our well appointed room. After some negotiation we agreed on a 7:00 AM visit to the Taj Mahal, an hour earlier than the suggested time.

    We couldn’t get into the Indian specialty restaurant so we settled for the continental restaurant where we ordered Indian food. The service was much too solicitous for us. The waiter was at our table so often that it was really a dinner for three, though we refused to share the well prepared food.

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    Bob--

    I didn't speak to Bonita, though I had exchanged a couple of e-mails with her at the early planning stages of our trip. I didn't like the fact that she tacks on "a little extra" for herself to the tour cost besides that charged by the travel agency. I can see the travel agency giving her a commission but not "a small fee" from the traveler on top of it.

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    As planned we met our guide in the lobby at 7:00. Having just been on safari, we were clad in many layers anticipating more cold weather. I was relieved that we were overdressed and could easily shed some fleece. The Oberoi golf cart whisked us to the Taj Mahal where there were several security checks, one of which made Bruce check his camera cleaning device. We happily joined the small group of tourists enthusiastically admiring the Taj Mahal. Afternoon visitors would not be so fortunate since the Danish prime minister was in town and the monument would be closed to visitors. (This isn’t unusual. Not only did Sarkozy get us thrown out of our hotel, he also had the Taj Mahal closed when he came to Agra.) After a couple of hours of gawking and photographing we returned to the Oberoi for a truly elaborate breakfast. Skip the poorly prepared eggs benedict and stick with the excellent Indian dishes.

    Suitably fueled, we set off for Agra Fort and the so-called “baby Taj“, stopping for views of the Taj Mahal from across the river. Traffic was intense but always amusing and it gave us an opportunity to listen to the concerns of our guide, a middle aged man who wanted to talk about the difficulties of middle class life in India. We were particularly interested in his take on the distressing poverty in India. As is so often the case, a seemingly unrealistic part of the blame was attributed to the poor themselves. Such rationalization no doubt makes it easier to live surrounded by unrelenting poverty.

    As we viewed the Red Fort and looked at the Taj Mahal in the distance, we wondered whether the stories of the “greatest monument to love” were correct or whether the more sinister and cynical explanations for Shah Jahan actions were closer to the truth. The tale of Shah Jahan pining for his beloved Mumtaz while gazing at the Taj Mahal from his prison in the Red Fort may be more poignant than accurate.

    It was in Agra that we first noticed a striking blue statue of Dr. Ambedkar with big black glasses, an untouchable who was the chief architect of the Indian constitution. Monuments in his honor are sprinkled throughout India.

    We declined a visit to a marble inlay workshop, not because we lack artistic appreciation, but because we hate sales pressure. Instead we returned to the Oberoi where we had a late lunch overlooking the pool and then watched flocks of trained pigeons darkening the sky. The pigeons responded to whistles and calls of their masters. Before dinner there was also a human spectacle of dance and song which could be viewed from the room balconies. Dinner was an excellent thali at the Indian restaurant in the hotel. (We never strayed from Indian food for lunch and dinner during our trip except for a sandwich one afternoon at the Rambagh Palace. We also avoided chicken since there was a bird flu epidemic in Calcutta. Who knows how far they truck those chickens.)

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    wasn't the thali good....we had that too....one meat one and one veggie one....a perfect dinner in a nice dining room

    can't believe the eggs were not perfection?? they probably only cost about $10 per egg...

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    Travel247, we were only at the Park for 4 hours between 3AM and 7AM and only saw the area between the front desk and our room. At 3AM hot pink lobby chairs didn't appeal. I assume we also got the least desirable room in the entire hotel since all of Delhi was supposedly sold out due to Constitution Day. Under different circumstances I might have thought the hotel was great.

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    JAIPUR:
    Once we inched our way out of Agra, our first stop was Fatehpur Sikri. The guide hired a rickshaw to take us to the main entrance where I sprang for a camcorder permit. I had acquired a camcorder for our trips to Africa where it was a great supplement to Bruce’s camera--a video of mating lions trumps the stills. Since I had the camcorder I decided to let it join us in India. Many of the sites in India that allow cameras without extra charges have camcorder fees, ranging anywhere from 10 rupees to 200 rupees. Although these are small amounts you can’t help but wonder whether it’s going to be worth the effort of obtaining a camcorder pass when chances are excellent that little of interest will be in motion, or if it is it’ll be gone by the time the camcorder is roused. It was in Varanasi that the camera earned its keep capturing the sounds and sights of life along the Ganges. I also managed to get some good clips of a tiger and of Bruce trying to stay on his camel.

    Although nothing moved for the camcorder at Fatehpur Sikri I recorded our guide telling the tale of the magical properties of a particular type of tree: you put its leaves in your pocket on the way home and your mother won’t notice that you’re late. Too bad customs doesn’t allow import of plant materials… It was at Fatehpur Sikri that the guide recommended we watch the movie Mughal-e-Azam which was filmed in Fatehpur Sikri:
    http://www.netflix.com/Movie/Mughal-E-Azam/70013749?trkid=188469

    He said it was the greatest Indian movie of all times. We’ve watched a colorized version since our return and it certainly meets the first criterion of an Indian blockbuster: it’s very, very long! And not half bad.

    Our guide returned to Agra on the bus while we continued on the road to Jaipur. The horror stories of the road between Agra and Jaipur , in particular the report of a motorcyclist lying on the road and the overturned trucks, made me dread this transfer. Since we were in a large Toyota Innova, I wasn’t particularly concerned about our safety but I didn’t want to see all of the accidents involving the more vulnerable modes of transportation. (And it was only in India that I saw so many modes of transportation sharing (or competing on) the same road!) The new road linking Agra and Jaipur was just about complete and we had a fairly smooth and very entertaining road trip. We neither saw nor participated in any accidents. Indian trucks are an art form to themselves. Each one is colorfully decorated by the driver, often featuring creative spelling and grammar: “Beware higily inflammable“. One of our guides commented that drivers decorate their trucks as they do their wives. The number of people that can be squeezed inside and on the top of buses is also astounding.

    In Jaipur we stayed for three nights at the Rambagh Palace, one of the Taj “palace hotels.” We had both read Gayatri Devi’s autobiography “A Princess Remembers” and wanted to see “her house.” We were told she was actually in residence somewhere on the sprawling grounds, although we didn’t actually see her we did eat dinner under her watchful portrait in the dining room. The hotel was beautiful and lovingly restored but there were noticeable shortcomings: the facilities book in the room hadn’t been updated and didn’t describe the restaurants that were actually open; the food in the acclaimed Indian restaurant wasn’t out of the ordinary, Bruce accepted their offer of another scoop of plain rice and we were charged $6 for it; we weren’t given a menu for cooked to order breakfast dishes until our third breakfast so we didn’t know that we could order items other than omelets; when we inquired about the possibility of a car and driver for 2 hours in Jaipur we were quoted 2,000 rupees. Obviously none of these issues had any real effect on our stay but we were somewhat disappointed in the overall experience, given the outlandish price. (Don’t miss the free champagne tour of the Palace at 5:30--although you might want to check in advance whether or not you’ve been unlucky enough to arrive on a day when no alcohol is served!)

    Our first morning in Jaipur started with the obligatory elephant trek up to the Amber Fort. We weren’t particularly keen on the elephant ride since we had heard that an Italian tourist suffered a broken leg several days ago when two elephants decided to settle a dispute. Enterprising touts tried to sell us turbans for 10 rupees while we waited in line. I imagined the great photos I could take of a turban- bedecked Bruce on elephant back and agreed to the transaction--at that point 10 rupees became 10 dollars and the deal was nixed. Beware of currency switches!

    Our ride up to the Fort was anything but relaxing. Our mahout had eyes only for the beautiful blonde American student riding the elephant in front of us. He told us to lean back and the metal bar behind us promptly fell off. Fortunately we didn’t topple with it. As he tried to engage the blonde in conversation, Bruce and I were slipping off our elephant and hitting our long legs on the brick wall next to us. Occasionally he would shout “balance yourself” but that was not something we knew how to do. So slowly and uncomfortably, fearing a fall, we inched our way up, while better balanced elephants gingerly passed us. Once we were close to the end of the journey our mahout’s attention switched to baksheesh and he repeated reminded us that he expected a good tip. Our guide was waiting to help us alight from the elephant. Unfortunately, before we could get off, the elephant quickly swerved and with good force jammed my foot into the brick wall. Jaipur is known for exquisite craftsmanship but I didn’t want to find out if the skills transferred to delicate foot surgery. Fortunately I didn‘t need to find out.

    Amber Fort is certainly one of the most glorious forts of Rajasthan and once we alighted from our beast we contentedly followed our guide on a tour of the fort, followed by a tour of the City Palace. It was at the City Palace that the guide received a phone call summoning him to pick up his sick son from school. That left us on our own for the rest of the day. The original plan was for us to visit the bazaar. After lunch at the Rambagh Palace we set out for a shopping expedition with our driver. We had a list of recommended shops from the hotel but the driver had difficulty locating them. We’re poor shoppers to begin with so we returned fairly quickly to the hotel having bought only a duvet cover at some shop recommended by the driver. Dinner and a dance performance were at the hotel.

    The next morning we set off for the largest and best preserved of the Jantar Mantar observatories. (We had decided to spend three days in Jaipur so Bruce could examine the instruments unhurriedly with a guide who was knowledgeable about the observatory. ) Bruce and the guide very slowly made their way among the instruments, discussing and photographing each one in great detail as I carried all of the camera equipment and taped the conversation. After countless hours (well maybe 3) it was over and we were ready to continue our exploration of Jaipur. The plan was to go to the cenotaphs outside of Jaipur, have lunch, go to the bazaar and then visit the “Monkey Temple” at sunset when the monkeys were most numerous. However, after the visit to the brooding cenotaphs, we were told that the driver had to leave soon so he could meet us when we flew into Jodhpur the next morning. Since we had specified that we wanted a driver for our third day in Jaipur, we were somewhat annoyed but agreed to an early visit to the Monkey Temple followed by a return to the hotel. I was hoping that we could arrange a driver for the evening at the hotel. The Monkey Temple was interesting but devoid of all but a few monkeys which no doubt diminished its charm.

    The Rambagh Palace wanted 2000 rupees for a driver to take us to the bazaar for two hours so we decided to just relax at the hotel. We sat on the lawn and had afternoon tea and watched elephants and camels line up to greet visitors at some private function. Without a car there’s really not much to do around the hotel. We ventured out in search of an ATM but the one we were directed to was empty. I was disappointed not to have had the chance to explore Jaipur’s famous bazaar, although we drove by it several times. I think Bruce was relieved not to have to delve into the bazaar.

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    Thanks for the continuing good detail! Your description of the elephant ride at Amber Fort makes me glad I chose to walk up!! The Rambagh Palace doesn't seem to be that far out, couldn't you have walked to the main road and taken a rickshaw to the old town? I had the best lassi ever there.

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    thanks for these insights....i remember all of this so well...

    i guess i would be unhappy with the driver departing....that should have been re-arranged earlier with a replacement for you....

    we had good luck with some taxis to do things if we had let our driver leave for the day....

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    Thanks for reading! Kathie, I strongly recommend India. Bob and thursdaysd--we really didn't learn how to handle rickshaw drivers. I read a lot about them not taking you where you want to go and was probably focusing too much on it. I also hated the large number of drivers pouncing on us whenever we appeared on the street alone. It wasn't nice and orderly like in China!

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    Marija - well if India is one thing, it's certainly chaotic, lol! And I did sometimes find the rickshaw drivers touting for custom truly annoying - especially in Agra. I also had to rediscover the local price (or the foreigner's version of it, lol) every time I changed regions, and in the south, where occasionally a town required meters, I mostly couldn't get the drivers to use them. There were only a couple of times I had the "long way round" problem though - I always had a map with me. The first time I made the driver stop and I got out, the second I caught it earlier and just had him go the right way.

    Really enjoying your report - I'm thinking I should start planning to go back to India... But likely back to the south, I didn't make it to Ooty, and then the NY Times had an evocative article on Pondicherry this weekend....

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    Marija, really enjoying your report. Based on our dinner at the Rambagh Palace I am not surprised that staying there was an underwhelming experience. I think the driver situation is common - they will attempt to get away with whatever they can unfortunately - missing out on sites should not be an option. We did not do the elephant ride up to the Amber Fort but rather we were driven up and did the ride down - much better - no lines and a relaxing trip. In Delhi we were not impressed with the Park but it would probably be ok in a pinch.

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    JODHPUR

    After a leisurely breakfast and review of the horoscope that the Rambagh’s resident astrologer had produced for Bruce, we set off for Jodhpur. I wish Bruce hadn’t commissioned another chart but just focused on the predictions from the Varanasi astrologer: healthy life until age 94 and then a quick death while drinking tea…

    In Jodhpur we stayed at the Taj Hari Mahal, a sprawling, very friendly hotel. We went to a free cultural performance one evening and it was such a welcome change to be the only foreigners in the crowd of Indian families. We were intrigued by the custom of people pointing at a particularly performer who would then come over and be given money. Bruce quickly adapted and started pointing at the beautiful Indian dancers who were happy to take his money. There was audience participation as well with people joining in the dances. (Bruce declined to participate since it brought back painful memories of joining Lithuanian folk dancers who issued instructions in a language he couldn’t understand.)

    The next day after lunch (note we never skip meals!) we met our guide who took us to the Jodhpur bazaar around the clock tower, which seemed to specialize in merchandise for locals. Our next stop was Maharani Arts Emporium, not too far from the clock tower. It purports to be a renowned outlet for designer goods at greatly reduced prices. Did we know that the owner of Harrods had just been there and bought 60 Gucci bed throws for his dearest friends? Had we read the article in a London paper (which they eventually did produce for our reading pleasure) celebrating their wares? No, but boston harbor on fodors said it was a great deal… The salesman was really very good and we bought way more stuff than we probably should have. Fortunately we are suffering no buyers’ remorse and are happy with what we bought -- though I’m not totally convinced it was fabricated for Gucci, Kenzo and Loro Piano. (Our new acquisitions join the Italian dishes that we bought in Ravello and which the saleslady assured us were the very pattern Dustin Hoffman had bought several days earlier. Well, maybe!)

    The next morning we headed off for the cenotaphs and the Meherangarh Fort, an awesome sight from below and probably the only fort in Rajasthan with an elevator to the top. We had seen several remarkable cenotaphs already so we were getting more difficult to impress. Nonetheless the cenotaphs were worth a visit and are certainly much more elaborate than anything that will mark our final resting places. (After the Maharani Arts emporium purchases we may end up in a communal grave somewhere.) The Fort is remarkably well preserved with many fascinating museums embedded within it as well as the coronation chair of the Maharajas of Jodhpur. The tour ended with a visit to the museum shop where “artists” attempted to sell us miniature paintings. They were beautiful and I was tempted by a painting of a tiger but decided to pass on it, despite cascading price reductions. The artist nearly burst into tears as we walked away.

    What we were really in the market for was a wood carving of our favorite deity--Ganesha, the god with the elephant head, the remover of all obstacles and Bruce’s deity according to the Varanasi astrologer. We were taken to a large warehouse owned by Maharani Arts Exporters, part of the Maharani Arts empire. They deal in not very old antiques, whatever that means. After wandering through many rooms admiring all kinds of sculptures, tapestries and “stuff” we settled on a fairly large wooden Ganesha carving which is destined to remove all obstacles from our home. The salesman assured us they would pack it well and ship to the USA, insured. While Bruce took care of the Ganesha transaction, I wandered some more and discovered some small camel bone carvings of elephants and camels, as well as a camel bone sculpture of the very same Ganesha. If one is good two must be better! The little carvings would make excellent gifts, so we selected 9 of them. We bargained hard for the larger carving and struck a deal, again being assured that all would be packed, shipped and insured. Unfortunately, except for the large wooden Ganesha, and two of the small carvings, everything arrived broken, thrown unprotected into a single large box. I can’t file an insurance claim, that has to be initiated by the shipper. My repeated attempts to contact Maharani Art Exporters have not been successful, so I’ve turned the entire matter over to the credit card company. I am confident that Ganesha will remove all obstacles associated with these transactions! The large wooden Ganesha hangs prominently by our front door, over offerings of rice and flower petals. Our next stop, appropriately, was an ATM, but it was not in service since there are always rolling blackouts in Jodhpur throughout the day and we were in an outage area at the time.

    Dinner that night was at the Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel, a massive former maharaja’s palace (built in the mid-20th century as a sort of public works project) that overlooks Jodhpur--the top place to stay in town. Despite a missing reservation, which was made by an intermediary so who knows if it was really made, they were able to take us. Our first stop was the bar where we had drinks surrounded by the standard maharaja stuffed-animal décor. Before our trips to Africa I would have probably considered it atmospheric but now I view it as barbaric. Dinner was at the outdoor restaurant overlooking the garden. The weather was unseasonably cold (so we were told) and dining al fresco, the only option, really was uncomfortably chilly. We noticed that there were two heat lamps and asked to be seated close to them. Our request was denied since the heat lamps were “reserved,” presumably for residents of the Umaid Bhawan. They were the only source of warmth other than shawls (which were provided upon request, and were welcome). There were no other heating devices, unlike at the Oberoi in Udaivilas where heat sources were everywhere and a major danger was premature cremation. I don’t remember what we ate, I just know it was expensive and not all that memorable. The service matched the temperature. After our visit to the famous Jodhpur palace we were happy that we were staying at the Taj Hari Mahal, a hotel more to our liking.

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    JAISALMER

    The 50 minute Kingfisher flight from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer left 20 minutes early with only 7 people onboard. This was a brand new route that Kingfisher just started flying. Jaisalmer has large military installations (it’s only 50 miles or so from the Pakistan border) and security was incredibly tight. We walked from the airplane to a bus and then took a 10 minute bus road to the tiny terminal outside of which our greeter and driver were waiting. Before we could leave the airport we had to pay a small visitor’s fee somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 rupees. That was the only unexpected charge we encountered during the entire trip.

    Jaisalmer is an impossibly intricate sandcastle standing on a hill. Again we were tempted to try to stay within the walls of the city but the ecological arguments and lack of decent hotels dissuaded us. We ended up about 10 minutes by car from the city at the Fort Rajwada hotel. (The Taj was unavailable.) At the time we booked the hotel the reviews on tripadvisor were unenthusiastic at best and we were a bit concerned about what we would find. The hotel was certainly adequate with a lot of emphasis on ostentatious common areas. They even had a balcony from an old haveli built in the wall underneath which staff would welcome guests by writing their names in sand. We never did get to see our name in sand. The hotel has a pool which was closed for remodeling. We wouldn’t have used it anyway but we did sit around the empty pool watching the comic routine of 6 men, some in white shirts and ties, scrubbing the pool. The weather was considerably warmer in Jaisalmer than it had been elsewhere so we enjoyed eating outside, overlooking the activity.

    In the late afternoon we met our guide and headed off for sunset in the desert, stopping to admire the lake outside of town. It was a good half hour drive to the staging area for the camels. We made sure to wear our warm garb since I had read that deserts get cold in the evening. I was wrong since the desert chill never materialized and instead we risked heatstroke in our fleece. But that was the least of our problems.

    We arrived at a large football field covered with colorfully attired resting camels and were quickly turned over to two young men and their camels, which were named Babaloo and Laloo. After our experience with elephants in Jaipur, I wasn’t enamored with the idea of pushing our luck by riding camels but it seemed like a lot of trouble to back out at this point. Bruce mounted Babaloo while I devotedly filmed his bravery, noting apprehensively how high up you are on camel back and what a nasty tumble down it would be. Once Bruce was onboard I stuck the camcorder in my pocket and made it up without incident.

    I will not try to describe the varied and expressive sound effects that accompany a camel ride. My camel was led by a school boy who tried to impress me with how hard he works at school all day and then has to spend evenings contending with tourists and camels. He was a slick little operator and chatted about how much he like Americans since they help him so much by giving generous tips. As we bounced along assorted agents tried to sell water, soft drinks and snacks, encouraging the tourists to buy for their guides who of course didn’t want chips but wanted money.

    I was tolerating the camel ride well and enjoyed seeing all the crazy tourists on their beasts. Then I heard a shout from behind me. Bruce wasn’t quite the accomplished camelestrian that I was--he was slipping off his camel and barely hanging on. My guide ran over to assist Bruce’s guide and they managed to get him off in one piece. At this point I was insistent that we give it up but Bruce refused. Since my camel was standing quietly, at least at the beginning, I was able to whip out the trusty camcorder and continue recording the what might be the last moments of Bruce‘s life. The initial diagnosis was that the saddle was not positioned tightly enough. They repositioned the saddled and hoisted him up again. Unfortunately he was still having a difficult time staying onboard until they offered him “stirrups” (fabric loops for the feet, which they had inexplicably failed to provide him at first). Those solved the problem. While they were tinkering with Bruce my camel got bored and started up again, necessitating another rescue operation. We were relieved when we finally rejoiced the well populated sunset viewing area. Many entrepreneurs inhabit the desert at sunset: singing gypsies, dancing children, tube-tooting locals, and of course the snack vendors.

    After a couple of shots of our noble camels resting we followed their lead and plopped down on a sand dune. Nobody bothered the camels but we were repeatedly encouraged to pay someone to do something. I finally paid a man playing some kind of wind instrument since I thought it would make for good video, especially if I could avoid filming the other tourists. Shortly after sunset we again reunited with our camels and made our way to the parking lot. Once again Bruce spurned my suggestion that we walk our camels instead of risking our fragile lives…

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    Jaisalmer: Day 2

    After breakfast, before starting out on our tour of Jaisalmer proper, we realized that the camel ride had been too much for the camcorder which would no longer accept tapes. At least we had the video of our desert escapade.

    Jaisalmer is a wondrous sand castle, with amazing temples scattered about. We diligently followed our guide through the narrow streets, always ceding right of way to the numerous cows. Unlike the forts of Jaipur and Jodhpur, Jaisalmer’s Golden Fort is inhabited both with locals and tourists. The temples were very crowded and dark, even with flashlights, but amazing nonetheless. The carved sandstone balconies on the havelis are exquisite. We ended our morning walk at the market which is set up in front of the local Bhang shop.

    We were dropped off at the hotel for lunch and a rest before our late afternoon tour. We were aware that our trip was coming to an end (in 4 more days) and we were short on gifts, so we asked to be taken to Rajthali, the government sponsored emporium, where we bought a 6 pack of Ganesh statues for 700 rupees. The store was very poorly stocked and the salesman was unwilling to sell individual statues, you had to buy the whole box.

    After our meager shopping expedition, our guide took us on a stroll through the residential streets of Jaisalmer. That was one of the most pleasant experiences of our trip. Nobody tried to sell us anything, nobody harassed us, we just gingerly followed the strolling cows, careful not to step in their footsteps. We were approached by children and adults who wanted us to take their pictures so that they could view the images in the screen. One man asked us to send him the photos and ,upon our return ,we sent him copies of all of the photos we had taken of him and his mother as well as the children on the street. We hope he recognized everyone and distributed the photos. The guide took us to a viewing spot to watch sunset over Jaisalmer but we were a little too late getting there. The sun doesn’t wait for tourists…

    Jaisalmer was definitely an interesting detour and we’re glad we added it to our already crowded itinerary. Since there are flights from Jaipur and Jodhpur it isn’t as out of the way as it used to be.

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    Interesting report so far. I am glad you read Gayatri Devi‘s book before your trip, so you could appreciate the hotel, which even though it may not have all the comforts, still has a really lovely ambience IMO. Hope you saw the little folly of a fort up on the hill which her husband had done for her so that could take picnics up there….man, that was the way to live!

    As for the Park Hotel, you should have gone to the bar when you arrived, it’s one of the hottest clubs in Delhi! Would have definitely still been going at 3 am. They also have two good restaurants. I have not stayed at this hotel, but do eat (and drink) there on a somewhat regular basis. It has a good location. I like the Imperial a lot, but do recco the Park for lower prices and a modern Indian décor – the Raj it aint’, but lots of Indians prefer the modern to the old (and while the Raj was fun for the Brits, it was not so much fun for the locals). I’d say it’s a good represenatation of the new India.

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    Udaipur

    There were ten people on the flight from Jaisalmer to Udaipur, by way of Jodhpur. Security was extremely tight; batteries from the camera, camcorder and flashlight were seized but returned at the Udaipur airport. It was probably a half hour ride from the airport to the Oberoi Udaivilas, including a stop at a camcorder repair shop. The brains of the repair shop was at lunch so we gave up on a quickie camcorder repair.

    The Oberoi was stunning, as it should be for the money it charges. We were told that the Lake Palace had discontinued lunch and dinner visits two months earlier for nonresidents. Only residents were allowed on the premises, so our request for dinner reservations at the Lake Palace was denied. The two restaurants at Udaivilas were somehow merged into one so we were unable to make reservations for dinner at the Indian restaurant, we made reservations for the sole restaurant.

    We had a leisurely lunch outside at the Oberoi restaurant and then met our guide for a boat ride around Lake Pichola. The guide was great and we were pleased that he would be accompanying us for the next two days. He explained what we were seeing as we slowly made our way around the lake. He told us to tip the boatman well since he is not a hotel employee and makes little money. We’re good at following instructions and did so. We discussed the plans for the next day. Although it was very tempting to forego any excursions and just lounge at the pool, we had agreed that we didn’t come to India to lounge. We wanted to go see the Jain temples in Ranakpur. The guide offered us several alternative trips, shorter in length, but we persevered. He told us that the road to Ranakpur was under construction but that didn’t sway us, we were determined to see those remarkable temples.

    After an early breakfast we (sadly) left Udaivilas and started on the road to Ranakpur. The guide wasn’t kidding, the road was a mess; major construction was underway. The sides of the road were empty, villagers had been moved elsewhere, all that was left were huge clouds of dust. Fortunately, at about the half way mark the road again became a wonderful Indian road with lots of people and activity. Ranakpur is not to be missed. The temple is indeed incredible and we spent several hours marveling at the 1444 astounding pillars and witnessing the prayer ceremonies taking place. Although the road was difficult and took two and a half hours each way, the destination was certainly “worth it.” Together with our guide, we had lunch at the Hotel Maharani Bagh not far from Ranakpur. Other than breakfast this was the only buffet we ate at. Our guide assured us that it was “safe” and all of the tour groups stop there. The food was quite good and it was pleasant to sit outside in the sunshine.

    The guide recommended a stop at a local dhurrie maker. We were concerned that this was another buying opportunity that we should skip, but the guide prevailed. We ended up buying a small dhurrie from a very pleasant man who demonstrated his craft. It was one of those awkward situations where you feel you can’t bargain but just have to accept the price and buy. That’s what we did.

    We returned to the Udaivilas fairly late in the afternoon and spent the remaining moments of sunlight sitting at the pool, sipping cold drinks. Dinner was outside overlooking the lake. The evening was chilly but the hotel had set up many heat lamps, braziers and had shawls on hand. Our kebabs and soufflés were excellent and we again enjoyed watching the evening’s entertainment.

    The next morning Bruce was intent on visiting the “Wildlife Conservatory” at Udaivilas. Dutifully I accompanied him on this little expedition during which we saw two boars. The rest of the morning was spent at the City Palace, an interesting destination even for those who had seen many palaces in a short period of time. The City Palace complex embraces a “mini-mall”, including an Anokhi store, where we picked up some more gifts. Our flight to Aurangabad left at 14:40 so we didn’t have much time to explore Udaipur proper.

    The new Udaipur airport had opened in the two days between our arrival and departure. As is the case with new airports all of the kinks had not been worked out and check in was a very laborious process, though nothing compared to the stories of the new terminal 5 at Heathrow. Even with the problems, the Kingfisher flight to Aurangabad left 20 minutes early.

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    AURANGABAD

    The flight between Udaipur and Aurangabad on Kingfisher took a little less than 2 hours. We were really lucky that all of our flights were close to on-time or even early. I was less enthusiastic than Bruce about including the Ellora and Ajanta caves in our itinerary since I was concerned that we would be exhausted by that point and sick of airports, since the flight to Aurangabad was our sixth flight within India. But on the other hand we figured that even if we were traveled-out we could manage one more “final” destination.

    We considered trying to see both sights in the same day or skipping Ajanta, but settled on spending two nights in Aurangabad and seeing them both at a leisurely pace. It was much warmer in Aurangabad than anywhere else we had been on the trip so rushing from place to place would have been unpleasant. We were able to visit the caves in the mornings when it was cooler. Make sure to take hats to the caves since there’s quite a bit of walking involved in the blazing sun.

    Hotel choices are severely limited in Aurangabad with the Taj Residency as the “best.” It’s a large modern hotel with sprawling grounds and a pool surrounded by very hard plastic lounges of which only four sported cushions. Our room was shabby, and though we had both a balcony and a terrace, both were without any furniture. From our brief glimpses of Aurangabad it seemed to be a relatively prosperous town, home to pharmaceutical manufacturing. We ate all of our meals at the Taj, though we didn’t eat the packed lunch they proved for our trip to Ajanta, fearful that the beating sun might have unleashed some undesirable microbes…

    Since we arrived on Sunday afternoon the order of our visit was set: we had to go to Ellora on Monday and Ajanta on Tuesday, since Ajanta is closed on Monday and Ellora is closed on Tuesday. (It was the wrong order to see the caves if you have a choice, since the Ajanta caves are much older and not as “flashy” as the Ellora caves. ) Our guide for Ellora was the only woman guide we had during the entire trip. She was excellent and gave us a good introduction to the caves even chanting in one of them so we could hear how sound was amplified. She indicated that it was customary to have the same guide for both sets of caves but due to scheduling difficulties we would have a different guide the next day.

    The drive to Ellora was fairly quick since it’s fewer than 20 miles from Aurangabad. The road was in good condition and there was a lot of roadside activity for our viewing pleasure. In Ellora the driver let us off quite close to the different sets of caves we were visiting. We started with the Jain caves, then worked our way to the Buddhist and Hindu groups. The spectacular ending was the Kailash temple (cave 16) an extraordinary monument of staggering scale. The caves were absolutely incredible. You don’t have to be an archaeologist or some other “-ologist” to be wowed by them. We were both very glad that we hauled ourselves to Maharashtra state to visit them.

    On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the Paithani Silk Weaving Center to see himroo being made. I had read that Aurangabad is the only place that still makes himroo--a combination of silk and cotton yarn woven into a satin like fabric. I wasn’t taken with the himroo products so I bought a couple of pillow covers and made a quick escape.

    After a late lunch we sat around the pool waiting to snatch two of the cushioned lounges. We wandered down to the street to see if there was someplace to walk to but were absolutely mobbed at the gate by rickshaw drivers and decided, since we didn’t have a destination in mind, to give it up and return to the pool. For dinner we tried some of the Maharashtra specialties which were excellent. After dinner we had to pack everything up for the trip home since the schedule for the next day was a trip to Ajanta followed by a flight to Mumbai and then a flight back home. Although we knew we could take a generous amount of carryon on the international leg, our first leg was domestic on Jet Airways so we had to restrict our carryons to essentials but bearing in mind that British Airways was very likely to lose our checked backage.

    The drive to Ajanta was considerably longer than to Ellora taking a couple of hours. Of course we didn’t mind. We were both sad that our time on those magnificent Indian roads was coming to an end. Our driver had to park our car in a remote parking lot and we fought our way through the shopping district before catching the bus to the entry point for the caves. This wasn’t a typical Indian bus since no one rode on the roof but it was packed to the gills and hot.

    The Ajanta caves which feature remarkable colored paintings sit on a horseshoe-shaped ravine. They are much older than the caves at Ellora and less glamorous but certainly equally fascinating . Visiting Ajanta requires a reasonable amount of climbing and walking, even if you don’t go to the overlook point from which the British soldiers “rediscovered” the caves in 1819. There are sedan-chair porters for hire and we saw elderly visitors being carried around by groups of men. It sure didn’t seem very safe--a misstep and everyone goes crashing into the ravine…

    We spent several hours wandering through the caves which were very crowded with tourists and school children. The crowds and heat discouraged us from lingering. We declined the guides offer for additional free-time to explore on our own and retraced our steps back to the bus and the car. While the driver and guide ate at some local eatery we stayed in the air-conditioned car and munched our granola bars, even though we did have a packed lunch which we turned over to the driver.

    The game plan was for us to return to the hotel where we had checked out but left our luggage. The guide even managed to get the hotel to let us shower in an empty room. The hotel was all decked out for an Indian wedding: flowers were everywhere, staff were painting doors, polishing the hallways. The room we showered in was much nicer than our room--it had a modern bathroom, fresh paint and even flowers. We had to evacuate quickly since we were in the part of the hotel that had been fixed up for the wedding guests who were arriving. It was amusing to sit in the lobby and watch the wedding guests assemble. I still had some rupees left so I employed all of my carefully honed bargaining skills to make one last purchase from the shop--a beautifully embroidered shawl.

    Our Jet Airways flight to Mumbai was somewhat late, but we had a six hour layover in Mumbai so I wasn’t concerned. Our airport transfer agent managed to check our bags in Aurangabad all the way through to Chicago, even though we were switching airlines in Mumbai. That made our transfer from the domestic to the international terminal in Mumbai much easier. Our tour company had arranged for a transfer between the two terminals and we appreciated not having to deal with buses and taxis. The transfer between the terminals probably took a good half hour by car.

    An agent accompanied us into the international terminal to make sure we successfully checked in. Although British Airways claimed that they allowed check-in three hours before flight time and the business class agents were standing at their counters, they refused to check us in. First they told us they were all going to have a meeting and could begin accepting passengers only after the meeting. Come back in 20 minutes was the instruction. When we returned in 20 minutes we were told that it was still too early (even though it was now 2 hours before departure) and to return in half an hour. In between visits to the check-in desks we stood in an incredibly long security line which was also inoperative. This was our first taste of the legendary Indian run around that we had read about but had failed to experience in almost four weeks. After two more futile visits to the check-in desk we were finally allowed to check-in and go to the business class lounge. Finally the driver and agent could go home. The agent refused to leave us unattended even though we were reasonably confident that we could get ourselves on that plane.

    The departure lounge was adequate. There was hot food and drinks and comfortable couches. Staying awake was the hard part. We probably went through five security checks before we were finally allowed to board the plane. As expected, BA lost one of our suitcases but we didn’t really care since we were carrying our most important purchases. Seems we were passing through Heathrow on one of the days when all baggage transfer between planes was halted. That explained the mountains of luggage we saw on the ground at Heathrow.

    India was certainly one of the most interesting places we’ve ever experienced. Don’t hesitate. Don't be discouraged by the negatives. GO!

    The End

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    Excellent report! I'm working my way through as many Fodorite reports as possible before we leave for India in November. I noticed the following quote in your report and was curious as to why old women had real need more than others. Did your Danish companions explain that?

    "We enjoyed their stories about their days in Delhi but remained unbelieving as they assured us that traffic progressed following well understood rules. When discussing beggars, the woman recommended that we only give to old women because if they were begging they had real need. To minimize crowds forming, she said to give rupees to the last woman lined up in front of a temple. When convenient that’s what we did."

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    Widows in India (who used to be expected to commit suttee (or sati)) may have very difficult lives. See, e.g., news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/1795564.stm At the very least they are supposed to wear white, give up wearing jewelry, and not remarry, but it seems that many become destitute.

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    I assume that's the issue, although I hope not.

    Have you seen Deepa Mehta's film "Water"? It's about widows in present-day India. When she tried to film in India, she was attacked by Hindu religious types and had to move shooting to Sri Lanka.

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    Wow, what a wonderful trip report. I'm considering where to travel to next, although India isn't high on my to do list, I am intriqued by this trip report and how to refer to it for a future trip.

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    Thanks, retired. I must admit India was not high on our destination list but somehow we ended up there and found it fascinating. Just do it!

    Indy, thanks for reading. My interpretation of the Danes comment was that old women had to be in desperate need before they would beg. It's their last resort.

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    live--it was unseasonably cold when we were there, for India that is. Temperatures were in the 60s. That's all the newspapers wrote about. Some days we wore fleece jackets in the morning and evening. It was very cold at 5:00 in the morning on safari drives but we had brought coats, gloves and hats and were reasonably toasty. We never encountered fog. Have a great trip.

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